Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Sexuality, Celibacy and Ordination

Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. 

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
I Corinthians 7:5-9

The Apostle Paul has a dim view of marriage. “It is better to marry,” he writes, “than to be aflame with passion.”

Even better, I would say, would be “to marry” and “be aflame with passion.”

Paul holds out celibacy as a higher status than marriage, but he concedes that “each has a particular gift from God.” Citing that passage, a clergy friend in another denomination once confided that she had told her bishop that “celibacy was not a gift that I had been given.”

She laughed as she told the story. It was typical of her joyful boldness in affirming the good gifts that God has given us in this life. And that joyful boldness is part of what makes her a wonderful pastor.

That scene came back to me as I read a blog post by Talbot Davis, an elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Davis takes issue with an anonymous blog post by a United Methodist clergywoman on the Methodist Federation for Social Action website on the issue of universal access to birth control.

“I chose to go on birth control, she writes, “because I didn't want to get pregnant and I wanted to have sex. Because I am a clergy woman in The United Methodist Church, and I'm single, that information could get me brought up on charges, and I could lose my ordination. . . . It strikes me as ridiculous in 2016 that this is necessary, but being a person who is sexually active while single is against the rules.” 

Davis argues that the writer is endorsing an ecclesiology of “me” and “now,” and intentionally confusing the commandments of God with petty “rules” and regulations. And he worries about “a future for the United Methodist Church in which sacrifice-making, cross-taking, self-denying holiness has gone the way of garters and petticoats.”

“Garters and petticoats”? In this context, I find that reference wonderfully amusing.

But seriously, have we really come to a place where our witness of “sacrifice-making, cross-taking, self-denying holiness” is expressed in a sexual ethic of celibacy? No wonder secular people think the church is irrelevant.

Davis fears that if the prohibitive language around homosexuality is changed then we will be dismantling our whole understanding of sexual ethics.

We won’t be. The issues are fundamentally different. The “homosexual issue” is about civil rights and inclusion. It is not really about sexuality (in the narrow sense) at all.

The only change to our sexual ethics would be to apply those ethics equally to everyone. We could still maintain the ordination expectation of “celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage,” but apply it to gay and straight persons equally. Nothing else would need to change.

But let’s get back to the issue of sexual ethics.

The anonymous clergywoman says that she didn’t want to get pregnant, but “I wanted to have sex.” 

I think some of her critics have assumed she meant that she wanted to have casual sex whenever it suited her desires. And she could have meant that. But my guess is that she phrased it that way to make a bold statement and get our attention. She was more likely talking about wanting to have sex with someone whom she loves and to whom she is deeply committed.

Since my ordination in 1973, when everyone gave a wink and a nod to the notion that we would not smoke or drink, I have married hundreds of couples. It is possible that one or two of those couples waited until they were married before having sex. But I don’t think it’s possible that there were more than two. And I don’t believe that my clergy colleagues are any different.


When we fuss about sex before marriage, what are we talking about? Do we mean intercourse, or are we including oral sex? And do we really want to go there?

Sexuality is a good gift from God. It is meant to be enjoyed. We receive that gift best when we exercise it in the context of a mature, loving and committed relationship. 

It's not that complicated.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Why Did Jesus Die? (A Short Reflection for Holy Week)

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Mark 8:34-37

The most common (most frequent and crudest) explanation of Jesus' death on the cross is that God sent him to die for our sins. Someone had to pay for the sins of humanity. Jesus suffered so that I didn't have to. He was perfectly sinless and it was a perfect sacrifice.

That is a caricature of what is called the theory of "substitutionary atonement." I have deliberately used the caricature to make a larger point. In spite of the fact that it's the theology I grew up with, and it's still the most common theological understanding of Good Friday, I am convinced it is wrong. It is wrong biblically, historically, morally, and theologically.

On Good Friday, Jesus was tried, and convicted, and tortured, and killed. It was a triumph for the powers of darkness, and there was nothing good about that Friday. Or so it seemed. 

But in his death he exposed the moral bankruptcy of the Empire and the shallow religiosity of the chief priests and elders who collaborated with the oppressors. Good Friday is the story of a collision between the goodness of God in Jesus, and the evil of a violent empire.

Before we go any further, we need to clear up two major misunderstandings:

  • The Jews did not kill Jesus; the Romans did.
  • He was not executed for blasphemy; he was executed for treason.

The Jews did not kill Jesus. We know this as an absolute fact because they did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment. We also know this because if he had been sentenced to death by a Jewish court, he would have been stoned to death. The Romans were the only ones with the authority to kill him, and they did.

We know that the Romans executed Jesus for sedition because they crucified him. Crucifixion was a death reserved for those who committed treason against the empire. It was a form of state terrorism designed to torture its victims and terrify the populace. The Romans did it often so that the people were kept constantly aware of the consequences of defying the empire.

So why did Jesus die? And what does it mean?

I don’t believe that God sent Jesus to die. I don’t believe that it was God’s plan.

That’s partly because I think that speaking of God’s plan is too anthropomorphic. It imagines God as some sort of supernatural version of a human being. But it’s also morally suspect. It suggests that somehow God was sending Jesus on a suicide mission.

In the passage from Mark’s Gospel, as in Matthew and Luke, Jesus says that those who want to follow him need to “deny themselves and take up their cross.” He is not carrying the cross in their place. He is not inviting them to watch him die. He is inviting them to do what he is doing. And remarkably, they did.

Luckily for us, being a follower of Jesus is not as dangerous for us as it was for those first disciples. We are not living with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. We are not living in a part of the world where Christians are persecuted. 

If we take up the cross at all, we do it symbolically. And safely. That is mostly because we live in the United States of America, but it is at least partly because we are not as faithful in proclaiming the Gospel as an alternative vision of how the world should be. 

Jesus died because he was completely faithful to God and his faithfulness collided with the sinfulness of humanity in the form of the Roman Empire. 

He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as a radically different vision of how the world could be. Against the normalcy of violence, he proclaimed nonviolence. Against the normalcy of self-interest, he proclaimed self-sacrifice. 

The commandment to love our enemies is about as subversive of what passes for normal as anything could possibly be. And two thousand years later, even those of us who claim to be his followers have a very hard time even imagining what that path looks like, let alone following it.

When he invited his followers to take up the cross, he invited them to follow the path of self-sacrificial love. And he promised that the way of self-sacrifice is also the way that leads to life.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Normalization of Donald Trump

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; 
and what does the LORD require of you 
but to do justice, 
and to love kindness, 
and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8

Earlier this week on PBS News Hour, there was a story about three generations of a family in North Carolina, all working for Donald Trump.

The grandfather, Pete Tilly explained, “This is my first time I have ever worked on political campaign. My family members are joining me, my son, my daughter-in-law, and my grandchild. It’s been such an awesome experience.” 

His son, daughter in law, and eleven year old grandson echoed his enthusiasm. Farron Tilley introduced himself as a registered Democrat, who was supporting Trump because he believes that Trump is best positioned to improve the economy. And his wife, Grace, said that she had never even voted before this election. Their son is seen on the phone with a potential voter, telling the prospective voter that Trump is the one who will stand up for America.

Pete Tilley summed up his reasoning this way, “My biggest point is, if you want to be here, conform to the country. If you don’t want to be here, go home. I was born in Montreal, Canada. And when I started school, for us, we were told, look, you either speak English or you’re not going to pass your class.”

He went on to say that, “in today’s society, it’s like we cater to the people, whatever language they speak. I came in the States, I joined the military, and then I even went and got naturalized, and I’m very proud to say I’m an American citizen.”

The report showed Pete Tilley in his biker gear, standing with his head bowed, praying with two other men before going out to campaign. “And, father God,” he says solemnly, “We just thank you that you’re going to use Donald Trump for your glory in your kingdom, oh, father God.” And one of the other men say, “Amen.”

They were presented as that forgotten segment of our population, “the white working class,” ignored by Democrats and Republicans alike, whose frustration is fueling the rise of Donald Trump.

But sharp eyed viewers saw something more.

One viewer wrote: “Grace Tilly has obvious Aryan Nation/White Supremacist beliefs (the Iron Cross/White Power Bullseye tattoo on her right hand and the "88" Heil Hitler tattoo on her left hand), plain for all to see. Why was no mention made of this?”

And the writer concluded, “This story should've had the headline ‘Aryan Nation members Support Trump.’”

Of course, Mr. Trump is not responsible for every one of his supporters. It is not necessarily his fault that some of his volunteers are neo-Nazis. And some might argue that this is one more example of “Godwin’s Law,” that if an online discussion of anything goes on long enough, someone will make a comparison to Nazis or Hitler.

But this is not an ordinary internet discussion.

Earlier this winter, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote a story for Holocaust Remembrance Day. He spoke with Irene Weiss, who survived Auschwitz, and says that now, for the first time, she is worried about the political discourse in her adopted country.

“I am exceptionally concerned about demagogues,” she told Milbank at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “They touch me in a place that I remember. I know their influence and, unfortunately, I know how receptive audiences are to demagogues and what it leads to.”

When she hears about plans to register Muslims, and to ban them from entering the United States, “I’m worried about the tone of this country,” she told him. “It has echoes, and maybe more so to me than to native-born Americans,” she said. Lighting a candle in remembrance of those who died, she went on, “I’m scared. I don’t like the trend. I don’t like how many people are applauding when they hear these demagogues. It can turn.”

Johanna Gerechtner Neumann fled with her family to Albania after Kristallnacht. Milbank reported that the museum staff had arranged for her to talk about how Muslims had protected them from Hitler. Her father had been a veteran of the First World War, a patriotic German who did not believe that such things could happen in Germany. But, she said, “It did happen. Slowly, but it did happen.”

At one point Mr. Trump retweeted a message to his nearly 6 million followers that came from @WhiteGenocideTM based in “Jewmerica,” Of course, he later claimed that he didn’t really know anything about the message and that “retweeting” wasn’t the same as composing the message in the first place.

In this year of toxic politics, Donald Trump holds a special place.

I am troubled by his embrace of torture, his xenophobia, his racist remarks, his misogynistic slurs, and his crude language. But in many ways I am troubled even more by what the news media and the political commentators have done with this phenomenon. We might call it “the normalization of Donald Trump.” In that regard, the story on PBS News Hour is only the latest example.

Like many other people, I thought the Trump campaign would fall apart before it even began, when I watched his rambling and incoherent attack on Mexican immigrants, delivered as a central part of his rationale for seeking the presidency.

I thought he was done the first time he crudely insulted Megyn Kelly, and again when he insulted Carly Fiorina. When he said that John McCain, who was tortured for five years as a prisoner of war in North Viet Nam, was not really a war hero, I was sure that no candidate could survive such a serious gaffe.

He survived and thrived with insults to handicapped people and unbelievably crude remarks about Hillary Clinton. Later he bragged that he could kill someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and still not lose any supporters.

But through it all, he was the major focus of every news report. Morning, noon and night. It is all Trump all the time. They show the video of his insults. They report on his lies, and they report on his endless denials. 

And then they talk about his appeal to voters who have felt disenfranchised by both parties and feel left out of America, as if that were the whole story. They treat it, like they treat all politics, as if it were a sporting event. They talk about poll numbers, what it might take to win, who has the momentum, and who is falling behind. 

It is bad enough in normal times. In these times it does not serve us well.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Unity and Disunity in the United Methodist Church

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
I Corinthians 10:16-17

According to Saint Paul, unity is a central part of our theology.

We may disagree on many things, but we are still one in Christ because we break the one loaf and share the same cup.

By comparison to the disagreements in Corinth, our disagreements within the United Methodist Church are minor. 

For us, it is about a few short paragraphs in our Book of Discipline.

In a recent post about the question of unity or schism at our coming General Conference, Steve Harper argued that it basically comes down to a simple question of whether or not we value unity. He summarizes it this way:

“If the delegates at General Conference believe unity is a higher value than schism, then we can anticipate some plan for remaining together. If not, we will see some plan for separation. In either case, theological language will be used to justify the ideological and institutional manifestation. But however it is worded, the preference for unity or schism will reflect the deeper and final influence of will.”

Taking the opposite point of view, Drew McIntyre argues that, “We are not faced with a choice between the desire for unity or for schism. The true issue is a conflict between covenant fidelity and celebrated infidelity.”

Seriously, those are the choices?

We are choosing between “covenant fidelity” and “celebrated infidelity.”

Not just infidelity. Celebrated infidelity.

My guess is that most of us are in favor of covenant fidelity, but that’s not the issue. It’s not about the covenant. It’s about whether LGBTQ persons are excluded or included in the life of the church and it comes down to a few sentences in a book that is many hundreds of pages long.

We should be clear that when those in favor of exclusion talk about covenant, they are not talking about the biblical covenants, they are talking about the “clergy covenant” in which United Methodist clergy promise to uphold the Book of Discipline as part of their ordination vows.

So let’s look at the Discipline.

This is what it says under “Qualifications for Ordination:”

“While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

I think the wording is important. It says, that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Not Christian faith, or Christian theology, or Christian ethics.

The statement is descriptive rather than normative. It says that this is what (some) Christians have taught and continue to teach. It is a description of what is rather than a declaration of what ought to be.

The descriptive nature of the statement is clearer in the Social Principles:

“We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”

It is an offensive statement. It is hurtful and insulting and basically unchristian. But again, it is descriptive rather than normative. This is what we have done. Sadly, it is also what some of us are still doing. But we know that Christian teaching changes and evolves. This is not forever. It is an observation of what is, rather than a declaration of what ought to be.

Some of us believe that in order for the United Methodist Church to become what we ought to be, we need to ignore that one sentence about incompatibility. We believe that in order to fully affirm the rest of that paragraph, and to be faithful to Gospel, we need to ignore the offending sentence. 

My Old Testament Professor, Dr. Harrell Beck, liked to say that “change is inevitable, but growth is possible.” In this case, I would prefer growth, but I will settle for change. And the change is inevitable.

It is sad that on this critical issue the United Methodist Church lags behind the secular culture. But change is coming and we need to hold together as we trust God to lead us into the future. Dr. Beck loved the verse from the Prophet Habakkuk: 

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will say to answer my prayer.
Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
Habakkuk 2:1-3

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Moral Evolution: Is the World Getting Better?

Once Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

Is the world getting better, or is it getting worse?

For Christians, that is a faith question. If we are not making moral progress, if we are not evolving morally, then the whole premise of Christianity is suspect.

It is fundamental. More fundamental than any of the supposed “fundamentals” of Fundamentalism.

My Old Testament professor, mentor and friend, Dr. Harrell Beck (of blessed memory) pointed out that although the people of Israel could see the evidence of God in the natural world, and they could see God’s presence in humanity, it was primarily in history that they saw God at work. 

He would recite those treasured lines from Psalm 121: “I lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help,” and then note ruefully that most Christians did not recognize that there was a period after “hills,” and a question mark after “help?” For the people of Israel, help did not come from the hills, it came from God. And they encountered God in human history.

The people of Israel believed that God acts in history, in Exodus and Exile and Restoration. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was talking about establishing God’s vision for humanity on earth, in history.

At the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery, when Dr. King delivered one of his greatest speeches, analyzing the economics behind the racial politics of the Jim Crow laws, he concluded with an affirmation of faith. Weaving together James Russell Lowell’s great hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” with Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” he concluded by channeling the great Abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker. We know that we will prevail in the struggle for Civil Rights, he proclaimed, because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  

So, is the world getting better, or is it getting worse?

In a recent column in the New York Times, Leif Wenar, of King’s College London, describes the scene in that city in 1665, when England encountered the worst outbreak of the Plague since the Black Death three centuries earlier. Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary, “Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the City died this week 7,496; and of all of them, 6,102 of the Plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000 — partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number.”

The devastation was increased by choices made in ignorance. 

As the death toll mounted and the streets were filled with waste, Londoners saw so many dogs and cats roaming the city that they seemed about to take it over, in response the Lord Mayor ordered that all of the dogs and cats should be killed. 

Wenar describes what happened next:

“The Chamberlain of the City paid the huntsmen, who slaughtered more than 4,000 animals. But the dogs and cats were chasing the rats that were feeding on the waste — and the rats were carrying the fleas that transmitted the Plague. Now spared from their predators, the rats spread the affliction even more fiercely. The medical advice from London’s College of Physicians — to press a hen hard on the swellings until the hen died — did not slow the disease. In the end, the Plague of 1665 is thought to have killed almost 20 percent of London’s population (the equivalent of a million and a half people today). A great fire then consumed a third of the city.”

The immediate cause of death was bubonic plague, but the scope of the devastation was the result of what Wenar calls a “crisis of ignorance.” Now we know how to keep the disease from becoming a pandemic. “Ignorance,” he observes, “no longer plagues us.”

We have made progress. “In 1665,” writes Wenar, “half a billion humans sweated to sustain the species near subsistence with their crude implements. Now our global economy is so productive that 16 times that number — some 8 billion humans — will soon be alive, and most will never have known such poverty.”

Much of our progress is technological, but we have also made moral progress.

We have advanced in terms of civil rights, women’s rights, the rights of LGBTQ persons, and in human rights generally. In the seventy-five years since the end of World War II, there have been many regional conflicts and we have often seemed at the edge of Armageddon, but we have lived in relative peace. Isis is troubling and sometimes terrifying, but it is not the Third Reich. Or Imperial Japan.

Sometimes the moral arc is so long that it looks flat, like the earth’s horizon.

They asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come and he cautioned them not to expect obvious signs. But nevertheless, he insisted, “in fact, the Kingdom of God is among you.”

The Kingdom of God is already and not yet. 

It is not yet fully realized, but it is already among us.

There is still too much violence and oppression in the world. We cannot be content with billions of people living in poverty. The growing gap between rich and poor is an affront to biblical ethics and economics. As Wenar writes, “The world now is a thoroughly awful place — compared with what it should be. But not compared with what it was.”

We face great challenges. But we are also living in a time when we have achieved incredible advances in technology as well as in morality. “Something is happening,” writes Wenar. “What future generations might marvel at most will be if we, in the midst of it, do not see it.”