Thursday, November 26, 2015

Once We Were Strangers

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:17-19

If you listen to the politicians’ talk about the threat of Syrian refugees flooding into our cities and towns, you would think that they would be arriving by the boatload or planeload. That is not the case. They would arrive in the same way that refugees have been arriving for decades: family by family. One at a time. And then each family would be adopted by a community group (often churches) to be settled into their new home.

Under the current process, Syrian refugees, like all other refugees, must pass through an extensive process of multiple interviews and security checks before they can be admitted to the United States. The process may take more than two years and families are not typically admitted until the final stages.

In a New York Times article published last week, Haeyoun Park and Larry Buchanan outlined the present practice. This is a summary of the current protocol:

1. Registration with the United Nations.
2. Interview with the United Nations.
3. Refugee status granted by the United Nations.
4. Referral for resettlement in the United States.
5. Interview with State Department contract employees.
6. First background check.
7. Second background check for some refugees.
8. A third background check for those deemed at risk for criminal or terrorist actions.
9. Fingerprint screening with photo.
10. Second fingerprint screening.
11. Third fingerprint screening.
12. Case reviewed at United States immigration headquarters.
13. Some cases referred for additional review.
14. Extensive in-person interview with Homeland Security Officer.
15. Homeland Security approval is required.
16. Screening for contagious diseases.
17. Cultural orientation classes.
18. Match with an American resettlement agency (like Church World Service).
19. Multi-agency security check before leaving for the United States.
20. Final security check at an American airport.

The process is redundant, and it is intentionally redundant to make certain that those finally accepted for resettlement qualify as refugees, can be effectively integrated into a community, and do not pose a security threat. Security checks performed at the beginning of the process are repeated near the end to make sure that new information or concerns have not surfaced during the intervening months and years.

If the House bill passed last week were to become law, then the certification process in step fifteen would be expanded to require that the Director of the FBI, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence would each have to confirm that each individual applicant did not pose a threat. In other words, each of those Directors would have to personally review each application and personally guarantee the determination. Since that is a virtual impossibility, the net effect of the House bill would be to make it impossible to resettle any Syrian refugees in the United States.

At a time when we are confronting a world-wide refugee problem greater than anything we have faced since the Second World War, Christians in the United States should be advocating for a more extensive resettlement program. We should be doing more, not less. We should not ignore possible security risks, but we should remember that we were once refugees and that we are called to welcome the stranger.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

John McCain Is at It Again

John McCain talking with reporters.
Jesus said to them, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
Matthew 25:42-45

John McCain is at it again.

Once again, McCain undermines the cynicism with which we tend to view politics and politicians. More than half of the governors in the United States have declared that they will not accept any Syrian refugees. Some of the presidential candidates have said they oppose taking in any refugees, while others have said that they would only allow us to take in Christians. In times of fear, nothing is as popular as xenophobia. 

McCain, on the other hand, responded with a seeming disregard for what is popular. 

I suppose if you have been a prisoner of war for over five years, and brutally tortured, public opinion polls don’t seem like much of a threat. John McCain is a real war hero and at his best he has also been the embodiment of what we would like to have in our political leaders.

With the exception of a few months during the 2008 presidential campaign, when it seemed like his body had been possessed by alien forces causing him to sound like a caricature of an angry old man, he has generally been remarkably free of political pandering. In 2004 he stood up against the “Swiftboat” attacks on John Kerry, and he has been resolute in his opposition to torture. And even in 2008, he had that remarkable moment when a women in the audience started talking about how she believed Barack Obama was not a real American, and that he was an Arab, McCain took the microphone from her and said, “No.” He repeated the “no” as the more zealous partisans in the crowd began to boo. “He’s a decent family man and a good American with whom I just happen to have some fundamental disagreements,” said McCain. “And that’s what this campaign is about.”  

On Sunday, presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) declared that only Christian refugees should be able to enter the country because "there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror." And Governor Chris Christie was prepared to bar all refugees, “even orphans under age five.”

But on the issue of Syrian refugees, it was McCain being McCain.

He was clear that there could be security issues and there needed to be a vetting process before refugees were admitted, but for him it was a matter of his Christian faith. We are called, he said, “to love one another.”

When asked whether we should limit the refugees we accept to those who are Christians, he spoke clearly: "I don't think any child, whether they are Christian or whether they are atheist or whether they are Buddhist, that we should make a distinction," he said. "My belief is that all children are God's children." 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Reasoning Our Way Toward a Better Future for the UMC

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; 
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; 
cease to do evil, 
learn to do good; 
seek justice, rescue the oppressed, 
defend the orphan, 
plead for the widow. 
Come now, 
let us reason together, 
says the LORD: 
though your sins are like scarlet, 
they shall be like snow; 
though they are red like crimson, 
they shall become like wool.
Isaiah 1:16-18

In a recent blog post, John Lomperis, the United Methodist Director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative political action group, wrote about the need “to strengthen our denomination’s enforcement mechanisms to better ensure accountability for those of our clergy who choose to break their own word to honor our communal covenant.”

He argues that this accountability is needed to rein in those “United Methodist clergy who, with the protection of some sympathetic bishops, have engaged in some publicity stunts of performing same-sex union services, in open violation of our denomination’s very clear prohibitions of them.”

His criticism of the uncivil discourse of those who advocate for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons within the life of the church is somewhat undercut by his characterization of same sex weddings as “publicity stunts.”

Just for the record, when I was ordained on a very hot Sunday in June of 1973 in the chapel of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, the Book of Discipline I promised to uphold did not say that as a pastor I would be forbidden to officiate at same sex weddings.

In contrast to the apocalyptic pronouncements of Lomperis and other traditionalists today, the 1972 Book of Discipline said mildly, “We do not recommend marriage between two persons of the same sex.”

That Book of Discipline spoke of our need to understand the gift of our human sexuality and called upon “Medical, theological, and humanistic disciplines” to combine “in a determined effort to understand human sexuality more completely. And then after a long section affirming that “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth,” and insisting that “all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured,” the Discipline ended with the disclaimer, “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The language did not seem nearly as harsh then, coming after a long section on rights and sacred worth and expressing an openness to continued learning.

There was nothing about penalties for celebrating a same sex marriage. And the whole section carried within it the implicit assumption that we would gain more insight as we partnered with social scientists and clinicians in the study of human sexuality.

The Discipline has always been an evolving document and on that hot June day in the Mount Holyoke chapel, I was confident then that we would find our way in this matter just as we had eventually found our way on slavery and segregation and the rights of women.

Aside from one bad sentence and one less than positive sentence, that 1972 Book of Discipline is an amazing document. There is a whole section affirming “theological pluralism” and a broad sense of the spiritual journey as unfinished business. When I read it I am reminded of why I became a United Methodist pastor in the first place.

The traditionalists are correct when they point out that across two millennia of Christian history the church has generally condemned and marginalized LGBTQ persons. The church also condoned slavery for most of those same centuries. But the future is supposed to be better than the past. We are supposed to learn and grown.

As Jeremiah proclaimed God’s vision: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Monday, November 9, 2015

The African Bishops and Human Sexuality: Strange Allies and a Simple Solution

African Bishops confer at General Conference in 2012
"I ask not only on behalf of these [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
John 17:20-23

The African Bishops of the United Methodist Church recently released a unanimous statement on Global Terrorism and Human Sexuality.

In some ways, the statement reflects the unique geopolitical and cultural context of the African bishops, but in other ways, the statement embodies a perspective common to many Christians in North America.

The odd juxtaposition of global terrorism and human sexuality is not so odd after you think about it. By sexuality they mean homosexuality. And many Christians seem to believe that those are, in fact, the two greatest threats to Christianity and Western Civilization and world peace. The crude subtext among many Christians in the United States is that the Muslims and the Gays are out to get us.

Speaking out of their own context, the Bishops call us to a global perspective and remind us that terrorism is not confined to the Middle East or to the ways in which the western world feels threatened. They point specifically to the great suffering in Africa, which is most heavily borne by poor women and children. And they conclude by drawing attention to the systemic nature of the problem, calling attention to “the stark realities of needless suffering and pain in our world as a result of current Global terrorism, unjust political systems and the manipulation of weaker nations by world powers; and to work together as a church to usher in God’s reign of peace, justice and freedom to all.”

Those who have followed this issue will not be surprised by their statement on human sexuality. They denounce what they see as “a warm embrace of practices that have become sources of conflict that now threatens to rip the Church apart and distract her from the mission of leading persons to faith and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. One of such practices is the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender).”

They go on to say that they “are deeply saddened that the Holy Bible, our primary authority for faith and the practice of Christian living, and our Book of Discipline are being grossly ignored by some members and leaders of our Church in favor of social and cultural practices that have no scriptural basis for acceptance in Christian worship and conduct.”

The traditionalists within the UMC saw this as real leadership and called on the rest of the church to get in line behind the African Bishops and reaffirm our commitment to the Bible and the Book of Discipline. In his blog, Hacking Christianity, United Methodist pastor Jeremy Smith provided an excellent analysis of this call for “real leadership,” as well as some thoughts on the strength of our diversity.

In fact, almost everyone involved in this argument is committed to the Bible. We just interpret it differently. Our perspectives on the Discipline, although very different, are rooted in a common commitment to Wesleyan values and historically Methodist ideals.

But there is deep irony in the alliance that holds the traditionalist perspective in place. They say that politics makes strange bedfellows and in this case, church politics makes even stranger bedfellows. The judgmental language against LGBTQ persons in the Discipline survives because Southern traditionalists and Africans have formed an (unholy, I think) alliance.

And there is still more irony. Beyond the unseemly spectacle of the descendants of slave owners uniting with the ancestral home of those slaves to maintain the oppression of another group, there is the discomfort this places on those on the other side of the issue.   Those who favor inclusion have no problem arguing with southern traditionalist, but we are very uncomfortable disagreeing with a group that we know has itself been marginalized and oppressed.

It is not easy to be sensitive to the cultural context while still affirming universal human rights. But it is also important to remember that although the United Methodist Bishops in Africa are unanimous, they do not speak for all African Christians. Bishop Desmond Tutu, an Anglican, is just one example of an African Christian leader who has spoken out in favor of the equal treatment of LGBTQ persons in the church and in society.

Leaders in the Northeast Jurisdiction of the UMC have proposed a way out of our cultural and theological impasse that has not received as much attention as it deserves. Basically, they recommend that, like the Lutherans and the Anglicans, we allow for global differences in cultural contexts.

In summary, this proposal recommends that:

  • The General Conference be renamed The Global Connectional Conference, which will be similar to General Conference, except that it will ONLY deal with global issues and will be responsible for a Global Book of Discipline. 
  • The UMC will be organized into four continent-wide “connections”:  Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. 
  • Each of the four connections will have the option of organizing into regions. Each connection will be responsible for its own, connection-wide book of discipline, relevant to matters that are not global.
  • Annual Conferences will remain the same.  

In many ways we are already a regional church. Our differences appear most obviously in rules governing clergy compensation and salaries, which are very different in the United States than in Africa. The Northeast Jurisdiction plan would allow us to work out our differences on the issue of LGBTQ persons within our own cultural context. The practical result would be that United Methodists in the United States would vote for full inclusion and, at least in our context, the problem would be resolved.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What Do We Mean by "Courageous" Leadership?

Teach me your way, O LORD, 
and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, 
for false witnesses have risen against me, 
and they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD 
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD; 
be strong, and let your heart take courage; 
wait for the LORD!
Psalm 27:11-14

Recently a friend sent me an article titled, Six Reasons Why Pastors and Church Leaders Must Be More Courageous Today.” Here’s the list:

1. There have been dramatic shifts in culture, most of them adversarial to biblical Christianity. 
2. The position of pastor is no longer held in high esteem in many communities. 
3. Church critics can be vicious. 
4. Pastors must push against the “me” mentality of many church members..
5. Good church leaders must say “no” often. 
6. Ultimately church leadership is spiritual warfare. 

Two things came immediately to mind.

First, there are way too many blog posts and essays that give six or eight or five reasons why something is good for us, or bad for us, or really (really) important. What is it about lists?

Second, I am always suspicious when someone wants to talk about how pastors are courageous, or need courage to do this or that right thing. Sometimes it’s manipulative. No one want to lack courage or fail to do the courageous thing. Other times it’s just self-serving. 

At a conference I attended, one of the presenters, the pastor of a large church in the Southwest, talked about implementing change. He told how before he started a bold new program at his church he asked for the unanimous support of his board and they gave it. Later, when the changes went into the effect, one of the board members spoke out in opposition. The lesson, he told us soulfully, is that there is “one Judas” on every governing body. Seriously. I repressed the impulse to tell him that the wayward board member wasn’t “Judas,” and of a certainty, he wasn’t Jesus. 

“Courage” and “courageous” are words that should be used with care. The Psalmist speaks of courage "though an army encamp against me." That's not the same as facing a cranky parishioner on the church council.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was courageous. Jim Reeb was courageous. When we speak of saying, “no” to a parishioner’s request as an act of courage, we devalue real courage.

Make no mistake. It is not easy to be a pastor. And it is not easy to be faithful to the gospel in our culture. But I am always suspicious when I see someone talking about “biblical Christianity.” More often than not, what they really mean is “traditional Christianity,” and that is just another euphemism for maintaining a condemning attitude toward LGBTQ persons.

Some cultural shifts are adversarial to biblical Christianity, but in other areas we have made great progress. 

Proclaiming the Kingdom of God, as Jesus did, over against the kingdoms of this world is a radical undertaking. The vision of a world where the poor are lifted up, the last are first, where everyone belongs, where everyone has enough and no one has too much, has never been an easy sell. 

The most virulent critics of real biblical values are very likely to call themselves Christians. Beyond that, the broader culture is often just indifferent. And this is a challenge for pastors and church leaders and serious Christians. But church leadership isn’t “spiritual warfare.”

Friday, October 30, 2015

Can the Center Hold? Can We Muddle Through?

Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old. 
 I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43:18-19a

Adam Hamilton is the Senior Pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, the largest United Methodist Church in the world, with over 20,000 members. He founded the church twenty-five years ago when he gathered a small group and rented space in a funeral home. Adam is deeply committed to biblical Christianity, Wesleyan theology, evangelism, spiritual development, and the mission of the church in the world.

He also embodies one of the most basic Methodist characteristics: pragmatism. He believes in getting things done. And he favors what will work over ideological or even doctrinal purity.

Last spring Adam wrote a blog post called, “Same Sex Marriage and the Future of the UMC.” It is more pragmatic than prophetic, but it suggests a practical way forward that avoids schism. It will not please everyone. In some ways, it will not please anyone.

But as a person who wants to avoid schism, who believes that our denominational diversity and pluralism are strengths, I think it deserves serious consideration.

In many ways he is the perfect person to bring such a proposal. His position has evolved over the years. He has impeccable evangelical credentials. And it should be noted that he has taken no small risk in going public with his thinking on this issue.

His concern is that at our next General Conference in 2016 we need to come up with a plan that will allow us to live with our differences.

Living with our differences would require sacrifices on both sides, but the sacrifices would not be equal. It would mean that traditionalists would have to live with the knowledge that in other parts of the denomination pastors were celebrating same sex weddings and conferences were ordaining gay and lesbian clergy. Those advocating for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church would have to live with the knowledge that full inclusion did not exist across the whole denomination. Most significantly, LGBTQ folks, those most directly affected, would have to live with a situation in which a portion of the church still excluded them and considered them to be uniquely sinful human beings, “less than” others.

He begins with three assumptions:
1. The more complicated the change, the less likely it will pass.
2. The more places in the Discipline that must be changed, the less likely it will pass.
3. The more radical the change, the less likely that it will pass.

He then suggests a three part solution:
1.  Pastors would decide whether or not to officiate at a same sex wedding.
2.  Churches would decide whether or not their buildings could be used for same sex weddings.
3.  Conferences would decide whether or not they would ordain LGBTQ persons.

Under this plan the current condemnatory language about “the practice of homosexuality” being “incompatible with Christian teaching” would remain. But the Discipline would allow local churches and pastors to adopt a more inclusive stance.

He wisely observes that, “We are a denomination divided over how we interpret the scriptures regarding same-sex relationships; most of our congregations are also divided. Any possible solution must allow room for differences of opinion.  What seems clear to me is that a viable long-term strategy cannot be found in a one-sized-fits-all policy imposed upon every church in every region and nation by the 800 delegates to the next General Conference.”

We might note that there are really two sticking points in the current position of the church. The first is that it is painful to be told that one’s life is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” And that is no small thing. But those against inclusion were not content with condemnation and they compounded that first problem with a second one. The second problem is that unlike the Disciplinary positions on gun control, war, the death penalty, abortion, labor unions, or a host of other issues, we have chosen to make this the one social issue on which we impose penalties. If we didn’t have the penalties, then many churches and pastors would choose to be inclusive in spite of the Disciplinary language, and most of our church members wouldn't even know it existed.

Adam Hamilton gives us a way forward. And I continue to believe that maintaining our very imperfect union is important. But we also need to be clear. It is not really a middle road. It requires that some LGBTQ persons continue to be excluded and it continues to enshrine words of condemnation. The traditionalists might feel bad about not being able to prevent every same sex couple from being married in a United Methodist Church, but it is hard to see that as a great sacrifice.

Friday, October 23, 2015

What Do You Believe?

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:14-15

One Sunday morning several years ago an elderly woman approached me in the coffee hour and asked me earnestly why we never said “The Affirmation of Faith.” On that particular morning we had recited a modern affirmation and I pointed that out. “No,” she said, “I mean the original one.”

“You mean, the Apostles' Creed,” I said. 

“Yes,” she answered, “Why don’t we ever say the Apostles' Creed?”

“Well,” I hesitated, “the truth is that a lot of people don’t really believe the Apostles' Creed and they feel uncomfortable saying it.” I paused. “I mean they don’t believe all of it literally . . .”

She smiled. “I don’t believe it either, but I still like to say it.”

That may sound odd, but basically, she had it right. She didn't mean that she didn't believe any of it, she meant that she didn't believe all of it literally. One of the things that is difficult for modern Christians to understand is that the creed was intended as a liturgical retelling of the Gospel Story. It was part of the worship life of the early church. More like a hymn than a theological statement, and certainly not intended to be read as history.

The official United Methodist web site has an article on the historic creeds of the Christian faith, which begins with the declaration that, “Unlike some churches that require affirmation of a strict list of beliefs as a condition of membership, The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church.” Historically, United Methodists have not been expected to believe literally in every word of the creeds. We used the creeds because they can “help us come to our own understanding of the Christian faith. They affirm our unity in Christ with those followers who first wrote them, the many generations who have recited them before us and those who will recite them after we have gone.”

This is the Traditional version of the Apostles' Creed as it appears in the United Methodist Hymnal:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen.

Although our hymnal calls it “Traditional,” it is not the original version. In the original version, after he was “crucified, dead and buried,” it says that “he descended into hell.” The Ecumenical version replaces the phrase “descended into hell,” with “descended to the dead.” Our “Traditional” version omits it altogether. 

In the spirit of Eugene Peterson’s “The Message,” I want to offer a paraphrase of the Apostles' Creed:

I believe in God, the Ground of our Being and the Source of all that is.

And in Jesus Christ, the fullest and best revelation of God, who was born into a human family, suffered under the violence of the Empire, was executed for treason and died a human death. He went to God, even as he came from God, and then appeared again to his disciples. By his life and death all things are judged, and in his love the whole world is reconciled to God.

I believe in the Living Spirit of God in the world, and in the Church as Christ’s living presence among us. I believe God accepts us in spite of our brokenness and loves us beyond our imagining, now and forever. Amen.

If I had been starting with a blank slate, I would not have included all of sections included in the Apostles' Creed and I would have said more about how I believe we are called to live the world. I would have said something about my understanding of the Kingdom of God and how we are called to make that a reality on earth. But it is a useful exercise to use the ancient language as a template. 

My guess is that your creed might be different from mine. What would it look like?