Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Four Compelling Reasons Conservative and Progressive United Methodists Have to Stay Together

     Voices are clamoring for a split in the United Methodist Church, with an increasing urgency given many recent events, most notably an episcopal election in the West.  I was myself a candidate for bishop and was not elected – and I am writing this blog to expand upon something I dreamed of working on if elected, and hopefully to persuade some folks to join me in a crusade to stay together, and not split. I can think of four compelling reasons why we cannot split, and I have just enough naivete left in me to believe conservatives and progressives might agree on all four. We can agree, I believe, and move forward on the basis of the great commission, the importance of holiness in sexual relationships, the centrality of Jesus, and the inspiration of Scripture.  I suspect #2 is hardest for progressives, given practice and a host of other reasons, and #4 is hardest for conservatives, given the way debates have unfolded for many years.  But I'm betting we can get there on all 4.
    (1) At my jurisdictional conference, in my brief speech explaining to delegates my sense of call to the episcopacy, I suggested that “we can’t split now.”  My reason?  Our country is dividing and splitting all over the place.  Black are divided against whites.  Police are divided against some of our citizens.  Republicans are divided against Democrats.  Republicans are divided against themselves.  If the Church splits now, we are saying to an already cynical world, We are just like you.  We have no alternative to offer you.  There are other Great Commission questions.  Where I live, it is extremely difficult to get any unchurched people to try out a church that isn’t welcoming to LGBTQ people, or at least having a robust conversation about the issue.  I’ve heard some say that where they live the Church won’t grow if the church welcomes LGBTQ people.  But I am absolutely sure that a church that can’t stay together will not be able to make disciples in either kind of community.  Our most crucial witness in a divided world is quite simply not to divide, to show the world (as Paul introduced 1 Corinthians 13) “a better way.”

     (2) Somehow lost in all our debates within the church is any serious talk about holiness in sexuality.  But in the Bible, there is such a thing as holiness; your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.  It is not the case that as long as it’s male and female having sex, it’s great.  And it is not the case that if it’s male and male, or female and female, it’s great.  It is not the case that as long as male and female are married, sex is just great, or if male and male could marry, all would be well.  Sexual relations in marriage and in any straight or gay relationship can be abusive, manipulative, and self-absorbed; such relations can idolize pleasure and have no hint of consecration to God.  Once upon a time, people came to the church, in effect asking for permission to live together and have intimate relations that might even be for God and pleasing to God.  Holy marriage is a sacred mystery, mirroring the wonder of Christ’s church to the world.  God clearly seeks a profound commitment, not just to your partner but to God and the church.  Until we can recover robust ways to talk about and engage in a holy sexuality, which is more than and different from which gender gets to have sex with which gender, we should perhaps be quiet, and relearn how to be Christian on matters of sex.

     (3) The main thing in Christianity, the undeniable, extreme center of our faith, is Jesus Christ.  It is not sexuality.  Sex is the main thing in our culture.  In our trivial, hedonistic society, sex is absolutely central to everything, life, self-image, advertising, TV, novels.  Christians are those who declare sex is not the center, it is not the main thing.  Jesus is the main thing.  I’ve been preaching on Colossians, where Paul falls all over himself extolling the wonder of Jesus, who puts every other thing in the shade, the wonderful shade of his glory and mercy.  I’ll repeat what I’ve said often: if the United Methodist Church declared Jesus was just a man, a wise teacher, or anything short of him being God in the flesh, with his death and resurrection achieving the redemption of all of creation, then I would walk out the door and urge you to come with me.  If you split over something that isn’t in the center, perhaps we have lost sight of the center.

     (4) Scripture is up for grabs right now.  There are some
progressives who say The Bible isn’t relevant.  But if the Bible isn’t relevant now, or on this or that issue, it is never relevant.  At the same time, it is false to say that only one side in the Methodist argument is devoted to the Bible or holds it up as the only and highest authority.  The United Methodist Church has been and will always be a church that opens the Bible and expects nothing but God’s Word to us.  I know conservatives and progressives with astonishingly high views of Scripture; and yet their interpretation on this issue differs.  Every faithful reader studies the Bible and makes the best sense of it that they can.  There is no un-interpreted Scripture; it interprets itself! And every preacher in history has read it and tried to solve what it is saying to contemporary people.  And there have always been disagreements.  But let’s put aside the idea that some cling to the Scriptures while others dispense with them.  The Bible is the inspired Word of God.  We've not engaged in high level reading, together, of the Bible, and we've not listened attentively to why the others interpret the way they do - or at least in my circles this hasn't happened.  One thing I’m sure the Bible doesn’t say, either literally, or by any theological interpretation, is “Thou shalt split up the Body of Christ.”  The Bible says plenty, and clearly, about unity in Christ.

     Over time, I have blogged about many ideas about what God is calling us to do.  I don’t believe we’ve ever really listened to one another or tried to get inside the skin of those who disagree.  We haven’t thought through the invisible, unnoticed cultural assumptions that we all carry deep inside that drive our theology more than the Holy Spirit does.  But for today, I wonder if we can’t find a way to look at the Great Commission, the very tough topic of holiness in sexuality, Jesus himself, and the Scriptures, and ask if we don’t have considerable common ground upon which to stand when asking where God is calling us.

Friday, July 8, 2016

It's Time for the End to our Prayers

     The human mind can’t process all this news.  We feel dazed.  A knot in the stomach.  A kind of dark cloud has settled over the country.  Orlando.  Alton Sterling.  Dallas.  Philando Castile.  Who’s next? and Where?

     I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody has said about these horrors, “Our thoughts and prayers go out…”  I’m a pastor; obviously I’m an advocate of praying.  But I’ve tried to get inside God’s head and heart, and I wonder what God makes of our “thoughts and prayers.”  God is grieving, to be sure.  But I wonder if God wonders what we are looking for.
     Back in Bible times, the people were praying during national calamities.  God’s response?  “These people draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).  The people gathered for special worship services and sang hymns – prompting God to say “I hate your festivals and take no delight in your assemblies. Take away from me the noise of your songs” (Amos 5:20).  And why?  If God didn’t want songs and prayers what did God want?  The very next verse in Amos explains it all: “But let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
     I can’t know how God feels about our “thoughts and prayers.”  But I am positive God would be far more pleased if we would open our eyes, lift up our heads, get up off our knees, and go and do something.  How pointless is it to continue to shudder over the news, and then ask God for comfort, when we aren’t doing anything to alter the conditions under which these killings continue to happen?
     Why do these things happen?  It’s no one thing.  It’s a lot of things.  But we get derailed, because somebody somewhere always has some vested interest in one of the things, so each one gets shot down (literally) and nothing changes.  It is the whole toxic mess of woes that bedevils us.  No one I know is optimistic things will change.  But somewhere inside each of us, and in our collective national psyche, aren’t we “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12)?  And what is hope anyhow?  Not a naïve assumption things will just perk up tomorrow, or the more naïve assumption that our prayers will cause God to do a little razzle-dazzle magic and fix things for us.  St. Augustine said that “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see to it that they don’t remain the way they are.”

    We prisoners of hope have to end our prayers, or find what the end of our prayers ought to be, which is deciding with great courage to do something.  Something is profoundly wrong with regard to race in America.  We can toss blame back and forth.  But when will we engage in the long labor of listening, building trust, and insisting on equal treatment before the law?  Something is terribly wrong about guns.  Oh, the rights people leap forward and warn us society would crumble without even more guns!  But what we’re doing now most clearly isn’t working.

     Something is flat out crazy about the entertainment industry and our addiction to it.  We are appalled by violence in the streets – but we clearly have a taste for it, since we flock in to movies and stare dumbly at TV shows where the shooting is constant. 

     Something is insanely wicked about government.  Gridlock is too nice a term for what we’re saddled with.  Laws and policies need changing, but one side is hell-bent on destroying any good idea the other side might happen to have.  Something is embarrassingly woeful about our political process.  We vote for the loudest, most shrill people who feed our fears and prejudices.  Isn’t it conceivable that we might say Amen after our prayers and seek out leaders who are wise and good, who appeal to the best in us?

     Something is out of kilter economically.  Equal opportunity is a vain notion.  White privilege is real, although whites can’t see it.  Society is arranged for the benefit of white people.  If you’re white and want to rise up and stomp on me for saying this, fine – but our denial of white privilege isn’t getting anybody anywhere.  What if, for a change, we actually listened to people who aren’t white and gave them at least a little benefit of the doubt?  And something is way out of sync with our education system.  Educational equity is a pipe dream right now.  We have settled for unequal education, and then we are surprised by the long-term results.

     Something is killing us from the inside – and that is fear.  Terrorists around the world try to induce fear.  But we are clustering around fear ourselves quite well without their help.  News media and pundits and politicians and just everybody fan the flames of fear.  And there is a lot to be afraid of.  But is it possible to stand up to our fears, to expose them and find ways to build a world that knows higher pursuits than security?  Can we figure out that more and more force never resolves fear but only raises the stakes?

     I could go on and on.  Something is really wrong in America.  Everything I have named is real.  Each one is something that mortifies God.  Pray if you wish – but God wants us to find the end to our praying and do something.  With each one, something really can be done, and in a decade or two we really could have a safer society that would be more pleasing to the God we pray to for help.  We can turn off any TV show where a gun is fired.  We can resource our schools more equitably.  We can elect different people.  We could pass some gun law, any gun law, if only to make a statement.  We could connect with people who are different instead of judging them.  We could enthusiastically support our police and rebuild trust with them – but only if we also are willing to hold the small minority of them who exceed their authority accountable. 

     We can be different.  We can be the people God uses to be the answer to our own prayers.  That is, if we come to the end of our prayers, and do courageous things.  The other night I heard Carrie Newcomer sing the most timely song I’ve ever heard:  If not now, tell me when?”

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Way Forward: Defend Each Other's Character

     Near the end of my friend Ryan Danker’s very fine book, Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism, something caught my eye.  In 1764, John Wesley wrote a letter to “forty or fifty clergymen” as his last, determined effort to bring unity to the evangelicals in England.  We don’t often attend to this:  among those who would be on fire for Jesus, and who sought desperately needed reform within the Church, there was great division, and intense rancor.
     His letter challenged evangelicals of every stripe to “speak respectfully, honourably, kind of each other; defend each other’s character; speak all the good we can of each other; recommend each other where we have influence, and to help each other on in his work and enlarge his influence by all the honest means he can.”
     Divided as we United Methodist are today, 252 years after Wesley penned this letter, and wondering if we can stay together, I wonder if a wise starting point might be what Wesley commended way back then.  Is it possible, not merely that we might “speak respectfully,” which feels like little more than politeness, or some basic obligation of Christian charity, but actually “defend each other’s character.”  I believe this is entirely possible, quite do-able, and utterly essential if we harbor any pretensions of being the Body of Christ, of viewing no one from a merely human point of view (2 Corinthians 5:16). 
     John Adams and Thomas Jefferson managed to do this!  July 4 just passed - and my favorite July 4 moment came in 1826 when Adams and Jefferson, with impeccable timing, died on the same day, the 50th anniversary of their Declaration of Independence.  Fierce political rivals, they became great friends late in life.  It all started when Adams wrote to Jefferson, "You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other."  If Adams and Jefferson could reconcile personally, even with political differences, we in the Church ought to get started at least explaining ourselves to each other, and humbly defending one another's character.

    Imagine: we differ on whatever the issue might be, although most frequently, and most inflammably, is on the issue of homosexuality – but we might ask a few questions about the character of the one with whom we disagree.  I am thinking quite specifically at the moment about a case before our bishop in Western North Carolina.  One of our pastors performed a same gender wedding ceremony on April 23 of this year. She is a longtime friend whom I know very well.  Shortly after that wedding, charges were filed by more than a dozen people, including two clergy in our own annual conference whom I know very well, both longtime friends - and they filed charges for very different reasons.

     What I can assure everyone of is this:  all three of my friends, and colleagues, who find themselves as combatants in a case requiring episcopal or court resolution, are of impeccable integrity.  All three love God.  All are passionate about the Scriptures.  They have profound ministries.  They are striving to serve God.  They have significant track records of reaching the lost for Jesus.  All three are incapable of duplicity.  They are deeply trusted, by me and by many others.  All three carry on their ministries with great courage and faithfulness.  They love our United Methodist Church.  They are so very much beloved – by me.
     Where we get derailed is when we disparage the character of someone we don’t know, or who diverges from the way we think, however passionately and truthfully about an issue.  He does not need to say Oh, it doesn’t matter what she did or what she thinks; and she does not need to say Oh he’s just so wrong, and what he’s doing is crazy.  But if truth is a real thing, if truth has to do with looking reality in the eye and naming it honestly, then he and she should be able to say of the other, I can defend his character; I can defend her character.  She is a marvelous servant of God; he is a zealous campaigner for God’s kingdom.  We are all, in our hearts, doing our very best for God.  I so very strongly disagree with the way that person's courageous ministry of character played out one day; but the character plainly is there.

     Neither is wicked, or stupid, or vile.  We demonize the ‘other,’ but our demonization of the other says more about our own uneasy selves than about the other person.  Wesley was quite clever, but really just theologically on point, when he suggested that those who are striving for the good of the kingdom who disagree “defend each other’s character.”  We can do this.  We actually have no choice but to do this, unless we are like those trumped up witnesses who ambled in and accused Jesus of perfidy. 
     And if we can acknowledge that there indeed is character, and holiness, and immense love for God and compassion in ministry in the other guy, then we stand a chance of listening, and understanding, and even loving, and making a rather astonishing witness to the world, where the “character” of the foe is never praised but only smashed.
     If we could do this, and I can’t think of a single good reason why we can’t, we might have building block number one in place for how to move forward as God’s people.  What if we tried to move forward without putting this block in place?  Whatever we devise would be a sham, rooted in what is not true or real.  In the United Methodist Church, we have nothing at all except noble, broken, lovely, flawed, passionate, confused and committed people who gave their lives to Jesus and would do flat out anything for him.

     Who knows?  We might even move on to the rest of Wesley’s counsel – to “speak all the good we can of each other; recommend each other where we have influence, and to help each other on in his work and enlarge his influence by all the honest means he can.”  That indeed would be a surprise to a cynical world – and the movement of the Holy Spirit we say we seek so eagerly.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Robert's Rules, General Conference, and How to Start a Movement

     One afternoon during my denomination’s recent General Conference, legislative action was getting bogged down. Points of order, substitute motions, speeches for and against, questions called, more points of order, and then votes in which weary delegates weren’t entirely sure what they were voting on or why. After a query about Robert’s Rules of Order, somebody behind me harrumphed, “Who is this Robert guy anyway? Is he in the Bible?”

     At about this time, to slake the boredom, I sneaked a peek at my email box, stealthily, of course. A friend had sent me a YouTube link with the comment, “Check this out.” As I was wearing a headset so I could listen in on the translations of speeches being made at the conference, it was easy to watch and listen to the YouTube – stealthily again. It was a TED talk featuring Derek Sivers talking about “How to Start a Movement.”

     Sivers showed a video of a bunch of people lounging on a hillside, when one guy stood up and started dancing, flailing about kookily. Gradually people began to look up and notice. Some ignored him, others were maybe a little amused by his lunacy. But after a bit, another guy decided, what the heck, I’ll join him. Similar silly dance moves, just having fun.  The two went on for maybe a minute – and then a third guy ambled over and joined them. Within seconds, there were two more, then five more, then everybody on that hillside swarmed together, dancing, laughing, having a ball.
     Sivers’s point is that this is how movements begin. The first dancer had to have some guts, a willingness to look ridiculous, not caring if anybody actually followed or not. The second guy is hugely important, for if he never joined in, the leader would get weary and sit down. The real key is the next guy, since “three’s a crowd.” With him there’s momentum. A tipping point is achieved. After three, there’s no reason not to join in.
     Musing over this, as the motions and points of order continued, I had three thoughts. (1) The movements in history I’ve admired were just like this. Clarence Jordan had a vision of community and started Koinonia Farm.  Millard Fuller came, and Koinonia sparked the idea of Habitat.  Jimmy Carter, from nearby Plains, Ga. joined - and Habitat is all over the world now.  Vernon Johns preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery about civil rights, and was ridiculed by his own people. Then Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke up. Then Rosa Parks didn’t stand up. Ralph Abernathy, Mother Pollard, John Lewis, and a host of people made it a movement. In the Middle Ages, John Wyclif spoke up and met harsh resistance. But then Martin Luther nailed his theses, and before you knew it, Melanchthon, Calvin, Zwingli, and thousands created the Protestant Reformation.

     (2) This is no brilliant insight – but the United Methodist Church, over whose barely alive body we were presiding at that very moment, is in desperate need of a movement. (And I'd add that I think it's unlikely this kind of movement is entirely in either of the directions that are currently pulling us apart.) And not just a movement to resolve sexuality issues. We need a movement, movements actually, which bring life and holiness to our churches and the world.

     Then, (3) we were trying to do triage on this church using the rules least likely to allow a movement to happen - or we were seeking renewal and revival utilizing something so cumbersome it could only squash anything fresh. Robert’s Rules of Order actually were designed to keep order (as in the name!) and prevent outbreaks of anything at all. Who was Robert? He was a preacher’s kid who became an engineer: Henry Martyn Robert. At his Baptist church in Massachusetts, they had just suffered an awful meeting in which conflict erupted over abolition. He set his mind to learn all he could about rules for meetings, and published his in 1876. 

     Robert’s Rules most often do prevent conflict breaking out. Although, perhaps in the way guerilla warfare breaks out when minorities won’t back down to the massed armed forces of nations, minorities eventually chafe under the brunt of losing vote after vote and eruptions happen anyhow. But healthy movements that embody the Kingdom never happen.

     I'm not thinking of trivial tweaks to our process, like the much ballyhooed Rule 44.  I am thinking of serious, non-conference transformation. Rewind the date to the 1940's.  There's a motion to have an interracial farm in rural Georgia. Speeches for? Speeches against? Let’s vote. The nays would win easily.  Jesus himself could have convened all the religious leaders of his day and put forward a motion that the Kingdom of God might dawn. By Robert’s Rules, the vote most assuredly would have been No, let’s not have a dawning of the Kingdom of God. Let's go back to fishing.

     At General Conference, we do a lot of praying for God’s Spirit to move. But if history tells us anything, it’s that the movement of the Holy Spirit is like the movement of the dancers on that hillside. Just one prophet speaks with great courage, which is met with scoffing and thumbs down votes. But someone else hears the truth and stands up, then a third, and finally others. Robert’s Rules will foil that first guy every time: Shall we dance? The nays win.
     Open conflict isn’t the worst of all evils anyhow. Jean Vanier’s lovely book, Community and Growth, contains a wise chapter on church meetings. He says we should be glad when there is an explosion, for that means church is a safe place, and we welcome buried, unheard feelings. The conflict helps us grow; the Spirit uses the tension to lead us. He reminds us there is a “little tyrant” in each of us, who insists on his own way. In the Body of Christ, it is the small, the extreme minority, the weakest member who matters the most (1 Corinthians 12:22).

I wonder if, some day, we might dispense with Robert’s Rules, which must be the worst possible way to try to carry on a holy conversation. When the faithful disagree, the advantage goes – always – to the one who is the master of the rules, to the one who is swift to the microphone, not to the lone voice that might have the fresh wisdom we need. Robert’s rules feed unholiness, like maneuvering, influencing voters, and worst of all, the notion of “sides.” Which “side” are you on? We vote then to see which side “wins,” and it’s winner-take-all. The vote might be 51%-49%, but the “official” outcome is just one unhedged thing. Winner takes all – and then we have losers. A political democracy works this way. But we are the Body of Christ, where we don’t have sides, and we don’t have winners and losers, but members. Priority goes to the weakest, the most anguished, the one who can’t marshal many votes, even to the one we’ve never heard from due to the shouting of sides at one another.

     Quakers don’t vote. They “discern,” quietly listening for the movement of the Spirit, which always comes from surprising corners. We need a movement, and we’ll never have one until we usher poor Robert out of the building. There must be a better, holier way to conduct church business in a big room, for the faithful to discern and respond to the movement God is inviting us into.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Orlando: We Begin Today

Sunday. The Lord’s day. On the way to church, or right after, we were mortified by the news out of Orlando. Another mass killing. How many? We’ve lost count. The ache, the revulsion. Even though numbed by the sheer repetitiveness of this news story, you shudder, and can’t turn off the TV coverage. I’ve seen rants on Facebook and Twitter. But the noise seems muffled somehow. A hush, a massive shudder has fallen over the world. I sit quietly, prepared for tears, but just numb.

I want names. To say 50 were killed, and it’s a record for the U.S. seems wrongheaded. Give me one name, then another. Each one has a mother, a brother, a coworker, a neighbor, a teammate. A person with a name is a life, a story, God’s lovely creation, a beautiful story. Because of the identity of those killed, we will rightly hear a cry on behalf of LGBTQ people. The point to be made really is that people are just people. Luis, who ran the “Harry Potter” ride. Kimberly who greeted people at the cellphone store. Juan, who’d just come out to his family.

In the first hours after every mass killing, when little is known, news agencies have to fill time. Much of the talk is speculation: Who was the killer? What was his motive? What were his thoughts? The important truth is, we do not know. We only infer, and guess. We have no idea what was in his head. Maybe this killer was drawn to radical Islam, but felt same gender sexual stirrings — and this was his way out. We cannot know what is in someone else’s heart — which is crucial here. If Omar Mateen hated LGBTQ people, he did not know them. He made a thicket of false assumptions about them.

Which is precisely what goes wrong in our culture which is so very terrified by anyone who is ‘other.’ As followers of Jesus, we never begin by prejudging anybody, ever. We go to the trouble to listen, to learn, never to assume. I live in North Carolina, where we’ve had a long-running controversy over LGBTQ people and bathroom usage. I have a friend who believes that, somewhere beneath the bluster opposing such rights, there’s a desire many Christian people have — that LGBTQ people just didn’t exist. I hope he is wrong. As Jesus’ people, we never wish some ‘other’ person would just go away or not exist. The only ‘other’ we want to get rid of is hate. Jesus anticipated we’d feel harshly toward ‘others,’ so he pretty clearly told us to love our enemies.

Pastors should say something, or do something. But what? When national catastrophe struck, the Israelites gathered fasted, and prayed Psalms like 44, 74 and 80. These corporate prayers were not for swift justice, or changed laws even. They cried out How long? They shook God, assuming God had to be slumbering. They repented instead of blaming. I suspect we should open our churches for special services, read the names of the deceased, read these Psalms.

And fast. Who can eat, anyway? Martin Luther King famously pushed back quite a few meals after reading newspaper reports about the killing in Vietnam. Or do we return too swiftly to our routines, our diversions? We are all of us deeply enmeshed in the very gangland culture that upsets us so. We good Christians have not just tolerated but created and funded a culture obsessed with guns, violence and depravity of all kinds. We have propped up politicians who pander to fear and talk tough. We have a lot of repenting to do. Was what Mateen did terror or hate? Our category for killing is Sin, but Sin is the condition of the entire fallen world. So in days like this, old wounds reopen; it’s time for all of us to talk with God, to get a lot of things straight. When these moments descend, we realize the work we should have been doing, and had better get busy with before the next tragedy. Our primary task as Christians is reconciliation. Sometimes when we debate the LGBTQ ‘issue,’ we forget there are always names, just one person, somebody’s son, somebody’s sister. I always wonder if hard-fisted judgment in church might actually foster a culture in which hatred is not just acceptable but actually holy? Can our tone be mercy? Can we Methodists reconcile, know names and stories, and love, and change communities where we live?

There will be pressure in the coming days to denounce Islam. Clergy can up their popularity in many places by castigating Muslims and wishing we were rid of them. It is just as easy for more enlightened clergy to clarify that what we see on the world stage is an aberrant perversion of Islam. It is up to clergy to stand in the breach at such times, and to say "My Muslim friends are horrified and sorrowful too." You can do so only if you’ve made friends with Muslims, and phoned them up in the hours after such a tragedy.

There will be a lot of talk about gun control. Quite predictably, Christians will demand it as the fix to this mess, while other Christians will explain how background checks won’t help, or that guns make us secure, or that this or that strategy won’t fix things. Isn’t it time to do something, even if it only makes the tiniest dent or doesn’t accomplish much? If someone you love has been shot, you do something, even if you don’t have a medical degree, even if it doesn’t really help. You can’t just do nothing.

Our country is hemorrhaging, literally, and drastic triage is required. Don’t Christians, whose Lord said “Put your sword away; he who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” have some holy obligation to labor tirelessly to do something, anything? If the prophets of Israel and Jesus himself provide us any clues, we must ask Can clergy speak respectfully but firmly to our people to rally them to be part of a movement not easily frightened off by the powers that be? Ours is not to secure safety for ourselves, but to stand with and for those who are hated, in Orlando, Charleston, in any and all places where precious children of God are despised and mercilessly slaughtered.

Beyond question, our problems are too massive for us to fix this week, or in a lifetime. But we begin today. Quite rightly, we pray, and fervently, not merely for God to soothe the grief of victims’ families, but to turn the whole world on its axis, to change a nation, to convert hearts, to temper a culture bent on distrust. We need and dare to expect a miracle; and we ask God what we can do as individuals and as God’s church — and then we do it with courage and mercy. We indeed are “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12), even while we grieve, repent and look for God’s waking dawn, and to each of God’s children, one by one, each with a name. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

I Thank God General Conference is Not the Church

     I thank God that General Conference is not the church.  Yes, General Conference makes high level decisions about official policy.  General Conference controls a lot of money, although the pie is shrinking.  General Conference gets a lot of press coverage and makes people wring their hands, shudder, shout, rejoice, weep, or pump a fist or two.  But General Conference is not the church.
First, imagine if all the delegates, bishops, staff and observers were in fact a local congregation.  Good worship – but if you were a visitor you would quickly detect a few problems that would make you shy away from joining.  Factions, tension, little whispering campaigns, constant dickering over how to proceed, gridlock on actually doing anything, no clear leadership…  Everything that bedevils the dysfunctional congregation we have in frighteningly acute degrees.  Such a congregation would repel visitors, members would drift or bolt away, mission and learning would fracture, and the church would shrink and then fold.

     Also, the people who wind up as delegates, even though they are asked to be representatives of their conferences or even of the broader church, are not in fact representative.  I told my bishop once that the delegates to annual conference, generally speaking, are not actually representative of their churches.  When my congregation elects their delegates, they don’t choose the most centrist, “average” members.  We pick the people who are willing to take days off to sit through fairly dull business, people who are ultra-Methodist, lovers of conference doings.  The people who are at the very heart of my church aren’t interested or can’t go.

     Who gets elected to General Conference?  We elect activist people, big names, people with razor sharp agendas, folks who fit various diversity slots, individuals who’ve not given much offense – and people who are willing and able to lose two weeks of their lives, can endure the intensity of the proceedings, and not be so disgusted as to exit the church when the conference has ended.  These are not normal United Methodists.

     At one level, the weirdness, or perhaps we should say the loveliness of those at General Conference should disturb us, and it sobers us up a little about the decisions made.  But for me, this idea that General Conference is not the church is a relief, and cause for hope.  I love being back at church the Sunday after General Conference.  I hug a little more than usual, and feel so very grateful to be part of a church family that is utterly unlike General Conference.  There really is so much life, and joy in our Church.

     This distinction between General Conference and the Church also enables me, with all due respect for our connectedness and our accountability to the Book of Discipline and other denominational decisions, to give comfort to people wounded by votes taken.  A few always want to exit our church because of a vote; a few exit because we even bother voting on something so obvious.  I can assure them General Conference is not our church.

     A woman emailed me the other day to say I pray that one day my church will love my son.  I could confidently respond, I love you and him, our church family loves you, both and there are actually millions of United Methodists who love you.

     I can also try to undermine any smugness among the victors.  Once in a while, some big vote changes or clings to things – and there are those who, like fans at a championship game, declare We won!  But in the Body of Christ we don’t have winners and losers; we don’t even have any we and them.  We are we, we love, we are the Body.

     We might be wise to dream of a day when we come to General Conference and remember the hearts of those at home, and more importantly, the dispositions required back home to make church work.  Back home we have the advantage of time and familiarity.  So at General Conference, where you might know a few dozen people, but most are strangers, you have to fast track the relationships, and remember what is true about all of us:  we really are one family in Christ Jesus, and we bring with us the ability to listen and care and even compromise a little to keep the family together and more importantly in sync with the holy head of our family, Jesus our Lord.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Noise of Worship at General Conference

     Nearly every day at General Conference, when lay and clergy delegates from all over the world meet to renew and reset our direction as the United Methodist Church, we are treated to magnificent, creative, high quality worship services.  We sing, marvel, listen, stand, bow our heads and even applaud, opening the day in the most fitting way possible, in worship of the God whose Church we truly are.

     I for one have harbored a little resentment though.  On quite a few days I’ve wanted to skip.  I’ve even wished (only in my own mind, not out loud) that we wouldn’t do it at all.  My reason?  In the worship, we sound so God-focused.  We smile and sing how we are one in God, that we are filled with grace and love, that we seek nothing but the movement of the Holy Spirit.  But then worship ends, and the rancor begins.  The power plays that commenced in backroom breakfasts resume.  The love, unity, and openness to the Spirit rush right out the door. 

     It’s the dissonance, the hypocrisy, the hollowness of our gestures.  The Lord must be up there reciting the words of the prophets:  “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs” (Amos 5:21); “These people draw near and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).

     There are prayer vigils leading up to General Conference.  And there is a lot of praying going on at General Conference.  Delegates are led in prayer, and pray on their own.  The observers in the gallery close their eyes and lift their hands in intense supplication.  But we know what they (and we) are praying for:  that my side, my take on this issue will win.  We most certainly want the Holy Spirit to move – on them.

     The children in my congrega- tion have cut out construction paper and colored little prayer cards for General Conference.  I’m glad we shelter them from what the meeting really is like.  I am entirely sure that the praying they have in mind is of a different sort – and it might help us actually to ask them.  I’d guess they would offer something simple, like that we would be safe, that we would love, and that God’s will would be done.

     Any prayer for God’s will to be done latches us on to Jesus, who taught us to pray this way.  What is intriguing is that right before Jesus, in agony, said “Not my will, but your will be done,” he’d said “Let this cup pass from me.”  Jesus had his druthers on the outcome – and he is the holiest person ever to pray.  But his preference, his wish for what should happen, had to yield.  Jesus offers God the Father a yielding, a willingness to be surprised, however unpleasantly.  This is the very nature of love, which “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5).  My theology professor at Duke, Dr. Bob Cushman, defined faith as “the conversion of the will through the crumpling of pride.”  And my friend, the evangelist Leighton Ford, says that in John 17 “Jesus didn’t tell us to pray that our party would win; he prayed that our oneness in him might be seen, so that the world may believe.”

     What if General Conference delegates actually engaged in what our children, and even so many of our grownup United Methodists around the world earnestly assume we are doing – praying, in the sense of being willing and even eager to yield our preferred way, to have pride crumpled, and our wills converted?  Not to win, or to grieve losing, or to finagle things so the vote turns out right, but a profound emptying, a suspension of judgment, a deep waiting on what God might stunningly do.

     Yes, you are snickering by now.  But really:  if you are praying anything else, or if you just aren’t bothering to pray, then let’s be clear that God takes no delight in us, and we will never be swept up in the miraculous New Creation God has promised to the Church. 

     Since we can’t (or shouldn’t want to) continue the hypocrisy of sunny worship as a prelude to ugly business at General Conference, it seems to me we’re left with only two options.  We could pray as Jesus prayed, and expect and engage in genuinely transformative ways of doing business.  Or, we could simply worship and pray, and not do any business at all, renewing the old idea of the Moravian Pentecost.  Zinzendorf summoned all the quarrelling, divided delegates together in 1727 for a conference, and conducted no business whatsoever.  They just worshipped, fasted, sang, washed each other’s feet, shared in love feasts, and Zinzendorf didn’t let them leave until they learned to love one another.  They found themselves moved by the Spirit; then they went back home, and set their communities on fire. 

     We can be very sure this is God’s will, this New Creation, which isn’t my way or your way, but God’s way.  God’s even big enough, and humble enough, to move genuinely open hearts during a conference where we worship and vote.