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.

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

Doesn't Work for Me: My Thoughts on That Yoga Sermon

On Halloween this year, a friend sent me a link to a sermon and asked my opinion. My first response, was, literally, "This is a REALLY LONG SERMON!" I don't know what would happen to me if I ever preached an hour long sermon, and I am in no hurry to find out.

So, John Lindell is my neighbor, my colleague, and my brother in Christ. I have never met him, but have heard a whole lot about him, and listened to several of his sermons before. I would encourage you to view his entire sermon yourself, as I have.

At first, I responded to my friend directly, offering my opinion in a private message, and was going to leave it there. But this week the sermon went public, especially the section in which he says "yoga is diametrically opposed to Christianity" and "idol worship," which is very clear and very hard to interpret in any other than a condemning light. Several of my friends are talking about it on social media and in a few individual conversations with me, wondering what I think.

So, here's what I think.

Now there are a lot of specific things in the sermon that I could address, but let me just say this...

The version of Christianity represented in the sermon does not work for me. This theology is very particular and rigidly defined, very certain. For example, the preacher here is very clear about thinking open-mindedness is bad, and instead we should guard our minds with some kind of "mind gate" that God has provided us (though I did not find reference to such in the Bible).

Now, I understand how well this rigid version of Christianity works for many people. Right and wrong are very clearly delineated; there are no questions, no doubts. And there is a  kind of comfort there, knowing what the precise rules are and knowing what will happen if you don't follow them. And of course, this theology of certainty works for many, many people; for evidence, all you have to do is count worship attendance numbers.

But it doesn't work for me.

And the reason it doesn't work for me is that my relationship with God is by faith, not certainty. I believe that it is by grace that we are saved through faith, not because we are clear about "right" and "wrong" and always follow the rules. My faith in God is hope for things unseen. It is the not knowing for sure but doing it anyway. I simply cannot relate to God with such certainty, fitting neatly into clearly defined, unyielding theological boundaries.

And here's my biggest lament in all of this. When this version of Christianity is presented as "the only way," and people reject it because it doesn't work for them, they end up rejecting Christ altogether. And that breaks my heart.

I cannot tell you how many people I've spoken with who have described the church they rejected, and who have heard me reply by saying, "Well, actually I reject that version of the church as well. It doesn't work for me, either!" But having never been told there are other ways to do it, or rather having been told that all the other ways to do it are wrong or heretical or demonic, they just walk away altogether.

So although I could very well address this sermon's indiscriminate proof-texting, the switching translations of the Bible from one quotation to the next without mentioning it in order to make his point, the playing on people's fears, the lumping of respected world religions into the same category as ouija boards, the complete omission of all the stuff Christianity has actually stolen from other religions over time, the disconnect between his in-depth knowledge of the topic and his admonition to avoid it, and more, I will not.

Instead I will just say, this version of Christianity is not for me. And if it's not for you, either, then come on over to Campbell UMC and experience an alternative. And if Campbell doesn't work for you, then by all means let me know that so we can sit down and talk about what exactly you are lookng for, so that I can help you find it.

Personally, I am much more upset about Rev. Lindell's remarks about scary movies and TV shows than I am about yoga! I sure hope none of his congregation enjoy "The Haunting of Hill House" as much as I do. That is some good television; I highly recommend it!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Boy, The Boss, and The Bully (A Creative Re-Telling of "David and Goliath")

The Bully is bigger, stronger, and has more stuff than just about anyone else. But The Bully does not use his privileged position for the common good, but rather for selfish purposes.

Plus, The Bully is loud. Like, really loud. His favorite thing is to stand up in front of people and shout things. Most of the things he shouts are things about how much better he himself is than anyone else, how big, how strong, and how much stuff he has.

As our story begins, this is what The Bully is doing. He is technically representing a "side," but he really doesn't care about one "side" or the other; all he wants is for people to know how great he is. That is his only agenda as he stands (literally) in the gap between the sides: that everyone notice him.

And they do.

The Boss certainly does.

Now, The Boss is old, and getting older. He has started to forget things, and to act in unusual ways, doing things that make the people around him make meaningful eye contact with one another, shake their heads, and look worried.

And as The Boss slowly drifts away from rationality, it kind of scares him. He becomes desperate to hold on to what once was. This makes him irritable, grouchy, and just plain mean. He becomes unreasonably defensive, and does so astonishingly quickly, and his companions often walk on eggshells, trying not to upset him.

The Boss has heard the Bully, and The Boss is ticked.

Which is when The Boy shows up.

The Boy is fascinated by conflict, drawn to it like a moth to a flame. He is bemused by The Bully, secretly impressed by his bravado. The Boy is also quite arrogant, puffed up with a braggadocious confidence born of youth and previous successes.

And The Boy has figured out how to strategically yet casually drop these success stories into daily conversations as often as he can. This, by the way, infuriates his older brothers, who would rather he just stay home and do his chores. Even his dad seems to conveniently forget about him from time to time.

The Boy has heard The Bully, and The Boy is energized.

He asks, "What's the reward for taking out this guy? Like, what's in it for me if I decide to take this loser out?"

"Well, The Boss would love it, I'm sure," comes the reply. "Probably cut you in on a pretty big slice of the action!"

"Let me at 'im!" says The Boy.

When The Boss gets wind of The Boy's bluster, he calls him over. "You can't take this guy," he says. "You're just a kid."

The Boy's smile is almost a sneer. He drops some knowledge. "That guy? He's nothing. A piece of dust. I've killed literal lions with my bare hands. Ain't no thing."

The Boss is impressed. "Go on, then." But then The Boss shakes his head, coming out of a foggy daze, and seems to remember that he's supposed to be in charge here. So he starts to tell The Boy how to do the job. But The Boy won't have it.

"Look here, Boss. It's my way or no way at all. Hear me?"

And he goes up to The Bully. Now The Bully has been standing there, shouting. Like he does. And when he sees The Boy coming up to him it kind of catches him off guard. "I'm hurt! I'm insulted! This little puppy coming up to me, thinking he's got something? Bring it, scrub."

And The Boy thumps his own chest with equal machismo. "I will bring it, you big loser. Did I mention I killed literal lions with my bare hands yet? Well, I did. So there."

And by the sheer force of his toxic masculinity, so surprising to The Bully who usually corners the market on that particular commodity, The Boy knocks over The Bully. And while he's down on the ground, The Boy walks up to him and kicks his teeth out before he can get away.

Then he picks up the teeth and strings them together on a little piece of twine that he wraps around his neck so everyone will be sure to see that it was him, The Boy, who kicked out The Bully's teeth.

And when The Boss saw it happen, since he had already forgotten their previous meetings, he asked his buddy, "Who is that kid?" And his buddy, not wanting to upset The Boss by reminding him that he had, in fact, already met The Boy, feigned ignorance.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Dare We Use Data?

I wonder if the General Conference could make a data-informed decision in February?

(For those who may be unaware, the United Methodist Church has called a special session of our denominational  decision makers to decide what to do about same-sex marriage and the ordination of people who are gay.)

I don't think the decision should be completely based on data, of course, but at least data-informed. We talk about the need for data-informed decision making all the time, so why not at General Conference as well?

There are data on the views of United Methodists about same-sex marriage. Pew Research says that 49% favor, 43% oppose, and 8% don't know. Here's that info: (click this.) I am not aware of any data on UM views about ordination of people who are gay; if you know of any, please share them.

But that's not even what we need at this point, is it? It seems to me that we need data on a different question - for lack of  a better term, "compatibility."

What I'd like to know, as a delegate to General Conference, is an answer to this question: "How many United Methodists want to remain in a denomination with people who view marriage differently than they do? And how many do not want to remain in a denomination with people who view marriage differently than they do?"

Those who would stay in a denomination with people who see things differently have been labelled "compatibilists" and those who would not have been labelled "incompatibilists." I embrace these terms for the sake of brevity.

Here's my question, then. Is anyone aware of a poll, undertaken with sound scientific structures and procedures, that asks that question? I know that a few Annual Conferences did informal surveys last June, but have there been any legitimate polling organizations working on this? If we had that information, it sure seems like we would be better equipped to make a data-informed decision in February.

I have a hypothesis, of course. I think the majority of us, maybe even two-thirds, are "compatibilists." I do think that percentage would vary by age. I think that percentage would vary by region, as well. However, my informed opinion is that overall, United Methodists are mostly "compatibilists."

But that's just my opinion. I would LOVE to have some data to either back that up or not.

Our views on same-sex marriage are quite diverse, as I have written about previously. It isn't a matter of just yes or no. So that's not really the question to focus on, I don't think. The key question is compatibility, and I really would like to have some data behind our decision.