Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"I Believe IN ... "

We saw the new Wonder Woman movie last week, and loved every minute of it! Among the most noteworthy moments is when the title character says, “My mother was right about the world; she said they didn’t deserve me …” To which Captain Steve Trevor responds, “Maybe it’s not what you deserve, but what you believe. And I believe this war should end. If you believe the same, then help me stop it.”
            Near the end of the movie, Wonder Woman says, “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.” (A bit cliche, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful.)
            That got me thinking about what it means to “believe” something, as opposed to “believe in” something. How are those two ideas different? Dictionary definitions of “believe” include “to accept something as true” and “to hold an opinion.”
            But the definition changes a bit when you add the word “in.” To “believe in” can be “to have confidence in the existence of something,” but also can be defined as “to have trust in the goodness, value, or ability of something or someone.”
            And what people of faith say is that we “believe in” God. Which seems to me to mean more than just think God exists. It seems to have more to do with that second definition, to trust in God’s goodness.
            And since it has to do with trust, that must mean that “believing in” God is more about an ongoing relationship than just accepting a list of doctrines as true, or to hold a certain set of opinions.
The historic creeds of the church all begin with the phrase “believe in,” and that should be a poignant reminder that religion is, at its heart, a relationship. The church is not the institution, not the structure, not the doctrines - the church is the living expression of humanity’s relationship with God. This, I believe!

Friday, July 14, 2017

"Dear Provider"

“Dear Provider:

This letter is being sent as notice that the department, as a result of a reduction in appropriations for foster care, adoption, and legal guardianship maintenance services, will be reducing your maintenance amount equal to one-and-a-half percent (1.5%) effective July 1, 2017.


Sincerely,

Procurement Unit
Division of Finance and Administrative Services”

We got two letters from the Missouri Department of Social Services this past week. The one quoted above refers to our adoption subsidy contract with the state.

The second applies to our contract with the state to provide Professional Foster Care, Emergency Foster Care, and Foster Respite Care. The good news in that letter was that our contract had been renewed another year. (Huzzah.) But the second paragraph noted that “the amount appropriated for maintenance services will be decreased by one-and-a-half percent (1.5%).”

Every foster and adoptive family in the state of Missouri got similar letters last week. “Dear Provider: ... ” Our society has deteriorated (regressed?) to the point at which fiscal conservatism has become an accepted reason to make it harder for abused and neglected children to find safe and loving homes. This is life now. Or as John Oliver put it, “This is something, as long as we live in a world where something means anything, and I'm not sure we do anymore.”

This from the State of Missouri, which already had one of the lowest foster care compensation levels in the nation. And by the way, no we are not “doing it for the money.” And by the way, yes we will actually feel this reduction, and have to adjust our household budget as a result.

But rather than demonize Governor Greitens (and if I let my anger govern my reaction, I could, believe me!), I’ll just say that I wish he would have been honest. I understand he’s trying to balance the budget, but it would have been nice for him to be honest about it.

Last month, he said this:  “Our state has 13,000 children in the foster care system. They are, both in law and spirit, Missouri's children. Our kids. We recognize the potential of kids in foster care. We honor hard-working foster parents. And we've got a lot of work to do in Missouri to fight for, work with, and build a better system for our foster families.” Click here. 

I’d like to highlight one particular sentence: “We honor hard-working foster parents.”

Okay, I’m gonna just stop you there, Guv. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot stage an adorable photo op with (what we assume is) a group of foster kids, talk about how you will “fight for” us and “work with” us to take care of foster kids, and then MERE WEEKS LATER send us generic letters ("Dear Provider:") informing us that you are cutting our compensation. Because that’s pretty much the opposite.

The governor has not in fact honored us, and so I am expecting him to issue a public apology for his previous statement. I don’t know the process for an official government retraction, but he needs to do it.

So Governor, here’s a suggestion: “Dear Provider: In order to balance our State budget, we are going to need to cut pay to foster and adoptive families across the state. I realize this does not honor their hard work, and in fact many providers will see this as an insult. However, I think that a balanced budget is more important than fairly compensating them.”

Just be honest with us. Please.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Just No, Just Yes, and Everything In Between

Views on Same-Sex Marriage - A Typology

A - Just no.

B - Yes for state / No for church.

C - Yes for state / No for church (But yes for churches blessing relationships somehow, just not marriage.)

D - Yes for state / Yes for some denominations / No for my denomination.

E - Yes for state / Yes for some congregations, even in my denomination / No for my particular congregation.

F - Yes for state / Yes for all churches, even my particular congregation / No for me.

G - Just yes.

And so one can clearly see that this is not a simple either/or proposition. (And this is really a sketch; I’m sure there are several variations to my A-G list above.)

For any helpful conversation to happen about marriage equality, the parties must first understand one another’s perspective clearly. Reality is much more nuanced than we are often led to believe; it is not as simple as being either “for” it or “against” it.

And adding to the complexity of the situation is the undeniable fact that some people are not very nice when they are discussing their position. And some people think that their position is the only valid position. And as it turns out many people who think their position is the only valid position also happen to be the same people who are not very nice when they are discussing their position.

But the point I really want to make here is this: Not everyone who is “against” same-sex marriage is a hateful homophobic bigot … AND … not everyone who is “for” same-sex marriage is a morally bankrupt atheist hippie. (I’m using hyperbole to emphasize the point.) Certainly such people exist, but they are a tiny (albeit loud) minority.

The truth is, life is complex. People are vibrantly diverse, and it is risky make simplistic either/or assumptions about what an individual thinks about same-sex marriage.

Specific UMC Thoughts:
As my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, seeks away forward when it comes to our official stance on marriage, I hope we can remember this. When a compromise is proposed to the General Conference in February of 2019, it is far from certain whether it will pass. If we can remember how vibrantly diverse we are, it may. If we dig in our heels with “our way or the highway” thinking, it likely will not.

The General Conference deck is stacked for conflict. Our General Conference is designed to force either/or, black-and-white, for or against opposition. And it does what it is designed to do quite well. In 2016, we tried to be different, more conversational and relational. But in order to do so we had to pass a rule that would allow us to, “Rule 44.” And guess what? To pass “Rule 44,” we used the oppositional, either/or system in which we are stuck. So … it didn’t pass and we were right back at it.

The thing is, our congregations aren’t like that. Our congregations are people who are scattered across the spectrum and kind of clumped in the middle of it. And in general our congregations are much more willing to compromise on same-sex marriage than our delegates to General Conference are.

I pray no one will decide to leave our denomination as a result of the upcoming 2019 General Conference meeting, though it is almost certain that some will. (Indeed, some already have.) At the very least, I hope we will be gracious toward those who decide to leave, and refrain from making assumptions about their motivations for doing so.

I have heard my colleagues say, “If we allow same-sex marriages in our congregations it will hurt the mission of the church in my context.” To them I say, “Then don’t do any.”

Now I’m wondering, will those same colleagues hear me when I say, “If we continue to prohibit same-sex marriages in our congregations it will hurt the mission of the church in my context.” What will be their reply to me?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"So That's a 'Yes?'" or, "How to Push a Foster Dad's Button Without Really Trying"

The “car rider line” at school is not my favorite place to be. Just in general. So I was already kind of grumpy as I picked up the fifth grader at the end of the day.

Then, after the fifth grader was loaded, a teacher leaned into the front passenger window. She stood there, elbows planted on the door, preventing me from moving on, dozens of cars behind me, dozens of kids waiting to be picked up witnessing the exchange, several other teachers watching closely.

She proceeded to describe the fifth grader’s behavior in her class. She’s the art teacher, which is only relevant because she lacks any day-to-day interaction with our fifth grader. That is to say, she doesn’t know him. Now, what he did was not okay, but pretty typical behavior for him. I listened to her, and then at the end of the story she said, “…and I’d like you to talk to him about it.”

“Thank you,” I replied. I thought that would end it, so that we could go home and I could parent the fifth grader appropriately, in the way that would work best for him.

But no, that didn’t end it.

She said, “So, that’s a ‘yes?’”

Now, I have never met this person, she’s obviously never met me, so I was able to utilize a fairly successful filter on what I actually wanted to say to her. Something along the lines of “I’ve parented eighteen children, ma’am. I know what I’m doing. Get your elbows off of my car so we can be on our way. And by the way, mind your own business.” [*Filtered.]

“So, that’s a ‘yes?’”

And what I actually said was, “You need to know that this isn’t helping.”

“What?”

“This isn’t helping,” I repeated.

“What isn’t helping?” she asked.

“This conversation. Shaming him in front of me, in front of the other teachers, in front of his peers. This is going to make it worse.”

“I’m not shaming him. I’m saying you have to talk about it with him. His behavior was unacceptable.”

I may have sighed. “Please, just try to learn the full story here. Talk to the principal please. Get the full story.”

“So are you going to talk about it with him?” Persistence is not always a virtue.

I said, “Please just trust me. You are making things worse. You need to get the full story.”

Whether it was my words or the impatient glares of the dozens of parents in the cars behind us, I don’t know. But she took her elbows off the car and said, “Oh, I will get the full story.”

“Thank you. I think that will help,” I said and drove away.

The fifth grader in the back seat is our foster son. Let’s call him “David.” 12 years old. Been with us all school year and in less than two weeks is transitioning back home again.

And so because of this impending transition David is currently in the process of sabotaging every positive relationship he has formed over the past year. He is doing this so that when he gets back home again he will be able to talk about how much he hated it, how bad things were, how everyone treated him so poorly. This will in turn allow his home life to appear happy and healthy. (And of course we hope it truly will be.)

So he is sabotaging his relationships … with me, my wife Erin, our son Gabe, every teacher (including Art Teacher), the principal (who has been his biggest fan all year long – she is awesome), people at church, the kid next door that he loves to play with, and on and on. The only relationship he hasn't attempted to dismantle, as far as I can tell, is with our neighbor Rob, who lets him play basketball in his driveway.

He is infecting these relationships with bad feelings. Probably not on purpose, but at a subconscious level, in a way that would provide all kinds of fascinating material for a psychology student’s term paper. Of course we are on to him; we can see exactly what is going on and so we are trying to respond accordingly, with patience and affirmation.

But Art Teacher is clueless. Because she doesn’t know him, doesn’t know his story, doesn’t know what’s going on in his life. I am not upset with Art Teacher for telling us about David’s behavior, you understand. (She should have emailed us.) I am upset because I tried to deal with it in the way that would be most helpful, and she, out of her ignorance, would not allow that to happen.

See, when David is caught doing something inappropriate and you confront him about it, he doubles down on it. He does it more. That is especially true when you confront him about it in front of other people. And it is even worse when the other people are his peers.

He postures and puffs up and acts very “macho,” says ridiculous things like, “Well I’m gonna tell everyone that Santa isn’t real” and “Nobody really likes Michael Jackson.” And yes, that is actually hilarious, but as for addressing the actual behavior in question, it isn’t effective.

And see, I know that about him. And I know what he is going through, how the anxiety and fear about moving back home is subconsciously motivating his destructive attitudes and behaviors. Even knowing that, even knowing him … it’s hard. It hurts. It’s frustrating. It feels like failure.

And so I guess one of the reasons Art Teacher pushed a button in me yesterday is that she just knew that simply “talking with him” about it was going to fix it, and therefore I heard her “So that’s a ‘yes?’” as an indictment of our failure to help David negotiate this difficult season.

When we got home, I asked David about what Art Teacher had said. He postured, puffed up, got defensive, and explained himself to me. And so it goes.

But it was just him and me, so it was manageable. It ended with me telling him, “You are not in charge of how other people act. You are only in charge of yourself, your own choices.”

And he mumbled “I don’t care” and went to play basketball at Rob’s.

And so it goes.

At least he was getting some exercise.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter Expectation

We would like to be those two angels sitting in the tomb, safe with our insider information. Smiling at those outside, “Why are you crying?” without sharing what we know, namely that Jesus is alive again.

We would like to be those two disciples, running as fast as possible to the tomb, peeking quickly inside, and then running as fast as possible back home again without even glancing back, to lock the door and take care of ourselves.

The truth is we are more often Mary Magdalene, unsure of what exactly is going on, confused, hurting, tears filling our eyes, with no idea what will happen next.

And yet alert, aware, and strong enough to stay anyway. The thing is, Mary stays. She sticks with it. She stands firm. It’s obvious she expects something, although exactly what she isn’t certain. But of course, there’s a difference between “expectation” and “certainty.”

Expectation means you know that this present moment is not all there is. Expectation is understanding that there is more, even if you aren’t certain what that “more” actually looks like.

Expectation is what compelled Mary Magdalene to stay, in spite of her pain, her grief. And through her tears, in the darkness, she saw … someone. Someone who called her by name.

“Mary.”

And there it was. “Oh. You know me! And yes, I know you. Oh, it’s you.” And just like that, expectation was fulfilled, as she saw Jesus, living and breathing and walking and talking. Jesus.

Easter is all about expectation. And that doesn’t mean that we know exactly what will happen next; it just means we know Jesus. And more importantly, that we are known by him.

And now we carry that expectancy into every moment of every day, and it gives us hope. Life is uncertain, the world is a violent place, there will be struggle, grief, obstacles to overcome. None of that goes away just because it’s Easter.

What has changed is that our lives have been infused with expectation, and we know that our present reality isn’t the end of the story. Easter assures us that, no matter how bad things are, expectation will be fulfilled. If we stick with it like Mary did, we will see Jesus.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hidden From Your Eyes

This is a picture of a pew in St. George’s Coptic Church in Tanta, Egypt.

I do not want to look at it. I cannot stop looking at it.

I’d rather it was hidden from our eyes.

There is blood on this pew because a Daesh terrorist detonated a bomb in this sanctuary during worship, killing 27 people and wounding 78 more. (A few hours later another Daesh terrorist detonated another bomb at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt, killing 17 more people and wounding another 48.)

It was Palm Sunday.

It was the day on which the Bible says Jesus said these words: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’”

I wish I could stop looking at this picture. There is a smear on the back of the pew, apparently made by someone’s fingers in the drips of blood running down. Had those fingers been moments earlier waving a palm branch?

Hosanna, indeed.

We waved palm branches on Sunday, too. Young and old alike sang familiar songs from pews not that much different from the ones in this picture. As we did, our kids paraded around those pews a few times, holding their branches over their heads, smiling at the grown-ups smiling back at them, caught up in the joyful energy of the moment.

And then, you know, we went home and ate lunch.

I suppose I’ll never really understand what motivates violence like this, how such hatred and fear of the other takes root in the human heart, corrupting us, eroding us, minimizing us.

A sensible explanation is hidden from my eyes. Hatred warps the human soul. Violence only ever causes more violence. Fear distorts truth, casting instead a shadow of grotesque and horrifying false reality.

It’s the Palm Sunday juxtaposition that won’t let me go this time. Save us! From halfway around the world, a picture of a bloody church pew. A phrase from Jesus Christ Superstar that says “To conquer death, you only have to die.” A so-called “triumphant” entry, deeply misunderstood then as well as today. A cheering crowd of people who know not what they do. Waving palms, breaking bread, driving nails.

What has changed?

We’re just stuck here. Stuck between Palm Sunday and the cross. Cheers and lament. In between “Hosanna” and “Crucify.” The next big thing is already old news. That which is in plain sight is simultaneously hidden from our eyes. Spiritual déjà vu.

If I didn’t know better, I would say that it feels like we need a resurrection.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

There Is More Than One Way

The other day my friend Valerie asked me, “Can I come to your church?”
I replied, “Yes! Of course!”
And then her face lit up and she said, “I never realized there was another way to do it!”

The “it” she was referring to was the sacrament of Holy Communion. We had just had pre-opening night Communion on stage together with many of the cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It was a wonderful, holy moment. And it was different from what she had experienced before.

Valerie had grown up in one particular tradition, and thought that there was pretty much only that one way that “counted.” And of course it is deeper than just how you do Holy Communion. The antecedent of the pronoun “it” in Valerie’s statement truly refers to the church in general. Her observation is profound, and the church needs to listen hard.

Yes, there is more than one way to do church.

How many people grew up being told that there is only one way to do it? Or how many were told, “Well, there may be other ways, but there’s only one right way?” Or how many of us grew up maybe not being told that explicitly, but at least were never encouraged to seek other ways of being in relationship with God?

I believe that people long for meaning. And some stuff that is very meaningful to me is not going to be the slightest bit meaningful to you, and vice versa. And that’s okay. It’s not that my way is “right” and yours is “wrong,” it’s just that my way is meaningful to me and yours is meaningful to you. Unless, of course, someone’s way does harm to another - then that’s not okay. That way is wrong and it needs to be challenged.

When it comes to our relationship with the divine, our religion, who am I to say that the meaning you have discovered in your way is not right, just because it doesn’t work for me?

Is not God capable of relating to people in whatever way God chooses? Or would I dare to suggest a limit on God’s capacity to interact with the world? (Spoiler: No, I would not.)

And so listen up, Church. Listen to my friend Valerie. She wants to know that there are other ways to do it. She wants to discover her own unique relationship with God, not be told what it has to look like. She wants a relationship with God that means something to her, not necessarily the one any of the rest of us would find meaningful. And of course, she’s not the only one.

So, we have to quit insisting that one, narrowly defined, rigidly constructed way of being the church is the only way to do it. Our systems and structures have to be flexible enough to offer connection and community for a diverse collection of people, such that each one of us finds opportunities to encounter God in our midst.

There is more than one way to encounter God. There is more than one way to follow Jesus.

There is more than one way to be the Church.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Playing Pilate

“Because it’s fun to play a bad guy,” is the superficial answer I give when someone asks me why I wanted to play Pilate. And that is true. It is engaging for me as an actor to portray a “bad guy” in a show. There are more layers of the character to reveal.

But for me, playing Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar is much deeper than that. Ever since I was a kid listening to my parent’s LP, I have been intrigued by how Pilate is portrayed in Superstar. In fact, the Bible itself portrays Pilate as a more complicated figure than he is often given credit for.

And his story, as the early church told it, is similarly complicated. Some early documents indicate he converted to become a follower of Jesus himself. The Coptic tradition considers him to be a martyr. The date and manner of his death are subject to scholarly debate, which is odd for such a notable figure. Augustine believed that Pilate was sincere when he wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (see John 19:19-22). “It could not be torn from his heart that Jesus was the King of the Jews,” Augustine wrote.

So I am working with a lot of “back story” to enter into this character and attempt to convey at least some of that nuance and complexity on stage. And here’s what I’ve got…

Pilate has been appointed to Jerusalem, in the Jewish nation of Judea, to be the head Roman in charge. But he is not the least bit engaged with governing the people. In fact he would rather just isolate himself in his palace and let the temple leaders handle their own business. As long as there’s no trouble, as long as the people stay quiet and continue to pay their taxes, as long as Caesar’s attention is not turned this direction, all is well. No news is good news.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus draws the aloof Pilate into the story against his will, kicking and screaming. The first pull comes when Pilate is haunted by a vision in which Pilate sees Jesus, though he only knows him as a random Galilean. Pilate confronts him, but gets no response, and since Pilate is a man accustomed to people responding, this alone is noteworthy. Suddenly Pilate witnesses Jesus attacked by wild and angry men who disappear into the mist, a puzzling development. The vision shifts into an image of countless people grieving for Jesus, and the deepest cut of all, they seem to be leaving Pilate the blame for his death.

This dream has shaken Pilate, enough that he feels compelled to share it, to talk about it. He has no idea what it means, but he cannot let it go. The most amazing Galilean in his dream has looked directly into his hidden self, and left an imprint that cannot be erased.

And so, when the temple leaders bring Jesus to him, it comes as somewhat of a relief to see that he is a rather ordinary, unfortunate man. Not a king at all. Pilate is actually bemused,  if somewhat annoyed, at this initial encounter with Jesus, and he even connects with him on a personal level, bantering a bit, admiring how cool Jesus is under pressure.

But Pilate gets bored easily, and after all this is just a random smelly Galilean, so Pilate dismisses him - Herod’s race? Herod’s case!

Jesus does not stay long at Herod’s place, however. All too quickly he is dragged back to Pilate, and the point is clear. His role in the drama is limited. “We need him crucified, it’s all you have to do,” say the leaders of the temple.

Pilate resists. First of all, Pilate does not take orders from anyone in Judea. He is naturally inclined to minimize the significance of a demand coming from the temple. And so he initially attempts to laugh it off, to wave it away like a persistent swarm of gnats.

And then there is a moment. The crowd is still, Pilate kneels next to Jesus whose eyes meet his, looking directly into his hidden self, and a phrase from his dream floats through the room. In this moment things begin to change; from here the energy builds relentlessly toward the inevitable conclusion.

Hoping to avoid killing him, Pilate decides to flog Jesus. Many times before, public flogging has been enough. Perhaps that will satisfy the crowd this time, too. But something happens as the punishment is enforced. What begins as a mundane event, chilling in its ordinariness, becomes a disturbing, horrifying, and convicting act of savagery.

Something inside of Pilate cracks.

It is just at this moment, when he is the most vulnerable, the most exposed, that grace comes to Pilate. “You have nothing in your hands,” Jesus tells him. “Everything is fixed and you can’t change it.” Jesus absolves Pilate of blame, removing from his hands the shame and guilt of this atrocity.

But grace, as it often is, is difficult to receive. The shock of it terrifies Pilate, and deepens the fissures in his soul. He struggles to keep himself together, to regain control.

The crowd spots the weakness and intensifies their pressure, leaning on Pilate, pressing him, shouting at him. “Remember Caesar!” they yell, which of course adds a whole new dimension to the torment. If news of this disturbance somehow gets to Caesar’s ears, the consequences get serious for Pilate. The weight is enormous, unrelenting, eroding his resistance, crushing him.

And finally … he breaks.

Pilate shatters into a thousand pieces, his thoughts reduced to a nearly indecipherable shriek. “DIE, if you want to! You innocent puppet…”

And he exits. He has become the broken man, the unfortunate, good for nothing but cluttering up a hallway. He tries to wash his hands of Christ’s great self-destruction, but finds them indelibly stained.

And yet, there was a glance. There was a hint. A seed of grace has been planted deeply in his hidden self. We are left to wonder if it will take root and blossom.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

There Will Be A Church

It could happen this way…


In 2024 there will be three denominations that include the 12 million people who currently comprise the United Methodist denomination.

There will be the Wesleyan Covenant Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, though they will emphasize the Scriptural authority part a bit more. They will not allow gay people to get married or ordained, and will be explicit about stating such.

There will be a Progressive Methodist Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, though they will emphasize the grace part a bit more. They will allow gay people to get married or ordained, and will be explicit about stating such.

There will be a United Methodist Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, and will constantly wrestle with the tensions that inevitably arise when Scripture is read through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience. They will remove sexual orientation and gender identity as barriers to marriage and ordination, leaving authority to make those decisions in the hands of pastors and Annual Conferences.

The three new denominations will be in “full communion” with one another. This means that they are unified in the essentials of the faith but recognize clear differences of opinion regarding how a holy life is to be lived. We will be able to celebrate Holy Communion together. There will be a way to recognize ordination among the three, though I’m sure there would be extensive discussion as to how that would look. And most importantly, we will share a common commitment to the mission of the Church.

At some point, maybe in 40 years, maybe in 60, these three denominations will merge again.


… or it might not. Who knows really?

What I know for certain is that I am not in the least bit anxious about the future of the church. I believe Jesus when he says that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” I believe in resurrection. I believe in something eternal, something that exists beyond my ability to comprehend it, that will outlive me.

And even if it looks nothing like it looks today, there will be a church.

As long as there are people who need to know they are worthy of the deepest love imaginable, there will be a church to tell them.

As long as there is evil, injustice, and oppression to be resisted in whatever forms they present themselves, there will be a church to resist them.

As long as there are widows, orphans, and immigrants in need of help for their journey, there will be a church to walk alongside them.

As long as there are people who need the transformative power of grace to flip their lives around so they might become the people they are created to be, there will be a church to offer it to them.

As long as God’s mission is unfulfilled, there will be a church working to realize it. Yes, even if it looks not in the least bit like it does today, there will be a church.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Seeking Compromise, Part 2

“You speak of compromise. That is a concept that requires a commitment from all involved. I have yet to hear what progressives are willing to contribute to this compromise you talk of. All I ever hear is that I am to compromise my conscience so that you [would] now [be] free to live by yours.” - anonymous comment on “Enterthe Rainbow,” February 14, 2017

I have a personal policy against responding to anonymous comments, so I hope to learn the identity of this commenter some day, because I really want to respond. If I was going to respond, it might look something like this:

Anonymous Commenter, you indicate that those against marriage equality are being asked to compromise their conscience, and I agree with that. But even more so, they are being asked to compromise their idea of sin, morality, purity, and even obedience to God. This is a very big deal for those opposed to marriage equality, and should not be minimized.

And what are those in favor of marriage equality being asked to compromise? We are being asked to compromise our sense of justice. But even more so, we are being asked to compromise our idea of human decency, covenant, Biblical interpretation, and yes, even obedience to God. This is a very big deal for those in favor of marriage equality, and that should not be minimized either.

So I really want to say to you, Anonymous Commenter, that if we United Methodists are going to compromise by allowing some sort of local autonomy in which pastors can marry a same-sex couple if they want to but wouldn’t be forced to, then here’s the compromise: You are going to have to let me do something that you believe is immoral and I am going to have to let you do something that I believe is unjust.

To be blunt, you would have to let me marry same-sex couples, an act you believe to be morally wrong, and I would have to allow you to refuse to marry same-sex couples, an act I believe to be unequivocally unjust.

Obviously, this compromise would be a very big deal and should in no way be minimized or watered down to a simple either/or proposition.

So why would we do it? Why would one side compromise morality and the other justice? For what cause would we even consider making these concessions? The only reason we would decide to do so is if we believed that Christian unity is of higher value than either morality or justice.

Some people believe thus, and are working to keep the church united. Some people do not, and are making plans to leave. Obviously I fall into the first group, believing that unity is worth striving for, even if that means seeking a difficult compromise.

Can we be united as one body in the church if I am doing something you believe is immoral and I know that you believe it is and in fact you may even remind me that you think it is immoral every time we are together? Can we be united as one body in the church if you are doing something I believe is unjust and you know that I believe it is and in fact I may even remind you that I think it is unjust every time we are together?

These, my friend, are the million dollar questions with which we would wrestle. But here’s the kicker; we could only wrestle with them if we stay together. And I happen to believe that there is holy value in the wrestling itself, even if it is messy and difficult and doesn’t result in a nice, neat resolution. Indeed, the conversation matters.

So that’s basically what I would say in response to the comment quoted above. But, like I said, I have a rule against responding to anonymous comments.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Seeking Compromise Is Not Divisive

The Bishop of the Mississippi Conference has announced that two large United Methodist congregations are making plans to leave the denomination. There are likely others with similar plans in other places, but these two have been made public this week.

They are planning to leave because “there is a deep concern that any legislative or judicial solution to the denomination's current impasse on human sexuality will sow seeds of deeper division within our Church. They see this division as something that continues and will continue to damage the witness of The United Methodist Church of which they are currently connected,” according to Bishop James Swanson’s statement.

In my opinion, large churches planning to leave the denomination are actually sowing more seeds of division than potential compromise policies on marriage and ordination. That’s kind of the definition of division, isn’t it? Whereas seeking compromise is actually about NOT dividing?

Unless I’m completely wrong, the two congregations who are publicly planning to leave the United Methodist Church have gotten things exactly backwards here. Trying to find a compromise is not divisive, by definition. Saying that you want to leave the denomination is divisive, by definition.

I wish they would just come right out and say why they want to leave. If they don’t want gay people to be married, why not just come right out and say that? If they don’t want gay people to be ordained, why not make that statement out loud? (Though pastor friends in Mississippi tell me that these may not be the only issues at hand here. The situation is probably more complex than just that.)

But why all the hemming and hawing around what is really making them so upset? The time for hemming and hawing has gone. We need to be able to say exactly what needs to be said, with as little ambiguity as possible.

Furthermore, and in disagreement with the statement above, I believe that seeking compromise on marriage and ordination is actually a pretty GOOD witness for the United Methodist Church to be making right now. Having difficult, tense, holy, grace-filled conversations is exactly THE witness that the world needs in our present polarized climate. (As with our nation as a whole, I believe the Methodist church is polarized, not divided.)

In their official statement, one of the churches wrote, "The Orchard has no desire to be a part of these debates. We simply want to help people grow deep in the love of Jesus and branch out to others with that love." I do not see these two ideas as mutually exclusive. One can both love Jesus and have a debate. Being a part of a difficult conversation, and doing so with grace and love and respect, is a PERFECT way to "help people grow deep in the love of Jesus," it seems to me.

I lament that the conversation would be relatively less vibrant minus the voices who are threatening to leave.

As I have said before, my guess is that the Bishops’ “Commission on a Way Forward” will recommend a compromise position that allows individual pastors and congregations to decide questions of marriage and individual conferences to decide questions of ordination. Some people fear this outcome, because of the difficult conversations that will inevitably result.

And some people are so afraid of it, apparently, that they would rather just leave the denomination altogether.


"It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. The pretenses for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause; otherwise they would still hold the unity of the Spirit in the bound of peace." – John Wesley, Sermon 75, On Schism

Friday, February 03, 2017

Governance as "Reality TV"

I have never liked “reality television.” No judgement against those who do, but I’ve just never gotten into it. And realizing that fact has helped me understand in part why I’m struggling so much with the way the Trump administration is running our country.

They are governing as if it is a “reality” tv show rather than a nation.

I heard the tail-end of an interview on the radio this morning that kind of turned on a light bulb in my mind. So when I got home I went and listened to the whole thing, which you can hear right here. It makes a lot of sense to me. Here are my reflections on Tom Forman’s insights.

First of all, “reality” tv is conflict based. The whole point is to set up conflict, and build the tension in the conflict to an extreme level, thereby drawing people in. Whether it is who is going to be kicked off the island or to whom is the bachelor going to hand the rose, we love the conflict.

Of course, we say that we don’t like conflict. “Why can’t we all just get along?” But we are lying to ourselves. We LOVE conflict. (It’s why we watch sports, too.) We are drawn to conflict like moths to flame. Whether it is to applaud or to cluck our tongues in disappointment is not the point; the point is, conflict grabs our attention and does not allow us to look away.

Secondly, “reality” tv is all about personalities, and personal relationships. “Reality” tv does not deal with complicated topics, nor consult experts in the field. It does not do well with nuance and subtlety. The intricacies of systematic thinking are never on display in “reality” tv shows. It is personality driven, and it pretty much stays right there at that level.

We know our “reality” tv stars’ names, and they are often a part of our daily conversations. And we know who is allying herself or himself with whom, who is stirring up conflict (see above), even who we like and do not like. We make quick judgements about people, all based on what a producer has decided to show us of them.

Thirdly, “reality” tv moves very quickly from one thing to another, and the more unexpected the better. “Reality” tv producers know that our attention spans are terribly short, and have obliged us in their format. These shows take us from one setting to the next in rapid fire succession, leaving no time to dwell in any one scene before transitioning to the next.

And if these transitions are abrupt and surprising, all the better. We love to be shocked. We have a penchant for the outrageous, the appalling. And again, we pretend we don’t, just like with conflict (see above), but it’s true. Everyone loves a good scandal; it gives us something about which to feel superior.

And finally, “reality” tv is a ratings-driven phenomenon. If we didn’t watch it, they wouldn’t make it. The entire point of all the conflict, the big personalities, and the fast-paced surprises, is to get people to watch, which will lead to higher ratings. It’s all about those numbers; counting the size of the audience is the only thing that matters.

Of course it must be noted that “reality” tv is at its core a distraction from real reality. Real reality is not a continuous state of conflict. Real reality deals with nuance and implications and interconnected systems that are complex and difficult to navigate. Real reality has the ability to dwell, to linger, to be deeply present in the moment.

Everything about “reality” tv is designed to distract us from thinking at this deeper level. And why? So that a few people can make a lot of money. That may be cynical, but if it quacks like a duck …

So I have found this framework helpful in ordering my thoughts about the Trump administration. Leaving aside some of the content of his decisions with which I strongly disagree, these first two weeks have been a running “reality” television show. And as I mentioned above, I have never liked “reality television.”

Because the big question begging to be asked is, “From what is all this distracting us?” And I’m really afraid of what that answer might be. I’m really afraid that a few people are going to make a whole lot of money as a result of this “reality” tv administration’s policy decisions, and those few people don’t really care all that much about the rest of us. While we are distracted by the noisy sparkly flashes, somebody somewhere is going to be benefitting financially. Now of course, I hope my fear is cynical, misguided, and ultimately wrong. But … you know, “quack quack.”

Fomenting conflict, highlighting personalities over expertise, rapid fire executive orders, and an ongoing obsession with ratings … this has been the first two weeks of President Trump. Perhaps it will eventually slow down, get deeper, become less combative. Perhaps not.

I just don’t see how the nation can keep this up for 3 years and fifty weeks more.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Inaugural Thoughts

I am ambivalent about the idea of boycotting Donald Trump’s inauguration.  On the one hand, I see the point of refusing to “legitimize” his presidency. I respect that perspective and certainly can understand where it comes from.

And on the other hand, I can also understand the argument that boycotting is the same kind of petulant behavior that has characterized Washington D.C. for the past several years, and a different tone needs to be set. By someone – anyone! And that could start with Mr. Trump’s opponents this year.

So I’m not going to judge anyone for attending, nor will I judge anyone for boycotting. You do you. All I can do is make up my own mind.

So I’m not boycotting. (Of course, I’m not attending, but I’ll be watching it.) And the reason I’m not boycotting is because I want to keep my eyes as wide open as possible. I am one of the “we the people” to whom this nation belongs, and I want to be a part of it as fully as I am able.

Like you, I have seen and heard the things Mr. Trump has been doing, both during the campaign and since election day. Like you, I have opinions about all those things. Like many of you, most of those opinions are not favorable.

See, I believe that Donald Trump himself has revealed exactly who he is. I am relying on nothing but his own words and actions to form my opinion of what kind of president he will be. And based on his own words and actions, his own record, his own long and well-documented public history, I cannot see how he will be able to handle the responsibilities of the presidency in an effective way. Frankly, I am afraid that it is going to be a complete disaster.

But with that said, I do not believe that is a reason for me to boycott the inauguration events. In fact, I see that as a reason for me to watch. I prefer to “stay woke” at this point, as the saying goes. And to me, that means not boycotting him, but rather the opposite – scrutinizing him.

The Missouri State University Choir is singing at the inauguration, and many have questioned their presence, indicating that it is an endorsement of Mr. Trump’s presidency. I do not agree. In fact, I think the song they are singing is a pretty profound protest against some of what Mr. Trump stands for.

It is called “Now We Belong,” written by Minnesota poet Michael Dennis Browne.

Here are the voices of every creature,
            Here are the calls of every heart;
Here is the place of strangers’ welcome,
            We who once walked in strangers’ shoes.
Once we were strangers,
            We were welcomed,
Now we belong and believe in this land.

Here are the rivers of many echoes,
            Here are the leaves of every tree;
Within us live the long horizons,
            Winds that stir the sacred stones.
Once we were strangers,
            We were welcomed,
Now we belong and believe in this land.

Keep faith, keep watch,
Take heart, take courage,
Guard mind, guard spirit,
Feed love, feed longing.

Here are the cities where we have gathered,
            Here are the barns where hope is stored;
We are the gleams of every being,
            Filled with the dreams that build the day.
Once we were strangers,
            We were welcomed,
Now we belong and believe in this land.

Keep faith, guard mind,
Take heart, guard spirit,
Take courage, keep watch,
Feed longing, feed love.

- © Michael Dennis Browne

If nothing else, I will watch the inauguration to hear these prophetic words sung in the presence of the most powerful people in the world, ensuring them that the American people will keep watch, we will guard our minds and our spirits, we will keep faith and take courage.

And most of all, we will love. We belong, we believe, we are not going anywhere. And we will love one another with the fiercest, most powerful love ever witnessed. A love that ensures eyes wide open, ears listening closely, and voices that will not be stilled, until peace and justice are the norm and not just the ideal.