Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A National Trigger

The incident at the Lincoln Memorial over the weekend was a national trigger.

What we saw in the widely circulated videos depended on what we were looking for. I have very little interest in conflicting opinions currently being shared about “what really happened.” I have little interest in berating “the media” for bias or decrying viral videos shared on social media. The interactions among three very diverse groups of Americans triggered us, and I have a lot of interest in that.

The malevolent spirit at work in our nation lurks just under the surface, and it doesn’t take very much at all to unleash it. And this surreal malevolence doesn’t care about “what really happened” or the current realities of how we consume our information. The only thing on the agenda for this spirit is to keep us all mad at each other. And this week we got triggered.

This weekend, the malevolent spirit got exactly what it wanted.

By and large our leaders have also succumbed to its influence. At the federal and state level (at least) our elected and appointed leaders seem to do nothing to alleviate our anxiety. Caught up in the bizarre malevolence themselves, they seem to be helpless against its power. Instead of defusing, they add fuel. Instead of compromising, they double down. Instead of seeking common good, they seek reelection.

I have written about this phenomenon before, of course. And yet I am stymied. I continue to believe that the only force at work in the world capable of overcoming this malevolence is love. As I said back in September, “resisting the surreal malevolence at work in the world requires us to announce, advocate for, and embody true love.”

By "true love," I mean “a deep, bold love that is brutal in its honesty and equally brutal in its graciousness. A love that insists on authenticity and vulnerability. A love that is at the same time both pliable and unyielding. A love that is at the same time naked and wearing the full armor of God. A love that is the paradox of the deepest pain and the most ecstatic joy.”

Three diverse groups of people interacted in front of the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, and we were all triggered. As Lincoln gazed on, I wonder what he would have said, how he would have responded. Perhaps with something like…

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Beyond "Right" or "Wrong" - Thoughts on Interpretation

My dear progressive friends, of course it is possible to interpret the Bible as condemning same-sex marriage. It isn’t even very hard to arrive at that interpretation.

But, my dear conservative friends, a claim that the Bible itself directly condemns same-sex marriage is not supportable. It just doesn’t.

For someone who takes the Bible very seriously as a moral code intended to govern human behavior, this is the interpretive lens through which the entire book is read. And for one with such an interpretive lens, obedience to God is a matter of applying the text directly to personal behaviors. And sometimes you make a few interpretive steps to get there. And all of that is fine; we all do that.

So, in order to go from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to a belief that same-sex marriage should not happen in the church, you have to go through several interpretive steps.
- You have to interpret the Biblical euphemism “lie with” (the typical interpretation is “have sex with”).
- Since the passages only mention men, you have to interpret the passages as applying to both men and women, unless your claim is that same-sex marriage is only condemned for men but for women it is okay.
- You have to interpret sex as either synonymous with marriage or the only or primary reason someone would get married.
- You have to interpret the “as with a woman” (NRSV) part of the phrase from a heteronormative perspective. That is, you have to interpret it with the assumption that all men would in fact lie with a woman. (The truth is that gay men would not, so the strictest literal reading of these lines does not apply to a homosexual man.)

In order to go from Romans 1:27 to a belief that same-sex marriage should not happen in the church, you have to go through several similar interpretive steps.
- You have to interpret the “Therefore” in verse 24 and the “For this reason” in verse 26 in such a way that does not directly connect verse 27 to what has come before. (The previous verses are a description of idolatry.)
- You have to interpret words like “degrading,” “unnatural,” and “shameless” (NRSV) as applying to loving, mutually respectful, life-long, covenant relationships (i.e. marriages).
- You have to interpret marriage as consisting of being “consumed with passion for one another” (NRSV), or otherwise interpret degrading and shameless sex as synonymous with marriage or a primary reason for marriage, or have a preconceived notion that homosexual sex is inherently shameless and degrading.
- You have to interpret the “exchanging” and “giving up natural intercourse” from a heteronormative perspective. (For a gay woman for example, sex with another woman is in fact “natural.”)

And finally, in order to go from either of the other two scriptures frequently cited in this conversation, you have to interpret the practice of pederasty as being equivalent to marriage between two consenting adults who love each other very much and want nothing more than to spend the rest of their lives together as a married couple. The word “homosexual” is often used to translate the Greek in these two passages, even though the word wasn’t invented until the late 1800s and did not appear in translations of Scripture until the mid 1900s.

And the truth is, you can absolutely take those interpretive steps to arrive at the conclusion that same-sex marriage should therefore not be allowed in the church. The ample evidence of this truth is simply that a lot of people do.

However, what is unsustainable is to say without qualification that “the Bible condemns same-sex marriage.” The best you can do is say, “My interpretation of the Bible leads me to personally condemn same-sex marriage.”

And honestly, I do not begrudge my more conservative friends their belief. I just wish they would be honest about the interpretive steps they took to get there. Widespread unwillingness to do so has done great harm to people.

(And by the way my more progressive friends, same-sex marriage is certainly not directly blessed in the Bible, either. One must take some interpretive steps to arrive there as well. My own interpretation of the passages cited above involves condemnations of idolatry, promiscuity, child abuse (pederasty), and sexual violence – all things that I am glad the Bible condemns. And my own interpretations of numerous other passages lead me to a belief that a mutually respectful, gracious, loving, covenant relationship between two consenting adults is a beautiful thing, and one that the church should indeed celebrate and honor with marriage vows.)

Furthermore, I wish we could all be honest about the fact that there are indeed hateful and homophobic people in the church. It is infuriating and exhausting when every time hate and homophobia are pointed out, then begins the inevitable protests of “But not me! I’m just doing what the Bible says.” Okay, not you, dude. But can you at least acknowledge that it’s there, and speak up when you see it?

And finally, the very last thing I want to do is push someone away from a relationship with God. I lament that when there are differing interpretations of scripture that lead people to very different places, some Christians choose to double down on their own perspective even when it is hurtful, which inevitably builds barriers between people and Jesus. I personally would choose to err on the side of love and grace, offering a connection instead of severing it altogether.

In the United Methodist Church, we are far, far beyond arguing over whose interpretation of Scripture is “right.” There are a variety of interpretations of Scripture in our denomination. The discussion has shifted to, “What are we going to do about that?”

That conversation requires honesty, humility, and integrity. I fear the supply of these qualities may be too short in this present season to make any difference.

Friday, December 14, 2018

I Love My G-Man

We recently learned that our son Gabriel has a chromosomal deletion that will make it difficult for him to learn the same way other kids do. It will present itself in behaviors that are typically associated with autism. It can be hard for him to focus on a given task. It affects his balance and coordination and vision and muscle tone.

He’s going to struggle with a lot of life.

Recently Gabe told us that sometimes he sits by himself at recess because nobody at school wants to play with him. “On the outside always looking in, will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”

But here’s the thing - also recently, Gabe sang “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods, perfectly on pitch and able to recall almost all of the words.

His mind is beautiful. He is always creating, or watching videos about people creating. He likes to cook, and to prepare his meal with as many condiments as we will allow. No Lego brick is safe from his imagination; his constructions are legendary. To be outside under a tree digging in the dirt for hours would be his idea of the perfect afternoon. He does not like to throw things away, since they could be building materials for the fabulous machines he invents on a regular basis.

Gabe’s creativity helps him cope with his social anxiety. Kitty is Gabe’s constant companion, his very best friend. Sometimes when somebody asks him something, Gabe answers with a “Meow” that is so soft and subtle that it is really hard to hear. When Kitty gets lost, the world comes to a screeching halt until he is located. As Hobbes is to Calvin, Kitty is to Gabriel.

And he sings. His pitch memory is remarkable, his tone is angelic. Gabriel can hear a song one time, and then twenty minutes later we overhear him humming the tune to himself while he plays Legos. His best singing is done this way, when he is by himself, busy with some other task. There is music within him that bubbles up in not quite random ways.

Last week I saw this video, and it captivated me. Please give it a quick watch…

Our Gabe is the little mountain, gazing up at the strength and confidence of the big mountains, wanting what they have, not realizing that he has so much of his own beauty to offer.

Every kid has something to offer. Every kid matters. The ones who learn and think and see the world a bit differently than most of us have gifts that are beautiful and unique. It may not be strength or wealth or power as the word defines those things, nevertheless each and every kid needs to understand their inherent worth.

Please be careful, grown-ups. Just because a child isn’t acting like you think they should act, basically being smaller versions of you, doesn’t mean that they are being “bad” or that something is “wrong” with them. They don’t need to be fixed; they need to be seen, to be heard.

They need encouragement, enrichment, and support. They need patient teachers and compassionate friends. They need families who love them unconditionally.

They need to know that they matter.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Strange and Stirring"

I could be wrong, but ...

I have noted some resonance between the Methodist church of the reconstruction era and the United Methodist Church of the marriage equality era. I wonder if the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States in June of 2015 might just be as significant a moment for the church as emancipation was in January of 1863. Certainly not in the particulars, but a pivotal moment theologically nonetheless.

A phrase has been recurring in my mind just lately - “The Times Were Strange and Stirring.” It’s the title of a book by Reginald Hildebrand about the history of the church in the time just after the Civil War. In it, he summarizes Methodist responses to recently liberated slaves. In the introduction, Hildebrand writes:

“The emancipation of black southerners was both conventional and radical. It was conventional in the sense that, in their quest for freedom, the freedpeople did not try to alter the commonly held understandings of what that term meant. They did not challenge the fundamental political, social, or economic ideals of the American republic. Southern blacks wanted to direct their own lives: they wanted to have secure families, to be educated, to own property, to be protected by the law, and to participate in the political process. In short, their aspirations were very traditional. On the other hand, emancipation was radical in the sense that it challenged the omnipresent, multifaceted ideology of white supremacy which posited that blacks should be subordinate to whites in all areas of life. Some emancipationists tried to finesse that ideology by allowing freedom to be mediated through white paternalism. Others insisted on confronting the ideology head-on through a kind of black nationalism. Still others believed that the ideology of white supremacy could be transcended, and they tried to construct a new social order in which color would play no significant part.”(Hildebrand, p. xiv-xv, underlines are mine)

In many ways, marriage equality is also both conventional and radical. It is quite conventional in that same-sex couples want to raise families, to have jobs, to live equally under the law, to have a say in the way their communities function. And in another way, marriage equality is similarly quite radical in that it challenges long-held beliefs of heteronormativity that assume the exclusive validity of heterosexuality and the duality of complementary gender roles. I hear a definite resonance with Hildebrand’s observations around emancipation.

Further, Hildebrand notes three Methodist ecclesiological responses to emancipation. In his terms they are “white paternalism,” “black nationalism,” and “a new social order.” I see more connections here with the way churches have responded to people who are gay in the “marriage equality” era.

There is a kind of “straight paternalism” in churches with an ecclesiology that says that gay people are welcome because all sinners are welcome. And if we all will confess and repent then we will be saved. A church with such a theology can claim to be acting in love for people who are gay, out of a desire to save them from God’s punishment. The most drastic manifestation of “straight paternalism” is conversion therapy.

Secondly, it isn’t nationalism, but there is a distinct ecclesiology in churches whose theology is focused on issues pertaining to homosexuality to the exclusion of any other concerns. There is a perfectly understandable righteous indignation born of years of oppression, discrimination, and violence. The confidence, aggression, and energy of this theology will not rest until there is complete liberation from even the smallest hint of homophobia.

And finally there is a “new social order” type of ecclesiology that seeks to completely transcend homophobic ideology and to be a church in which sexual orientation plays no significant part. Churches with this theological perspective may address questions of marriage and ordination of people who are gay very selectively, if at all. Full inclusion is assumed, but not advertised.

It must be said that there is an obvious and crucial distinction to be made. The Methodist movement had already splintered into multiple denominations by the time emancipation came, and examination of the ecclesiology of that time consists in comparing different denominations, among them the AME, AME Zion, CME, ME North, and ME South churches. In the post-marriage-equality era, we are mostly talking about differing ecclesiologies within one denomination, in my particular case within the United Methodist Church.

If I had more time, I would love to be able to research more fully, and write more extensively about the post-marriage-equality church. The thoughts I have jotted above are really just ideas rumbling around in my noodle, and still very much in the early stages of development. It seems to me that there is something there, but I could be wrong.

If you have managed to slog through this far, please help me tune these ideas with your comments. This post was really one of those where I was writing mostly to get the ideas out of my head and onto the page, so I could see them and reflect.

One thing that I know for sure, we are once again living in times that are “strange and stirring.”

Monday, November 26, 2018

Beyond Expectations

There is a cultural standard for what Christmas “should” be. However, it is an illusion.

Preparing for the birth of Jesus, we too often buy into the illusion. I mean, how can we not? It surrounds us, saturating our world with priorities designed to fatten the bottom line of big box stores and shopping websites. We are cajoled into creating “the perfect Christmas,” and you are in luck, because it just so happens to be on sale today!

But what if this year we set a different standard? What if the standard for Christmas was grace? How would that look? What would that feel like? What would change?

Maybe we ought to stop preparing ourselves for Christmas according to what Pinterest tells us it should look like, and start preparing ourselves for Christmas according to the words of the prophets and the compelling “Prepare the way of the Lord!” we hear from the wilderness.

This year’s Advent worship series at Campbell UMC is titled “Beyond Expectations: A Season of Grace.” I am hopeful that the intense, taxing expectations we often feel at this time of year will be lessened as we focus our hearts and minds on “the dawn of redeeming grace” that should relieve our stress, rather than increase it.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Active Gratitude: A Thanksgiving Parable

A family returned home one evening to discover they had been given a gift. A brown cardboard box sat on their porch. They brought the box in, and opened it.

Inside was a set of fine china - plates, bowls, glasses, silverware - the works. It was beautiful!

The family was so grateful. "Let's use them tonight at supper," they said.

And so they did. They set the table beautifully, and enjoyed a delightful dinner together on their brand new china. It was marvelous.

When supper was over, they said, "Welp, we're done with that!" And they gathered all the plates, bowls, glasses, and silverware together and threw it all away.


A second family returned home one evening to discover they had been given a gift. A brown cardboard box sat on their porch. They brought the box in, and opened it.

Inside was a set of fine china - plates, bowls, glasses, silverware - the works. It was beautiful!

The family was so grateful. "Let's make sure this amazing gift never ever gets broken," they said.

And so they wrapped up each piece in bubble wrap, stashed it away in a storage bin, and put the bin in their attic. In a week, they had forgotten that it was there.


A third family returned home one evening to discover they had been given a gift. A brown cardboard box sat on their porch. They brought the box in, and opened it.

Inside was a set of fine china - plates, bowls, glasses, silverware - the works. It was beautiful!

The family was so grateful. "Let's use them tonight at supper," they said.

And so they did. They set the table beautifully, and enjoyed a delightful dinner together on their brand new china. It was marvelous.

When supper was over, they cleared the table together. They washed each piece in warm, soapy water. They dried each piece with a soft, fluffy towel. They stored them away carefully in their kitchen cabinets.

When all of the pieces were cared for, the family said, "I can't wait for supper tomorrow! Let's invite our friends over so we can share this beautiful gift!"

And as time passed and dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of meals were shared with generations of family, neighbors, and friends, pieces of the china would chip, glasses would crack, silverware would get tarnished. But to be honest, nobody really noticed.


In active gratitude for all we have received, may we use our gifts to serve God and neighbor, spreading love, offering grace, and living at peace with one another. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Diversity Without Division

The United Methodist Church is not divided, it is diverse.

This distinction is crucial to understand in these weeks leading up to February's General Conference session. The practice of ministry looks very different from one region to another, from one town to another, even from one congregation to another in the same town, and even within one congregation!

And in this diversity of ministry, we are still the United Methodist Church. I am not sure when "diversity" became a bad thing, but among many it seems to be so. We are a beautifully, frustratingly diverse church; some people celebrate that and others dig in their heels against it.

Among the things we do very differently across the denomination are some practices that comprise the very heart of Christian discipleship: worship, Holy Communion, mission and service work, small group processes. Our buildings are diverse, our staffing structures are diverse, our administrative processes are diverse. We are a diverse denomination. (Or, as I have said before, we are a "holy mess.")

So, let me get to my point. In the United Methodist Church today, there are pastors who officiate at same-sex weddings, congregations that host same-sex weddings, and ordained clergy who are gay and out. And in the United Methodist Church there are pastors who will not officiate at same-sex weddings, congregations that refuse to host them, and conferences and bishops who would never ordain a person if they are gay and out.

That's the reality. That's what is happening now. And some look at that reality and see "division" whereas some see "diversity."

In addition, there are already a processes in place in our denomination to respond to all of that. We have processes by which we seek a "just resolution" to conflict. Paragraph 362 of our Book of Discipline says, "This review shall have as its primary purpose a just resolution of any violations of this sacred trust, in the hope that God’s work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Christ."

The just resolution process allows for dialogue and relies on relationship. It means that one case may look very different from another, and be resolved in a very different way. And while that frustrates some, I would much rather have a flexible system that can be contextualized easily than a rigid system of automatic responses that we try to apply to every case everywhere, for all time.

Beyond that, there are already processes in place by which an individual member, a pastor, or a congregation can exit the denomination. There are connectional, structural, and financial implications in those processes, of course, and relationships that need healing and restoration as a result. Nevertheless we already have these processes in place. Those processes are utilized every year, as people and congregations decide to not be United Methodist any more.

We are "Methodists;" we have methods for doing everything we do!

My point is saying this is simply this. In practice, not a lot is going to change after this upcoming General Conference, no matter what happens there.

Pastors will continue to marry same-sex couples - the question is are we going to change our denominational policy to formally allow it.

People who are gay will continue to be ordained - the question is are we going to change our denominational policy to formally allow it.

For some, the answers to these questions will be a hard NO. For the "hard no" people on the right, it is a matter of Biblical obedience. But there are "hard no" people on the left as well, for whom just "allowing" it is not enough; it is a matter of Biblical justice and therefore our denominational policy needs to "mandate" it. This reflects the polarization in which we live these days.

If I may offer an unpopular opinion - the far right (and maybe the far left as well) will leave the United Methodist Church no matter what happens next February. And then in 2020 at the next General Conference we'll address the new reality and look toward the future.

And listen Linda, if we think the decision made at General Conference 2019 is going to "fix" the church once and for all, we are naive and short-sighted. There is no one easy way to "fix" our brokenness; salvation is a life-long endeavor.

But one thing we can do toward that end is to understand the distinction between divided and diverse, and to reclaim diversity as a healthy, beautiful characteristic of the church.

CLICK HERE to see my sermon about the Trinity in which I explore the idea of diversity without division and unity without uniformity.