Archive for February, 2019

OUR TENT JUST SHRUNK!

Folks who follow this blog have heard me describe myself as a “prenatal Methodist”. My parents met through Epworth League, a church-related youth/young adult group. The Methodist Episcopal Church nurtured my parents’ growing faith and social conscience through “big tent” faith communities that embodied founding father John Wesley’s vision for the Methodist movement: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

That “big tent” welcomed my father and other conscientious objectors to military service as World War II dawned, as well as my uncles who served in the US armed forces. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, persons of Japanese descent,  many of whom were US citizens, were interned (imprisoned) in camps for the duration of the war. My mother served in the church’s ministry to those folks who lived in very difficult conditions. Some folks opposed this ministry because it felt to them like “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”. But the church’s “big tent” made space for folks with all those diverse viewpoints. Some of my mother’s Japanese intern pen pals became lifelong family friends-and Methodists!

Maynard Memorial Methodist Church, the church that helped raise my sisters and me, was located in the city of Los Angeles. Across the street was Culver City, a suburb where many church members lived. During that time (the 1950’s and ’60’s) Culver City realtors shared an unwritten “covenant” not to sell homes to African Americans. As the Civil Rights Movement grew, some church members recognized the racist nature of this practice. Our pastor at the time led the church to begin getting acquainted with an African-American congregation. That process began with an annual pulpit and choir exchange. Not everyone approved. But our Methodist “tent” had room for whites and blacks to worship together, and also for those (both black and white) not yet ready for even that step.

Maynard was about a mile away from Palms Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Methodist and EUB denominations were working toward a merger in 1968. A few years  before, the two pastors began intentional preparations for that event. They took time to build their own relationship. Then they led their two congregations to share events together and begin praying and dreaming toward their common future. Ultimately the two congregations merged as Culver Palms United Methodist Church. They sold both church properties built a new facility in a far better location. The process was not without its ups and downs. Sometimes folks struggled to “…be of one heart…” But they persevered and built a roomy, spacious tent where they could welcome their new neighbors. Almost fifty years later Culver Palms continues to serve a diverse urban congregation. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of congregations have their own unique “big tent” stories of learning to …,love alike…” even though they don’t always “…think alike.” That’s who we United Methodists are.

This week in St. Louis our United Methodist “big tent”  was rudely and drastically remodeled. Politically skilled and very hard-working conservative delegates won the day at the specially-called General Conference (the denomination’s global legislative body.) . Their “Traditional Plan” prevailed by 54 votes out of some 800+. This action reaffirmed the official denominational stance adopted in 1972: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” (2016 Book of Discipline Par. 304.3). LBGTQ+ persons have been ineligible to serve as clergy or to be married in church facilities, and UM clergy have been forbidden to perform same-sex weddings. As adopted, this legislation continues those provisions and adds draconian sanctions for anyone who violates the rules–clergy, congregations, even bishops and annual conferences.“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?

That loud noise you heard last Tuesday may have been the UMC’s well-advertised “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds” slamming shut! Many now see the UMC not as a “big-tent” church where all God’s people are welcome, but as a church that treats LGBTQ+ folks as second-class Christians at best. This prenatal Methodist struggles in vain to recognize the perpetrators of this action as heirs of Wesley’s movement: “May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” This faction apparently wants to shrink the UMC’s “big tent” to fit only the “one heart” and “one opinion” acceptable in their sight. They reject the last fifty years of growing scientific, psychological, theological, and cultural understanding of human sexuality. They reject the experience of countless Christians who have moved beyond fear and literalism. Bible study, prayer, scientific progress, and simply getting to know our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in Christ has convicted more and more followers of Jesus that we can no longer exclude these brothers and sisters. God’s love in Christ embraces them, just as they are, as it does all of us.  

It will take some time to understand fully the impact of this action. The new legislation is scheduled to take effect January 1, 2020. First it will be reviewed by the Judicial Council, the UMC’s “Supreme Court. Some or all of it may well be declared unconstitutional. The church’s regularly scheduled General Conference in 2020 will almost certainly address these issues. Clearly we are headed in a new direction, but it’s far from clear exactly what that direction is.

Meanwhile Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, arrives next Wednesday, March 6. I invite you to lay aside church politics for Lent. Let’s dig deep into our faith. Let’s focus on the basics–Love God and love your neighbor as yourself–all your neighbors, especially the ones easily within your reach. Regardless of where we stand on this issue, let’s invite God’s Spirit to form us anew into the people and the Church of God’s dreams. May we grow into a people whose loving, welcoming spirit overcomes both the perception and reality of closed doors, hearts, and minds. Let us lay aside our anger, disappointment, bitterness, and resentment. Regardless of where we stand on this issue, let’s invite God’s Spirit to form us anew into the people and the Church of God’s dreams. Let’s dare to ask God to make us a living example of Wesley’s vision: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”

A colleague suggests that we treat this transitional time like Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. It’s eerily quiet. Death seems to have the upper hand. But we hope against hope toward Resurrection! On Saturday the full force of Resurrection Life energy is let loose–until the power of evil is overcome once and for all. Whether we see it or not, transformation happens in the deepest depths. Death is dying. Life is rising. Good blossoms from what we believed was unredeemable evil. A door opens where we’d seen only a dead end. God’s new day dawns for all God’s people!

 

 

Generous Orthodoxy II–Deeply Personal with Global Implications

Three months ago I shared “Part I of a Few” about Generous Orthodoxy. Theologian Hans Frei coined the term to describe a position beyond liberal/conservative theological polarities. “Orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness,” he wrote, “and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.” But how do we navigate that tension? How do we hold together opposing polarities? How do we engage in meaningful, respectful dialog with those whose views are polar opposites of ours?

I started writing Part 2 in early December. Then Life intervened, as it often does, with travel, holiday festivities, peaks and valleys, surprises, and U-Turns. But Christmas also sharpened this message. Christmas proclaims Love’s visible, tangible reality. God had sent assorted prophets and other messengers to tell Israel the wonder of being children of God. Finally God said, “Look, I’ll show you,” and poured Limitless Love into one human life –Jesus of Nazareth. That bold grace-full act transformed “God is love” into “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood…” (John 1:14 MSG).

“Incarnation”is the theological word that describes God’s  decision to embody/enflesh Love in Jesus. At its  best, following Jesus is always incarnational. At our best, our words, deeds, and presence are a seamless whole. We embody our faith in deeds ranging from almost-invisible acts of love and care to highly-public game-changing acts of personal sacrifice and/or leadership that energize a transformative movement. Incarnational faith looks like Schweitzer, King, Bonhoeffer, Tutu, and countless more disciples whose names we don’t know but whose lives speak volumes. 

The United Methodist Church (of which I’ve been a part as long as I’ve been) has before it an unprecedented opportunity to practice Generous Orthodoxy. In less than three weeks its General Conference (churchwide legislative meeting) will convene to address the church’s nearly-fifty-year-old running disagreement over human sexuality. Political maneuvering and gamesmanship are escalating. The noise level is peaking.  Advocates talk past each other so loudly that they overwhelm quieter voices calling the church to prayer to seek God’s will for our future. Florida Bishop Kenneth Carter has urged the church to conduct this dialog in a spirit of Generous Orthodoxy.

From where I sit (admittedly very far from the church’s inner workings), very few seem to be hearing and embracing Carter’s message. Are the delegates that laser-focused on legislative technicalities, parliamentary maneuvering, and–quite honestly–Winning? I want to believe the vast majority of those 864 folks prayerfully seek the best solution for the whole church. Legislation and rule-making are part of that process. So is the hman impact of their decisions. How has the church’s continued exclusion of LGBTQ persons from full participation affected those children of God? How will this General Conference’s decisions (or indecision!) impact them, and all the millions of UM members with various perspectives? What does Generous Orthodoxy look like in one life, one family’s life, especially when addressing this sensitive and highly charged issue?`

Rev. Chester Wenger just wanted to follow Jesus and be the best father and Mennonite pastor he could be. He didn’t know he was practicing Generous Orthodoxy long before Frei, Malcolm Gladwell, and others coined the phrase. Chester and his wife SaraJane served as missionaries in Ethiopia for many years. After the family returned to the USA, Chester continued his outstanding work in missions and Christian education. 

In the late 1970’s 15-year-old Philip Wenger told his parents that he was gay. Chester reaffirmed his love for Philip–and shared his hope that Philip would “grow out of it.” Chester also set out to learn all he could. He studied Scripture and read widely on faith and human sexuality for ten years. (Somewhere during this time Philip told his father that he hadn’t “grown out of it”.) Chester’s intense study led him to understand and accept Philip’s sexuality. Philip was excommunicated by the Mennonite church because of his sexual orientation. The Wenger family’s eight children continue to be divided on the issue. Some support their church’s position against same-sex marriage. Some believe same-sex marriage can express a couple’s Christian faith.  Long before “generous orthodoxy” had been named and described, the Wenger family had made generous orthodoxy their way of life.

SaraJane Wenger, Rev. Chester Wenger, Philip Wenger, Steve Dinnocenti

In July 2014, Pennsylvania recognized same-sex marriages. Phil and Steve, his partner of twenty-seven years, immediately applied for a marriage license. They asked Chester, now 96, to marry them.  Following the wedding Chester reported his action to his ecclesiastical superiors. “…they responded with grace-filled pastoral listening,” he said, “while acknowledging that what I’d done was out of step with established credentialing agreements…Afterward the…credentialing committee met…and retired my credentials…I am at peace with their decision and understand their need to take this action.” Why had Chester performed his son’s wedding? When asked, he replied, “…he’s my precious son.

A few months later Chester wrote “An Open Letter to My Beloved Church”. Do take time to read the whole letter. Toward the end, Chester said, “My wife and I are devoted to the Lord, with a firm commitment to the authority of the Scriptures. We strive to be faithfully obedient to Jesus. We invite the church to courageously stake out new territory, much as the early church did. We invite the church to embrace the missional opportunity to extend the church’s blessing of marriage to our homosexual children who desire to live in accountable, covenanted ways…My dear companion of 70 years and I declare our enduring love for Lancaster Mennonite Conference, for the Mennonite Church…and for all God’s people. We carry no bitterness or regret…We pray that our love in family and Church will bind us together in God’s family even when our understandings of God’s will may differ. Christ’s prayer for oneness in John 17 can be attained!” 

May Chester and SaraJane Wenger’s spirit of reconciling love infuse General Conference as it does the church’s business. And may Bishop Carter’s vision of generous orthodoxy be embodied in all they do and say: “…generous orthodoxy begins with God, and more specifically with the grace of God…A generous orthodoxy will rediscover the practices of Jesus in the gospels, calling all people into communion with him. Is that call a tacit approval of who we are, in our humanity? No, and this is true for gay and straight people…the ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross, and this is the common ground of grace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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