Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Will You Please Pray With Me?

I say those words - "Will you please pray with me?" - a lot. It is part of the pastor gig. This time, I'm asking you to pray with me in some very particular ways, and for a very important reason.

The reason is the future of the church, our continued faithfulness to our mission, the health and vitality of the body of Christ in the world. Specifically, the future of the United Methodist Church as we work through our policy differences about marriage and ordination of people who are gay.

Our bishops are inviting us to do three things, beginning on June 3 this year -

1) Engage in a weekly Wesleyan 24-hour fast from Thursday after dinner to Friday mid-afternoon.  Those who have health situations causing food fasts to be unadvisable might consider fasting from social media, emails or another daily activity.
2) Pause and pray for our church’s mission and way forward daily for four minutes from 2:23 through 2:26 am or pm in their own time zone OR at another time.  This is because the Special Session of General Conference will be held February 23 through February 26, 2019.
3) Pray using a weekly prayer calendar that will be posted on the UMCPrays.org website from June 2, 2018 through the end of February 2019. The calendar will list a unique cluster of names each week. The names will balance USA bishops and delegates with Central Conference bishops and delegates. It will also include General Secretaries, Commission on a Way Forward members, the Commission of the General Conference and the staff of the General Conference.

So I am going to attempt the 24-hour fast each week, although when I've tried fasting in the past it has not been as meaningful to me as I know it is for others. Nevertheless, I am going to give it another go.

And I have my alarm already set for 2:23 every afternoon, and when it goes off I will pause and pray on the spot. If you are with me at 2:23 and I seem to kind of "zone out" for a while, you'll know why.

And I'll make a point to visit UMCPrays.org each day to pray by name for those who are listed there.

I am hopeful and excited to tap into the power of so many people joining in prayer together. The power of God's Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and all I want to do is access it, to touch it, so that I can cooperate with what God is up to. I honestly do not know how the General Conference conversations are going to to, much less how it will turn out. Nobody does. And yet, I am hopeful.

Because see I believe in resurrection, and so I am not afraid. There is a force beyond our understanding, a "grace too powerful to name," a life that is abundant and eternal and transcendent. I am making a choice to rejoice, and embrace the grace  and peace and truth and justice and love that is made known to me in my Lord and Savior and Teacher and Friend, Christ Jesus of Nazareth.

So, will you please pray with me?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Springfield Swastika Prank

The Springfield police have determined that the swastika spray-painted on the door of an African-American woman’s house was a “prank.” This “prank” also included eggs thrown at the woman’s house and a smashed car windshield, by the way, and similar vandalism at another home on the same street.

Some “prank,” huh?

Okay, so let’s go with that. Let’s assume that it was supposed to be a prank, that the people responsible didn’t mean anything by it, it was a joke, it wasn’t a blatantly racist hate crime. Let’s leave aside that notion for a minute and ask this question:

Does that make it better, or worse?

Some will say, “It was a prank, so it’s all good. No harm done. Moving on."

But I do not share this perspective. In fact, if spray painting a swastika on someone’s door is considered a “prank,” that kind of makes it worse. It means the racism is systematically ingrained, insidious and hidden. And when racism is hidden like that, it’s harder to resist.

Somewhere along the way, the people who vandalized the houses were taught that it is okay to “prank” an acquaintance with a symbol of racist genocide. Somehow in our system, the police are permitted to make a determination that an overt act of racial hatred is a harmless prank. Sometime in our history, we arrived at a point where spray-painted swastikas are no big deal.

I’m sure there are a variety of answers to the where and how and when we got here questions, but there can only be one response: resistance. That is, if we are to take our baptism promises seriously. In baptism, United Methodists promise “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” and that includes forms that are systemic, hidden and ingrained in our culture.

You can hide racism in an astonishing number of ways, it turns out. And there it lurks, justified and excused, festering until an opportunity to erupt presents itself. And it always does.

Resistance to systemic racism means that, no matter what the intentions of the people in question, we are called to condemn their hateful act. By the technicalities of the law it may not be a “hate crime” as our system defines a “hate crime,” but that makes it no less reprehensible. It is abhorrent, evil, and antithetical to the very identity of God.

My friend Susan Schmalzbauer put it so well when she said, “A swastika is not a whoopee cushion.” No matter what the Springfield Police report says, this was no prank.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

A Truthful Frame

The United Methodist Church is at a significant crossroads.

Recap: Our bishops are meeting this week to receive the report of the “Commission on a Way Forward.” That report will present a plan for the denomination regarding marriage of same-sex couples and ordination of people who are gay. The bishops will then present something (it may be that plan or it may be something altogether different) to the special session of the General Conference in February of 2019, to be held in St. Louis, Missouri. The General Conference will then vote on what the bishops present, which then becomes the official policy of the UMC. And after that … well, who really knows, tbh?

One thing I am hoping is that the conversation is being framed truthfully. One of the reasons our denomination has felt “stuck” around these questions for so long is that many of the people having the conversation are not working within a truthful framework. Hence, we talk around and around each other, and no progress is made. Let me elucidate.

Historically this conversation has been framed as one of polar opposition, with no room for a middle way. Specifically, one was either obedient to God or disobedient to God. One was either faithful to the Bible or had rejected the Bible. And when the conversation is framed that way, it is unproductive, not to mention dishonest.

See, when one group frames the conversation and puts themselves in the categories of “obedient” and “faithful,” placing the other group in the categories of “disobedient” and “unfaithful,” it is obvious that the conversation is going pretty much nowhere. Because of course nobody in the church wants to be labelled “disobedient” and “unfaithful,” especially in dialogue with others in the church.

However, this framework is not truthful; it does not reflect reality. It’s just false.

In the church, those who favor marriage equality as well as those who favor traditional marriage are doing so from an honest and heartfelt attempt to be obedient to God and faithful to the Bible. We come out in very different places, yes. But those differences are to be expected, arising as they do from very different life experiences in very different settings.

Look, no matter what your personal interpretations may be, you are making interpretations. In the dishonest framing of the conversation there exists an unwillingness to admit even that an interpretation is being made. One often hears, “No, this is not an interpretation. This is what the Bible actually says!” Such absolute certainty is not now nor has it ever been compatible with Christian teaching. We all make interpretations, as Christians everywhere always have.

If (and it’s a big “if”) we can get past the untruthful framing of the conversation and actually be able to say that someone who sees things differently than us is not being “disobedient” and “unfaithful,” we may be able to figure something out here. We may be able to actually craft an official denominational position that allows for contextual ministry to advance the mission of the church in healthy and hopeful ways.

Those who are clinging to the “you just can’t” position and those who are clinging to the “you just have to” position need to come to the middle on this one, where the rest of us are, where real life happens, where the mission of the church comes to life. We need to end up with a “you can but you don’t have to” position as a denomination if we want to stay focused on the mission, and actually start addressing some of the more pressing challenges that we as a church face in the 21st century and beyond.

Finally I need to say this – I am not na├»ve. I understand that there will be people who will still frame the conversation with the false dichotomy I’ve described. I guarantee there will be General Conference delegates who stand up on the floor in St. Louis next February and say things like, “I’m being faithful to the Bible and obedient to God here – and you are not!”

But maybe just maybe there will be more of us who are willing to stand up and say something different, to say something from a different framework. As a delegate, if given the opportunity, I will do my best to do so. That’s one of the ways I am trying to be obedient to God and faithful to the Bible, actually.

The conversation matters, and that includes how the conversation is framed to begin with. May we frame our conversations truthfully, graciously, respectfully, and most importantly, may we frame them with love.