No Justice, No Unity

Recently, those of us who are United Methodists were introduced to a new national organization called the “Uniting Methodist Movement” (UMM).  The offspring of a number of  self-identified “centrist” Methodist leaders, the UMM represents an attempt to carve out a middle space in our denomination’s ongoing fight around LGBTQ inclusion; space that allows individual clergy, churches, and annual conferences to follow their own consciences as it pertains to the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church.

On the surface, this would appear to be a healthy middle ground in the midst of a highly polarized denominational debate.  And who could argue with a position that allows clergy to follow their consciences?  It crafts a via media in which our beloved United Methodist Church stays unified, but still makes progress on the current regressive language of our church law (the aptly-named Book of Discipline).

A year ago, I might have signed onto such a position with some enthusiasm. (It would certainly make my own life easier!)  Today, however, I find myself in a different place, acutely aware that such a compromise comes at the expense of the full inclusion of my LGBTQ sisters and brothers.  It includes them a little (a step in the right direction), but still willingly accepts their exclusion in other corners of our denominational life. 

As a foundational concept, the UMM position appeals to John Wesley’s commitment to creating a theologically “big tent,” in which differing theological positions can exist in dialogue.  While this idea is certainly a gift from John Wesley, encouraging dialogue and inclusion, it feels to me as though the concept is being misused in this context.  Wesley’s passionate abolitionism, for example, would never have tolerated reading Scripture to justify slavery (though many in his day did exactly that).

More importantly, we are not the church of John Wesley; we are the church of Jesus Christ.  We follow a savior who -- without exception -- placed himself among the marginalized and persecuted, and stood against the institutional status quo that perpetuated injustice.  Jesus was not moderate or centrist.  The Principalities and Powers don’t bother crucifying moderates and centrists.

Please understand that I have the deepest respect for the leaders of the UMM, many of whom I know well and love.  But I also note that nowhere among their ranks is there anyone who identifies as LGBTQ, which lends the unfortunate appearance that a lot of straight people (also largely white and male), are crafting a policy on LGBTQ inclusion.  That’s a problem.

If a group of male leaders drafted a position on the inclusion of women in the life of the church, we would be appropriately cynical; likewise, if a group of white people drafted a position paper on the inclusion of people of color.  Read the statements from the UMM and try substituting “women” or “people of color” where it speaks of sexual orientation, and ask yourself if their compromise would be acceptable.  It wouldn’t.

And this sacrifice of justice for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters is made on the altar of denominational unity.  Now I’m all for unity; there are a host of important ministries made possible by the size and scope of our denomination.  But I’m really not sure that unity should be our highest priority.  We can work together without being a single denomination.  When unity comes at the price of justice, the price is too high. 

I read an article today entitled “Don’t Settle for the Middle.”  At this moment in my own spiritual journey, I’m also not inclined to “settle for the middle.”  I’d like us to work for getting it all.  What would it look like to fully embrace God’s call for justice, to fully embrace Christ’s vision of the Kingdom of God, and then let the chips fall where they may?  Our denomination may end up with a centrist position, but I don’t need to facilitate that.  I’m going to be where I think Jesus would be.

Our denomination has split before, and it may split again.  We split over slavery in 1844 and reunited in 1939.  We may split over homosexuality, and we’ll reunite in 20 or 30 years when our children (who don’t understand why we were fighting over this) are in charge.  In the meantime, the call of the Kingdom of God is to work towards justice.

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Presence

This afternoon, I found myself tromping through a small wood with my children in Holland Park in London, where we're having a little vacation time.  There’s more to do in London, of course, than one could ever do.  As Samuel Johnson aptly noted, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."  However, what always strikes me when we go on vacation is that for my children, the primary activity of interest has nothing to do with all of the amazing things they can see in a new place; it is simply the ability to spend time with their parents.  Oh, don't get me wrong, they love many of the activities in London; but they would be just as happy, I think, simply going to the local park, or staying in the flat and playing cards.

It makes me remember what a powerful gift it is to give someone -- particularly a child – your focused time; and, under normal circumstances, how little -- in my own life -- that must actually happen.  I am blessed with a job that provides me with some flexibility, and I generally work from home a day or two a week; and, of course, my children are with me at church on Sunday, getting to watch me engage in one of my significant job responsibilities.  So in my mind, I am "around" my children a lot.  But for them, that's clearly a very different animal than the kind of focused time that happens on vacation. 

In church life, we talk regularly about a "ministry of presence."  In a culture that places an enormous value on "doing," it is very hard to appreciate the importance of simply "being" with someone.  To talk about a ministry of presence is to recognize that simply being physically present with a person is a gift.  In the context of church life, this is generally used to speak of being present with a person in some moment of crisis: an illness, a loss, a death.  In these settings, our instinctual response is to want to “do” something that will make the situation better -- to ease someone's pain, to offer someone a word of consolation.  And the reality, of course, is that often nothing we can say or do will make the situation better; but simply being with a person -- in the same space, attentive and caring -- can make all the difference in the world.

But the same is true in non-crisis situations: being truly present with a person validates and affirms them in ways that are profoundly important, and can be far more significant than anything we can do to show our love.  While I am a terrible model for this in general -- scurrying from one place to another throughout the day -- I am pretty intentional about trying to be better with my kids.  We place a high priority on being present (or at least ensuring that one of the parents are present) for all the school events and games.  I make sure that I'm always reading something with each child (even if it's reading along on one of their assigned school books with them); we generally have a Netflix show that we're watching together; and we all listen to a lot of the same music (which is -- mercifully -- fairly easy with my children right now).

These disciplines make me appreciate how simply being present makes a difference in someone's life.  They remind me that the mystery of the incarnation is about how God demonstrates God's own love for us by being present in the person of Jesus.  They invite me to extend that same ministry more broadly to the people around me.  They also make me appreciate vacation. 

 Joshua and I had a boys' day last week that he later described as "total awesomeness" -- major Dad win! 

Joshua and I had a boys' day last week that he later described as "total awesomeness" -- major Dad win! 

 The kids playing chess in Holland Park. 

The kids playing chess in Holland Park. 

Praying a Way Forward

Last May, I had the great privilege – and heartbreak – of serving as a delegate to the United Methodist Church’s General Conference.  General Conference is the quadrennial event at which United Methodists from all over the world gather to set the rules for the church.  As has been the case for the past half a century, we engaged in our usual mindless bloodbath on the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of our church.  What was not usual, was that – because it felt to many of us as though there was no solution but schism – the Bishops created a task force charged with drawing up a proposal to bring an end to this debate.

This group, called the “Commission on a Way Forward” – made up of people from a broad diversity of theological backgrounds and on all sides of this issue – has been actively meeting to discern how we might resolve this seemingly intransigent struggle for our denomination.  During the time they are meeting, every Annual Conference (the area supervised by a Bishop) throughout the church has been asked to take a week to pray for the Commission’s work.  This coming week, July 23-29, it is the responsibility of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference (News and Views - Praying Our Way Forward).

The process of praying for someone or something (a group of people, an event, etc.) is traditionally called “intercessory prayer.” As a theological idea, it presents some challenges: If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, is God going to be influenced by my petitions?  Should God be influenced by my petitions?  Is God subject to nagging?  Doesn’t this whole process risk turning God into some sort of giant Santa Claus in the sky?  These are important and valid questions.

For centuries, however, our tradition has continued to affirm the importance of this practice, and it does so, for several reasons:

1.     On an obvious level, prayer for someone or something else changes me.  When I hold something or someone in prayer, my attitude towards that thing, event, or person changes.  I become less angry, less judgmental, less attached to my desire for a particular outcome.  The process of praying allows me to be a more constructive participant in the situation for which I pray. 

2.     While my prayer does not change God’s mind, my prayer may open up places for God to move that were not there before.  Stay with me on this for a minute...  While God may be able to do anything God wants, God chooses to be self-limiting.  God does not force God’s own agenda on us.  When we invite God to come in and transform our lives, we open up space for God to move that was not there before – space that we had blocked off.  Similarly, when we hold another person or situation in prayer, we open up new space for God to move and transform.  We create new opportunities for God’s resurrection power to bring about new life.

3.     The process of holding someone or something in prayer is not about “persuading” God of something, but is a tool - and, most importantly, an invitation - for us to align ourselves with the Divine will.  It is about acknowledging that God is God, and that God’s will is what needs to be done in every situation, and that I want to be part of that process with God.

Our wonderful United Methodist denomination is at an impasse.  There are those of us who are not willing to obey church law that excludes our LGBTQ brothers and sisters from full participation in the life of the church (specifically regarding marriage and ordination).  There are others who are absolutely convinced that current church law is correct in its condemnation of homosexuality.  I don’t know how we move forward together given that deadlock.

But I also believe that God opens up ways forward where we cannot see any ways.  I believe that the vistas of possibility in God’s eyes are beyond our imagining.  And I believe that the process of intercessory prayer helps to open up those vistas to our eyes.

I am an activist by nature, and I have a certain cynicism when I am asked to pray for something and not do anything (I am most comfortable when those two are yoked).  But at this point, there is no work left to do.  The Commission has all of the information it will have – gathered and developed over fifty years – and we can’t add to that material.  If I thought there was anything I could actively do (or say, or write) that would influence them, I would. But at this point, prayer is the work.  So I want to invite (ask? plead?) you all to take time this week to hold the Commission on a Way Forward in your prayers.  If you want specific words, there is a beautiful prayer in the link above. 

I trust – and, more importantly, I pray – that the Holy Spirit can move and open up a way forward currently unseen by our eyes. 

On Aikido, Power, and Humility

In the Spring of 1925, swordsman and martial arts expert, Morihei Ueshiba had a vision.  For some prior period, he had been training hard and engaging in a rigorous routine of spiritual cleansing (misogi) in the mountains near his home.  One day, the ground beneath him began to vibrate, he was bathed in streaming light from above, and surrounded by a golden mist.  He later said of his experience that, "I saw that I am the universe. All at once I understood the nature of creation; the way of a warrior is to manifest divine love, a spirit that embraces and nurtures all things. I saw the entire universe as my abode, and the sun, moon, and stars as my intimate friends. Tears of gratitude streamed down my face.”

“The way of a warrior is to manifest divine love.”  What a fascinating idea, and one at the heart of the martial art of aikido that Ueshiba founded and which I have practiced for many years.  It is a defensive art in which one makes use of an aggressor’s balance and momentum to throw, pin, or immobilize them.  The name itself means “the way of harmonizing energy.”  

I happened upon this practice – and my dojo -- quite by accident, walking to the Metro one sunny morning 20 years ago.  Intrigued by a beautiful martial arts dojo on my quiet Takoma street, I wandered in and immediately felt as though I had come home.  I was captivated by the beauty of the movement and the idea of actively engaging an act of violence in a way that kept both the attacker and attacked from being (seriously) injured; a process that involves learning how to keep myself centered and balanced in the midst of confrontation.

These are lessons that, obviously, apply to more than physical combat, and ones that I have found to be a power gift in many (all?) areas of my life – particularly church work!  I sometimes get asked how I stay calm in the midst of a conflictual church meeting, and my response is I spend so much time learning how to be calm when someone is swinging a fist (or a sword) at my head, that keeping calm in the midst of a verbal attack seems pretty easy.

Last week, I had the opportunity to join in my dojo’s annual summer camp, in which over a hundred students from all over the world join together for a week of intense practice.  Our senior instructor, Mitsugi Saotome, is a world-renowned aikidoist, and was a disciple of the art’s founder.  As he reminisced last week about his time with Morihei Ueshiba, he spoke of meeting Osensei (“Great Teacher”) for the first time.  He said, “His humility stole my soul.” 

One of the lessons of aikido (and Christianity!) is that humility is not a sign of weakness. Truly powerful people do not need to demonstrate how powerful they are; their power manifests itself in a multitude of unspoken ways.  Ironically, it is generally those who are weakest (or feel themselves to be weak) who engage in demonstrations of their own power.   And acts of violence always come from a place – metaphorically and physically – of imbalance.

I am so grateful for my dojo community (my “other church”) and this wonderful discipline that has shaped me in such profound ways over the years, and taught me more about my faith.  And I get to play with swords!

 

On Churches and Change

A little over 10 years ago, I was working for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, and preaching at a different church every week.  I realized that I wanted my kids to have a regular church family to grow up in, just like I had at Foundry UMC, so I asked Bishop Schol if he could appoint me to a church.  It’s hard to believe that it was ten years ago this week that I preached my first sermon at Metropolitan Memorial UMC, and my family was embraced by this wonderful church family.

As I've reflected on this anniversary over the past few weeks, what strikes me most powerfully is the tremendous amount of change we have been through as a parish.  We started a new American University ministry, we became a reconciling congregation, we were yoked and merged with St. Luke’s UMC, we were yoked and merged with Wesley UMC, we reorganized our program and administrative structures (several times!), we initiated a wide variety of learning programs including Wednesday night Food for Thought and Youth for the DC Cause, we re-birthed Vacation Bible School, we initiated a variety of nurturing ministries like Blue Zones and Trust Circles, we incorporated a second shelter into our homelessness ministries, we began an expansive new hunger ministry in the Campus Kitchen DC program, we built partnerships with churches in Wards 7 and 8 that continue to shape our life.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that change is the one constant in life, opining that "you can't step in the same river twice."  And as true as that is, churches -- largely -- seem uniquely resistant to change.  From the Children of Israel wandering in the desert and longing for the “good life” when they were slaves in Egypt, we have a deep and abiding tendency to romanticize our past (even when it wasn’t really that good!).

On one level, that’s easy to understand.  The Church is an institution that is steeped in tradition, and we -- appropriately – value those traditions as a great gift.  But, living in a world that changes at an ever-increasing rate, we also need to be in a constant process of discerning how those traditions engage our changing culture and world.  As Darwin observed, an ability to adapt is the key to a species -- or an institution -- surviving.

For the church, adaptation begins with the process of planning.  It is easy for any organization to fall into the rut of doing what it has always done.  It is profoundly easy for a church that has had the same mission for two thousand years to simply do the same thing this year as last year – or fifty years ago.  Over the past ten years, many of the positive changes at Metropolitan have grown out of times when we stepped back to do some intentional discerning about where we felt the Holy Spirit leading us.  We need to be in an ongoing process of deciding what are our goals for this year? For next year? Where are we being led at this point in our life as a community?

That planning process, of course, does not mean that all of those plans will come to successful fruition.  All good planning involves taking some risks, and genuine risks mean that we may fail.   Churches often feel to me significantly risk adverse, as though one more failure might break them.  My general sense, however, is that not taking risks is what usually breaks churches.  We have failed a lot at Metropolitan over the past ten years, and my overall belief is that if we are not failing regularly, we are not doing enough new things.

As important as planning and risk-taking have been over the past ten years, it also occurs to me that many of the places where our church has grown have been complete gifts of the Holy Spirit – opportunities that interrupted our well-thought out plans and took us in an entirely unexpected direction.  One might ask, then, what is the purpose of planning?  There is something compelling about the process of discerning specific goals, combined with an openness to embrace unexpected opportunities, that allows churches to respond to the movement of the Spirit in their midst and engage in the process of change in life-giving ways.

I am so deeply grateful for the past ten years at Metropolitan.  I am grateful for the ways that you have embraced me and my family.  And I am grateful for the ways in which the Holy Spirit is calling us into an unknown, but promising, future.

 

Remembering Ronnie, Sensei

Sitting on my back porch in the midst of a humid thunderstorm earlier this week, I was reminded of a June afternoon several years ago during my first trip to Japan, when I sat in a small teashop in Nara, Japan, watching a similar storm pass by, leaving the dense humidity unabated.  I found myself there for the quadrennial World Shakuhachi Festival, held in Kyoto in 2012, at the urging of my shakuhachi teacher, Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin. 

In case you’re not familiar, the shakuhachi is an end-blown Japanese flute that was used by a sect of Zen Buddhist monks as a meditation tool, as well as being used in a variety of Japanese classical and folk music.  The flute itself is structurally quite simple, carved from a straight piece of bamboo.  The shakuhachi has five holes and is tuned to a minor pentatonic scale; and while it can play a wide variety of music (you can also easily play western music by using fingering combinations that involve partially covered holes), its "original music" (honkyoku, in Japanese) is a repertoire meant to facilitate meditative practice (sui zen, or "blowing zen").  It has a breathy, earthy timbre, which lends it a somewhat haunting quality. 

Having studied the shakuhachi for a number of years – and the Japanese martial art of aikido for about fifteen years at that point – I was eager to experience Japan firsthand, so I joined Ronnie and number of his other shakuhachi students for this once-in-a-lifetime event. It was a wondrous two weeks filled with music, aikido practice, personal reflection, and exploration.  From the first morning, I developed my own regimen of going to the local Buddhist temple to join the monks and lay people for the early morning prayer service (since they were praying in Japanese, it was easy to have my own prayer time, and still be part of a praying community), followed by an early morning aikido class.    

Ronnie, having studied in Japan for a number of years, was fluent in the language, and took us to many of the important cultural sites in central Japan.  The ancient capitols of Japan – Kamakura, Nara, and – of course – Kyoto itself, were filled with breathtaking temples and rich history.  Ronnie brought to the trip a wonderful balance of deep affection for the land – with a simultaneous awareness of its foibles – that allowed us as his students to engage with awe but not to romanticize it.  At that point, I had been studying with Ronnie for over a decade, and had developed a deep appreciation for his brilliant musicianship.

I have also come to truly love the instrument itself, which is not only a musical outlet for me, but has also, through the years, become an important part of my spiritual life.  The honkyoku repertoire is composed in a way that is intended to both lengthen the breath and calm the spirit.  I have found that it reliably calms my spirit – and, perhaps more importantly, it also acts as an insightful diagnostic tool.  Listening to the sound of my own breath through the flute is often a very helpful way of understanding "the state of my soul" (to use John Wesley's phrase).  This music helps me understand my present mental/spiritual state, and the intentionality of breathing helps move me to a different, more centered place.  

Ronnie, my friend and teacher in this wonderful discipline, died two weeks ago of a heart attack.  Though a resident of New York, Ronnie spent most of his career traveling up and down the eastern seaboard, teaching students in different cities.  In fact, he was supposed to have spent this past weekend staying at my house and teaching lessons to our DC dojo in my living room.  As I sat on the porch this week, watching this lovely evocative -- Japanese-like -- rain, I was acutely aware of his absence, and grateful for the many ways that he impacted my life. 

As have many others over the past two weeks, I have played Banshiki several times for Ronnie -- a Buddhist piece composed to help the spirit of the dead transition smoothly from one life to the next.  That is my prayer for Ronnie.  He was a consummate musician, a generous spirit, a wonderful sensei, and a good friend.   I will miss him dearly.

Waiting for a New Day

One of the great privileges of my career was the opportunity to chair our Annual Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry.  Last year, our Board went through a very rich discernment process that led us to approve T.C. Morrow for commissioning as a deacon in our church.  T.C. is an extraordinarily gifted candidate for ministry with an acute theological mind, enormous emotional intelligence, and a passion for justice.  She is an ideal candidate for ministry, and exactly the type of person that the church should be encouraging into ministry. 

T.C. was a slam dunk as a candidate, save for one issue: she is married to another woman.  But the Board discerned enough space within our Discipline to approve her for commissioning, providing leadership, not only for our Annual Conference, but our whole denomination.  It was a profound disappointment to me last year when the Executive Session of Annual Conference failed to affirm the Board’s recommendation and commission T.C.

I rotated off the Board last year, and was delighted when the new Board affirmed the old Board’s affirmation of T.C.’s gifts and graces for ministry, and I have been anticipating seeing T.C. come before this year’s Annual Conference again to be commissioned.  So, again, it was with deep sorrow that I discovered last week that our Board of Ordained Ministry – concerned about recent Judicial Council rulings – reversed itself and chose not to bring T.C.’s name forward. 

This, of course, is not a new struggle.  Over 30 years ago, when I was in Seminary, I was part of a field education group that included an older man, who was studying for ministry as a second career.  I’ll call him Fred.  I spent two years in this group with him and our fellow students as we would weekly discuss the joys and challenges of our field education placements and the struggles of living into our new pastoral rolls.  Throughout the year, Fred was an incredible gift to all of us in helping us get clarity on our call to the ministry and understand better the things that we do well, and those we don’t.  He brought the gift of much greater experience, as well as an astute theological mind and pastoral sensitivity.  I came to see him as the best potential pastor in the group.

So it was a jolt when, towards the end of our final year, Fred shared that he had decided to not pursue ordination.  He told us that he was gay, with a partner of over 20 years, and that he didn’t see any possibility of a career in ministry that didn’t involve denying who he was, which he was not willing to do.  It was heartbreaking to see an incredible gifted pastor decide that he couldn’t live with integrity in our denomination, and I had a very visceral sense that something was wrong.

I have always had a very high view of the authority of Scripture, and this event caused me to dig in deeper to understand the Biblical witness on homosexuality.  This process of reconciling my experience of Fred with the Biblical witness was a profoundly Wesleyan one.  Like all good Anglicans of his day, John Wesley believed that our understandings of God came primarily through Scripture, which was interpreted through the insights of great thinkers throughout the church’s history (tradition), and integrated through reason, which gives us the tools to examine and organize these insights.  But Wesley realized that part of what reason integrated was our own experience of God and how God’s Spirit is at work.  My experience with Fred was an invitation to integrate my experience of a gifted, gay pastor with my reading of the Scriptural witness on homosexuality.

The results of that process I have outlinedin a variety of sermons and on a previous blog post.  All of which have led me to work hard to change our denomination’s position on this issue throughout my career. Having had the privilege of Chairing the Board, I have a deep appreciation for their hard work, and know how hard it is to develop consensus around a sensitive issue like this; and I have deep respect for the integrity that its members bring to this process.  However, I am also deeply saddened by their decision and wish that our Annual Conference would continue to help lead our denomination into the new day that is dawning all around us. 

Against all odds T.C. is committed to continuing her journey to ordination.  Her faithfulness, and downright tenacity, to our denomination and to her call is humbling.  It is an embarrassment to me that a denomination that has helped lead so many fights for equality has been bypassed on this issue by the rest of our society.  For a multitude of people like T.C. and Fred who have a divine call on their lives, for the countless young people who are stigmatized and marginalized by their church families, for a society that so desperately needs a voice from the church affirming love, we must do better.

What this Pastor Learned from S-Town

In my endless quest to be current and relevant (a failed quest, my children will tell you), I recently listened to a fascinating podcast called S-Town, one of the most downloaded podcasts of the year.  The story begins when the show’s producer -- Brian Reed -- is contacted by a resident of the small town of Woodstock, Alabama.  This resident, John B. McLemore, claims that there is a murder cover-up going on in the town.  After much telephoning and emailing, Mr. Reed eventually travels down to Woodstock to investigate.

We find out fairly early in the series, that there was no murder or cover-up, but the story morphs into a process of discovering who John B. McLemore is, along with the other characters that inhabit the town of Woodstock.  And I will acknowledge – to my deep embarrassment – that, as a northerner, listening to the voices, accents, and cadences of the people on the show, it was all too easy to immediately pigeonhole them.  So, too, many of the settings – from the K3 Lumber Company (called KKK Lumber by John B. McLemore, which doesn’t seem to bother the owner) to the local tattoo parlor – fell immediately into my stereotypes of rural southern culture.

But as this southern, gothic tale unfolds, an interesting thing begins to happen.  Brian Reed invites us into his conversations with John B. McLemore and his fellow Woodstock denizens, and they evolve into deeply unique and interesting people.  McLemore himself begins by defying the stereotypes, as a brilliant, polymath, “antiquarian horologist” (he repairs antique clocks), who self-identifies both as a rabid environmentalist and queer.  Likewise, the other characters in the story begin as stereotypes and quickly become – unexpectedly – full-blown individuals; far more complex and nuanced than they initially seemed to have been.

Encountering John B. McLemore was a wonderful reminder to me of my – deeply unattractive -- tendency to pigeonhole those who I perceive as different.  I would probably feel more guilty about this if I didn’t have a sense that this seems to be a nearly universal human characteristic.  In his seminal work on the nature of knowledge and consciousness, The Phenomenology of Spirit, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel tells a compelling story that we call the “master/slave dialectic.”  In this story, Hegel argues that one of the primary ways in which we develop identity – both as individuals and as groups – is by finding characteristics that differentiate ourselves from “the other” – those not like us.

In this process of “othering,” we generally identify characteristics in ourselves that are attractive and characteristics in others that are repellant.  There is, also, an unfortunate power dynamic in this process in which an element of the differentiation also involves seeking to place one group (us) in a position of superior power to the other group (them).  So we seek to define (and value) ourselves, by degrading the value of the “other.”

We see a lot of “othering” going on in our national life today.  Under our current administration, the “other” has been immigrant, refugees, and Muslims.  This latest chapter of “othering” has built on a long tradition of makingpeople of color the “other.”  In our United Methodist denomination for decades, the “other” has been our LGBTQ+ neighbors.  But whoever, the “other” is, it is our responsibility to look beyond that “otherness” and to find the places where we are not different, but the same.  It is to acknowledge that our similarities always vastly outweigh our differences, and that we are all sacred children of God.

The first step in countering this destructive tendency is to be aware of it.  It is to acknowledge our own cultural biases.  It is to acknowledge (for those of us who are white and heterosexual in this country) that we live in a bubble of privilege.  To claim that we live in a “color blind” society, is to ignore who we are and how we have always engaged “the other.” It is our responsibility to have the ruthless honesty to see ourselves for who we are, and thus provide the possibility for moving beyond that.

A next step is to actively seek to engage, and build relationships with those whom our society “others.”  This process requires great intentionality.  It requires us leaving our comfort of our bubble (whatever that bubble looks like), and really building relationships with those who come from different places, who may look different, and speak differently, and may believe different things.  This is what made S-Town such a gift.

A recent Atlantic magazine article on S-Town was entitled, “A Monument to Empathy.”  In that article, the author noted that “again and again, characters initially presented in caricature-like fashion by McLemore or another source get a chance to speak for themselves, and the liberal ideal of universal empathy and understanding gets applied on a granular scale.”  The process of learning empathy is the process of building a world that works for all its people, and is ultimately the process of learning to be human.

Biblical Witness on Homosexuality

I was so grateful for the energetic conversation in our church this past Sunday, as we reflected together on last week’s United Methodist Judicial Council, and how our congregation can help our denomination become more open.  In that conversation, many of you asked for some guidance on how to help understand the Scriptural witness on homosexuality and how to speak with those who believe differently.  In the church, the discipline of understanding how we interpret Scripture is called “hermeneutics.”  And it is essential to understand that we are ALWAYS interpreting Scripture; because Scripture contains so many internal contradictions(and that is to be expected of a text written over the course of 1000 years, by many different authors), we must bring some interpretive tools to the process of understanding it.

Our first and foremost tool for interpreting Scripture is Jesus.  It is through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we must read all of Scripture.  The “Word made flesh” must interpret the “word of Scripture.”  If the surface meaning of anything in Scripture contradicts what Jesus has shown us about God, we must find some different way of understanding the passage of Scripture.

When it comes to understanding the specific Biblical witness on homosexuality, here are some important points to bear in mind:

·       “God is love,” and no true expression of love can be contrary to God’s will.

·       The story of Scripture is the story of an ever-expanding understanding of who is part of the community; it is the story of God overcoming our own narrow-mindedness.  Two wonderful examples of this can be seen in the Book of Ruth and the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10.

·       Nowhere does the Bible condemn homosexuality.  “But, wait! (you say) “I thought that there were those seven ‘clobber’ passages that condemn homosexuality.” 

            -- The Bible has no understanding of homosexuality as we know it today: a genetic predisposition to be attracted to those of the same gender.

            -- The seven “clobber” passages (those that are frequently invoked to justify marginalizing LGBTQ persons) condemn same sex actions that are violent and exploitative.  And sexual activity that is violent and exploitative – heterosexual or homosexual – should be condemned. 

            -- The Bible has no knowledge, as we do, of long-term, loving, monogamous homosexual relationship.

There are a host of helpful resources on the web that address this issue that are listed below and worth exploring.  In terms of a detailed analysis of the seven clobber passages, I would highly recommend the Appendix B of the first link, “A Letter to Louise.”  Appendix A of that piece is a very nice primer on the discipline of hermeneutics.

Links:

http://godmademegay.blogspot.com/p/letter-to-louise.html

http://www.pnwumc.org/news/biblical-obedience/

Listen to our Reconciling Sermon Podcasts

http://www.reformationproject.org/

 

Sacred Disobedience

SACRED DISOBEDIENCE: How to Fight the Good Fight

One of the long-time leaders of our church died on Easter Sunday, far too young.  She was a tireless advocate for justice, particularly in the area of affordable housing; and as we repeated those well-worn words from 2 Timothy -- "She fought the good fight..." -- I thought of all of the struggles in which she engaged over her lifetime: some won, some lost, some unfinished.

Those words -- "fought the good fight" -- came back to me this weekend as I reflected on the rulings of our United Methodist Judicial Council that came out this past Friday evening; because, clearly, the fight is not over for full inclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters into the life of our church.  It was noteworthy to me that these rulings were issued under the cover of darkness, just as the weekend was beginning.  Were I of a cynical bent, I would speculate that it was done this way to minimize any news coverage, and that the Judicial Council must understand what a public relations nightmare this is for our denomination. 

For those readers who are not United Methodist, the Judicial Council is our denomination's version of the Supreme Court; and our current Council is clearly a court that believes in judicial activism.  (The term "judicial activism" tends to be applied to progressive judges, but can clearly go the other way as well.)  In this case, an activist Judicial Council has -- for very unclear reasons -- given "standing" to one Jurisdiction (a Jurisdiction is a regional grouping of Annual Conferences) in filing a complaint against the internal functioning of another jurisdiction (i.e., the election of Karen Oliveto as Bishop).  In two other rulings, the Council -- again, with a very unclear rationale -- has inserted itself into the internal discernment of the Boards of Ordained Ministry of two Annual Conferences who had made internal decisions about how they engaged candidates for ministry (the Boards of Ordained Ministry oversee the process for women and men who want to be clergy).

As I noted in my last blog post, none of these conflicts will be truly resolved until the Commission on a Way Forward brings its proposals to the special session of General Conference in February of 2019. So the question becomes, how do we fight the good fight between now and then?   

First and foremost, we don’t keep quiet. Since the current language in the Book of Discipline forbids our acting according to our consciences, it is incumbent upon us to continue to challenge the status quo: to engage in "sacred disobedience" in the same way that the civil rights movement engaged in "civil disobedience." For those of us on the progressive side of this debate (and, I would argue, the right side of history), it is our sacred duty to keep this issue before our denomination, in the media, and in the public discourse in an aggressive way. 

In our current situation, "sacred disobedience" will need to happen on several levels. 

1.     On the Jurisdictional level of our church, it will mean that Jurisdictions will need to make sure that they are supporting leaders that challenge the status quo (Bishop Oliveto and Bishop Talbert are good examples).  The Book of Discipline grants the College of Bishops in each Jurisdiction an enormous amount of authority in how it addresses complaints against these prophetic leaders.

2.     Likewise, Annual Conferences -- as the fundamental organizational body of the church -- can express their authority by Boards of Ordained Ministry continuing to discern the Spirit's call on them, as they discern the Spirit's call on the candidates for ministry coming before them.  If they have chosen to not ask questions about the sexual practices of candidates, that is their decision to make. I was privileged to be part of this decision in our own Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. 

3.     Bishops also, within their Annual Conferences, have enormous authority in terms of how they address complaints against clergy who support LGBTQ inclusion in various ways, and how they shepherd the process of Clergy Executive Sessions and partner with the Boards of Ordained Ministry.

4.     On the local church level, clergy and churches must continue to open their doors and ministries to LGBTQ persons, and advocate for changes in the Discipline. One of the tragedies of these Judicial Council rulings is that the only thing most non-church goers know about The United Methodist Church is that we are locked in this decades-old (and increasingly irrelevant – from the point of view of the broader society) battle around homosexuality.  That means that if I were an LGBTQ person looking for a church, I’m probably not go looking at a UM church. So we can combat that by engaging LGBTQ persons and inviting them into the safe space that we have created in our churches.

5.     Finally, as individuals, we must have courage and demonstrate the passion of our convictions.  Here at The Metropolitan Church, that means we proudly wear our rainbow stoles and crosses to Sunday services; we march in the annual Pride parade; we actively engage in outreach to the LGBTQ community; we pledge -- not only as a congregation, but as individuals -- to being Reconciling United Methodists; and, finally, we commit ourselves to publicly engaging others in thoughtful dialogue on the issue. Whether on social media or in the checkout line at the grocery store, we make our voices heard. 

The Judicial Council has ruled; we can do nothing about that.  It is discouraging and heart-breaking for Bishop Oliveto and countless LGBTQ Methodists who are discerning a call to ministry.  But we cannot let the Judicial Council have the last word.  We must continue to push the envelope and to make it as uncomfortable as possible for our church to live in its current tension. 

We can’t ever let up, until God’s justice reigns. 

That is what it means to “fight the good fight.”

 

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