Wednesday, July 18, 2018

An Open Letter to Rob Renfroe


    Having watched your recent presentation to the Confessing Movement gathering at the Texas Conference, I feel led by God to say to you: I love you. I want to be in the church with you, although your words of condemnation and insult hurled in the direction of beloved friends who are bishops, pastors, and lay people indicate you are repulsed by us. But I don’t want church without you.
 
     And I want to ask you to love me, and us. Jesus, by that astonishing expansiveness of his mind and heart, prayed not just for the disciples at the Last Supper but also for you and me to be one. In his church, there’s room for all, for both of us.

     My love for you is grieved to the core by your words, which I do not believe came out of the authentic child of God in you.
 
      How we love, how we conduct ourselves, is the ultimate test of Methodism during these days. During his first Senate campaign, Lyndon Johnson and some associates were in a cemetery one night fraudulently registering dead voters. A guy skipped a headstone, explaining it was hard to read. Johnson told him to include it anyway: “He has as much right to vote as anybody else in this cemetery.”
      The saints in glory won’t vote at General Conference, but they weigh in right now, if we have ears to hear. Was it Mother Teresa? or Clarence Jordan? or someone else who said “God doesn’t call us to be successful; God calls us to be faithful”? To be holy. To love. For LBJ, driven as he was by a blinding zeal to get elected, any tactics, however ruthless or devious, were acceptable. In the world, it’s always “Do anything to win.” We love, even if we lose.



     You said that usually you “play nice.” Please don’t play. I believe down deep, holiness is a thing we both care about and are committed to, with those saints in the cemeteries. Want to know who’s close to Jesus in United Methodism? Look for those exhibiting the Spirit’s fruit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control – and then those traits Jesus blessed, poverty of spirit, meekness, mournfulness, mercy, a hunger for righteousness (not a smug claim we’ve already got it), mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and a willingness to suffer for sticking close to Jesus (instead of inflicting the suffering on others).

     I listened in vain for the Spirit’s fruit, for Jesus’ blessing, for any grace at all in your words. I hear presentations these days that are snide, sarcastic, snarky, dismissive and derogatory - from politicians in our newfangled United States where nastiness wins. But this is God's church.

    At first I recoiled from your onslaught of words. But then I thought it must be hard for you to live in your own skin. Rage corrodes you from within. You asserted that you are sure your side will win in February 2019, and the One Church plan, which I and other Uniting Methodists support, will lose. If so, why are you so upset? Why not a placid faith in God’s good future for the church which we know “will be preserved to the end of time”? Why not keep with what you've been about in ministry, which there's room for in One Church?

     You blast hypocrisy, hubris and contempt. Surely you know that your talk is overflowing with hubris, and contempt for brothers and sisters in the Body. You say they are just plain dumb. I can confess that I used to be a lot like you. I was a smart guy boasting a Ph.D. in biblical theology. I jumped at every opportunity to spout how right I was and to point out how wrong others were. I was sure God would be quite proud to have a defender like me. But I’d never absorbed Paul’s words: “If I have all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.” I was worse than nothing. My hubris inflicted pain on God’s children. Thankfully, someone who loved me helped me learn to love.

 
     I love the song from Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” We Methodists should sing another ditty, which I’ll entitle “Everyone’s a little bit hypocritical.” Not one of us is as holy as we want to be. We’re easily rankled. We’re blinded to the truths and goodness in others who seem so wrong. We get puffed up. We all pick and choose what within Scripture to take literally, as it suits our pet notions, and where we apply spin, again to evade what we do not prefer. We forget how broken we are. Not one of us teaches infallibly.
     Let me see if I can offer you some comfort. I sincerely admire and applaud your effort to defend God’s honor and pursue the truth and holy living. Please understand (as failure to understand others is the crime you pin on the bishops) that we too seek to lead holy lives, and have committed our lives to God’s truths. I love and am steadfastly committed to God’s living Word in Scripture. And while we never understand anyone, including ourselves, fully, I think most of us who lead in Methodism do understand you. I have invested a lot of my life in listening to, learning from, and befriending people across the theological spectrum, including many in the WCA. I’d ask for your love, and that you begin by listening to and trying to understand me, and mine, and how God’s Spirit is working through and living in us.
 
     Recently, I led a Bible study on Paul’s terse, tearful letter to the Christians in Corinth who were splintering. Many were sure they were absolutely right and full of the Spirit while others were dangerously misguided. After explaining how the Body has many differing members, he taught them and us how to function within the Body: “Love is kind, Love is not arrogant, Love does not insist on its own way.” My brother, I’m asking for your love.


****
 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available now.

40 comments:

  1. This is really insightful and meaningful. I struggle with the United Methodist church - at times in anger - and with the hubris of believing I'm right over others who don't "get it". A turn to prayer is definitely in order. Thanks as always for your thoughtful words.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hurting people hurt people. That is the truth of our time. In every sphere we attack people not debate ideas and ideals. Perhaps ideas and ideals have lost there power. They gave surrendered to economics. I don't know. I pray for the heart of our church and nation. That we'd stop turning on one another and turn start solving real problems.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Jim, thank you for this sir. Having connections with Duke, as an undergraduate, Myers Park, my father back in the 60s, and the WNC Conference, there has been an R.G. Tuttle in ministry in the conference for 140 years, I gave this a careful read. I had my Asbury alums respond to Renfroe as well. In fact I had to write a defense of my position to the Asbury Board. I can send it to you if you like. Bishop Carter's soon to be released book, "Embracing the Wideness" make many of the same points. I'm making every effort to go HIGH. Thank you for your spirit of inclusion. We pray for our UM mama!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Jon Pavlovitz is one of my favorite bloggers because, as his blog title indicates, he says "things that need to be said." He is fearless and doesn't pull any punches. Now, I have to say the same about you. What you said needed to be said, without fear and without holding back.

    I joined the Texas Annual Conference in 1976, so I've known Rob Renfroe for many years, though not well. But I have had the opportunity to watch as he sculpted his image as carefully as he coifs his now slightly graying but still magnificent mane. Think young Leonard Sweet, but ruthless and ravenous like Scar in The Lion King.

    I have the greatest respect for you that you can extend your offer of love and fellowship to the likes of him. I'm afraid I'm not sufficiently Christ-like to do so. And though I do still want to be in the same church with many of his besotted followers, and I would never support any policy or polity that forced him out, I truly believe we would ALL be better off if he decided to take his corrosive influence somewhere else.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you … it is no surprise that seekers are running because they see a church filled with hate that contradicts the message of the One whom church attenders and preachers claim to follow.

    ReplyDelete
  6. All in all I appreciated your open letter to Rob Renfroe. May I make a humble comment? You argue so eloquently for the spirit of Love and acceptance and then use a cruel and, at best, "legendary" story about President Lyndon Johnson. I went looking for that story on the Web and this is the best I could find, on Shoal's Insider site: "A legendary tale that is attributed to Johnson in this infamous race claims that in the days following the election, while garnering enough votes for victory, Johnson and the political bosses of the Valley counties were going through cemeteries and taking names of dead Mexicans off of tombstones to register as voters. They could not decipher one of the names and asked Lyndon what to do. Johnson quickly replied, give him a name, he’s got as much right to vote as the rest of them in this cemetery do." Please note that it is called a "legendary" story.

    I wish that you had not used that story. In fact, after reading that paragraph, I had to go back and read it again. I could not figure out what it had to do with the rest of your letter to Rob Renfroe. Later I saw that you were using the President as an example or illustration. I want to provide some context here. I wanted to love your letter to Rob, I wanted to be inspired by it - because I am not my best as a Christian when I think of Rob Renfroe and his ilk. But sadly, in the end - you yielded to the temptation to use Rob's tactics in attacking Rob.

    God Bless You my brother. A fellow Elder, now retired.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you so much for this. Proud of the connection we seek to preserve. And proud to call you friend. Blessings.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank you for these thought filled and thoughtful words.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you for this blog and for your letter to Rob. And thank you even more for your longstanding witness to light, life, and love

    ReplyDelete
  10. The Church is the center of that part of our lives where we build and maintain our relationship with God. When the teaching of the Church seems to be contrary to what we believe about god and our relationship to him appear to be in conflict we can easily fear that our relationship with God is in danger and if what others say is true then maybe we are not lovable in God's eyes..can anything be more frightening? When this occurs we try to defen ourselves and come across as attacking the other folks.....the conflict escalates and ears become sealed. Only trust in God's unshakable love can reduce the defenses. How will our fearful friends be able to drop their defenses unless they experience love. Now in life I have found that sometimes a standoff is necessary before a person will be willing to listen....because there doesn't seem to be any other way for him/her to accomplish their safety..... its tricky.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thank you for your very kind and gentle letter. While I am not personally optimistic as to how it will be received I am hopeful. Naively, perhaps, I have faith and hope in a loving God who, I believe, has a plan for The United Methodist Church. I recently watched as my conference was forced to choose sides by a resolution at Annual Conference. Many of the persons representing “the other side” have been friends for many years. I have prayed with and for them and they for me. I choose to remain their friend and colleague even though they may choose differently. Only in that way can I live with myself and my God. I continue to pray that we as Christians will not succumb to political maneuvering or power broking. Instead that we would follow our Christ and the teaching of John Wesley who taught us that in all ways we should live in peace and love with one another. It is possible but only if we do not have winners and losers but remain united in Christ.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This is the nastiest thing I have ever read on the issue that besets our beloved church. Rev. Howell, look again at your words, spoken in public to a fellow Christian:

    1. "your words of condemnation and insult"
    2. "hurled in the direction of beloved friends"
    3. "(your words) indicate you are repulsed by us"
    4. "I've heard rumors that you have been raising money to ply our African brothers and sisters who are delegates to General Conference with favors"
    5. "smug claim"
    6. "inflicting...suffering on others"
    7. "(your talk was) "snide, sarcastic snarky, dismissive and derogatory"
    8. "it must be hard for you to live in your own skin"
    9. "rage corrodes you from within"
    10. "your talk is overflowing with hubris, and contempt for brothers and sisters in the Body"
    11. "I can confess that I used to be a lot like you."

    James 3:9

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You see, this is the larger problem. An inability to distinguish anger from taking out; cynicism from being prophetic. You have missed the the point and tone of his entire piece. For example, you missed a few sentences. Let me remind you of them:
      a. I love you.
      b. I want to be in church with you.
      c. I want you to love me too.

      Where was this in the orthodox guy's presentation??

      Crickets.....

      Delete
    2. "reaching out" not "taking out"

      Delete
    3. The most egregious of Rev Howell's statements is "I've heard rumors that you have been raising money to ply our African brothers and sisters who are delegates to general conference with favors..." but then he states he chooses not to believe the rumors, even after he spreads them online! That's "being prophetic"?

      Delete
    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  13. Mike, have you listened to the speech Rob Renfroe gave that occasioned Dr. Howell's response?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes I have. 2 points:

      1. Even if it had been bad, and it wasn't, the language from the author of this piece is still uncalled for, and way our of line.
      2. The author's piece does not quote Rev Renfroe. If Renfroe was as bad as Howell says he was, then he should have provided specific quotes, with time references from Renfroe's speech so anyone could evaluate it for themselves.

      Now a question for you, Keith. Do you approve of the language used by Rev Howell?

      Delete
  14. Pentecost grace and peace, Dr. Howell! As a brother in Christ and colleague over in the NC Annual Conference, I'd like to respond to your assessment of Rev. Renfroe's speech. 1) The rhetoric is at feverish pitch on both sides of this issue of human sexuality because we're all very close to GC 2019 and much is at stake. Perhaps a bit more grace on all sides is in order to allow both sides to vent a little and be human in these last few months of a debate that's been going since 1972 and is about to achieve some true progress for all sides of the issue. 2) The "anger" Rob expressed, as he stated, stems from the Council of Bishop's (COB) recommending the One Church plan, which he argues is anything but "one" or "uniting" when that plan calls to allow each church, each clergyperson, and each AC's Board of Ordained Ministry to decide for themselves how they will handle the issue of homosexual marriage and ordination and then calls everyone to attempt to live in unity with such divisions. 3) He says he's tired of fighting and wishes for peace, and yet the COB is recommending a plan that promises war, heartbreak, and disunity. 4) He advocates for amicable separation, as he's done for years, so that the UMC can have a "Paul-Barnabas" moment and part ways peacefully. 5) I've heard others accuse those of like-mind with Rob as being haters, bigots, and inauthentic in faith with their Christian identity and character called into serious question -- simply because they think and pray differently over the matters of human sexuality and biblical faithfulness. Many on both sides are sadly casting Satan out of each other, and it is certainly not a good thing or a good witness for UMC folk to be doing that. Perhaps it is time to separate, since unity, patience, mutual support, and "speaking the truth in love" as Paul beautifully writes in Ephesians 4 are simply no longer possible, as Rob's speech and your open letter seem to indicate. May the peace of Christ be with you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Paul and Barnabas didn't split the church - they simply decided to minister in their own ways (much more similar to the Onc Church model, it seems). Let's just not use that as a reason why splitting the UMC is a good idea.

      Delete
  15. I find a certain amount of truth in your critique of Rob Renfroe. But while you are critiquing, I would like to also hear what you think about the progressives that for years have disrupted the business of the church with their demonstrations because General Conference has not come up with the "correct" answer--going so far as to breaking a communion chalice without any repercussions and being allowed to drape an alter in black to mark their disdain of General Conference?

    ReplyDelete
  16. There is an elephant in the room and you are choosing to ignore it. Lay your cards on the table: does the Bible accept homosexuality or does it not.

    ReplyDelete
  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Again, please cite a source and give evidence that substantiates the claim that Rob is "raising money to ply our African brothers and sisters... with favors." Simply saying you "now understand this to be fact" is an assertion, not evidence. Your assumptions about Rob's motives are gossipy and border on the slanderous. Africans are happy to work with US orthodox, evangelicals like Rob because they share core convictions with them, not because someone has "plied them with favors" (how insulting to our African brothers and sisters to even suggest such a thing). You need to talk to more African delegates about Rob, and to Rob personally, before accusing him of "plying" them for favors. Again, you've cited no source and provided no evidence to support your sinister assertion.

      Delete
    2. Rev Howell, to say you "now understand this to be a fact," without giving your sources (and why wouldn't you give your sources?), does not change this from a rumor to a fact. It is craven behavior to accuse somebody of something this serious, and in a public forum no less, without providing a way to verify it.

      Delete
  18. Extraordinarily well written. Thank you for your cogent words here in your letter to our brother, Rob.

    I would agree with RicMac regarding the legendary story about LBJ ... while it rings true or close to true, it's still a legend. Nevertheless,

    ReplyDelete
  19. As a youngster I remember when my parents told me, with relief, that finally our Methodist Church has dropped the ban on remarrying divorcees by our pastors. The Catholics and Southern Baptists maintained the ban. After all, it was Jesus who taught that remarried divorcees are living in adultery, unless unfaithfulness caused the divorce. Well, why did we remove the ban? Because many remarried divorcees were observed living lives devoted to Christ and His Church. Now there are lay leaders, pastors and District Superintendents. We had decided there in the 1950s that we would leave judgement up to God’s discretion. We clarified that we see the Church as a hospital for sinners; not a home for saints. So, we are not a Puritan church. We live with remarried divorcees living in adultery, because we see God using them very effectively in service to Christ and His Church. We did not lose great numbers of members over this decision to live with such folk. This can be rejected as allowing the culture to co-op the Church. What prevails is accepting those living devoted to Christ. Now, we see folk living in devotion to Christ and His Church while living in same-sex marriages. Precedence was established for allowing witness to prevail over Scriptural admonitions. The Scriptural admonitions concerning remarrying divorcees, and Paul’s admonition concerning the practice of homosexuality are equivalent admonitions. Such precedence and equivalence bear determinate weight in both law and logic. That calls for equivalent treatment for equivalent violations of Scriptural admonitions. But since our Church family tradition has been, just since the 1950s, to leave the judgement of remarried divorces up to God’s discretion. At the same time, our Church family tradition has been to ban same-sex marriages. That reminds me of Hank Williams, Jr. singing “Why do I drink? Why do I blow smoke? It’s my Family Tradition,” since Hank, Sr. Had been famous for heavy drinking. I can attest to that as Hank, Sr. used to live in the same block in Bossier City while he was singing on the Louisiana Hayride over the river in Shreveport. Yes, now it is Our Church Family Tradition to continue to ban SSM, even though it goes against the precedence and equivalence of the two kinds of marriage. There is no New Testament Scripture approving either one of those kinds of marriage. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. At least it should be.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe God made homosexuality a sin because He could foresee the harm it would do to His creation. What is society not being told about the "LGBT" lifestyle? I'll post an incomplete list:

      Diseases:
      •Homosexual men are 60x more likely to have HIV than straight men.
      •In 2010, homosexuals were 200x more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than everyone else.
      •Homosexual men, who are about 1.65% of the U.S. population, accounted for 63% of syphilis cases.
      •Homosexual men are 15 times more likely to have Hepatitis B than everyone else.

      Behavior:
      •43% of homosexual men have over 500 partners.
      •79% of homosexual men say over half of their sex partners are strangers.
      •75% of straight men are faithful, compared to just 4.5% of homosexual men.
      •Lesbians are twice as likely as straight women to be stalked or physically abused by their partners.

      Addictions, illness, and disorders:
      •Homosexual men are more likely than straight people to have anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and to commit suicide.
      •Homosexual men are 10x more likely to use heroin than straight men.
      •Homosexual men are 12x more likely to use amphetamines than straight men.
      •Lesbians are twice as likely as straight women to have eating disorders.

      Delete
  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  22. This really boils down to nothing but an economic fight: the "progressives" in the UMC have no genuine love for the conservatives and they don't really want to be associated with them. (Sorry to say that, but it's true.) However, without the One Church Plan, to get their way they would be the ones who would have to leave the UMC and start their own denomination - and they would have to do so without taking any of the real estate or endowments currently owned by the UMC with them. If the UMC were to split amicably and divvy up the resources of the UMC between the progressives and the conservatives, then the progressives would not benefit from the more substantial giving made by the conservative parishioners in the future - which would mean the ultimate demise for the new progressive denomination. Therefore, they want to be able to decide for themselves the issues that are dividing the UMC while still siphoning off of the UMC trough. They can’t do this with votes at a general conference, so they are trying to do an end run around the whole process by appealing to the bishops. Essentially, the progressives not only want to have their cake and eat it too - they also want to eat the cake of the conservatives. That is the essence of the One Church Plan.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Wow! Is this what happens when the Progressive left is called out and held to account. Take the log out James.

    ReplyDelete
  24. This entire banter is grievous not only to me, but I believe could well be grieving the heart of God. Take the mandate to "offer them (meaning all people) Christ and may they, not you nor I, work out their own salvation. OFFER CHRIST and leave the rest to God.

    ReplyDelete
  25. "Let me look upon the failings of my neighbor as if they were my own; that I may be grieved for them, that I may never reveal them but when charity requires, and then with tenderness and compassion. Let thy love to me, O blessed Savior, be the pattern of my love to him"--John Wesley, from the Monday Morning prayer in "A Collection of Forms of Prayer for Every Day in the Week"

    ReplyDelete
  26. That was an impressively clever article.

    ReplyDelete
  27. http://robrenfroe.goodnewsmag.org/a-response-to-james-c-howell/

    ReplyDelete
  28. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Much could be said about the tone and underlying disdain of your writing. Perhaps this was to disguise that you would rather not address a salient point of Mr. Renfroe's writing; that there is much evidence that the so called One Church Plan is untenable. Others have tried the same essential approach, to disastrous results. Yes, our Presbyterian, Episcopal and Lutheran brethren are still functioning. A Presbyterian USA pastor told me a few day ago, we'd rather focus on immigration. He said. "We've moved on." Perhaps. But at what cost? If losing members.... or rather driving them away is the desired effect, it appears we're on track. As a Methodist Pastor, I've sat with several families over the last weeks who rather than stay within a body they believe is on the cusp of adopting a non-biblical stance to "be all things to all people" have decided to walk away and worship in other denominations. This begs the question; should any of us be receptive of a plan that promotes what one member recently said is in effect, "a don't ask, don't tell" policy for the church. What I hear Rob Renfroe saying is that any such stance or policy is untenable by biblical standards. In this case, rumor and innuendo are insufficient to call out Rev. Renfroe for the fruit of his wisdom.

    ReplyDelete