Tuesday, January 07, 2020

A Season to Shine - My Initial "Protocol" Thoughts

On Friday, January 4, news broke of a new proposal to be presented to the United Methodist General Conference. The proposal came from a task force of sixteen United Methodists from a diverse array of groups within the denomination. The people were not necessarily leaders of the groups, or even representing the groups per se, but they were certainly members. The groups in question reflect the theological diversity of our denomination, from conservative to progressive and everything in between.

The proposal, known as the “Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation,” will be presented to the United Methodist Judicial Council for a declaratory ruling as to its constitutionality. Then it will be presented to the General Conference for consideration, potential amendment, and a vote. And so, while the content of the Protocol sounds quite dramatic, as of now it is a vision, not a plan of action.

The vision is a way for the United Methodist Church to remove our prohibitions on marriage and ordination for our sisters and brothers who are LGBTQ+. In doing so, the Protocol creates a way to leave the United Methodist Church and start a new denomination that would neither allow same-sex weddings nor ordain people of the LGBTQ+ community.

Following this separation, the United Methodist Church would convene another General Conference for the purpose of removing the prohibitions on same-sex weddings and ordination of people in the LGBTQ+ community. Everything else that the United Methodist Church does will remain the same at this point, though all acknowledge that further reform is required in order for the denomination to flourish as God intends.

Importantly, everyone would remain in the UMC unless choosing to leave, and the Protocol calls for the Annual Conference to decide first. In other words, if an Annual Conference wants to stay in the UMC, no vote will be required. At an Annual Conference session, if 20% of the delegates want to vote, we will. Then, if 57% of the delegates want to separate (obviously a number reached by compromise) we would do so. Annual Conferences would have until July 1, 2021 to make this decision.

After the action of the Annual Conference, congregations would respond. If the congregation aligns with the decision of the Annual Conference, no vote is needed. (For example, if Missouri decides to remain United Methodist, then all of our congregations remain United Methodist.) However, if a congregation wants to affiliate with a denomination other than the one chosen by their Annual Conference, the church council would determine the vote threshold required, and a church conference would be convened to hold the vote. Congregations would have until December 31, 2024 to make this decision.

At this point, we are all asking questions about the implications of this proposal. It is good to prayerfully and faithfully speculate about the future, as long as doing so does not make us fearful or anxious. The Holy Spirit is on the move within us, around us, among us. God is truly doing a new thing. Seasons of uncertainty are also seasons of great promise and possibility. The words of Jesus give assurance: “Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Manchester UMC is in a position to be a leader in the denomination for such a time as this. Again I hear Jesus saying to us, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

This is not a time to dim our light, Manchester. This is a time to shine even more brightly. To shine with the God-given light of the Holy Spirit reflected in our lives. To shine with the light of our vision, to be an inclusive community of people who love deeply, worship passionately, and serve boldly. To shine through our mission to make a difference for Christ by transforming church and community.

Church, this is a season to shine!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

"Even Mine"

Many Methodists know that John Wesley had an experience in which his "heart was strangely warmed." It was a conversion of sorts, a moment of awareness of the divine.

Not as many Methodists realize that the moment happened in 1738, when he was 35 years old and had been ordained in the Anglican Church already for 13 years. That means his "conversion" happened after he was called into the ministry.

And I suspect that even fewer Methodists know the journal sentence that follows the "strangely warmed" observation. He wrote, "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

"Even mine," he says. "Even mine." Those two words. It is as if he has only just now realized that all the stuff he had been saying for all those years ... applied to him as well. How is it possible for a preacher, ordained by the church, not to realize that all the stuff they are saying also applies to them?

Even mine.

I have been a preacher for nineteen years. I was a full-time music director at a church for five years prior to that, a part-time choir director for two years before that. Twenty-six years working for a church. I grew up in church, my family is saturated in church.

How is it that while all of that was happening I have never really been aware of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit?

I mean, I have preached about it. I have pointed it out in other peoples' lives.

But ... even mine?

I feel like I have become more aware of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the past two or three months than I ever have before. No let me rephrase that: I feel like I have never been truly aware of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit prior to the past two months, and now I am. In really amazing and wonderful and sometimes confusing ways.

I have seen the Spirit moving in the ministry of the church, in fresh expressions of Christian Community being born, true koinonia as it is meant to be lived. The ways I have seen this are numerous, and abundant. I have seen people returning to church for the first time in years, with hesitancy born from ongoing pain, and being able to spiritually breathe again. I have heard stories from the Shared Streets community, stories of transformation and hopefulness. I have seen the Spirit move in the simple gift of a new pair of shoes, a refurbished bicycle, and a new pillowcase. In the church, I have seen the Spirit move.

One of the ways most obvious to me is the way I feel about my wife and children. My love for them has been renewed in these past few months in a powerful and tangible way. My wife Erin said to me recently, "You are happier than you've been in years." And she is right. I've loved her fiercely for almost thirty years, and in these past few months that love has deepened even more. How is that possible if not for the work of the Spirit? And my heart aches with pride for each of my uniquely gifted children, for each of whom I would gladly lay down my own life. In my family, I have seen the Spirit move.

John Wesley had a group of Moravians show up in his life in the season of his conversion. Their unwavering faith in the midst of storm and struggle inspired him and was an impetus to his own time of soul searching. In a way, I have my own "Moravians" all around me. In this season, I have met and become friends with people whose connection with the Holy Spirit is so deep, so intimate, and so profound. I long to be as connected with the Spirit as they are, and I feel a unique grace in their companionship. In my new friends, I have seen the Spirit move.

And finally, within myself ... I cannot even begin to describe the change I have felt within my own spirit. Yeah, even mine. And please understand, the way I feel does not invalidate any prior experiences I've had. This present moment is emerging from all that has been. It's just that in the past, I have been quick to affirm those "God moments" that others would tell me about in their own lives, and just as quick to minimize them in my own, to chalk them up to coincidence or just ignore them altogether.

But now, I don't know ... my spiritual senses are awake in a way they haven't been before. I smile more. I walk more lightly. I breathe easier. I see people and am overwhelmed immediately with love for them. I notice beauty. I cry a lot. I laugh a lot. I don't really know this person I'm becoming, but I kinda like him. He's familiar to me, like a version of myself that I may have been once in a different time. In my self, I have seen the Spirit move.

So yeah, I feel like I do see God present everywhere in the world, and sense the Spirit is at work in my life, even mine, saving me from my own spiritual lethargy, connecting me deeply to other people, inspiring me with a renewed sense of vocation, and beckoning from a hope-filled future.

(And yes, I realize this post is utterly self-centered, and I'm sorry for that. I process things by writing, so this is really me processing some of the stuff happening to me right now. Thanks for reading.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Missouri 2020 Delegation Update

The 2020 Missouri Delegation has been working hard in these past couple of months.

+ In November, the Missouri Delegation officially endorsed Rev. Sally Haynes as a candidate for bishop. Sally had shared with the delegation at our September meeting that she was discerning a call to bishop. At that meeting, there was a sharing of initial thoughts, a prayer for discernment, and an outline for the process ahead. In November, Sally shared some updates with the group, there was a time of questioning and healthy conversation, and then the delegation voted our support of Sally’s candidacy. We ask for continued prayers for the remainder of the process ahead. 

+ In our meetings thus far, we have been coached by Rev. Melissa Bailey-Kirk, who is a trained facilitator in the Circle Way of meeting. Our hope has been to set a different tone for our work together, one of trust and openness, so that our work may be done as a spiritually centered and fully engaged delegation. We are so grateful to Melissa for coaching us through our first few gatherings.

+ We have had several other guests with us, providing input into our work process. Rev. Jessica Foster and Rev. Chelsey Hillyer spoke with us about their participation in the UM Forward meeting last Spring. We spent some time speaking with Terry Shoemaker and Ross Lundstrom from Wespath about legislation Wespath is proposing for General Conference this year. We had conversation with Rev. Bob Phillips of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference about his participation in the Wesley Covenant Association. Each guest was invited so that Missouri might be fully engaged in our important work.

+ Delegation member Rev. Kim Jenne was able to connect with members of both Mozambique Annual Conferences’ delegations on a recent trip. She conveyed greetings on behalf of the Missouri delegations, presented a letter, and had a very meaningful conversation about General Conference legislation and the hopes and dreams for the future of the United Methodist Church. It is our intention to stay in contact with our siblings from Mozambique, and to share a meal with them in Minneapolis in May.

+ The delegation is anticipating receiving our written material in January 2020. Once we get our copies of the “Advance Daily Christian Advocate” we will know exactly what individual petitions are connected with what larger “plans” you may have read about. There are fourteen legislative committees that initially deal with General Conference petitions, prior to them coming to the larger group during the conference’s second week. That means the General Conference is never talking about a single plan in its entirety. Our system breaks the plans down into smaller petitions based on the paragraph of the Book of Discipline that is impacted. Please keep your Missouri delegates in prayer as we carefully read through the pages of petitions that we will consider in May.

+ The next time the delegation will meet together will be in February, when we will meet in Oklahoma City with other delegations of the South Central Jurisdiction. At that gathering, individual delegations will have the opportunity to interview the endorsed candidates for bishop. There will be opportunities to discuss General Conference legislation, and to connect with other delegates from the various Annual Conferences of our Jurisdiction. 

It is our desire to be as transparent as we can about the work we are doing. This is a significant moment in the life of the United Methodist Church, and it is a privilege to be serving in this capacity at this time. We long to be centered in God’s Spirit, and to be equipped by God’s grace to serve the church to the utmost of our capacity. And we need your prayers in order to do so. Thank you for all the encouragement that has been offered thus far, and as we swing into Spring and get really busy, we’ll be relying on your prayers more and more. 

May God’s grace and peace be with us all. Amen.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Pathways, Too

Or is it Pathways 2? Or maybe Pathways II? Oh I know! Pathways Next!

Ok, so it doesn't really matter. It is a team of 20 people from the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church meeting together for a common purpose. And when Missouri convenes a team to help discern a direction for the Conference, we call it a "Pathways" team. It's what we do.

At our first meeting on Wednesday, October 30, we began our work by clarifying that purpose. Our Bishop, Bishop Bob Farr, has called this group together to discern a way for the Missouri Conference to be in ministry together pending the outcome of General Conference 2020.

The group present last Wednesday agreed on a lot of things. We began with Scripture and prayer. Each one gave permission to share our names as participants in this process. We took some time getting to know one another. We started talking about some common ideas of covenant to guide our work. And we heard the Bishop lay out one possible idea for how we might proceed after June 2020 (the Annual Conference session).

There are people from every district in the conference. There are elder, deacon, licensed local pastor, and laity. There is racial diversity. There is one person who is gay and out. (There may be others, but I don't know everyone at the table personally and we didn't really take a poll.)

And there are people at the table who believe being LGBT+ should disqualify a person from getting married and/or being ordained, alongside people who believe sexual orientation and gender identity should be celebrated as an important part of what makes a person unique and gifted. And I'm sure there are people somewhere in between, too. So it goes.

One of the helpful filters that Bishop Farr added to our work was this: we are not going to try to change one another's minds about what we believe. Our conversations are to be focused on how we can, in the bishop's words, "multiply our witness for the sake of Jesus Christ." In my own words, the question is, "What can we do together that would sow the seeds of the Reign of God in our varied contexts of ministry and service?"

Bishop Farr has a way of speaking pretty powerful truths in pretty accessible ways. Sometimes you don't really catch it until it's past. Recently he said that it seems like there's an earthquake happening in the United Methodist Church; but maybe the church "needs to be shaken up."

At our meeting on the 30th, he uttered a doozie, a real "Farrism." He said, "Whoever wound up the United Methodist Church did not want it to be unwound." What he meant by that was that our system is a giant hairball of overly complicated processes and procedures that nobody really even understands, much less follows completely. So the work of this Pathways team is not around "unwiding" the church, but orbiting that hairball as best we can.

So here's the process - we are meeting at least four more times (December 17, January 18, February 27, and April 21). Our work will be presented to the Mission Council, who would, pending their approval, present it to the Annual Conference in June.

One of the unresolved questions as I see it is, "What would trigger consideration of the Pathways plan?" Meaning, what outcome of General Conference would cause us to say, "Okay let's do our thing instead of that?" Would affirmation of the status quo trigger it? Would voting to divide the entire UMC? Would voting in favor of full inclusion and affirmation of all people, including ordination and marriage?

Or will we just do it anyway, regardless of the specific outcome in May?

This is one of the myriad of questions that the Pathways team will be asking. And there are so many. It is my hope that we are as transparent as we can possibly be in this process, and for me that includes listening to your hopes and fears as well. Please comment, email, or message me with your questions. Your voices are important to this conversation.

And finally, I just ask that you please pray. A lot. Pray a lot. Pray for God's wisdom. Pray for an awareness of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Pray for our church. We are living through a season of reform, and the future is uncharted territory. In prayer together, we can navigate what lies ahead and continue to become the church that God desires.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Two or Three?

Help me out here, United Methodist friends. In the ongoing conversations about the future of our denomination, one of the questions is essentially, "Two or three?"

As in, will there be two different systems (one traditional and one progressive), or three systems (one traditional, one centrist, and one progressive). Yes, I know it is way more complicated than that, and the language and labels are different among different "plans" and such. And I'm assuming we are all resigned to the idea that staying one system and trying to make that system more just is no longer an option, as February 2019 made clear to so many of us.

So, a core question to wrestle with remains, "Two or three?"

And here's where I need some help. I fail to see how there are three options. It seems to me that there is either "status quo" or "change." Either we allow same-sex weddings or we don't. Either we ordain LGBTQ+ people or we don't.

There is nuance, of course. Some people are in favor of ordination but not marriage. Some would favor marriage as a legal relationship but not a spiritual one. And so it goes. Yes, it is nuanced.

But ... let's do some practical theology, ok?

A young gay person comes to their pastor and says, "God has called me to be ordained in the United Methodist Church." That pastor either says "Yes" or "No." That pastor cannot say, "Either."

A same-sex couple comes to their church and says they want to get married. Their church either says "Yes" or "No." That church cannot say, "We are divided on that question."

In fact, if that pastor says "either" or if that church says "we are divided" are they not in fact saying "No?"

It seems to me that if we end up with three systems and one of those is labelled "centrist," the "centrist" system is in practice "traditionalist" if weddings and ordinations are still prohibited. And it is in practice "progressive" if weddings and ordinations are allowed.

So, in practice, either "status quo" or "change."

Many clergy colleagues have expressed some trepidation about making their congregation choose. There is significant anxiety about the tone of the conversation, and the potential for conflict. "It would split the congregation in two," some have said. I get that. I feel that.

Nevertheless, I disagree. What better place to have the conversation than in a community of people who worship together, serve together, learn together, and love each other as members of one another in the Body of Christ? Surely there's no better place to have potentially difficult conversations than in the local church. It's certainly a far better place to have them than on the floor of General Conference, isn't it?

Look, it is naive for anyone to think that no LGBTQ+ people in their congregation will ever be called into ordained ministry, or want to be married in their own church building. And so, we probably ought to go ahead and have the conversation, so that we can respond in a Christlike way when (not if) it happens. Otherwise the urgency of the moment will prevent effective communication, and the conflict will be harder to navigate.

Right this moment, though my mind is open, I like the "UMCNext Plan," mainly because it presents a clear answer to the question of "Two or Three." The UMCNext answer is "Two." The UMCNext Plan basically says, "We would like to change the status quo in the UMC. If you don't like that change, we are going to create a respectful way for you to leave and form your own Wesleyan church, where you can have policies that prohibit marriage and ordination if you want."

I like it because it is a choice between two things. Clearly articulated. One is fully inclusive; one is conditionally inclusive. You can pick. You have to pick. It is time to pick. Have the conversation. Choose.

Help me. How is having a "centrist" system not choosing one or the other?

Monday, August 12, 2019

Every One Is 'Gabriela'

Regardless of the circumstances of their specific cases, what has unified all twenty of our foster kids has been the trauma of being removed from their parent or parents.

Kids are taken into foster care for two reasons, and only two – abuse or neglect. That means the adult in charge of caring for them has either treated them as if they are worthless or treated them as if they did not exist. One hears the stories and thinks, “How horrific! Who would do such a thing? What awful people!”

Yet each and every one of our kids has loved their “awful people,” in spite of the horrific things that have happened. That love is experienced as grief when the child is taken away, and that grief is traumatic.

One of our kids (I’ll call her “Gabriela”) was taken into care when police raided the home in which she was living. It was a drug raid, and large amounts of cocaine were seized in the raid. As Gabriela’s case progressed, it was discovered that her mother was from Mexico, and living in the United States without proper documentation. Mom was struggling to get by, looking for a better life for the two of them, and had been taken advantage of by coyotes who promised big and failed to deliver, as is typical. Moving in to the drug house was an act of desperation, a matter of survival. And bad timing.

For a week straight, Gabriela cried herself to sleep every night at our house, repeating a word over and over again as she did. We did not recognize the word, partly because she was crying which made it hard to understand, partly because she was three years old, but mostly because it was a word we had never heard before. It turned out to be a sort of pet name for her mom.

She cried herself to sleep every night crying for her mama.

Stories of children being taken from their parents have been in the news lately, first at the U.S./Mexico border and more recently as a result of I.C.E. raids in Mississippi. These stories have hit my family in a particular way. Every one of the kids whose faces we see on the news, whose voices we hear crying for their parents, whose stories have awakened indignation and ire among so many, every one of them is Gabriela.

Gabriela was reunited with her mom, which is great. And then we lost track of her, which is not uncommon. And so we don’t know where she lives or who she’s with or how she is or pretty much anything about her. She’s a teenager now, which is hard to fathom. In our minds she is still three, still chattering away in a mix of Spanish, English, and toddler, still wagging her finger at us when we tell her it’s time for bed, still crying herself to sleep and calling for her mama.

You may try to come at me with “but they broke the law” and the “it’s the parents’ fault for bringing their kids here in the first place” and the other myopic platitudes that do nothing but make you feel better about yourself. But please, don’t. I have zero patience for it.

Here is the truth: Each and every one of those kids on the news loves their parents, no matter what. And each and every one whose parents were taken away was traumatized by that experience. And that ought to be the priority; that’s what we should be talking about.

Because I just cannot bear the thought of a single child, much less a dozen, much less … however many … crying themselves to sleep at night, calling out for their mamas.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

It's All Racism

I value diversity, in all forms. Difference keeps life interesting; we are created as unique and distinct individuals who see the world differently. I celebrate that.

I celebrate it ... up to a point. And I get to decide where to draw the line between a perspective that is worthy of my respect and a perspective for which I cannot muster any. Celebrating diversity of opinion does not imply that all perspectives are equally valid. There's a line.

Racism crosses that line. A racist perspective is not worthy of my respect. Racism is sin. Racism is evil. Racism is "antithetical to the gospel itself." Racism is the only issue; every issue is racism.

Over the past three or four years in our nation, latent racism has been revealed, embraced, and mainstreamed. Overtly racist statements are made openly, in public, and without shame. And when challenged, the statements are defended with malice, malevolence, and bitter defensiveness.

For the record let me say this: Telling people of color to go back where they came from is racist. (Though why I should have to make that clear boggles my mind.)

Now, I have no desire to comment here on the president's character; I believe that his own words and actions have revealed more about his character than my thoughts ever could. Maya Angelou said it best when she said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." Our president has shown all us exactly who he is, and I believe him.

At first the overt racism was sporadic; it seemed a sideshow or some kind of alternate reality that would soon pass. When it did not, there was indignation and anger, resolve to resist and persist. And then when it continued, we thought it was a distraction from deeper more insidious things, intentionally orchestrated to divert our attention. I no longer consider it a distraction.

The malevolent racist spirit that corrodes our nation is not a distraction from other more destructive activity happening behind the scenes. In fact the very fact that I once considered it to be a distraction is ample proof of just how insidious and evil this malevolence is. The malevolent racist spirit is the only thing that matters; everything else begins there.

As I wrote previously, "And so as disciples of Jesus, as Christians, as people who desire to live as God intends us to live, we have to confront the malevolent spirit permeating our world. We have name it, draw it up to the light, and annihilate it. And then we have to offer an alternative way of being, a replacement for the malevolence that will solidify its destruction once and for all.

That alternative way is called 'love,' by the way. Love, and everything that comes along with it. Things like hope. And forgiveness. And justice, and peace, and grace, and compassion."

I'm still here. And although it feels sometimes like the malevolence is indestructible, we must not allow ourselves to fall into "weak resignation to the evils we deplore." May God "grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving the One whom we adore." Amen and amen.