Archive for the 'General Conference' Category

A Church Full of Yes

“In a world full of no, we’re a plane church full of yes.”

“…in [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” 2 Corinthians 1:20 NRSV

Have you noticed what I’ve noticed? More and more of us (myself included) are investing more and more time and energy in “NO-ing” our neighbors who don’t see and do life our way. It happens in business, politics, church, child-raising, and more. It happens in the common space we share, both physical and online. Civil, respectful co-existence is becoming increasingly rare in our life together.

Some of us find temporary respite when we board an airplane. At least that’s the tone one airline’s cocktail napkin seeks to set for your flight. Just walk down the jetway, turn off all your electronic devices, settle into your seat. Relax on “a plane full of yes” while we cruise along miles above that “world full of no”. It’s an attractive invitation, especially when you’ve had “a day full of No”. Unfortunately, some Christians have helped our movement become known as a people whose favorite word is “NO!” That doesn’t sound to me like the Good News of Jesus or anybody else! But I know lots of people who might welcome an invitation to “a church full of Yes”. We United Methodists could be that church. But we have some hard work before us if we want to embody that welcoming invitation!

Last February our General Conference (the official legislative body) gathered in St. Louis. Those 800+ delegates spent three days “No-ing” each other in a severely polarized debate over the church’s position with regard to LGBTQ+ persons. Many of us heard a harsh “NO!” as the body narrowly adopted legalistic and punitive legislation called the “Traditional Plan”. That NO spoke volumes to LGBTQ+ folks already within our church and also to “all sorts and conditions of persons” desperately seeking “Yes” in whatever “world full of No” they live in.

Three months later, divorce is in the UMC’s future. The once-strong 10-million member United Methodist Church will most likely re-form into multiple Methodist bodies . As I write, folks from various factions are gathering [sometimes even across party lines, thank God!] to talk and listen, to worship, pray, study, and envision the future of the Methodist movement. Our journey toward God’s promised future won’t be easy, simple, or quick. It involves working through countless details regarding legalities, dollars, property, and (most of all) people and relationships.

Believe it or not, I find hope in this apparent chaos! Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of men, women, and even children and youth are talking, listening, writing, praying, studying, visioning, and dreaming toward the future. God’s Spirit is working through their messy work together.

It’s hardly the first time. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached to Jesus’ first followers:

“In the Last Days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they’ll prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18 MSG)

Last week my wife and I took another plane trip. That napkin showed up again! It brought this old man a bit of a “dream and vision”. Can we turn the page to the next chapter God has for us? Can we Methodists move beyond “NO-ing” each other to become “A church full of Yes!”?

“…in [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” (2 Corinthians 1:20) “A church full of Yes” lives to help each person within our reach hear God’s unconditional Yes to his or her life. We value every person’s God-given uniqueness. With Paul we affirm the rich diversity of God’s gifts to God’s people: “Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful…” (1 Corinthians 12:7 MSG)

“A church full of Yes” welcomes people in all ages and stages of life. Some churches have a rug at the front of the sanctuary. Children can sit there, see the action more clearly, play or draw, and know they belong in this family of God. Some churches offer gluten-free communion bread, adaptive listening devices, large-print bulletins, space for service animals, and other accommodations that enable full participation

Omaha, NB First UMC works hard to help its youth hear God’s Yes. The eight middle-school students in this year’s confirmation class (preparing for full church membership) closely followed the events surrounding General Conference. Ultimately they chose not to become full members of the church at this time. The statement they wrote and shared with the congregation describes their childhood church experiences. Those experiences taught them that “…[the community of faith] is where children belong.” The statement explains their concern with the church’s direction following events at General Conference. “Because we were raised in this church,” it concludes, we believe that if we all stand together as a whole, we can make a difference.” Watch for these young men and women to continue growing in their faith and help build “a church full of yes” wherever their lives take them.

“A church full of yes” also stands with those to whom the world says “NO”. In Jesus’ time that included lepers, Gentiles, women, and assorted folks whom the religious leaders labeled “unclean”. Today’s “unclean” might include the poor, the homeless, those who are old, infirm, mentally ill, or developmentally challenged. It might include folks from ethnic or religious minorities (Jews, Christians, or Muslims, depending on your context), racial minorities, folks of unconventional sexual orientations.

In our world of No, we reject those whose ideas are disturbingly different. We reject whoever makes us uncomfortable for any reason. We pretend they’re not there. We “marginalize” them. We push them back to the farthest edges of life. But Jesus seeks out those folks we’ve “marginalized”; the folks the “upstanding townspeople” actively and brutally ran out of town. Jesus embodied “…every one of God’s promises…” for these folks who lived in “a world of no”. He touched them, healed them, welcomed them, loved them, empowered them.

Those who’d lived in that “world of No” grew into “a church full of Yes”. Their Yes to God’s Yes to God’s Yes in Jesus made them more together than they’d ever dreamed of being by themselves. This, wrote the late Rachel Held Evans, is God’s dream for God’s people. God gathers the most unlikely group of folks around the table. What brings us together? We’ve all said “Yes” to God’s “Yes” to us in Jesus Christ. And we know “there’s always room for more”.

Let’s build this church together! Right here where we live our lives, in the middle of what so often seems to be “a world full of no”, among our neighbors desperate to hear God’s Yes. “…in [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.'”

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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GENEROUS ORTHODOXY (Part I of a few)

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…” Romans 12:2 NRSV

Galadriel’s opening words in the movie The Lord of the Rings sound like someone (me!) reeling from an overdose of Breaking News: “The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost, for none now live who remember it.”

Civil conversation may be doomed to become part of “much that once was”. Respectful dialog across political, religious, and ideological divisions is fast becoming the exception rather than the rule. We arrogantly insist we’re completely right and “they” are totally wrong. We talk at each other rather than with each other. We yell our case at “them” and close our ears to their equally harsh response. Legislators dare not reach across the aisle, lest their colleagues accuse them of political treason. Ideological fault lines divide neighbors, families, co-workers, school classmates, and churches. Toxic polarization stifles common sense and common courtesy. It suffocates the wisdom and creativity that could give birth to new ideas, new dreams, and a new future.

We who follow the Prince of Peace often get swept up in these waves of social change. Church history includes ugly chapters like the Crusades, in which thousands of Christians and Muslims died, and the Inquisition, a 12th-century anti-heresy pogrom. More recently Christians have fought bitterly and sometimes violently over women’s rights, slavery, racial equality, biblical interpretation, human sexuality, and more. Both liberals and conservatives have weaponized the Bible against “the other side”. “If you’re not reading the Bible through our God-given set of religious and cultural lenses,” we holler across the ideological chasm, “you’re reading it upside down and inside out. Good luck with that!” Our churchy conflicts use and abuse scripture, often with reckless abandon. Our razor-sharp holier-than-thou language punishes our misguided brothers and sisters in Christ. Our conflicts can be as vicious and damaging as any dust-up at the neighborhood bar, the city council or school board, or a family celebration gone south. You know, that time an inadvertent (or not!) remark triggered a nuclear meltdown whose fallout still poisons the atmosphere at every gathering of the clan.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” In other words– People of faith, we’re better than that! Yet our church fights mostly conform to the faultlines fragmenting our society. In the face of revolutionary change we choose “the way we’ve always done it” over “the renewing of our minds” by the power of the Holy Spirit. We beat each other with our Bibles, proclaim that our side alone has the truth, and question the sincerity and even the salvation ofthose who dare to disagree with us—and thus (obviously) with God! Currently the United Methodist Church (UMC) is caught up in such a struggle over its theology of human sexuality. Some of our leaders have set an example of respectful and meaningful conversations despite significant differences. Bishop Robert Hoshibata is leading another helpful series of Holy Huddles in our Desert Southwest Annual Conference. These events offer opportunities for clergy and laity to speak honestly and listen deeply to each other. But will this spirit infuse and transform the grassroots of the UMC’s thousands of local churches? Or will our “conformity” to the world’s winner-take-all ways prove devastating for many churches, communities, and individuals?

Recently I’ve been learning about a transforming way called “Generous Orthodoxy”. What?? Yes, “Generous orthodoxy” sounds like an oxymoron—two words headed so far in opposite directions that they can’t possibly stay together. Our traditional, cramped understanding of “orthodoxy” fuels that conclusion. But some wise folks are exploring ways that “generous orthodoxy” might be an idea whose time has come.

Theologian Hans Frei may have originated the term. He envisioned the possibility of “…a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism…like the Christian Century [a liberal theological journal] and an element of evangelicalism…like Christianity Today [a similar conservative journal]. I don’t know if there is a voice between these two…if there is, I would like to pursue it.”

Anglican preacher and theologian Fleming Rutledge goes deeper: “…ortho-doxy (Greek for “right doctrine”)…has come to sound constricted and unimaginative at best, oppressive and tyrannical at worst…we cannot do without orthodoxy, for everything else must be tested against it, but that orthodox (traditional, classical) Christian faith should by definition always be generous as our God is generous; lavish in his creation, binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self-sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly and indeed, offending the “righteous” by the indiscriminate nature of his favor. True Christian orthodoxy therefore cannot be narrow, pinched, or defensive but always spacious, adventurous and unafraid.” She echoes Frei’s earlier words: “Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing, but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing.”

Can this oxymoron live? Can we share an inviting, welcoming, Christ-centered orthodoxy? Can we listen to and love those with whom we differ? Can we share open and meaningful dialog, rather than maneuvering to get the last word and be the “winners”? Next February the UMC’s General Conference legislative body, will meet to address the church’s policy regarding issues of human sexuality. Then the thousands of UMC congregations will have to discern how General Conference’s action relates to their understandings and ministry. What a gift it would be for them to be able to do that in a climate of Generous Orthodoxy! This wisdom is circulating at some levels of our church. But in my limited experience, I don’t sense that it’s reaching the grassroots quickly or deeply enough. Five years ago Bishop Kenneth Carter shared the concept with the people he serves in Florida. More recently he’s expanded this material into a book called “Embracing the Wideness”. I’m sure Bishop Carter’s wisdom is being well-used in some settings. But it’s apparently new information for a lot of folks out west where I live. If I were actively serving a congregation, we’d be immersing ourselves in this approach. We’d be learning to practice “generous orthodoxy” in all we did together. It’s an oxymoron whose time has come!

Bishop Carter clearly links generous orthodoxy with God’s grace. “A generous orthodoxy begins with God,” he writes, “and more specifically with the grace of God.” Toward the end of his Florida message, he says, “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.”

This is the first of a few posts on this topic. If you’re curious, follow some of these links. Agree and disagree. Future posts will look at the way “generous orthodoxy” played out in a painful, yet ultimately redemptive, episode in one family’s life; the connection between grace and generous orthodoxy; and practical ways to help Paul’s dream come to life so that our lives, our churches, our communities, our world are “…transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God…”

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.

The End–or the Re-Beginning? (Revised)

(Didn’t mean to confuse anyone. Hit the Publish button prematurely a moment ago. Revised to add categories and tags to help more folks find this.)

Twice a month I have breakfast with some other retired United Methodist pastors. The other day we found ourselves discussing the “stuckness” in much of contemporary life. Every attempt at dialog and civil discussion of “hot-button” issues quickly degenerates into a shouting match. In Arizona, where my colleagues and I live, it often happens around immigration issues. Bring together folks with strongly opposed ideas and expect the encounter to go nuclear! We disagree intensely with our neighbors about this and many other issues. But we’re so sure of our position that we refuse to seek common ground with those who differ. We’d rather be “right” than together. We’re stuck in our (self)-rightness.

Naturally we professional  church folk talked about the “stuckness” in our United Methodist system–the exhaustive, expensive General Conference whose hours of debate and mountains of paper changed precious little; the focus at the top on “metrics”—evaluating pastors and ministry primarily by counting dollars and people. (Many worry that this approach will squeeze the life out of pastors and their ministries by not taking into account vital but harder-to-measure “qualitative” factors.) We talked about the “Statement of Gospel Obedience” resolution by the Western Jurisdictional Conference (a regional unit of the church). This resolution proposes what amounts to ecclesiastical civil disobedience to the church’s conservative stance on homosexuality. Homosexuality, you may know, is the subject most likely to trigger a yelling fit among United Methodists these days.

Then we sought to widen our horizons. If our national political process doesn’t get unstuck, our whole country—and beyond—will suffer. Right now Congress is stuck with regard to passing a meaningful national budget; with regard to increasingly critical immigration issues; with regard to doing much of anything that requires cooperation or compromise. Most legislators are dug in on their own side of the aisle. They’re unwilling or afraid to make any move toward the other side, let alone actually cross party lines to take meaningful action for the common good. 2012 has brought a dismal display of bipartisan dereliction of duty and legislative malpractice with respect to the national debt. Remember that ridiculous drama in the first part of the year, the on-again/off-again deal between the President and the Speaker, the Select Committee’s utter failure to agree on budget cuts sufficient to stave off “sequestration” (automatic budget cuts) in 2013. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office recently predicted that this dismal display of inaction could well send the whole nation careening over that fiscal cliff into renewed recession.

The mood in the room had grown serious. Were we seeing an ending, a decline, a historic transition? What if we fail to overcome the stuckness paralyzing our church, our nation, our families, nearly all our institutions? We must address our challenges creatively and responsibly with the best available wisdom from all perspectives—or else. None of us was eager to detail “or else”. But all of us envisioned disturbing scenarios if our leaders fail to exercise the courage and political will to “unstick” our public dialog, our political process—and themselves!

Then someone (not me) asked, “Are we coming to the end? Or are we at the beginning of something new?” Key question for people of faith to ask. Huge question for Christ-followers who believe the last word in life is not death but Resurrection. Hard question to answer while we’re making our way through history one messy day at a time. All of us around that table hoped and prayed for our nation and our church to find their way through the “stuckness”. We also reaffirmed that we have the power, individually and together, to act to “unstick” ideas and attitudes in the local congregations of which we’re a part; in the neighborhoods, community organizations, and political groups in which we’re involved; in our persistent, respectful communication with our legislators. We can choose to model civil, respectful dialog instead of perpetuating polarization, stereotypes, name-calling, and negativity. We can be respectful and assertive equal-opportunity truth-tellers, especially where truth seems in short supply.

Are we at an ending—or a re-beginning? People of faith will answer “Yes”. Every ending contains the seeds of new beginning. Those seeds are planted by our God who says, “Look, I’m doing a new thing.” (Isaiah 43:19 CEB)The shape of the new beginning is often unclear clear while we’re in transition. But never doubt that our creative God is at work whether or not we can see it clearly at any given moment. Look at the Exodus journey. Look at the Babylonian Exile. Look at the post-Easter church. Look at those times in your life when all the pieces came together in a way you never could have planned or imagined. The end may not be what we want. But every ending bears the seeds of re-beginning. What else should we expect from the God who promises, ”I am making everything new.” (Revelation 21:5 CEV)

The Main Thing Is Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

That’s my prayer for the 2000+ clergy and lay members of our United Methodist General Conference that convenes April 24 in Tampa, Florida. “God, keep these brothers and sisters focused on the MainThing. Remind them daily that 1) other United Methodists (or variously-labeled Christians) are not the enemy;  2) one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results ; and 3) how they do their business (as those who know and follow Jesus) matters to the watching church and world at least as much  as what they do.”

The Main Thing is not institutional survival. We’ve invested huge amounts of time, energy, study, prayer, dialog, money, and paper in analyzing the denomination’s decline and seeking ways to reverse that decline. (This decline, of course, affects many churches besides the United Methodist Church. Decisions about restructuring, revitalizing (and giving up buzzwords for Lent?) must not become desperate efforts to hang on by our fingernails. Survival-driven decisions are doomed from the outset: “[Jesus said]…those who want to save their life  will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35 NRSV)

I certainly don’t expect survival anxiety to overwhelm this General Conference. Too many of the members have strong and vital faith, deep commitment, and a burning vision of a stronger-than-ever UMC. I’m rooting–and praying–for them. The greatest obstacle to claiming the future God has for us may turn out to be a deeper anxiety. Call it “relevance” anxiety; “Does anybody care?” anxiety; “Is anybody listening?” anxiety; “Do we matter any more?” anxiety. Large segments of society get along quite well without Christian underpinnings, thank you. Irrelevance, indifference, and apathy might well be a fate worse than “losing our life”.

It’s happening in Europe. In a recent Huffington Post article George Courtauld writes, “There is no question that Britain is becoming a more secular society…the establishment, many politicians and much of the media…dismiss all religions as equally nonsensical, embarrassing and irrelevant…In modern Britain and much of Europe now the religious are regarded as insane or silly.” Sadly, Courtauld’s solution is a book aimed at acquainting us with the Christian customs and traditions that underlie English-speaking civilization. It’s an interesting, helpful book. But a book’s not enough. “When the fullness of time had come,” God didn’t send a book. “God sent his son…”(Galatians 4:4 NRSV)–The Main Thing! A person is relevant in ways a book can never be.

Our UMC’s official language says our Main Thing is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This General Conference will succeed–or fail–to the extent it equips and empowers that mission throughout our wondrously diverse denomiation. Dear GC (and other beyond-local-church folk), please give us some tools, some wisely-focused funding, and some inspiration. Clear away the bureaucratic clutter that distracts us from The Main Thing. And please let the Holy Spirit help you become our cheering section and earn to give us just the right kind and amount of help, which is usually almost as much as we think we need. (Thanks to Kennon Callahan for that wisdom.)

Lest you think this is an exercise in bashing bureaucrats and denominational power players–Whatever happens in Tampa, the future of the church is not in the hands of those folks. It’s in our hands–you and me and folks like us in thousands of local churches. It’s in the way we love and serve our neighbors in the spirit of Jesus. It’s in the way we step boldly into the future believing that our best days are ahead of us, not behind us. It’s in the way we dare to pray not only for our brothers and sisters in Tampa but for ourselves and our congregations: Keep us focused on The Main Thing–making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Make us willing to lose our lives for your sake and the sake of the gospel. Free us from the insanity of doing the same old things and expecting different results. Give us holy boldness to follow you in new ways and places. Let the fullness of time come wherever we serve you. Let people see Jesus convincingly and unmistakably through our lives and our life together.”

That embodied (incarnational) love of Jesus will look very different in our different circumstances. How will it look where you live your life and follow Jesus?

 


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