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)

Episcopacy and the Protocol (Reflections from the SCJ Gathering for Delegations)

Here are a couple of reflections from the South Central Jurisdiction gathering last week. It all started with interviews of six (and only six) episcopal candidates, with each candidate rotating through conference delegations. Each candidate brought gifts and graces that inspired and cultivated hope among us. In terms of gender and ethnic representation, this group was much more diverse than in the past. None of them would identify as I might – as an older, anglo, straight male. Four were women and two of the women were African American. I believe the Holy Spirit is involved in this movement. In times such as these, we need leaders who have more direct experiences on the other side of privilege. Honoring the leadership gifts of those who stay committed to the body through deep struggles, and through experiences of biased harm, will help us all learn how to love more fully and give witness to God’s calling upon the whole church.

A good portion of the second afternoon was spent on “the Protocol.” It started with Bishop Harvey sharing the story of how she broke down after GC2019 was over. Walking away for the arena, she turned to her husband and asked, “Did today really happen?” Her heart-felt emotion in this confession touched me deeply, knowing that she was presiding at the end of the conference, and knowing her commitment to a higher unity and to making room for all, including traditionalists. That was the promise of the One Church Plan. “Did today really happen?” This led her, and many others, to reimagining possibilities and a renewed commitment to stop harm and cultivate holy inclusiveness. (And these are my words building upon her story).

After this, Bishop Schnase asked this question (and I am paraphrasing from memory): “In your heart of hearts, and after GC2019, do you believe that our mission will be best served with one church that is in perpetual conflict over matters of human sexuality or with two churches where people can live into visions that they believe are of God concerning these matters?” In a room of bishops, with much pain, they all answered “two.” From here, he asked us to give the protocol “room to breathe.” He said, very directly, that now is not the time for any of us to support new plans that serve only our own self-interest. With these words, an audible gasp echoed through the room.

While I remain committed to “unity of spirit” I will heed the call to give the Protocol “room to breathe.” I also see merit in giving each other “room to breathe” in a spirit of “grace and reconciliation,” to use language from the Protocol. I will, however, predict that this “room” will not free any of us from the tension. Within minutes of any separation, God will continue to bring transformation to human hearts, different interpretations and insight into the scripture will touch hearts, and the struggle will continue. I am confident that God will see to that.

In this presentation, I appreciated the tone and the way pain and grief were honored. I appreciated the call to work together, even through our hurt and anger, with humility, patience, and grace — or in Methodist-speak, holiness. (My take on what was said). In every conversation that I am in, with people around the country, of all persuasions, that is the spirit. Even when there are outlying voices that blame and malign others, the vast majority of us know that this does not speak to our better selves. Projecting this narrative that we are all blaming and maligning only cultivates fear and division. As leaders, we have the opportunity to call all to a higher way of relating, as opposed to using our influence to build protection for our own side and opinion.

We are two months from General Conference 2020. Please pray! May we all be led to transformation of heart – starting with the one we see in the mirror. May our prayers lead to a conference that will glorify God.

Remembering Our Higher Calling (as we move towards GC2020 and probable division)

Love Grows Here Logo

Below is a letter sent to my congregation.  It is an invitation to embrace a higher calling at the local level in the midst of probable division at the general church level.  It’s the same message I keep sharing – although not without fear and trembling.  In this letter I do not get into my personal advocacy as much as I have in other writings. Here I want to be clear about the call to respect and honor others, even as we advocate.   I especially commend the paragraph on the need to dial back the labeling…

Dear FUMC Family,

The United Methodist Church is about to split! You may have heard this on the news recently. I can tell you that there is some truth to this rumor.  A leading proposal for the next General Conference calls for an amicable separation and the creation of two “expressions of methodism” – the United Methodist Church which will continue to be a “big tent” church that strives to welcome all into the love of Christ, and a new denomination for those who want more uniformity of opinion around certain issues.  This possible division is driven, for the most part, by different perspectives on same-sex marriage and matters of ordination.   As a delegate to the upcoming General Conference, involved in many of these conversations, I have recently come to the conclusion that some kind of division seems likely at the general and global level.  But here is my word to you as a congregation – THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO HAPPEN HERE! Please receive my reasoning with prayerful attention.

Yes, there are “irreconcilable differences” among us.  This is the term often used, especially by those who want to form a new denomination.  I do not believe, however, that such differences should lead to division, especially at the local level, where our unity is found in the call to love one another rather than in uniformity of opinion.  Our congregation is full of “irreconcilable differences.” There are major differences among us on many issues — who should be president, access to health care, the distribution of wealth, and more.  Concerning congregational life, there are big differences between a preference for hymns or praise songs, written or extemporaneous prayers, screens or no screens. Very often such perspectives are seen as integral to faith and essential for faithfulness.  And yet, we still come together at a common table. We have this intuitive sense that we are connected by a higher calling, found in scripture and given by the Holy Spirit.

The Apostle Paul expresses this higher calling very clearly. He begs us to fulfill our calling from God – to bear one another in love, with all humility, patience, and kindness, being eager to maintain the unity of spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-3). In light of this calling, differences of perspective and interpretation can be seen as a great blessing.  Our diversity enables us to practice the virtues of love.  It would be way too easy if all we had to do was love those who thought like us (See Matt 5:43-47).

This calling comes with expectations for how we live together in community. There is no place, for example, for pushing personal agenda or insisting on our own way – except that we will honor different perspectives and approaches to ministry, in a spirit of patience and kindness.  We can insist on that! (See I Cor 13:4-7). This calling requires us to focus our attention on cultivating safe sanctuaries where all can discover who they are in relationship with God. This calling invites much humility when it comes to our understanding of personal journeys and identity, while at the same time, offering resources to help all grow in faithfulness and love.

Dear FUMC Family, as we begin a new year together, I ask you to affirm your commitment to this higher calling – to keep our eyes on the ball, so to speak.  Our community and the world need this witness.  To retreat into like-minded camps that promote division, polarization, and extremism does not glorify God. For this to happen in the church is truly following the ways of the world.  We have the chance to be a part of something so much bigger – something holy.  We have the opportunity to be a church that offers a life of faithfulness and love to all.

To fulfill this calling, we need to dial back the labeling of ourselves and others – traditionalist, conservative, liberal, progressive, centrist.   While these qualifiers have a place, it is not good to define human beings (including ourselves) in one-dimensional terms.  We are more than that!  People who want “progress” in terms of inclusion, may be very traditional when it comes to their affinity for liturgy and creeds.  They may want this “progress” because of their understanding of the living tradition of the church.  People who love what is contemporary may also be very interested in affirming what they see as traditional values that are life-giving and needed for communities to thrive.  People in the middle may not need to be defined as “wishy washy” or uncommitted; it takes great spiritual strength to balance grace and holiness, head and heart, as well as traditional and progressive expressions of faithfulness.  To fulfill our calling, we must focus on honoring and respecting one another, more than labeling and judging.  We can also learn from one another! Again, let us not give in to the ways of the world.

We are starting the year 2020. As a congregation, we are using this number 2020 to talk about God’s vision for us.  We want to see ourselves more clearly the way God sees us.  At one level, we can think of all the people in the scriptures who were being told that they were not of the same value as others – foreigners, fishermen, tax collectors, women, children, gentiles – and Jesus includes them and called them into the kingdom of heaven where we learn to treat others as beloved children of God..  He invited them to see themselves in a new light – in the light of God’s love and God’s calling.  May we be the church that shares this word – “You are valued.” “You are a blessing to the world.” “You have a calling to fulfill.”

Whatever happens at General Conference in May, know this: Ministry will continue in and through our community of faith.  For the immediate months following General Conference, we are already planning mission trips, youth trips, summer adventure camp, WOW Camp, Music Camp, Summer Feeding Ministry, and Summer Alternative Worship experiences – and that’s just in the couple of months after General Conference.  We all get to be a part of it.

In this letter I have wanted to inform you, but hopefully not scare you away.  In fact, my hope is the opposite of that. May all the struggles and tensions in our church and in our culture lead us not into a spirit of fear and despair, but into a desire to fulfill the calling God has placed upon us.  May we indeed bear one another in love and express our eagerness to maintain unity in spirit.  The larger church and the world need this witness.  I wholeheartedly believe that God is calling us to lead the way in this community.   May Love Grow Here!!!

Blessings,

Pastor Michael

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. 

Lifestyles, Vows, and Obedience (A response to a comment on my last post)

IMG_4576To my last post I received this anonymous comment: “…YOU want to follow culture, not the Bible. You want to have it your way, rather than work together. YOU want to promote a lifestyle that the Old and New Testaments say are abominable… YOU want to change the Bible to fit the modern world, rather than following the Bible in the modern world. Leave. No one will miss you…” The comment goes on to say that I call those who want to follow 2000 years of precedence “bigots” and those who want to enforce vows as “inquisitional.”

I would like to be wrong, but I’ll assume that this is not satire. Therefore, I want to offer some clarification, seek understanding, and invite others into a different vision, using seven points.

  1. To all who share the views of this comment I want to say, “I would miss you.” As a “centrist” (if we must label) I want to be in a church that honors different perspectives on many issues. This keeps us all humble.  It helps us learn how to love with patience and kindness and without arrogance or insisting on our own way (See I Cor 13).  Giving this witness is so much better than withdrawing into like-minded camps.  This witness, however, does not work if some insist on drawing hard lines that exclude others and don’t allow for other perspectives.
  2. I am not the one who called the traditional plan “inquisitional.” That description came from the Judicial Council. I do believe that it captures the spirit of this plan (with reasons given in the previous post). To not resist the draconian measures of this plan is to put one’s own soul in danger.
  3. I did not use the word “bigot” at all. And I have not heard others use it in this way, even though that is a common accusation. I do believe we can all learn from Wesley’s caution against bigotry. It is a part of our doctrinal standards. Bigotry is an “attachment to, or fondness for, our own party, opinion, church, and religion.” Underlying bigotry is always a form of self-righteousness, that causes us to focus on the outward sins of others while conveniently able to overlook the “subtler, but no less destructive, forms of disobedience” within us. Wesley challenges us to be attentive and open to God’s work in others, especially in those who differ from us in religious opinion or practice.  That glorifies God! (See my post – “Bigotry in the Church”)
  4. To the accusation of promoting a “lifestyle” and following culture, let me say that the only “lifestyle” we are called to promote is faithfulness in Christ. We do not promote a secular or political agenda – as some falsely accuse. As a church we ask: “How do we respond faithfully to anyone who desires to live and grow as a follower of Christ and live in relationships where they can grow in faithfulness and love?  Many of us are asking, “Is it faithful to exclude certain people based solely on the way they identify rather than on their character and calling?”  “Do we welcome some but saying they need to change in ways that we don’t ask others to change?” We want to develop a serious sexual ethic based, not on identity, but on the virtues to which we are all called – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment, and all the characteristics defined by the word love. If we want to talk about “abominations” or “giving into culture” or promoting “lifestyles” that are not of Christ, let’s start with attitudes that cause division, with sexual immorality that objectifies others for personal pleasure, and perhaps with the temptation to judge others as “incompatible” as a way to avoid dealing with our own stuff.  We have the opportunity to give a positive witness to the world, based on the things in which we could all find agreement.
  5. The Bible! In my personal quest for faithfulness I have searched the scriptures and have come to the conclusion that my old traditional perspective, on the issue before us, cannot be maintained without proof-texting, selective literalism, and totally ignoring “guiding passages” that help us interpret the whole – passages centered around what it means to love, with Jesus himself saying that is the key to all scripture. Personally, I cannot see how to affirm the perspective in this comment without abusing what I truly believe to be God’s word.  (If you want to share in this journey there is a whole series called “The Way Forward Bible Study”).  
  6. My personal nightmare! I do fear that there will not be enough voices and votes to overturn this plan that does so much harm. Keeping my vows (in baptism, in marriage, in ordination) demands that I speak. Within these vows there is room for principled disobedience. I am reminded that the word “obedience” comes from the Latin, “to listen.” Obedience is not slavery or compliance.  It means to listen in respect and allow this to influence us. Sometimes listening deeply to some vows challenges others. Right now, there is a movement calling us to reflect more deeply on our baptismal vow to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” That vow has gotten my attention of late.
  7. I invite all who hold to positions found in this comment to open your heart to a new movement of the Holy Spirit. It is spreading as sacred fire. This movement is characterized by hearts expanding to make room for all and by the desire to promote unity in love rather than uniformity by law – by judgment and inquisition. In the light of this calling, perspectives are changing by the minute. You are invited to be a part of it. “Holy Spirit, may this post be an instrument of this light.”

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.