#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.

Rape Culture: Why I won’t be watching football tonight

I’m not writing this post as some kind of crusade to raise awareness. I don’t expect anyone to agree with my reservations and I don’t blame anyone who does not find themselves where I now do. I just know that I will be asked at some point how I could go from borderline obsessed with Aggie football for over 30 years (of mostly painful results) to completely disinterested at just the moment when the program might well be poised to break through. This is my attempt to share why.

I vividly remember the events surrounding Jameis Winston’s sexual assault investigation unfolding in real time. Nearly a year after sexual assault allegations were made, no real investigation had even begun and the incompetence (or complicity) of the Tallahassee police department was evident to anyone looking on from the outside. A state investigation was attempted but obviously doomed from the start, having only begun long after physical evidence could be found and well after stories could be straightened out. Of rapes reported to police, only about 1 in 6 lead to an arrest; only about 1 in 30 cases are referred to prosecutors. Not surprisingly, a mishandled case examined a year too late was found to lack the proof needed to move forward. Equally unsurprising is the fact that Winston will now serve a second suspension stemming from allegations of sexual assault, allegations which Winston’s former coach Jimbo Fisher called the “bad mistakes” of a “tremendous young man.”

Questioned at the time about the Tallahassee allegations, Fisher did what so many in power have done before – he deflected blame onto anyone other than the accused (at one point blaming FSU’s bad press on ESPN’s monetary commitment to the SEC) and he hid behind the inability of the police to come to any sort of definitive conclusion about what really happened (going so far as to claim “There is not a victim because there was no crime.”). Time and again Fisher went over the top to build up the character of his star player (at the 2014 media days claiming “Jameis is a tremendous human being. He is a great people person. There is no ill will or malice in his body. There’s really not.”). At his most critical, Fisher blamed youth – “Jameis is a young man who’s made some mistakes, just like any other kid at that age is going to make them.”   The dismissive and careless conflation of youthful indiscretion with sexual assault by a head coach does immense damage to current and future victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Boys will be boys means girls will be raped.

The culture that treats violent assault on par with youthful indiscretion is the same culture that makes it possible to think that raping an unconscious woman is not worthy of derailing a promising young man’s life. It is the same culture that fails to believe women and assumes that silent victims are more palatable than famous rapists. On December 4th, 2017, Jimbo Fisher was named as the Texas A&M football head coach. Since the hire I haven’t been able to stomach the idea of supporting or even paying attention to football. Fisher’s endless deflections and defense of Winston is the epitome of rape culture.

Rape and violence are not only the product of discrete actions committed by evil people. Rape culture enables and perpetuates the cycles of violence that lead victims to believe what happened is their fault and guarantees that few survivors will come forward with accusations against anyone, much less famous and powerful men. Nearly 15% of women and 2% of men will be raped (defined as forced vaginal, oral, or anal sex) in their lifetime. Only 6 of every 1000 rapists will be incarcerated. Broadening out to any form of sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, or noncontact unwanted sexual experience, the number of victims increases to 43% of women and 23% of men.

Participation in rape culture does not require overt or criminal acts. Participation requires only the deflection of blame from the accused to the accuser or to any other conceivable person or system that might have contributed to the act in question. Participation only requires that we disregard the voices and pain of powerless survivors so as not to risk the promising future of young men. False accusations occur, but are almost always perpetrated by a particular kind of accuser and for a specific set of reasons. None of those factors were relevant in this case.

The recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Bill Hybels, Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Bill O’Reilly, as well as plenty of others ought to at least help us come to grips with the fact that a lack of public knowledge isn’t the same as a lack of unconscionable or even criminal activity. I have complete trust that Fisher did not participate in any criminal or even overt acts to cover up the alleged crimes of his star player. And I’m certainly not suggesting that courts reverse their stance of innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But I am suggesting that a different standard of proof and a different set of expectations is required of the most public and powerful men in society if we are ever going to get to the point at which victim’s voices are heard as anything more than a hindrance to the trajectory of promising young men.

The culture that enables abusive behavior causes at least as much harm as any discrete act. The standard to which we hold the most well known and well paid leaders of young men will do more to either combat or solidify rape culture than the facts of any particular case. That the Aggie football coach is responsible for the perpetuation and embodiment of that culture leaves me unable to take any semblance of joy in the team I have grown up loving.

I find in myself an insidious tension that makes rape culture so difficult to overcome. I know that avoiding football will do nothing to change the culture and that it will only lead to awkward moments with friends and family when the subject of football arises. Short of a similar repentance to that of Mike Riley, I don’t really know what it would take for me to find joy in Aggie football again. I just know that my disdain for men who perpetuate rape culture runs much deeper at the moment than my love for football. A&M plays Clemson later today, one of two regular season games against a national championship frontrunner. Any other year, I’d know every conceivable detail about the matchup and have the naive hope of a die hard fan that we might actually pull off the upset. This year, I simply don’t care.

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Only after we have friends can we effectively articulate what relationship means. This is the challenge for a sound bite world – the prevalence of information makes it feel like the message is the prerequisite for understanding relationship. In reality, the medium of relationship is the message that makes understanding possible.