Wednesday, December 11, 2019

"Even Mine"

Many Methodists know that John Wesley had an experience in which his "heart was strangely warmed." It was a conversion of sorts, a moment of awareness of the divine.

Not as many Methodists realize that the moment happened in 1738, when he was 35 years old and had been ordained in the Anglican Church already for 13 years. That means his "conversion" happened after he was called into the ministry.

And I suspect that even fewer Methodists know the journal sentence that follows the "strangely warmed" observation. He wrote, "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

"Even mine," he says. "Even mine." Those two words. It is as if he has only just now realized that all the stuff he had been saying for all those years ... applied to him as well. How is it possible for a preacher, ordained by the church, not to realize that all the stuff they are saying also applies to them?

Even mine.

I have been a preacher for nineteen years. I was a full-time music director at a church for five years prior to that, a part-time choir director for two years before that. Twenty-six years working for a church. I grew up in church, my family is saturated in church.

How is it that while all of that was happening I have never really been aware of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit?

I mean, I have preached about it. I have pointed it out in other peoples' lives.

But ... even mine?

I feel like I have become more aware of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the past two or three months than I ever have before. No let me rephrase that: I feel like I have never been truly aware of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit prior to the past two months, and now I am. In really amazing and wonderful and sometimes confusing ways.

I have seen the Spirit moving in the ministry of the church, in fresh expressions of Christian Community being born, true koinonia as it is meant to be lived. The ways I have seen this are numerous, and abundant. I have seen people returning to church for the first time in years, with hesitancy born from ongoing pain, and being able to spiritually breathe again. I have heard stories from the Shared Streets community, stories of transformation and hopefulness. I have seen the Spirit move in the simple gift of a new pair of shoes, a refurbished bicycle, and a new pillowcase. In the church, I have seen the Spirit move.

One of the ways most obvious to me is the way I feel about my wife and children. My love for them has been renewed in these past few months in a powerful and tangible way. My wife Erin said to me recently, "You are happier than you've been in years." And she is right. I've loved her fiercely for almost thirty years, and in these past few months that love has deepened even more. How is that possible if not for the work of the Spirit? And my heart aches with pride for each of my uniquely gifted children, for each of whom I would gladly lay down my own life. In my family, I have seen the Spirit move.

John Wesley had a group of Moravians show up in his life in the season of his conversion. Their unwavering faith in the midst of storm and struggle inspired him and was an impetus to his own time of soul searching. In a way, I have my own "Moravians" all around me. In this season, I have met and become friends with people whose connection with the Holy Spirit is so deep, so intimate, and so profound. I long to be as connected with the Spirit as they are, and I feel a unique grace in their companionship. In my new friends, I have seen the Spirit move.

And finally, within myself ... I cannot even begin to describe the change I have felt within my own spirit. Yeah, even mine. And please understand, the way I feel does not invalidate any prior experiences I've had. This present moment is emerging from all that has been. It's just that in the past, I have been quick to affirm those "God moments" that others would tell me about in their own lives, and just as quick to minimize them in my own, to chalk them up to coincidence or just ignore them altogether.

But now, I don't know ... my spiritual senses are awake in a way they haven't been before. I smile more. I walk more lightly. I breathe easier. I see people and am overwhelmed immediately with love for them. I notice beauty. I cry a lot. I laugh a lot. I don't really know this person I'm becoming, but I kinda like him. He's familiar to me, like a version of myself that I may have been once in a different time. In my self, I have seen the Spirit move.

So yeah, I feel like I do see God present everywhere in the world, and sense the Spirit is at work in my life, even mine, saving me from my own spiritual lethargy, connecting me deeply to other people, inspiring me with a renewed sense of vocation, and beckoning from a hope-filled future.

(And yes, I realize this post is utterly self-centered, and I'm sorry for that. I process things by writing, so this is really me processing some of the stuff happening to me right now. Thanks for reading.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Missouri 2020 Delegation Update

The 2020 Missouri Delegation has been working hard in these past couple of months.

+ In November, the Missouri Delegation officially endorsed Rev. Sally Haynes as a candidate for bishop. Sally had shared with the delegation at our September meeting that she was discerning a call to bishop. At that meeting, there was a sharing of initial thoughts, a prayer for discernment, and an outline for the process ahead. In November, Sally shared some updates with the group, there was a time of questioning and healthy conversation, and then the delegation voted our support of Sally’s candidacy. We ask for continued prayers for the remainder of the process ahead. 

+ In our meetings thus far, we have been coached by Rev. Melissa Bailey-Kirk, who is a trained facilitator in the Circle Way of meeting. Our hope has been to set a different tone for our work together, one of trust and openness, so that our work may be done as a spiritually centered and fully engaged delegation. We are so grateful to Melissa for coaching us through our first few gatherings.

+ We have had several other guests with us, providing input into our work process. Rev. Jessica Foster and Rev. Chelsey Hillyer spoke with us about their participation in the UM Forward meeting last Spring. We spent some time speaking with Terry Shoemaker and Ross Lundstrom from Wespath about legislation Wespath is proposing for General Conference this year. We had conversation with Rev. Bob Phillips of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference about his participation in the Wesley Covenant Association. Each guest was invited so that Missouri might be fully engaged in our important work.

+ Delegation member Rev. Kim Jenne was able to connect with members of both Mozambique Annual Conferences’ delegations on a recent trip. She conveyed greetings on behalf of the Missouri delegations, presented a letter, and had a very meaningful conversation about General Conference legislation and the hopes and dreams for the future of the United Methodist Church. It is our intention to stay in contact with our siblings from Mozambique, and to share a meal with them in Minneapolis in May.

+ The delegation is anticipating receiving our written material in January 2020. Once we get our copies of the “Advance Daily Christian Advocate” we will know exactly what individual petitions are connected with what larger “plans” you may have read about. There are fourteen legislative committees that initially deal with General Conference petitions, prior to them coming to the larger group during the conference’s second week. That means the General Conference is never talking about a single plan in its entirety. Our system breaks the plans down into smaller petitions based on the paragraph of the Book of Discipline that is impacted. Please keep your Missouri delegates in prayer as we carefully read through the pages of petitions that we will consider in May.

+ The next time the delegation will meet together will be in February, when we will meet in Oklahoma City with other delegations of the South Central Jurisdiction. At that gathering, individual delegations will have the opportunity to interview the endorsed candidates for bishop. There will be opportunities to discuss General Conference legislation, and to connect with other delegates from the various Annual Conferences of our Jurisdiction. 

It is our desire to be as transparent as we can about the work we are doing. This is a significant moment in the life of the United Methodist Church, and it is a privilege to be serving in this capacity at this time. We long to be centered in God’s Spirit, and to be equipped by God’s grace to serve the church to the utmost of our capacity. And we need your prayers in order to do so. Thank you for all the encouragement that has been offered thus far, and as we swing into Spring and get really busy, we’ll be relying on your prayers more and more. 

May God’s grace and peace be with us all. Amen.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Pathways, Too

Or is it Pathways 2? Or maybe Pathways II? Oh I know! Pathways Next!

Ok, so it doesn't really matter. It is a team of 20 people from the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church meeting together for a common purpose. And when Missouri convenes a team to help discern a direction for the Conference, we call it a "Pathways" team. It's what we do.

At our first meeting on Wednesday, October 30, we began our work by clarifying that purpose. Our Bishop, Bishop Bob Farr, has called this group together to discern a way for the Missouri Conference to be in ministry together pending the outcome of General Conference 2020.

The group present last Wednesday agreed on a lot of things. We began with Scripture and prayer. Each one gave permission to share our names as participants in this process. We took some time getting to know one another. We started talking about some common ideas of covenant to guide our work. And we heard the Bishop lay out one possible idea for how we might proceed after June 2020 (the Annual Conference session).

There are people from every district in the conference. There are elder, deacon, licensed local pastor, and laity. There is racial diversity. There is one person who is gay and out. (There may be others, but I don't know everyone at the table personally and we didn't really take a poll.)

And there are people at the table who believe being LGBT+ should disqualify a person from getting married and/or being ordained, alongside people who believe sexual orientation and gender identity should be celebrated as an important part of what makes a person unique and gifted. And I'm sure there are people somewhere in between, too. So it goes.

One of the helpful filters that Bishop Farr added to our work was this: we are not going to try to change one another's minds about what we believe. Our conversations are to be focused on how we can, in the bishop's words, "multiply our witness for the sake of Jesus Christ." In my own words, the question is, "What can we do together that would sow the seeds of the Reign of God in our varied contexts of ministry and service?"

Bishop Farr has a way of speaking pretty powerful truths in pretty accessible ways. Sometimes you don't really catch it until it's past. Recently he said that it seems like there's an earthquake happening in the United Methodist Church; but maybe the church "needs to be shaken up."

At our meeting on the 30th, he uttered a doozie, a real "Farrism." He said, "Whoever wound up the United Methodist Church did not want it to be unwound." What he meant by that was that our system is a giant hairball of overly complicated processes and procedures that nobody really even understands, much less follows completely. So the work of this Pathways team is not around "unwiding" the church, but orbiting that hairball as best we can.

So here's the process - we are meeting at least four more times (December 17, January 18, February 27, and April 21). Our work will be presented to the Mission Council, who would, pending their approval, present it to the Annual Conference in June.

One of the unresolved questions as I see it is, "What would trigger consideration of the Pathways plan?" Meaning, what outcome of General Conference would cause us to say, "Okay let's do our thing instead of that?" Would affirmation of the status quo trigger it? Would voting to divide the entire UMC? Would voting in favor of full inclusion and affirmation of all people, including ordination and marriage?

Or will we just do it anyway, regardless of the specific outcome in May?

This is one of the myriad of questions that the Pathways team will be asking. And there are so many. It is my hope that we are as transparent as we can possibly be in this process, and for me that includes listening to your hopes and fears as well. Please comment, email, or message me with your questions. Your voices are important to this conversation.

And finally, I just ask that you please pray. A lot. Pray a lot. Pray for God's wisdom. Pray for an awareness of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Pray for our church. We are living through a season of reform, and the future is uncharted territory. In prayer together, we can navigate what lies ahead and continue to become the church that God desires.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Two or Three?

Help me out here, United Methodist friends. In the ongoing conversations about the future of our denomination, one of the questions is essentially, "Two or three?"

As in, will there be two different systems (one traditional and one progressive), or three systems (one traditional, one centrist, and one progressive). Yes, I know it is way more complicated than that, and the language and labels are different among different "plans" and such. And I'm assuming we are all resigned to the idea that staying one system and trying to make that system more just is no longer an option, as February 2019 made clear to so many of us.

So, a core question to wrestle with remains, "Two or three?"

And here's where I need some help. I fail to see how there are three options. It seems to me that there is either "status quo" or "change." Either we allow same-sex weddings or we don't. Either we ordain LGBTQ+ people or we don't.

There is nuance, of course. Some people are in favor of ordination but not marriage. Some would favor marriage as a legal relationship but not a spiritual one. And so it goes. Yes, it is nuanced.

But ... let's do some practical theology, ok?

A young gay person comes to their pastor and says, "God has called me to be ordained in the United Methodist Church." That pastor either says "Yes" or "No." That pastor cannot say, "Either."

A same-sex couple comes to their church and says they want to get married. Their church either says "Yes" or "No." That church cannot say, "We are divided on that question."

In fact, if that pastor says "either" or if that church says "we are divided" are they not in fact saying "No?"

It seems to me that if we end up with three systems and one of those is labelled "centrist," the "centrist" system is in practice "traditionalist" if weddings and ordinations are still prohibited. And it is in practice "progressive" if weddings and ordinations are allowed.

So, in practice, either "status quo" or "change."

Many clergy colleagues have expressed some trepidation about making their congregation choose. There is significant anxiety about the tone of the conversation, and the potential for conflict. "It would split the congregation in two," some have said. I get that. I feel that.

Nevertheless, I disagree. What better place to have the conversation than in a community of people who worship together, serve together, learn together, and love each other as members of one another in the Body of Christ? Surely there's no better place to have potentially difficult conversations than in the local church. It's certainly a far better place to have them than on the floor of General Conference, isn't it?

Look, it is naive for anyone to think that no LGBTQ+ people in their congregation will ever be called into ordained ministry, or want to be married in their own church building. And so, we probably ought to go ahead and have the conversation, so that we can respond in a Christlike way when (not if) it happens. Otherwise the urgency of the moment will prevent effective communication, and the conflict will be harder to navigate.

Right this moment, though my mind is open, I like the "UMCNext Plan," mainly because it presents a clear answer to the question of "Two or Three." The UMCNext answer is "Two." The UMCNext Plan basically says, "We would like to change the status quo in the UMC. If you don't like that change, we are going to create a respectful way for you to leave and form your own Wesleyan church, where you can have policies that prohibit marriage and ordination if you want."

I like it because it is a choice between two things. Clearly articulated. One is fully inclusive; one is conditionally inclusive. You can pick. You have to pick. It is time to pick. Have the conversation. Choose.

Help me. How is having a "centrist" system not choosing one or the other?

Monday, August 12, 2019

Every One Is 'Gabriela'

Regardless of the circumstances of their specific cases, what has unified all twenty of our foster kids has been the trauma of being removed from their parent or parents.

Kids are taken into foster care for two reasons, and only two – abuse or neglect. That means the adult in charge of caring for them has either treated them as if they are worthless or treated them as if they did not exist. One hears the stories and thinks, “How horrific! Who would do such a thing? What awful people!”

Yet each and every one of our kids has loved their “awful people,” in spite of the horrific things that have happened. That love is experienced as grief when the child is taken away, and that grief is traumatic.

One of our kids (I’ll call her “Gabriela”) was taken into care when police raided the home in which she was living. It was a drug raid, and large amounts of cocaine were seized in the raid. As Gabriela’s case progressed, it was discovered that her mother was from Mexico, and living in the United States without proper documentation. Mom was struggling to get by, looking for a better life for the two of them, and had been taken advantage of by coyotes who promised big and failed to deliver, as is typical. Moving in to the drug house was an act of desperation, a matter of survival. And bad timing.

For a week straight, Gabriela cried herself to sleep every night at our house, repeating a word over and over again as she did. We did not recognize the word, partly because she was crying which made it hard to understand, partly because she was three years old, but mostly because it was a word we had never heard before. It turned out to be a sort of pet name for her mom.

She cried herself to sleep every night crying for her mama.

Stories of children being taken from their parents have been in the news lately, first at the U.S./Mexico border and more recently as a result of I.C.E. raids in Mississippi. These stories have hit my family in a particular way. Every one of the kids whose faces we see on the news, whose voices we hear crying for their parents, whose stories have awakened indignation and ire among so many, every one of them is Gabriela.

Gabriela was reunited with her mom, which is great. And then we lost track of her, which is not uncommon. And so we don’t know where she lives or who she’s with or how she is or pretty much anything about her. She’s a teenager now, which is hard to fathom. In our minds she is still three, still chattering away in a mix of Spanish, English, and toddler, still wagging her finger at us when we tell her it’s time for bed, still crying herself to sleep and calling for her mama.

You may try to come at me with “but they broke the law” and the “it’s the parents’ fault for bringing their kids here in the first place” and the other myopic platitudes that do nothing but make you feel better about yourself. But please, don’t. I have zero patience for it.

Here is the truth: Each and every one of those kids on the news loves their parents, no matter what. And each and every one whose parents were taken away was traumatized by that experience. And that ought to be the priority; that’s what we should be talking about.

Because I just cannot bear the thought of a single child, much less a dozen, much less … however many … crying themselves to sleep at night, calling out for their mamas.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

It's All Racism

I value diversity, in all forms. Difference keeps life interesting; we are created as unique and distinct individuals who see the world differently. I celebrate that.

I celebrate it ... up to a point. And I get to decide where to draw the line between a perspective that is worthy of my respect and a perspective for which I cannot muster any. Celebrating diversity of opinion does not imply that all perspectives are equally valid. There's a line.

Racism crosses that line. A racist perspective is not worthy of my respect. Racism is sin. Racism is evil. Racism is "antithetical to the gospel itself." Racism is the only issue; every issue is racism.

Over the past three or four years in our nation, latent racism has been revealed, embraced, and mainstreamed. Overtly racist statements are made openly, in public, and without shame. And when challenged, the statements are defended with malice, malevolence, and bitter defensiveness.

For the record let me say this: Telling people of color to go back where they came from is racist. (Though why I should have to make that clear boggles my mind.)

Now, I have no desire to comment here on the president's character; I believe that his own words and actions have revealed more about his character than my thoughts ever could. Maya Angelou said it best when she said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." Our president has shown all us exactly who he is, and I believe him.

At first the overt racism was sporadic; it seemed a sideshow or some kind of alternate reality that would soon pass. When it did not, there was indignation and anger, resolve to resist and persist. And then when it continued, we thought it was a distraction from deeper more insidious things, intentionally orchestrated to divert our attention. I no longer consider it a distraction.

The malevolent racist spirit that corrodes our nation is not a distraction from other more destructive activity happening behind the scenes. In fact the very fact that I once considered it to be a distraction is ample proof of just how insidious and evil this malevolence is. The malevolent racist spirit is the only thing that matters; everything else begins there.

As I wrote previously, "And so as disciples of Jesus, as Christians, as people who desire to live as God intends us to live, we have to confront the malevolent spirit permeating our world. We have name it, draw it up to the light, and annihilate it. And then we have to offer an alternative way of being, a replacement for the malevolence that will solidify its destruction once and for all.

That alternative way is called 'love,' by the way. Love, and everything that comes along with it. Things like hope. And forgiveness. And justice, and peace, and grace, and compassion."

I'm still here. And although it feels sometimes like the malevolence is indestructible, we must not allow ourselves to fall into "weak resignation to the evils we deplore." May God "grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving the One whom we adore." Amen and amen.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Second Sunday

After a wave of “first Sundays” across the connection, United Methodist pastors woke up to discover it is week two, and another Sunday is right around the corner.

We celebrated last weekend, pulled out all the stops, wore all the nametags, shook all the hands. Preachers brought their "A" game. Musicians filled sanctuaries with joyous praise. Hospitality teams polished up welcome desks. And it was wonderful! It was a party! There was cake! Everyone was there to check out the new pastor, and it felt like a big family reunion where one of the kids is bringing home a new significant other for everyone to meet.

It was great.

And guess what … this coming Sunday is just as important. I might even go so far as to say that this coming Sunday is even more important. A one-time celebration of a special event is awesome and spectacular and fun, and I don’t want to take anything away from all the good stuff that United Methodist churches did last weekend. It was a mountaintop moment.

Faithful, fruitful discipleship is more than just mountaintops. Following Jesus is comprised of mountaintop moments that are connected by long stretches of valley, and those valleys are where life happens. Those valleys are where faith is tested. Those valleys are where we grow and learn and serve and share.

The good news is that there’s another mountaintop coming. We get one a week, actually! How cool is that? When we gather together to be the church at worship, whether it is the new pastor’s first Sunday or the old pastor’s one thousand first, it is the day the Lord has made and we ought to rejoice and be glad in it.

For a lot of us, this weekend will be the second Sunday (or Saturday) of a new appointment. And I hope we pull out all the stops and bring our "A" games and fill the room with joyous praise. Yes, again. Because God is worth it.

God’s grace comes both in periodic bursts of brilliance and in slow, steady streams. We live in valleys interspersed with occasional mountaintop moments. Growing in faithfulness means learning how to navigate both.

It’s the second Sunday, week two. There may not be cake this week. Get up and go worship anyway. I’ll see y’all in church.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Delegation Election Thoughts

Here’s what I think happened in the delegation elections at the Missouri Annual Conference in 2019. (For background, click the lead story of this conference daily journal.)

It was about principles, not labels.

The national UMC Next gathering generated four clear, succinct principles. Written as commitments, these principles provide an unambiguous way for people to self-identify. Labels like conservative, centrist, and liberal can mean different things to different people and at different times. I am conservative in some ways and progressive in others. Does that then make me an aggregate centrist?

Instead of those subjective terms, the Missouri UMC Next group took the four commitments and asked potential delegates if they supported them. People were then able to say, “Yes, I affirm the four principles of the UMC Next movement,” rather than, “I am a centrist” or some other nebulous label.

It made some people mad.

I am truly sorry that some people were upset or angry or disappointed by the lack of theological diversity on the Missouri delegation. And to be honest, in past years I would have shared their disappointment. I am an advocate for a “big table” church in which many different theological perspectives have a voice. But this isn’t “past years;” this is a profoundly significant time in the history of Methodism.

In this season, I am particularly mindful of the voices who for decades have been at best only partly included at the table if not excluded completely. And one of the UMC Next commitments is to “build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.” Actually, that sounds like a pretty big table to me!

It was driven by hope and trust.

At a pre-conference meeting of 225 people or so, hosted by the Missouri UMC Next group, there was a notable buzz in the room. I said to my colleague Lori, “There’s a lot of energy tonight.”

Lori looked at me and without missing a beat said, “It’s hope.”

There was a generally positive, hopeful outlook among those who affirmed the UMC Next principles. The 2019 General Conference had sucked a lot of life out of a lot of people, and here for the first time since February were some tangible ways to respond. That generated a lot of really good hopeful energy.

This hopefulness spilled over in an abundance of trust. The Missouri UMC Next list of suggested delegates would have been nobody’s personal preference from one to twelve.  The names came from a series of regional meetings held all over the state, countless personal conversations, and several flurries of group emails. There was broad participation, as many, many people connected in a variety of ways to pray and talk and discern together.

So yes, people were voting for people they had never actually met before. Nobody knew each and every one of the slate, much less had spoken to each one about how they would serve on the delegation. But here’s what happened - personal preferences were set aside, because if you didn’t know someone on the list, you knew someone who knew them. It was relational and organic, the Methodist connection working like the connection can and maybe should.

It was a small part of a great awakening.

Here in our conference, there has been a reluctance to dialogue about points of disagreement. Sidestepping difficult conversations has generated an ethos that some would describe as unity. I do not see it as unity; I see it as conflict avoidance.

But the church is awake now, in a way it hasn’t been before. It happened all over the country at one annual conference session after another. United Methodists are pretty strongly rejecting the petitions passed at General Conference 2019 and the manner in which they were passed. And while that doesn’t mean we ought to seek out conflict, it very clearly means we will no longer be avoiding it for the sake maintaining a veneer of artificial unity.

There are so many things that are going to happen between now and General Conference 2020, and nobody knows how everything is going to shake out. Bishop Farr said at our Annual Conference session this year, “The United Methodist Church is experiencing an earthquake. But maybe we need to be shaken up.”

However you view this season in the UMC, very few can deny that Easter people are raising their voices all over the place. Hope and trust and grace and love abound! God’s Holy Spirit is alive and on the move!

The church is awake. It is glorious. It is terrifying. It is in God’s hands. All shall be well. Amen.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

"A Huge Thunderclap"

The United Methodist Church lost a long-time member a couple of weeks ago. He's still going to be active, will still come to worship and be very faithful in a lot of areas of the church.

He just doesn't want to be a member. At least not at the moment.

Here's part of what he said in his letter, shared with his permission:

"I've been reading, listening, and pondering about what's going on within the Methodist Church surrounding the position that has been taken regarding 'we are inclusive but not really.'

"As a result, I've come to the conclusion that I can no longer be a member of an organization that does not reflect my personal belief on whether members of the LGBT etc. community are 'full' members of the church. By 'full' I mean they have the right to become clergy and to be married in a Methodist Church by a Methodist pastor. ...

"This is my protest to the direction the UMC has decided to go at this time. As a protest I'm very aware that it is not going to be a huge thunderclap in the Annual Conference and/or General Conference. Heck, it probably won't even be heard.

"I believe the UMC needs to assess itself as whether it should continue to be a single philosophy world-wide religion or if it should split into conferences that reflect the people that each serves. There are too many cultural differences across the world for a single [denomination] to try to be 'one for all.'"

(Can I just say how much respect and admiration I have for my friend and brother in Christ? And then can I just say how much my heart breaks at how harmful the United Methodist Church has been to so many people for so long?)

There is some thunder that cracks, very loudly, very suddenly. It startles you, makes you jump.

But there is other thunder that starts slow and rumbles, you almost don't hear it at first but it builds slowly and gradually until before you know it the windows are rattling and the sound fills your ears.

The United Methodist Church is experiencing that second kind of thunder. Little by little, one member at a time, the denomination is shaking apart. I have heard Bishop Farr refer to it as "death by a thousand cuts." It will only increase. Soon it will be rattling our windows and shaking the very foundations of our church.

By that time we will be forced to do what we might be able to get ahead of right now, if we have the will to do so. We have to say "no" to the "traditional plan." We have to eliminate discrimination in our church. We have to embrace our rich Wesleyan theology. We have to advocate for goodness, justice, equality, and love.

At the moment "We are inclusive but not really," as he puts it.

And the thunder rolls.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

A Non-Confirmation Affirmation

A young woman decided not to join the United Methodist Church last Sunday.

In one sense that’s rather unremarkable. After all, every Sunday there are millions of people who don’t join the United Methodist Church.

But the young woman’s decision was noteworthy, and I want you to know about it. She gave me permission to tell her story.

She attended confirmation classes for weeks, learning about the church, the theology and history of Methodism, and about what it means to be a member. And those classes were happening during a significant, tumultuous season for the denomination.

In February the General Conference met and tightened our restrictions on participation of LGBTQIA persons in the denomination. That decision was then upheld by the Judicial Council at the end of April. And then Confirmation Sunday was May 5th.

And because the young woman does not want to be a part of a church that excludes people, she decided not to become a member. Her decision did not make headlines; her story will not go viral. That’s not why she made her decision.

She made her decision because she doesn’t want to be a part of the United Methodist Church as long as gay people are only conditionally accepted here. “You are welcome up to this line, but not beyond” is not her theology, nor does it represent her understanding of who God is, nor does it reflect her interpretation of the Bible.

She is a young woman of principle, of courage, and of high integrity. I have the utmost respect for her and for her decision.  It was not an easy decision, and she made it with much prayer and discernment. Nor did her decision take any of the joy away from the other nine who decided to be confirmed and join the church; no judgments here, on anyone’s part.

A part of why she gave me permission to share her story was to help people recognize the writing on the wall for the UMC. This is the future of the denomination, as it has come to be.
We have not shattered in one explosive Thanos snap moment. Rather, the United Methodist Church is gradually disintegrating, just steadily eroding, one decision at a time. And no conference resolution, petition, or piece of legislation can even begin to reverse that slow yet unrelenting decline.

A young woman did not join the United Methodist Church last Sunday. Do you see her? Do you hear her? Will you affirm her story?

I baptized her a year ago; she professed her faith in Jesus Christ, made her baptismal vows, and was affirmed by the church surrounding her in that moment. So she is a disciple, but not a member. Which is wonderful of course, and at the same time heartbreaking.

A young woman made a decision to not join the church last week. And we need to hear her voice, respect her integrity, and affirm her story. And then we need to go to work so that no young person makes that decision ever again.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Easter Baptisms

There was a teenage girl who is on the autism spectrum who told me how much she loves Jesus and that she wanted to be baptized. Just because of where she happened to be standing, she bravely went first, her parents right there beside her.

There was a 39 year old man who asked me if I was going to carry him around the sanctuary like I did with the babies, smiling at me as I sprinkled water into his thick head of hair. Some of it dripped down onto his long bushy beard.

There was a mother and daughter kneeling side-by-side, their husband/dad standing behind them with tears running down his face as I baptized first his little girl, then his wife. They all held hands during the prayer.

There was a baby boy in a beautiful all white baptism outfit, bright eyes shining, smiling at me when I took him from his mom. The water must have been a little bit cold because when I put it on his head he caught his breath and shivered like babies do.

There was another baby boy who is an actual super hero, living with spinal muscular atrophy and rocking his Easter morning bow tie right alongside the medical equipment he’s connected to. He didn’t care for all the jostling, and frowned at me. (We’re good, though. He smiled at me later.)

There was a fifth grade girl who had asked me not to get her hair bow wet. I tried, but failed. So after I baptized her I whispered, “I’m sorry I think I got your bow wet” and she indignantly replied, “Oh come on!” with a twinkle in her beautiful eyes.

So that was Easter Sunday. Not bad, huh?

Because my call to ministry happened during a baptism (Jessica Sparks, 20 years ago, First Presbyterian Church, Galesburg, Illinois), baptism has always a very meaningful part of what I do as a pastor. But I think Easter Sunday of 2019 will be particularly special, and I will recall it with great joy for years to come. Not just because there were seven baptisms, which is pretty groovy in and of itself. But because of each of the seven unique and miraculous lives that were changed in those moments.

Baptism is the beginning of a new relationship. Easter is the beginning of a new season. In two months will be a beginning of a new chapter of ministry for me. God really is continually doing a new thing, within us and among us and all around us, in every moment and every place, forever and ever. The energy of Easter, the power of Baptism, along with the ongoing grace of Holy Communion: these spiritual realities equip us for every new beginning we face, in every moment of our lives.

Initiated into Christ’s holy church – Incorporated into God’s might acts of salvation – Given new birth through water and the Spirit. And ALL of it is God’s gift, offered to us without price. The thought of it really should blow us away; it is almost too much to perceive!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia, amen.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Post Mortem for the Via Media

The Via Media is dead.

The post-mortem of the Middle Way includes such examinations as General Conference 2019, 21st century politics, seminary recruitment plans, and Christian evangelism.

At General Conference 2019 a via media was offered by marriage equality advocates and a few who favor traditional marriage. It was strongly rejected by just over half of the delegates.

In 21st century politics, a via media platform would never get enough support from a party’s base to be nominated in the first place, and so the candidates presented for election tend to represent extremes.

In seminary recruitment, rigorous theological debate among a variety of diverse viewpoints has been replaced by ideologically driven “orthodoxy” training, which has become a primary consideration for potential students.

In terms of evangelism, individual Christians are drifting toward congregations that are more uniformly aligned with their own theology rather than doing the hard and uncomfortable work of living together with diverse perspectives.

(Yes, these are generalities; Yes, I am aware of their limitations.)

I am a “via media liberal.” I have “mediated” my sermons here at Campbell for the sake of honoring the middle way. In doing so, I hear from liberals in the congregation disappointed that I have not been more forthright. When I am more forthright about my personal perspective, I hear from conservatives in the congregation disappointed that I have been too political. Both liberals and conservatives have left Campbell in the past few months to connect with congregations to which they feel more aligned theologically. More via media post-mortem examination.

And so it goes. (I hear similar stories from “via media conservative” colleagues, by the way.)

And still I continue to believe that the middle way is the best way. I continue to believe that we need each other. As much as I value my personal relationship with Jesus, as highly as I regard my perspective of who he is and who he wants me to be, I know that my glimpse is only one small glimpse of the infinite entirety of Christ. I know that I need other glimpses, connected together with mine, in order to get a fuller picture of who God is.

We need each other. And so…

We need the via media.

Yet the via media is dead.

Is it dead for a season? Is it winter for the middle way, with a spring somewhere on the horizon? Has the via media been crucified, meaning resurrection is just around the corner?

And if so, what do we do? What can we do?

And on a personal level, what do I do? Shall I veer left theologically, mediating less and being stronger with my own personal perspective? Would that be selling out, capitulating to prevailing winds of the day? Or shall I continue to advocate for compromise, diversity of thought, and the middle way? Would that just be an exhausting, fruitless tilting at windmills that would do nothing but wear me out spiritually?

As of now, I remain committed to the middle way. I value diversity. I enjoy hearing different perspectives, when they are offered with generosity and civility. It just seems like it is harder and harder to walk the via media in this season. More and more people seem to be seeking like-mindedness instead of engaging the difficult, vulnerable, and risky search for truth together.

Maybe it’s that Saturday in between Good Friday and Easter for the middle way, and all we can do is sit by the tomb, in silent vigil, grief stricken, not knowing, not understanding. Wondering what comes next.

Hoping for Easter.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

What Do You Mean By That?

The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers it to be incompatible with Christian teaching.

That’s the sentence at the heart of it all. This sentence in the United Methodist “Book of Discipline,” was added in 1972 via a last minute amendment offered by lay delegate Don Hand at that year’s General Conference. This sentence is why the UMC has adopted our discriminatory policies, denying same-sex couples the right to be married in United Methodist church buildings, denying United Methodist pastors the right to marry same-sex couples, and denying people who are gay the right to be ordained to serve in the church.

That sentence is why we had the sound and fury that was General Conference 2019.

So let’s take a minute with that sentence, and dig into it to think about what we really mean. Let’s parse that sentence in the most Methodist way possible, using Scripture as the primary source, illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience. Let’s just see what we mean by that.

For this project, I’ll unpack four individual phrases in the sentence.
- “…does not condone…”
- “…the practice of homosexuality…”
- “…incompatible with…”
- “…Christian teaching…”

1) “Does not condone”
“Does not condone” is a flaky phrase. What does it mean to “not condone” something? Well, it isn’t quite neutral, right? To say that I condone something is to say that I will allow it to continue, to sanction it, to approve of it. So to “not condone” something is to “not allow it to continue.” It’s just phrased a bit awkwardly, and not as clearly as it could be.

The opposite of “condone” is “condemn.” A more direct, clearer statement would be, “The United Methodist Church condemns…” It begs the question: Why was that stronger language not chosen in 1972 when this phrase was added? Did it seem kind of un-Methodist to actually “condemn” something? Was it theological, in that only God can condemn, not us? Was it perhaps an attempt to soften the harm that the author of the phrase inherently knew would obviously be done by adding it?

Of course, one can only speculate. Suffice it to say that there was something about the word “condemn” that did not appeal to the author of the phrase way back when. When the idea is placed in context, however, it becomes clear that “condemn” is exactly what is meant here. The real life implications of this statement are ample evidence that condemnation is intended.

So in this case, “does not condone” means “condemns,” and I will use the clearer language in the remainder of this project.

2) “The practice of homosexuality”
The United Methodist Church does not condemn homosexuality directly. It is really important to realize that same-sex sexual orientation itself is not condemned by the denominational statement. The big deal about that is that The United Methodist Church acknowledges that sexual orientation is a real thing.

Many people still do not believe the science behind sexual orientation. Many people still think that being gay is a choice. You can tell when somebody thinks this way because they use phrases like “that lifestyle.” However, the United Methodist Church has, since 1972, affirmed that homosexual orientation is a real thing. Any United Methodist who thinks being gay is a choice is technically therefore in violation of the Book of Discipline.

It is “the practice” of that one particular sexual orientation that is in question here. So what does that mean? Well, since I am straight I try to think about in terms of my own orientation. What does it look like for me to “practice” my heterosexuality?

Every morning I give my wife a kiss. We send text messages during the day that say, “Could you pick up some milk?” and stuff like that. We hold hands sometimes. When we can finagle a babysitter we might occasionally go out on a … what are those called?  … oh yeah, a date. We have sex sometimes. We give each other hugs a lot. We sit on the couch and watch TV shows together. We argue about bills. We worry about our kids. And so forth, and so on.

This is what it looks like for me to “practice” my romantic attraction to my wife, to “practice” my heterosexuality.

And so, these public (and private) displays of affection are condemned by the United Methodist Church if you are romantically attracted to someone who is the same gender as you. In other words, The United Methodist Church does not condemn your orientation, it just condemns your expressing it in any way. The United Methodist Church officially believes that you have to stay in the closet if you are gay. You have to repress any expression of romantic attraction you might feel for someone. You do not have to deny who you are, but you have to deny any outward appearance of who you are.

This statement says nothing specifically about marriage, by the way. However, marriage is clearly one way that one “practices” their sexual orientation. And so later in the Book of Discipline, when marriage is specifically forbidden, it refers to this particular sentence to do so. The word "practice" also plays a part in ordination discrimination. In our wonky policy language, we say that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" are forbidden from being ordained. Again, it isn't the orientation that is condemned but rather the practice thereof.

Now, some will say that the statement is really about sex only. Some will say that the intent of the sentence is to apply only to actual sex with someone of the same gender. And often tangled with this interpretation is a thought that the sole purpose of marriage is sex, or procreation. Again, any thought about the author’s original meaning is only speculation. The plain truth is that the statement doesn’t condemn only sex; it condemns “the practice,” which includes much more.

In fact, the word "practice" appears twice in the sentence, which reinforces the idea that romantic attraction to someone of the same gender is acknowledged and not condemned, but merely the various expressions of said romantic attraction.

3) “Incompatible With”
Actually I’m going to come back to this one, and do the last one next. So…

3) “Christian Teaching”
This phrase could mean a lot of different things. In the original motion the phrase was "Christian doctrine;" it was changed to "teaching" via a friendly amendment. At its simplest, “Christian teaching” is the teaching of Christ. So that would mean that somewhere in the things Jesus said we should find a teaching about a person expressing their love for someone of the same gender.

The problem is, it’s not there. Sometimes marriage traditionalists cite Matthew 19 to claim that Jesus did, in fact, say something about same-sex marriage. However, Matthew 19 is not about same-sex marriage. It is about heterosexual marriage, opposite-sex marriage if you will. He is asked a direct question about a man divorcing his wife, and he answers that question. It is an interpretive leap to claim that this Christian teaching is about same-sex marriage. It is directly connected to opposite-sex marriage, clearly.

(As a side note, the church has not taken Matthew 19 seriously for years. Divorced pastors are numerous; divorced Christians are welcomed into full inclusion of the church without question. To actually take Matthew 19 as seriously as many marriage traditionalists say we should would decimate our church membership rolls.)

And if we’re talking about Matthew 19, we should talk about a bit later in Matthew 19, when Jesus says something that could quite easily be interpreted as actually affirming a gender non-binary, non-heteronormative perspective: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth” (NRSV). And, it should be noted, such are not condemned by Jesus.

Okay, so if we’re not talking about the actual teachings of Jesus himself, we could be talking about the New Testament, right?  The New Testament is often called the “Christian Scriptures” to distinguish from the Old Testament, referred to as the “Hebrew Bible.” The books of the Bible from Matthew to Revelation, therefore, are distinctly “Christian teaching.” And since we have already eliminated the words of Jesus himself, we are actually talking about the books of Acts to Revelation.

What about the Hebrew Bible though? Sure, you could make the case that the entire Bible is “Christian teaching,” however the Old Testament books are also “Jewish teaching.” This would be referred to as “Judeo-Christian teaching,” if anything. But the Book of Discipline says only “Christian teaching,” and to also include the Old Testament in that category would require an interpretive step away from what the text actually says. Which is fine, but needs to be said aloud.

And further, nothing in the Hebrew Bible speaks directly to same-sex marriage or homosexuality anyway. Genesis 2 is about two straight people whom God joins together as life partners. Genesis 19 is about gang rape. And the Levitical laws are about national purity and idolatry, not to mention the whole “pick and choose” aspect of citing those 2 mentions and leaving out others.

However, “Christian teaching” could also include the teachings of the church, right? The doctrines of the church over time comprise “Christian teaching” on a second tier down from the Bible, but are nonetheless “Christian teachings.”

The problem here is that there in not one, clear doctrine of the church to refer to. Which version of church doctrine would be meant here? Which era of history? Arranged marriages? Wives submit to husbands? And which region of the world? The Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church? The Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church?

Marriage traditionalists would say the doctrine in play is the “one man, one woman” definition of marriage. But the actual doctrines of the church around marriage have changed over time, are different in different places, and are much broader and more diverse today than ever before. One can pick and choose various church doctrines based upon one’s preconceived belief. If we go to church doctrine to define “Christian teaching,” it becomes more complicated, not less.

So maybe we stick to the New Testament as what comprises “Christian teaching.”

So, to recap, we know this – The United Methodist Church condemns expressing your romantic attraction for someone you love if that someone is the same gender as you, and this condemnation is based on something found in the books of Acts through Revelation in the New Testament. With that, let’s think about the final phrase.

4) “Incompatible With”
For two things to be “incompatible” means that they are so opposed to each other that they are incapable of occupying the same space. If software is incompatible with your computer, it won’t run. One just doesn’t work with the other.

So the United Methodist Church thinks that it is impossible to both express romantic love for someone of the same gender and also ascribe to the teachings contained in the New Testament.

It is impossible to do so. Incompatible. If expressing romantic love for someone of the same gender is software, it won’t run on Christian computers. It simply cannot be.

Except of course, it is. There are a whole lot of Christians who are gay and who express their love for their significant others every single day.

Incompatible? Here Inigo Montoya might say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” It is obviously not “incompatible” to both be gay and also follow Jesus. People do. I mean, just look around.

And secondly, to make such a claim is a pretty bold move. It is blunt, it is direct, it leaves no wiggle room. There must be multiple overwhelmingly compelling passages somewhere in there that make it abundantly clear. Surely it says over and over in there that expressing your romantic attraction to someone of the same gender is a bad thing. In order to make a claim such as this, the evidence has to be pretty overwhelming, right?

Romans 1. 1 Corinthians 7. 1 Timothy 1.

Only three places. Hm.

But still, those three places must be crystal clear in their condemnation, in order to support a statement indicating such a direct and unequivocal incompatibility. Right?

Well actually, not so much. A full reading of Romans 1 reveals that it is actually a discussion of idolatry, and the verses in question are describing what happens when people exchange faithfulness to God with the pleasures of this world. Thus Paul describes lust and impurity, degrading and shameless acts, unnatural intercourse.

In my book, none of those describe a romantic relationship, period. Same-sex OR opposite-sex. There is nothing degrading, shameless, and unnatural about the covenant of marriage. Paul is writing to tell us that succumbing to degrading, shameless, and unnatural sexual acts is the consequence of God abandoning some people who were not recognizing God’s primary place in their lives.

Simply, Romans 1 is not about being gay.

The other two New Testament passages are lists (1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10). The lists in both places mention two Greek words that are very difficult to translate. Different versions use different English words, so it is actually really easy to find a version that aligns with your preconceived notions.

It is fascinating to trace the history of translation, to discover how those two passages changed over time. The word homosexual didn’t appear in there until 1946, in the Revised Standard Version. The New Revised Standard Version, published in 1989, changed it to “sodomites” with a footnote about a “pederastic” relationship – an older man paying to have sex with a young boy. In other words, child abuse.

Other words chosen to interpret this word, both in historical translations and modern ones, are numerous. Obviously, it is not clear what these words actually meant to Paul when he wrote them, much less what they should mean to us today.

All said, rather underwhelming.

In fact, none of the New Testament passages in question describe a loving, gracious, mutually respectful, covenant relationship between two people. None of the three verses in play have anything to do with expressing a romantic attraction.

I understand that not all Christians interpret the Bible the same way I do. Some interpret the Bible as affirming only heterosexual romantic relationships. My question is, given that there are alternate interpretations (like mine for example), why have they chosen the one that does harm to others?

So, back to the originating question, it seems to me that there is nothing in “Christian teaching” with which the “practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible” and therefore no reason the United Methodist Church should “not condone” it.

So what?
Discriminating against people who are gay by denying them the right to be married or ordained in the United Methodist Church is undergirded by a fatally flawed statement. The statement is neither Biblical, nor reasonable, nor aligned with real life experience, nor has any clear connection to Christian tradition.

And so, the phrase needs to go. It needs to be deleted from our Book of Discipline. And if that phrase goes, the policies connected to it need to go also. It’s time. It’s actually long past time.

As long as there is a venue in which to work for the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people, I will work there. If that means in the current version of the United Methodist Church, I will work there. If that means in the creation of a new expression of Methodism that is fully inclusive, I will work for that creation.

Because it’s time.

Monday, March 11, 2019

New Hat

Nancy Culver came to church last Sunday, and she gave me a hat.

Not that remarkable a sentence, to be honest. Rather ordinary. Unless you know some things…

First thing - Nancy lives an hour and half away. She usually goes to Harper Chapel United Methodist Church in Osage Beach, Missouri, and so her commute to Campbell here in Springfield was pretty long, just to come to church.

Second thing - I hadn’t seen Nancy in a long time. Years, maybe. She and her husband Bill were volunteers in the youth ministry at Harper Chapel when I was a youth there. Taught Sunday School, went on float trips, showed us what it means to love people. I had seen them here and there since then, of course. But during my youth years was when they made the deepest impression on me. We’re talking thirty, thirty-five years ago!

Third thing - the hat is a St. Louis Cardinals hat. I root for the Kansas City Royals, which has been a big “thing” since I announced we are moving to St. Louis. All these Cardinals fans that I know and love have been trying to convert me. All the good-natured teasing I have received translates as loving gestures of “wish you well,” and I definitely received this gift in that same spirit. When Nancy gave me the hat, she was saying, “I am proud of you, and I love you.”

Fourth thing - the hat was Bill’s old hat. Bill died recently, and so many of us grieved his loss, remembered his laugh, and recalled the joy with which he approached the world and the love he so freely shared with the people in his life. And to think that this old hat has been perched on Bill’s head, the very head that was filled with such wonder and color and art. To wear Bill’s hat on my head is humbling and poignant and brings me a whole lot of happiness.

So yeah. Nancy Culver came to church last Sunday, and she gave me a hat. No big deal. Except it really, really was.

Thank you, Sunshine.

Monday, February 25, 2019

#GC2019 Day Three Summary

"It is better to be divided in truth than united in error."

That was a sentence spoken on the floor of General Conference today, and pretty much summarizes how things went.

There is a faction in the United Methodist Church, a faction that I am certain is a minority of the denominational membership but happens to be a majority of the General Conference delegates, that considers their own belief to be truth, with no room of for disagreement. And to this faction, it is more important to claim that your own interpretation is "truth" and stick to that, even if it inflicts pain and harm on others, than it is to compromise.

The votes were consistent throughout the day, each one a litmus test for the larger question. about 53-55% to about 45-47%, give or take. The larger question, of course being "Should the United Methodist Church include gay people fully in the life of the church or not?"

The faction that currently controls General Conference does not control the future of the church, of that I am quite certain. The future is inevitably bending toward justice. It is only a question of when.

With that said, I am no longer going to try to convince people to stay. The policies of the United Methodist Church are harmful, and if you have to leave, I have nothing but respect for that decision.

I am going to stay. This is my grandfather's church, and I am going to be a part of making it better, making it right, more just. I am going to help to renew the church in a way that would make him proud, focused on Jesus and grounded in the beautiful theology of John Wesley.

I am going to stay. This is my father's church, who devoted his entire career to speaking up for those who are oppressed. I feel like I am just getting started, already thinking about what to do in 2020 to advocate for the big tent diversity that so many of us consider a core principle of Methodism.

I am going to stay. This is my church, and I'm not going to give it away to people who cannot see how their interpretations of Scripture are causing such harm to so many people, my friends, my family. People unwilling to even entertain the notion that they may actually be wrong.

I am going to stay. This is my children's church, and by the time they are my age this won't even be a question any more, thank God. And so I want to make sure there's still something of a church left for them once we get to that point. No matter what happens, I want to be able to tell them that I did my best.

And I tried today. I had my name in the pool to speak for a long time, but never got called. There were a LOT of people in the line to speak in favor of the One Church Plan when the chair decided to allow a motion to call the question. A lot, and I was one of them.

For people who value diversity, today was awful, like getting the wind knocked out of you over and over again. Tomorrow promises to be the same. We are working against a deeply entrenched 53-55% of the delegates who are unwilling to yield, unwilling to say that their opinion may be wrong, unwilling to see things from anyone else's point of view.

We are working against a faction who believes that it is better to be divided in "truth," even when what they think is "truth" is not universally accepted as "truth," than it is to be together in "error," even when what they think is "error" is really just "disagreement."

Even so, I am going to stay. Not all of you will stay with me, and that's okay. Go if you have to; I understand. I get it. But I'm going to stay.

More tomorrow ... onward!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

#GC2019 Day Two Summary

I'm tired. And I'm grumpy. So I probably shouldn't write this tonight; I should probably sleep now and write tomorrow. But I have something to say, and I want to say it now.

As I walked out of the building tonight, a bullhorn guy on the street corner saw my "One Church" pin and shouted at me, "I'm glad you lost, homo!"

As stunned as I was at his raw homophobia, I was also struck with his knowledge of what had just transpired on the floor of General Conference. I thought, "How did he know that I 'lost,' getting the word of that so quickly, much less understanding what my pin meant and the intricacies of our legislative process?"

So, let me try to explain...

It's really hard for me to equate the work of the General Conference with ... well, anything. It's a hairball. It's a gigantic entangled mess of rules and processes and motions, all of which have to be translated into multiple languages along the way.

I apologize if I ever said anything that made it seem like we would be getting a ballot that said: Gay Marriage - Check 1 for "Yes" and Check 2 for "No" and then a second similar one for ordination. Our system just doesn't work that way.

I also apologize if I ever said anything that made anyone think we would be getting a ballot that had three plans listed on it and we just checked which one was our favorite. Again, our system just doesn't work that way.

First, people submit petitions, and there are 25 or so petitions in addition to the three plans the Bishops sent us. The petitions are assigned to legislative committees, who prioritize them, discuss them, perhaps amend them, and vote to recommend them or not. Then the petitions go to the plenary (the whole group), along with the legislative committee's recommendation, at which time they can be discussed, perhaps amended, and the whole group votes on whether or not we agree with the legislative committee's recommendation, whatever that was. If the petition makes it all the way through all of that, it gets added to the Book of Discipline or Book of Resolutions, depending.

That is the simplest possible explanation of the work; believe me it gets way more complicated than that.

So what we did was decide that we as the whole group are going to function as the legislative committee first, and then after that function as the plenary. That was actually decided before we got here. So every petition was assigned to us, the whole group - as the legislative committee.

The next step is to prioritize the petitions, normally done by a relatively smaller group and given to the committee. But this time the prioritization process included ALL of us. We were shown a list of all the plans or petitions, and asked which we considered a high priority and which we considered a low priority, just 1 for high and 2 for low. (We considered each plan as one unit, not the individual petitions that go with each one.)

Out of the top six plans or petitions on our priority list, four of them are specific to how churches might choose to leave the denomination. One was the legislation from Wespath, our pension company. Three were particular "Disaffiliation" plans by which congregation can be relieved of financial obligations for leaving the denomination.

That means that we, as a General Conference, are more concerned about deciding how people will leave the UMC and the implications of those exits than we are about inclusion of LGBTQ people.

Of the plans themselves, the Traditional Plan got 459 top priority votes. The One Church Plan got 403 top priority votes. The Simple Plan got 153. The Connectional Conference Plan got 102.

The Traditional Plan is the second highest priority on the list, right after the Wespath legislation. The One Church Plan is the fifth highest priority.

We will consider them as the legislative committee, in order of priority, starting tomorrow. (We actually already considered the Wespath legislation, which was recommended to the plenary quite easily.)

So I say all of that to say this - it's a mess. General Conference is inherently a big clumsy mess.

And yet somehow bullhorn guy knew that the "One Church Plan" had "lost" a procedural vote today.

My deepest heartbreak is that over half of the delegates thought the Traditional Plan was a top priority, and that was devastating, disheartening news to so many in the LGBTQ community, their families, friends, and allies.

And what makes me mad is to think that a United Methodist Traditional Plan supporter may have taken the time to let bullhorn guy know what had happened, so he could add ridicule to his homophobic ranting. In fact it infuriates me.

"I'm glad you lost, homo."

I'm really sleepy now. It's midnight. I'm just going to publish this and go to sleep. What is tomorrow going to bring? Only God knows.

Thank you for praying, for watching the live stream, for sending messages of encouragement and support. Thank you. I still feel you, and I'm still working hard to do the right thing, to change our unjust policy and allow full inclusion in our church.

But now I'm just tired and grumpy, so ... good night.

#GC2019 Day One Summary

I was keenly aware of you. I was not alone, for a single minute, all day. I was aware that a great cloud of witnesses surrounded me, more so than I ever have been before.

Day one of General Conference was a longer time spent intentionally praying than I have ever experienced before, and it was really, really good. As the bishops led prayer foci from around the world, we shared moments of singing, moments of silence, moments of smaller group prayers, and it was really, really good.

I felt you, I felt my grandfather, I felt my seven generations of Methodist preachers, my five generations of General Conference delegates, I felt my friends and family in the LGBTQ community, their families, all of you who are allies. I felt you all wondering if we would do the right thing. I felt the weight of 864 people making decisions that will impact 12 million Methodists around the world. I felt all the anxiety, anger, hope, excitement.

I cried probably five different times during the day, just caught up in everything.

The heaviness of the cloud of witnesses, more fully present than I have ever felt it before.

Messages of encouragement came throughout the day, via text and social media. None were more helpful to me than my wife Erin's. In one text she said, "You are not voting on the worthiness of people. You already know their worth. You are voting in such a way that will allow for others to see it, too."

It is nonsensical to define "sacred worth" as anything less than full inclusion in the church. I am voting in such a way that allows others to see the inherent contradiction of saying every person is of "sacred worth" except for those who are "incompatible with Christian teaching."

My day 1 summary? Yield. Submit. Give way to God. Lay aside reputation, agenda, preconceived notions. Let God work. God's will, not ours, be done.

Those were day one words. We'll see today if they were just pretty words. Or if they might actually truly guide us, govern our words, our actions, and our decisions, for day two and beyond.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

We All Belong to God - Sermon manuscript, February 17, 2019

We All Belong to God                           February 17, 2019 - Year C: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Romans 14:7-12
Sermon idea: The source of Christian unity is not us (our beliefs, practices, thoughts, opinions); the source of Christian unity is Christ - we belong to Christ.
Series theme: A Holy Mess: Christian Unity in the 21st Century
I usually outline my sermons and then preach by following that outline. But this morning I have done something a little different; I wrote the whole thing out, word for word. I did it this way because I want to be particularly careful with my word choices today, and also because I want to make sure I say the same thing at all three services this morning. (Most Sundays, my sermons are a “holy mess,” and you never know what you’re going to hear from one service to the next, as Pastor Adrienne can tell you!)

It feels like there is an extra significance to this sermon, because it is coming just a few days ahead of a specially called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which is the global meeting of 864 delegates tasked to set policy and doctrine for our entire denomination. Normally, the General Conference meets every four years; the last one was in 2016 and the next one will be in 2020.

One of the reasons the United Methodist Church is having a special called session of General Conference next week is simply this: we have been trying to have two very different conversations simultaneously, and that, predictably, has not been very productive.

For some (and I put myself in this group) the conversation is about ecclesial practices, specifically marriage and ordination. These two practices of the church are significant, meaningful, and important aspects of the church’s identity. For our Roman Catholic siblings, they are sacraments.

And so for this group of United Methodists, the questions on the table are, “Will we marry same-sex couples?” and “Will we ordain people regardless of sexual orientation?” Much of the conversation is defined as a dialogue about allowing for differences in the practices of ministry. It is equivalent to a conversation about whether to baptize infants by sprinkling or to baptize teenagers by full immersion. A significant, meaningful practice of the church, done differently in different contexts.

I am able to define the conversation this way, but others are not.

For others (and I have many friends and colleagues in this group) the conversation is about sin and salvation, specifically the church’s response to and inclusion of those they believe are unrepentant sinners. This group embraces the idea, “Love the sinner; hate the sin,” and would say that gay people are welcome to be a part of the church, on the condition that they not be married or ordained here.

For this group of United Methodists, the questions on the table are, “Will we condone sin?” and “Will we be disobedient to Scripture?” It is deeper than just a different way to do ministry, because it speaks to a reality of all human experience, namely our sexuality. For this group, the conversation is visceral, and fundamental to our Christian faith. It is equivalent to a conversation about the nature of God or the divinity of Jesus.

Granted, this is an over-simplification, an artificially binary viewpoint that does not adequately describe the nuance and subtlety of the situation. But I think this is a fairly accurate illustration of the holy mess that lies ahead of us. How is it possible to even converse about a way forward, much less discern one, when we are stuck having two such dramatically different yet simultaneous conversations?

And there are some who have already answered this question, deciding, “No, we cannot talk about this any more. It’s time to go.” Indeed there have already been members, pastors, even entire congregations who have left the United Methodist Church, in part because we do not agree on the parameters of the conversation itself. After next week, there will undoubtedly be more who leave, no matter what the outcome of the General Conference may be.

I want to say that I do not begrudge anyone’s decision to leave one congregation for another, or to leave one denomination altogether and connect with another, when that decision is about discipleship. When you join a church, you join a group of people with whom you want to follow Jesus. A group of people who will encourage you and hold you accountable to your Christian discipleship, and for whom you can provide similar encouragement and accountability.

Joining a church is all about choosing a certain group of people to walk among in your Christian journey.

And many factors go into that decision, among them location, size, style of worship, theology of the pastor, even whether or not the congregation hosts same-sex weddings. The point is to follow Jesus, not what particular church you are a part of.

Different congregations and different denominations are expressions of the diversity of the Church, one body with many members. The Church’s unity is not dependent upon our understandings, but rather depends on God. As Paul wrote, this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. (Romans 14)

Christ is Lord of all of us. Resurrection means that each and every one of us belongs to God, and to God alone. If Christ died and lived again for all of us, if we actually believe that we all belong to God, then can we not commit to be united in the hard work of honest, respectful, and gracious dialogue about our differences of opinion?

Or will we insist that our unity comes not from Christ, but from a uniformity of belief? A uniformity which, when absent, thereby erodes our essential spiritual unity. I for one do not equate Christian unity with doctrinal uniformity. Granted, uniformity is tidier than unity, and we do like things to be “neat and tidy.” But unity can actually be quite messy, and it does not even imply lock-step uniformity.

 In fact when Jesus himself discussed unity, he did not describe uniformity of specific teachings. Rather, he prayed for unity in profoundly relational terms, expressing his desire in John 17: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Notice, Jesus asks us not to believe in a list of particular ideas, but rather to believe in him. It is our relationship with Jesus that unites us, not our beliefs about Jesus. And the reason Jesus unites us as one body is so that the world will know. Our unity is a witness to the world, a testimony to the power of God’s love.

I have heard some criticize “unity for unity’s sake.” They ask, “Are we to remain united at all costs? How much disagreement is enough, and how disagreement much is just too much? Are we just wanting unity for the sake of unity?” My answer: “Yes, in a way.” Unity in diversity is inherently a witness to the power of God’s love, and to the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we are united in spite of disagreement, we are announcing to the world that Christ is bigger than us, that God’s love is more powerful than our disagreements, and that the Holy Spirit is alive and well within and among us all.

This profound, relational unity is accomplished not by us but by the Holy Spirit, whose unifying power on Pentecost gave all who gathered the ability to understand, in spite of their obvious linguistic diversity. This spiritual unity is not something the Bible says should happen, it is something the Bible says does happen.

Unity is described in many places, including Ephesians 4:1-6. Paul writes, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

This passage asks us to “maintain” Spiritual unity, not create it. This passage says there “is” one body, not there should be. Spiritual unity is assumed in the Bible. Relational unity in Christ is a given in Scripture. Galatians 3:26-28 emphasizes the point this way, “ Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Unity is described, taken as a given for followers of Jesus. The Bible doesn’t say “You should be one.” The Bible says “You are one.”

We who are called “Methodist” should understand this more deeply than anyone. It is in our theological DNA, so to speak. The founder of our movement, John Wesley, seemed to get this better than most. Wesley understood Christian unity and was able to talk about it in powerful, articulate ways.

He said, “Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, ‘Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? … If it be, give me thy hand.’”

This is a quote from Wesley’s sermon titled “The Catholic Spirit.” Every United Methodist ought to read the full sermon at some point; this week would be a pretty opportune time to do so. Because, as I may have mentioned before, we have a pretty significant meeting coming up this week.

Friday evening, I’ll head to St. Louis. Saturday the delegates will convene for a day of prayer together. Sunday we will focus on prioritizing the various proposals. Monday is scheduled for legislative work, amending and perfecting the plan. And then Tuesday, final debate and vote. At least that’s the idea. We’ll see how things go once we get there. It may get a bit … messy.

I’d like to share my personal position with you, knowing that there are people listening to this right now whose position is different than mine. So please don’t get mad and leave - this is me being honest about me.

I do not believe the Bible directly blesses same-sex relationships, nor do I believe the Bible directly condemns same-sex relationships. I believe that, in order to bless or condemn them, one has to interpret what the Bible truly says.

So I interpret the Bible to condemn relationships that are idolatrous, abusive, objectifying, and degrading, no matter the gender of the individuals in the relationship.

On the flipside, I interpret the Bible to bless relationships that are loving, respectful, grace-filled, mutually affirming, and committed to a lifelong covenant, no matter the gender of the individuals in the relationship.

And because of how I interpret Scripture, I would like the United Methodist Church to change our policies that restrict marriage to only heterosexual couples and restrict ordination to only straight people.

But I know that others interpret Scripture differently. And so I would like for the United Methodist Church to also include an explicit statement that says pastors are not compelled to marry any couple, nor are bishops compelled to ordain any person, if their conscience does not permit them to do so. For the record, that makes me a fan of what is known as the “One Church Plan.”

And along with that change, I want us to stay together, as messy as that may be. I want us to recognize that unity is not uniformity. I want us to honor Christ’s life, death, and resurrection by affirming the truth of our spiritual unity, in spite of our diverse theological perspectives. The source of our unity is not us, not our beliefs, not our practices, not our thoughts and opinions. The source of Christian unity is Christ.

The United Methodist Church seems to be at a tipping point, and the old structures of the connection are rapidly eroding. It is a theological Gethsemane moment for us - And if we believe in resurrection, this is not a bad thing.

Rather than worry about who might leave the denomination after next week, shouldn't we be excited about who might join? Shouldn't we celebrate the new life emerging from the tomb? I, for one, commit to a resurrection redefinition of our beloved connection, and I hope the other delegates will too.

We are all, each and every one of us, a beloved child of God. We all belong to God. That is a stronger bond than any we could ever create ourselves.