Saturday, April 28, 2012

Holy Conferencing, Batman!

A lawyer asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:35-40

Earlier this week delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church participated in an hour of “Holy Conferencing” to discuss the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the United Methodist Church.

It didn’t go well.

At least it didn’t go as well as some had hoped. In some of the small groups, LGBT persons were met with words and actions that were “dismissive and hurtful.”

Are we surprised?

First, a personal confession. I don’t like “Holy Conferencing.” If we are looking for open and honest conversation, then we should call it that. Conferences are about the business of the church. They are sometimes “holy” and sometimes not. There are often moments of grace. But Holy Conferencing on the subject of LGBT inclusion sounds to me like a veiled way of telling those who are hurt by an oppressive and exclusionary policy not to make a fuss.

The United Methodist Church is deeply divided on this issue. There are many clergy, laity, bishops, and district superintendents who openly advocate for full inclusion. There are others who are quietly supportive. Others just want the issue to resolve. And finally, there are those who believe strongly in exclusion.

Many of the small groups apparently went fine. Everyone played nice and no strong opinions were expressed.

But in some groups, the LGBT folk were sitting with the very people who strongly believe that they should be excluded. In other words, the oppressors sat down with the oppressed. Not surprisingly, that didn’t go well.

Oppression in the name of God is still oppression.

Proponents of slavery claimed it was God’s will. Opponents of women’s rights claimed they were doing God’s will. Advocates of segregation claimed they were doing God’s will. And they all used Bible verses to “prove” they were right. Some day we will look back on this the way we now look back on those issues.

Yesterday the conference participated in An Act of Repentance service toward healing with indigenous peoples. My colleague We Hyun Chang reported that during the service Scott Campbell, who has been a voice of conscience on many issues, whispered, “Some day we will have an Act of Repentance for our gay brothers and lesbian sisters in the General Conference.” And he commented, “Yes, soon we will.”

Karl Barth said that Christians can never look back at history without feeling the need for repentance. That is true. And it would be true if we had changed course years ago. And we will always fall short. But it is long past time to be done with this.

For years United Methodists have been wringing their hands about aging congregations and our inability to connect with young people. It would be foolish to claim that changing this policy is the key to making the church more appealing to youth and young adults. But I am certain that the majority of young people see this policy as narrow and bigoted and one more sign that the church is irrelevant.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Metrics of Ministry

Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
II Timothy 4:2-4

In the late 1960’s, Bill Ziegler was appointed to serve one of the largest churches in New England. He was widely regarded at the time as the best United Methodist preacher in the region, and one of the finest in the nation. Wherever he served, the churches grew and the congregations loved him. But he arrived in this new city at a difficult time. In the city, racial tensions and unrest played out against a national background of conflict. Locally, there was a case of police brutality which had brought tensions to the boiling point.

Bill dived into the conflict. He immediately became involved in civic affairs. And in his sermons he addressed these issues with honesty and compassion. Bill was always known as a “prophetic preacher,” who, like the Hebrew prophets, and like Jesus, lifted up God’s call for justice. He named the demon of racism. He talked about the need for reconciliation. And he proclaimed the Gospel in the context of the tension.

It was uncomfortable. And dissension grew in the congregation. A group of prominent parishioners gathered and sent a delegation to see the Bishop. They told the Bishop that Bill was dividing the church, that members were staying home and some were withholding contributions. The Bishop sent a District Superintendent to talk with Bill.

It was a short conversation. The District Superintendent explained the complaints and said that the Bishop wanted Bill to stop upsetting people with controversial issues. Bill asked his visitor, “Do you think I’m not preaching the Gospel?” No, he had not meant to imply that. “Does the Bishop think I’m not preaching the Gospel?” Again, the answer was no. “Then get out of my office,” said Bill, “My job is to preach the Gospel.”

As I write this, United Methodist lay and clergy delegates from around the world are gathering in Tampa, Florida for General Conference. Over the next ten days they will discuss and debate a variety of issues including an ambitious plan to restructure our general agencies and boards. Within that plan is a provision that would eliminate the guaranteed appointment of clergy.

Those who favor eliminating the guaranteed appointment say that it is necessary in order to deal with ineffective clergy. And that is a real concern. But the purpose of the guaranteed appointment is to defend the “freedom of the pulpit,” one of the most treasured pieces of our United Methodist heritage. Pastors can be moved, but they cannot be fired.

The truth is that over the years few pastors have been as fearless as we are supposed to be in our preaching. But it is hard to see how that will improve when effectiveness is defined by a set of metrics measuring attendance, finances, baptisms, and church growth. Those measures are important. But our first responsibility is to be faithful. We follow someone, after all, whose invitation was to “take up the cross daily and follow me.” 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Two Minutes of Silence

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the LORD meant when he said,
“Through those who are near me
I will show myself holy,
and before all the people
I will be glorified.” ’
And Aaron was silent.
Leviticus 10:1-3
Today is Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Torah portion for this week, Leviticus 9:1-11:47 is both troubling and strangely, painfully, relevant. It begins with instructions to the priests on how to offer animal sacrifices, and then it tells how Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron are consumed because they “offered unholy fire before the LORD.” And as if the pain of that were not enough, the young men are buried outside of the camp, and Aaron and his family are instructed not to engage in the outward signs of mourning, although they are assured that others in the community will mourn their loss.

In her Torah commentary in the Huffington Post, Judith Rosenbaum writes, “I picture this family holed up in the Mishkan, the portable Temple of the desert, afraid to move for fear of breaking down or of eliciting more dangerous fire, but filled to overflowing with rending grief. The text does not detail the mourning of the community beyond saying that they will cry (Leviticus 10:6), but I cannot imagine that even the loudest communal wailing could give appropriate voice to the personal grief of Aaron and his family.”

The story should not be taken to mean that mistakes in the ritual are punishable by death. And it is interesting to note that the text does not say that God commanded the fire to consume them, only that it did so. It is Moses, not the Lord, who says that this fulfills some previous statement by God. This is a story that raises more questions than it answers.

Aaron’s sons are named, and even casual Bible readers can feel a connection. Nadab and Abihu were the nephews of Moses and Miriam. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we contemplate the deaths of millions whose names we do not know, the death of Aaron’s sons reminds us that each one had a family and each one had a personal story before everything personal was lost in a flood of terror.

One of the questions raised by the story is about the nature of public mourning and grief. The people of Israel were unsure of how they should mourn for Aaron’s sons, and there has been a history of uncertainty about how to mourn appropriately for those lost in the Holocaust. The original Israeli plan was to make the remembrance on the same day at the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on April 19, 1943. This would celebrate resistance and mourn the deaths at the same time. As if somehow that would make it more comprehensible. Or perhaps because it is easier to mourn for those who resisted. Wisely, in the end, the date was tied to two other dates, Israeli Independence Day and Memorial Day. This year it falls on the anniversary of the uprising, but that is not always the case.

Listening to the news this morning, I heard that in Israel the remembrance would be marked by two minutes of silence. It sounded so small.

But then I read what actually happened. At 10:00 a.m. this morning all across the country, millions of Israelis were silent, and traffic stopped in the streets, and sirens wailed for two minutes. It is a remembrance that should wail inside of us like a siren.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Richard Dawkins and the Mustard Seed

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” Jesus replied, “If you had faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”Luke 17:5-6
The Gospels give us two variations of the teaching about faith “the size of a grain of mustard seed.” In Matthew’s account, Jesus says that with that much faith you can move a mountain. In Luke’s account it’s only a mulberry tree, although to be fair, the mulberry tree would be “planted in the sea,” which is fairly impressive.

The teaching is not meant to be taken literally. The point is that it does not take very much faith to accomplish great things. In Luke’s story, Jesus has been teaching about forgiveness, and he has just told them that they must forgive one another without limit. This seems impossible and so they plead with him to “increase our faith!” His answer is simple, they don’t need more faith, they just need to use the faith that they have.

A mustard seed is tiny. It is so small that if you pick one up and hold it between your thumb and forefinger, you can’t see it. If you press your fingers together enough to hold the seed, it completely disappears. So we can imagine Jesus holding up the seed, and his disciples realizing that they cannot even see it.

I was reminded of the mustard seed story when I read an article in The Christian Century about a public debate between the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and atheist Richard Dawkins. The audience was surprised to hear Dawkins concede a bit of doubt about his conviction that there is no such thing as a creator. But he quickly qualified that by saying that he was still “6.9 out of seven” certain of his long-held belief.

There must be some anecdote that would explain why he chose “6.9 out of seven” rather than ninety-nine out of a hundred, or 999 out of a thousand. But in Jesus’ terms “.1 out of seven” or one in a hundred, or even one in a thousand, would be bigger than “a grain of mustard seed.”

Although the story of the mustard seed is typically understood as a reassurance for those who think that their faith is weak, that’s not how Jesus uses it. The disciples are stuck on believing, and he is focused on doing. It’s not about how much faith they have, it’s about how much they use.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that many times Christians explain their inactivity in terms of doubt. If they were sure that to follow Jesus they really needed to take a stand on an issue, or support a cause, or give themselves sacrificially, then they would do it. If they were sure of God’s presence, then they would do great things. Bonhoeffer insisted that our problem is not faith, it is obedience. Doubt is our excuse for inaction.

The great evangelist, E. Stanley Jones, was often questioned about his close friendship with Mahatma Gandhi. Critics wondered how he could be so friendly with someone who had rejected Christianity. Jones explained that although Gandhi did not believe nearly as much as they did, everything he believes, he does!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thomas Jefferson and Proof Texting

Wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.II Timothy 3:13-17
This passage from the Second Letter to Timothy includes the declaration, “All scripture is inspired by God,” which is often cited as “proof” that every verse of the Bible is literally true, and that every verse of Scripture is as important as every other.

The ironies in this are wonderful.

First, because there is wide consensus among biblical scholars that St. Paul did not write the letters to Timothy. Second, because the words “sacred writings” and “scripture” would have referred only to what we now call the Hebrew Scriptures. There was no Christian canon at the time the letter was written. And beyond that, no one who has spent any time reading and studying the Bible would seriously argue that anything in the Book of Judges is as “useful for teaching” as the Books of Micah and Amos.

A more general (and more painful) irony is that biblical literalism is growing as biblical literacy is declining. We have more people declaring their literal belief in a text with which they are not very familiar.

The co-conspirator of biblical literalism is proof texting. This is the method of argument by which one “proves” that something is true by citing a verse of Scripture. The problem, as Shakespeare famously noted, is that even the devil can quote Scripture.

Proof texting fits perfectly with our cultural inability to pay attention to anything for more than a few seconds. There is no need for a broad understanding of context or history or theology, just find a verse here or there and the argument is settled. Life is simpler without complexity or ambiguity.

The tendency to literalism and proof texting can be seen in secular contexts as well.

Recently I have received several different electronic communications which used a quotation from Thomas Jefferson as a tag line: "A government big enough to give you everything you need, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have...."
As I read it over, and thought about it, I realized that it didn’t sound like Jefferson to me. So I did what any curious 21st century person would do, I Googled it. Turns out that Jefferson never wrote anything like that. The statement originates with Gerald R. Ford, who said, "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have," in an address to a joint session of Congress on August 12, 1974. And we should note that President Ford said that government cannot supply every “want.” My guess (I am hardly a Ford scholar) is that for Gerald Ford the distinction between “wants” and “needs” would be the heart of the argument.

Interestingly, when I got to the Jefferson web site, I found a very long list of quotations wrongly attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Here are two you may have seen:

"When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."

"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

In most cases, the spurious quotations look almost authentic. They take an idea that sounds like Jefferson and bend it slightly to make it fit another argument. In other cases, I was reminded of the warning from II Timothy, “Wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived.”

Thomas Jefferson was a complex figure. He had great insights, but he also had his failings, and he was in many ways, both good and bad, a person of his time. But we accord him a reverence far beyond what we ascribe to other national figures. A quotation from Jefferson carries a lot more authority than a quotation from Gerry Ford.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ordinary People

"They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."Matthew 23:6-12
Yesterday I picked up copies of my medical records from one specialist, in order to bring them to another specialist. As I walked to my car I started reading the report, which began by saying, “Mr. Trench is a very pleasant 63 year old man . . .”


Of course, it could have been worse. Pleasant is better than unpleasant. In fairness to the doctor, he meant no harm. And I guess I could be happy about the “very.”

But I don’t think I have ever been described as “very pleasant.” It was a humbling moment to recognize that in the eyes of this specialist, I was just a “very pleasant 63 year old man” with a collection of symptoms. Even on the basis of a short interview, I would hope to be more than that.

Shortly after I went through the defense of my dissertation and received official confirmation that I had earned a Ph.D., I shared the good news with my grandmother. Her first question was when can you use it? I told her I could use it right away, and asked if she wanted me to explain Kant’s Categorical Imperative. “No,” she said, “I mean when do people start calling you ‘doctor’?”

Three are at least two lessons here. I am one of the privileged ones. I am often “greeted with respect in the marketplaces.” Within our church family, I tend to avoid formalities. I tell the adults to call me, “Bill,” and the kids to call me, “Pastor Bill.” I don’t want to be introduced as “Reverend” or “Doctor.” But giving up a title is very different from having it taken away. The first lesson is, it’s probably good for me to have that experience.

The second lesson is that lots of people go through life without getting much respect. Some do jobs where they get very little affirmation. Others live with disabilities. Some are faced with circumstances which deny any possibility of what we call success. I was experiencing something that others experience for a lifetime.

The truth is that no one is ordinary. Each of us is special and unique.

Years ago I was asked to do a funeral for a man who did not belong to our church. I went to the calling hours at the funeral home, out of respect for the family and because I know that during that time I can often get a sense of who the person is. I stood in line to pray at the casket and to greet the family. When I knelt at the casket I could hear the family talking with friends about this man whom I had never met, and about how special he had been to them. And I prayed silently, “Lord, do not let me trivialize this life.”