Monday, June 11, 2018

Faith Is Not about Orthodoxy; It's about Following Jesus

Jesus said to them, “Come and follow me . . .”
Matthew 4:19

According to the Gospel records, Jesus issues that same simple invitation repeatedly. He tells the fishermen that he will teach them to fish for people and he calls on a rich young man to first, “go and sell all that you have, and give it to the poor.” He asks Levi to leave his work as a tax collector.

The invitations are simple and direct.

He does not ask them for an affirmation of faith. He does not ask them to believe in him or have faith in him or believe anything about him. He does not ask them to believe anything at all. They don’t have to affirm a doctrine or recite a creed, or even say a prayer.

They are simply invited to follow.

I thought about the simplicity of that original invitation as I read a recent post by Mark Tooley on the “Juicy Ecumenism” blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). His essay is a critique of a blog post by Rev. Roger Wolsey, a United Methodist elder, who was writing about Progressive Christianity.

Mr. Tooley begins by quoting what Rev. Wolsey says he doesn’t believe:

“Friends, Jesus isn’t God. Jesus didn’t die for our sins. Jesus wasn’t killed instead of us. God isn’t wrathful or vindictive. There isn’t a hell (other than ones that we create here on this earth). Going to heaven after we die isn’t what the faith or salvation is about. God didn’t write the Bible."
That sounds a lot more radical than it is.

One of the hazards of Progressive Christianity is that it is too often more about what we don’t believe than about what we do believe.

But one of the reasons Progressive Christians expend so much energy on what they don’t believe is because allegedly “orthodox” Christians say so many things that require response. The affirmations of the current “orthodoxy” are often little more than a thinly veiled biblical and creedal literalism. And sometimes the literalism is not veiled at all. Consequently, Progressives often find themselves correcting notions they thought had been laid to rest in the middle of the twentieth century.

Tooley does not quote the whole paragraph of Wolsey’s disbelieving. And the last part sounds more like mainline Christianity:

“Jesus’ resurrection didn’t have to be understood as a physical one for it to be a real and meaningful one (Paul and many of the early disciples encountered a spiritually risen Christ). Science and faith aren’t incompatible. God didn’t create the Creation in 6 literal days. The earth isn’t only 6,000 years old. Human aggravated global warming isn’t bogus. God isn’t male. Women are fully equal to me. Homosexuality isn't a sin.  Being transgender isn’t sinful or to be rejected. Racism is sinful. And Christianity isn't the only way for humans to experience salvation.”
Given his perspective on the far right end of what he calls “orthodoxy,” Tooley’s critique is not surprising, and he makes his points without a great deal of rancor. At the center of his criticism of Wolsey is his rejection of what he calls “the old modernist Protestant liberalism,” which he declares to be “mostly dead.”

He correctly identifies the major problems with the old modernist liberalism as the deification of science and rationality.

But his critique of Wolsey’s progressive Christian vision has two major problems.

The first is inherent in the very idea of “orthodoxy” itself. It’s a long way from the original invitation of Jesus. The spiritual journey to which Jesus invites his followers ought not to be confined by a narrow orthodoxy. It ought to be broadly expansive and open to new ideas and insights. We should be looking for more light and more insight, not trying to find ways to limit our thinking. The Council of Chalcedon (or any other) may be a great subject for historical inquiry, and that study can certainly teach us things, but it ought not to limit our faith.

The second problem is identical with his critique of modernism.

The current rebirth of biblical literalism might seem to be the very antithesis of the modernist “deification of science and rationality,” but it isn’t. Literalism is anti-science, but it arrives at that position by treating the biblical witness as if it were its own kind of science.

Scholarship and science argue that facts matter. Literalism counters by turning faith into fact.

The majestic poetry and deep religious symbolism of the Bible are reduced to factoids. The narrative is just a list of events. The warmth that was so vital to the evangelical witness is lost in the insistence on facts.

Rooting out heterodox theology is not the path to authentic faith. Maybe we could just help each other follow Jesus and see where he leads us.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Prayer and Protest: Fox News Gets It Right

Jesus said, 
“Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
   hallowed be your name. 
   Your kingdom come.
   Your will be done,
     on earth as it is in heaven.”
Matthew 6:9-10

Fox News was widely criticized for airing a news report showing Philadelphia Eagles players kneeling in prayer before a game and claiming that they were protesting the National Anthem. The photos provided a background visual for a news report on the President’s cancellation of a planned White House visit by the Philadelphia Eagles to celebrate their Super Bowl Championship.

The President had disinvited the team because only a small number of the players (less than ten) were planning to attend. In reporting the story, Fox used pictures that purported to show Eagles players kneeling during the National Anthem, when in fact none of the players had kneeled during the anthem at any game all season. The pictures actually showed Eagles players kneeling in prayer before the game and before the playing of the anthem.

Philadelphia tight end Zach Ertz, one of the players shown kneeling, expressed his frustration on Twitter:
"This can’t be serious.... Praying before games with my teammates, well before the anthem, is being used for your propaganda?! Just sad, I feel like you guys should have to be better than this."
In an opinion piece published in the Washington Post, Judd Legum was sharply critical:
“Innocent mistake? Possible, but unlikely. Fox News commentators have been railing against NFL protest kneelers for some time. ‘And you have to ask, what are we kneeling for at this point?’ said host Pete Hegseth last September. ‘Because you talk about social injustice. This is the least sexist, least racist, most free, most equal, most prosperous country in the history of humankind.’ Tucker Carlson: ‘They’re attacking the flag and the country, and I’m just telling you that when the richest people in a society decide the country they are supposed to be running is corrupt, it falls apart’ Sean Hannity: ‘Patriotism under fire’.”
Eventually, Christopher Wallace, the executive producer of "Fox News at Night with Shannon Bream," issued this apology:
"During our report about President Trump canceling the Philadelphia Eagles' trip to the White House to celebrate their Super Bowl win, we showed unrelated footage of players kneeling in prayer. To clarify, no members of the team knelt in protest during the national anthem throughout regular or postseason last year. We apologize for the error."
The pictures were deceptive. 

But there is a deeper issue here.

The complaint is that Fox News misrepresented prayer as protest.

But at the deepest level Fox (unintentionally) got it right: prayer is protest.

Karl Barth liked to say that, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” ("Hände falten im Gebet ist der Anfang des Aufstandes gegen die Unordnung der Welt!")

Prayer is a rebellion against violence and injustice. Jesus instructed his disciples that when we place ourselves before God our first petition should be for the coming of God’s kingdom of social and economic justice, peace and non-violence.

Even the simplest prayers at meals or at bed-time point toward a different reality than the one we normally encounter. We ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have done and we protest our own failings. Our protest in those moments is introspective, but it is real.

If prayer is not protest, it is not authentic prayer.

It is important to be clear with regard to the NFL players. Fox has consistently misrepresented the issue. No one is protesting the National Anthem. They have been protesting racial injustice and police brutality, which disproportionately impacts people of color. 

When Henry David Thoreau was in Concord prison for his refusal to pay the poll tax as a protest against slavery and the Mexican-American war, legend has it that Ralph Waldo Emerson asked him, “What are you doing in here?” And Thoreau responded, “Waldo, what are you doing out there?”

The exchange is apocryphal, but the question is true.

If we are at all familiar with the issue of racial injustice in America, the question is not, “Why are some of the players kneeling?” The question is, “Why isn’t everyone kneeling?”

As Christians, we should be kneeling in prayer and in protest.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Friday, June 1, 2018

Biblical Literalism Is Unbiblical

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
Matthew 5:17-18

Last week I participated in a United Methodist clergy discussion group which began with a question about sexual orientation and the Bible and very soon devolved into an argument about biblical literalism. 

Historically, United Methodists have not been biblical literalists. But you would have never guessed that from the discussion.

Which brings us to the Zen question of the day: does biblical literalism cause homophobia, or does homophobia cause biblical literalism? Do folks embrace biblical literalism in order to support their homophobia or is it the other way around?

Either way, they are deeply intertwined. And the literalism does broad damage beyond the issues of LGBTQ inclusion or exclusion. 

Once upon a time I rejected biblical literalism because, as Paul said, “when I became an adult I put away childish things.” Literalism seemed irrational, and I wanted to see myself as a rational, thinking person. One of the things I always cherished about Methodism was our oft-repeated statement that “when we go to church we don’t leave our minds at the door.”

But the biggest problem with biblical literalism is not that it is irrational; the biggest problem is that it is unbiblical. As John Dominic Cross emphatically states, “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

Beyond the mistake of trying to reduce symbolic religious language to a narrow and stunted literalism, there is another issue built into the structure of the biblical witness itself.

Early in the passage we know as “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus tells his disciples that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. And then he says that not one letter, or even the stroke of a letter of the law, will be lost. The Torah, the written word of God is eternal. It will always exist and it will exist in the form in which it was originally given to Moses.

That might seem like a strong affirmation of the literal meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures, but just a few verses later Jesus launches into a series of teachings all of which begin the same way: “You have heard it said,” Jesus recalls, “but I say to you . . .” In those declarations, Jesus rejects whole chapters of the Torah in favor of a new teaching.

Jesus is not contradicting himself. He is doing what authoritative Rabbis  are supposed to do. ("He teaches as one having authority")

Jesus believed in the twofold law, the written and the oral.

He believed that the written law had been given to Moses at Sinai, and he believed that law could not be changed even in the smallest detail. But in each generation the great teachers had the responsibility of reinterpreting the oral law for that generation. 

The oral law was not fixed; it was fluid. The authority for reinterpretation came from Moses himself and that ongoing process was part of the tradition from the time that Moses first received the Law.

The oral law, which was equal in authority to the written law, was an attempt to capture the spirit of the Law. Each generation built on the traditions of the elders who had preceded them. In that sense, the law tended to evolve.

When we try to read the Bible literally, we are using a process that Jesus rejected and we are missing the opportunity to understand its meaning in fresh ways for our generation. We would do well to remember that as we debate those verses that relate to same sex relationships. 

Our understanding is supposed to evolve.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

They Have Builded Him an Altar

Arlington National Cemetery

they shall beat their swords into plowshares, 
and their spears into pruning hooks; 
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, 
neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah 2:4

When I was a little boy we had a Memorial Day tradition of going to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves of relatives. One time, we stopped for gas on the way home, and my dad went inside to talk with the guys who ran the station, while my sister and I waited in the car with my mother. 

I asked Mom about the flags we had seen at many of the graves and she told me that the flags marked the burial places of veterans. I asked if they had all died in the Second World War, and she said, no, some had died in other wars. But the flags did not mean that they had been killed in a war; the flags marked the graves of all veterans. It meant that they had served in the military.

Then we talked about those who had died in the war and she told me that when a family lost a son they would put a flag in the window (I know there is a tradition of stars, but I think she talked about flags). Mom had been in high school during the war, and she was visibly moved by the memory. 

“That must have been very sad for their mothers,” I said, seeing her emotion. “Yes,” she said, with tears in her eyes, “some families had more than one flag.”

“I wish I had been alive then,” I said. “I wish I had been in the war. I would have killed all those Japanese and Germans who made those mothers so sad!”

I was trying to cheer her up, and I could tell she knew that I meant well. She was quiet for a moment and they she said softly, “You know, Billy, Japanese and German soldiers had mothers, too.”

And I said, “Don’t say that. I don’t want to think about that!”

If we really think about it, it is almost unbearable. But as Christians, it is precisely what we ought to think about. 

Mom’s thoughts come back to me every Memorial Day. 

My other Memorial Day memory is of singing Julia Ward Howe’s epic, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She wrote it with the goal of inspiring the Union troops. Blending biblical apocalypticism with patriotic militarism, she set it to what had originally been a tune used in Methodist camp meetings.

At the time, the music provided the tune for the melancholy, “John Brown’s Body” and Howe wanted to use it for something more inspiring. The result is stirring and encouraging. 

And if you think about it, it is also deeply troubling.

Lest there be any doubt about her belief in the righteousness of the Union cause, the third verse sets it forth with brutal honesty:

I have read a fiery Gospel
writ in burnished rows of steel,
"As ye deal with My contemners
so with you My grace shall deal,"
Let the Hero born of woman
crush the serpent with His heel,
Since God is marching on 

The "Hero" is the Union soldier, but the heel that crushes the Confederate soldier (aka "the serpent") belongs to God. Not surprisingly, that verse is omitted from our United Methodist Hymnal.

She is best known for that hymn, but she was also an abolitionist and a suffragist, and she was one of the founders of what we now call “Mother’s Day.” 

Although she never wavered in her affirmation of the cause for which the Civil War was fought, she was appalled by the human cost.

In response to the carnage she had seen in the Civil War, she called for a Mother’s Day of Peace, in which the women of the world would declare a common interest in nurturing and protecting life. Her Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870, presented that bold vision:

Arise then ... women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered 
by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, 
reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them 
of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil 
at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, 
to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel 
with each other
as to the means 
whereby the great human family 
can live in peace,
Each learning after his own time, 
the sacred impress,

Not of Caesar, but of God.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

*This post includes material originally published on this blog in 2010.

Friday, May 25, 2018

American Pie, Three-in-One Oil, and the Mystery of the Trinity

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. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9

In a thought provoking blog post which he provocatively titled, “There Is No Such Thing as the Trinity (Some Dudes Made It Up),” Richard Lowell Bryant argues (And if you were paying attention, you could see this coming . . .) that there is no such thing as the Trinity.

He’s wrong, of course.

If there were no such thing as the Trinity, then Don McLean wouldn’t have given it such an important place in his immortal song, “American Pie.”

After all, McLean tells us that he “went down to the sacred store” and I’m sure they would not have sold him a bogus doctrine.

Apparently Rev. Bryant did not research this a thoroughly as he should have.

In his opening paragraph he writes:

“There is no such thing as the Holy Trinity. There is a means of referring to the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy the Spirit which Christians call the ‘Holy Trinity’. We don’t know if that’s what God calls God’s relationships or if the Trinity exists anything at all as we describe. My inclination is to believe God functions beyond language terms and classifications. It’s our word. No one’s gotten a message back from God as to whether God agrees with our system or choice of terms. Yet we, the church, live and die by three in one, one in three.”
The first sentence says that there is no such thing as the Holy Trinity. And then the second sentence tells us what the Holy Trinity is.

In other words, this is about the words. That’s not a bad thing. Theology is about finding the right words and defining the words, and using the words to understand the reality.

What is perhaps even more amusing than Rev. Bryant’s clever sleight of hand was the reaction to it among United Methodist Clergy colleagues. More than a few called for his dismissal from the covenant. “Send him packing,” said one.

Suddenly it was as if being a United Methodist pastor was all about following the rules of doctrine. Never mind thinking for yourself. Never mind searching for new ways to understand something. Forget about how we can understand ancient doctrines in a twenty-first century context. If you can’t stand up and salute a literal reading of the Nicene Creed, then you need to leave. And the sooner the better.

Monty Python said, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

I certainly didn’t expect it in a United Methodist Clergy discussion.

In the great debate about United Methodist schism, this is an issue that looms in the background. The literalism that stunts our understanding of LGBTQ issues is not limited to those issues. It threatens to turn us into medieval Roman Catholics, hunting for heretics lurking behind every attempt at theological inquiry. This is the same narrowmindedness that generated attacks on Bishops Oliveto and Sprague among others, for their intellectual creativity.

The point that Bryant is making (I think) is that the Trinity is not is not a biblical doctrine.

He notes that the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible. It is “a (semantic, logical, cosmological, theological, psychological, and philosophical) construct, a theological conjecture; created by flawed and fallible Homo sapiens who want to understand something no one really understands: the way God relates to God’s self.”

And that is true.

But it is true of all theology.

Theology, all theology, is a human construct. It is an attempt by fallible human beings to think systematically (philosophically and/or biblically) about God.

And what is true of theology is also true of the Bible. Regardless of your beliefs about inspiration, the actual writing was done by human beings.

In his memoir, “Soul on Ice,” the late political activist and early Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver told of his experience with theological reflection while he was a guest of the California Youth Authority.

“It all ended one day when, at a catechism class, the priest asked if anyone present understood the mystery of the Holy Trinity. I had been studying my lessons diligently and knew by heart what I'd been taught. Up shot my hand, my heart throbbing with piety (pride) for this chance to demonstrate my knowledge of the Word.

“To my great shock and embarrassment, the Father announced, and it sounded like a thunderclap, that I was lying, that no one, not even the Pope, understood the Godhead, and why else did I think they called it the mystery of the Holy Trinity?

“I saw in a flash, stung to the quick by the jeers of my fellow catechumens, that I had been used, that the Father had been lying in wait for the chance to drop that thunderbolt, in order to drive home the point that the Holy Trinity was not to be taken lightly.

“I had intended to explain the Trinity with an analogy to 3-in-1 oil, so it was probably just as well.”
Three-in-One Oil is not a bad analogy. Just don’t tell your clergy friends.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Mean and Meaner

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

On May 7 the United Methodist Council of Bishops announced the results of voting on five amendments to the church’s constitution.

The first and second of the proposed amendments dealt with promoting gender equality and both were narrowly defeated, falling just short of the two-thirds majority needed for adoption.

Our church failed to support gender equality.

I know. 


You’re thinking, “Did I just get caught in a time warp? Isn’t this the twenty-first century?”

Apparently, some of those wacky Methodists are still stuck in the 1800’s. We really are a crazy bunch of folks. This is the point at which our atheist friends just roll their eyes. And the church—the whole church—takes another step toward cultural irrelevance.

To their credit, the Council of Bishops expressed “dismay” at the results.

But not everyone is unhappy. Writing in the “Juicy Ecumenism” blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, John Lomperis celebrated the vote as a victory for “faithful” and “orthodox” United Methodists.

The good news is that this clearly reveals the patriarchal bias behind the “orthodox” objections to the full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the life of the church. The IRD and the Wesleyan Covenant Association and their allies embrace a narrow biblical literalism which leads to an anti-female as well as anti-gay agenda.

This is the full text of the first amendment, which fell short of adoption when it received 66.5% of the vote:
“As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of women’s and girl's equality and well-being.”
The problem, according to Mr. Lomperis, is in this sentence: “The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine.”

Mr. Lomperis acknowledges that “there is some to truth to this sentence,” but he argues that “some radical United Methodists have challenged honestly acknowledging the fact that Jesus Christ is a human male,” and worries that this sentence might be used to advance “such agendas.”

It would be helpful if “traditionalists” could “honestly acknowledge” that while the historical Jesus was a male human being, that is not a proper description of the cosmic Christ, the risen one who is present to us now. When we see Christ present in the world today, that presence is not limited by gender.

But wait.

There’s more. And Mr. Lomperis puts it in bold for emphasis:
“Among older generations of seminary radicals in our denomination, there was once a strong movement to avoid using any ‘masculine words’ in reference to God – such as ‘He,’ ‘Him,’ ‘His,’ ‘Father,’ ‘King,’ or ‘Kingdom’ – no matter how awkward this could make some sentences sound. The defeat of Amendment #1 would seem to indicate that this movement has crested, and is now mercifully fading within the United Methodist Church. Thanks be to God!”
Speaking for at least some members of that “older generation,” I am flattered to be called a radical. Isn’t that what disciples of Christ are supposed to be? (If only we really lived up to that description!)

I confess that the movement led to some awkward hymn lyrics, but there are two very important points on the other side. First, the masculine language for God is part of the devaluation of women. And second, that language reinforces our tendency toward anthropomorphic images for God.

Mr. Lomperis finds the second proposed amendment, which gained 61.3% of the vote, even more objectionable:
“The United Methodist Church is part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ.  The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection.  In the United Methodist church, no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, ability, or economic condition, nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.”
This, he argues, was a “sneaky” attempt to commit the United Methodist Church “to absolute non-discrimination for ALL levels of leadership (‘in the life, worship, and governance of the Church’) on the basis of ‘gender,’ ‘marital status,’ ‘age,’ or ‘ability.’”

He fears that “marital status” might be used to support those in same sex marriages and that a “transgenderist ideology” might insist on the ordination of “individuals who reject their God-given sexual identity and claim a ‘gender’ of being something other than male or female.”

I am sure Mr. Lomperis does not see the hatefulness and cruelty in his statement. 

But read it again. 

He defines transgender folks as “individuals who reject their God-given sexual identity and claim a ‘gender’ of being something other than male or female.”

When I think about the pain some people go through in understanding who they are and struggling to align what they know to be true about their deepest identity with how they present themselves in the world—and when I think about how they are often bullied by “Christians” who believe that they have “rejected their God-given sexual identity,” it breaks my heart.

Writing again in bold face, Mr. Lomperis concludes:
“The defeat of Amendment #2 shows that not only have liberals been losing ground in their efforts to get our General Conference to submit to LGBTQ ideology, but that liberals lack the strength to sneakily achieve their goals even through such a roundabout way as this innocent-sounding, hard-to-oppose proposal, which was effectively a Trojan horse.”
It is worth noting again that though we did “lack the strength” to enact these amendments, the “yes” votes were over 60% on both amendments, and significantly higher in the United States. This was not really a rejection; it was a failure of affirmation.

But beyond that, the vote and the explanation of it give us a clear indication of the motivations behind the work of the IRD, the WAC, Good News, the Confessing Movement, UM Action, and their allies. 

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Finding the Way Forward

Bishop Bruce Ough, Preaching to the Council of Bishops

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 

Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 

Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Mark 10:46-52

Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, used that text for his sermon as he addressed the Bishops gathered in Chicago for a weeklong meeting to develop a response to the work of the Commission on a Way Forward for the United Methodist Church.

For decades the United Methodist Church has been willfully blind to the cries of our LGBTQ siblings and their allies. Bishop Ough did not say that to his colleagues, but he came close. You can read the whole sermon by clicking here.

“Dear colleagues,” he declared, “the church is watching. The world is watching us. The eyes of the entire denomination, and many of our ecumenical partners, are upon us as we gather this week. An anxious, schismatic, yet profoundly hopeful church is watching, waiting, wondering what will be our response to the final report from the Commission on a Way Forward.  What will we recommend?  What will we discern?  What will we decide?”

For better or worse, the world is not watching. I don’t even think most Methodists are watching, though perhaps they should be.

This is a momentous time for us as a denomination. And Bishop Ough challenged his colleagues:
“We will have to determine – individually and collectively – if we are seeking a win for the whole church, particularly those on the margins of the church and society and the generations yet to be reached and yet to be born – or if we are only seeking an immediate, short-term win for our constituency, caucus or conference. This is the only way we will have a chance to become a leadership group.”
Are we “seeking a win for the whole church, particularly those on the margins?”

Will we finally end our discrimination against our LGBTQ siblings, or will we double down on exclusion by increasing the penalties against LGBTQ pastors or pastors who officiate at same sex weddings?

Bishop Ough told a story about the first time he served communion as a student pastor. As soon as he gave the invitation, his son Stuart, who was five or six at the time, jumped up from his seat and raced toward the communion table. A woman in the front pew reached out at the last possible moment, grabbed Stuart, and sat him down beside her. Stuart was in tears.

On the way home from church, Stuart sat in the back seat of the car, crying. Bishop Ough and his wife “tried to explain to him why the congregation’s tradition of not having children participate in communion was to be respected for the time being” (emphasis mine.)

Not surprisingly, those explanations “were hollow and did not heal his broken spirit.”

In between sobs, Stuart repeatedly asked, “Why can’t I come and have some of Jesus’ bread and juice?”

And that story led the bishop to this conclusion:
“Friends, there are tens of thousands of persons within our churches, and many hundreds of thousands more beyond our churches, who are sobbing uncontrollably today because in one form or another, intentionally or simply mistakenly, we have kept them from the table of the fullness of God’s grace, love and healing presence.”
I don’t know whether or not his colleagues said, “Amen!” but they should have.

As I understand it, at this point the United Methodist Church has four choices.

We can get rid of the discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline and become a fully inclusive church.

We can embrace the idea that more severe  punishments will solve the problem. Under this plan there would be mandatory suspensions and expulsions for rule violations in terms of same sex weddings and LGBTQ clergy.

We can structure an amicable divorce. There would be a denomination for those who want to continue a practice of LGBTQ exclusion and another one for those who don’t.

Or we can allow for a local option in which Annual Conferences will decide whom to ordain and Pastors will decide whom they will marry.

The first three plans will all result in schism. The Wesleyan Covenant Association and its allies will not stay in a denomination that does not allow for discrimination. If we go with more severe punishments, some progressives may leave and others will continue to defy the rules, which will then lead to more WCA defections. And in the third option, the schism would be planned.

The problem with the local option is that it allows for both inclusion and discrimination.

Allowing for discrimination is not enough for the WCA  and it is too much for many progressives. The traditionalists want discriminatioin to be mandatory and the progressives want it to be prohibited.

What all four options have in common is that changes to our Discipline and structure will not change hearts and minds. Some folks will continue to exclude and others will continue to include. The debate is not really about what people will do or believe; it is about whether or not they will continue to call themselves United Methodists.

When the United States Congress passes a law against discrimination, everyone has to obey it. But church policy is a very different matter. If people don’t agree with a policy; they can leave. Churches and pastors don’t have to change their behavior; they can leave.

If it is not completely obvious in this post, regular readers of the blog know that I am passionately in favor of full inclusion for all of God’s people. In terms of Christian social ethics, this issue was settled years ago. But I also care deeply about local churches. Deciding whether or not a local church will support same sex weddings may be painful, but it will not be as painful as deciding whether or not to leave the denomination.

The traditionalists will change their minds on this issue, just as they changed on slavery and segregation and women’s issues. Times change. The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. 

Change will come whether we separate or stay together. But I believe that change will come sooner if we stay together than if we separate.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.