Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Work of Christmas

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:15-20

Like Mary, we should treasure the words of the story and ponder their meaning.

Unfortunately, if we do that, our peaceful holiday cheer will soon be displaced by a deep discomfort at the huge disconnect between the biblical message and our superficial adoption of it in our lives. Even before Jesus is born, in the messages brought by the angels to Zechariah and to Mary, Luke tells us that the baby will bring an unsettling message of social justice.

This year in America we will spend more than $450 billion on Christmas presents. In round numbers, that comes to $1,500 for every man, woman and child. What amazes me is that after I do the math, I am actually surprised that it isn’t higher.

What does that say about us as Christians?

In the fourth verse of her Christmas Carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rossetti writes,

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet  what can I give him; give my heart.

But the reality is that the vast majority of the people singing that carol are not poor. And we are capable of giving much more than a lamb. When we sing about giving him our hearts, it touches us deeply, but we are not really serious about it. If we were serious about it, then we would live differently.

We will never close the gap between our lives as they are, and our lives as we know they ought to be. And there will always be a disconnect between the message of Christmas and the way we live that out. But we can make a start.

This year our Christmas pageant closed with a wonderful poem by Howard Thurman, who was Dean of the Chapel at Boston University for many years and a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. Thurman writes about what it means to take the Christmas message seriously. The poem is called, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
           To find the lost,
           To heal the broken,
           To feed the hungry
           To release the prisoners,
           To rebuild the nations,
           To bring peace among people,
           To make music in the heart.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Franklin Graham Is Wrong (Again)

Dr. Hawkins in her hijab
Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God is One. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. 
Deuteronomy 6:4-9

When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he began with the Shema, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God is One. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."

Not surprisingly, he linked it to a verse from Leviticus (19:18), commanding that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The rabbis believed that the love of others was implicit in the love of God. You cannot love God if you do not love your neighbor.

For Jesus, this was the summary of the Torah: love God and love your neighbor.

I have been meditating on the great commandment while reading the story of Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins, an associate professor of political science at Wheaton College (this would be the Illinois Wheaton, not the Massachusetts Wheaton). She announced that during Advent she would be wearing a hijab as a sign of “embodied solidarity” with her Muslim sisters and brothers, and posted an explanatory note on Facebook in which she said that we all worship the same God.

She wrote:

I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind--a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014.

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

But as I tell my students, theoretical solidarity is not solidarity at all. Thus, beginning tonight, my solidarity has become embodied solidarity. 

It was a beautiful statement, but it elicited a punitive response from the college. Dr. Hawkins was placed on administrative leave, not for wearing the hijab, but for what they called “significant questions regarding the theological implications” of her action. “Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution’s faith foundations with integrity, compassion, and theological clarity,” the college declared in their public statement. “As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the college’s evangelical Statement of Faith.”

Most prominent among those who took to social media to support the college and denounce professor Hawkins was Franklin Graham, who posted his response on Facebook:

Can you believe this Wheaton College professor who says she’s going to wear a hijab for the holidays this year to show solidarity with Islam? Shame on her! She said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Well she is absolutely wrong—she obviously doesn’t know her Bible and she doesn’t know Islam. The God of the Bible, has a Son named Jesus Christ. The god of Islam doesn’t have a son, and even the thought of that would be sacrilegious to Muslims. The God of the Bible sent His Son to earth to die in our place and save us from our sins. The god of Islam requires you to die for him to be sure that you’re going to heaven. That’s a huge difference—and there are many more examples! I’m thankful the school is dealing with this and has put this professor on administrative leave. Wheaton College is one of the premier evangelical universities in this country—and on top of that, my father Billy Graham and my mother graduated from Wheaton in 1943.

Many Christians understand Jesus very differently than Franklin Graham does. But he is right that what Christians believe about Jesus is very different from what Muslims believe. For Islam, Jesus was a prophet. For Christians, Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Word of God incarnate.

But does that mean we believe in a different God?

If God is One, then we cannot believe in a different God. We may understand God differently. We may experience God differently. But God is One.

Telling Muslims that they do not worship the same God that Christians do is the same as telling them that they do not worship God at all. It is telling them that they worship something less. It is hard to imagine anything more insulting.


If the critical factor is what we believe about Jesus, then we would have to conclude that Jews also do not worship the same God.

And that would mean that the historical Jesus, the rabbi who kept the Sabbath and attended Synagogue, who was a devout and observant Jew, also believed in “a different God.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Are We Reading the Same Bible?

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 (New Revised Standard Version)

I first learned those verses in the older Revised Standard Version, which said that Jesus came preaching “the Gospel of God,” and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

I interpreted that to mean three separate things:
1. He preached the Gospel.
2. He said that the Kingdom of God was at hand.
3. He called his listeners to repent and believe in the Gospel.

I assumed that the “Gospel” he called them to believe in was the story of his life and death and resurrection.

Of course, I was wrong. The Gospel is the Good News. And the Good News is that the Kingdom of God is among us. Jesus wasn’t saying three different things. He was preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God and calling his listeners to repent and believe it. That is the clear and unmistakable meaning of the text. I interpreted it differently because I brought prior assumptions to it.

My mistake was that I assumed that the Bible and the Gospel were about personal faith. I wasn’t completely wrong. The Bible has a lot to say about personal faith, but it has a lot more to say about social issues, about how we treat one another, about the meaning of justice, and especially about economic justice.

Jesus’ message was about the Kingdom of God. He invited his disciples to live in that strange place where the oppressed are set free, the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear, where the poor are lifted up and the mighty are cast down, where the hungry are fed and the naked are clothed, where enemies are loved and strangers are welcomed, where everyone has enough and no one has too much. 

But personal faith is always the popular favorite.

A recent study of Bible verses shared on the internet shows that the most shared verses are Proverbs 3:5-6, Philippians 4:6-7, Joshua 1:9, Romans 12:2, and Romans 15:13.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Proverbs 3:5-6

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
Joshua 1:9

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God— what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:2

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13

What is striking, though it probably should not be surprising, is that all of the popular verses are about personal faith. There is nothing wrong with that. We all need it. The chosen verses are all inspiring. Romans 12:2 has always been a personal favorite or mine. We all want “tidings of comfort and joy.” And that is an important part of the biblical message. But it is not the whole message. And it is not the center of the message. 

Sometimes when I listen to Christians say hurtful or vengeful or violent or selfish things in the name of their faith I cannot help wondering if we are reading the same Bible. Certainly they read the Bible differently. One suspects that it is possible to read all those verses about personal faith and come away with one’s prejudices unchallenged and one’s bigotry fully intact.

Friday, December 11, 2015

5 Things Jesus Says to Those Who Condemn LGBTQ Persons

Five Things Jesus Would Say to New Spring Church
When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly.
Matthew 17:14-18

A recent post from New Spring Church is titled “5 Things Jesus Says to the Gay Community.” Though the title sounds promising, the actual post is condemning. If anything, the initially soft tone and the deceptiveness of the article makes it even more damaging.

But I have a solution!

With just a few minor edits, I believe it is exactly what Jesus would say to those who persist in condemning and excluding LGBTQ persons from full participation in the life of the church.

I know. 

Jesus never said anything at all about LGBTQ issues. But bear with me. If “New Spring Church” can pretend, then so can we. 

And when we speculate about what Jesus might have said, we are always on safer ground when we tilt toward grace rather than judgment. So here we go: 

There is a lot of noise on the news and in public forums about gay marriage and traditional values. Everyone has an opinion on what’s right and what’s wrong. But what would Jesus say? How would Jesus address those who persist in the perverse exclusion and condemnation of LGBTQ persons? Do not let homophobia and bigotry possess you. You can repent and change. Looking through scripture, Jesus makes His thoughts fairly clear.

1. I love you.

Amidst the protest signs, yelling crowds and political referendums, the simple message of Jesus’ love for you is often drowned out. Never doubt that Jesus loves you more than you could ever know.

Jesus doesn’t just love a future version of you; He loves you exactly as you are right now. Jesus’ love for you has no prerequisites or requirements.

Even if you hate Him and deny his teachings, Jesus loves you and wants what is best for you.

Love is at the core of everything Jesus taught. Unfortunately, His message of love has been conveniently left out by many who would rather make a point than make a difference (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8-10; Romans 5:8; Psalm 86:15).

2. I understand rejection.

Jesus knows how it feels to be a social outcast.

You would think the religious leaders would have been His best friends, but they hated Him. They sought to kill Him and publicly shame Him any chance they had.

Eventually, the religious elite joined forces with local politicians and murdered Jesus in front of a cheering crowd.

Rejection hurts.

Jesus’ own family thought He was out of His mind; you probably understand how that feels. In Jesus’ greatest moment of need, His closest friends deserted Him.

You may feel rejected by society and the church right now, and that daily pressure takes a toll. Jesus understands.

His heart always breaks for the rejected and the outcast. Jesus wants to gather you in His arms and let you know that He loves you. You have a home with Jesus, you belong to Him and you are His child, even when you reject and condemn others. Even your bigotry cannot remove you from God’s love.

Don’t reject Him because He has not rejected you (Isaiah 53:3; Mark 3:20-21;Matthew 26:55-56; Matthew 27; Ezekiel 18:21-23).

3. I also was tempted.

Jesus was tempted in every way that we are tempted. He does not shame you or reject you because of your temptations and feelings. He understands your fearful temptation to reject others and deny their full personhood.

Some like to pretend they are perfect and never face any struggles, but they’re lying. Jesus really was perfect and still faced temptation. Like you, He battled the desire to run away from His Father’s plan.

He understands what you are going through.

If you read about His life, you will see it was no cake walk, but if you will walk with Him and obey Him, you will find a greater reward than you could ever imagine (Hebrews 4:15-16; Hebrews 2:17-18; Hebrews 12:2-3, 7-11).

4. I want more for you.

God created marriage and sex for your enjoyment. Sex was created to bind us together within the covenant of marriage, and it has been that way from the beginning. Anything else is less than what God wants.

Sin is separation; from God, from one another, and from our best selves. Jesus will not stop bringing it to our attention because we will miss out on the deepest experiences in life if sin is left unaddressed. You may think Jesus is trying to take the one thing you enjoy or spoil your fun, but that is not the case. The reason He blessed our love for one another is because He wants what is best for you. Love overcomes our separation.

Jesus wants everyone to be included. When you reject your LGBTQ sisters and brothers, you are rejecting Him.

Ignore the political arguments, the protestors and the yelling. Jesus wants you to trust Him.

Trust that He has good things in store for you. Trust that He wants what is best for you. Before you decide that what you feel is right, decide if you trust Him (Matthew 19:4-6; Ephesians 3:17-21; 1 Timothy 2:4).

5. I will be here for you.

You may disagree with Jesus’ thoughts on love and commitment, but He will not turn away from you.

You may enjoy the life you live right now, even if it is a rejection of God’s love and Jesus’ teachings. Jesus understands your hesitation to make changes. He does not give up on us.

For a long time now, people have disagreed with Him, yelled at Him and run from Him, and He patiently waits. Jesus is patient with us because He wants you to know Him.

Jesus wants you to live a life that is full and abundant. When you are worn out from doing things your way, He will be here. Turn to Him and ask for help, and He will be there before you can blink.

Jesus wants what is best for you, and He wants you to experience a full life.

Jesus is not concerned with winning an argument or forcing you to do something you don’t want to do. Jesus wants you to know that your relationship with Him is better than anything else out there.

Until you reach that point, He will be here patiently drawing you to Himself (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Peter 5:7; Hosea 14).

Friday, December 4, 2015

Handel's Messiah and the Killing in San Bernardino

What then are we to say about these things? 
If God is for us, who can be against us? 
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:31, 35, 37-39

What then are we to say about these things? 

After the shooting in San Bernardino, which was the second mass shooting of that day, what can we say? How does our faith speak to such horrific events?

Last Sunday afternoon I attended a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” by the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Newport.

It was the complete “Messiah,” not a selection of “favorites” pretending to be the real thing. So it was long. Two and a half hours. But it was wonderful. Elaine, who sings in the chorus, had told me repeatedly that I did not have to go just because she was singing, and afterward she inquired anxiously how I had endured. “What’s not to like,” I answered. “It begins with Isaiah and ends with Paul. What could be better?”

And then we talked about the individual pieces and the movement through the scriptures. Those verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans provide the text for one of my favorite pieces.

Our conversation moved from the verses in Romans back to the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which is the theological and emotional center of the oratorio. I told Elaine that I found it incredibly moving when everyone stood and the chorus sang, “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth . . . Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

If you ask me what I believe about the resurrection, I will tell you that I am long past anything that sounds like a resuscitated corpse or a flying body. I don’t think Jesus popped out of the grave like a groundhog on February second. And a close examination of the Gospel accounts reveals an understated sense of mystery that is somewhat at odds with our tendency toward an Easter Sunday extravaganza.

There is a sense in which the “Hallelujah Chorus” does not fit very well with my theology. 

I was well into what might have been a long dissertation on this when Elaine interrupted my reflection to say, “Yes . . . but it’s true!”

Of course, that’s the point. It is moving because it is true. 

Fifty years ago this past spring, at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the State Capitol. Recognizing the frustration of the long struggle for civil rights, he drew on the poetry of James Russell Lowell and William Cullen Bryant, and a sermon by Theodore Parker, to preach about the meaning of resurrection:

I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?" Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?" Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?" (Yes, sir) 

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." (Yes, sir) 

How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because "no lie can live forever." (Yes, sir) 
How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because "you shall reap what you sow." (Yes, sir) 
How long? (How long?) Not long: (Not long) 

Truth forever on the scaffold, (Speak) 
Wrong forever on the throne, (Yes, sir) 
Yet that scaffold sways the future, (Yes, sir) 
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, 
Keeping watch above his own. 
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

Handel’s “Messiah” is about faith in its simplest form. It does not focus on social justice as Jesus did. But without that faith it is hard to sustain the struggle for justice and peace. We are always proclaiming Easter in a Good Friday world. 

And our faith is that Easter has the power to transform Good Friday. We don’t yet have the answers to gun violence. But we will. And we don’t yet know how to prevent terrorism. But we will. 

Until the kingdoms of this world
have become the kingdom of God
and he shall reign
forever and ever.
Revelation 11:15

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? 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Marxism, Materialism, and Biblical Literalism

While Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news that Jesus was the Christ.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Acts 17:16-21

Paul’s experience in Athens reminds me of my time at Wesleyan. Like the Athenians, we loved nothing better than “telling or hearing something new.” And, like Paul, we loved to argue and debate with anyone and everyone.

At Wesleyan’s College of Letters, our debates were sometimes deep and significant, at other times they were shallow and superficial. But always, they were intense.

One of my enduring memories is of a particularly intense discussion in response to a paper presented by a visiting scholar. I have no idea what the paper was about or who the presenter was. I remember that I had trouble following the logic of his argument, and I was listening closely as various professors made their formal responses. What stood out to me was that each of the respondents used the word “abstruse.” 

One after another they thanked our visiting scholar for his “complex” and “abstruse” analysis of whatever it was that he was analyzing. Eventually, as students entered the discussion, they echoed the professors’ judgments of this “complex” and “abstruse” presentation. And one by one they apologized, using the most scholarly sounding language, for not really understanding what this obviously brilliant man was saying.

As the discussion went on, one of our professors, Norman Rudich, became increasingly agitated. He rubbed his eyes as if trying to see through the fog of scholarly jargon. “Just because we don’t understand something,” he said with obvious frustration, “doesn’t mean that the argument is abstruse. It may just lack clarity.”

Other professors worked hard to make nice, but most of us were relieved. Dr. Rudich was almost totally blind, which only added to the symbolism. The Emperor had no clothes and it was the blind man who saw it first.

Norman Rudich was a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Wesleyan for more than thirty years. But he was best known for teaching Marxism. He was a committed Marxist and a devout atheist. 

In my junior year I took his Marxism course. It was a great intellectual exercise and later when I was studying Latin American Liberation Theology, it was important to have a context for understanding the Marxist analysis used by the Latin American theologians. Still, it was a strange experience. I don’t think any of us who took that course were true believers, but I was a special case. Dr. Rudich’s commitment to philosophical materialism and atheism made it impossible for him to admit that there was anything good in Christianity. Though he was basically a gentle man, his intellect and his certainty made him an intimidating figure. I never dared to ask him what he thought about Paul Tillich’s critique of Marxism as a secular religion.

I could understand the intellectual appeal of atheism, but I was convinced that materialism would never go anywhere. The idea that nothing is real beyond what we can see and touch seemed impossible. What about poetry? Can you reduce Shakespeare to materialism? Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman. What about music? Mozart reduced to buzzing atoms and molecules. And what about love? 

Materialism seemed to make the world flat. Lacking depth and meaning. 

Much to my surprise, materialism has found new life. Almost no one claims to be a materialist, but many seem to see the world that way. Some of the new materialism comes with the new atheism, but many atheists are not materialists. Surprisingly, much of this new materialism comes from people who call themselves Christian.

Christian literalism is in many ways a new form of materialism. It reduces God to an object that exists along with other objects. In its quest for certainty, literalism gives us a god small enough to fit neatly into a materialist view of the universe.

In his blog called “On the Way,” Presbyterian pastor Kenneth Kovacs defines the literalism I am talking about:

Literalism is the belief, the philosophy, the attitude, the assumption that truth can only be found in exactness and certainty.  It’s an obsession (and it can be an obsession) with what is actual, literal, with the “letter of the law,” with the need to nail down (sometimes, actually) what is true and not true and then defending that “truth” at all costs. Literalism is a way of being and believing that seeks to maintain a tight “hold” on reality. It’s a way of being that is suspicious (perhaps paranoid) of anything that smacks of analogy or metaphor, of anything that leaves open the possibility of multiple meanings, of plurality.  For the literalist there can only be one interpretation of a text, whether sacred (such as the Koran or the Bible) or secular (such as the U. S. Constitution), only one meaning, only one way to believe and one way to be in the world.  The literalist will take a metaphor and try to turn it into a thing, an idea, a historic fact.  Or, a literalist fails to understand the meaning of a metaphor because s/he is, well, a literalist.

The god of Christian literalism cannot be seen and touched in the same way that we can see and touch other objects, but he (always “he”) can be observed, predicted and even manipulated, with certainty. The god of Christian literalism is not the One that Paul Tillich speaks of as the Ground of our Being, or the Ultimate Reality in our lives. The god of Christian literalism is not Being Itself. For the Christian literalist, symbol and mystery are replaced with a god who is small enough to be known with certainty, but ultimately is not worth knowing.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Faithfulness and Obedience

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 

II Corinthians 5:17-20

In a blog with the very promising name of “Unsettled Christianity,” Scott Fritzsche argues that Christianity is not unsettled at all. It is settled once and for all. What is, is what must be. Doctrines and beliefs don’t change.

Of course, the history of Christian faith reveals that they have changed.

We ordain women. We have outlawed slavery. We have outlawed segregation. We oppose racism and sexism (at least that’s what we say). We don’t burn witches or heretics. Our previous exclusions, rejections, persecutions, and oppressions all claimed doctrinal and scriptural support. 

But as the great abolitionist hymn writer and poet, James Russell Lowell wrote:

New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

Looking back, we know that all of those things were wrong and it seems clear to us now that we can draw a straight line from the biblical witness and the teachings of Jesus to our present understandings. We should have known all along that those things were wrong. But we didn’t. We thought and believed differently. In each instance, those who advocated for more justice and equality were met with the argument that in one way or another the particular injustice under attack was actually sanctioned by God.

Scott Fritzsche’s complaint is that those who support the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons within the United Methodist Church, particularly those who have officiated at same sex weddings, have been disobedient to the doctrines and policies of the church and that such disobedience is the result of unbelief. Because we are a connectional church, he asserts, all of us are affected by this.  

“What one does affects us all,” he writes. “What happens to one affects the other. When disobedience is allowed to occur, I am complicit with it, whether I like it or not.”

He goes on to argue that, “You in leadership, especially those who happen to be Bishops, have failed me greatly. The episcopal leadership of the church should be a sacred trust and a holy calling. You who are to safeguard the church have instead chosen to allow it to be torn asunder. You have allowed the disobedience to grow to such a level that it is now an epidemic in some regions.”

And I agree with him that the unfaithfulness is epidemic in some parts of the church. 

What we disagree about is the nature and source of that disobedience. Those who advocate a more inclusive church are not the ones being unfaithful. On the contrary, it is those who are opposing and obstructing the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians within the United Methodist Church who are being unfaithful to the Gospel and to the teachings of Jesus.

Those who favor exclusion believe they are doing what is right. They do not intend to be unfaithful. We should not question their intentions, but good intentions are not enough.

Doctrines and policies come and go. In a few years, we will change our Book of Discipline to be more inclusive. I hope we will do it next spring at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon. Some think it will not happen before 2020 or 2024. But it will happen.

John Wesley and Martin Luther and John Calvin were criticized for violating the doctrines and policies of their time. They were each charged with disobedience. 

The Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, Reformed Judaism and Conservative Judaism have all become inclusive. They have all changed, and so will we. But change never happens unless some people move ahead. It may appear at first to be disobedience, but when we look back we will call it leadership. And we will call it faithfulness. 

Our faith is always growing and changing and evolving. Change is the only constant over more than three millennia of Judeo Christian history. As William James wrote a century ago, “We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.”  

That is an unsettling thought, but it is true.