Monday, April 16, 2012

Homosexuality and General Conference

The petitioning, debate, and aftermath of the homosexuality issue at our General Conference every four years is dispiriting, leaving the winners and losers both feeling not exactly bursting with the fruit of the Spirit. I see the petitions that are coming, and I’m wondering if I might offer an alternative, which I actually submitted a few hours late due to a life and death week-long vigil I kept in an intensive care ward with my daughter’s boyfriend (who survives, thanks be to God).

This effort allows for the strongest possible disagreement on the matter (which we have, and which accurately characterizes the truth of where we are as a church). It can’t be wise to pretend we have some strong moral stand on such a personal issue when in fact thoughtful, faithful people disagree – and with intensity.

Some have asked me how we would handle ordination if we agree to disagree, and the answer would be that local boards of ordained ministry could decide – which oddly would work quite well in divergent cultures.

I realize any such effort might fail; but if it fails, many of us still feel the current language (if retained once more) is harsher than necessary (especially the term “condone”), so after my substitute petition I will share an edit to our current language that might be more conciliatory.

So here is my suggestion for the kind of thing I hope we might pass:

¶161 F) Human Sexuality. One of God’s most mysterious, confusing and lovely gifts is sexuality. Therefore, we reject any sexual expression that damages people, or exploits adults or children. This good gift of sexuality is to be exercised responsibly, with integrity, fidelity and holiness, as our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” The Church bears the wonderful burden of not only teaching but exemplifying a faithful stewardship of our bodies and minds in sexual relationships. And yet the Church is not one on the issue of whether God’s intention has been to restrict sexual expression to heterosexuals, or if homosexuality can also be accepted. Faithful, thoughtful people have grappled deeply with the issue without coming to consensus. Many, with biblical backing, and given the cultures in which they live, believe strongly that homosexuality is wrong; there is and will always be a place for those who believe this in the Church. Others, with theological logic and given their understanding of humanity, believe just as strongly homosexuality can and should be blessed; there is and will always be a place for those who believe this in the Church as well. The truth is we disagree on the issue, and about God’s people, all of whom are of sacred worth. We continue to reason and pray together with faith and hope that the Holy Spirit will soon bring reconciliation to our community of faith. In the meantime, God’s welcome, and ours in the Church, is to be extended to all people, which is our most faithful witness.

And then, if we “retain” the current statement, might the following be a way to make the current statement more palatable – and I’d say Christlike, without the demeaning verb “condone”?

Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. Faithful United Methodists who have grappled deeply with this issue disagree with one another, yet all seek a faithful witness. Our best wisdom remains that we have no unarguable, compelling theological rationale to overturn centuries of Christian teaching, and so we do not endorse homosexuality. Yet we pledge to continue to reason and pray together, with faith and hope that the Holy Spirit will soon bring reconciliation to our community of faith. We affirm God’s grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Amendment One in N.C.

     I know I have my opinion, and I know how I will vote on the marriage amendment.  What intrigues me, and frankly worries me, is the way we are talking about it.  No matter how much we admire America’s “wall of separation” between church and state, this issue has an inevitably religious core, and both sides prop up their viewpoint with religious arguments.  But sadly, what I’m hearing makes faith appear to be such a thin thing, easily manipulated to fit any political purpose, more of a blunt weapon than a bright lantern.
     We have a liberal version of faith-talk that makes it appear that Christianity is love and nothing else, and a kind of love that is little more than tolerance of everything except intolerance, a compassion with no clarity.  And then we have a conservative version that makes it appear Christianity is nothing but a righteous veneer plastered on top of a narrow nostalgia, easily hijacked by right wing agendas parading as piety.  Those on the right thunder about “values,” while those on the left speak glibly of “rights” – but Jesus said nothing about values or rights.  Christians think about the “gifts” of God, not my “rights,” which are all about me instead of responsibility.  And Jesus didn’t say “Uphold solid values,” but “Follow me,” as faith is a dynamic, organic thing that moves and acts, whereas “values” get rigid and are more about my biases than living for God.

     Jesus also didn’t say anything definitive about this amendment; and even if he did, should American jurisprudence enforce Jesus’ words?  If so, people who didn’t give everything away to the poor would be imprisoned, and the Pentagon might be ruled unconstitutional.  Because of Jesus’ silence on homosexuality, Christians wind up disagreeing among themselves on the matter; we could be well-described by Lincoln:   “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; each invokes His aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered.”  But that is an in-house problem for us Christians.  What we see now is absurd:  not only are the Christians divided, but we have become a divisive force in the larger society.  Shouldn’t we be a force for good, to foster understanding and humility – to be a blessing instead of a problem to society?
     Former Republican Senator John Danforth warned us, “If we believe our political positions are absolute implementations of God’s will, then our political causes become religious crusades, and reasonable accommodation becomes difficult if not impossible. If we are less confident about our capacity to know and implement God’s will, and if our faith brings modesty about ourselves and our politics, our effectiveness is more likely. I believe that such modesty is, or at least should be, Christianity’s gift to American politics.”
     Does Jesus provide any clues to help us?  I think so.  Jesus most certainly had pretty strong morals, and at the same time we see him befriending all kinds of people; in fact, the hyper-religious people hated him precisely because he befriended people who were different, and whose morals weren’t celebrated.  The one thing Christians must always be engaged in, no matter if they are “right” on this or that issue, is hospitality.  We can disagree, and we can say so openly; but we must be hospitable toward others, and as luck would have it, this is also an historic virtue of American democracy.

     What is the mood, the tone of these arguments? and what might the end game look like?  When Christians bicker among themselves, and when we citizens, Christian or not, rail against one another on homosexuality and marriage, isn’t there a lot of rancor, and hurt, a shock that someone else could be so stupid.  And if my “side” manages to “win” or “lose,” then I will feel – what? – relief? disgust?  Will we congratulate ourselves that we have defeated our foes?  At the end of the Civil War, Lincoln’s poignant dream was “with malice toward none; with charity for all… to bind up the nation’s wounds.”  In the ramp up to and aftermath of this vote, some malice is being inflicted.  I find myself looking for a little hospitality, binding up of some wounds.

     I suspect that if either “side” is of God, we would expect evidence like the Spirit’s fruit:  love, joy peace, patience, kindness, gentleness.  And above all else, if we are going to drag religion (as we must) into this thing, let’s bring a more robust, healthier, and more helpful brand of religion to bear on the discussion, not a yellow sticky stuck on our preferences, but a wise, time-tested conversation partner that can speak, and listen, with modesty, not a divisive force, but a blessing.  Come to think of it, that’s why I will be voting the way I will be voting.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

God, books, gaming and the internet

     I’m afraid I’ve become one of those boors who bemoans the demise of reading.  I have a deep affection for my library, and for the great canon of literature, and as loath as I might be to admit it, a touch of the dilettante.  But all around me, bookstores are closing, it’s harder than ever to scare up a good conversation about a great book, and the electronic revolution has even seized what reading there is, with newfangled gadgets like Kindles and Nooks, semi-books without the tactile delight of paper, with severely limited capacities for flipping forward and back, or lining a shelf so people might come into my home or office and strike up a conversation based on the bookish d├ęcor.

     My children, I tend to lament, have been swept up in this unfortunate turn in history.  When they were young, their noses were constantly in books.  But now their noses point to a screen, screens actually.  The internet, Facebook, tweeting have taken them hostage.  Yes, these do involve the reading of words, but it’s different, and tragic, I tend to complain.

     As a pastor, I am especially gloomy about the way the universe has shifted on its axis.  Christianity is all about a book; God and reading go together; we know God through the Word, the words of God, not snappy, rapid images flitting about.  I wrote a blog about the important book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, expressing my concern that an attenuated attention spans and the vapid inability to be present (as the connected person is disconnected from here, and me trying to talk to such a person!) imperil the very heart of the faith; indeed, if I am always reachable, can I ever be reachable by God?

     My answer has been Not very likely – until I read a book at the behest of a friend.  Cathy Davidson, who’s been involved at Duke with technological change, has written Now You See It: How the Brain Science ofAttention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn, pretty intriguing stuff, not only along the lines of “the train has left the station…” reality, but even suggesting not only that there are now new ways of learning but that brains are actually rewiring to think differently – and that the changes aren’t to be lamented but embraced, and even celebrated.  Academic grading will need to shift toward abilities not to recall but to connect, collaboration, and discernment over whether to trust what one happens to find.  Gamers will have a leg up.  I reported this to my son, interrupting him in the thick of SkyRim, and he uttered a smug “I told you so.”

     So my question isn’t Shall we or How shall we use technology in worship or church life? but rather What does it mean for the knowledge of God, and even faith, if brains are functioning differently than they have in all of human history?  If learning is no longer linear or book-related, but more linked, connected, communal, then how will God be known?  Could it turn out to be that God is actually okay being known in non-bookish ways?  After all, Christianity began and spread among non-literate people; they were bookish but only heard the words read, or saw them depicted in mosaic or stained glass.  Will faith be less about what we know of God and more the patterns by which we seek after God? and will God even evaluate us based on how we poke around after things and work with others than our own privately settled past with God?