Friday, July 27, 2012

This Post is Not About Chicken

First, a couple of things.

One, I really don’t care where you buy your chicken sandwiches, and I’m pretty sure that way down deep you really don’t care where I buy mine, either.

Secondly, I don’t want to write about same-sex marriage again, and so I won’t. My opinion is pretty publically documented, and if you’ve read “Enter the Rainbow” on a semi-regular basis, you know what it is. I don’t want to rehash old arguments in unhelpful ways.

So this is a post about neither chicken sandwiches nor same-sex marriage. Okay - good to go?

I’d like to write about inviting God’s judgment on our nation by shaking fists at God and claiming to know more than God does. This is what Dan Cathy said some people are doing in his comment that fanned the flames of the Great Chicken Sandwich Scandal of 2012.

Whatever you believe about gay marriage, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find people who believe they are actively opposing God in their stance. When somebody says a thing like that, they most often mean that the person they refer to is opposing them.

“You are opposing God” translates to “You are disagreeing with me” almost every time it is uttered.

The truth is, there are faithful people (who would never dream of opposing God) on all sides of these issues, and all of us are simply trying our best to live our lives the way God wants us to.

(And by the way, there are also non-religious people on all sides of these issues, and they are clearly not shaking their fists at God, since they would not think there is a God at which to shake a fist.)

Perhaps Mr. Cathy believed he was being prophetic. After all, he uttered some pretty powerful words, invoking the judgment of God on the nation. This is pretty much what all those Old Testament prophets did, too. However, it is pretty elite company up there. I mean, those dudes wrote the Bible!

Whatever may have motivated the quip, I am certain that Mr. Cathy is not shaking his fist at God when he says it. My personal disagreement aside, I believe that from his perspective, Mr. Cathy is a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ who is simply trying to live the life he believes God wants him to live, just like me.

I do not know better than God. Neither do you. Nobody does. No. Body.

When faithful people disagree about something, resorting to “You are opposing God” is a weak argument and shallow theology, bringing any meaningful dialogue to a screeching halt. And to me, it says a lot about our society that we are talking about gay marriage and chicken sandwiches before we are talking about the accusation of opposing divine will and claiming to know better than God. That seems to me to be the far more significant issue lurking under the surface, needing to be surfaced.

Disagreement does not equal faithlessness.

Monday, July 23, 2012

It Was a Holy Mess - Jurisdictional Conference Reflections

It was a holy mess.

(That’s the best I can do at 11:40 p.m. on the Friday of Jurisdictional Conference. A holy mess.)

It was a holy time; but it sure was a mess.

It was a messy time; but it was indeed holy.

And in saying that, I am not offering criticism. I left Jurisdictional Conference very proud to be United Methodist. Not because it wasn’t a mess; but rather because of the way we worked in and through the messiness together.

The primary purpose for the Jurisdictional Conference is to elect and appoint bishops. To be elected, a bishop must receive 60% of the votes. There were three bishops needed in our Jurisdiction, and ten people who were endorsed candidates. That meant we had to vote 23 times before getting our three new bishops.

In between each of these votes were opportunities to “caucus” within our Missouri delegation, as well as speak with others if we wished. Now, I’m not naïve. I know that political maneuvering happens in systems such as our beloved United Methodist Church. But it felt weird to me, even to have the word “caucus” spoken in relation to an activity of the church. I think the crux of the matter is, there were too many secrets for a group that is supposed to believe the truth will set us free.

In the course of these conversations, I learned that there was a conference who really wanted one particular candidate for their bishop. They thought he was just the right person to lead this conference in shifting their priorities and helping them think and organize missionally. I think he would have done very well and was voting for him so that he might be sent there.

Of course, I understand that it doesn’t really work that way; the assignments are made by the Episcopacy Committee after the elections. But I kept voting for him because I knew that this conference really wanted him, and I was voting on their behalf. I was trying to vote missionally rather than politically, if that makes sense.

Problem was, they were too small a delegation to have any impact on the elections. Even voting together in a bloc their collective voice was hardly more than a whisper on the floor of the conference. Stated bluntly, the bigger conferences organize efficiently and end up getting exactly what they want. Again, that’s not a criticism; that’s simply how it works.

However, the end result of the elections and assignments is actually really good. From what I know of the three new bishops and the three areas to which they have been assigned, some really good things are going to be happening in the UMC in our jurisdiction over the next few years. Cynthia Harvey, Gary Mueller, and Mike McKee are gifted leaders and creative visionaries, and the denomination is a better place with the three of them in episcopal roles.

And that smaller conference who really wanted that particular person for bishop? It turns out that they haven’t been assigned a bishop at this point (more on that later), instead they will receive two retired bishops to serve on an interim basis, leaving open the possibility that they may receive the person of their choice anyway, although the process by which that may or may not happen is in no way clear at this time.

Another thing I noticed: In between votes there were reports given from various groups within the Jurisdiction. Now, at Annual Conference these reports are times of celebration and support. At Jurisdictional Conference they felt kind of like time fillers. There were times I felt really bad for the people giving reports, because it seemed like hardly anyone in the room was truly paying attention to them, let alone celebrating and supporting.

And then there was the whole set of circumstances around the involuntary retirement of Bishop Earl Bledsoe of the North Texas Conference. (Back  story) While there are many perspectives and opinions being expressed and I encourage you to read and understand all of them, no single perspective can see the whole story. All I can offer is what I saw.

I saw a Jurisdictional Conference holding a bishop accountable for ineffective administrative leadership.

It was intense. I cannot adequately describe the emotion of the room as the process unfolded. Don House, the chair of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee, and Bishop Robert Hayes, who presided over the session at which the vote was taken, handled the situation with dignity and grace, and projected a calm and solemn attitude that was appropriate to the significance of the moment.

Two members of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee are from Missouri, and were involved in the lengthy hearings at that level. Rev. Cody Collier and Larry Fagan are to be highly commended for their faithfulness and diligence, and both were obviously drained by the experience, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. My admiration and respect for each of these men has grown exponentially.

I do not believe this was a racist attempt to oust a black bishop in favor of a white one. Nor do I believe this is an example of the “good ol boy network” trying to shelter one of their own from further repercussions. These are two examples of opinions I have read that I simply cannot agree with. They just do not align with the way I experienced this process.

No, the delegates to the conference who are not on the committee are not privy to all of the details. Some see this as a "cover-up." I see it as entrusting a group of colleagues with work that is best left to a smaller group to do. Knowing personally and trusting deeply two of the Episcopacy Committee members and hearing their summary and recommendation is enough for me.

As a denomination, we have wondered together about accountability. There has been renewed emphasis on accountability for pastors, and parallel to that, questions about how to hold bishops accountable, also. This is what we saw at Jurisdictional Conference last week: a process by which bishops can be held accountable for ineffective administrative leadership.

It started when the North Texas Conference Episcopacy Committee expressed their desire that Bishop Bledsoe not be re-assigned to North Texas. That would be similar to a local congregation’s Church Council (or Staff/Parish Relations Committee) letting their pastor know that they would like a change in appointment. That’s when Bishop Bledsoe announced he would retire. And then he reversed course and decided to remain an active bishop. The matter then moved to the next level of our system, the Jurisdiction.

The Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy worked diligently and faithfully to study the situation and discern the best way to resolve it. They heard from multiple sources, they spent many hours with Bishop Bledsoe himself, they prayed for wisdom and guidance, and they came to a recommendation they considered to be the most gracious and just resolution. They brought that recommendation to the entire Conference, we heard from Bishop Bledsoe himself, we considered it and prayed over it, and voted to affirm their recommendation.

And that’s what happened.

As of September 1, Bishop Bledsoe will be a retired bishop. If he decides to appeal the decision to the United Methodist Judicial Council (like our denominational Supreme Court), he will remain in retired status as the process is advancing. As I mentioned before, one of our Annual Conferences is being served by two retired bishops, on an interim basis. Some news articles are reporting that he will be an active bishop as the appeal is happening; that is not my understanding of the situation.

In his remarks, Bishop Bledsoe said that there is a process in place by which a complaint against a bishop can be brought, addressed, and resolved. He implied a preference for this process rather than the one that unfolded. He has a point. That is indeed one of the processes that might have played out here. The end result of that process, if the complaint is justified, can be harsh, including the removal of clergy credentials.

The process that was followed comes from paragraph 408.3 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which allows a Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee to place a bishop in retired relationship by 2/3 vote if it is “in the best interests of the bishop and/or the church.” The process was fair, gracious, and just.

It was messy; it was holy.

It was messy because accountability is hard sometimes, especially when it is a beloved bishop being held accountable. It was holy because the mission of God for the church was always at the forefront of the conversation, and all that was done was done with grace and love.

So that’s what I’m going with, still - a holy mess. A messy holiness? We are in the world, and not of it. We are both already and not yet. We are sinners forgiven. We are a bunch of screwed up people trying to do the best we can to realize the reign of God on earth.

We are the church. We are the United Methodist portion of the Church, specifically. And we do things well together. It is rarely easy. It is often messy. And by the grace of God, it is holy.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The Phenomenal Future is Here Today

Three episodes in the last two days that refuse to support the myth that the United Methodist Church is doomed to age slowly, wither up, and die:

1) On Sunday, we sent a youth mission team and their adult chaperones to Memphis, Tennessee for the week. It was a smallish team, and that fact itself will cause some people to say, “See, told ya,” as if merely counting heads is enough to forecast the downfall of the church. Rather, I want to describe the spirit of the group.

The entire trip is being led by volunteer leadership; the Youth Director is not even on this trip. And the group is tweeting updates and pictures @campbellyouth so that we can keep tabs on everything they’re doing. The group is excited, motivated, dedicated, and having a great experience.

It’s really hard for me to participate in denominational gloom and doom when something wonderful like this is happening.

2) I baptized a seventeen year old girl on Sunday. Her family was surrounding her, along with some other high school friends. She started coming to worship here a few months ago because one of her friends invited her. And she comes by herself; her family stays home on Sundays, although she tells me she’s “working on them.”

One teenager, reaching out to another and inviting them to come to church, and a few months later, a baptism. And from here … who knows? She is a disciple of Jesus Christ, and is worshiping every week, studying the Bible with a small group of friends at school, and volunteering her service through participating in multiple groups in the community. She is changing the world, for God’s sake!

I just can’t seem to wring my hands to much about “irrelevance” when I see things like this going on.

3) At the memorial service for his grandmother, a teenager in our congregation shared a poignant remembrance. It was sad and funny and a fitting tribute to a beautiful woman whose love and joy and care for her family was inspiring to all who knew her. He allowed me to read it on his behalf as a part of the service.

And he closed his remarks with these sentences:

“It’s hard losing someone as great as my Grandma. She fought a long and hard battle with cancer. And trust me she did not give up. She is a fighter.

And I know now that she is in a much better and more comfortable place with our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, whom she loves and trusts. And I couldn’t ask God any more than to treat my Grandma as well as she treated me.

This kid, who is as quiet and reserved as they come, had expressed the grief of the people gathered in the room in such an eloquent, powerful way, that the sanctuary was completely transformed. Each and every person there was unified by a common experience of “YES” and the Holy Spirit was profuse within and around all of us.

For some reason, it’s kind of tricky for me to be all worried about ineffective agency structures this afternoon.

I know, I know … a few anecdotes do not negate all the statistics and “big picture” trends and whatnot. I get it; I’m not naïve.

But I also believe with all my heart that renewal in the church will happen in the form of the anecdotes that I have mentioned above, not in grand denominational reconfigurations and programs and conferences and meetings and plans and schemes and all those things we seem to be trying to do.

One person at a time. Slowly. Oh so slowly. Yet inevitably. Inexhaustibly. With the certainty of hope.

I love the church. I love the United Methodist Church. I love Campbell United Methodist Church. And I refuse to participate in myth-making when it comes to the future. I can’t, because I have witnessed that “future” present in the here-and-now, and it is phenomenal!

Monday, July 02, 2012

Relationship Changes Everything

Last night in Grow Group, we ventured into some interesting territory. Someone started things off, before we’d even officially begun the session, by saying she had heard for the first time just that morning the interpretation that says David and Jonathan were romantically involved.

We took a look at the story (in 1 Samuel 18 - 2 Samuel 1), and talked about the covenant established between the two, the deep love they felt for each other, the line “surpassing the love of women” that is a focal point of this interpretation, the kiss, the exchange of clothing, and so on. This wasn’t a deep reading; I just gave the group kind of a quick scan of the pertinent passages.

When I was done, I gave my opinion of the interpretation, which is that it is definitely possible from the clues that are given, but it is not specifically stated in any way that David and Jonathan’s relationship was romantic. So basically, we know that they loved each other very much, but the Bible never directly states that it is romantic love we are talking about.

This led another participant in the group to say that is what she thinks, too, and furthermore she just can’t believe that anyone would “accuse” David of such a relationship. In this statement she revealed her belief that being gay is something you would “accuse” someone of, as if it was wrong.

I was about to respond when another participant said it for me, “I don't believe being gay is something you ‘accuse’ someone of. It’s just how you are,” she said. I smiled inside!

And knowing she may have been somewhat uncertain about offering her belief, I spoke up in support. “That’s how I feel, as well. The interpretation that David and Jonathan were gay is not an accusation, it is just an idea of what their love may have been.”

Everybody seemed to be okay at this point, and we were able to move on into our discussion. The woman who had made the statement about “accusing” David and Jonathan of gayness kind of just nodded and said, “Oh, okay,” and the woman who had brought it up initially just said, “Yeah, I thought it was interesting and I had never heard it before this morning.”

The point being, nobody got all huffy and angry and bitter about anything. It wasn’t even tense. Everybody simply said what they believed and then we moved on. It was lovely!

I know that some of you who read this will comment with your own perspective on David and Jonathan, and on the whole homosexuality question. We may very well end up with a lengthy back and forth in which we fire our beliefs at one another like flaming arrows. I suppose that kind of thing is inevitable these days, though I am hopeful that it doesn’t need to be. Somebody must choose to be the first to stop hurting others.

By sharing this story, my goal is to point out what a difference being involved face-to-face with a small group of people you know and love can make. Relationship changes everything. Questions about human sexuality are rarely addressed in healthy ways online, or in denominational conferences, or any other venue in which investment in relationship is not required.

Because the people sitting around that table last night knew each other, worshiped together, loved one another, had shared prayer together, and so on, the conversation happened with grace and respect. And we ended up having a very meaningful hour and fifteen minute conversation about grief and loss, the Grow Group topic for the week.

And the thing is, I think 99.9% of people “get” that. You know? The idea that real relationship changes everything. And there isn’t a better venue in the world for that kind of relationship to develop than in the church. Trust, friendship, love - these things develop one at a time, slowly, face to face. You cannot program them. You cannot legislate them. You cannot force them.

But you can cultivate them. You can “till the soil” that will create the conditions in which they may emerge and begin to flourish. It requires an investment of time and energy and is actually pretty hard work! That’s what was happening last night at Grow Group, and it was very good!