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.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Second Sunday

After a wave of “first Sundays” across the connection, United Methodist pastors woke up to discover it is week two, and another Sunday is right around the corner.

We celebrated last weekend, pulled out all the stops, wore all the nametags, shook all the hands. Preachers brought their "A" game. Musicians filled sanctuaries with joyous praise. Hospitality teams polished up welcome desks. And it was wonderful! It was a party! There was cake! Everyone was there to check out the new pastor, and it felt like a big family reunion where one of the kids is bringing home a new significant other for everyone to meet.

It was great.

And guess what … this coming Sunday is just as important. I might even go so far as to say that this coming Sunday is even more important. A one-time celebration of a special event is awesome and spectacular and fun, and I don’t want to take anything away from all the good stuff that United Methodist churches did last weekend. It was a mountaintop moment.

Faithful, fruitful discipleship is more than just mountaintops. Following Jesus is comprised of mountaintop moments that are connected by long stretches of valley, and those valleys are where life happens. Those valleys are where faith is tested. Those valleys are where we grow and learn and serve and share.

The good news is that there’s another mountaintop coming. We get one a week, actually! How cool is that? When we gather together to be the church at worship, whether it is the new pastor’s first Sunday or the old pastor’s one thousand first, it is the day the Lord has made and we ought to rejoice and be glad in it.

For a lot of us, this weekend will be the second Sunday (or Saturday) of a new appointment. And I hope we pull out all the stops and bring our "A" games and fill the room with joyous praise. Yes, again. Because God is worth it.

God’s grace comes both in periodic bursts of brilliance and in slow, steady streams. We live in valleys interspersed with occasional mountaintop moments. Growing in faithfulness means learning how to navigate both.

It’s the second Sunday, week two. There may not be cake this week. Get up and go worship anyway. I’ll see y’all in church.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Delegation Election Thoughts

Here’s what I think happened in the delegation elections at the Missouri Annual Conference in 2019. (For background, click the lead story of this conference daily journal.)

It was about principles, not labels.

The national UMC Next gathering generated four clear, succinct principles. Written as commitments, these principles provide an unambiguous way for people to self-identify. Labels like conservative, centrist, and liberal can mean different things to different people and at different times. I am conservative in some ways and progressive in others. Does that then make me an aggregate centrist?

Instead of those subjective terms, the Missouri UMC Next group took the four commitments and asked potential delegates if they supported them. People were then able to say, “Yes, I affirm the four principles of the UMC Next movement,” rather than, “I am a centrist” or some other nebulous label.

It made some people mad.

I am truly sorry that some people were upset or angry or disappointed by the lack of theological diversity on the Missouri delegation. And to be honest, in past years I would have shared their disappointment. I am an advocate for a “big table” church in which many different theological perspectives have a voice. But this isn’t “past years;” this is a profoundly significant time in the history of Methodism.

In this season, I am particularly mindful of the voices who for decades have been at best only partly included at the table if not excluded completely. And one of the UMC Next commitments is to “build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.” Actually, that sounds like a pretty big table to me!

It was driven by hope and trust.

At a pre-conference meeting of 225 people or so, hosted by the Missouri UMC Next group, there was a notable buzz in the room. I said to my colleague Lori, “There’s a lot of energy tonight.”

Lori looked at me and without missing a beat said, “It’s hope.”

There was a generally positive, hopeful outlook among those who affirmed the UMC Next principles. The 2019 General Conference had sucked a lot of life out of a lot of people, and here for the first time since February were some tangible ways to respond. That generated a lot of really good hopeful energy.

This hopefulness spilled over in an abundance of trust. The Missouri UMC Next list of suggested delegates would have been nobody’s personal preference from one to twelve.  The names came from a series of regional meetings held all over the state, countless personal conversations, and several flurries of group emails. There was broad participation, as many, many people connected in a variety of ways to pray and talk and discern together.

So yes, people were voting for people they had never actually met before. Nobody knew each and every one of the slate, much less had spoken to each one about how they would serve on the delegation. But here’s what happened - personal preferences were set aside, because if you didn’t know someone on the list, you knew someone who knew them. It was relational and organic, the Methodist connection working like the connection can and maybe should.

It was a small part of a great awakening.

Here in our conference, there has been a reluctance to dialogue about points of disagreement. Sidestepping difficult conversations has generated an ethos that some would describe as unity. I do not see it as unity; I see it as conflict avoidance.

But the church is awake now, in a way it hasn’t been before. It happened all over the country at one annual conference session after another. United Methodists are pretty strongly rejecting the petitions passed at General Conference 2019 and the manner in which they were passed. And while that doesn’t mean we ought to seek out conflict, it very clearly means we will no longer be avoiding it for the sake maintaining a veneer of artificial unity.

There are so many things that are going to happen between now and General Conference 2020, and nobody knows how everything is going to shake out. Bishop Farr said at our Annual Conference session this year, “The United Methodist Church is experiencing an earthquake. But maybe we need to be shaken up.”

However you view this season in the UMC, very few can deny that Easter people are raising their voices all over the place. Hope and trust and grace and love abound! God’s Holy Spirit is alive and on the move!

The church is awake. It is glorious. It is terrifying. It is in God’s hands. All shall be well. Amen.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

"A Huge Thunderclap"

The United Methodist Church lost a long-time member a couple of weeks ago. He's still going to be active, will still come to worship and be very faithful in a lot of areas of the church.

He just doesn't want to be a member. At least not at the moment.

Here's part of what he said in his letter, shared with his permission:

"I've been reading, listening, and pondering about what's going on within the Methodist Church surrounding the position that has been taken regarding 'we are inclusive but not really.'

"As a result, I've come to the conclusion that I can no longer be a member of an organization that does not reflect my personal belief on whether members of the LGBT etc. community are 'full' members of the church. By 'full' I mean they have the right to become clergy and to be married in a Methodist Church by a Methodist pastor. ...

"This is my protest to the direction the UMC has decided to go at this time. As a protest I'm very aware that it is not going to be a huge thunderclap in the Annual Conference and/or General Conference. Heck, it probably won't even be heard.

"I believe the UMC needs to assess itself as whether it should continue to be a single philosophy world-wide religion or if it should split into conferences that reflect the people that each serves. There are too many cultural differences across the world for a single [denomination] to try to be 'one for all.'"

(Can I just say how much respect and admiration I have for my friend and brother in Christ? And then can I just say how much my heart breaks at how harmful the United Methodist Church has been to so many people for so long?)

There is some thunder that cracks, very loudly, very suddenly. It startles you, makes you jump.

But there is other thunder that starts slow and rumbles, you almost don't hear it at first but it builds slowly and gradually until before you know it the windows are rattling and the sound fills your ears.

The United Methodist Church is experiencing that second kind of thunder. Little by little, one member at a time, the denomination is shaking apart. I have heard Bishop Farr refer to it as "death by a thousand cuts." It will only increase. Soon it will be rattling our windows and shaking the very foundations of our church.

By that time we will be forced to do what we might be able to get ahead of right now, if we have the will to do so. We have to say "no" to the "traditional plan." We have to eliminate discrimination in our church. We have to embrace our rich Wesleyan theology. We have to advocate for goodness, justice, equality, and love.

At the moment "We are inclusive but not really," as he puts it.

And the thunder rolls.