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?

Way Forward Bible Study Notes – Session 3

For the next two weeks we are going to address some of the more controversial passages that get used frequently in the midst of this struggle.  Sometimes these passages are called “clobber texts,” because they are used to “clobber” people – to judge them or call them to true righteousness as we see it.  And then, there are those who interpret these passages differently and use them to “clobber” back – and back and forth it goes.  I am absolutely convinced (and convicted) that there is a more faithful and fruitful way to read these passages. These words are not weapons. So, we are going to see if we can read them to help us build up rather than tear down, unite rather than divide, and heal rather than harm – as God intends.

We will start with Romans 1:18-2:1. I’m going to read the whole passage, then make a few comments about how this passage is used and sometimes abused, and then invite you into a conversation.

Commentary: 

This passage is part of a larger discourse, where Paul argues that we are all guilty, none are righteous, “not even one,” he says.  Here is a key verse: “Since we all fall short of the glory of God, we are now justified by his grace, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  (Rom 3:23). And then Paul goes on to reveal this grace.  He makes the case that to grasp God’s life-giving amazing grace, we first must see our need for it. We can’t measure up to God’s love by our own work; we cannot justify or save ourselves.  To try is to only bring God down to ourselves.  If it is up to us to align ourselves to God, then our only option is to bring God down to our level…

In these verses, the clear backdrop is some kind of idolatrous worship practices. Idolatry (or the worship of idols) is defined as the worshiping of the creature or creation rather than the creator.  It is exchanging the truth for lies.  Perhaps one way to explain Idolatry is to note that it starts with “I.” Idolatry is the effort to manipulate spiritual forces to get our own way.  That’s what Paul is talking about here.

Idolatry is an “abomination.”  And that’s an important biblical word here.  An abomination is something that is unnatural – like the abominable snowman.  An abomination is something unnatural and offensive.  And this brings us to the verses that are most often used in the struggle to discern matters of human sexuality.

Our exchanging truth for lies and devotion to God for devotion to the world is as unnatural for us as exchanging what is natural for us when it comes to sexual attraction with what would be unnatural, and yet, because of sin, we do this so easily.

It is an illustration, not the point.  But many make it the point.  They stop here and say, “See, same-sex intimacy, in any form, is a distortion of God’s purpose and design for us.  It is an abomination.  End of story.”  And then, others will say “See. Paul didn’t understand same-sex attraction in the way we do today.  It is not a choice, and Paul is right, none of us should exchange what is natural for us and engage in behaviors that are unnatural for us.  That would be wrong.”  On this side, it is pointed out that the assumption here is that heterosexuals are exchanging what is natural for them for something unnatural, and that the context is probably some kind of pagan ritual to appease the gods.  So, we have two sides focused on these few verses to make a point, or to “clobber” the other side.

Paul’s whole point is that this is not the point. We can’t stop here. Paul gives a long list of “unnatural” acts (abominations) that are against the will of God — envy, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, insolence (or being disrespectful), boastfulness (arrogance where we build ourselves up by putting others down), foolishness, disobedience, and “all manner of wickedness” or “etc” (v.28-31). All of these acts and attitudes point to a disorientation of life and lead us into lies.  The big point is that no one has escaped the reality of sin.  We are all in need of grace.  And so, Paul concludes this section by saying, “Therefore you (earlier he said “they;” now we know that we are included in the “they”) have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing.” (2:1).

For our purposes here, we must conclude that using this passage to judge others is to totally pervert God’s word.  This is an example of exchanging truth for a lie.  This is an example of us creating God in our image and using God to justify our own prejudices and desires.  We are all called into a bigger reality where we can all be transformed by grace.

Holy Conversation

So, now I want to read it again, and then have you discuss around the tables, with these questions to spark your conversation.  Where do we see ourselves in this passage? What are we really not supposed to do?  And how might we turn that into a statement about what we should do as people of faith and as the church? (If you need help re-read Eph 4:1-6, or Romans 12:9-18, or Gal 5:22-23, or Col 3:12-14, for starters).

A Report of Conversations

As a report, there were rich conversations around the tables and then in the larger group.  One of our youth asked about free-will, referencing how God allows all this to happen.  I responded with an affirmation that God does allow us to try out forms of idolatry, but never abandoned us and is able to use even our sinfulness to bring us back into grace.

One table turned to Colossians 3 to help answer the questions.  Here we see back to back lists of what not to do and what to do.  The list of “don’t” is similar to the list in Romans – anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, lying.  We are then invited to “clothe ourselves,” as God’s beloved, with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and above all love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  Note how similar this is to the list we used from Ephesians 4.  Our calling is to behave in holy ways, more than it is to believe certain things about how others should live.

Many have used this passage to define sin for others in an effort to uphold God’s standard and combat immorality in the world.  I would agree that this passage helps us in this effort, but only as we look at the whole and at ourselves as well.  It does not serve the cause of Christ well – to pick out verses to use as weapons in defense or condemnation of an “agenda” or “lifestyle” of others.  Our concern is how to respond faithfully to anyone who comes and says, “I want to live in relationship with Christ, and practice faithfulness and commitment even when sacrifice is required. I want to live in a relationship where I can cultivate the love of Christ. Will the church help me do that?”  That’s our “agenda.” Perhaps if we focused more on promoting this life-giving way of relating to one another, we might get a lot more interest from people who are searching for something more.   I believe that would glorify God.

Stopping the Slippery Slope (and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576It was a shocking realization while sitting at a district gathering to discuss the various plans for the Way Forward.   I purposely set next to one of our youth who had recently come out and was now invested in the discussion in a new way.  At the table, a man launched into prepared talking points.  At the heart of his argument was the popular “slippery slope.”  “If we allow this,” he said, “what’s next? – polygamy, bestiality? Sex with animals, is that where this is leading?” He did not seem to be aware of the pain caused around the common table. Since then I have heard this talking point many times and have tried to think through it more deeply.

To start with, it is good to realize that actions have consequences; it is wise to think through possible outcomes.  This, however, is very different from the “slippery slope” argument, where harmful consequences are assumed.   In thinking through outcomes, it is helpful to reflect on the lens through which the issue is framed.  If seen through a “libertarian” agenda, promoting individual freedom with no interference from any outside entity, then a case can be made for the slippery slope.  If we give one freedom, then that might slip to giving another.  There are those who are promoting an agenda through the lens of individualism, but that is not the lens of the church.  It is an act of deception to lump me, and a multitude within the church, into this perspective.  The faithful church does not frame this issue through the lens of individual freedom but through the lens of wanting to cultivate life-giving relationships with God and others, relationship built upon the values we all hold dear – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, and opportunities to grow in the biblical virtues of patience, gentleness, and forgiveness, among others. This is the biblical language, by the way, that supports the one plan that would make it possible for some in the church to focus on these virtues over base sexuality.  Through the lens of promoting life-giving relationships, the concern becomes what we say to anyone who says, “I want to give my life to Christ and live in a relationship where I can grow in the love of Christ.”  In working with anyone, wherever they are, to respond to this desire, the “slip” is more likely to be into something that will truly glorify God.  If we focused our energy here, there might be a lot more people wanting to know more about the love we preach.

Because of sin in the world, harm may come within relationships — there is no doubt — but this harm is not a direct result of people wanting to be treated with respect and to be able to love others with the blessing of the church.  Granted, this blessing cannot be cheapened.  The blessing includes the cultivation of the virtues meant to under-gird all life-giving relationships.   When we fail to cultivate these virtues then we indeed water down the gospel – but perhaps not as much as those who are using this harmful argument.

This slippery slope argument is an official fallacy.  In other words, it promotes falsehood. It causes harm.  It vilifies others to create fear and doubt. It assumes negative outcomes without any thought to other possibilities. That’s where the argument itself “slips.” I do wonder – are the spiritual consequences worth the desired end?  What if we came together to discern a higher “end” or “purpose” and worked together from there?  That, I trust, would truly glorify God.

The Truth about the Very Traditional One Church Plan

IMG_4577At our District-Wide Charge Conference, the three plans from The Way Forward Commission were presented in bullet points. This presentation directly following the FAQ that we were recently given. I want to speak directly to the bullet points used to outline the One Church Plan.

The first bullet point, as presented, was about how this plan removes current language about the practice of homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching.”  That’s all that was said. While the plan removes language, it does not add language to imply that the opposite is true.  In fact, it immediately “adds language that intentionally protects the religious freedom of all who choose not to perform or host same-sex weddings….”  The point is repeatedly made that conferences, bishops, congregations, and pastors will not be compelled to act contrary to their convictions. This is the second sentence in the summary of the plan.  After this point is made, the plan “offers greater freedom to many who desire change but do not want to violate the Book of Discipline.”

The second bullet point, as presented, states that this plan changes the definition of marriage. This popular talking point is a mischaracterization of the plan itself.  Here are the actual statements in the plan: “We affirm the sanctity of the monogamous marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity, traditionally understood as a union of one man and one woman.“ Throughout this plan, the default position is traditional marriage. It does not mandate a change.  The plan repeatedly affirms “those who continue to maintain that the Scriptural witness does not condone the practice of homosexuality.”  It continuously concedes to those who have a more traditional perspective.

Here is another key statement from the plan: “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of the sacred gift.  Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous marriage between two adults.”  Here the phrase “two adults” is not a change in definition but an acknowledgement that the church affirms sexual relations in a monogamous relationship and only among adults.  In this statement, the phrase “two adults” is not the subject.  To make this the main point is a misrepresentation and ignores the important and primary point being expressed – a point that would serve us well if it was to become our shared emphasis.

If I am reading the right document (and I had to question this based on the bullet points), there is only one place where the phrase “two adults” is used in connection with a definition of marriage.  Read it carefully: “Where laws in civil society define marriage unions between two adults, no United Methodist clergy shall be required to celebrate or bless a same sex union.” Again, every possible concession is given to the traditional perspective. In another place the plan changes the language from “heterosexual marriage” to “monogamous marriage.” One more time — this does not mandate a change in the definition of marriage but rather affirms the biblical principles of monogamy, mutual support, and shared fidelity over promoting an agenda about sexual identity.  What is wrong with promoting biblical values?  And, by the way, the plan includes pages of biblical and theological foundations, worthy of our attention as we seek holy discernment.

The third bullet point, as presented, “gives pastors the authority to perform same gender weddings.”  First of all, the correct language in the plan is “same sex” not “same gender.” Next, throughout the plan the default position is that a congregation will not perform or host such a ceremony unless the church intentionally votes to changes its wedding/union policy. This is the only time a vote would be needed by a congregation. Thus, the plan does not give a pastor this authority, at least not as a representative of the congregation or within a church, without explicit consent.

The next two bullet points, as presented, were about protecting the “rights” of pastors and bishops to not conduct “same gender” weddings or ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”  First of all, the language of “rights” is not a part of the plan except when it comes to due process. Secondly, in the actual document, this point is made much earlier and clarified in multiple places, as we have already seen. It is not an afterthought. These protections are woven into the whole plan, while also wanting to provide “a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context without disbanding the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church.”

I must concede how hard it is to present these three plans in a way that “just gives the facts.” I respect the attempt. At the same time, I hope that we will all dig a little deeper.  These bullet points do not tell the whole story and, by themselves, can too easily cultivate a false narrative. I’m afraid that they push proverbial buttons that keep people from giving it a fair hearing.  With the stakes so high, I hope we can do better.

 

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)