Pastor Michael, Would You…? (Personal Responses on Ordination, Marriage, Incompatibility, and the Way Forward)

IMG_4577Would you vote to approve someone for ordination if part of their identity was characterized as LGBTQ? 

In answering this question from our Way Forward Bible Study, I start with matters of calling, character, and competencies, as well as faithfulness, and fruitfulness in ministry.  As United Methodists, we have a long and involved process for this discernment, which includes seminary, psychological evaluations, internships, residencies, with lots of written responses and interviews along the way. Many who start the process do not end up ordained.  If someone is deemed to have a clear calling, evidence of faithful character, and who bear good fruit in ministry, it would be hard for me to not affirm them for ordination. As a part of the above criteria, I would have trouble voting for anyone who wanted to use ordination to push a particular personal agenda. Ordination is for those who submit to a higher calling to proclaim and teach God’s word to all, to share the sacraments with all, to order the whole church for ministry, and to cultivate opportunities for others to serve Christ. This is not a position to be used to promote a personal agenda.  After this discernment, I would also trust the bishop and cabinet around issues of making appointments. This is already a consideration at many levels – divorce, multiple-marriages, violation of covenants and repentance, and to be totally honest, we still deal with issues around ethnicity, gender, language, and theological orientations, all in consultation with congregations who are able to share what they want in a pastor. Finally, if a person was actually asked about their sexual orientation, it might be worth hearing someone say that they are a “self-avowed practicing Christian” and that their sexuality, wherever it might be on the wide spectrum of sexual orientation, was submitted to this primary identity and that they were seeking to engage in all relationships in ways that honored this calling.  In my mind, that would be refreshing and would help all of us focus on our higher calling.

Reflection Questions:  What are your expectations of a pastor?  What is the pastor’s role in a congregation? (These are the issues that have led us to this General Conference. In the midst of them, we are called to find common ground in values at a higher level.  When we do that God is glorified).

“Would you participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple?

In answering this question, I must start with the purpose of marriage as outlined by John Wesley and his commentary on scripture. Beyond “repairing the species,” as he called it, the purpose of marriage is to “further holiness.”  In other words, marriage is an institution where we can cultivate the virtues of holiness – patience, forgiveness, gentleness, humility, self-control, peace, and joy. That’s what makes marriage good for individuals and for society as a whole.  In Wesley’s language, marriage is meant to “temper” us.  In working with any couple, I want to encourage them to make a commitment to practice faithfulness and to grow into this kind of holiness.  If a same-sex couple expressed interest in a relationship with the church as a way to cultivate these commitments, I would feel led to invest in them.  From here, we would engage in a discussion about current disciplinary restrictions and ways to honor this commitment without violating the covenant we share in a global church with diverse perspectives.  In this discussion, I would lift up the call of all Christians to sacrifice their own feelings and opinions in order to build relationships with others.  I would invite this couple to respect those who desire to support more traditional understandings of marriage.  I would share some of the implications and blessings of being in a global church, with diverse cultural perspectives. In this light, I would share my preference for keeping the traditional and beautiful liturgy for marriage intact, while at the same time, express my hope for being able to offer another liturgy that would bless the covenant between them and affirm the legal union between them.  In a spirit of Christ’s love, these two understandings of marriage and covenants are not mutually exclusive.  Both can be honored.  In the history of marriage, we see many changes — from issues of property to divorce to roles –  and yet some things do not change. For all couples who feel led to unite in this way, I would lift up the same biblical values — monogamy, faithfulness, and a desire to grow in holiness together.  This is not about the pushing an agenda and is certainly not about saying “anything goes;” my pastoral concern is how to faithfully respond to anyone who wants to practice faithfulness and grow in the love of Christ. That’s the lifestyle that the church is called to cultivate.

Reflection Questions:  What is the purpose of a marriage relationship?  How is marriage itself – in terms of sacrificing our opinions to build relationships and practicing holiness – a model for the church?

“What is your opinion about the statement that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings?”

I believe that this language needs to go. The word “homosexual “is an offensive term. We’ve been asked not to use it by many for whom this term is used. It is hurtful. Until recently, this term was used to define a psychological disorder. Beyond this, it defines people by their sexuality and puts them into a box of negative stereotypes. We don’t define others in this way – and if we do, it is often in a derogatory way. Even for those who see this as a sin — unredeemable by grace and by the virtues of faithfulness, commitment, and love — we don’t label others by what we see as their sins. And next, when this word is used in some translations of the Bible, it is used to translate words that connote abusive behavior, or words that suggest being soft, carefree, or hedonistic.  Such behaviors can be seen as incompatible with Christian virtues, but to use this term, and these insinuations, for persons who want to practice faithfulness, commitment, and to grow in the virtues of holiness, is both unfair and harmful.  Those labelled in this way can legitimately say that this term, with these connotations, does not describe them.  In my opinion, it is a shame that this next General Conference will be focused around a word that hurts and de-humanizes people.  At the very least, I believe that this language needs to be removed from the Book of Discipline.  This does not mean it should be replaced with language that says it is compatible.  I believe we should leave that for continued holy conferencing and seeking God’s guidance, and that we should allow (and protect) clergy and congregations to follow their conscience on how to love others in this regard, and in a wide diversity of cultural contexts.

Reflection Questions:  How can we approach this “issue,” knowing that we are talking about real people?  What practices are needed to help us cultivate healthy community, in a way that is faithful and does not bring more harm into the world?  What is your responsibility as an individual?  

What is your hope for this congregation in the light of decisions that will be made at General Conference around issues of human sexuality?

Throughout our conversations, our theme verse has come from the Apostle Paul, who urges us to live into the calling that we have been given, “with all humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing one another in love, and eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:1-6). It is clear from these words, that unity is not the same as uniformity.  The virtues would not be needed if we were meant to retreat into “like-minded camps.”  Rather, we are called to honor a variety of gifts and perspectives and to practice our “calling” in the midst of our diversity.  That’s how we prepare ourselves for the kingdom of God.  My hope is that this calling would be strengthened among us and would be at the heart of our witness.  May Love Grow Here!

Reflection Questions:  Looking at this chapter of Ephesians, what is the difference between unity and uniformity?  What values do we want to promote and cultivate?  What different will this make in the world?

Our Unified Witness and the Way Forward

IMG_4577Another popular argument against the One Church Plan involves the fact that different churches would have different policies on gay marriages or unions.  A pastor might have to say to a visitor that some churches have voted to change the default policy of the church (which according to the plan is the traditional view). The concern is that we would not have a unified witness as a denomination.

This argument would carry more weight for me if we were uniform in other ways.  I could go to the five United Methodist Churches in our city and would probably experience communion is five different ways. The liturgy and style of worship would be different.  Some would say a creed, for example, and in others some may have never heard a creed. Different versions of the bible would be read.  The Sunday School curriculum would be different – some of it not United Methodist.  And, there would be wide theological and political differences on many issues.

This does beg the question, “so how are we united?”  This is a question worthy of our coming to the table together.  At this table I suspect we would find much common ground in key doctrines. We could point, for example, to Wesley’s first sermon in the standard sermons where he outlines salvation by grace through faith.  Here we learn that salvation for us is more than a decision and more than a future reality for us; it is a present reality and involves our growing into all that God has created us to be. At this table, we would find unity in the word love, which is the concept Wesley used to point to a higher unity than any theological opinion.  We would find unity in our calling to “steer a middle course,” to use Wesley’s language, and to grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, and never in terms of judgement and self-righteousness. I do believe that we would be able to affirm a theological spirit that binds us together.  We would find our unity under the “canopy of cosmic grace” (to build upon a phrase from both John and Charles Wesley).

Perhaps this conversation with a hypothetical visitor would lead to an opportunity to share Wesley’s timely work, “The Character of a Methodist.”  Here Wesley repeats a theological position that he shares consistently, where he affirms core affirmations of faith such as our belief that Christ is the eternal love of God incarnate in the world, but beyond these core affirmations (“as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity”) “we think and let think.”  To paraphrase, “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not found in any theological opinion or style of worship or system of religion. All of this is ‘quite wide of the point.’”  Our unity is found in the love of God that fills our hearts (Romans 5:5) and in our desire to share this love with one another.

With this “character,” we accept people wherever they are on their faith-journey and believe that a variety of perspectives helps all of us to grow. We come together, not to agree on everything, but to learn how to forgive, bless, and honor one another.  In this way we practice for our place as citizens of God’s expansive kingdom which is always bigger than our finite perspectives.  While we proclaim the core doctrines of the Christian faith as given to us through the scriptures and historic creeds, we are also willing to ask questions of interpretation, to struggle with difficult issues, and to engage one another with respect and compassion.  It is the kind of “character” and “unity” that this world needs.

In sum, our unity is beyond uniformity.  It is a harmonious unity.  As Paul exhorts, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:14). By having churches with different programs, personalities, and perspectives we only expand our witness and extend God’s love to a world in need.  This kind of diversity can be seen as a great blessing.

More On Marriage (an addendum in the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576From the previous post on marriage, divorce, and singleness, my radar has been up, and I have noticed some things. First, I noticed an AT&T commercial targeting people “moving out of the friend-zone and moving in together.”  Right after this, I saw an ad for Chevrolet touting an SUV to help couples “move in together.”   I am sure the marketers did their research and chose these words carefully.  The word marriage was not used.

The institution of marriage has evolved and changed for centuries.  We see this in the bible as well. The Declaration of Intention in our liturgy, for example, is rooted in a time when most marriages where arranged.  Likewise, we no longer use the word “obey.” It has not been long since women were seen as subjects of their husbands.  Now, it seems that many have no use for the institution at all. People are waiting longer to get married. Traditional ceremonies no longer make sense to many.  I’ve talked to young-adults who are hesitant to get married in a church believing that some of their friends would not be welcomed (at least that’s the perception). They don’t want to get married in the church because they care about others and love them.  That is interesting to me.

All of this leads me back to the purpose of marriage as outlined by Wesley.  Beyond “repairing the species,” as he called it, the purpose of marriage is to “further holiness.”  In other words, marriage is an institution where we can cultivate the virtues of holiness – patience, gentleness, humility, self-control, peace, and joy. That’s what make marriage good for individuals and for society as a whole.  It “tempers” us.

Most assuredly, in our current debate, the church cannot adopt an “anything goes” position.  The One-Church option has been depicted in this way, but it is not fair in my opinion. Rather, this plan provides the opportunity for us to come to the table together and work to establish a strong sexual ethic for all — rooted in monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when personal sacrifice is required, and a desire to grow in the virtues of holiness.  Such a conversation would require the humility to say we don’t fully understand sexual identity, but we can agree on the values and practices needed for faithfulness and fruitfulness.

Listen to the culture around us.  It is marked by division, divorce, polarization, building up by putting down, claiming our own righteousness, seeking the easy way, and “moving in together” without any steadfast commitments.  Why are we accommodating to the culture?  Are we not called to a higher unity rooted in humility, faithfulness, kindness, commitment, and love?

We can do better.  I invite you to bring people together and have this discussion.  Can we develop a strong sexual ethic for all?  What would be on your list of virtues needed?  If we are truly seeking a way forward, it seems to me that this would be a conversation worth having.

Next up – The Sad Defense of Divorce and Schism (an addendum in the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

Bigotry in the Church (A Very Relevant Word from Wesley)

pic-bigotIt’s a strong word – Bigot – often associated with extreme prejudice. John Wesley actually used this word in direct connection to the church.  He defined bigotry as extreme “attachment to, or fondness for, our own party, opinion, church, and religion.” This is similar to the way he talked about orthodoxy.  Underlying bigotry is a form of self-righteousness, possibly combined with fear, where we focus on the outward sins of others while conveniently overlooking the “subtler, but no less destructive, forms of disobedience” within us.  This leads us to divide the world into “us and them” and causes great harm to our witness.

In the midst of the blessed diversity of perspectives among us, Wesley warns against party zeal and how it can override our call to love.  Wesley challenges us to be attentive to God’s work in others, especially in those who differ from us, even when what seems “efficacious to [another] is horrid to [us].”   If another seems to be bearing good fruit, then who are we to judge?  As Jesus says, “Bless them and do not try to hinder their work.” “Forbid them not” – even if they are only a “lay person,” says Wesley. That certainly says something about an issue of his day.

Wesley gives a personal example regarding preachers.  He points to the book of Acts where people preached before they were ordained.  They demonstrate fruit before given the office.  Building on this, Wesley wonders about a Bishop refusing to ordain them, even if they are bearing good fruit.  Even if the Bishop stands in their way, “I will not,” says Wesley, “I dare not lest I be found even to fight against God.”  That is a strong word of warning.  Echoing Jesus, if we discourage others from using their gifts, even indirectly, then we are bigots by this definition, and possibly in grave risk of working on the side of the devil.

Wesley gives another personal example.  He asks himself, “what if I were to see,” to use his 18th century terms, “a Papist, an Arian, a Socinian casting out devils.  If I did, I could not forbid even them, without convicting myself of bigotry.”  In radical and relevant fashion, Wesley goes on to say the same about a Jew, a Deist, or a Turk (a Muslim).

So what can we do?  According to Wesley, we can give praise and encouragement to whomever God is pleased to employ.  We can work to enlarge their sphere of action. We can focus on manifesting the virtues of Christ – patience, kindness, compassion – rather than judgment and division. That is our witness to Christ, as we stop trying to defend God and start following instead.  Is this not a most relevant word for us today? (See Wesley’s sermon: “A Caution Against Bigotry”)

In a time when theological/political parties are forming within the church, we need to be alert to this danger.  In a time when people are rallying around code words that are too easily perceived as divisive and self-glorifying – progressive, prophetic, evangelical, orthodox, traditional, covenant-keeping, Jesus loving, faithful (some use more self-elevating adjectives than others) — we need those who are willing to rally around what truly maintains “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”  We definitely need to be cautious of hard line ultimatums which come from those who love self-affirming qualifiers; those so attached to their own party and position that they are unwilling to reflect upon how they might fall short or break covenant, or cause harm by their self-proclaimed faithfulness and rightness.  It comes from all “sides” and does so much harm.

As we turn to Wesley for guidance, he cautions us against this temperament and calls us to meet in the middle with a very different understanding of grace and holiness.  May we heed Wesley’s cautionary word and turn our focus to our common calling to be something other than bigots. Yes, it is a strong word revealing a great weakness within us. May we all guard against building ourselves up by implying that others have less of whatever has hold of our heart.   Does the right thing have hold of our heart?

Patience As the Way Forward

phonto

“We’ve been patient long enough.”  “It is time to make a decision.”  These statements echo through our denomination.  Yet, into this kind of environment, John Wesley lifts up the word “patience.”  If we are to truly find a way forward, it may be very important that we let this virtue get through to our anxious hearts.

Wesley makes it clear that patience is so more than “waiting.”  It is certainly more than fear-ridden fretfulness, where we bury our heads in the sand, hoping a problem will go away.  Patience is a “gracious temper,” a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Patience holds the “middle way,” he says, staying in between the extremes. Even as we advocate for opinions and positions, Christians behave in the middle, staying connected to all with respect, humility, and compassion.  Standing on the solid rock of God’s love, we avoid “impatience with contradictions,” to use a phrase from Wesley.  We honor diversity of opinion as those who see in a “mirror dimly.”  We listen and learn. We embrace our differences as opportunity to learn how to love more fully and truly glorify God.  In this way Wesley characterizes patience as the “manifestation of the perfect love of God.”  That’s how important this virtue is. It is our witness to the world.

And now for the deep theological reason for placing patience at the heart of how we engage one another – instantaneous entire sanctification!  It’s not a phrase we hear every day, but it was key for Wesley.

Why be patient with ourselves and others? Because we are new creations in Christ.  From the moment our hearts were first opened to the saving love of Christ, a transformation happened and is happening.  Deep within, we have already been transformed “from inward sinfulness to inward holiness.”  Deep within, our “pride and haughtiness” have been transformed into virtue of true holiness – “calmness, meekness, and gentleness.”  With deep theological insight, Wesley warns against undervaluing what happens in justification.  Justification is so much more than a forensic pardon or act of blind grace — as in “oh yeah, you’re forgiven or “You have a ticket to heaven” — but with no real expectation of change.  In Christ, we are sanctified! And yet, from our vantage point, this sanctification comes in degrees, much like the growth of a child into maturity.  The key insight for Wesley is that we grow “into” this sanctification, not “towards” it. Our life becomes a journey of living into our new identity as “born again” children of God.

And so, we can truly be patient, with ourselves and others, because of what God has already done and will do.   We honor that! With holy patience, we learn to “not be angry at those who differ from [our] opinion, nor entertain hard thoughts concerning them.” We can give thanks for the way God is working in them, even if it is different from our desired timeframe or perspective. Our focus is ONLY this:  to see that this transformation “is wrought in our own soul, if we desire to dwell with God in glory.”

Wesley builds his sermon “On Patience” upon the words, “Count it as a joy knowing that the trails of your faith teach patience.”  (James 1:4). He points out that we are not saved from temptation.  In fact, we can count temptation as a gift. God works through patience to bring us to maturity in faith, where we learn that we cannot return evil for evil, barrier for barrier, or attempts to divide with more division.  In Christ, we find ways to bless even in the midst of such tension.

Impatience with others, or with the church, is a sure sign that we are off track in our journey. It is possibly a sign that we have reverted back to spiritual childhood, often accompanied with spiritual temper tantrums. We must be patient with even this, yet when we are in this state it is probably wise of the church to not give us a gavel.