Saturday, October 29, 2005
Some other people want to continue to bash one another over the head over the issue of homosexuality, wielding their various ideologies as weapons with which to seek and destroy those who disagree. Locked and loaded, they head off to Annual, Jurisdictional, and General Conferences bristling and ready for battle. The early church used to have big councils at which the loser of the debate was burned, along with all his writings. Weren’t those proud moments in our Christian heritage? Yet it sometimes seems the church hasn’t come far from those … umm … less gentle days, especially when one witnesses the rhetoric in the air around recent conferences and other denominational events.
You know, I believe with all my heart that there is a third group of people out there. This caucus is not vocal, not very well organized, and has for the most part been silently frustrated at the carryings on of the other two groups. Let’s call this group the Via Media Caucus. They do not want to divide the church, and at the same time they want to be able to honestly disagree in Christian friendship. At the last United Methodist General Conference, the unofficial Via Media group almost got the Book of Discipline changed to read, “Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching” instead of the inflammatory, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Here’s the amazing thing: There are people who believe all kinds of different things about the issue in all three of these groups. There are some people in favor of ordination and marriage for homosexual people who want to stop talking and split the church, some who want to keep battling, and some who want to find the middle way. And there are people against ordination/marriage of homosexual people in each group, as well. This is why this particular issue is so astonishingly complicated. There is no “us” and “them.”
The good news is, when there is no “us” and “them” – it’s all us! Everything we do starts with the commonality of the gift of life that has been graciously given by God, the gift of salvation that has been offered to us through Christ, and the gift of God’s reign on earth that is promised by the power of the Holy Spirit. In order to continue to be faithful to the church God is calling us to be, we must start the conversation from this common understanding.
The people who back up their beliefs with, “Because the Bible says so, that’s why,” have got to understand that this reasoning is meaningless without acknowledging the particular context through which their beliefs were formed. The people who try to say, “All perspectives are of equal value,” have got to understand that this simply is not the case, and to stubbornly hold to such a view is an example of the very same rigid ideological thinking they are trying to argue against. Both of these lines of thought throw up roadblocks to any helpful conversation. The Via Media, beginning around our commonality, may just be the only way any more conversation will happen.
These past three blog posts, I have not been trying to persuade anyone as to the sinfulness or not of homosexuality. I have just been trying to answer the question, “Can we talk?” I think the answer is “Yes,” but only if we are willing to first acknowledge our common humanity, open ourselves before God in worship and confession, and go beyond the senseless, mind-numbing diatribe that some people are trying to pass off as conversation these days. We may not be able to ever persuade our conversation partner to our perspective, but the conversation itself can be holy as we gather around God’s table together.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
In an attempt at concision, I am going to name our contextualizer “Connie” and our ideologue “Id.” Okay? Yesterday I posited that Connie and Id have trouble talking with one another, because they end up trying to have two separate conversations at once. Connie wants to start with context; Id wants to start with immutable truth. Their conversations never lead anywhere productive, because they are not starting from common ground. It is as if the Kansas City Chiefs were trying to play the Kansas City Royals in a game, but each in their own respective sports. Doesn’t work.
In order to talk together, Connie and Id each need to give up something. It will not be easy for them to do this, but for the sake of living together in peace without bashing each other’s brains in, it needs to be done. It will call each of them to self-examination and penance, relying on the grace of God all the way along.
Put simply, Connie needs to confess that contextualization is his own ideology; Id needs to confess that she came to her ideology via her context.
Connie is a consensus-builder, and tries really hard to respect everybody’s point of view, because he believes each person is entitled to believe his or her own thing based on individual life context. But Connie goes overboard every so often and thus can’t really disagree with anyone, because he has to say that the other perspective is just as valid as his own. This is the built in weakness to his position. He practices an ideology of acceptance that inflates the importance of not only contrary ideas, but also trivial, even silly ideas to equal footing with more helpful ideas. If Connie sticks unthinkingly to this ideology, conversation falters and eventually gets altogether stuck.
Id is an apologetic*,and tries really hard to defend her perspective, because not only her perspective is at stake, but the immutable truth itself. But Id is a bit naïve if she really thinks that her access to immutable truth has not been mediated via her own life. She came to embrace her ideology thanks to the influence of family, friends, and teachers; music, books, and movies; race, class, and gender; etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera. When Id comes into contact with another, different ideology, she is quick to write it off as false, using the circular reasoning that, since it is not the same as hers and hers is based on the truth, the other ideology therefore must not be. If Id refuses to acknowledge that her ideology is contextually formed, conversation falters and eventually gets altogether stuck.
(Believe me, I can see all of the flaws in the previous two paragraphs. Please feel free to point them out in the comments if you want to. But I have written these two paragraphs this way intentionally to make my larger point.)
And so, in order for their conversation to proceed, Connie must come out of the closet as a self-avowed practicing ideologue and Id must admit that she has a life in the midst of which her ideology was formed.
“That will never happen,” says cynic me. It goes against everything they are to make such confessions. It is not in their DNA. (Or, if you’d rather): It is not how God made them. (Theological excursus: maybe it is how God made them, but after the Fall, they are no longer able to be that way. But we will save that for another time.)
Ah! But here is our common playing field, isn’t it? It ought to be hard to confess our sin! It ought to be the hardest thing we do as children of grace. Still, it seems to me that one of the few things Connie and Id can agree to say in unison is, “God, I am not perfect. Forgive me.” It seems to me that one of the few things Connie and Id can do together is bow in prayer before God to ask for grace. I think therefore, that their dialogue must be preceded by liturgy.
I even have a suggestion. How about a Psalm?
Save me from bloodguilt, O God,
the God who saves me,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.
In your good pleasure make Zion prosper;
build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then there will be righteous sacrifices,
whole burnt offerings to delight you;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
In part 3 (which should be up tomorrow or Friday), I hope to get a little bit specific with regard to the ongoing impasse in the conversation about homosexuality. Stay tuned…
*Serving as or containing a formal justification or defense. (dictionary.com)
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Let’s dispense with the terms “liberal” and “conservative” for a while. They are too divisive, too inflammatory to be helpful. I want to lay those terms aside for the time being, just box them up and put them on the shelf out in the garage so I can reflect for a minute without them getting in the way. Instead of “liberal” and “conservative,” I would like to think about the dichotomy of “ideological” and “contextual.”
Some people put a pretty heavy emphasis on an ideology when they are making decisions about right and wrong, while others put a pretty heavy emphasis on context when making similar decisions. An ideologue will use a deontological approach to living that relies on rules, laws, and universal truths. A contextualizer will use a teleological approach to living that focuses on goals, visions, and particular circumstances.
I have observed that contextualizers and ideologues have a very tough time speaking to each other. See, an ideologue has a plank in his platform that says that his perspective is based on immutable truth. Conversation is therefore a matter of explaining and extolling that immutable truth so that others will see it, too. A contextualizer, on the other hand, has a plank in her platform that says her perspective and all other perspectives are based on variable contexts. Conversation is therefore a matter of trying to understand the contexts of the various conversation partners to discern among the different perspectives.
This works out just great if the contextualizer and the ideologue happen to agree about the issue. The problem comes when they disagree. Take … oh, let’s say … homosexuality, for example.
The ideologue may say, “Homosexuality is a sin. The Bible says it is.”
The contextualizer might reply, “Homosexuality is not a sin. The way I understand the context in which the Bible was written, I understand that what is really being condemned is idolatry. But let me hear more about your perspective.”
“The Bible is God’s Word,” says the ideologue, “It is therefore inerrant and is the ultimate authority in life. Are you denying the inerrant authority of God’s Word?”
“No, I’m not. The Bible is the authority of my life, also. What I am saying is that, when I dig deeply into these scriptures, I discover that the presenting issue was God’s people putting the things of this world ahead of God. I don’t believe it really has anything whatsoever to do with two adults in a mutually supportive, loving relationship, be they of opposite gender or not.”
“There is no sense in denying the words on the page. Homosexual relations are not natural, not how God created us to be. You can tell that with a simple biological assessment; the parts just don’t fit together right. That’s why the Bible condemns same sex relationships as sinful.”
And so on, and so on. I tried in this little excerpt to be true to each of these perspectives. If I have messed up somewhere, let me know. But I want to notice a few things about this little blurb of conversation, which I think is representative.
- This conversation will have no reconciliation, because the two people are not having the same conversation. One is ideological, whereas one is contextual.
- The ideologue does not address the contextualizer’s argument, but rather goes straight to the immutability of the source behind his own argument.
- The contextualizer doesn’t really address the ideologue’s notion of inerrancy.
- It is a part of the contextualizer’s way to try to understand the ideologue, but the attempt is not reciprocated.
- Consistency is important to the ideologue, so he speaks in absolutes.
- Perspective is important to the contextualizer, so he speaks with “I” statements.
It seems that we are stuck. And, to an extent, we are. If we keep trying to have conversations like this, we will be. But perhaps we can find a way to rearrange the conversation so that something more productive will emerge. Stay tuned … part 2 tomorrow.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
So far, we have heard from an associate pastor serving on a church staff, a seminary student, a lay member of our own congregation, the manager of a local Ronald McDonald House, and a college student who is on track toward ordination. We have two people signed up for November and two for January, though none have yet signed up in December. I anticipate that lay speakers, retired clergy, youth and many others would find the opportunity fulfilling.
And let me tell you about my personal reaction - I LOVE IT! Hearing the diversity of preaching styles and theological perspectives is - well that's MY THING, isn't it? And I have a chance to sit and listen, soaking up the word of God for my own spiritual health. It is nice for a preacher to hear a sermon every now and then. It is good for worship leaders to worship.
People in the congregation have responded favorably, also. Many people make an extra effort to greet the guest preachers following the service and thank them for their message. And several have made a point to stop me in order to say how much they like hearing all the different preachers. However, I must say that a couple of the members have expressed to me their disappointment when they learn that it is not me preaching on a given Saturday. But when they say such things, I calmly inform them that one who comes to church because of whom is delivering the sermon is coming to church for the wrong reason, then I smile impishly and take a drink of coffee.
All in all, after three months the Open Pulpit program has been a rousing success. Who'd-a-thunk it? It is nurturing the calling to preach in many people; it opens the congregation to a diversity of preaching perspectives; and it gives me the opportunity to participate in a relatively stress-free worship service a couple of times a month. It's definitely a win-win-win situation!
Thursday, October 20, 2005
The United Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) has issued a statement urging the U.S. government "to develop and implement a plan for the withdrawal of its troops" from Iraq. If you want, you can click here to read the statement in its entirety. The statement also calls for support of the "Homeward Bound Act" in the House (H.J. Res. 55), cooperation with UN in rebuilding Iraq, and prayer for "just, equitable peace" for the people of Iraq.
Now, technically the General Boards of our denomination do not "speak for the church." Only General Conference can officially do that. But their words should carry a lot of weight with United Methodists. The GBCS upholds the Social Principles of the UMC, which say, "We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ," and are quite strong in condemning war and the "militarization" of society. Our denominational principles are pretty wishy-washy regarding some issues - but not so with war. I am glad to say that the stance of the Methodist church is staunchly opposed to war.
John Wesley called war an "Inhuman Folly." He wrote, "What must mankind be, before such a thing as war could ever be known or thought of upon earth? How shocking, how inconceivable a want must there have been of common understanding, as well as common humanity, before any two Governors, or any two nations in the universe, could once think of such a method of decision!" I am drawn to Wesley's emphasis on reason here. He seems to say, "Just think about it! It doesn't make any sense at all!"
I like this current GBCS statement, and the Homeward Bound Act. They don't say, "Get them all out immediately," which would lead to unimaginable disaster. They just ask for a plan. A workable plan to withdraw peacefully and turn the country back over to its own people. I think the GBCS has articulated a healthy alternative to both immediate withdrawal and indeterminate occupation.
It's time. I am going to write Sam Graves tomorrow and ask him to support the Homeward Bound Act. I hope that you do the same (except you should probably write your own Representative; Sam Graves is mine). It's time for this war to be over. It's time for our government to have a specific, attainable, measurable plan, the goal of which is withdrawal of "coalition" troops from Iraq and autonomy for that nation's people. It's time for peace.
P.S. The UMC.org website told me that I have to tell you that the Cross and Flame is a registered trademark and the use is supervised by the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church. Permission to use the Cross and Flame must be obtained from the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church - Legal Department, 1000 17th Avenue South Nashville, TN 37212.
Monday, October 17, 2005
See I am in the practice of putting names into my palm pilot, names of people hospitalized, sick, having surgery, going through tough family issues, etc. Basically people who I feel like I need to check up on, keep in touch with, pray for, and visit. My Sony Clie handheld device has a "Memo" feature that I use for this purpose. I can also write notes about each person to remind me of what exactly is going on with each one.
This afternoon when I turned it on and opened up my memo list, I was confronted with no less that twenty-eight names. Twenty-eight! How in the world did we accumulate twenty-eight souls on the pastoral care list? Quickly scanning the list, I identified two people for whom the crisis had passed, and I removed them. But that did little to relieve the weight of bricks on my shoulders. There is no way I could give adequate care to twenty-six different people.
See, here's me: If I could, I would personally visit each one of them. I would spend an hour or two in deep, meaningful conversation with each one about God's presence in the midst of suffering, the joy of having a spiritual home filled with good Christian friends to support you, and the precious gift of life that God so graciously gives all of us. If I could, I would be the pastor about whom they would later say, "And wouldn't you know, Andy came and visited me every single day while I was sick. What a nice person he is!"
But I can't. I can't be with all twenty-six of the people on my list. The physics of time and space make that literally impossible. And I would make myself sick trying. So what is a people pleasing pastor to do?
Here's what happened: When I stopped to think about it, I realized that almost every one of the people on my list has been visited by multiple people in the church already. I know this because they report to me: "I visited with Mary today" or "I sent Ray a card this week" or "I'm bringing Theda a meal this week, she doesn't like the food at her new place." And every time one of those people came to report to me, I affirmed them and thanked them for their compassion. So, I was in effect providing pastoral support for the people who were providing pastoral care for the ones on my list, which is a pretty good thing for a pastor to be able to do, I think.
As I thought about it, the ton of bricks gradually lightened. I called five of the people on my list, and we had some delightful conversations over the phone. And I came home for the day feeling like I had done some good stuff, and once more thanking God for being pastor of such a remarkable congregation. A congregation where that line in the bulletin that reads, "Ministers: All people of the church," really means something!
(By the way, there are pictures of our congregation's Pumpkin Patch over at the newsletter blog: click here to see them.)
Thursday, October 13, 2005
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.”
(Psalm 15, NRSV)
To start part 3, I’d like to go back to the instigating case from part 1 of this trilogy. Bill Bennett makes a blatantly racist remark, to which people react. Leonard Pitts says, “That is racist.” Andy Bryan says, “That is racist.” When Leonard Pitts says it, it sounds somehow different than when I do. Yes, I know that he is a nationally syndicated columnist who could out-write me with one hand tied behind his computer and I’m just a Midwestern Methodist preacher with internet access. But his reaction sounds different for other reasons, also.
I think it is because he is speaking the truth from his heart, whereas I am speaking the truth without benefit of that resource. I do not have access to Leonard Pitts’ heart. His naming of the racism draws upon the pain and brokenness of his own heart, his own life experience, his own encounter with injustice. And that resource adds depth and power to his testimony.
I, too, am speaking from the heart, but my heart is just not as full as his. My heart has not been broken as often and as personally as his. My heart feels the pain of racism only empathetically. Empathy is an important resource, to be sure. But it doesn’t hold a candle to experience.
Preparing for an immersion trip to Guatemala while a seminary student, my class read books like I, Rigoberta Menchu, and Guatemala: Never Again and The Certainty of Spring by poet Julia Esquivel. The purpose of this exercise was to prepare us for the experience, give a little background of the Guatemalan story, and foster the beginnings of an understanding of the horrifically violent situation in the impoverished, exploited country. I soon learned that reading a book that tells a story about the massacre of an entire village is not the same as sitting in a small house hearing a woman tell the same story from first-hand experience with tears running down her face, the smell of corn tortillas cooking, the sounds of children playing outside, an eternally Spring breeze wafting through the open doors. So when I speak against the injustice that has been a part of Guatemalan life for the past four decades, I can do so with someone’s face in my memory. I speak from a heart that is a little bit fuller, a little bit more broken than it would be had I merely an academic knowledge of the situation.
SO: (and here I am going to attempt to be constructive. Ready?)
The difference is RELATIONSHIP. The best thing I can do with my unrequested, undeserved power and privilege is to be in relationship with those who do not have such. Pick the cliché – get outside of your comfort zone, expand your horizons, think outside of your box, even “enter the rainbow” – whatever you feel better with. The point is (and here I begin preaching to myself, as well) to enter into relationship with people radically other than you, and recognize the inherent worth of all human beings as children of God no matter what their station in life. Sit down with someone, have a meal, talk, be honest, look someone in the eye, shake their hand warmly, smile, laugh, cry, share stories. Especially seek relationship with the powerless, the oppressed, the prisoner, the sick, the outcast, acknowledging (confessing?) all the while the privilege that makes it even possible for you to do so in the first place.
Then, drawing upon the newly discovered resource of relationship, speak the truth from your heart! A heart that is now a little bit fuller, a little bit deeper. Tell the stories you now know. Speak without slander, evil, or reproach. Speak with integrity, respect, and honesty. Speak for God’s justice to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Speak out because your heart is so full that to not speak would cause it to burst. Speak the truth from your heart with the love of God as your guide, and you shall never be moved.
Grace and Peace,
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Do I need a reason to speak out other than justice in the generic sense?
On the one hand: Why do I want to advocate for marriage and ordination for all people regardless of sexual orientation? Because I believe sexuality is a gift from God, and God’s justice (as articulated in the scriptures and revealed over time to generations upon generations of witnesses) seems to me to demand that all persons be valued as individuals with integrity and sacred worth.
On the other hand: Why does my conversation partner down the street want to advocate for a position contrary to mine? Because he believes same-sex practices are sinful, and God’s justice (as articulated in the scriptures and revealed over time to generations upon generations of witnesses) seems to him to demand that sinners repent of their sin in order to receive forgiveness and live in wholeness as the body of Christ.
I’m not trying to get hung up on homosexuality as an issue, but simply to use it as a case study. I am not gay, yet feel called by God to speak out for justice for those who are. I have no stake in the discussion personally, other than to affirm and advocate for justice. But my conversation partner is not anti-justice, for goodness’ sake! In fact, justice is a big part of his faith. So if justice is all I have, it just comes down to my version of justice versus his, and the conversation goes nowhere. Both of our opinions are informed and reasonable. But nothing gets changed, and we are stuck with the status quo.
But if I had a personal stake in the issue (i.e. if I were gay), things would be different. The justice would be more than just “as articulated in the scriptures and revealed over time to generations upon generations of witnesses,” it would be justice as it impacts my life directly. I know that injustice in one part of the body is injustice for all, but I am talking about a tangible, concrete manifestation of the injustice. (Likewise if I were poor or homeless or physically challenged etc.) My voice would carry more credibility, more authority, maybe more legitimacy.
Use my privilege to advance the cause of justice, you say. Use my unearned and undeserved power, granted to me simply because of the circumstances of my birth, to fight for justice and peace throughout the land, you say. (I have a friend who calls me “Action Figure Andy” in reference to my justice-fighting tendencies.) Yes, I hear all of that, and rest assured that I will continue to do so. That is a choice I am making in response to who God is calling me to become. I am definitely not trying to avoid the obligations of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, namely fighting for God’s justice on earth as it is in heaven. I’m just trying to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling!
Here’s an analogy that may be helpful, may be not. My hero is Luke Skywalker, the reluctant Jedi. Remember him? He becomes a Jedi knight, fighting for the cause of peace and justice throughout the galaxy, only after his own family is killed by the empire. And he is most impassioned about the quest when Han, Leia, and Chewie are in danger. There is energy in Luke’s fight because he has a personal stake in its outcome; his friends, his family, and even his own personal identity are on the line.
All my life, I have been lucky enough to experience injustice only through the lives of others. I’m not proud of that; I’m not “blessed” by that; it just is. But the Galactic Empire never burned down my uncle’s farm on Tatooine. My personal identity is not at stake in this fight. Yet I fight. I fight.
Tomorrow I am planning to write a “Part 3” to this reflection. After two rather deconstructionist posts, hopefully I’ll have some things tomorrow that9 will be more constructive. In the meantime, thank you for the fantastic comments on yesterday’s post, and I hope to see some more on this one.
May The Force Be With You,
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
Can a white person speak on behalf of a black person? Can a straight person speak out against homophobia? Can a rich person advocate on behalf of the poor? Can a man take a stand against sexism? Can a person who lives in a three-story suburban home and owns two cars be an environmentalist? And so on ...
A seminary friend of mine was rather notorious for speaking on behalf of others whose particular context she did not share. I remember her asking one time, "How does this assignment affect those who do not necessarily believe in the divinity of Jesus?" Since I happened to know that she was 100% in tune with the divinity of Jesus, I was puzzled as to for whom in the room she had chosen to speak this time, and whether or not that person had granted her the authority to do so. It seemed to me that she had crossed a boundary with that one.
Another example: my good friend Roger was in the first Gulf War. I wasn't. We are just about the same age, so it would have been quite possible for me to be there with him. But I wasn't. Now, Roger and I find ourselves of a similar mind with regard to the war in Iraq - both of us are strongly opposed to it. But it just sounds different when Roger speaks out against it than when I do. He was there - I wasn't.
When does advocacy cross the boundary into condescension?
What cause can I (white, male, straight, mainline protestant, rich) honestly claim to advocate without risking hypocritical status?
How much legitimacy does one's own identity lend one's opinions?
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
I am not ordained. I graduated from seminary in 2004, and there are three years from that date during which I am a "Resident in Ministry." My class and I are what United Methodists in Missouri used to call "Probationary Members of the Annual Conference" before we realized that was just a silly thing to call us. So now we are "Residents in Ministry" which we will be until June of 2007, when we will be ordained elders and deacons.
There are four components that comprise the residency process; continuing education, mentoring, covenant group, and an annual meeting with the District Superintendent. Upon successful completion of these four components (along with the intensive theological writing assignments and subsequent conferences at the beginning and the end of the process) one is ordained. Wahoo!
Individual reactions to this process are varied. One of my colleague residents this morning complained strenuously about being "forced" to have a mentor and participate in a covenant group. Although I did not see anyone locking a shackle around her ankle to keep here there, I heard a vehement resentment in her voice, as if THE MAN was keeping her down; as if one's Annual Conference actually daring to require something of its Residents in Ministry was Talibanesque oppression or something.
But deeper than my tongue in cheek response to her indignation, that kind of attitude is worrisome. The residency process is designed such that nothing required during the process should be discontinued upon completion thereof. In other words, the process ought to be formative, and instill spiritual disciplines that one will continue into ordained life in order to maintain spiritual health. Who would deny that frequent continuing education experiences, a healthy relationship with a sage mentor, maintaining a covenant relationship with a small accountability group, and ongoing communication with one's D.S. are spiritual disciplines that allow one to remain healthy throughout a life-long career in ministry?
The Annual Conference is not forcing us to do these things, the Conference is equipping us for ministry. One way to view the residency process might be as a series of hoops through which one must jump en route to the goal of ordination. Problem is, ordination is not an intrinsic goal, but rather a waystation of sorts along one's vocational journey. The things we are required to do during residency, rather than hoops, are tools we can continue to use in ordination ... and beyond!