Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The People We Are Called to Be



In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
II Samuel 11:1

As Bible verses go, the first verse of the eleventh chapter of Second Samuel, is hardly inspiring. But it is instructive.

To paraphrase a popular TV commercial, “If you’re a king, you go out to battle in the spring. That’s just what you do.” (But that verse also tells us that in this instance the king stayed home and let his soldiers do the fighting for him. Wars have always been designed and declared by those in power, and fought by those who are powerless.)

Spring is also the time, every four years, when United Methodists go out to battle. At General Conference, every four years, representatives come from all over the world to re-write our Book of Discipline and chart the course for the church. This year, on May 10-20, that gathering will be in Portland, Oregon.

This year there will be resolutions on terrorism and refugees and climate change, but most of the energy will be devoted to more internal matters. 

There are proposals aimed at making us into a doctrinal church, stipulating that everyone, particularly pastors and seminary professors, need to believe the same thing—and attaching those beliefs to ancient creeds. Fortunately, I don’t think those ideas will get very far.

There are proposals relating to our exclusionary policies regarding our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Some are aimed at tightening the regulations and increasing the penalties for pastors who officiate at same sex weddings and bishops who tolerate them. Other proposals are aimed at removing the exclusionary language and becoming a more welcoming church. 

Sadly, we now stand alone among mainline Protestant denominations in our exclusionary stance. We have been wrong long enough. This time we need to get it right. (For a look at the history of this conflict, click here.)

Some of those going to Portland are actively considering the possibility that the church may split, into two denominations; one in favor of inclusion and the other against it.

My hope is that we can agree to disagree; that we can remove the offensive exclusionary language from the Discipline, but recognize that we do not all think alike on the issue. One of the great strengths of United Methodism over the years has been our diversity. Since the days of John Wesley, we have agree to “think and let think.” 

When our United Methodist Church in East Greenwich voted to become a Reconciling Church, we adopted a statement affirming the full inclusion of all persons in the life of the church, and we concluded with the affirmation of a core Wesleyan principle: 

“While we recognize that there are differences among us, we believe that we can love alike even though we may not think alike. It is in this spirit that we invite all people to join us in our faith journey.”

Historically, we have not always been that people. But at our best, that statement is a description of who we are and who we are called to be.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I Was Wrong


Confess your wrongs to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed.
James 5:16

I don’t like to be told that I’m wrong.

I always listen. I pay attention. I try to listen closely and I always try to learn something new. And then I reexamine my assumptions.

But I also often push back pretty hard.

Last week I wrote a blog post about my hope for compromise at our United Methodist General Conference this May. I wanted us to find a way to go forward and live with our disagreements around the issue of homosexuality.

In order for us to agree to disagree, I suggested that two things would need to happen:

“First, those of us in favor of inclusion need to give up on changing that grotesquely offensive statement about “homosexual practice” being incompatible with Christian teaching. Maybe we can modify it slightly and maybe not, but we probably cannot eliminate it, and we just need to let it go. 

“And second, those in favor of the continued exclusion of LGBTQ persons need to give up on the penalties for pastors and bishops who celebrate same sex marriages and appoint LGBTQ pastors. Just let it go. We don’t have penalties for any other comparable infractions.”

I didn’t get any comments on the second point. My guess is that there are not very many folks in favor of exclusion who read what I write, and that those who do read it don’t think it is worth commenting.

But I received a lot of criticism on the first point. Some of it was pretty impassioned. The language in the Discipline was wrong and hurtful, they said, and we could not just “let it go.”

I was surprised by the vehemence of the critique. 

After reflecting on it, I thought maybe I ought to clarify what I meant when I said we should let it go. I didn’t mean forever. I meant for now. Eventually, we would get rid of it, but maybe by backing off this year we could find a way forward. 

Then I had an extended conversation with a young gay friend.

We often discuss social justice issues. The friend regularly reads the blog. So I asked about it. 

I explained what I was trying to do and described the push back I had received. My friend was not surprised. I lamented the ways in which the church has fractured over this issue and talked about how much I wanted us to avoid schism.

My friend expressed real appreciation for the ways in which local United Methodist churches had provided a strong spiritual and ethical foundation, but then went on to say that we should not compromise on this issue.

You have to realize, said my friend, that those people made me want to die.

“They made me want to die.”

In evangelical language, I was convicted.

In truth, this was not new to me. I was wrong and I have no excuse. I wanted (and want) so much to “preserve the union,” that I forgot two critical points:

First, there is no moral equivalence on this issue. This cannot be overstated.

The pain of exclusion is not equivalent to the pain of no longer being able to exclude. Our exclusionary policies do real harm to real people. I don’t know how many people have spent years in therapy or perhaps even committed suicide because of the United Methodist position on homosexuality, but I do know that across the Christian church such exclusionary and condemnatory policies have caused unfathomable death and destruction.

And a second point is related to the first. This is not an academic discussion. It is about real people in the real world and it has real life consequences.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Thank God for Bishop Talbert!

The Rev. Val Rosenquist, at left, and retired Bishop Melvin Talbert
co-officiate at the wedding of Jim Wilborne and John Romano,
at First United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C
Reconciling Ministries photo
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Philippians 4:8

On Saturday, April 23, 2016, John Romano and Jim Wilborne were married at the First United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Someday (soon) there will be nothing remarkable about that sentence.

But this is not yet someday, and right now it is quite remarkable. It is part of a long history of events in the life of the Christian Church that the Book of Acts describes as “signs and wonders.” 

It was the first (reported) same sex wedding at a United Methodist Church in North Carolina. And let’s just pause for a minute to think about what has put North Carolina in the national news over the past few weeks, and realize how wonderful it is to hear good news from that corner of the world.

In spite of the prohibition against same sex weddings in United Methodist Churches, there have been many. Most have been in sections of the country which have fostered a more open atmosphere for such celebrations. They have taken place in congregations that have declared themselves to be “Reconciling Churches,” openly affirming the full inclusion of their LGBTQ parishioners. And most have been quiet events for friends and family that took place with little public notice.

First UMC in Charlotte is a Reconciling Church, but they are in North Carolina, in a Conference in which the Presiding Bishop has been clear about his opposition. So this is a special case.

When I think about a recent list of things "worthy of praise," this is near the top of my list. 

Rev. Val Rosenquist, who has been the Senior Pastor since last July said that she believes the exclusionary language in the Book of Discipline to be “institutionalized oppression and discrimination.” Last August, she said, the church had voted for a policy that would allow any member of the church to be married in the church sanctuary, regardless of the Disciplinary prohibitions.

“These folks are our brothers and sisters,” she said of the church’s LBGTQ members. “It’s just a matter of obeying our covenant with one another throughout the church, that we are to minister to all and to treat all the same. I’m just following what I was ordained to do, what I was baptized to do.”

Rev. Rosenquist officiated at the wedding with Bishop Melvin Talbert, an 81 year-old retired United Methodist now living in Nashville. This is the second time that Bishop Talbert has lent his considerable stature to the cause of LGBTQ rights by marrying a same sex United Methodist couple, and the first time the service has been in a United Methodist Church sanctuary.

Bishop Talbert has a long history of working for Civil Rights, dating back to the 1960’s, when he was a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and once spent three days and nights in a jail cell with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Dr. King, he was jailed for his civil disobedience.

Bishop Talbert believes that what he was doing on Saturday should not be called “civil disobedience” or even "ecclesial disobedience." He calls it “Biblical Obedience.” “I believe the derogatory language and punitive laws [in the Book of Discipline] are immoral, evil and unjust,” he said. “There are times when one’s commitment to God takes priority over what the church says.”

The Book of Discipline can never be our first loyalty.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Listening to Ted Williams

Ted Williams hits one of his 521 Home Runs.
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
Colossians 3:13-15

Ron Fairly had a fairly good Major League career. He played 21 seasons in the majors and then was a broadcaster for 27 more. His lifetime average was .266. He led the USC baseball team to a College World Series championship in 1958, and then helped the Los Angeles Dodgers win three World Series in 1959, 1963, and 1965. He was an All Star. He is also the answer to a baseball trivia question that will stump all but the most obsessed fans: Ron Fairly is the player who hit the most career home runs without ever hitting as many as twenty in a single season.

Fairly was good, but he wasn’t Ted Williams. Of course, no one was Ted Williams other than the man himself. But there is a vast gulf between Ron Fairly’s exceptional talents and the best hitter who ever played the game.

Years ago I heard a story about Fairly talking to Williams about hitting, and he told the Hall of Famer that there was a particular pitch, that he just couldn’t hit. Williams responded by asking him, “Then why do you swing at it?”

If you can’t hit it, Ted told him, then don’t swing at it.

In baseball and in life, that is good advice. 

It’s not perfect, of course, there are times when you have to swing even if your chances of getting a hit are not very good.

But in his twenty-one seasons, Ron Fairly struck out just 877 times.

As I contemplate our upcoming United Methodist General Conference, I find myself thinking about Ted’s advice.

I was reading “The Renewal Agenda for General Conference” proposed by the ironically named “Good News” movement, and I found myself feeling physically ill. It’s an agenda which is apparently aimed at making us more rigid than the Southern Baptists. And then it occurred to me that the “Good News” people probably feel the same way when they read about the agenda proposed by the Reconciling Ministries Network. 

This is a pitch we United Methodists just can’t seem to hit.

We can’t even agree on what sort of a pitch it is. One side calls it “the issue of homosexuality.” The other side talks about the exclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers (although we are not really comfortable with the gender binary).

Both sides believe that they are very serious about biblical authority and each side believes that the other is profoundly and perversely wrong.

We can’t hit it. We need to stop swinging at it.

To my mind, that would mean two things.

First, those of us in favor of inclusion need to give up on changing that grotesquely offensive statement about “homosexual practice” being incompatible with Christian teaching. Maybe we can modify it slightly and maybe not, but we probably cannot eliminate it, and we just need to let it go. 

And second, those in favor of the continued exclusion of LGBTQ persons need to give up on the penalties for pastors and bishops who celebrate same sex marriages and appoint LGBTQ pastors. Just let it go. We don’t have penalties for any other comparable infractions.

My guess is that plenty of people on both sides of the issue would find this idea deeply offensive. But it would be better than where we are.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Hating the Sin and Loving the Sinner


"Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”
Luke 15:4-7

It is time.

It is time to name it for what it is and say it as clearly as we can.

Homophobia is a sin. It is an affront to the Gospel. It is an affront to God and to God’s children.

It is a sin as surely as racism and sexism and classism are all sins.

Once upon a time we could say that homosexuality was a matter about which faithful Christians could disagree. But that is no longer the case.

Just as we gave up that notion of faithful disagreement with regard to women’s issues and racial issues, it is time to recognize that our moral vision and understanding have evolved. Dressing up bigotry with a few carefully chosen Bible verses is not an ethical argument.

Which brings us to Gandhi. And Jesus.

The admonition to “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” is commonly attributed to Jesus. It was actually said by Gandhi.

Of course, Jesus did love sinners. The orthodox believers of his day were appalled by this and Luke says that he told the parables of the Lost Sheep (above), the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son because they were “grumbling” about how “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Two thousand years later, the spirit of Jesus’ critics lives on.

In a website called “Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry,” Matt Slick writes about how Christians are wrong to believe that God loves everyone. He argues, in apparent opposition to Jesus’ life and teachings, that actually God really does hate sinners. Not just sins, but the sinners themselves. It’s all about God’s holiness and righteousness.

That’s embarrassing.

As Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” 

Those of us who are working for the full inclusion of our LGBTQ friends and neighbors in the life of the church and in the wider culture must be careful not to become mirror images of the self-righteousness and judgmentalism we have seen so often from those trying to maintain the legacy of exclusion and rejection. 

We must name homophobia as a sin. Anything else is dishonest. We must confess it as a sin uniquely perpetrated in the church and by the church. Anything else is unfair to those who have suffered great harm. 

I realize this sounds unkind. But it is also honest. Just as it does no good to pretend that racism and sexism are okay. It also does no good to pretend that homophobia is okay. It isn’t. As Christians, we need to say that as clearly as we can.

But we must also love those who are still living within the walls of that bigotry. 

Hate the sin and love the sinner.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Common Sense and Cruelty in North Carolina

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 
Galatians 3:28

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory appears sincere, reasonable and deeply concerned in his video appeal for the fair treatment of his fair state. “Some have called our state an embarrassment,” he says solemnly. “Frankly the real embarrassment is politicians not publicly respecting each other’s positions on complex issues.”

Ever since he signed what he claims is a very common sense bill designed to protect the privacy and dignity of North Carolina citizens, the state has been the target of what he describes as “a vicious, nationwide smear campaign.” The critics, he said, “demonized our state for political gain.”

In support of the beleaguered governor and his allies in the North Carolina legislature, Kellie Fiedorek, writing for the Heritage Foundation’s “Daily Signal,” describes the new law as common sense.

First, she explains the danger that the new bill, HB 2, was designed to address: “The Charlotte City Council passed an ordinance Feb. 22 that was a direct attack on the long-acknowledged truth that maintaining sex-specific bathroom facilities preserves the privacy and safety of women and girls." 

And then she makes the central point of her common sense argument. “If enacted, this ordinance would have allowed men to choose—based on feelings rather than biological facts—to enter restrooms reserved for women and girls.”

Thankfully, she explains, the craziness in Charlotte was stopped before their non-discrimination ordinance could take effect. “Recognizing the inherent dangers created by Charlotte’s ordinance, the North Carolina General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, acted swiftly and appropriately to pass the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act  (“Privacy Act”) to rectify Charlotte’s failure to protect its citizens. The Privacy Act restored fundamental privacy norms to bathrooms in government and public school facilities. It also protects against future attempts to erode the fundamental right to privacy in other venues throughout the state.”

For the record, I am very much in favor of “common sense.”

But in this case, the new North Carolina law uses “common sense” to oppress and humiliate a group that has already suffered more than its share of oppression.

With regard to restroom use, what the new law actually requires is that persons use the gender specific facility conforming to the gender they were assigned at birth. If your birth certificate says you are a male, then you use the men’s room.

That works fine as long as you are not transgender.

If you are a transgender man, you will be required to use the women’s room. And if you are a transgender woman, you will be required to use the men’s room. That doesn’t sound very safe to me. Nor does it sound like common sense.

Of course, the assumption in the new law is that being transgender is about feelings and choices. And in her defense of the new law, Ms. Fiedorek seems to apply that those feelings and choices might change on an almost daily basis.

In other words, the new law is built on the oppressive fantasy that transgender persons are not real persons.

It is heartbreaking. 

It is unspeakably cruel.

I am a cisgender male. That means that the gender I was assigned at birth matches my self-identity as well as my anatomy. Most of us are cisgender males or females. 

We do not think about being cisgender because we don’t have to think about it. It’s just the way we are.

But if you are cisgender, try to imagine what it would be like to feel that the gender you were assigned at birth is not who you really are. Try to imagine what it would be like not to feel at home in your own body; to feel that there was something fundamentally wrong with you at the very core of your being.

Then  imagine that with the help of psychologists and psychiatrists and physicians, you work through all of that, and you go through a painful but transformative experience, and finally after all of the pain and grief you finally feel right. And after that, the state enacts a new law to make it clear to you that you will never be right because they will never let you be right.

Why would North Carolina, or any other state, want to do that to a human being?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sexuality, Celibacy and Ordination



Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. 

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
I Corinthians 7:5-9

The Apostle Paul has a dim view of marriage. “It is better to marry,” he writes, “than to be aflame with passion.”

Even better, I would say, would be “to marry” and “be aflame with passion.”

Paul holds out celibacy as a higher status than marriage, but he concedes that “each has a particular gift from God.” Citing that passage, a clergy friend in another denomination once confided that she had told her bishop that “celibacy was not a gift that I had been given.”

She laughed as she told the story. It was typical of her joyful boldness in affirming the good gifts that God has given us in this life. And that joyful boldness is part of what makes her a wonderful pastor.

That scene came back to me as I read a blog post by Talbot Davis, an elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Davis takes issue with an anonymous blog post by a United Methodist clergywoman on the Methodist Federation for Social Action website on the issue of universal access to birth control.

“I chose to go on birth control, she writes, “because I didn't want to get pregnant and I wanted to have sex. Because I am a clergy woman in The United Methodist Church, and I'm single, that information could get me brought up on charges, and I could lose my ordination. . . . It strikes me as ridiculous in 2016 that this is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules.” 

Davis argues that the writer is endorsing an ecclesiology of “me” and “now,” and intentionally confusing the commandments of God with petty “rules” and regulations. And he worries about “a future for the United Methodist Church in which sacrifice-making, cross-taking, self-denying holiness has gone the way of garters and petticoats.”

“Garters and petticoats”? In this context, I find that reference wonderfully amusing.

But seriously, have we really come to a place where our witness of “sacrifice-making, cross-taking, self-denying holiness” is expressed in a sexual ethic of celibacy? No wonder secular people think the church is irrelevant.

Davis fears that if the prohibitive language around homosexuality is changed then we will be dismantling our whole understanding of sexual ethics.

We won’t be. The issues are fundamentally different. The “homosexual issue” is about civil rights and inclusion. It is not really about sexuality (in the narrow sense) at all.

The only change to our sexual ethics would be to apply those ethics equally to everyone. We could still maintain the ordination expectation of “celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage,” but apply it to gay and straight persons equally. Nothing else would need to change.

But let’s get back to the issue of sexual ethics.

The anonymous clergywoman says that she didn’t want to get pregnant, but “I wanted to have sex.” 

I think some of her critics have assumed she meant that she wanted to have casual sex whenever it suited her desires. And she could have meant that. But my guess is that she phrased it that way to make a bold statement and get our attention. She was more likely talking about wanting to have sex with someone whom she loves and to whom she is deeply committed.

Since my ordination in 1973, when everyone gave a wink and a nod to the notion that we would not smoke or drink, I have married hundreds of couples. It is possible that one or two of those couples waited until they were married before having sex. But I don’t think it’s possible that there were more than two. And I don’t believe that my clergy colleagues are any different.

And.

When we fuss about sex before marriage, what are we talking about? Do we mean intercourse, or are we including oral sex? And do we really want to go there?

Sexuality is a good gift from God. It is meant to be enjoyed. We receive that gift best when we exercise it in the context of a mature, loving and committed relationship. 

It's not that complicated.