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?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The First Schism: A Fable

“Pretty moon tonight,” said one, gesturing toward the sky.

“The moon is pretty,” said another, “but why are you gesturing like that?”

“Like what?” asked the first.

“With your palm up and all your fingers outstretched. The correct way to point at the moon is with one finger extended and your arm straight.”

“Actually it is more proper to do as I am, it reveals the moon ever so much more elegantly.”

“But look at your elbow, all bent like that. Just awful.”

“Well look at your finger. You have dirt under your fingernail, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

And they stopped looking at the moon so they could concentrate on what was wrong with the other's gesture.

“They now enjoy the moon itself instead of fighting over whose finger points to it most accurately, quickly, or definitively.” - Richard Rohr, in "Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

Just then, two young lovers walked into the park. They noticed the old ones arguing, but they gave them not a second glance.

“Pretty moon tonight,” said one.

“Beautiful,” said the other.

And they danced together in the moonlight.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Schism Shmism?

I did not think that the UMC would divide eight and a half years ago when I wrote this post (click here), and I still don’t.

I think some people might leave, and I think that would be fine. In fact, people already have. But I do not think the denomination will divide. The ones who desire it are simply too small a minority for it to actually happen at the General Conference level. Cooler heads will prevail.

The “Via Media Caucus” doesn’t make a lot of noise, but we vote. If outright division is proposed, we will vote “No.”

By the way, the reason we will vote “No” has nothing to do with whether or not we think gay people should be getting married. The reason we will vote “No” is because we will consider the idea of schism to be the most inane idea we have ever heard, doing absolutely nothing to advance the mission of the church, and completely incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

We won't even vote "no" - we'll vote "smh."

The truth of the matter is that the United Methodist Church doesn’t actually need to say “gay marriage is not allowed” anywhere in our official policy. It’s pretty much covered in the line that says, “The decision to perform the ceremony shall be the right and responsibility of the pastor” (340.1.c.1).  I don’t have to marry anyone if I don’t want to, as the current policy stands.

Which means, if an individual pastor really believed strongly that gay marriage isn’t cool, she or he could say, “No.” What the specific prohibition provides is institutional authority behind the pastor’s action. But we already have that, in the section that gives us authority to decide on each individual wedding.

So yes, the Book of Discipline is at times redundant, at others contradictory, and mostly a convoluted mess.

Is it messy enough to actually and formally divide the denomination into multiple parts? *smh* Hardly.

I will confess that sometimes when I hear/read about schism, I think, “Marvin K. Mooney will you please go now!” There are other Wesleyan denominations around that would welcome you. But in truth I do not want anyone to go; I love our holy mess.

Now, can we please stop talking about schism and remember what we’re supposed to be doing here?

btw: schism articles ... here ... here ... here

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Bewildering Dinner - Maundy Thursday - John 13

It must have been quite a bewildering dinner. It started with him taking a basin of water and a towel, taking off his robe, and kneeling in front of each of them to wash their feet.

Their Rabbi! On his knees to serve his own students! And then, he followed that with an instruction to follow his example.

As if that wasn’t bewildering enough, the very next thing he said was that one of them would betray him. They were stunned!

But instead of wondering how he knew, they wondered to whom he was referring. Apparently they trusted him enough such that they were sure what he was saying was true, but were not confident enough to refrain from harboring selfish thoughts.

Thankfully, he meant Judas. That must have been such a relief! And now Judas was gone, so they could relax again. Maybe even with a snide chuckle and under the breath, “I never really liked Judas, you know.”

But he wasn’t done. Next he told them that he was leaving and that after he went away they must love one another the same way he loved so that people would see that they were his students. And it was Peter who asked the question that was begging to be asked.

“Wait, what? Where are you going?” An honest question, simply gave voice to what the others were thinking.

And then he landed another blow. “You can’t come, Peter. Maybe later, but not now.”

All eyes turned to Peter, who was suddenly very aware of himself.

With a bewildered laugh, Peter asked, “What? What do you mean? I’d lay down my life for you.”

I – would – lay – down – my – life.

“Would you, Peter? Would you?” And he didn’t even really need to go on from there, but he did. “Before morning, you will have pretended not to know me … three different times.”

(And you have the audacity to claim you would lay down YOUR life?)

By this point they must have been utterly numb. The pendulum swings of emotion in these last ten minutes! Jesus Christ!

And so, the very next thing he said was a word of comfort. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He saw their bewilderment, he heard their concern, he sensed their worry. And he responded with love.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he said. He knew they wouldn’t lay down their lives for him, but that did not prevent him from laying down his for them.

Which is exactly what he did. It must have been a bewildering dinner.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Resurrection 2014

Resurrection means that life is stronger than death. Always and everywhere, no matter what, life wins. Every time.

And right about now, the world needs to know that as much as … maybe more than … ever. Life is an irresistible force, and consistently crushes all that counters it.

It doesn’t make any sense, does it? Death is real. We see it every day. Death is a constant companion in our world, and sometimes it feels like death is so strong. So, so strong.

A dear loved one is with us one moment and simply gone the next. A friend lingers for months, battered by illness, merely existing as death ever so slowly steals them away. A hateful man brings his gun into a peaceful place and kills people at random, because his twisted mind somehow justifies this horrific violence.

A man is betrayed, arrested, and executed, for no better reason than he is a threat to the power of the status quo.

Death is strong. Indeed.

Life is stronger.

If it looks like death is winning, that’s because we are unable to see far enough. A flower does not blossom unless a seed dies. Resurrection elevates our vision so that we can see life - full, vibrant, loud, emerging, erupting, rudely shoving death out of the way.

Resurrection means that life is stronger than death. Every. Single. Time. And I believe that is something that the world needs to know.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why I'm Choosing to Forgive Fred Phelps

The extreme always makes the ordinary seem smaller. An extremely tall person will make a person of average height seem short, for example. An extremely bright light will make ordinary light seem darker.

Fred Phelps did that with homophobia.

His extreme fear and hatred made ordinary homophobia seem innocuous. That was what irked me most about him, to be honest. He gave our nation an automatic excuse, an insidious shield behind which we could hide: “Well, at least I’m not as bad as Fred Phelps.”

I have always approached the Westboro group with an attitude of “ignore them and they’ll go away.” However, I decided to break my own rule today to offer a thought on the day Fred Phelps died.

I need to say, “I forgive you, Fred Phelps.” I know in my head that I need to say that. I know that is the Christian thing to do. I know that Jesus gave his life so that Fred Phelps would know the depth of God’s love for him, and receive the gift of everlasting life.

I know all that.

And yet I cannot stop thinking about all of the ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill homophobia that Fred Phelps’ extremism obscured.

Once a man told me he didn’t want any gay people to sing in church choir because he didn’t want one to put his hand on his knee in the middle of choir practice. Of course, he was no Fred Phelps …

Once a woman in a Bible study got upset that anyone would dare to “accuse” David and Jonathan of being gay. But now, at least she wasn’t Fred Phelps, you know…

Once a man said to me, with a chuckle and a wink, “I don’t care what they do in their personal lives, just so long as they don’t change the definition of marriage.” But hey! Fred Phelps…

It is very hard for me to forgive him for being the extreme that made the ordinary seem smaller.

Because I believe that the hidden homophobia that infects our society is actually a lot more dangerous than the extreme. The extreme is outlandish, a cartoon, a circus. It draws our collective attention away from more subtle but no less hateful actions. The devil is perfectly content for us to spend all our time and energy painting the porch while the true evil is working to erode away the foundation of the house, well outside of our collective attention span.

So let me just say this. Fred Phelps, you have no power over me. You have no power over any of my friends, neither those who happen to be gay nor those who happen to be homophobic. We no longer have you behind which to hide our ordinary homophobia. And now, if we will forgive you, that will set us free to love people – ALL people – like Jesus calls us to love.

We must no longer use your extreme ideas to hide our own hurtful attitudes and actions. Instead, we must confront them, confess them, and allow the grace of God to transform them. And in order for this to happen, we must forgive you. We know that we should. We know that if we do not, you will continue to hold this bizarre sort of power over us. And so…

Fred Phelps, we forgive you.

Dear God, receive Fred into the arms of your mercy, and raise him up with all your people.
Receive us as well. May we live as those who are prepared to die. And when our lives here are accomplished, may we die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love made known to us in Jesus Christ.