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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A final plea for Courage, Faith & Love at General Conference

     As I’m packing to go to St. Louis for General Conference, my mood oscillates. Part of me feels like Caleb and Joshua, acknowledging there are giants in the land but also surprising, sumptuous fruit to be had. Then I drift into a drowsy kind of denial like the three disciples in Gethsemane, trying to stave off the likelihood that Jesus is about to be crucified once more. The fruit seems unlikely. But with God all things are possible.

     All of us fall into one of two categories. Some fear and grieve their sense that the civilization they know and love is crumbling around them. Others fear and grieve that the world they dream of will never come to be. Christians, because of the greatness of God, have good cause to understand both, but to be afraid of neither.

     To cross into the land and seize the fruit, courage, faith and love will be required. Courage embraces risk and cost. Courage isn’t assured of outcomes. Courage is about faith in something larger than me and my secure preferences. Courage isn’t devising the cleverest strategy to win the vote. Courage is being the Body in a world that doesn’t get or love our beloved Lord.

     Faith: do we realize that when we say “A split is inevitable,” we’ve shrunk our vision of God down to an ineffectual, co-opted weakling who can only baptize our limitedness? The true God is magnificently larger than our inevitably blurry perceptions of God. The living God embraces all of us in our dogged yet broken determination to be faithful disciples. None of us understands or teaches infallibly. Mercy is required: we can’t elude God’s, and so we never flag in our zeal to show mercy. 

     We are God’s church. It’s not ours. The mark of the Church isn’t victory, or finagling votes, or even being right. They will know we are Christians by our love. Love does not insist on its own way. Love bears all things. Love doesn’t threaten. If God’s Spirit is in us, we bear fruit. And so as we go to St. Louis, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control evident in how we do our business or think about the others?

     The world is watching. Will we be nothing more than a cross and flame pasted on top of the divisive ideologies people are already burdened by? The world doesn’t need Christ or us Methodists to feed their cultural frustrations and rancor. The world needs an alternative, pulling off the impossible, loving and united in ministry in the thick of divergence on things that really do matter.

     God is watching. God looks around at us and sees thoughtful, prayerful, biblically-focused, holy, broken, sinful, confused, visionary, faithful followers of Christ who connect those dots differently on human sexuality. Does Christ hope we get a divorce? Christ prayed and prays for unity. His heart is larger than all of us. He doesn’t need protection.

     I’ve blogged many times saying human sexuality is not at the core of our faith. Many of my sisters and brothers disagree – despite, as I’ve noticed, that even the most conservative books with titles like Key United Methodist Beliefs don’t mention human sexuality. For most of us, core beliefs are about God, the Trinity, God’s saving acts, grace, and hope, not our fallen, broken responses to the marvel that is God. If human actions are at the core, then I would think that splitting up God’s beloved church would rise to the top of unacceptable actions. Our core is Christ, the cross, his resurrection. He is our unity, nothing else.

     The One Church plan, which I support, is terribly flawed and not the dream in God’s heart. It does invite people on both sides to love, to work together, and even to repent of rejoicing in the wrong. Both sides are sure the other side is wrong. If you think I am wrong or flawed about any or many of the things of God, I do not mind. I don’t wish to be rid of you. We can, with courage, faith and love, live and thrive in church with people who are wrong. There’s nobody else anyhow.  

     I’ve received much mail in recent days, telling me how to vote, threatening dire consequences if the vote goes wrong, imploring me to read Bible verses. Today I received a holy letter, from 31 members of a church, thanking me for serving, expressing love, and pledging to surround us and our church in prayer for peace. Period. Made me smile. I think Jesus smiles. I believe in miracles and am praying for one. The miracle could just be crossing over the river and finding the fruit, living into the fruit, being Jesus’ church full of blessed, flawed, loving, wrong and wronged people. Together.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Why Scripture compels me to favor the One Church plan

     As we come to this lovely season when we dig into the Scriptures, which Martin Luther called “the swaddling clothes in which Christ is laid,” I want to share why my commitments and devotion to the Bible compel me to be a Uniting Methodist who favors the One Church plan for our denomination. Our shared dream is for the coming of Christ, “who is our peace, who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).

     I enjoy robust dialogue and even arguments with my fellow United Methodists on how we discern God’s way for us regarding human sexuality. What puzzles me, although I understand, and don’t really mind so much, is when someone interrogates me with a question like Have you read Romans 1? Have you considered what Paul wrote to Timothy? What possible reply might there be? No, what is this Romans? Who was Timothy? I might concede that the stereotype has some truth: conservatives have fixed their attention on Scripture more than progressives. But many progressives are great students of the Bible, and just because you can quote a verse doesn’t mean you understand the heart of the Bible. I wouldn’t ask a conservative Have you read what Jesus says about divorce in Mark 10?

     I’m a Bible guy. Always have been, always will be. I adore Scripture. I study it, in the original languages, constantly. I read commentaries, cover to cover, just for fun. I have humbly and zealously submitted my life, and my ministry, to the inspired Word of God. The question isn’t Have I read Romans 1? Rather, it’s How do we read the Scriptures we all believe to be inspired? And not just the texts blatantly about homosexuality. All the texts.

     There are no un-interpreted texts. We strain to see clearly the heart of God’s word given mind-boggling gaps of time (the passing of 2,000 years), language (Hebrew and Greek don’t flow easily into English), and culture. We all inevitably read into texts our own prejudices, our own preferred outcomes. We Bible readers are broken, needing immense mercy – to receive it from God and to extend it to others.

     Some smart alecky people point to quirky texts like not wearing blended fabrics to prove we don’t adhere to texts literally. That’s not very helpful. What’s wiser is to consider how some texts apply directly to us (like “When you have a dinner party, invite those who can’t invite you in return,” Luke 14:12), and how others require some translation into our world – like the Bible’s clear and constant demand that you should not loan or borrow money at interest. I can respect someone who refuses then to work for a bank or have a mortgage. But my hunch is that we cut to the heart and see how in our day, as in Bible times, interest can grind the poor into ever greater poverty. The very clear principle is to do all we can to keep the poor from sliding into ever worsening poverty. Bankers and mortgage-holders might even help.

     So why then does the Bible not only allow the One Church model but, for Bible lovers like me, even require it? One Church embraces the humbling reality that Bible devotees understand what the Bible has to say about intimacy differently. Conservatives have an insightful reading of Scripture on homosexuality. I can’t and don’t even wish to prove that they are wrong. The texts that deal with homosexuality are indeed clear; I have no doubt the men who wrote Scripture didn’t favor same gender marriage. I do wonder though, since we read a single Bible passage always in concert with the rest of the Bible, if those texts have gotten isolated from other texts about the image of God in all of us (Genesis 1:27), about no condemnation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), about welcoming instead of obliterating the identity of others (Acts 8:38).

     The question is: Are the clear homosexuality texts like the clear Invite-others-to-dinner texts? or like the Don’t-loan-at-interest texts needing interpretation? I lean toward the latter. God can clear this up for us definitively once we get to heaven. But we’ll be having that conversation in heaven. Salvation depends on the blood of Jesus shed on Calvary, not on whether you or I think right on an ethical issue – thankfully. We fallen sinners are wrong about so many things.

     How can I find space, embrace and nobility for LGBTQ people in Scripture? Ordination is easy: God can use anybody. In Scripture, God seems determined to use the shocking, unlikely people, the despised and lowly.

     When it comes to who can marry: I am obsessed with the increasing rarity which is Christian marriage. Churches, mine included, happily marry hetero- sexuals who have limited or zero understanding of what is a holy or theological marriage. The Bible’s understanding of marriage is hardly Male + Female = Good. For Paul, marriage is to put on display Christ’s love for the church, and what sacrificial love can be (Ephesians 5:25). Marriage is a mystery (Ephesians 5:32) – musterion meaning not a puzzle but something sacramental, pointing to the divine reality. Marriage is a calling: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). It’s about being subject to one another (Ephesians 5:21).

     Our United Methodist liturgy includes “You have so consecrated the covenant of Christian marriage that in it is represented the covenant between Christ and his church… Bear witness to the love of God in this world… These rings… signify to us the union between Christ and his church.” Marriage is training in holiness. We sing “When Love is found and hope comes home, sing and be glad that two are one. When love has flowered in trust and care, build both each day that love may dare to reach beyond home’s warmth and light, to serve and strive for truth and right.” I do not see why same gender couples cannot be and do these things. I have seen same gender couples who very much embody this kind of joyful, faithful holiness. Yes, the Bible loves male-female marriage and procreation. To my knowledge, so do all LGBTQ Christians I know, and their friends and relatives.

     We of course encourage all United Methodist couples to strive for physical holiness. I tremble a little though, every time I speak of holiness of the body and holiness in intimacy, as we ordained people must. Telling another person how to behave tiptoes up to the edge of works righteousness – and I shudder when I recall that Jesus was harshly criticized for hanging around with the morally suspect – and that his only harsh critique was reserved for the holy and pious people who knew what everyone else should be doing and not doing. Holiness matters, and yet I am not called or able to pass judgment on anybody – again, thankfully. Holiness doesn’t save; mercy will.

     I’m not writing now about weddings out in society. I am focused only on United Methodist Christians who hear the call to be married, and want their marriage to be holy, a sacramental witness to God’s love in a broken world. We do not see this sort of marriage very often – and the world is desperate for it. Should we crush a would-be married couple who want to be Christ for the world, while not minding the straights who lackadaisically marry and grace a pew now and then? Might a holy same gender marriage awaken something beautiful in straight marriages?

     One Church, I think, implies that we differ on how we bring Scripture to life in relationships. Jesus, it’s fair to say, dreamed of holiness for all of us. And yet for him, the demands of righteousness got eclipsed every time as he embraced outsiders; to be like Jesus, to be Jesus, to be his Body now on earth, we would be wise to err, when we err, on the side of hospitality rather than righteousness and certainly than condemnation.

     One Church also implies that we fall far short of what God is asking of us if we are ready to be rid of others in Christ’s Body. I have labored for many years to keep our Church together around the Scripture essentials, God in Creation, God incarnate in Christ, Christ crucified and risen, forgiveness and redemption in him. I am grieved to look into the eyes of my brothers and sisters who wish to be rid of me. Scripture assures me God wants us to be together. Jesus is still praying for our unity (John 17), and does not wish for any of us flawed, confused, noble, tawdry, lovely and broken members of his Body to leave or be cast aside. Friends, let us “bear witness to the love of God in this world so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Old School: Shakespeare on Tyranny

     I’m old school, I’ll admit. History and literature matter – or at least they did, and should. We haven’t yet constructed our nation so that people only learn skills. Poetry, art, music, science, civics, all those seemingly useless subjects we learn in school are in the curriculum so we might be wise, and even good, and understand ourselves and the march of history with a deeper perspective. In our unsettled, confused and confusing day, recourse to old school might help us. Here's what we used to call a "book report."

     Stephen Greenblatt, a scholar at Yale who’s written a couple of other stellar books I’ve read (The Swerve and Will in the World), published one recently called Tyrant, exploring what Shakespeare had to say in his plays about the nature of power taken to excess. On the surface, you might jump to the conclusion he’s alluding to our President. Yet, in plays like Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, and Henry VI, Shakespeare dramatized historical figures from the distant past, carefully avoiding writing about any ruler or politicians within even 100 years of his own lifetime. Greenblatt’s point is that power is power, and history repeats itself (although he never mentions any ruler or politician within 100 years of today!). If there are lessons for us, they aren’t about any one person, but how power happens all around us in every place. John McCain’s death has raised questions about what kinds of leaders we have, and want. Shakespeare has some warnings for us.

     A few of Greenblatt’s summary thoughts are intriguing: “Shakespeare’s plays probe the psychological mechanisms that lead a nation to abandon its ideals and even self-interest. Why would anyone be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to truth? Why does evidence of mendacity, crudeness or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers?” “The disaster of tyranny could not happen without widespread complicity.”

     “Indeed, something in us enjoys every moment of his ascent to power. There is a touch of comedy in the tyrant’s rise, catastrophic as it is. The people he has pushed aside are themselves compromised or corrupt. It is satisfying to see them get their comeuppance, and as we watch the schemer connive his way to the top, we are invited to take a kind of moral vacation.” “Much of the pleasure of his winning derived from its wild improbability.” Most assuredly, “some of the dangerous qualities found in a potential tyrant may be useful.” Shakespeare “did not believe that the common people could be counted upon as a bulwark against tyranny. They were, he thought, too easily manipulated by slogans, cowed by threats, or bribed by gifts to serve as reliable defenders of freedom.”

     Anger, in the people, as with the ruler himself, fuels tyranny. With York and Somerset (in Henry VI), “seeking power becomes itself the expression of rage: I crave the power to crush you. Rage generates insults, and insults generate outrageous actions, and outrageous actions heighten the intensity of the rage. It all begins to spiral out of control.” York indeed declares “I will stir up in England some black storm.” The crowd, in a frenzy, shouts “Let’s kill the lawyers.”

     Greenblatt summarizes Richard III’s character: “the limitless self-regard, the lawbreaking, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting he can do whatever he chooses. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no sense of shared humanity. He is not indifferent to the law; he hates it because it gets in his way… He is a bully. He is gifted at detecting weakness and deft at mockery and insult. These skills attract followers who are drawn to the same cruel delight. His power includes the domination of women.”

     Of Macbeth: he has “a compulsive need to prove his manhood.” He wants flattery, confirmation and obedience.” Caesar’s famous line, expressing his worry about Cassius? “Let me have men about me that are fat, such as sleep a-nights.” King Lear insists that he is “more sinned against than sinning.” He can brook no disagreement, and lives in the grip of fantasy. “A tyrant does not need to traffic in facts or supply evidence. He expects his accusation to be enough. Anyone who contradicts him is either a liar or an idiot.” For him, “loyalty does not mean integrity, honor or responsibility. He means an immediate, unreserved confirmation of his own views and a willingness to carry out his orders without hesitation. When an autocratic, paranoid, narcissistic ruler sits down with a civil servant and asks for his loyalty, the state is in danger.”

     What the people do not realize in King Lear is that “it is extremely dangerous to have a state run by someone who governs by impulse. An impulsive narcissist, accustomed to ordering people about, should not have control even of a very small army.” Who suffers in the end? Everyone. That section in Macbeth I had to memorize in high school doesn’t speak of the meaninglessness of life, but the horror of life under tyranny: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / creeps in this petty pace from day to day / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage… It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.”

     Theologically, of course, much is signified in our fawning over whoever touts our political ideology and panders to our biased ways of thinking. God yearns for leaders, and followers, who are humble, who are holy, from whom truth is essential, who are driven by love and hope not fear or anger. Now that's really old school, from the greatest piece of literature, the history of God's dreams for us.