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.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Why Give?

This is the letter I included with the 2018 statements of generosity that were sent to the people of Campbell UMC this year...

Instead of the “usual” in this giving letter, I want to pose a question … “Why do we give?”

Pastor Adrienne has recently asked this question a couple of times in worship, and it is worth pondering, isn’t it? Every single week, we talk about how important it is to give a proportion of our income, with the goal being a tithe (10%) of what we make. We talk about how giving is an act of Christian discipleship. We talk about how our giving as a church resources the mission and ministry of the congregation in exciting and meaningful way.

And that is all well and good, but it leaves the answer to the question as an abstract form. That’s more about “Why do we give?” But have you ever sat down and prayed over the question of why you give? Have you ever made it personal?

So, why do I give? I give so that the first grader who doesn’t quite fit in at school has a place where he feels welcomed unconditionally. I give so that the family who has adopted three kids with previous traumatic experiences has friends that surround them all with encouragement and support. I give so that the young adult who was hurt by her previous church experience has a community in which to encounter the living presence of God again. I give so that the retiree who cannot get out of her home safely anymore has people who reach out to her to let her know she has not been forgotten.

You will find enclosed a statement of your giving for 2018. This statement shows what you gave; only you know why you gave. If you are not sure of your particular “why,” give me, pastor Adrienne, or pastor Jim a call so that we can help figure that out together.

I know that you will use this for tax purposes, but it is also a gauge for you to measure your own discipleship, and check yourself to see if you fulfilled the promise you made at our last “Discipleship Promise Renewal” Sunday. And as I say every year, this statement is for you only. No one is looking over your shoulder when it comes to your tithing. This is between you and God. And so I ask that you pray over this statement, treat it as more than just another tax document, and allow it to shape your giving into 2019 and beyond.

Know your why!

The question of "why do I give" is so important for the follower of Jesus. Do you have an answer to that question? Is it connected to your discipleship? Is it transactional, or is it relational? Does it reflect the level of your gratitude to God for God's abundant generosity to you? Does it feel obligatory, or is it a joy and a means of grace for you?

I'd love to hear your "why" for giving - feel free to comment here on the blog, or on the facebook or twitter shares...