#ProudtoBeUMC – 7

Reason 7 that I am #ProudtoBeUMC and will #BeUMC going forward – Christian community is necessarily formed by diverse people united in Christ. Paul speaks of this reality in terms of Spiritual Gifts in 1st Corinthians 12. In Acts 10, Peter and Cornelius reveal that our diverse unity challenges and changes insider and outsider alike. The covenant of Christian marriage is significant not because compatible soulmates find each other, but because diverse persons are united in a covenant meant to overcome the forces that threaten to divide. Almost every large scale atrocity committed in the name of Jesus has involved an attempt at making “them” become like “us” rather than creating enough room for every child of God to find their unique place in the one body of Christ.

The idea of a “big tent” denomination or “a place for liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between” is undoubtedly a messy and at times chaotic proposition. It is also true that there have to be boundaries and expectations of some kind for any community to exist in the first place. However, I am proud to take part in a denomination that is increasingly committed to finding a pathway toward diverse unity in the midst of a culture that increasingly pushes us toward ideological purity and tribal conformity.

Bishop Mande Muyombo from the North Katanga Area of Africa was recently interviewed on “Pod Have Mercy” (found at youtu.be/drLl4j9FIxs). His comments on whether or not we can disagree on human sexuality and still be one church resonate deeply with me. In part, he shared the following:

“I’m an African. As an African, I will tell you, culturally same sex marriage is not accepted, because of my ethos. But do I have the right to impose that on other people? I don’t think so. I think our theology should be informed by who we are, culturally, the way we’ve been brought up in our ethos. I’ll just make you laugh, I’ll tell you this… my mom told me when I was young, a boy cannot spend time in the kitchen. Each time I would go to the kitchen, try to touch the plates, she would come and pull me out. As a result, I can’t cook. But in [the US] if you don’t cook for the one you love, that’s trouble.”

His example is intentionally a bit silly, but serves to remind me of how many of the things we do and take for granted are not foundational truths about human nature – they are contextual and cultural assumptions that may or may not make sense across time and space. Bishop Muyombo described the need to not only be right but to require that everyone else agree as a very US centric approach. In contrast, he highlighted the Christmas Covenant legislation and other such efforts led by Central Conference members. These approaches embrace regionalization and expect contextual differences as a necessary part of becoming a truly global church.

In Bishop Muyombo’s own words, “Contextual theology creates a prophetic church.” Prophecy is not future prediction, it is a word of God’s truth that reshapes the world. Our denomination needs to be reshaped – we need revival, but not a return to ‘the glory days.’ We need to finally grapple with what it would mean to be a truly global church – not just a US denomination that exported its version of the gospel, but a united church that reflects the diversity of all God’s children.

I don’t expect that the UMC will get it right any time soon or that there is a simple or short term way to fix all the problems we’ve created. But I do believe the majority of leaders committed to the future of the UMC are beginning to take seriously the calling to be a church that is diverse in expression and context, while remaining united in purpose and mission around one simple conviction – the good news of Jesus Christ. That is the kind of church I am happy to serve and honored to help build.

#ProudtoBeUMC – 6

Reason 6 that I am #ProudtoBeUMC and will #BeUMC going forward – part 3 of the Book of Discipline – Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task

Two especially relevant quotes from paragraph 105:

“While the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process, the Church encourages serious reflection across the theological spectrum.”
And:
“In the name of Jesus Christ we are called to work within our diversity while exercising patience and forbearance with one
another. Such patience stems neither from indifference toward truth nor from an indulgent tolerance of error but from an awareness that we know only in part and that none of us is able to search the mysteries of God except by the Spirit of God. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom to continue our journey with the whole people of God.”

I don’t believe our doctrines are meant to end conversations; they are meant to be the foundation of faith that make it possible to explore the mysteries of a God whose mercies are new every morning. I find hope in an approach that seeks truth with humility, through diversity, and in reliance on the Spirit along the entire journey.

#ProudtoBeUMC – 5

Reason 5 that I am #ProudtoBeUMC and will #BeUMC going forward – I believe the point of the Church is not to make “them” be like “us,” but for every child of God to be challenged and changed.

The story of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius (Acts 10) is a clear reminder that those who share the gospel will be a least as challenged and changed as anyone who receives it. Cornelius, a God fearing man but certainly not a Christian, was baptized into the body of Christ. Peter, already a disciple of Jesus, was compelled by the Holy Spirit to give up some of his deepest assumptions about faithful living. This mutual transformation is what happens when the gospel is at work.

I would never pretend that the UMC is free from deep problems or deny that it is in desperate need of revival. We’re in a difficult season of transition that might turn out a thousand different ways and I have no idea what exactly comes next. But I also believe that a multitude of UMC leaders are faithfully seeking the renewal of our church by leaning into the challenge of encountering diversity and difference. And I believe that leaving now would mean running from the kind of gospel encounter Peter had.

I know of no biblical stories in which the true call is for us to find simplicity and comfort in the way things have always been done rather than to go out and take the risk of encountering the “others” of our faith and world. And I am convinced that the gospel’s solution to encountering a challenge from the “others” is never to assume that “we” get to remain comfortable while “they” have to conform. Often, the most uncomfortable moments plant the seeds of the most life giving change. The moment that changed everything was the moment God so profoundly refused comfort and simplicity that Jesus went to the cross, turning every expectation of what was supposed to happen upside down.

The most biblical, hospitable, Christ like thing I can think to do in a moment like this is to trust that the love and mission of God cannot be stopped – even if that means my life and ministry are the things that need to be turned upside down. I can’t imagine actually reading the Bible and coming away with any other expectation.

#ProudtoBeUMC – 4

Reason 4 that I am #ProudtoBeUMC and will #BeUMC going forward – of all the things scripture is clear about, one of the clearest is that we are called to follow God by faith, not fear.

Isaiah 43:1-2 – But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Fear looks at what might go wrong, faith envisions what is possible;
fear can only see what’s broken, faith sees healing in the scars;
fear longs for the comfort of what has always been, faith embraces the discomfort of the new thing God is doing;
fear requires simple solutions, faith instills patient endurance;
fear feeds anxiety, faith enables peace;
fear responds with control, faith is built on trust;
fear says what I do makes all the difference, faith reminds us that God has already done everything that changes anything.

I’d be lying to say that I’m not at all afraid of what comes next for the UMC. But the only reasons I would personally leave would be based on fear – fear that something might change, fear of losing control, fear that there wouldn’t be a church to go to next, fear that the institution is too far gone to be renewed.

Instead, I choose based on my faith that the best way I can serve is to be part of whatever new thing God does next through the United Methodist Church.

#ProudtoBeUMC – 3

Reason 3 that I am #ProudtoBeUMC and will #BeUMC going forward – a core call of the church is to speak the unchanging gospel in a way that a rapidly changing world can hear it. That means not just accepting but actively embracing the Bible as the story of God’s people adapting to the new things that God keeps doing. From Abram and Sarai to Sinai to the temple to the exile to the cross to Pentecost to so many moments in between and since…I don’t know how to be faithful to anything the Bible says, is, or does without fully expecting that at some point in my life or ministry God will pretty much turn my world upside down.

From the renewal energy that gave birth to Methodism to our radical focus on grace to the embrace of women in ministry to so many countercultural and powerful moments of witness, the UMC has a long history of following the Spirit in ways that both honor and transform tradition. This season of transition in the UMC is difficult and messy and there is no obvious pathway toward resolution. But I believe the one who makes beauty from the ashes will again do a new thing through us. The gospel will be heard in new ways and the world will be changed.

#ProudtoBeUMC – 1

Someday I hope to articulate a more thorough explanation of why I will remain a United Methodist in the midst of all that is happening. For now, this reflection (from just after the 2020 General Conference was officially canceled) expresses at least one of the core reasons I will #BeUMC – to leave would be to chase after the illusion of control rather than to trust in the one who has always made new ways in the wilderness.

No Further Harm

I wrote the post below a few years ago, but I am compelled to share it now. As we in the UMC approach decisions that may well define our future, the broad theme that prompted me to write the post keeps confronting me. A speech at the 2021 Texas Annual Conference concretely illustrates that theme. A resolution was offered to suspend church trials related to human sexuality in light of the hope that our upcoming General Conference will end the stalemate at which the UMC has found itself for nearly 50 years. A delegate then argued against the resolution, saying that committing to not enforce our current policies against same sex marriage or ordination of openly gay pastors would be comparable to the Roman Catholic church having decided to not investigate and root out child abuse. The speech concluded with the sentiment that “Parents and grandparents do not feel safe leaving their children at a church that the people in charge allow [homosexual] tendencies.” 

Again, it was not anything unique to this particular speech that stood out so much as the broad theme its specifics represent. That theme is the harm wrought in the way the UMC has tried to be officially welcoming to LGBTQ persons while also harboring significant fear, ignorance, and dramatic misunderstandings of gay and lesbian people. I don’t know or care if the conflation of consensual adult sexuality with child abuse was intentional or careless. What I care about is the harm that we cause by being a place that is theoretically welcoming to gay and lesbian persons except for a handful of prohibitions (primarily marriage and ordination), while at the same time failing to challenge such conflation, with leaders even relying on subsequent fear, ignorance, and dramatic misunderstandings to attain the votes necessary to ensure our denominational position never changes.

That very type of conflation is increasingly common within and beyond the church – notice how often claims of “grooming” are included as reasons to support prohibiting LGBTQ affirming resources or conversation in schools. In the last few years, I’ve also heard it said by church leaders who publicly desire to welcome gay people into their churches “that if we let gay people get married, we’ll have to let people marry goats as well,” “that the gay agenda is all about trying to destroy the church,” “that if we change anything we’d have to let bisexuals marry as many people as they want,” and a variety of suggestions about the danger posed to children by the LGBTQ community. Claiming to be welcoming while ignoring (at best) and incentivizing (in practice) such wild misconceptions is itself a source of harm. 

There are obviously all sorts of ways people have argued for and against the biblical, theological, and traditional foundations of changing the UMC stance and policies or staying the same. I don’t here mean to comment one way or another on any of those. What I attempted to do below was take for granted the idea that “sinfulness” is a meaningful and specific category in United Methodist thought and that the “incompatibility” language of the Book of Discipline and its related policies name something that rightly falls into the “sinful” category. My point is that we are not thereby absolved from coming to terms with the actual, significant, ongoing harm caused to LGBTQ persons by the ways we live out our convictions about what sin is and what to do about it. 

To welcome someone into our church homes is to claim responsibility for our effect on that person, regardless of our intent. To hear the stories of same gender loving persons is to be confronted by the immense wake of direct and indirect harm that has been wrought in the name of purported accountability, correction, or faithfulness. What I’ve posted is my attempt to name and illustrate the effect of the status quo. It is framed in a provocative way, not because I intended to sensationalize something benign. It is so because I cannot think of a more adequate analogy to help me (and hopefully others) acknowledge the pain being expressed by real people. It is not yet clear exactly what the future will hold for United Methodism, but it is clear change is coming. Wherever I wind up, it won’t be acceptable to preserve the harmful status quo by valuing the right to speak our minds over the call to embody the radical hospitality of Jesus. My goal in acknowledging the harm we have caused is, before anything else, to do no further harm.

————————–

I can still remember reading bits and pieces of Dave Pelzer’s memoir A Child Called It. I have no idea when or why I initially read the book but I recently rediscovered some of the stories it contains. Dave was abused as a child. He suffered everything from simply being blamed for his brothers’ misdeeds to having his arm held over an open flame on the stove. Dave was starved and beaten countless times by an alcoholic, abusive mother and forced to live in the basement. Dave’s brothers, on the other hand, were treated well and even participated in the punishment games his mother would play.

I share a bit of Dave’s story because it is the most stark real world example in my memory of a certain way of life. That way of life could more simply be called a cinderella story. Obviously, I don’t mean the part of the story with a pumpkin carriage and a glass slipper that leads to true love. I mean the part of the story that we so often gloss over or ignore. In the classic story, Cinderella lives a life much like Dave – her step mother is abusive to her and not her sisters, punishing her often and severely, while also refusing to give her things like the good food or new clothing given to her step sisters.

While most retellings of the Cinderella story understandably focus our attention on fairy godmothers and the possibility of a better future, the tragic, abusive, and horrendous conditions of Cinderella’s pre fairy godmother existence have a great deal more relevance to what far too many people experience everyday. The kind of favoritism shown by Cinderella’s and Dave’s caretakers is a particularly damaging and far too common form of abuse. 

What makes a Cinderella parent so abusive and damaging is not the specific acts of discipline against the singled out child (although such punishment often does result in its own kind of trauma); what makes a Cinderella parent so abusive and damaging is the dramatically disproportionate punishment handed out to one child over the others. Both children might try to sneak a cookie – one child might get a gentle slap on the hand and the other be forced to sleep in a basement closet for a month. Sometimes, by Dave’s recounting, he was the one punished even when it was his brothers who did something wrong in the first place. 

I fear that the United Methodist Church has long been Cinderella parents to same gender loving persons.

I am not here interested in entering the debate regarding whether homosexuality or homosexual acts are in any way sins. If they are not sinful at all, the unwarranted harm caused by the church is obvious. I am instead taking for granted the conservative United Methodist position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Even given incompatibility, I believe that we have long since singled out this one and only sin as uniquely worthy of swift and decisive response. In so doing, we have acted as cinderella parents. 

Language regarding homosexual persons being ‘sinners just like the rest of us’ is often intended to place same gender loving persons on equal footing with all others in the church. But equality is in no way embodied in the specific actions and responses the church takes. I, a typical, American Christian who can’t imagine any other life than the American way of material greed and gluttonous excess barely even get a slap on the wrist.* Our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters might as well be locked in the basement with how desperately we want them to be present in the house of God but not seen or heard from.

Instead of envisioning a positive view of sexuality through the lens of healthy, Godly relationship components like consent, intimacy, vulnerability, trust, empowerment, teamwork, attachment, mutuality, authenticity, commitment, public accountability, personal growth, sacrificiality, or respect we have instead narrowly confined our gaze on a single prohibition upon which we have decided that the entirety of the Christian faith and biblical witness rises or falls. And we continue to focus only on this one prohibition because we believe there is something inherently different between male and female despite the fact that we, in the UMC, no longer believe that difference to be lived out in any functional, hierarchical, or complementarian manner. Gender somehow has come to mean nothing except a line in the sand regarding with whom one can have sex. All of our talk about “speaking the truth in love” or needing “to have higher standards than the world” too quickly becomes the means by which we focus all our energy pointing out and arguing over the one and only sin over which we are willing to risk the existence of our denomination. 

Giving lip service to the idea that both of our kids did something wrong is nowhere near the same thing as embodying the self giving love of a parent. No matter the intent, the effect of our actions has made us Cinderella parents to some of the most vulnerable people in our midst. I don’t expect that a church made up of people will ever perfectly define and live into the values it claims to espouse. On the other side, I would never argue that the church should give up any moral standards in the name of being ‘nice’ or ‘inclusive.’ Put differently, my hope is not to find a fairy godmother to dramatically and beautifully solve all our problems. My hope and expectation is simply that we at least find a way to stop acting like Cinderella parents to this one subset of the children of God. Cinderella parenting is the opposite of the kenotic way of Christ.

————————

*I fully recognize that there is room to disagree about exactly how to define such potential sins and to understand how lax or ambiguous the church’s stance has become on any given issue. It is the shear weight of how often and how profoundly the church singles out homosexual behavior as especially deserving of rebuke and correction that prevents me from being able to ignore the profoundly different treatment of same gender loving persons. 

It is often said that the Bible is “clear” about sexuality. My problem is not with the truth or falsity of that claim – my problem is with the extent to which the criteria for what we mean by “clear” is exclusively applied here and nowhere else. I doubt a full list of sins and thorough analysis of how meaningfully/appropriately we respond would be fruitful, if even possible. Instead, I offer here a list of some of the most obviously problematic, related, and potentially damaging ways in which the church not only fails to condemn what we claim to be sin, but in some cases even condones and supports deeply problematic systems that produce outcomes “clearly” opposed to specific teachings of Jesus and Christian tradition. 

We have found and embraced a multitude of healthier ways to respond to other changes, behaviors, identities, choices, and realities that challenge the way things had always been done. That we cannot articulate why one thing and not another is worthy of swift and decisive response, instead defaulting to an imprecise assertion of scripture’s “clarity,” reinforces the patterns of harm explored above. Again, my argument is not that it is desirable to ignore sinful behavior nor is my argument that we should take radical steps to restrict or fight against the actions below; my point is that not responding comparably to so many other potentially comparable sins is a specific cause of actual, meaningful, lasting harm to at least one subset of the children of God. 

  1. Regarding other aspects of human sexuality
    1. Premarital sex – I’ve officiated over 30 weddings. Around half of those couples were living together for months or even years before the wedding. I know plenty of other colleagues who could say the same. The UMC has taken such a lax stance on celibacy before marriage that it would be easy to question from the outside whether we actually care about this traditionally clear requirement.
    2. Divorce – There is a ‘joke’ among some UMC clergy that you can continue to be appointed as an ordained leader up until your 4th divorce. There are plenty of reasons that allowing for the possibility of divorced and remarried clergy was a good and reasonable choice. But one of the most widely quoted verses against homosexuality in Matthew 19:4 is an explicit prohibition against divorce. Yet almost no one argues for the exclusion of divorced and remarried clergy as a general rule.
    3. Heterosexual Marriage – The rampant notions of destiny and romanticism that define modern views of marriage do more to undercut any semblance of Christian commitment than anything same gender loving people could do. Even dating sites that promise compatibility convey a picture of marriage that has almost nothing to do with the mutual submission, overcoming of difference, and self sacrifice at the heart of Christian love. Any argument that allowing lesbian and gay persons to marry would suddenly and uniquely undercut the sanctity of marriage is absurd on its face given how far heterosexual marriage norms already stray from anything remotely resembling a biblical understanding of marriage.
  2. Regarding other potentially sinful aspects of human life
    1. Money – Luke is uniquely focused on the impossibility of the wealthy finding comfort among the followers of Jesus. Acts goes so far as to portray tithing as a matter of life and death through the story of Ananias and Sapphira. The use of money is a central concern through much of scripture and yet little is ever said against those who most blatantly flaunt their wealth in church. If anything, love of money is a driving force behind church decision making rather than the deeply problematic force portrayed by Luke.
    2. Drunkenness – Drunkenness is listed alongside homosexuality in at least two of the most often quoted verses used against allowing a more inclusive attitude toward same gender loving persons. Further, United Methodists were one of the most influential organizations in the passing of the prohibition amendment. It would seem scripture and a great deal of church history fall on the side of temperance. Yet, few Methodists even consider the idea that drunkenness in its own right (meaning drunkenness not leading to abusive acts or causing harm through an accident) would be grounds for stripping a pastor’s credentials or removing someone from church leadership.

Trust in the Wilderness

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on a previous post – Scripture and Change – in part because the delay of General Conference means even more uncertainty and anxiety regarding potentially radical changes in the UMC. But the broader theme of ‘comfort with’ vs ‘rejection of’ anxiety and change seems to animate so much of what’s happening both in the broader Christian church and the world beyond. I get especially frustrated with the prevalence of Christian voices advocating for a return to [insert whatever golden age or specific practice was most meaningful and comforting to that person or persons], when faithfulness to God has always required an openness to the uncomfortable new things the Spirit of God will do next.

In times of anxiety, we can seek out control or rely on trust. Control implies ‘we’ have the answers and if ‘they’ would just go back to x, y, or z then everything would be fine. Trust requires that we stand first on the foundation of God’s love for us, which then makes it possible to love each other more fully no matter what love requires – no matter how new, uncomfortable, different, or challenging it may be to do so. The Christian calling is and has always been to learn how to proclaim the unchanging gospel in a way that a rapidly changing world can continue to hear it. I grieve the extent to which so much of public Christianity seems more intent on getting back to a more comfortable and familiar place than on moving toward a more radical and transformative way to love as God first loved us.

Between war, technological shifts, the tragedies and general malaise of covid, the brokenness of politics in the US, the uncertainty of where the UMC goes from here, and any number of other challenges and trends, I don’t know how anyone could look at the world and not feel some level of anxiety about where all this goes in the next 5 to 50 years. I am the kind of person who is somewhat hard wired to prefer routine, habit, and tradition over uncertainty or change. A big part of me loves the idea of getting back to a simpler time and a less anxious world. But I don’t really know what that means or who gets to decide what point in the past represents the “ideal world” since different people in different times and places have always had very different experiences of that “ideal.” And just as importantly, I don’t know how to read the Bible or take the Christian faith seriously without seeing that the most basic and consistent expectation of God’s people in times of anxiety and change is to get ready for the new thing God will do next. The love and mission of God never change – what it looks like to be faithful to the love and mission of God changes all the time.

I don’t know how to take the Bible seriously – to see Abram and Sarai leave everything they knew, Rahab betray her people, Joseph forgive his brothers, Moses go to Egypt, the law on Sinai redefine God’s people, kingship established, the temple built and rebuilt, Jonah swallowed by a fish, exile predicted and then experienced, Paul struck blind, James and John leave everything, the women flee the tomb, pentecost give birth to the church, galatians redefine tradition, Peter encounter Cornelius, Jesus lift up Naaman, eat with Zacchaeus, heal and glean on the Sabbath, reject violence, repeat the phrase “but I say unto you,” lift up a samaritan, and finally go to the cross to conquer death itself (and on and on and on) – and to then expect that the solution to the problems of the church and world is to go back to the simple and straightforward way things used to be. In other words, I don’t know how taking the Bible seriously could ever entail embracing a handful of arguments, truisms, or rules while rejecting almost every theme, assumption, event, and trajectory that the Bible itself contains.

My prayer for today, for the Lenten season ahead, and for whatever uncertain future awaits is that no matter what changes take place in the church or the world beyond, I will never let my comfort be more important than the call to faithfully follow a God who is always making new ways in the wilderness. I don’t know what that will look like. I don’t like that there is so little certainty. But I know that my calling is not to control the future – my call is to trust in the one who will be faithful to the very end.