Archive for the 'Generous Orthodoxy' Category

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…”


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