Archive for November, 2013

This Is Our Witness?

My oldest grandchild texted me this link a couple of days ago. “Take a look at this,” she wrote, “and tell me what you think when you get a chance.” The link opens an article about the church trial of United Methodist pastor  Frank Schaefer for officiating at his gay son’s wedding six years ago. His action violated the denomination’s clear prohibition of clergy performing same-sex marriages.  Rev. Schaefer was found guilty of violating the policy and suspended for thirty days. At the end of his suspension he must either agree to follow all provisions of the United Methodist Book of Discipline (the denomination’s law book) or surrender his ministerial orders.

This whole affair was news to my granddaughter. She’s not a United Methodist, so she hasn’t followed our internal conflict closely. She’s been raised Catholic, and has grown into an intelligent, curious young adult with intense curiosity about a wide range of issues. Like many young adults a couple of years out of high school, she’s working, taking college basics, and figuring out what’s next.

I texted her back that a meaningful response required more than 140 characters and followed up with an extensive email. It included a brief history of the issue (we’ve been arguing for forty years without settling anything), and outlined what defines the “sides” in both church and culture. I described how cultural attitudes have changed as our understanding of human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular have evolved. I described the impasse at the 2012 General Conference and the subsequent responses of “Biblical Obedience” , a form of ecclesiastical civil disobedience advocated by the 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference and others who continue to work to change the church’s policy, and the insistence by the Good News organization and others that “rules are rules” and those who break them should bear the consequences. Finally I mentioned Bishop Mel Talbert’s presiding over a gay marriage in Alabama in late October  and the subsequent action of the Council of Bishops requesting that a complaint be filed against him.

If you’d told me twenty years ago that this was where we’d find ourselves, I would have doubted your sanity. We’re dragging our pastors into church courts for performing their children’s weddings? For forty years we’ve held together the tension between “All persons are of sacred worth” and “…homosexuality is incompatible with Christian practice”? No wonder things are coming apart! Successive General Conferences have chosen power politics (vote-counting and arm-twisting worthy of Congress!) over acknowledging that people of deep faith are on all sides of this issue? We’d choose to resolve our differences with a series of church trials that at least one writer calls “A Methodist Inquisition” ? This is our public witness in the second decade of the 21st century?

Call in the spin doctors!. Maybe we can airbrush away the wrinkles, blemishes, and parts we want to hide in the darkness. Too late. This is who we are right now and the whole world sees. Young adults like my granddaughter see it. Faithful young United Methodists feeling called to ministry see, and wonder whether they can fulfill their calling with integrity in a polarized church; folks attracted by  our “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” marketing struggle to reconcile the promise with the closed minds, hearts, and doors in this bizarre tale.

We have to do better. For God’s sake we can and must do better. Let our public witness lift up the life-changing role of the United Methodist Committee on Relief in disaster relief and recovery in the Philippines and all over our planet. Let our public witness spotlight urban ministries that are transforming cities all over our country. Let our public witness show how “Imagining” No Malaria has fueled a wide-ranging partnership among diverse people and institutions that’s making “No Malaria” a growing reality. Let our public witness tell the story of thousands of faithful ordinary congregations in all sorts of circumstances. Let our public witness highlight countercultural faith communities that welcome those who are unwelcome everywhere else. Let our honest, prayerful, Christ-centered process of working through this conflict and its underlying biblical and philosophical issues become our powerful public witness.

I don’t know the next step. I do know that folks on various sides of the issue will have to step up in remarkable, Christlike ways. I do know what Paul wrote to some early Christians who’d rather fight than reconcile: “…to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.” (1 Corinthians 6:7 NRSV) I know that Paul identified Christlike love as the ultimate spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 13). I know the advice about Christian maturity in Ephesians 4 which includes “…speaking the truth in love…” (v. 15), “be angry but do not sin” (v. 26), “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander…”(v. 31) and “…live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (5:2).

Most of all I know that every new chapter in this “Methodist Inquisition” leads to death, not life. We’re not that far from becoming a circular firing squad. Everyone stands in a circle with their guns pointed toward the center. At the command “Ready, Aim, Fire!” all fire simultaneously—and you know the rest of that story. We can, must, I pray will, find another way. It’s not just a survival issue for our church. It’s far more important. It’s a life-and death issue for millions who need the Love that’s made us who we are and now reaches out to love others through us. It’s a matter of faithfulness to all who have loved us to life in Christ; to all who have gone before us in the history of the church; to succeeding generations like my granddaughter who would love to be part of an authentically- loving faith community. Most of all, finding a new way forward is a matter of faithfulness to our Lord who goes before us to build a New Creation–with or without our participation.


 “Bush Alaska” refers to communities in the vast state of Alaska that you can’t drive into or out of. Commercial transportation is limited to air or water. OK, we’ll include dogsleds and even “Ice Road Truckers” if you insist. If you read Part 1, you know that I spent two weeks recently in Galena, Alaska working with other volunteers to repair Yukon River Flood damage. The longest excursion possible on Galena’s fourteen miles of roads was to“The Mall”, as the landfill was called. Locals actually did “shop” there. Even in Alaska, my trash just could be your treasure. We visited“The Mall” on Sunday afternoons to look for bears, moose, or other wildlife (not the locals mentioned above) who were “shopping” at “The Mall”.

Here are three impressions (and their implications) from my brief experience of “Bush Alaska”. 

  • Life is hard—just ordinary everyday life. Options are extremely limited. Everything takes longer, costs more, and requires significantly more effort. For example: The store is days or weeks away. One of our team ordered (online!) some caulk from an orange-colored “big box” store so that we could complete a project. It took three days to arrive by air. The shipping cost as much as those few tubes of caulk.  Installing and insulating a floor required far greater care than typical “Lower 48″ construction. Sealing in heated air and sealing out -60 or colder outside air is critical. In addition,moisture cannot be allowed to condense in the insulation. Condensation forms ice balls, which melt when the weather warms and ruin the insulation. Every staple-hole and other opening in the vapor barrier has to be covered with ubiquitous red tape. C) Hunting is about survival, not sport. A moose head complete with antlers greeted us as we arrived for our first day of work. The neighbors had gotten their moose. The family would eat well all winter. They spent much of the next few days in the yard (too cold for flies) butchering and wrapping the meat for the freezer. We’d noticed large screw eyes in the center of the main room of most of the homes. One day someone saw a chunk of meat hanging from one. Folks routinely hang the meat to cure it right in the center of the house as they have for—a long time. Hundreds of families had lost freezers full of meat when the flood had hit last May and power was lost. Those freezers were immediately flown out in order to prevent disease from spreading in the community. As moose season drew to a close in late September, we shared both the joy of families with full freezers and the anxiety of those who hadn’t yet gotten their moose. It was a legitimate and serious subject for prayer during Sunday worship.               

IMPLICATION—[Of course even the hardships in Galena pale in comparison to the Philippines typhoon we’re only now beginning to comprehend.] 1) Let’s appreciate how blessed we are and whine less. 2) Let’s be real. Everybody has hard stuff they’re going through, even though they may be hiding it well. Let’s cut each other some slack.

  • We learned firsthand the agony and the ecstasy of “Your tax dollars at work”.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been on the scene from the beginning, even though the disastrous flood made very little “Lower 48” news. FEMA paid transportation, food, and housing costs for about one hundred faith-based volunteers who served for at least two weeks. Americorps staff and volunteers were on the scene from the beginning doing the really hard dirty work. At their best, these two agencies and others empowered the recovery process for the community. Every morning our team leaders met with representatives of FEMA, Americorps, the Army Corps of Engineers, and state and local agencies to coordinate the overall scope of work. “When it was good (to paraphrase a nursery rhyme), it was very, very good, but when it was bad, it was horrid.” Some days we heard how synergy flowed as all these folks sat around the same table and discovered how they could work together so the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Other days we heard apparently inexplicable bureaucratic decisions. We understood that everyone had rules to follow, bosses to please, and funds for which to account. Sometimes the rules facilitated  healing and hope. Other times they became roadblocks. Sometimes the bureaucrats and our leaders were equally puzzled or frustrated.

IMPLICATION—Doing away with “government” sounds like a great quick fix, but it’s neither realistic nor humane. Broken as it is, our system serves millions of vulnerable people in important ways. Let’s keep working on it together so that it works more effectively to serve all the people of our great country.

  • Those Baptists weren’t doing evangelism exactly my way, but at least they were doing something! One day we built shelves in the Bible Church’s community pantry. I overheard volunteers from a large Texas Baptist church discuss their church planting mission in Mexico. I heard them asking the right questions! Who lives here? What’s the culture like? What are the needs and the strengths of this village? What language(s) do people speak? What sort of person will relate well to these people? I learned that the mission board through whom their church was working required that in-depth study of a potential new mission field before a missionary was sent out.

 IMPLICATION:  We mainline folk still cover our ears whenever we hear the e(vangelism)-word. Worse yet, we assume that our “target audience” is just like us. If they were, they’d already be members of our church! Reaching the mission field that is our own community requires the same rigorous study as if we were going into a foreign mission field. Do we care enough about our neighbors to do that work, in order to increase the chance that they’ll discover how Loved they are?


Where Have You Been, (Not-so-)Young Man? (Alaska Journal 1)

Galena Flood 2

The last two weeks in September I was in Galena, AlaskaWhere? 64°44′26″N 156°53′8″W, to be precise. That’s 270 miles west of Fairbanks and 350 miles north of Anchorage.  It’s a long way from home—or anywhere else. What in God’s name were you doing there? In mid-August my wife and I attended a training event for people who wanted to help with disaster relief sometime, somewhere. Before we left that day, the leader, a long-time friend, told us how this Yukon River community of 500 people was the hardest-hit among the villages caught in last May’s thousand-year-flood(!) during the river’s spring thaw. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) invited faith-based organizations to provide volunteers to help with the cleanup and rebuilding process.  Suddenly my calendar said “Sometime, somewhere!” I served on one of eight teams provided by United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. I’d been nagging/encouraging folks in our church toward “incarnational mission” for a while. Like many congregations, we’re better at donating money and stuff than (our own) bodies to meet needs. “Incarnational mission” means we go in person, as God came to us personally in Jesus. “Put-up or shut-up” time for me and Incarnational Mission had come!  I learned long ago to pay attention to transformational opportunities that appear seemingly out of nowhere. “Coincidence” usually turns out to be a “God-incident”.  Jonah and a bunch of other folks have learned through the centuries: When God says “I want YOU!” you can run but you can’t hide.

What did we do? Whatever it took to get houses safe, sanitary, and secure enough for residents to live through the winter. AmeriCorps volunteers had already done the initial clean-out/muck-out. Thank God for their young, strong bodies which bent in ways to which mine would have objected strenuously, and recovered much faster than mine would have. The thirty-plus UMVIM and other volunteers present during all or part of those two weeks worked on at least sixteen different houses. Our eight-hour days six days a week included hanging and taping drywall, painting, installing new flooring, doing basic electrical work, scrounging for supplies, improvising, and creative re-purposing, and always more debris cleanup. Some of us spent three days under a house installing “belly board”. That’s plywood fastened to the underside of floor joists so that insulation can be laid on top of it before the rest of the floor is completed. This house had standing headroom under the back third or so, but only about three feet of headroom otherwise. Where were those Americorps kids? Two brothers from Michigan (Reformed Church in America members who somehow got connected with us) were skilled finish carpenters who installed trim, molding, cabinets, etc. Our most unusual challenge was raise the level of a large (empty, thank God!) steel fuel tank so that fuel would flow downhill to the family’s newly-installed heater. The challenge was using only what was at hand, which didn’t include a forklift or a crane. That night we gave thanks for the brilliance of Archimedes—“Give me a place to stand and I can move the world.”

Galena has two churches, St. John’s Roman Catholic Church and Galena Community Bible Church. We had very little contact with St. John’s, so I can’t say anything about their ministry in this crisis. We worked closely with the Bible Church. Most churches I know could learn from the way GBC has served its community through this disaster. Their food pantry fed people. They partnered with government agencies and nonprofits. They hosted mission teams from the “lower 48” nonstop. They stretched their modest facility to its limits. During worship on Sunday morning cots and sleeping bags were in evidence around the edges of the room. One Sunday a bright yellow power-tool battery in its bright yellow charger sat on the platform just a few feet from the pastor as he preached.

Our group of volunteers represented a broad cross-section of the Christian community.  GBC hosted mission teams from various evangelical churches. Our “United Methodist” umbrella welcomed  Unitarian Universalists, the two RCA brothers, a team of seven “Baptist Builders” from Arizona, , at least one self-described “half-Catholic”, and assorted Lutherans and Disciples of Christ who’d come in previous groups. Each morning someone shared a brief devotional message before we started our day’s work. These meaningful messages  set the tone for another day in which we  went out and embodied (Incarnated) the unity of the church as we worked together.

What in God’s name were you doing there? A) “Incarnational mission”. See above. B) Letting God love the world through us. You remember that verse everybody loves to quote that’s always showing up at sports events: “God so loved the world [emphasis mine] that he sent his only Son…” (John 3:16). C) Witnessing in the style of St. Francis who said, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.”

In his book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, Brian McLaren recalls the words of one of his mentors: “…in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.”  We understood that active faith at its best and highest reaches out to those who are not part of our United Methodist tribe or even our Christian “tribe”. What we have in common with those we served—which is more than enough to launch us into mission “in God’s name”—is that we,  along with our brothers and sisters in Galena and everywhere else on this planet, are all created in the image of God. In other words, we’re family. When part of your family’s in trouble, you do whatever you can to help.