Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Gay Marriage Will Neither Kill Nor Save the Church

I have a request for us, United Methodist Church. Can we please avoid linking the same-sex marriage conversation with the declining numbers conversation in any way, shape, or form?

I’ve read articles that try to make these links in reaction to decisions by the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) in recent months, and I’d rather not we rehash it in the UMC.

I have heard two arguments, essentially. One is, “The church will die if we allow same-sex marriages” and the other is, “The church will die unless we allow same-sex marriages.” There have been a few variations on those themes, but that’s the gist.

Can we just stop that altogether? It isn’t helpful. I honestly do not think the impending death of the church has all that much to do with whether or not we marry gay people. Please, let’s not make this question the scapegoat for our impoverished ecclesiology.

One thing that I do know, from real life experience, is this: The fight about gay marriage could very well be what kills the church in the end. Okay so, it may not actually kill the church, but it sure isn’t helping it live, either. The nastiness (so different from the actual content of the Gospel) is eroding the contemporary church from our core outward.

The numerical decline of the church has to do with a whole lot more than just who can get married or not. Honestly, it has more to do with outdated measurement tools than it does with human sexuality. But sometimes it’s as if we cannot allow ourselves to actually engage the nuanced and complicated cultural shifts taking place in the world around us that are impacting the church.

Or maybe gay marriage has become the symbol of these shifts, so we are obsessively latching on to it as “the issue,” so that we might be spared from honestly discerning what’s really going on, let alone confronting it.

In the UMC, gay marriage is not currently allowed; some congregations are shrinking, some are growing, and the denomination as a whole is in decline.

If gay marriage is allowed after the 2016 General Conference, some congregations will shrink, some will grow, and THE DENOMINATION AS A WHOLE WILL STILL BE IN DECLINE.

That decline is a result of decades of enmeshed issues that would (will?) take decades to unravel. I hope that gay marriage proponents are not so naïve as to believe that droves of people will flock into our pews once we can marry same-sex couples. At the same time I hope opponents of gay marriage are not so naïve as to believe that as long as we keep marriage between a man and a woman, all our problems are solved.

Gay marriage will neither kill nor save the church, and it borders on idolatry to think so.

We can and should be talking about gay marriage. We can and should be talking about the church’s decline. But I hope that we won’t talk about them as if the one is causing the other.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Rethink Generosity: Myth #3 - "Bigger is Better"

There's a simple answer to the problem of a bountiful harvest.  Just build a bigger barn.

Bigger, after all, is better, right? Building a bigger barn is admirable. Big barn builders are revered, idolized. There are gated communities filled with bigger barns all over the place. Bigger barn builders make headlines and become our heroes.

And why? It’s all because of Myth #3 in our series “Rethink Generosity.”

Myth #3: Bigger is Better

This is an insidious, nasty myth that pervades pretty much all of North American culture. It devalues work; it devalues art; it devalues nuance; it devalues complexity. 

And it has a firm foothold in the church. Bigger churches are automatically better churches. Bigger events, bigger offerings, bigger worship attendance … all are unquestioningly considered to be “better.” 

And all too quickly the myth infects individual discipleship, especially concerning our giving. That is to say, people start to “measure” their own individual discipleship by comparing it to others, and the one who gives more is somehow a “better” disciple of Jesus.

Actually, when we are talking financial discipleship, we are talking about proportional giving: a percentage of one’s income. Financial discipleship is about capacity, not amount. The question ought to be: What proportion of your income are you offering to God? Rather than: How much money are you offering to God

So don’t worry about how big your barn is. Life is more than wealth. Faithful discipleship understands that bigger isn’t better - better is better. And God is the best of all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rethink Generosity: Myth 2 - "Giving Time and Talent is Enough"

This is part two of a three-part series called “Rethinking Generosity: Busting the church’s money myths.

Myth #2: “Giving time and talent is enough.”

So, how many weddings have you attended in which the happy couple stands in front of family and friends and vows before God to give themselves to one another in covenant wedded bliss for ever and ever amen … and then they list a disclaimer?

“I promise my life to you, darling. Well, you know, except for all the chocolate cake, I’m keeping that all for myself. Well, I may let you see it every now and then, even have a little nibble. Say, somewhere in the five to seven percent range, maybe. Definitely not more than ten.”

Absurd, right? A marriage is all in, 100% of everything, mutual love and respect and support.

So why is it, in our relationship with God, which should be even more important, that we think there is an exception clause regarding our money?

I have heard it throughout my ministry. People will say, “I give my time, I give my talent, I’m here serving. So that’s enough. I don’t have to give financially. I’m ‘covered.’”

What if the Samaritan had said that? “Hey dude, I stopped to help. I bandaged his wounds. But pay for his continued care? Now you’re talking crazy. It’s MY money, and I want it now!”

That would have been a-whole-nother parable.

But that’s NOT how Jesus told the story. Not only did the Samaritan give time (stopping at the side of the road) and talent (binding the wounds), he also gave money to the innkeeper to provide for ongoing care for the wounded man. To be a neighbor, the Samaritan had to be “all in.”

Theologically speaking, the new life that is offered to us in Christ Jesus requires a complete transformation that impacts every part of one’s life. “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” Not “some things.” Not “most things.” EVERY thing.

And everything includes your time. Your talent. And your money. Yes, even your chocolate cake.

Myth #2 = Busted.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

F**k You, Pain: Thoughts on Robin Williams, Michael Brown, etc ...

Note: There are cuss words in this article. This article has been rated PG by me, just so you're aware.

I want to think about how funny Robin Williams was. All in all, I’d rather not reflect on the pain that must have led him to take his own life.

There’s a human tendency to deflect from that which is just too painful to dwell upon. We are experts at distraction.

I can scroll through Youtube videos of Robin Williams’ funniest moments all day long and laugh and laugh and laugh. And it saves me from imagining the scene described in the coroner’s report.

There’s a similar thing happening around the death of Michael Brown. I can watch coverage of marches and read reports of violence and looting in Ferguson, clicking my tongue and shaking my head and muttering, “Shame, shame, shame.” And it saves me from reflecting on the reality of a human life taken too soon, the pain of parents, family, and friends.

We do it all the time. In Gaza, I can explore the geo-political implications of a two-state solution and read about the history of Islam … so I won’t have to think about children dying when bombs fall on school buildings. In Ukraine, I can bad mouth Putin all day, which of course keeps me from thinking about planes filled with people being shot out of the sky. On the border, if I grandstand and play the political game enough, I don’t have to acknowledge that they are real live children who are probably really scared and just want someone to take care of them. And so it goes.

Are we so afraid of pain? Must we always retreat, escape, withdraw?

In a conversation with a friend recently, I remarked that our prayer life would be much more vivid if cuss words were allowed.

What if I could stand before the congregation, lift my middle fingers to the ceiling, and on behalf of the people just shout out “God Damn It!” at the top of my lungs? Or if I could lament in prayer with a guy whose life has gone to shit and actually say, “Dear God, Joe’s life has really gone to shit.” What if I could hit pain right in the face with a liturgically appropriate “Fuck you!”

We should not be afraid of pain and seek distraction from it. Pain is real. Pain reminds you you are alive. Pain doesn’t go away if you ignore it – it festers. Pain needs to be cussed at. Pain needs to be grabbed by the throat and shaken. Pain needs to be crushed.

And please hear this: Pain needs to be shared. “I don’t want to be a burden.” Never mind that, you can’t kick pain’s ass all by yourself, fool. You need me. “But it’s not your …” No, it isn’t. But some day I’m going to need you to help me with my pain, so the opportunity for payback’s coming.

I’m not talking about momentary respite. Taking an emotional Tylenol to relieve the symptom is fine. Watch a movie, listen to a song, take a walk … all good. When you do this, you are saying, “This really hurts and I just need a break.” No, I’m talking about refusing to acknowledge the pain at all, pretending it’s not there, trying to trick yourself that you are “Just fine” when in reality, you are not.

 “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast…” (Psalm 22:14)

There’s a lot of pain in the atmosphere these days. Please, let’s not yield power to our pain by pretending it isn’t there. Drag it up to the surface. Express it. Reveal it. Cry a lot. Cuss in your prayers. Scream and shout as necessary. Share it with someone, so that it gets scared out into the open, flushed from hiding.

When pain is uncovered it is weaker, smaller, less scary. And it becomes oh so much easier to crush.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Rethink Generosity: Myth #1 - "The Church Needs Your Money"

For the next three weeks, I'm busting money myths. Our worship series at Campbell is called "Rethink Generosity," and each week I'll do all I can to disillusion the church when it comes to money. Here's week one:

MYTH #1: “The Church Needs Your Money”

Although I cannot remember ever hearing it spoken as bluntly as this, I believe that the perception is real. Whether it is created by television preachers asking you to send your donations or pastors asking for more offering, the perception exists that “all the church wants is my money.”

It is a myth.

More precisely, the statement simply doesn’t make sense. A pastor cannot stand before a church and say “the church” needs “your” money. The people to whom that pastor is speaking … ARE THE CHURCH.

When a member of a congregation puts cash in an envelope or a check in a plate or clicks the button to complete an electronic funds transfer, that member isn’t giving anything away. The money involved in the transaction still belongs to the individual as a member of the body. All that has happened is that the money has been transferred from the “home account” to the “church account.”

It is accurate to say, “The church needs money to do ministry” and I believe this is what most people mean when they say, “The church needs your money.” But it is a fundamentally different expression. It takes money to function in the world, which is precisely where ministry happens. The church (read, the people) makes that ministry happen with our money.

Followers of Jesus do not give because an organization needs our money - Followers of Jesus give because God has changed our lives! And now, with lives changed, we long that other lives might be changed, as well.

Myth #1 = Busted.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Quadrilateral of Reasons not to Divide the UMC

Allow me to say quite methodically ...

A church schism is incompatible with Christian teaching. Let's run it through the good ol' Wesleyan quadrilateral, shall we?

Scripture is quite clear on this point. Over and over again followers of Jesus are commanded to live in unity with one another. It is a prevailing theme of Paul’s. It is inherent in the teachings of Jesus. It is a theme in the Psalms. It is a feature of the most familiar stories of the Old Testament.

And for as long as there have been followers of Jesus, this divinely desired unity has never included uniformity of understanding. Although differences in our beliefs have led to numerous and repeated divisions in the church, Scripture makes it clear that the feet can’t tell the hands to get lost (1 Corinthians 12). We are one. One body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God now and forever, amen (Ephesians 4).

Unity does not require uniformity, but Christian unity is not equivalent to moral relativism, as some argue. Being united in Christ does not mean that I do not care what you believe, that “anything goes.” Being united in Christ means that when we disagree, we will do so together, in love, as brothers and sisters, unique and beautiful individual members of one body.

Being united in Christ means not only that I care about what you believe, I care about why you believe it. And more, I care about how you treat your neighbor who happens to disagree with what you believe. Being united in Christ means that you should care about what I believe, why I believe it, and how I treat my neighbor, also. Being united in Christ means not that we will agree about everything, but that we will love one another as we disagree with respect and grace.

One who would call for church schism based on disparate beliefs regarding same-sex marriage has decided essentially that what the Bible says about marriage is more important than what the Bible says about unity. And I simply cannot go there. Unity is one of those foundational themes of the entire Scripture - right up there with love and grace and peace and forgiveness.

To make the point through our tradition - Unity is so important to us as United Methodists that we have made it one of the most important roles our Bishops are expected to fulfill. From our Book of Discipline, paragraph 403: “The bishop leads therefore through the following disciplines…,” one of which is “A passion for the unity of the church. The role of the bishop is to be the shepherd of the whole flock and thereby provide leadership toward the goal of understanding, reconciliation and unity within the Church - the United Methodist Church and the church universal.”

This expectation of our Bishops is aligned closely with another Disciplinary statement, namely that “all United Methodists are summoned and sent by Christ to live and work together in mutual interdependence and to be guided by the Spirit into the truth that frees and the love that reconciles” (para. 130).

It really couldn’t be much more clear, could it?

But just to add the lens of reason - how would this split work exactly? How do we know “who’s who” in the two new denominations? Conferences decide? Congregations decide? Pastors decide? And by the way, who gets the pension fund?

And then, once we are two denominations, how are we going to make sure that the people within those churches never have occasion to disagree about things any more? How will we ensure that couples who attend churches in favor of “traditional marriage” never have gay children? How will we guarantee that those who believe marriage should only be between a man and a woman are excluded from congregations who favor “marriage equality?” I hope you see my point here: it just doesn’t make any sense.

Scripture, tradition, reason - all in favor of unity. And lest we forget experience, perhaps we should speak to some of our brothers and sisters whose denominations have split over the ordination of women in the not so distant past about the pain, anger, bitterness, and brokenness that resulted.

And so, for a quadrilateral of reasons, I believe that church schism is incompatible with Christian teaching. And even so, I am hopeful. The Gospel pull toward unity is infinitely stronger than the human tendency toward division. Anyone with a halfway decent sense of eschatology knows that. In that sense, if the UMC does divide, it is only a delay of the inevitable - the feast at the heavenly banquet table in which all of God's children gather together in unity and peace.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Schism Talk is a Regrettable Necessity

The idea of a United Methodist schism was mentioned a grand total of twice at Missouri’s Annual Conference session this past weekend. Once it was addressed directly and once it was hinted at. Both times the idea landed with a notable thud.

Safe to say, if it’s up to Missouri, the United Methodist Church is sticking together.

Mark Sheets hinted at it in the sermon on Sunday morning. His remarks were essentially what I said a couple weeks ago in my sermon here at Campbell - I’m not sure what’s going to happen in 2016, but we are Easter people! We believe in resurrection, and that makes all the difference.

Then Adam Hamilton mentioned it directly in his presentation Sunday afternoon. His position is well known, and many have signed onto the “AWay Forward” document, myself included. When he said that he hopes schism doesn’t happen, it was met with enthusiastic applause from the floor.

Other than those two brief moments, we really didn’t talk about it at all in any “official” capacity. I’m kind of hoping that it is as much of a non-issue in other conferences, including the biggie in Portland in May, 2016. We’ll see.

I was encouraged, renewed, and inspired at Annual Conference this year. I feel hopeful about the future of the church. Leadership sets the tone, and the tone set by the leadership of our conference was healthy, upbeat, and joyful, while at the same time realistic about the challenges that lie ahead.

I have a newfound respect for Adam Hamilton. I have always thought highly of him, but I thought his three presentations and sermon this weekend were somehow more real. It seemed as though he was more vulnerable or maybe … sincere? I don’t know exactly what it was. But I know for sure that he is a person wholly devoted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the health of the United Methodist Church, in that order. And he gives me hope for the future.

Bishop Schnase continues to be a leader who is not afraid to do things differently, which gives us as congregational leaders permission to do so, as well. His desire for healthy and vibrant congregations permeates everything he says and does. The pastors of Missouri United Methodism are inexpressibly lucky to serve with him.

Other Missouri leaders (Meg Hegemann, Emmanuel Cleaver III, Margie Briggs, Lucas Endicott, etc.) are focused on the work of the church, the mission of love and grace, the health of local congregations, the spiritual health of pastors, the transformation of the world, etc. You know, ordinary stuff that church leaders are supposed to be focused on.

This fact actually makes me worry. (Ironic, I know, but nevertheless…) Allow me to explain.

Here’s what I’m worried about. Folks in Missouri and other rational leaders in Methodism are going to be so focused on doing what we’re supposed to be doing, that the pro-schism voice is just going to grow gradually louder and louder until by May of 2016 it is going to catch us by surprise and before we know it, we’ll be voting on division.

I think it is sadly necessary for church leaders to say out loud in as many ways as possible, “We do not want a schism.” You can start by signing “A Way Forward.” You can speak up in a variety of ways to pastors, friends, and colleagues. Next year, before deciding for whom to vote as your General Conference delegates, ask them if they favor unity or division. And then vote accordingly.

I would rather not have to deal with this, either. But I’m worried that if we don’t, it will blindside us. The level-headed ones who are focused on doing church, focused on unity, focused on the mission … this very focus will ensure that our attention will be drawn from the schism conversation, and by next General Conference it will be too late. Addressing it is a regrettable necessity.

I honestly don’t know what will happen with the ideas those 80 unnamed leaders have advanced. As I said before, I believe in resurrection and so I am not afraid. I know that the body of Christ has been beaten and bloodied before, and rose again on the third day. So I am not afraid.

I simply don’t want us to be sitting there in June of 2016 wondering what in the world just happened in Portland. And what in the world are we supposed to do next?