Sunday, September 8, 2019

Methodist Slime, Scum, Sloths and Slugs

   I’m one who has urged us United Methodists to be generous listeners, and full of love and respect even when we disagree strongly on homosexuality or other issues. I’m one who is mortified when politicians are ugly toward one another, with vicious attacks and mean-spirited name-calling.

   So how jarring was it for me when I recently read Carlos Eire’s wonderful book, Reformations, which narrates those seemingly heroic and theologically profound moments in the Protestant and Catholic Reformations of the 16th century. We lionize Martin Luther for his 95 theses – but they are a ferocious assault on fellow churchmen, accusing them of greed, avarice, blasphemy and madness, threatening them with eternal damnation. His restraint in 1517 was remarkable, as over the next few years he published vitriolic critiques of other theologians, including fellow Protestants, calling them stinking mushrooms, dumb dogs, idiots, toad-eaters, blockheads, the devil’s donkeys, and worse. The pope returned the favor and dubbed Luther a wild boar. Thomas M√ľntzer, himself a Reformer, couldn’t bear to utter Luther’s name, so spoke of him as Dr. Liar, Malicious black raven, Father pussyfoot, and Rabid Fox. John Calvin parted ways with both of them and the Catholics, slandering those who disagreed with him as vermin, slime, scum, swine and fiends.

   Nothing new in this savage barrage of words. I also recently read Philip Jenkins’s Jesus Wars and Ramsay MacMullen’s Voting About God in Early Church Councils, which remind us that the early Christian councils (Nicaea, Chalcedon, Ephesus) featured outbreaks of violence. Delegates were beaten up en route.. Papers were seized and burned. During breaks in the deliberations, thugs broke the knees of wrong-thinking voters. Heretics’ tongues were cut out, floggings and stabbings were inflicted in Christ’s name. All this in an urgent desire to say true things about the Trinity, Christ’s nature, Mary’s role, and sin and grace.

    By contrast, we United Methodists look a bit pale, mamby-pamby, timid and mild-mannered softies. All we do is sigh and bristle a little. But there’s a bigger contrast. During the Reformation, as during the decades of the great Church councils, the finest theologians held disputations and colloquys where they laid out their cases, submitting their arguments to the public for judgment. Transcripts of these debates are weighty and impressive on all sides. No vague or flabby stances, never just a few Bible verses, and never a mere echo of the cultural biases of the culture. Instead, theologians analyzed the original sources, in Hebrew and in Greek, in considerable depth, citing the Church’s most esteemed authorities through history (Origen, Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas) and even the wisest philosophers ever (Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus).

     How bland, how thin, how feeble we United Methodists have been in our conversations that we concede should divide God’s church. We never talk to each other much at all, and certainly don’t devise profound, complex cases, much less subject them to critique, judgment and even correction. I've not seen a single public debate where knowledgeable people dig in and debate, subjecting themselves to scrutiny and judgment. We pretty much preach to our own choirs. I never hear any finesse, any profundity, any Greek or Hebrew, or any ecclesiastical or philosophical authorities. What might Luther, Teresa of Avila or Dietrich Bonhoeffer have to expand our horizons? How might engagement with Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida or Richard Rorty inform how we answer the world's questions? 

   I wonder what the Reformers or the Early Church theologians might call us? Rev. Lazy Bones? Dr. Superficial? Mr. Shallow Arguments? Ms. Play Nice? Eeyore pouting in the corner? Vapid deserters of Jesus’ church? Maybe slug? Or sloth? Should we take the gloves off – if not to hurl angry epithets at one another, then to engage in some serious arguments?

Saturday, June 15, 2019

"I Dreamed a Dream" of the United Methodist Church

     “When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes, we should be like dreamers” (Psalm 126:1, in Robert Alter’s translation). I’ve been dreaming a lot lately: anxiety-rooted dreams during the night (while asleep or lying awake), and more hopeful daydreams when I probably should be working. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired us to dream. And so I have this dream, conceived in a good bit of grief and fretting, and yet consummated in faith, hope and love – a dream of what my church, and I mean both my United Methodist denomination and the parish where I serve right now, might be, or dare I say it, will be. The Church really is of God, as we say and trust.

     I dream of a church where homosexuality isn’t the thing, which it isn’t anyhow. Of course, one day it won’t be the big thing – and the deep truth that it’s a temporary obsession lightens today’s burden, and reminds us all that we have so many other tasks and so much beauty apart from it. After all, it’s not as if we could come to a total embrace of the LGBTQIA+ community, or if we could manage somehow to put a stop to it, that the kingdom will have dawned. That kingdom is about what we share, the redemptive love of Christ from creation and forever, and being Christ’s Body, not what divides us.

     I dream of a church where everyone would be blessed as I have by befriending and loving people all across the theological and political spectrum. I wish everyone knew the conservative, straight people I’ve known and know, who are humble, holy and generous. I wish everyone knew the same gender couples I’ve known and know, who seek God’s will and strive for missional holiness. I wish everyone knew the very fruitful gay clergy I’ve known and know. I wish everyone knew the very fruitful straight, conservative clergy I’ve known and know. There’s no enlightened elitism in this. Knowing people deeply doesn’t settle moral questions. But it makes me, for one, humbler, gentler and wiser, and it leaves me knowing we absolutely can and must be in church together. Once in a while someone declares that they have detected which “side” I am on. In Christ’s Body, there aren’t sides, and there aren’t winners and losers.

     I dream of a church where robust disagreement is celebrated, and where theological debate is understood for the great gift from God that it really is. I envy my Jewish friends, who chuckle at the notion that there might be just one right answer to hard theological questions. It’s God and God’s mysterious ways, after all – and we learn so much when we differ, when our half-baked conclusions and jaded biases are exposed. Church, of all places, should be a safe haven for intense debate among the faithful who can vocalize their reading of God’s way in Scripture almost as well as they can listen attentively and empathetically to other viewpoints. Such friends would never belittle others, oversimplify the other’s beliefs, or sneak in false assumptions.

     I dream therefore of a church where we don’t stigmatize, mis-categorize or slander anybody in God’s church. Many conservatives I know are humble, thoughtful interpreters of Scripture and holiness, and should not be labeled and libeled as “haters” or “narrow-minded,” even though a few probably are. Many progressives I know are humble, thoughtful interpreters of Scripture and holiness, and should not be labeled and libeled as “cultural sellouts” or “morally lax,” although a few probably are.

     I dream of a church where we ponder and honor the commitments to God and church made by others. We should all be jaw-dropping awed by the marvelous truth that LGBTQIA+ United Methodists, despite years of not being condoned or having access to the blessings of the church, have stayed. That’s a grace I can’t quite comprehend. And the profound commitment of conservatives who have stayed and struggled valiantly for good is grace too – although my dream is also of a church where those who stay love, and never harm one another, where no one’s full humanity is up for debate.

     I dream of a church where no child of the church would ever even contemplate suicide or running away or hiding the truth from loved ones or the pastor because of an emerging sexual orientation. God wants a church where an adolescent, discovering same gender attraction, would not cower in terror, but be able to share openly and be embraced by the church instead of floundering in denial and then rejecting the church itself.

     I dream of a church where all are welcome, not as a slogan, sign or mat at the front door, but in living habit and embodied demeanor, when we fully grasp that if everybody isn’t welcome, nobody’s welcome, and if the blessings of God’s church aren’t for everyone, they are nothing but a charade for the few. None of us have sufficient merit, knowledge or faith to qualify for the church’s blessings. Thankfully, they are all free.

      I dream of a church that relishes the fact that God can and does call anybody into ministry. It’s God, after all, who calls. We have had, have and will have gay clergy among us – thankfully. I realize there are many who are uncomfortable with the idea of gay clergy. I’d encourage them to meet, listen to and ask questions of gay clergy, and at least open their hearts to the possibility of what God can do. As we celebrate the stellar ministries gays and straights have had among us for decades, we dream of a church where clergy are valued for their call and fruitfulness, and that we never have to say No to any person sensing a nudge from the Holy Spirit into ordained ministry simply because of their sexual orientation.

     I dream of a church where the question of who can marry isn’t settled as long as it’s male and female. Christian marriage is a mystery, a symbol of Christ and the church, two people prayerfully determined to do God’s will, and a hospitality that is eager to share love with those to whom love is a stranger. I understand that many Christians are uncomfortable with same gender marriage. I’d encourage them to meet, listen to and ask questions of same gender Christian, United Methodist couples, and at least open their hearts to the possibility of what God can do. It may just be that our debate over marriage might awaken everyone to the glorious marvel Christian marriage is intended to be and can still be.

     I dream of a church where those of us who sense it is of God for us to marry same gender couples who are committed to Christ and are responding to God’s call to marital fidelity may do so without recrimination. Clearly, saying “All are welcome” is no longer enough. The United Methodist LGBTQIA+ community and those who love them are weary and appalled by living as second class members. They seek, and we seek for them, the full blessings of God’s church. All clergy I know are offering nothing but their holy best to God, including those who don’t conduct same gender marriages due to conscience. Punishment serves no one well – except the devil, who delights in Jesus’ followers afflicting one another.

   I dream of a denomination organized around doing good and not judging others, so we are about shared mission rather than taking little-heeded stances on the political issues of the day. I dream of the day when our energies are rightly directed - toward reconciliation, poverty, injustice, race, and so many other issues and people, rather than who thinks right on just one issue or even many.

    I dream of a denomination in which, if we have to have a book like the Book of Discipline, it’s a book that is never thought of as a divinely inspired instrument of blame or exclusion, and instead opens doors and hearts, inviting its people and congregations to life and being reshaped after the mind and heart of Christ.

     Dreams are elusive, and forces conspire to tamp down and squelch holy dreams. We get cynical, or we get realistic and strategic, or we get mad. Understandably. But God promised that “in the last days,” when God’s Spirit is finally poured out on us, “your young will see visions, and your old shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). Dream with me. God is even now pouring out God’s Spirit on us.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

How LBJ's Biographer is Helping my Preaching

    I continue learning how to preach from unlikely tutors. Robert Caro, the Pulitzer prize-winning biographer of Lyndon Baines Johnson, recently put out a little book (called Working) about how he researches, thinks and writes, and why. I kept circling this and that, prompting fresh thoughts about how I preach.

    Caro is maddeningly slow, turning out a volume about LBJ about once every nine years. Preachers can’t afford such a luxury – but I realize I’ve prided myself in churning out sermons more rapidly as I get older. Maybe that’s not such a good thing, even if I feel it’s good enough, or done enough. Caro is a perfectionist, always looking to uncover one more fact, or to recraft one more sentence so it evokes just the right mood.

     When Caro was writing about Johnson’s childhood, he felt he wasn’t understanding all he hoped to understand. So he not only visited the area. He and his family moved to the Hill Country of Texas for three years. Mind you, this makes me think of God taking up residence among us for… yes, three years. I also wonder: How do I go there in preaching? I’ve been lucky to visit Palestine, Turkey and Greece. With video, online photos and virtual stuff you can find, any of us can go to the wilderness of Judea and notice it isn’t flat sand but a rocky, sandy zone with steep hills. The Jordan River is a muddy creek.  You can even see an artist's rendering of Caesarea Philippi and realize that it was before the Cave of Pan and a thicket of imperial temples that Jesus asked, "Who do they say that I am?"

     Caro is the master of what he calls the “sense of place,” “helping the reader to visualize the physical setting in which the action is occurring: to see it clearly enough, in sufficient detail, so that he feels as if he himself were present while the actions is occurring.” Caro’s next thought intrigues me when I think of preaching, and creating this sense of places: “If a reader can visualize them for himself, then he may be able to understand things without the writer having to explain them; seeing something for yourself always makes you understand it better.” Might I, in preaching, describe a place, its texture and temperature, its light, color and shadow, and my listeners will grasp more than I know to tell them?

     Places, as we all know, evoke emotion. So, “the better the place is envisioned, the more the reader might feel the emotion.” Speaking of emotion: when Caro went to the Hill Country, he found it took a while for the people to trust a guy from New York. Eventually they opened up. Very old women described what life was like before electricity. The dark. The loneliness. The labor required. One woman handed him a heavy bucket of water and asked him to carry it up the hill to her house. He did. What was life like for Mary? Or for Sarah? How dark was the sky at night (or how bright, as they could see millions more stars than we can)? How lonely did Abraham or Elijah feel in that place? Was there a breeze? A multisensory depiction of a Bible scene should be far more fruitful than me trying to “make the Bible relevant today.”

     I love this: Caro asked Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, to go with him to visit the LBJ childhood home. He asked him to sit at the dinner table, in the very seat where he sat growing up. He waited a long time in the quiet before Sam began to talk about the toxic, harsh relationship between Lyndon and his father. Interviewing people is the key to Caro’s work – and he explains that in interviews, “Silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it.” His notebooks are full of notations and comments – and regularly you can find in big letters SU. “Shut up.” While interviewing, instead of filling a quiet moment, he reminds himself to SU. Eventually the interviewee begins to say more.

     I am thinking I should never preach without interviewing some people. And observing the SU counsel. I might interview a Bible character. Howard Thurman famously asked Jesus what he was thinking on that Palm Sunday as he jogged along the back of that donkey. Talk to Elijah: how did it feel during that crackling, scary storm? Ask Peter how it felt to be engulfed in the water. Ask Paul what Silas’s voice sounded like in the Philippian jail.

     Or interview some live people. Phone up a scholar at your alma mater and ask a hard question. If you have a neighbor who’s not a churchgoer, ask him what he thinks about David dissing Michal. Talk with a pregnant woman in your church, or a mom who lost a child. And SU. Listen. Marvel. And ask more questions. Caro was advised by his first boss to “turn every page, never assume anything.” So often in preaching we assume we know things – about the text, about the Gospel, about our people. But ask questions. It helps them to tell you. And you learn amazing things. That was the Cappadocian way, right? You ask questions about God, and instead of getting answers, you get three more questions.

     Caro only appears to be a slow worker. He actually works long hours, every day – and he’s in his eighties. His rule is that he writes several pages every day. The more you write, the better you write. Lots of it gets thrown away. I know my best preaching decisions are when I toss something out. It might be a really good idea too. Caro researches relentlessly. Then he pictures his entire thousand page book in a short outline, with summaries of his key points, and then he fills in. Whatever doesn’t fit that pre-arranged structure doesn’t make it into the book. Preaching would be wise to adhere to such a discipline.

     Caro taps away on an old Corona manual typewriter – which is charming. But he only does so after writing several drafts in longhand. That seems charming as well. He does this, he says, in order to slow him down. With a pen and legal pad in hand, he thinks a long time before writing, and as he writes. I did my sermons pen on paper for years. I am going to go back to that, at least for a season.

     Finally, back to the idea of going to the place and creating the sense of place. Caro interviewed several people who reported that when Lyndon first came to Washington in 1931, he would show up for work early, walking from a tiny, shabby apartment near Union Station. A couple of folks oddly reported that he was often spotted running as he passed in front of the Capitol. Caro thought this was interesting, but couldn’t figure out why he ran, since he wasn’t late for work. After taking careful notes, he decided to walk from Union Station to the Capitol along that same route at the same time in the morning. What he noticed was the stunning way the rising sun gleamed on the white face of the Capitol at that very hour. Johnson, thrilled by the beauty of the light, broke into a run out of sheer joy and enthusiasm.

     If I’m preaching on Psalm 8, I’d best go outside at night out in the country somewhere and stare upward for a while. If I’m preaching on Genesis 32, I’d be wise to unroll a sleeping bag and sleep up in the hills outside my city. If I’m preaching on Jesus’ Baptism, I might wade into a stream nearby and feel the water. Then my people might be awed that the God who strewed the stars across the night sky is mindful of them, and that a sleepless night is a night in God’s unexpected presence. They might feel the rush of the water, and a breeze, and sense God’s Spirit. For at least this next season, I’m going to imagine Robert Caro going to work with me as I prepare to preach.

    {My weekly lectionary preaching blog will try to incorporate some of these approaches in the coming weeks!}

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Religion News Service Op-Ed

Religion News Service invited me to write an op-ed reflecting on General Conference. It has some fresh stuff I've not put here before.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

What now that the vote is past?

The Traditional Plan just passed by a vote of 438 to 384. I am not shocked, but deeply disappointed. A few observations: 

(1) "Traditional" is a bit of a misnomer. So much we associate with "tradition" is good. In this case, the church has traditionally condemned LGBTQ people, and this plan is a more ferocious version of what has been the tradition. 

(2) We know that more than 2/3rds of the U.S. voted against this. A coalition of American conservatives (that's not really the right word either), Russians, Africans and some others appear to be forcing the issue, refusing to be in fellowship with centrists, moderates, progressives and young people in the denomination. 

(3) What will unfold, we do not know. We and many others will be discerning how best to be faithful to God and to God's people. And much of this adopted plan has already been ruled unconstitutional.

(4) General Conference is NOT the church. The Church is where you attend, love, worship, learn, share. We do what we do at our church, not for a denomination, but for people seeking God. 

(5) We will continue to stand with LGBTQ people and all of us who love them, who are wounded by this, unconditionally, always, joyfully. 

(6) The best way for us, at Myers Park church, to support them and the hope for a church for all people, is to remain strong as a church. A weaker Myers Park will only weaken us. We are viewed around the denomination as a bright light of hope for centrists, progressives, and young people. 

(7) God is still God, God is still good, and many of us believe a beautiful church of life and joy is coming to life even in the ruins of this conference.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Where We Are Now at General Conference

    A conference like this is hard work, with an intensity of emotion, and added pressure that this work is for God – and so I am so very grateful for the many expressions of love, support, prayer and encouragement from so many.  It shows me how many people love God and God’s church, and care deeply about what we do together for God. I’m sure some on both “sides” have prayed for me, and for the conference – although the very idea of “sides” in God’s family breaks God’s heart, and mine and yours. I have felt the love and solidarity, and it has given me much strength and courage.

     I have come home from these conferences, and probably will this week, burdened by a keen sense that I have failed some people, that they vested hopes in me getting something done which I didn’t get done. It’s like preaching: it’s way harder than it looks. So many factors, such a large, unwieldy body of divergent people, much less the complicated process.

     I’ve always said that the virtue to the Methodist church is that we meet and vote on many issues – and if you’re in the 43% that didn’t prevail, you don’t get excommunicated. I like being in a big tent church where we have, expect, delight in and benefit from disagreement.

     That is, until the disagreement harms people. “First do no harm” is the core guideline – and yet harm gets done. I have a clear calling, and I hope you’ll join me in this, to stand with those hurt by the church on this or anything whatsoever, and to do all we can to stop harm being done.

     At any rate, it appears that tomorrow some version of the Traditional Plan (which “does not condone the practice of homosexuality,” and thus won’t ordain or marry LGBTQ people) will prevail – although there are constitutional quandaries, primarily around the fiercer form being entertained. What that will mean won’t be pretty. We hear chatter about threatened departures, maybe a whole new more accepting denomination? Who knows? We hear that, quite understandably, our seminaries will be severing ties with that more fiercely traditional church. The Church as we have known it will not be.

     I am choosing, today, to be hopeful about that, and to trust that God is bigger than a squabbling denomination, and that God can use the many people here and those they represent who are doing their dead level best to serve God faithfully. Some new, surprising life will rise up out of the dark place where we have found ourselves.  The Church you and I dream of, one that young people will live into, will dawn, is dawning. What that looks like I do not know. What that means for the balance of my ministerial career, what I will do, I do not know. What that means for the Church where I am privileged to be the pastor, I do not yet know. But God is still God, and all will in time be well. God’s got us. All will be well.

     I would say that the highlight of the day in many ways was a late in the day speech by J.J. Warren that roused much of the crowd to its feet. Even if you are on the other “side,” you have to adore this young person’s passion for Jesus and those who don’t know Jesus. 

     I have often said the most astonishing sign of God’s grace in the church is that LGBTQ people who have been judged harshly and told they are not “condoned” have stayed in the church, loved the church, served alongside those who would rather be rid of them. God’s grace for all of us looks just like that.

     If music helps you, check out my choir singing “For Everyone Born” (by Brian Mann, arranged by Tom Trenney).

A Disappointing Day - and a Promise

     Last time General Conference met, I wrote a blog that went semi-viral entitled Thank God General Conference Is Not the Church. The Church really is the Church back home where you know and love, where you hurt and laugh and carry on.

     When General Conference meets, we are more ambitious, and way less successful. Standing in the long security line yesterday (it's a football arena we're entering!), one woman dinged me for supporting our "One Church Plan," as it leaves room for people who would not condone her as a Lesbian pastor. Another guy who's been a friend forever, after I said Go Gamecocks! (knowing his and my football loyalties), he responded, "Well, I guess we do have that one thing in common." He's in the not-condoning homosexuality camp. I started to ask, "Uh, what about Jesus?" but let it go.

    Both of them, like me, are in the Church in Jesus' heart.  Can they be together in the Church here? Probably not back home - at least not in our still divided, not-entirely-converted selves. Here? What's a denomination anyhow? We join hands primarily to be in mission together - and Methodists still do this quite well.  Many of us want to stop all this fussing and move on in mission together.

     Why do I bother with this struggle? First: Church should do no harm, and with a long-standing judgmental viewpoint against our members who aren't straight, and those who love them, we have heaped guilt and worse on thousands and thousands. There's also the futility of this long-standing "We do not condone the practice of homosexuality." Our not condoning has not prevented one person ever from being gay.  You're just gay, or not, or you're something else - but all the Church teaching doesn't make you straight.

     I get that some people we all know and love feel harmed if people who are different sexually are in the church. But this is interesting: if they "lost" (who wants winners and losers in Christ's church?), they would be angry (at least as I hear them speaking of it) - but if the LGBTQ "side" (who wants sides in Christ's church?) loses, they will be wounded.  I am not smart enough to diagnose why this is, but it seems important.

     And I am in this struggle because of the way I read the inspired Word of God. Long story...

     Yesterday was sad - for me, and not my Gamecock friend. We took sort of a straw poll to gauge which petitions should get attention, and in what order. Tops was our pension fund issues - which we are all interested in, so that's sensible. Keeping "we do not condone" and then two petitions to dissolve the whole denomination were next, and only then the One Church plan was ranked 5th - a shocker, as that was the official one we sent out a commission to bring back to us. We will see what today brings.

     Last night a bunch of us met to think, pray, plan, hope, grieve, worry, and love. How odd - a little improvised Church in the thick of the big Church. As Jesus intended it, I suppose.

     However it pans out, I will always and forever stand with all of God's children, including those who aren't condoned by others in the Church. You are loved. You belong. You are beautiful. We all are. We are all demeaned when we don't embrace everyone in God's Church. That's the one thing we should never condone for a nanosecond.