A Heartbreak Playlist for General Conference

I was talking to my daughter about preparing as a delegate to General Conference, and she said, “Dad, you need to make a breakup playlist.” Since music has always been the

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first language of my soul, I immediately knew this was a good idea. It would be cathartic if nothing else. Here are a few that would be on my list – and some outside the hymnal and worship song charts:   

Under Pressure – David Bowie and Queen

This song is filled with happy, meaningless words uttered to block the pressure that comes when reality gets through and we notice families breaking apart, people in the streets, and the terror of knowing what the world is about. The answer to this “pretending” and “pressure” is found in that very “old fashion” word – LOVE.  This love is hard because it dares us to care and to change, as the song says.   I wonder if this is our “last dance,” or last chance, to give this witness.

What About Us – Pink

In my imagination, I hear this song as an anthem (fight song/lament/plea) from youth within the church to its leaders.  Imagine “billions of beautiful hearts…children that need to be loved” who were willing “come when we call,” deliver this indictment: “And you sold us down the river too far.”  “What about all the times you said you had the answers?  What about love?  What about trust?  What about us?  This song – this prophetic word – haunts me.  

Say Something – Christina Aguilera

This song can also be heard from the perspective of children and youth singing to the church.  The words ring in my ears – “I would have followed you.  Say something, I’m giving up on you.” With such a plea how can we be silent…or only share “under pressure” words.   

Dreaming with a Broken Heart – John Mayer

For me, the title says it all.  I continue to dream of a church where there is room for all, a church that sees diverse perspectives as a blessing that helps us fulfill our calling to learn how to love one another.  In reading the DCA and other legislation around proposals and protocols, I wonder, however, if I just need to wake up and realize that it really is “gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.”

The Heart of the Matter – Don Henley

This song keeps welling up in my soul.  I encourage you to listen – and read the words.  I invite you to join me in prayer that we would all open our hearts to the heart of the matter…

A Heartbreak Playlist

This started as a “breakup” playlist. In the process, it became more of a “heartbreak” playlist.  I am reminded that God loves a broken and contrite heart.  That’s the way love gets in – to the heart of the matter.  What songs would you add?  What if we developed a General Conference Playlist with songs meant to nurture broken hearts and cultivate softened hearts?  I wonder if the Holy Spirit might work through that.

Passing on the Pressure (Initial Reflections on the Protocol from a Delegate Perspective)

cic-universal2The pressure is on!  As a delegate, it was clear that we were the target audience of the first live-streamed presentation from the group giving us the Protocol, aired yesterday. Scattered throughout the conversation were statements about this now being placed in our hands. There were pleas to join the movement.  It was repeatedly emphasized that this protocol received unanimous affirmation after an intense mediation process. Everyone at the table was willing to compromise for the sake of good-will, peace, and the hope of moving forward.  Much motivation came from the shared assumption that the alternative would be much worse. In fact, the word “catastrophic” was used at least twice for what would happen if this does not pass.   So once again, the pressure is on.

Instead of reporting on what individuals said, I will focus on the different perspectives – the traditional, the progressive, the centrist, and central conferences.  (I use these terms with some reluctance, for I do not believe it is good to define others by a single word or story.  For example, it is very possible to want “progress” for those being harmed around current policies and to be immersed in the traditions of the church through creeds, hymns, liturgy, and prayers. It is possible to value inclusiveness and respect for the faith journey of others and see this as mandated from the living tradition of the church).

With that qualification, representatives of a traditional perspective, from the confessing movement and the WCA, led with calls for “amicable separation” because of “irreconcilable differences” around issues of human sexuality.  Since progressives/centrists were not willing to leave, even after repeated unsuccessful attempts to change the BOD, traditionalists have made the decision to actively move towards the formation of a new denomination. They affirmed the need to “set the church free from the conflict.” As stated, in the interests of good-will, peace, and moving forward, these representatives were willing to make significant compromises around voting thresholds and financial support.   In answering a question, this group would not likely leave the General Conference immediately for a Convening Conference of the new denomination, but they did believe this will happen soon – in 2020.  They made it clear that they would actively seek to persuade others to join the movement.

For Progressives, this protocol “changes the landscape for those who have been deeply harmed.” The discriminatory language that has caused so much harm would be removed.  This is an answer to the longing of many hearts.  At the same time, there is a place for caution.  The Traditional Plan that was passed in 2019 has become the source of much fear and hurt. Continued vigilance is needed.  Many, but not all, will resolve to stay in the Post-Separation UMC.

For Centrists, and many who would use the word progressive, this protocol affords the opportunity to rediscover the blessings of being a “big tent” church, where different perspectives are honored, where unity is sought, not in a uniformity of law, but in our call to love one another, with all patience, kindness, humility, without arrogance or insisting on our own way.  Unity is found in this core scriptural calling (Eph 4:1-3; I Cor 13:1-8).  It was stated that 85% of all United Methodists across the spectrum – traditionalists, conservatives, progressives, and centrists – communicate that they can exist in a church where there is diversity of interpretation.  This diversity can be seen as a blessing and even essential to the fulfillment of our calling. It was stated that centrists are united around a desire to welcome all and to remove the discriminatory language that uses outdated and harmful language to single out one group of people, and to access their status in the church by this single criterion rather than by calling, character, faithfulness and fruitfulness.  From this perspective, humility demands that we focus on being welcoming of all who want to know Christ and grow in the virtues of faith and love.  Realistically, this post-separation United Methodist Church would be smaller – but hopefully not for long.  It was expressed that this will be an opportunity for growth, to be more nimble and responsive to the mission field, and to respond in new ways to the call to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

This centrist stance would be the default perspective for the post-separation United Methodist Church. No vote would be required to remain within this expression of faith.  If a vote was taken, the threshold for an Annual Conference would be 57%.  This percentage was the result of compromise.  The traditionalists lobbied for a simple majority, with others asking for two-thirds.  Central Conferences would require a 2/3 vote to leave the UMC.  Local Congregations could choose to leave the UMC. If this vote is taken, it would be by a Church Conference where every member can vote, as opposed to a charge conference where elected leaders vote.  We probably need to be ready for attempts to change these thresholds.

It was very clear that those representing Central Conferences were supportive. A Bishop from Africa said that African support would be 100%.  A similar statement was made from the Bishop of the Philippines.   Representatives from Central Conferences also support the continuation of the United Methodist Church, saying that dissolution would have catastrophic effects on ministry and mission.  There was also support for the idea of regional conferences as being essential to making this work, given freedom for ministry and decisions within various cultures and contexts.   If support indeed comes at these high levels from Central Conferences, then it does appear that this Protocol will be a first step for how we move forward in mission and ministry.

In conclusion, we were asked to not let perfect get in the way of good.  We are asked to understand the need for a small representative group to initiate the process and how it is now time for others to come to the table.  We were asked to pray.  As was stated, with prayer all things are possible and without prayer nothing is possible (Wesley).  Testimonies were given for how prayer opened the way several times in the midst of this mediation.  That is a good word.

Immersed in prayer and in politics together, it is time to turn our attention to the future, to begin to develop a vision for what is possible for the post-separation UMC.  We must give a compelling reason for committing to this “big tent” church.  Without this vision, permission is implicitly given to withdraw into comfortable and like-minded camps.  The pressure is on for delegates to initiate by inviting others of all perspectives to develop a vision and strategy for a faithful and fruitful post-separation UMC.  May God be with us all.

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.

Honoring Principled Resistance (and a Tongue-in-Cheek Proposal)

IMG_4577In response to leaders among us who have formally rejected requests for a moratorium on charges and trials based on the measures passed at the last General Conference, I start my reflections with a “tongue-in-cheek” proposal (you can’t put your tongue in your cheek without winking.  Try it!). Maybe this will help us re-focus.    

What if hundreds of us file a complaint against ourselves for ways that we have violated the discipline and doctrine of the church?  It would not be hard to find examples.  Almost every Sunday I go out to eat, violating the prohibition against “buying or selling” on the Lord’s Day. Likewise, I cannot claim “a case of extreme necessity” for some of my choices of drinks. I also wonder about “uncharitable or unprofitable conversations, particularly about magistrates and ministers.” After watching the news these days, or reading some statements from leaders, this one is increasingly difficult.  Likewise, I could probably include “wearing costly apparel,” “needless self-indulgence” and “laying up treasures upon earth.” I probably look at my pension statement too often these days.

Concerning pastoral leadership, I have never reported to the “Church Council the names of members who have been neglectful in keeping their baptismal and membership vows.”  I also don’t “keep copies of membership records off-site and secure.”  That might be a good thing to do.  I have definitely failed “to celebrate all six churchwide special offerings.”  And then there are things like “fasting.” I would be in trouble. 

If I wanted to point fingers at others, I could actually address some more serious concerns around re-baptizing, not using United Methodist curriculum, being unwilling to fully itinerant, and interfering in the ministry of another pastor.

All are mandates within our doctrine and discipline. And yet, I would wholeheartedly agree that most of these charges would be frivolous and harmful to the body. I would also say the same thing about charges made possible by the draconian measures passed at the last General Conference. Why would we allow a legalistic approach to gender identity or sexual orientation negate factors that are clearly the work of God in a person’s life – a desire to practice faithfulness and to grow in God’s love as a part of the community of faith?  Why focus on sexuality rather than on virtues and calling? Why actively cause this harm – perhaps as a scapegoat to intentionally ignore the many boards in our own eyes?  Why would we not honor a call for moratoriums when we are moving towards such big decisions except to hold the peddle down on the forces that seek to exclude and silence others?

In this light, I have the utmost respect for leaders who engage in principled resistance to policies that are about to take effect.  Principled resistance can be an honored approach within our democratic process of discernment. Such resistance is in our spiritual DNA, going back to when Wesley ordained Coke and Asbury.  At other times in our history we have witnessed this approach around slavery, segregation of conferences, and women in ministry. And we can actually use our doctrine and discipline to guide us, as opposed to frame such resistance as a violation.

As a part of our doctrine, Wesley commented on the harm that can come from following the letter of the law rather than the spirit.  He says, “…if we adhere to the literal sense even of the moral law, if we regard only the precept and the sanction as they stand in themselves, not as they lead us to Christ, they are doubtless a killing ordinance, and bind us down under the sentence of death.” Likewise, Wesley consistently says that the building of faith on opinions and the belief that we are more “right” than others – is not to build our spiritual home on sand, but on the “froth of the sea.” This is part of our doctrine.

Complaints, Charges, Church Trials. Let us resist this approach and the selective legalism that undergirds it. May our resistance be empowered by opening our lives to the Holy Spirit rather than resisting the Spirit’s consistent call to unity not uniformity and to the transformation of heart that leads us to make room for all, as challenging and messy as this can be. As a United Methodist Christian, a pastor, and a delegate to General Conference, I want to work towards that. 

Beyond the Nightmare (Comparing Plans for GC2020 at an Arkansas UMC Next Gathering, Sept 2019)

IMG_4576Unity vs. Schism

There is a new primary choice before us – unity or schism.  Before we look at the plans, I want these words to linger for a moment.  I want us to remember our calling “to maintain the unity of spirit in the bond of peace” and to do so with humility, patience, and kindness (Eph 4:1-3). With this calling planted in our hearts, most of us here were willing to adopt the One Church Plan – and not for some vague sense of “unity” but real and incarnate unity where we stayed at the table together and learned how to love one another in the midst of our differences.  We believed that would truly glorify God.  Yet, as we know, this plan crashed and burned…But out of this burning we have also witnessed a fire being kindled in many hearts.

In the light of this growing sacred-fire, there is a renewed commitment to unity, but with a nuanced understanding. Unity of spirit does not necessarily mean unity of organizational togetherness. To build upon the values that we have named as Arkansas Uniting Methodists, we want “unity in love rather than uniformity by law.” We want to cultivate sacred communities where there is “room for all.” We want to give witness to the unity found in God’s beloved community, in God’s kin-dom.

What about the word “schism?”  Schism is divorce on a community scale where groups within the body intentionally pull others away.  You will notice that this word in not used in the plans before us.  Instead we have notions of dissolution, new expressions, and the multiplication of our witness.  I will say that there is merit to seeing things from a different perspective.  This often leads to better outcomes.  Thus, it may not be schism at all.  At the same time, I believe it is important to ask if we are just putting a “silk dress on a pig” (as the saying goes). We need to be honest with ourselves and each other about this and our motives.

As I read these plans, and prepare as a delegate, it seems inevitable that we are moving towards schism, division, “multiplication of our witness.”  We seemed determined to “give into culture” in this way.   I have no doubt that God can work for good in the midst of this, but that does not mean it glorifies God.  I still suspect that God would be more glorified in our efforts to stay at the holy table together and learn how to love one another, instead of retreating into our own bubbles. If we take this course, we will need to find new ways to live into the clear calling that we have been given and find new ways to forge true unity.

With that introduction, let’s look at three plans, and then the one plan that is about to become policy.

The Indianapolis Plan

This plan was developed by leaders from each “camp,” including representation from the WCA.  It starts with the premise that there are “irreconcilable differences” among us and that we need to get beyond the “vitriolic” atmosphere that has marked our conversation for so long. Therefore, we need to “send one another into our respective mission fields to multiply our witness to Christ.”  (I do wonder if “respective mission fields” is code for like-minded camps or if it is dressing up a pig). This plan takes great pains to avoid the notion of dissolving the church. What we know as the United Methodist Church would stay with the centrist/progressive branch – boards, agencies, etc.  Then, we would “give birth” to a new expression of the church for traditionalists (I find this image of being asked to help “give birth” somewhat disturbing…). This “new expression” would share some resources like Wespath, UMCOR, UMW, and Publishing. There would be a formula for allocating resources among the bodies, including future apportionments.  After blessing this new expression, then this plan would remove all restrictive language and the language of “incompatibility” around same-sex marriages and ordination.  Conferences, congregations, and clergy would make decisions about alignment, with a simple majority as the rule.  If no vote is taken, the default would be the centrist/progressive Church (The UMC) in the U.S. Interestingly, Annual Conferences in Central Conferences would default to the traditionalist branch.

UMC Next Proposal

This proposal starts by envisioning a UMC that welcomes everyone, nurtures devoted disciples of Jesus Christ, and equips our members to live as salt and light in the world. It calls us to reclaim the spiritual zeal and creativity of our Wesleyan heritage.   It keeps the UMC intact by allowing for greater regional autonomy and freedom to engage in ministry within diverse missional context. In this way it honors the diverse global nature of the church.  It directly affirms our doctrinal standards and core beliefs. And then, in the light of these values and beliefs, this plan removes “language and policies…that are harmful to and exclusive of LGBTQ persons.”  It affirms the ability of pastors to determine readiness for marriage and annual conference to determine criteria for ordination.  After offering a vision of what we can be as a denomination, this plan provides methods and resources for groups of churches to form new expressions of methodism. The plan acknowledges that separation can be a faithful step that honors those who experience a call to move in different directions. It grounds this possibility in the story of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark and thus gives the notion of multiplication biblical roots (Acts 15:37-40) and combines this with the life-giving theological language of respect, partnerships, and cooperation in ministry. The proposal ends by moving us back to vision and calls for a “commission on the 21st century church” to prepare a “comprehensive structure and governance plan…”  For a couple of other details, this proposal endorses a proposal from the Connectional Table to create regional conferences and calls for professional mediation to help all parties move forward.  In terms of voting, local church disaffiliation would require a 2/3 majority – an option available for a limited time.

The Bard -Jones Plan

Named for the two bishops that developed it, this plan is similar to the Connectional Conference Plan that came out of the Way Forward Commission, but never got much traction at the time.  Like the Indy Plan, this plan starts with the premise that we must find a way to address our division.  It starts by highlighting our options. 1. Relying on the legislative processes of Conference to make changes. 2. Groups just decide to leave.  3. A “forced schism,” through trials and active disobedience. Or 4 (the shining light)- to negotiate a new unity, a new connectionalism, and a mutual blessing for the parting of ways.  This plan calls for the creation of two or three self-governing branches – an “open” branch initially operating under the “simple plan,” a “traditional” branch operating under the “traditional plan,” and perhaps a “progressive” branch with a strengthen version of the “simple plan.” The United Methodist Church would be an umbrella organization, for the purpose of sharing in mission and organization support.

The Traditional Plan  

As with the rhetorical device, use in the Bard/Jones Plan, where three bad options are given to lead to new option, there is a parallel here. All three of these plans look good in the light of the one plan that was passed at GC2019 – the traditional plan (soon to be policy).  This is the big ugly elephant in the room – a plan that defines unity as uniformity, that establishes strict mandatory penalties for anyone who violates certain, that requires oaths in order to be in certain leadership positions, that creates a globally elected body to enforce particular rules, a body likened by our Judicial Council to an “inquisitional court.” And it was all passed knowing that much of it would be ruled unconstitutional.  One possibility before us is that General Conference will be about perfecting this plan.  And, that my friends, is my nightmare.  Even many who have more traditional views on particular topics are opposed to these draconian measures. They do not honor Christ or glorify God.

So, in comparison to this plan/policy, all the others look great! We need to keep that in mind. In terms of big outcomes, any of these plans (or some combination) would allow for the formation of a church that truly aspires to the values that we have named as Arkansas Uniting Methodists:

  • Unity in Love rather than Uniformity by Law, where we come together at the holy table and give witness to the royal law of love.
  • Making Room for All and cultivating the values of inclusiveness and diversity as strengths that give witness to God’s beloved community (God’s kingdom) in our midst.
  • A High(er) View of Scripture where we honor the whole of scripture, interpret through key concepts as Jesus did, and move beyond proof-texting to affirm prejudices and opinions.
  • Wesleyan Holiness, defined through the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness rather than through judgment of others and zeal for our own righteousness.
  • A Sexual Ethic Rooted in Values rather than Personal Identity, an ethic rooted in the values of monogamy, faithfulness, commitment, and the virtues summed up with the word love.

Beyond the Nightmare

Before our discussion, I want to elaborate on the nightmare that haunts me.  What if we are not able to pave any path for a church that cultivate these values. What if we don’t have the votes, even after the wave of support that occurs in the US?  (It is not unlike what we witnessed in St. Louis). What if I’m sitting there and I realize that it is not going to happen – at least in the legislative arena.  Can I (we) just sit there as more harm is done?

One image that comes to mind is something that happened at Annual Conference a couple of years ago when a group of women made the decision to excuse themselves from the bar of the conference abstaining from a vote on a resolution in support of women in ministry.  While acknowledging that the resolution was well-intended, it was reasoned that they did not want to subject themselves to the possible harm of becoming, once again, an “issue” to be justified and defended, or by having to vote, once again, on their own legitimacy.  And so, they chose a response that I believe honored our shared covenant.

I’m not totally sure what to make of this comparison, but I have a couple of reflections. First, resolutions are by nature contentious and designed to divide.  They may be well intended and still cause harm. Often there are better way to make affirmations. In the same way, our whole legislative process is often contentious and can cause much harm.  Acknowledging this, and as a small step, it is important to notice the language of the plans and ask: Do they come from a heart of love or do they mask other motives? Do they flow out of the values we have named, and if so, give the possibility for healing rather than harm? The hope is that we will let our values guide us through the turbulent waters of legislation. For a second connection, and more provocative, I wonder if we need some kind of contingency plan, for all supporters of an open and inclusive church, to possibly excuse ourselves and go to another room to work on a new way forward – while we are conveniently there in Minneapolis.  It is a big question mark at this point, but I do wonder.

I certainly hope that kind of action will not be needed.  I hope I will be able to say in hindsight, “Oh that was just a nightmare.” May our Lord help us see all of this through the light of love divine. May it be so.

Reclaiming Tradition (from the traditional plan)

IMG_4577I must say, at Conway FUMC (and this is true of much of Methodism), we are so traditional! In fact, we are more traditional than many who accuse us of violating tradition. I believe we need to reclaim this word and, to do so, we must understand more deeply what it really means.  At Annual Conference, we heard Dr. Greg Jones, the Dean of Duke Divinity School, define tradition as “the living faith of those who have gone before us rather than the dead faith of the living.” That’s a good place to start if we are to reclaim the word “tradition” from recent abuse.  We can either use tradition to protect what is comfortable to us or we can add our witness to the living tradition and give creative expression to God’s continuing work in our lives, building upon the blessings that have been passed on to us.     

First, our worship is rooted in tradition. We honor the living tradition of the holy and catholic Church through liturgical seasons, historic prayers, hymns, and creeds – even in our contemporary services. We firmly believe that planting ourselves in the living tradition of the church is key to both faithfulness and fruitfulness. Without this rootedness faith becomes shallow and small.

Secondly, we have a very traditional view of scripture.  Our view is so traditional that we acknowledge that the church formed the Holy Bible, selecting the “standard texts” from many options. In other words, tradition gave us the Bible as we know it.  We are blessed that our tradition did not give one uniformed perspective.  We have four gospels and multiple forms of writings, all with diverse theological perspectives, and written in different contexts.  Taking the scripture seriously, we avoid the immature practices of proof-texting and selective literalism that are so popular among those who focus on using tradition to protect what is comfortable to us. We honor the whole while giving weight to key text that help us interpret the whole – even as Jesus used this method when he summarized all the law and the prophets with the word “love.” Led by the Holy Spirit, we are called to struggle together with the tensions found even within the scriptures themselves.  In this struggle we discern God’s will for our time and, most importantly, learn how to love.  That’s what it means to be part of the living tradition of the body of Christ.

Next, we make the important distinction between the living tradition of the church and our human traditions, which can easily become idols or false gods.  The living tradition of the church leads us into God’s truth.  In the scriptures, this truth is defined relationally.  Truth “reveals” or “discloses” what is good and life-giving (That’s what the original Greek word means).  Biblical truth is found in virtue more than opinion. It is revealed, or hidden, in how we treat one another.  In the Wesleyan tradition, truth is truth only when it is united to “humble, gentle, patient love for all.” Lies, on the other hand, hide goodness and conceal love.  Spiritual lies cultivate division, judgment, self-protection, and fear, and can be made to sound holy.  That’s what happens when we substitute the living tradition with our little traditions designed to actually hide us from God’s truth. 

A great irony about truth and lies occurs when some are accepted in the church only when they are willing to keep parts of their identity hidden. There are those among us who want them to lie about or “hide,” for example, who they love when the living tradition calls us to “bring to light” how we are all called to love – with faithfulness, forgiveness, patience, humility, and kindness.  There are those who want to focus on outward manifestations rather than illuminating the deeper truths of the gospel to which we are all called.  Jesus had a lot to say about this kind of white-washed righteousness. 

The plan passed at the last General Conference is called the “traditional plan.”  With mandates to exclude, punish, and strengthen rules that harm, I do not believe this plan honors the living tradition of the church.  Drawing upon a description from the Judicial Council, I would suggest that we call it the “inquisitional plan.”  That is much more fitting.  I’ve also heard it called the “mean plan.” The unintended blessing of this plan is how it has caused the truths of the gospel to come to life in the hearts of so many.  May this enlightening continue.  May we honor the living tradition of the church.

Impressions from UMC Next (and for Conference Elections)

UMC Next - MichaelHere are a few first impressions from the UMC Next gathering last week and implications as we move towards the election of delegates this week.  I will assume that you have read the inspired key principles and heard about the two-fold strategy to “Stay, Resist, and Reform,” while engaging in “Negotiations for Dissolution” if this is deemed to be the most faithful option.

Impression 1.  I felt the tension in my own heart between these two strategies.  I was moved by pain caused by the actions of General Conference and empathized with calls for some form of separation.  And then, I heard powerful statements from African Americans and women who have stayed and struggled for justice and inclusion for generations.  To leave too quickly could dishonor those who have stayed and made such a difference by being prophets among us.  I was moved, for example, by the story of how one Conference elected women to go to General Conference, knowing that these women would be turned away because “laymen” meant “male.”  I am so glad that these women continued the struggle.  Perhaps, they can serve as inspiration.  Whether we ultimately schism or not, we need those committed to the cause and those willing to work together. There is strength in numbers.

Impression 2. We must find ways to model the church that we want to become. That means we must be intentional about inclusivity and honoring all voices at the table.  In this light, I stand convicted as one who is responsible for scheduling our Uniting Dinner on Wednesday Night at the same time as the Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) dinner.  My first response was that it was “unintentional,” motivated by wanting to meet before the elections on Wednesday night.  It was Maxine Allen, a true prophet among us, who agreed that it was unintentional and pointed out that we need to be intentional if we are to live up to the values we claim.  Yes, faithfulness to the vision given at UMC Next calls for much more intentionality.

Impression 3.   I am thankful that our leadership group, first for Uniting Methodists and then for UMC Next, has been open about our participation.  There were many at UMC Next who were reluctant to be open about their advocacy.  In this regard, I think of a conversation I had with Lynn Kilbourne as we were planning a rally for the One Church Plan at Annual Conference last year (that seems so long ago).  I expressed my thankfulness to be in a place, in terms of age and appointment, where I could be a vocal advocate without as much fear of consequences.  I asked Lynn if she was sure about taking a public stance knowing that some heat would come.  She confessed some concern, but then said, “It’s the right thing to do.” We need that kind of leadership as we work for a church that cultivates unity in love rather than uniformity by law and goes back to a biblical vision of making room for all, not just back to a time when discrimination was justified.

You are invited to join this holy work. As a step this week, please join us in electing a delegation that will represent the emerging vision that God is giving.  If you want to be a part of a more organized effort, let me, or any involved, know. There is a plan. We need to work together, or we risk a delegation that wants to perfect the punitive/exclusionary plan with little influence for an alternative vision. For one more impression from the gathering, I no longer want to use the term “traditional plan” because I do not believe it honors the living tradition of the church.  When it comes to honoring our tradition, we can do so much better.