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.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Sounds of Summer

Don Orsillo salutes the fans at Fenway Park for the last time, September 27, 2015

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."

Those words were written by A. Bartlett Giamatti in 1977, before he was President of Yale, or the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He was a lifelong Red Sox fan and he died before seeing a season that ended in anything but heartbreak. 

Red Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione read those words at the close of the last game of the season this past Sunday. Joe (those of us who have spent many summer evenings listening to him cannot help speaking as if he were one of the family) traditionally reads that passage at the close of every season. Joe is currently tied with the late (and very, very great) Ned Martin for the longest tenure among Red Sox broadcasters at 32 years.

And Joe will be back next year.

Baseball broadcasters tend to have long tenures. The Dodgers recently announced that Vin Scully will be back for his 67th season next spring. He was calling the games when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. I remember listening to him calling World Series Games when they were still in the afternoon. “Pull up a chair,” he would say, “if you’re just joining us, we’ve got good one.” And then he would tell us what had happened while I was riding the bus home from school.

Scully is the best ever. The Babe Ruth of broadcasting. Ned Martin was never so well known, but I loved the way he could weave together Shakespeare and baseball. So Martin is my number two. But Joe is right up there. And I’m glad he will be back again.

On the television side, there is grief and despair in Red Sox Nation. Don Orsillo will not be back. He was unceremoniously dumped after fifteen years. Fans are irate, in part at least because it seems utterly bizarre that after a terrible season in which the team was often unwatchable, they seemed to think that the answer was to fire Don Orsillo. The team was not just bad. They didn’t just lose. They were often unwatchable. On the TV side, Orsillo and partner Jerry Remy did their best to give fans a reason to stay tuned. But there is only so much you can do when the team seemed unable to hit, or field, or pitch, or even remember how many outs there were.

Orsillo will be replaced by Joe Castiglione’s radio partner, Dave O’Brien. That is both good news and bad news. O'Brien is one of the best play by play guys in the country. But his talents for description and storytelling come through much better on the radio than on TV. His TV announcing on ESPN is excellent, but his radio announcing is even better.

And baseball is a game for radio. There are very few announcers who live up to the possibilities of baseball on the radio. Scully, Ned Martin, Jon Miller, Joe Castiglione, and Dave (again, he’s like family). The folks who filled in over the summer when Dave O’Brien was doing TV games for ESPN did not fill me with confidence.

Don Orsillo will be calling games for the San Diego Padres next summer, replacing the legendary Dick Enberg, who is retiring. It sounds like a dream job, unless you grew up in New England rooting for the Red Sox, and studied under Joe Castiglione at Northeastern (Joe teaches broadcasting in the off season) and interned at Fenway Park, and your dream job was announcing for the Red Sox.

It was a sad ending to the season. Joe and Dave have often seemed like brothers. If they are not friends, then they present a good facsimile of friendship. And Don was Joe’s protégé and star pupil. 

A few weeks ago, not long after the news came out that Don would not be back, the Red Sox were playing the Yankees at Fenway. Jerry and Don carried on as if nothing was wrong. They were, as always, themselves. Late in the game, with the Red Sox trailing 12-3, the action on the field was less than riveting, but that did not deter them. They were busy analyzing video of Orsillo shagging fly balls last spring at Jet Blue Park, the Red Sox stadium in Fort Myers, Florida. Orsillo was in left field, in front of the wall that copies the Green Monster at Fenway.

Richard Sandomir recounted the exchange in an article in the New York Times.

“That ball you caught up against the wall,” Remy asked with feigned seriousness, “was that hit or was that lobbed?”

“Oh, it was hit,” Orsillo said insistently. “Driven.”

It was classic. Dave will be good, maybe even great. But we will miss Don.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Churches Could Fill Their Pews If Only

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might bless them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.  
Mark 10:13-16

The latest in a long list of blog posts and feature articles how the church could attract more millennials came to me this week from Christian Chiakulas, a writer and musician from Chicago, courtesy of the Huffington Post. The profound skepticism with which I approach such articles was not greatly altered by my reading it. 

The ambitious title proclaims, “Churches Could Fill Their Pews with Millenials If They Just Did This.” The answer is that we should tell people about the concrete demands of the gospel to make the world a better place and then actually get to work doing it. 

Of course. That’s true. Why didn’t I think of that?

The fact that the answer is basically a cliché does not mean we shouldn’t pay attention.

A century ago Walter Rauschenbusch wrote an impassioned plea to pastors and leaders to embrace the Social Gospel, to combat the poverty of cities and rural areas, to stand up against the exploitation of workers, support the rights of women, promote universal education, and join in building the Kingdom of God. If churches want to save souls, he argued, then they must also save bodies. 

Young people, he said, already understand this. They are already committed. And if the churches do not join with young people in this struggle, then they will lose a whole generation.
A great deal has changed in the past hundred years. Women can vote. Workers are protected. We have Social Security and Medicare. We have made great advances in combating racism and sexism. We protect people with disabilities and we treat mental illness with more humanity. We have made great progress.

And the churches can take credit for playing a major role in this transformation. In the Methodist Church we created a new liturgical season between Pentecost and Advent, called Kingdomtide and devoted to studying and celebrating the biblical foundation for building the Kingdom of God. This was never a unanimous effort. There were always individual churches, and sometimes whole denominations, on both sides of every major issue. But overall, there was a shared commitment to advancing equality and justice.

Unfortunately, today much of that commitment can only be described in the past tense, and in many ways, we are in the same place we were a century ago. 

Half a century ago, when the churches were at the height of their institutional power, one of the great leaders (I think it might have been Harold Bosley, but I cannot find the reference) said that in the future our greatest challenge will be keeping a vision of the Kingdom of God alive in the human heart. Today, when we have a widening gap between rich and poor, and a reluctance to do anything about it; when we are willing to cut food stamps rather than increase taxes, we seem to act as if Jesus was only kidding when he talked about economic justice. Our vision of the Kingdom of God is faded and distorted by self-interest.

Today Christians are better known for gay bashing than for social justice.

George Barna, a Christian Evangelical and social researcher, reported that among young people ages 16-29, the most common perception of Christianity was that it was “anti-homosexual.” This was true for 91 percent of those who identified themselves as non-Christian, and for 80 percent of those who called themselves Christian. This same age group is overwhelmingly accepting of gay people, and approximately two-thirds of them support gay marriage.

The anti-homosexual agenda is wrong. And it is self-defeating. It is pushing young people away.

This doesn’t just damage the individual churches or denominations that pursue an anti-gay agenda, it hurts all churches. When J.P. Morgan lost $2.8 billion in a misguided trading scheme, it wasn’t just J.P. Morgan whose stock went down the next day, bank stocks were down across the board. When people see a video of a pastor telling his congregation that they should smack a son who isn’t acting like a real man, or another pastor saying that gays and lesbians should be kept behind an electrified fence, it doesn’t just hurt those individual churches. 

No one who knows anything about the Gospel accounts would believe for a nano-second that either of those ideas would pass the Jesus test. We might not always know what Jesus would do, but we can be fairly sure of some things that he would never do. Unfortunately, for millions of people those pastors and their congregations are defining Christianity.

If we want to bring young people into the church, we first need to bring the church back to Jesus.

*This post borrows heavily from one written in May of 2012