Worshiping at Fairview UMC (after the vote)

I’m sure the saints of heaven smiled as we worshipped yesterday. We came together with a combination of much hurt and hope to sing praise, pray together, say the creed, and hear God’s word read and proclaimed.  A couple of things stood out to me – as the Spirit moved.  I was struck by the altar and how someone had so carefully placed the paraments.  It was an obvious act of holy love. Then, a boy came forward with the light, and after lighting the candles, placed the lighter on a hook that someone had attached to the altar.  It stuck me that someone thought of this, and it had become a part of the tradition in that church. After the service, I told the boy that he did a good job and he said, “I’m good at this.”  He was proud.  I thought of those who missed this beautiful act of worship because of the spirit of division. And I was personally moved to not take joys like this granted.

I was also struck by the service itself.  This was a congregation that had a history of learning how to get along and make room for each other.  This was evidenced by the way we sang hymns and choruses in the same service, with some holding hymnals and others looking at the screen.  In our meeting afterwards, I said “I bet there was a conversation at some point about these things.”  “Oh yes,” they said, “and we worked through it.”  “We would have worked through this as well if we hadn’t been pressured into a vote to divide.” One man lamented, “It just didn’t have to be this way.”

He was right.  I’ve seen it too often – when this process for disaffiliation moves to a vote the outcome is division – of congregations, of friends, even of families.  As one said, “The devil is the only winner.” I would agree, while also affirming that God can work for good even in the midst of this pain.  This group knew that as well.  They are determined to be the church in a community that needs this witness. 

In this case, the vote was to remain UMC. This was a relief to many, but the heartbreak of division was still very real. Many hope that the divisions will not be permanent, and that reconciliation will occur.  They believe that would glorify God.  

And in the midst of all of this, we worshipped.  And yes, I could hear the saints of heaven rejoicing in my spirit and I could sense God’s comforting, healing, life-giving love.  The Holy Spirit was there, perhaps working overtime. Thank you, Fairview UMC in Camden, for your desire to be faithful and fruitful as United Methodist Christians. Seeing this was healing to my heart. 

Hope Through Hurt (First Reflections on My New Role and Disaffiliation) 

On October 1 I started a new appointment as the Director of ReStart Initiative, a cabinet position with the purpose of providing care, support, and help with next-step discernment for all who want to remain United Methodist and who are affected by disaffiliation. Some have asked if I am “excited” about this.  Since every conversation seems to be born in pain and heartbreak, excitement is not the best word.  I have been inspired, however, by the faith of so many who also have hope in the midst of pain and who trust that healing will come.  God is definitely at work!

Here are a few stories from these first weeks that I am holding in my heart.  For the first one, a man came up to me and said, “I just want you to know that I am conservative.”  He then called his wife over and said, “I lean to the right on many things; she leans to the left,” Then he put his arm around her, and said, “Together we make something beautiful.” Even in laughter, a sadness was expressed over how this witness was no longer welcomed in the church they had loved and served for years.  

Another man spoke of his newfound calling to make sure that there would be “a traditional United Methodist Church” in their community.  I was struck by the word “traditional.” To help me understand, he spoke of a church where people come together to worship, to say the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer together (this was important), and where people could have different perspectives on some things but still honor and love one another. He was proud that his church was one of the very few places in town where an openly gay person could serve among them and was, seemingly, much loved.  That all changed in an instant, with a vote.  “So yes,” he said, “I want to help cultivate a traditional United Methodist Church in this community.” 

For one more story, a woman spoke of how her friends are calling and saying, “We didn’t want you to leave. You are one of us.”  With this plea she realized that she could not be a part of a church where “us” meant creating a “them” – where it became okay to objectify others as objects to be feared, as issues rather than people, as agendas rather than members of the Body of Christ. She, and many others, want a church that focuses more on the beliefs and values that are life-giving for all rather than trying to judge some by a different standard and creating an “us and them.” “As I understand it,” she said, “That is just not the way Christ.”

My new “congregation,” so to speak, is made up of many who feel that they have been “disaffiliated” or “exiled” from a church they have loved.  While all might use terms like traditional, moderate, centrist, or progressive to describe a part of their calling, they are also committed to finding community under a higher calling and creed.  The term used most often to describe this is “United Methodist.”   For these beloved souls, this work is not primarily about preserving an institution.  It is about cultivating a way of life, where we are called to love one another with patience, kindness, and a humility that does not insist on its own way.  As the Apostle Paul says, without this we have nothing.  John Wesley called this “true holiness.”  

My job right now is to help cultivate this way of life.  I invite you into this calling as well – and in this invitation I want to also include all who have, or are thinking about, voting for disaffiliation.  There is a more excellent way. 

Wesley on Human Sexuality (and his commentary on often cited verses)

Certain passages keep coming up in our conversations about human sexuality and the future (and possible division) of the church.  Since Wesley’s notes on the New Testament are a part of our doctrine, it might be good to know what he has to say.

One verse from Matthew 19 is often quoted to make a point about marriage. In this passage, Jesus speaks of marriage between one man and one woman, and how the two become “one flesh.” In context, this is an answer to a question about divorce.  The law of Moses gave “men” permission to dismiss a wife for most any cause. Jesus says that this is because of our hardness of heart and calls “men” to a higher standard, with some arguing that this call was given to provide more protection for the wellbeing of women. While Jesus honors this form of marriage in his illustration, the point of his answer, as Wesley says, is not about marriage; it is to speak against two things: polygamy and divorce.

And then things get very interesting. Even after lifting up this high standard, Jesus makes it clear that he is not giving a new law to be enforced. He tells us that not everyone can accept this, but only those who are given the ability to accept it.  Jesus shifts the conversation to those who are not called to marriage in this traditional sense. In this context, he speaks of eunuchs – some who are born this way, some who are made this way, and some who choose this way to glorify God.  The term “eunuch” was used in the ancient world as a euphemism for those who we might call “gay” today. Wesley does not make this connection directly but does tell us that we cannot always take this term literally.  He speaks of those who are eunuchs “by natural constitution, without their choice: to others by violence, against their choice; and to others by grace with their choice.” This is remarkable language, with much to ponder. (Also see notes on Acts 8:27, I Cor 7:7, and Dan 1:3). 

Jesus ends this challenging passage by saying, “Let anyone accept this who can.”  It is with this word that Jesus offers his teaching on marriage, divorce, and the honoring of those who do not, or cannot, enter into a “traditional” marriage.  These are all complex matters that call for much grace.

Next, we turn to verses within the first chapter of Roman that are often cited (Romans 1: 26-27). Wesley points out that this passage is about “abominable idolatries,” where people exchange the truth of God for a lie and worship the creature rather than the creator. The illustration is used of men and women exchanging what is natural for them for what is unnatural for them. From our perspective today, we might say that this is not healthy for any of us.  Whatever else we might say, the illustration is not the point or purpose of the passage.  It is about idolatry that leads to “the vilest abominations.” Wesley lists these abominations in his commentary – Injustice, Unmercifulness, Maliciousness (“a temper that delights in hurting others.”). Whispering (to “defame others.”) and Backbiting (speaking “against others behind their backs.”).  

In terms of sexuality, Wesley puts “fornication” on his list. The Greek word is “pornia” which can be defined as any sexual expression which objectifies self or others. As Wesley says, it is a term that “covers every species of uncleanliness.” By this understanding, this term includes much more than our common definition. In his notes on this passage as a whole, Wesley emphasizes the point that Paul is trying to make.  If we judge others, we only condemn ourselves (Romans 2:1).  This passage is about so much more than what we like to focus upon.   

Next, there are two other passages in Paul’s letters that are often cited, I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-11.  In both of these passages we find a list of vices that do not represent the kingdom.  More specifically, we see a list of certain types of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” – as if they deserve it apart from God’s amazing grace. The lists include idolaters, fornicators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, drunkards, revilers, robbers, murderers, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and all that is contrary to sound teaching.  

The word translated as “male prostitute” in the NRSV, literally means “soft.” In Wesley’s bible it was translated as “effeminate.” This same word is used in the gospels to compare the “soft” or “luxurious” clothing worn by those in royal palaces with the clothes worn by John the Baptist (Mt 11:8; Lk 7:25).  In reference to sex, there is a history of this word being used to describe the passive partner, the effeminate (which was seen as a vice by many). In his notes, Wesley describes those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship.” It is clear that Wesley saw this in a broader way. In other contexts, Wesley uses this same word in a positive light. He calls for a “softening of the heart” and for a “soft and 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 who “quiet turbulent passions” and “soften the minds of contending parties.”  Being “soft” can be a good thing.

As a part of his commentary, Wesley does allude to the common use of this word to describe a particular kind of person. He asks, “How is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites!”  Whoever he has in mind, he struggles with them being on this list. To make sense of this he speculates that we must all guard against sins thought to be the least in order to secure ourselves from the greatest sins. With all of this, it is clear that Wesley sees this notion of “being soft” is a broader context, beyond sex alone, and he also calls us all to look in the mirror. 

The next word on this list is even more challenging. Translated as “sodomites” in Wesley’s day, it is a combination of two words, one meaning “male” and the other meaning “bed.” While very rare in ancient literature, it is mostly seen as a reference to abuse and exploitation of another. In some contemporary translations, it is used to denote the active partner in a same-sex (male) intercourse. In the history of translation, it has also been associated with pedophiles or abuse of boys or children (This is how Luther, for example, translated it).  There is evidence that Wesley defined this word in ways that move beyond sex. In Wesley’s notes on Ezekiel 16:49, he says that the sin of Sodom was “fullness of bread,” “excess in eating and drinking,” and Sodom’s refusal “to help strangers.”  Arrogance, gluttony, and laziness in helping the poor was the source of their fall. Following the message of the prophets, Wesley wants to remind us that “Their doings were abominable, but thine have been worse.” (Note on Ezekiel 16:47).  In other words, when we see this word, we cannot only think of “those people.”  On this whole, this term is used in the context of exploitive, abusive, neglectful, selfish, and harmful behavior, often seen in the context of sexual relationships.

In the last century, this word was sometimes translated with the term “homosexual.”  It is worth noting that this 20th century term was used to denote an official mental disorder.  It was often used to suggest practices that we would all consider “incompatible with Christian teachings.”  The American Psychiatric Association did not fully remove this classification and these associations until 1987.  Because of these associations, we have been asked to stop using this term. It is hurtful and undermines the hopes for a life of faithfulness and love found in many who might be labeled in this way.

According to Wesley, we are to interpret all scripture, especially challenging scriptures, through the grand truths that run through the whole, using passages that “take hold of our conscience.” (See note on Romans 12:6 and Sermons “On Charity and “On Laying the Foundation”).  Jesus himself used this method when he gave us the great commandment to love and called this the summary of all the law and the prophets. Wesley calls this love the “chief of all graces” and the “royal law.”  In addition to the Great Commandment, Wesley also turned to passages like I Corinthians 13 and I John 4 to serve as a lens through which to interpret the whole and be able to “rejoice in the truth.”  These passages express the “grand truths that run through the whole.”  

It is worth noting the connection between love and truth. Biblically speaking, truth is that which reveals God’s love and makes it known. The word itself means “to reveal” or “uncover.” Truth is not rooted in the law. In fact, sometimes the law covers up the truth.  Jesus himself dealt with this. Truth is revealed by love that is patient and kind and does not insist on its own way (I Cor 13:4-7). It is this love that invites all of us to struggle with our own perspectives and prejudices and to be transformed, from one degree to another, into the likeness of Christ. By the practice of this love, truth is made known through us. That is the Wesleyan way.   

 In my mind, Wesley’s willingness to struggle with these texts gives us permission to do so as well. His commentary opens the way for us to acknowledge that we do not fully understand matters of sexual orientation and identity and thus can approach such matters with less judgment and more compassion.  At the same time, we can affirm a strong sexual ethic rooted in the values that are life-giving for all – faithfulness, commitment, and all virtues summed up with the word “love.”  We can focus on these biblical values for all, rather than setting some aside by a different standard.  In this light, it is worth noting that Wesley consistently defined holiness with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility.  May we all aspire to this kind of holiness and to the call to love one another well.

2548.2 “If You Know You Know” or “History with an Eye to the Future”

The adage is true about being doomed to repeat history if we are not aware.  Thanks to a recent podcast hosted by Dr Ashley Boggan Dreff, our General Secretary of Archives and History, light has been shed on how paragraph 2548.2 in the Book of Discipline developed and how it has been used.  As one person said on the floor of the 1948 General Conference, “We all know what this is about,” even though the purpose was never specifically acknowledged. As “white flight” became a reality, this paragraph was added to deal with property where there was no longer a thriving “white” congregation.  Thoughts of revitalization and building diverse communities of faith may have been seeds in the hearts of some but were not a part of the collective hope at the time.  The only lens through which solutions were sought was the lens of segregation and a desire to maintain separation of races.

This paragraph authorized the United Methodist Church to be able to deed property to Pan-Methodist denominations or to other evangelical denominations.  In addition to the UMC, there are five other denominations within the Pan-Methodist Communion, all formed specifically for African Americans.  The largest of these is the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).  While there may be elements of goodness in the motives, this goodness was also mixed with a complicity to sin.  Relational dynamics are still complicated in this way.  What can we learn and how might be grow in ways that glorify God?

Once again, the struggle is between inclusion and separation, only in a different context.  At issue is how we relate to certain persons who want to be a part of the church, who want to make a commitment to the values of the church and want to grow with other in the love of Christ and who might consider themselves a part of the LGBTQ+ community. On one side are those who believe we must approach matters of human sexuality with more humility and less judgment and, when it comes to marriage and relationships, focus on the virtues and values that are life-giving for all. Those calling for separation, want to draw much harder lines around traditional definitions of marriage, not only in terms of the values of faithfulness and love, but also in terms of gender and sexuality. Limiting relationship in this way is not seen as exclusion but as giving witness to what is truly good for all.

Concerning leadership, the lines are similar.  When discerning leadership, some want to focus on call and character, while others want provisions that could keep conversations about calling and character from ever being considered.  How a person looks and identifies is where the first line is drawn.   

Calls for separation come from those who cannot faithfully stay within a denomination that allows others to cross this line.  It is claimed that separation is needed so that all can practice faith in ways that are comfortable for them.  I can hear the line I heard often growing up, “They worship differently than we do.” 

To support the call for separation, some claim that this need for separation is about more than human sexuality.  It is popular to claim deep theological differences, often by highlighting extreme examples and then generalizing these examples to implicate the whole.  It is also interesting how extremes on the other side are ignored.  As we engage in this struggle at Annual Conference, we all need to be assured that there are not major attempts to change our core doctrine.  Doctrine is not what this is about. 

It is interesting how advocates of separation/division/schism have gravitated to this paragraph with such a morally complicated history.  This should give us all pause – first to reflect on what is right – and then to also notice the many other problems with using this paragraph.  Concerning the legislation built upon paragraph 2548.2 that we will likely see at Annual Conference: 1. The paragraph deals with transfer of property from one denomination to another. It does not create a process for congregations to disaffiliate.   2. The legislation binds the authority of the bishop, cabinet, and others listed in the paragraph.  Even if these parties agree, they cannot be bound to act in particular ways by legislation.  3.  The GMC as a denomination is not yet organized.  How can we approve a denomination before it exists and before we know if there will be any mutual recognition? We’ve heard representatives of the GMC say that they cannot enter into a communion agreement with the UMC until they have had a general conference that can make such a decision.  4.  The legislation will likely call for a simple majority vote as a possibility, relying on this paragraph that calls for a majority vote by both denominations (not local congregations).  The Judicial Council has already ruled that any disaffiliation must include approval by a 2/3 majority. (Decision 1379).  This is the standard for important decisions that have such effects on people.  One could point to the GMC Book of Doctrine and Discipline to see how this threshold is used for important decisions. In that book, the threshold of 3/4 is used for some decisions.

As United Methodist we live together under a trust clause that calls us into covenant together and is deeply rooted in our Wesleyan tradition and in scripture.   With this connection, each of us can go into any UMC and say, “I’m a part of this.” “This is my church.”  May we be careful and conservative about how we change this sense of trust and allow our churches to be transferred to another.   With this move we risk leaving whole communities without a United Methodist presence and perhaps without a congregation that represents the values we hold dear. Let us support those, in all congregations, who desire inclusion or are willing to live and worship together in a denomination that supports inclusion – the United Methodist Church. Let us all pause before we give this away.   What is this all really about? 

A Heartbreak Playlist for General Conference

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

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

Under Pressure – David Bowie and Queen

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

What About Us – Pink

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

Say Something – Christina Aguilera

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

Dreaming with a Broken Heart – John Mayer

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

The Heart of the Matter – Don Henley

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

A Heartbreak Playlist

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

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.

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. 

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