Worshiping at Fairview UMC (after the vote)

I’m sure the saints of heaven smiled as we worshipped yesterday. We came together with a combination of much hurt and hope to sing praise, pray together, say the creed, and hear God’s word read and proclaimed.  A couple of things stood out to me – as the Spirit moved.  I was struck by the altar and how someone had so carefully placed the paraments.  It was an obvious act of holy love. Then, a boy came forward with the light, and after lighting the candles, placed the lighter on a hook that someone had attached to the altar.  It stuck me that someone thought of this, and it had become a part of the tradition in that church. After the service, I told the boy that he did a good job and he said, “I’m good at this.”  He was proud.  I thought of those who missed this beautiful act of worship because of the spirit of division. And I was personally moved to not take joys like this granted.

I was also struck by the service itself.  This was a congregation that had a history of learning how to get along and make room for each other.  This was evidenced by the way we sang hymns and choruses in the same service, with some holding hymnals and others looking at the screen.  In our meeting afterwards, I said “I bet there was a conversation at some point about these things.”  “Oh yes,” they said, “and we worked through it.”  “We would have worked through this as well if we hadn’t been pressured into a vote to divide.” One man lamented, “It just didn’t have to be this way.”

He was right.  I’ve seen it too often – when this process for disaffiliation moves to a vote the outcome is division – of congregations, of friends, even of families.  As one said, “The devil is the only winner.” I would agree, while also affirming that God can work for good even in the midst of this pain.  This group knew that as well.  They are determined to be the church in a community that needs this witness. 

In this case, the vote was to remain UMC. This was a relief to many, but the heartbreak of division was still very real. Many hope that the divisions will not be permanent, and that reconciliation will occur.  They believe that would glorify God.  

And in the midst of all of this, we worshipped.  And yes, I could hear the saints of heaven rejoicing in my spirit and I could sense God’s comforting, healing, life-giving love.  The Holy Spirit was there, perhaps working overtime. Thank you, Fairview UMC in Camden, for your desire to be faithful and fruitful as United Methodist Christians. Seeing this was healing to my heart. 

Hope Through Hurt (First Reflections on My New Role and Disaffiliation) 

On October 1 I started a new appointment as the Director of ReStart Initiative, a cabinet position with the purpose of providing care, support, and help with next-step discernment for all who want to remain United Methodist and who are affected by disaffiliation. Some have asked if I am “excited” about this.  Since every conversation seems to be born in pain and heartbreak, excitement is not the best word.  I have been inspired, however, by the faith of so many who also have hope in the midst of pain and who trust that healing will come.  God is definitely at work!

Here are a few stories from these first weeks that I am holding in my heart.  For the first one, a man came up to me and said, “I just want you to know that I am conservative.”  He then called his wife over and said, “I lean to the right on many things; she leans to the left,” Then he put his arm around her, and said, “Together we make something beautiful.” Even in laughter, a sadness was expressed over how this witness was no longer welcomed in the church they had loved and served for years.  

Another man spoke of his newfound calling to make sure that there would be “a traditional United Methodist Church” in their community.  I was struck by the word “traditional.” To help me understand, he spoke of a church where people come together to worship, to say the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer together (this was important), and where people could have different perspectives on some things but still honor and love one another. He was proud that his church was one of the very few places in town where an openly gay person could serve among them and was, seemingly, much loved.  That all changed in an instant, with a vote.  “So yes,” he said, “I want to help cultivate a traditional United Methodist Church in this community.” 

For one more story, a woman spoke of how her friends are calling and saying, “We didn’t want you to leave. You are one of us.”  With this plea she realized that she could not be a part of a church where “us” meant creating a “them” – where it became okay to objectify others as objects to be feared, as issues rather than people, as agendas rather than members of the Body of Christ. She, and many others, want a church that focuses more on the beliefs and values that are life-giving for all rather than trying to judge some by a different standard and creating an “us and them.” “As I understand it,” she said, “That is just not the way Christ.”

My new “congregation,” so to speak, is made up of many who feel that they have been “disaffiliated” or “exiled” from a church they have loved.  While all might use terms like traditional, moderate, centrist, or progressive to describe a part of their calling, they are also committed to finding community under a higher calling and creed.  The term used most often to describe this is “United Methodist.”   For these beloved souls, this work is not primarily about preserving an institution.  It is about cultivating a way of life, where we are called to love one another with patience, kindness, and a humility that does not insist on its own way.  As the Apostle Paul says, without this we have nothing.  John Wesley called this “true holiness.”  

My job right now is to help cultivate this way of life.  I invite you into this calling as well – and in this invitation I want to also include all who have, or are thinking about, voting for disaffiliation.  There is a more excellent way. 

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.

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