Inclusion at the Core of the UMC Constitution and Tradition

IMG_4576With another General Conference quickly approaching, and as a delegate, I have spent some time re-reading our constitution in the Book of Discipline (BOD).  Interestingly, it is all about unity! We see this theme in almost every paragraph.  It is clearly stated that “dividedness” is a hindrance to our witness.  We are called to confess, in humility, our brokenness and seek opportunities for reunion, “in the confident assurance that this act is an expression of the oneness of Christ’s people.”  We are then to “strive towards unity…at all levels of church life.” I wonder how we could have strayed so far?

As a matter of constitutional proclamation, we are also called to work towards inclusion, “without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition.”  Scriptural Unity is not to be found by dividing into like-minded camps or by excluding others.  It is not found in our agreement over things that do not “strike at the root of faith,” but in our coming together in environments where we can practice our calling to love with patience, kindness, humility, and without insisting on our own way. That glorifies God!

The BOD gives us powerful guiding principles for how we can strive for this unity of spirit. Later in the BOD, we are challenged to seek unity in the midst of both continuing “historic tensions” and as “new issues continually arise and summon us to fresh theological inquiry.” In this light, we affirm our rich diversity of perspectives and see this as a sign of health within the Body of Christ.  We affirm that “our faith is enriched by indigenous experiences and manners of expression.” As a guiding principle, in this diversity, we believe that “we are held together by a shared inheritance and a common desire to participate in the creative and redemptive activity of God.” I wonder what conferencing would look like if we were more faithful to this charge?

By taking a small leap, we can also say that inclusion is at the heart of our tradition, defined as the living faith that honors those who have gone before us rather than the dead faith of the living.  With this definition, I do not think we should use the word “traditional” to describe the policy (It is no longer a plan) that is before us.  This policy is built on a mandate to exclude, punish, and strengthen stances that cause harm.  Even the Judicial Council has likened this policy to an “inquisitional court.”   This policy does not honor our living tradition. I would love to re-claim this important word for all of us rather than letting it be co-opted to describe one segment of the church and for the only purpose of judging some among us as incompatible. That seems so unconstitutional to me – not to mention unchristian.

The abuse of the Book of Discipline (BOD) in times of contention is similar to the abuse we see with scripture – proof-texting, selective literalism, and focusing on the letter of the law rather than the spirit.  It is used too often to announce the speck in the eye of some while ignoring the ways that others do not follow our discipline and doctrine.  That list is long for all of us.  We hear cries against disobedience when we could acknowledge that principled resistance is a legitimate approach within our covenant and our democratic process of discernment.  Where some practice this kind of resistance by pushing through a plan known to be unconstitutional, others resist rules and language believed to be exclusionary and incompatible with both the spirit of the BOD and the living tradition of the church,  Our covenant can honor this tension as we continuously strive for unity around the values of faithfulness and love.

Rather than using the BOD against one another, we could see it as a resource to help us build a church that truly glorifies God.  As we approach another General Conference, I would encourage us all to prayerfully read the constitution before we get too involved in all the legislation that will come our way.  There is something to be said about putting first things first.

Impressions from UMC Next (and for Conference Elections)

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

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

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

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

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

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?

A Way Forward Bible Study and Holy Conversation – Session 2, Interpreting Scripture

Here are notes from our second session where we focused less on General Conference and more on who we are called to be as a congregation as we look beyond General Conference.

How many of you have had an experience like this, where you wanted to know God’s will for your life, or to be inspired in some way, so you opened the Bible and tried to find something, but ended up more frustrated than inspired?  Or you made a commitment to read through the Bible, but had trouble understanding what you were reading or found yourself stuck in some way? That’s because this book is complex and difficult to understand as a whole without understanding certain rules for interpretation.  This book is a collection of  history, poetry, prophecy, song , letters, laws, arguments over laws, differing opinions, parables, stories, with some passages that are straightforward, and many that are highly symbolic, all taking place in a culture that is ancient and foreign to us…AND, on the other side, it is experienced as the Word of God, as divinely inspired, as transformative and so we find it extremely and even eternally valuable.  It is so worth the effort and the internal struggle that it creates.  And so, we keep coming back.

Before we look at some key scriptures, I want to talk some about methods for interpreting the scriptures.  The big, seminary-level, word for this is hermeneutics (on screen).  This word describes the systems we use to interpret scripture and draw our conclusions. When we do not have some clarity about what we are reading and how to read it, that’s when we get lost or come to decisions that may not be the most faithful and fruitful.  Here are a couple of popular hermeneutical methods.

Proof-Texting.” Have you heard this term?  This is a very common method for interpreting scripture.  Proof-texting is when we search for scriptures to prove an opinion.

The next one is a more positive variation of this method. I call it a focus on Devotional Verses.  This is where we focus on key verses for inspiration and guidance.  Employing this method, we focus on parts not the whole – key verses that speak to us.  This method can be very helpful.  At the same time, some caution is in order. Concerning our topic, a version of this method can be used to say that something is right or wrong.   Someone might say, “The Bible says,” and then quote a verse as if that settles it.  Then, perhaps, they can walk away feeling righteous without noticing how hurt others might be, or without dealing with all the other verses that might lead to a different or transformed perspective.  We might think that we are glorifying God by upholding some ideal, and in reality, cause deep hurt to individuals and to the body of Christ.

To avoid this kind of harm, and to open ourselves up to true inspiration, we need a deeper hermeneutic or method of interpretation.  Here are some key principles of what I call a Wesleyan Hermeneutic:

  1. All Scriptures are Inspired. We proclaim that all scriptures are inspired and contain all that is necessary for growth in salvation. The Bible is our primary source for understanding who we are called to be.
  2. There are Scriptural Keys to Help us to Interpret the Whole. There are key scriptures that help us interpret all other scriptures. We can call these “Master Texts” or Hermeneutical “Keys” that open up meaning within the scripture – and help us make determinations about what might be historically conditioned, or how to discern deeper truths beyond the words, or how to make decisions between different perspectives within the scriptures themselves (and yes, the scriptures are full of different perspectives). It is worth noting that Jesus used this principle when he summarized all of the law and prophets with the Great Commandment – Love God and Love your neighbor as a part of yourself.  Wesley, following Jesus’ lead, called this love the “royal law.”  So, for example, Jesus could fulfill the law, even as he broke the law or rebelled against the way the law had been applied around issues related to the Sabbath, to diet, to healing, to who could or could not be touched, to who to include.  His guiding light was the “royal law of love.” And we could list other passages that serve as keys for us.  Last week we looked, for example, at Ephesians 4:1-6 and I Corinthians 13: 1-8. (See Authority of Scripture, A Wesleyan Hermeneutic, and the Way Forward, for a deeper explanation).
  3. Read with Resources. Resources are needed and helpful — commentaries, language studies, interpretations from the tradition. As Methodists we “believe that the living core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture, illuminated by Tradition, vivified in personal Experience, and confirmed by Reason.”  We call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  To make a connection with our topic, we might use this principle to ponder a distinction between marriage and unions/covenants. Would it be possible to honor and bless unions of anyone who desires to practice faithfulness and grow in the virtues of love, while also honoring the historic meaning of the term marriage?  How might we apply scriptures to honor the diverse perspective within the body of Christ and actually grow in our ability to love one another?  There are so many resources to help us.
  4. Behavior over Beliefs. Beliefs are so important, but the Holy Spirit is more concerned with behavior and using scriptures as a guide for how we treat one another. In the midst of our denominational struggle, I have heard many say that they have not made a decision because they are hoping for the Holy Spirit to show up and guide us into the right policy or plan.  I see this a bit differently.  As a Wesleyan, I am not focused on the Holy Spirit showing up with some extraordinary sign (Wesley talked a lot about this).  I am interested in the ordinary everyday calling to represent God with patience, gentleness, humility, bearing one another in love, and being eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.  I might say that the Holy Spirit enjoys our variety of perspectives and is likely to not give us a uniformed perspective, because the point of it all is how we love one another.  The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  Even in the scriptures we see so much diversity of perspective.  The scriptures do not give us uniform opinions but does give us a common calling.  We need to be the church that focuses on that.  Applying this principle, we could focus on behaviors around issues of human sexuality and give priority to the virtues that we want to promote – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, treating others with honor without objectifying them or using them only for our pleasure, and all the virtues of love. This level of consideration gets lost in the debate because the focus is on the physical dimension of sexual practice.
  5. Here are a couple of other principles, (briefly): “Discernment happens best in Community.” We engage in life together, not to come to agreement but to learn how to live as the body of Christ with all its blessed diversity. And for one more, “Our Calling is to Self-Examination over Judgement of Others.”  Often when we engage the scriptures and truly practice holy conversation with others, we learn a lot more about our own prejudices and need for transformation than we do about what others might need or about how they should live.

At our tables, I want us to have some conversation around these principles using three passages that are not directly connected to the issue but speak to who we are called to be.  I will read them with some commentary and then we will discuss them at tables and as a larger group, asking: Why is this in the Bible? What are some different ways to interpret this passage? How can we apply it today?  What does this passage say about who we are?”

Genesis 11:1-9 – The Tower of Babel

  • This passage is given the context of God calling the people to scatter and fill the earth…
  • They want uniformity and safety, and it leads them to do some stupid things…
  • Note their use of inadequate resources – baked mud and tar, instead of stone and mortar.
  • Note their arrogance, believing that they made it to heaven and how God has to come down to see this tower.

Luke 4: 16-30 – Jesus in his Home Town

  • Highlight dimensions of purpose he is given.
  • The people are pleased, until he mentions God’s work through foreigners. With this they are enraged…

Ephesians 2: 14-22 – Christ is our Peace

  • The word peace or shalom is about coming together and practicing faith together.
  • Here God’s people are called back together, to give witness to God in a new way…

As a report, the conversation of the 80 people in the room was lively and inspiring.  When we came back together, one of our youth acknowledged the diversity of views within the room, even on the issues at hand, and called us to stay united around something bigger. Another highlighted how stupid we can act when there isn’t someone to say, “Hey, maybe there’s another way to do this.”  One pointed out how diversity is healthy in all ecosystems.  One reflected on how hard it is to change – to “scatter,” to appreciate new “languages” — and yet that is what we are called to do.  One reflected on how Jesus walked away and how he might do that with us if we fail to listen or become enraged by his challenge.  In our current political climate, the need to break down walls and build diverse communities of peace did not go unnoticed, although when I picked the scriptures I was narrowly focused on issues within the church and did not make this connection.  Maybe that was the Holy Spirit at work.

Next week we will apply these methods to some of the texts that are used in the debate before us, with emphasis on Romans 1. 

A Higher Unity: Why I Support the One-Church Plan

IMG_4576I WANT TO SUPPORT OUR EPISCOPAL LEADERSHIP  

After prayerful deliberation, our bishops have voted overwhelmingly to share the work done by the Way Forward Commission on three different plans and to recommend the One-Church Plan.  In the last few days I have heard some strong criticism of this recommendation, including characterizations that our Bishops were motivated by pride, ignorance, contempt, and willful disrespect of others.  I do not believe such attacks are helpful.  I believe that working for unity is a primary charge for our episcopal leaders, and I thus want to honor them for their sincere and prayerful efforts.  I also want to open my heart to the possibility that the Holy Spirit is involved in this proposal.

I WANT A CHURCH THAT OFFERS A PLACE TO ALL

At our impasse, I seek a plan that respects those who approach this issue wanting to uphold traditional views of family and marriage, and that allows us to acknowledge the scriptural support for this perspective.  At the same time, I seek a plan that has empathy for those who struggle, often in deeply personal and painful ways, and have come to understand that they do not fit within the traditional definition of “normal,” and yet they love God, want to live in community within the congregation, and want to have relationships where they can make commitments, practice faithfulness, and grow in the virtues of faith.  The challenge for those on the ‘progressive side’ is to respect those who value traditional views of family and marriage, and in a spirit of humility and love, to not support any position where this perspective was deemed unacceptable. The challenge to those on the more ‘traditional’ side is to acknowledge that there is room for faithful and biblical interpretations that would open the way for inclusion in the church for those who claim a part of their identity with the letters LGBTQ, and at the same time, want to make commitments that will lead them into increasing faithfulness and fruitfulness to God.  In support of this plan, there are those on both sides who are willing to find unity in a higher calling and deeper biblical values.  Personally, in the hope of truly honoring these positions, I would want to include a discussion about using alternative terms for marriage, such as unions.  The One-Church Plan would allow for such conversations.

I WANT TO WORK TOWARDS A SEXUAL ETHIC WORTHY OF SHARING AND PROCLAIMING

While I support the notion of unity not uniformity, faithfulness does demand some agreement and a unified vision. It cannot be “anything goes.”  If we are willing to do the work, I believe we could find much agreement for a strong sexual ethic rooted in support for monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, not using others as objects for our pleasure but seeing them as persons worthy of honor, and heavy doses of grace and forgiveness.  Concerning marriage, Wesley focused on the purpose of this institution.  The first purpose is to “repair the species,” or reproduction.  The second is to “further holiness.”  Marriage is intended to tame, rather than enflame, our passions.  When Wesley defines holiness he almost always uses the virtues of patience, humility, gentleness, and above all, love.  What if we worked together to promote relationships where these values could grow?  The One Church Plan makes this challenging and potentially fruitful conversation possible.

I WANT TO PROMOTE UNITY AT A HIGHER LEVEL

In this struggle, much is made about one side accommodating to culture or to the “prevailing winds of doctrine,” as Paul says in Ephesians 4.  With this critique, I believe we all need to notice the board in our own eye.  Such accommodating to the world could be described in terms of divisiveness, polarization, blaming others, name-calling, an us-them mentality, building up by putting down, seeing lies as truth, and claiming righteousness for ourselves. We see a lot of this kind of accommodating and our witness suffers greatly.  In Ephesians 4, Paul calls us to unity at a higher level – into one church with one Lord who is above all, in all, and through all.  In this passage, we are called to grow up in every way into Christ, to be equipped for the work of ministry through a variety of gifts, and to build up the whole body in love.  Paul starts this passage by begging us to do this by living a certain way – with humility, patience, gentleness, bearing one another in love, and eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.  Such virtues would not be necessary if there were not always going to be different perspectives among us.  On many things, we will not agree, but we can always learn how to practice this kind of faithfulness with one another.  The hope is that our multitude of perspectives will be “joined and knit together” in love.  That glorifies God.

I WANT TO PROMOTE A HIGH VIEW OF SCRIPTURE

I believe the scriptures reveal the inspired word of God.  I believe the scriptures come to life as people engage them in relationship and sacred conversation.  We often do not get clear and easy answers but must struggle with the tensions, ambiguities, and different perspectives within the scriptures themselves.  This is an honest assessment, beyond the catch phrases used to stir emotions. Faithfulness moves us beyond proof-texting and using scripture to affirm our prejudices and opinions.  While this deserves more explanation, I believe we are called to continuously engage in a “hermeneutic of struggle” – building upon the meaning of the name “Israel” – where we honor the whole, notice the context, explore the history, and see God’s intended message, not necessarily in the words but through them in community and as we seek to be faithful in our time and place. I believe we must look to “master text” to guide us and help us interpret scripture – text like the summary of all the law and the prophets offered by Jesus.  In this light, I would say that there are faithful interpretations of scripture on the issues at hand that do not agree.  This truth beckons us to sit at the table together and struggle through, as we learn how to love one another.  It is not the easy way, but it is God’s calling upon us.  I believe that the saints of heaven rejoice when we commit to this holy work of opening the bible together and discerning God’s higher calling upon us.

I WANT TO BE ON THE ‘RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY’ AND THE ‘RIGHT SIDE OF ETERNITY’

Another popular buzz-phrase in this tension is “right side of history” vs. “right side of heaven.”  I do not believe these are mutually exclusive.  I believe in the incarnation and in the Holy Spirit and thus believe that God is involved in history and in our lives. So, as a Christian, I do want to be on the right side of history.  I also believe “pleasing God” involves “pleasing” others, at the deepest level of their souls. These are not mutually exclusive.  We are called to cultivate communities and relationships where we can come to know Christ and Christ’s love, not on our terms, but where each can grow in their relationship with God – often requiring us to be humble enough to refrain from judgment and opening our own souls to how God is at work in ways that we don’t understand.   That leads to transformation and to our hearts expanding with God’s love.  The One-Church Plan gives us the best possibility of working incarnationally and to be attentive to the Holy Spirit at work in all of us to unite us and our many gifts as a witness to a world in need.

I WANT TO CONTEND FOR GRACE AND TRUTH

This phrase is often used to suggest that some want grace without truth. I do not know anyone who makes this case, so I’m not sure it is a fair characterization.  From the scriptures we can make a case that truth runs deeper than rules, external conditions, or hard lines in the sands.  Truth is “revealed” or “disclosed” (which is what the Greek work literally means) in actions that are life-giving and bear good fruit.  When we talk about truth, we can talk about behavior as true or deceptive. John Wesley says that the essence of holiness is truth and love united together.  To paraphrase, he says that the truth of God’s love is first planted in our hearts and then this truth is revealed through our “humble, gentle, patient love for all.”  Biblical truth is about what God does for us and wants for us. This truth then transforms the way we treat one another.  At one point, Wesley used Nathanael as an example of this holiness – as one who does not operate with guile, cunning, deceit, or selfish desire.  Conversely, he is an example of one who is honest, transparent, open, or in a word, true. At one point in the Gospel of John, Jesus calls the evil one “the father of lies.”  Evil and deception go together.  Lies destroy and divide. Truth unites and brings life to relationships.  In this sense, truth is revealed as we find ways to love even those with whom we disagree.  This is hard, if not impossible, without the Holy Spirit.  The One-Church Plan gives us the opportunity to grow in grace and truth.

I WANT TO PROMOTE WESLEYAN HOLINESS  

It has been said that this is a debate between competing views of holiness.  This is puzzling to me because Wesley offers such clarity about what holiness is and is not. In defining holiness, Wesley consistently uses the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness, and lists the opposite of holiness with words like pride and haughtiness, passion, judgment of others, and zeal for our own righteousness.  Holiness is not found in anything “external to the heart” (an important phrase) but in what God plants in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. In describing holiness, we can imagine a series of concentric circles. At the core is the truth of God’s love which fills the “whole heart,” and “reigns without rival.”  In the next circle, “nearest the throne,” are all holy tempers “comprised in the mind of Christ” – patience, gentleness, humility, faithfulness, temperance, to name a few. In the next circle are “works of mercy,” and then, one step out, are “works of piety.”  After we have attended to these levels, we move outward in mission to “effectually provoke” one another to love, to the holy virtues, to good works, and to unity as the body of Christ.  Holiness, for Wesley, is faith working for love.  God’s love comes first and then we are able to give our lives to growing in this love and sharing this love in the world. I believe the One-Church Plan offers us the best opportunity, at this point, to embrace this understanding of holiness.  We need each other, in our diversity of faithful perspectives, to practice holiness of heart and life.  By focusing on the judgment of things “external to the heart,” and by dividing the church into “us and them,” we nullify true holiness.

I WANT US TO CLAIM THE VIRTUE OF PATIENCE

“We’ve been patient long enough.”  “It is time to make a decision.”  These statements echo throughout 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 much 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 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 can 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.”  This is our witness to the world.  The One-Church Plan provides us the opportunity to continue in holy patience, a practice that will be needed as long as we are bound to the world.

I WANT PASTORS WHOSE CALL HAS BEEN CONFIRMED BY THE CHURCH

Concerning ordination, there is nothing in this plan to keep Conferences from setting standards beyond the standards set by the Discipline.  The plan allows us to trust the Holy Spirit and the process.  Personally, I believe the first priority is to discern God’s calling and signs of fruitfulness in ministry. Secondly, I would not want to ordain someone who made their own sexuality an agenda or their personal lives the focus on their ministry.  Pastors submit their personal lives to a higher calling.  Thirdly, issues of appointability are not new. Boards of Ordained Ministry, Bishops and Cabinets already deal with this at many levels – divorce, multiple-marriages, violations of covenant and repentance, and to be totally honest, questions still arise about ethnicity, gender, language, theological orientation, and basic supply and demand with the Conference. The messiness of relationships and ordination is already there.  May the Holy Spirit be involved and may hearts be open to what God can do through those who have the treasure of God’s grace within these flawed, fragile, and finite “earthen vessels,” to use a phrase from the Apostle Paul.

FINALLY, I WANT TO SAY THAT I MAY BE WRONG

It is very possible that some or all of this perspective is flawed.  Behind it is a desire to err on the side of grace, even as I hope God will do the same for me.  It may be that some actions are just wrong, even in the context of a desire to grow in faithfulness and fruitfulness. Maybe we should draw hard lines in the sand and make such judgments.  Or, maybe that is wrong and leads to much harm.  The plan proposed by our Bishops, as I see it, gives the possibility for all of us to embrace the gift of humility, where we can continue to share communion with one another, and to invite the Holy Spirit to work through us as we engage in the on-going struggle to live faithfully and fruitfully, all to the glory of God.   That’s my hope as I invite others to give support as we develop this together – hopefully for years to come.

Wesley and the Effeminate (Part two in a Series on Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576In the previous post, I looked at key scriptures used to inform our current debate over same-sex relationships in the church. As a part of that post, another question surfaced for me: Did John Wesley have anything to say about this?  Are there any direct references in this in the Standard Sermons or Notes on the Scriptures (which are part of our doctrine)?  I did discover help here – and shared some of that in the previous post.  With the next few posts, I will focus in more detail on some key words and concepts.  First, I will explore the use of the word “effeminacy.” In following posts, I will explore his understanding of sodomy, marriage/divorce/singleness, the “vilest abominations,” holiness, and we’ll see from there.  First up – the “effeminate.”

On several occasions, Wesley uses the word “effeminate.” He is not above using this word in a culturally-conditioned derogatory way.  He often combines this word with the word “soft” or “weak.” He talks, for example, about how great confusion comes from “weak and effeminate” rulers.  He compares effeminacy in a man to arrogance in a woman. He speaks against wearing clothes that might “confound those sexes which God hath distinguished,” except if one needs to do this to “escape for one’s life.”  In these passages, Wesley is mostly addressing men. He does not appear to have the same concern for women. While ahead of his time, he was still part of a radically paternalistic culture.

The most relevant passage for this topic is his commentary on I Corinthian 6:9. Here the Apostle Paul gives a list of sins. The word translated “effeminate,” by the King James and by Wesley, is one that has caused wide debate among biblical scholars, with little consensus across various languages.  The word literally means “soft” and is used, even in scripture, to describe the weak, luxurious, or self-indulgent (See Matt 11:8, for example).  In Wesley’s day, it might have been used as a euphemism for the “soft” or submissive partner in a same-sex relationship, as oppose to the aggressor or abuser (which is the next word). In this light, it has also been translated as “male prostitution.” (In the NRSV, for example).  Many scholars, however, point to evidence (even in scripture) of it being used more broadly, beyond a sexual context.

In his commentary of this passage from First Corinthians, Wesley seems to have a particular type of person in mind.  He asks, “How is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites!”  He concludes that we are never secure from the greatest sins when we do not guard against those which are thought to be the least.  That’s his assessment of this word in this context.

Looking beyond this usage, Wesley uses the same word to point to sin beyond sexuality. Frequently, he uses this word to speak of those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross.”  He uses this word to denote spiritual softness or weakness. He calls us to be aware of our temptation “to sloth, indolence, love of ease, softness, delicacy; to hatred of self-denial, and taking up our cross.”  Wesley’s default is to first call us to self-examination.   He clearly sees this word in a broader context, calling all of us to look in the mirror.

In this analysis we are faced with a stereotypical view of women and men that does not match with our modern sensibilities. Wesley’s general attitude towards all thing s“effeminate” was colored by the times in which he lives.  At the same time, there is evident for some struggle with these views, especially when it comes to women being able to provide ministry and even preach.  For example, Wesley notices that women can exhibit “strong faith,” and he see this as evidence for the transforming power of Christ, enabling women to “overcome their natural fearfulness” and “great disadvantage, as having less courage than men.” This illustration would be offensive today, if it were not put in historical and cultural context.

At the same time, we must note the positive way in which Wesley uses the word “soft.” He was a strong advocate of “softness of the right kind” – softness that yields compassion, mercy, and kindness. He calls for a “softening of the heart” and for a “soft, yielding spirit.”  In his commentary of the phrase “Love is kind,” he describes “kindness” with the word “soft.” He also says that peacemakers are those able to “quiet turbulent passions” and “soften the minds of contending parties.”  This kind of softness is a sign of true religion, and we see this word used over and over again in this way.

In our current debate, I wonder what it would mean if we were more committed to “holy softness.”  In a great line, Wesley reminds us that “Love (and only love) can soften and melt and pierce and break an adamantine heart.” I had to look up the word “adamantine.”  It means to be adamant (duh)– inflexible, unyielding, rigid. In contrast to the negative use of the “effeminate,” we might use the word “masculine” here.  What would our witness be if we spent less time on securing our place and power within “contending parties,” and more time being peacemakers in the most holy of senses?  What if we focused first on giving witness to the softer virtues of patience, kindness, gentleness, bearing one another in love and being eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace? (Eph 4:1-3). In the midst of our disagreements, which we will always have, what if our first desire was to learn how to love one another better in the midst of community?  Is this not at the very heart of Christian holiness? A strong case can be made for Wesley shouting “yes.”

Personally, I’m just not willing to throw in the towel and give up on the spiritual strength it would take for us to meet in the middle where true love is possible, where we could truly give witness to the kin-dom of God, where we could hold up the cross together.  Anything other than this is weakness and softness that will never glorify God.

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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.