Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Maybe We're All Heretics

I've been struggling to find the right words since learning yesterday that the United Methodist Church voted down two constitutional amendments aimed at ensuring the rights of women throughout the church. Please don't take these reflections as the last word, just as a word for this moment while I keep working on myself.

1. We should be ashamed that our lack of trust has caused harm.
My Facebook feed was full yesterday of people, mostly women, who were hurt by this action. The nearly universal response to them was "we support you as women and as female clergy, but the language in these amendments could have been used to push the LGBT agenda." To that, let me say two things.

First, even if that were true this action still caused harm.

Second, let me share a brief insight into amendment 2. I was in the subcommittee that worked on this amendment at General Conference. Some of us actually did want to do broaden the amendment to include some protection for LGBT individuals in the amendment. Not in a sneaky way - we were explicit about it. And for one day we succeeded. Our subcommittee voted in favor of the change by two votes. The next day, our subcommittee magically acquired three new members who switched from another subcommittee to ours. Coincidentally, all three were opposed to our recommended change. Coincidentally, these additions to the subcommittee mean that the "conservative" delegates now had a one-vote majority. So coincidentally our amendment to the amendment was reversed and defeated.

That's a dirty trick.

But I continued to work with a group to add language protecting LGBT individuals back into the amendment until it became clear that even if somehow it were to pass at General Conference it would never pass the whole constitutional process. So, operating in completely good faith, we stopped those efforts. It was not a trap. It was not a covert plot. It was a legitimate amendment.

I can't speak to other situations. In this situation, I can promise you that despite a dirty trick by traditionalists the moderates and progressives should have been trusted.

2. We risk becoming more Southern Baptist than the Southern Baptists.
In a column that was completely devoid of sympathy for those who were hurt, John Lomperis said, "The defeat of Amendment #1 would seem to indicate that this movement has crested, and is now mercifully fading within the United Methodist Church. Thanks be to God!"

It's interesting that Lomperis and others want us to move away from inclusive language while the Southern Baptist Church, widely seen as the most conservative Protestant denomination, actually expanded the use of inclusive language last year.

Those who know me from seminary can tell you that I was not a fan of inclusive language. I'm still not a fan of political correctness simply for the sake of political correctness. To the dismay of some in the congregation I serve, when we use the Communion liturgy we end with "all glory is yours Almighty Father" instead of "Almighty God" because the Great Thanksgiving is a prayer in the Trinitarian form and at that moment we are addressing the first person of the Trinity. To be clear, our understanding of the Trinity was never in doubt. It is enshrined in the Articles of Religion, which cannot be changed. 

There is an argument from traditionalists that we are on a slippery slope towards all kinds of heresy. Using that same argument, the slope may have reversed. Another flashback to General Conference 2016. A lay leader of a U.S. annual conference told me point blank that 90% of churches in his conference would not take a woman as a pastor. That conference voted more than 2 to 1 against both of the failed amendments. 

I'm not a gambler (gambling is a menace to society according to the Social Principles), but if I were I would bet the house that if the UMC splits into  liberal and conservative groups the conservative wing's version of General Conference will consider the question of women's ordination in the next 16 years. I'm not saying it will pass, but it won't be laughed off the table. Evidence? Barna says that 39% of evangelicals in the U.S. reject the idea that women should be pastors. Barna's definition of evangelical is entirely consistent with United Methodists' traditionalist wing and at odds with many progressives. A split denomination gives extremists at both ends a greater percent of membership and vote. 

3. We really have become a reflection of our culture

Just not in the way that some assert. It's not that we are a reflection of culture because we have caved to cultural norms for sexuality. In fact, we haven't. 

Here's how we have come to reflect culture. We do not trust each other, much less our institutions. We resort to dirty tricks to win instead of ethical processes. We insist that our way must be correct and refuse to compromise. We have resorted to calling each other names instead of engaging in real conversation. Many have chosen to take an "ends justify the means" approach that is clearly not biblical. The soul of our church is dying. And it has nothing to do with sexual orientation or gender identity. Jesus said we have one job - Love God and Love our neighbor as ourselves. We've forgotten our job. We've forgotten that love is a verb - it means taking loving actions. In that sense, maybe we all have become heretics. Maybe we've all quit following Christ as closely as we ought to.

Monday, February 26, 2018

1 Corinthians and the Right to Bear Arms

1 Corinthians 8 is one of my favorite Bible passages that nobody knows.

Here's a quick summary: Some Corinthian Christians, following Jewish custom and law, refused to eat meat sacrificed to idols and believed that it was wrong for anybody who believed in the Judeo-Christian God to do so. Others, following Gentile customs and believing Paul was correct that Jewish law was (generally) non-binding on Christians had no problem eating the meat. So who  was right?

Paul's answer, in essence, was that both were right. He reminded the Corinthians that idols represented false gods - fake gods - and so there really was no difference between meat offered to an idol and meat fresh from the market. So the Gentile approach was right. But he also acknowledged that, in modern terms, perception is reality. He said that eating meat offered to an idol really could affect someone's faith. If you believe that eating the meat is wrong and I as a respected Christian do it anyway then your faith could be affected negatively.

Then he says this (in the Common English Bible):

12 You sin against Christ if you sin against your brothers and sisters and hurt their weak consciences this way. 13 This is why, if food causes the downfall of my brother or sister, I won’t eat meat ever again, or else I may cause my brother or sister to fall."

Uh-oh. Paul pulled a fast one. He told us we could eat whatever we wanted, but then he said we have some responsibility for our sisters and brothers. This is, by the way, why I generally don't drink alcohol in social settings. I have nothing against alcohol but as far as taste and effect goes I could take it or leave it. If I don't drink then somebody who has a problem with alcohol might feel less pressure to go along with the crowd.

But back to Paul. What Paul is doing is reminding us that we have individual rights AND we have communal responsibilities. From a Christian standpoint, the question "What are my rights?" is not the best starting point. The best starting point is, "In this situation, how do I best love God and neighbor?" So Paul might say, "I love meat, but I love my siblings in faith more. If the best way to love them is to refraining from eating meat then that's what I'll do."

I'm not a Constitutional scholar. I don't understand how the state right to a militia in the 2nd Amendment became an individual's unfettered right to bear arms, but apparently it does. I do have great respect for the Constitution. But I'm a Christian. I don't worship it. I worship Jesus. 

It may be that the guns laid down at the altar of the Constitution should stay there not because we don't have a right to pick them back up, but because of the love we have for our sisters and brothers, our children. Love God. Love Neighbor. The rest is secondary.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Illusion of Peace

"Can we all just get along?" Rodney King asked us the question as a nation after being beaten in 1991. The answer to the question, of course, is no. We can't.

I'm always a little amused when I hear people clamor for the Church to be more like the New Testament church. It's a little like hearkening back to "the good old days." As Billy Joel reminds us, "the good old days weren't always good and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems." I long for the early church of Acts 2 when "The y broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts." But that is the same church that only four chapters later had a major fight between those that spoke Greek and those that spoke Hebrew or Aramaic.

Christianity is meant to be a movement, and movements are messy. 

We should not expect the Church to be entirely at peace. We should expect the Church to grow, and as the Church grows we should expect to have moments of conflict. That's just how movements, and how people in general, work.

Within my denomination, The United Methodist Church, we're in the midst of a good old-fashioned church fight. We have at least two factions that are fighting and, much like Greek speakers and Hebrew speakers, it is often as if we are speaking different languages. We hope that the fight can end so that we can get back to the mission of the Church, making disciples of Jesus Christ. I certainly hope we can come to some kind of resolution. But if and when that time comes, we would be foolish to believe that a United Methodist Church or two Divided Methodist Churches created from a split will be conflict-free. We'll be free from conflict for maybe a day or two and then we will find something else to argue about. That's what the Church has always done. But I'd like to remind you about the prelude and postlude to that first church fight in Acts 6. Acts 6:1 starts "In those days when the number of disciples was increasing..." and 6:7 finishes with "...The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly..." Growth happened before and after. Conflict happened either despite or because of the growth and the conflict that happened didn't stop the growth.

If we define peace as the absence of conflict, we will never truly have a long-standing peace. If, instead, we define peace as an inner quality, an attitude with which we personally approach God and one another (Colossians 3:12-15) then even when we have conflict our hearts and souls will still be at peace. If we maintain a heart of peace, then even our arguments will happen with a different kind of heart.

World peace? It's an illusion until Christ returns. Personal peace? It's a reality for those who live in the Kingdom.

Monday, December 11, 2017

I Believe the Men

I believe the women. I believe that in almost every case when a woman or girl says that she has been harassed or abused by a man she is telling the truth (check this if you disagree). I believe, as is true in virtually every prominent case today, that when multiple women independently of each other say that a man has harassed or abused them the accusations are true. I believe that in cases like this it is appropriate for a political leader to resign and a public figure to lose their job.

I also believe one specific statement made by many of the men.

When a man in power says, "I thought it was consensual" I believe there's a good chance he's telling the truth. Let me be clear what I mean. I believe that the man believes it was consensual. I also believe the woman who says it was not consensual.

And this is part of our problem.

But first, a scenario: Your boss comes to you and says, "I need you to do something for me. My child is signing up for a sports league today and I was supposed to fill out this health waiver. She has no physical problems at all, but I forgot to get a doctor's signature. I know you're not a doctor but I really need someone to sign this and nobody can read those signatures anyway. Since the signature will be next to my own signature I can't fake it. Will you do it for me?"

Your first impulse is probably "Are you kidding me?!?" but if you think about it you might change your mind. What happens if you say no? What will your boss think about your loyalty when the next possibility of a promotion comes up? For that matter, now that you know what your boss is like could your job be in jeopardy if you say no? BTW, It actually could be in jeopardy (see #8). Or would your boss spread rumors about you to colleagues that you can't refute? Will you risk your livelihood, your family's well-being, or your reputation for this? It's just one form, one time, for something that isn't that big of a deal. Weighing everything, you might agree.

It turns out that this is not just unethical, but illegal. So let's continue to scenario. Your boss is caught and instead of taking the fall decides to take you along, too. The boss says, "S/he agreed to sign it! It was consensual!" From the boss's perspective it was. You were never "forced" to sign. And yet was it really consensual? If you weren't concerned about the possible ramifications you wouldn't have signed it. For whatever reason, this particular boss made you concerned about those ramifications so you did sign it. It wasn't exactly forced, but it certainly wasn't consensual.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
- Baron Acton, 1887

So what's the right response? The right response is for the boss never to ask in the first place. My kids are active in theater (a great program, if you're in the Kansas City area and interested). Because the shows are also the only fundraisers for the organization, each child is supposed to sell 20 tickets. The best places to sell tickets are to people at school and people at church. Except I'm a pastor and my wife is a teacher. If I ask a church member to buy a ticket and they agree is it because they want to go or is it because they want to be tight with the pastor? If my wife sells a ticket to a parent of a student is it because they want to go or because they felt pressured? The right response is for us not to ask people to buy them. We share with a few people who have already expressed interest or seen another show, "If you have time and would like to go here's the day and cost and there is absolutely no pressure."
Because the last thing either of us would want is to use our power of position to coerce a person into buying a ticket. Here's the deal: whether it's a ticket to a kid's play, an unethical signature on a document, or pressure to commit a sexual act, the underlying issue is about power dynamics. And what seems consensual to the person in power cannot be consensual to the person without the power. Can not. As in, is not possible. And because of the uneven power relationship, the burden always - always - falls on the person with power.

I believe the men. I believe that in many cases they really truly thought that sexual acts were consensual. I believe that's what they believe, but they were wrong and need to be held accountable. All men and women in positions of authority need to learn this lesson because it's not only about sexual harassment (probably the vilest form of power abuse we have), it is about all kinds of ways that we control others without even knowing that we're doing it.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Uniting Methodists - Not Centrists After All

On Monday and Tuesday I was fortunate to attend the Uniting Methodists gathering in Atlanta. It was not entirely what I expected.

The first day a presenter noticed that questions were being asked at microphones alternating male-female, completely coincidentally. So he said "I guess we'll just go boy-girl-boy-girl!" Some of us laughed. Then a person stood to gently remind us that we were in a gathering that wasn't completely made up of binary gendered people (not sure if I'm saying that right, but I hope the intent is clear). On one hand, talking about asking questions boy-girl-boy-girl was a little daft. On the other hand, it's not often that one is at a church conference where people are openly talking about non-binary gender understandings. At another time, Scripture was read using "kin-dom" instead of "kingdom" and from The Voice translation, which is somewhat controversial as a postmodern kind of translation. There was talk of needing to stand with people at the margins. Throughout the 24 hours I interacted with people who belonged to multiple "liberal" caucuses in the UMC. These people were not centrists.

But there is something more.

I heard the name of Jesus more than I think I did at the entire Great Plains Annual Conference session last summer. I heard traditional trinitarian language used for God, including lots of "he" pronouns for the first person and the Godhead. Our Wesleyan Covenant liturgy spoke of the blood of Jesus, which I personally very rarely use. A friend and former colleague of Bill Hinson, a former leader of the Confessing Movement, spoke. And then there was the boy-girl reference that several found problematic. These people weren't centrists either.

Here's what I discovered. The Uniting Methodists movement is not made up of centrists - at least not entirely. It's made up of center, left, and right. It's actually theologically diverse. The only groups that were not vocally represented were the extremes.

Maybe because of this diversity I discovered something else - collegiality. In the first story I shared, note that I said that a correction was given "gently." It really was gentle. It was not accompanied by accusations or insults. And there were no groans after the correction was given as if this person was overly PC. (As an aside, I'm not a fan of politically correct culture. I'm equally not a fan of people using "I'm not politically correct" as an excuse for acting like a jerk). In other words, this was a group that allowed space for disagreement - the traditional Methodist "big tent."

The far-right WCA supported by the IRD and others is the opposite of this. I want to be clear - it is not my desire for anyone to leave the denomination. I don't want, and I don't think the Uniting Methodists want, for anyone to be told that they are unwelcome*. Rev. Jeff Greeway, the WCA's president, said, "The foundation for our theological crisis has been in place since the very beginning when we embraced Theological Pluralism --resulting in a sort of ‘big tent’ Methodism where a variety of theological expressions were appreciated and valued."
I take him at his word. I encourage you to do the same. And if you do then you can see the difference between the approach the two organizations are taking. The choice is between a rigid dogmatism unlike what Methodism has ever experienced and an appreciation (but not necessarily agreement) for multiple perspectives within the Christian faith. 

* This is why if there is one thing everyone DID agree on at our gathering it is that the anti-gay language in the Book of Discipline needs to be removed. Keeping the language clearly articulates who is NOT welcome. Removing the language is not an extremist position - it is allowing room for differences of opinion. Some at the gathering believed we should go further and some did not.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Politics and the Pulpit

Sorry, Not Sorry

For the pastoral purpose of comforting the flock I may have chosen my words poorly last November. To be clear, "my" candidate was no longer in the running. I've only picked a presidential winner once and "my" candidate has only reached the general election twice since I began voting in 1988. But in retrospect I understand how some could have perceived that I was not advocating for one party or one side. In the context of the election, I should have chosen my words better.

In January, I did choose my words carefully. "There is no biblical or faith-based case to be made for a universal ban on refugees." That is part of what President Trump's first travel order did. It temporarily halted ALL refugees. One can definitely make a faith-based case to keep people safe by taking reasonable measures to ensure that terrorists don't enter the country and we can debate what constitutes "reasonable measures." We can argue about how many refugees and immigrants any country should be expected to handle over any given year. But this ban treated a 5 year old orphan refugee in the same way as a young man on the terrorist watch list. I'll stick with Jesus and let the little children come.

Preaching Faith vs. Preaching Politics

I have to preach the faith. That's what I am ordained to do. If you are a pastor you have to preach the faith, and if you are a church member you have to expect your pastor to preach the faith. The hard reality is that faith is public. We cannot isolate our faith from the world around us. I encourage my congregation to vote using their faith as a guide - I don't say who to vote for or how to vote, but our decisions on elections as with every other decision we make should be guided by our Christian faith. Faithful Christians (and I assume faithful Jews, Muslims, etc.) will disagree with one another about which candidates to vote for even as we use the same faith to guide us.

But I don't have to preach politics. In fact, I shouldn't preach politics. So in a time when faith and politics regularly collide (just like in Jesus day, by the way), how do we tell the difference? I don't know for sure, but for better or worse here's how I do it.

Faith, for me, informs the guiding principles I live by. In the social sphere, my faith includes ideas that border on the political like feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty (Matthew 25), welcoming the refugee (Leviticus 19), and giving equal rights to all people (Galatians 3). These concepts are non-negotiable. I can't understand a person who claims the Christian faith and is not willing to put these principles among others into practice (see pretty much the entire book of James). As a preacher and pastor, then, part of my job is to remind the congregation of our obligation to act in these areas.

Politics, for me, is the process of making decisions to achieve our goals. Secular politics involves the government determining how it will do what it believes should be done. It is more about the way goals are achieved than it is the goals themselves. For example, I imagine we all would agree that we want America to be as safe as possible for all people. That's not really a political issue. But are we safer with or without gun control? That's a political issue. Hopefully we all agree that racism has no place in our country. But do statues of Robert E. Lee promote racism or do they teach us history that should not be repeated? That's the political issue.

My calling is to address the larger principles of faith, not the particularities of politics. I have political opinions on the questions of gun control and monuments that are informed by my faith but if either of those topics comes up in a sermon it would be about safety or about racism, not about gun control or Confederate monuments.

Back to November and January.

In November my intent was to console and in doing so there were some that I offended. I regret that. I should have found better words to console without making others feel condemned because of their politics. In January, I specifically called out President Trump for banning all refugees from entering the country as a matter of faith. It was, too my memory, the only time in nearly 20 years as a pastor that I have specifically repudiated a sitting president's decision. And if I could do it over again, I would do the same thing. This is not a political question. Welcoming the stranger is a bedrock principle of the faith that cannot be abandoned. What I didn't and won't do is to share from the pulpit my opinion on questions like how many from each country each year or what kind of vetting is appropriate for which people.

I understand that these definitions and practices are not as clearly defined as we might want. I understand that taking this approach will make some people mad. But pastors, if you haven't made someone in your congregation mad you probably aren't doing your job. And parishioners, if your pastor hasn't said something that made you mad you probably have some more thinking to do about your faith. This is the complicated world that we live in, between the Now and Not Yet of God's Kingdom.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Time for Silence and a Time for Speaking

Yesterday on Facebook I alluded to Ecclesiastes 3 in suggesting that we refrain from calls for political action and instead spend time in prayer and mourning. I don't think that's the same thing as not doing something. Prayer and mourning are actions, and actions that are appropriate in a time of national loss. But that was yesterday. Today is a new day with new responsibilities.

We didn't share the news from Las Vegas with our kids yesterday morning before school. We do talk about current events in our house. In this case it seemed too fresh without enough information known. I did talk last night with my oldest daughter. She's the same age now that I was when the Challenger exploded. She knew about Las Vegas because her Social Studies teacher talked about it - I heard about the Challenger from my Science teacher. My science teacher told our class that like her generation with the assassination of JFK, my generation would remember where we were when the Challenger exploded. She was right.

This is where my heart breaks. When I asked Sophia if she thought she would remember this 30 years from now, she said no. Instead, she named three other similar events off the top of her head. I want you to hear that. For my empathetic daughter, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history is not something that will stick in her mind. And why should it? The 4 deadliest shootings have all happened in the last ten years

Here's another side to the story of guns. Earlier on the same day as the Las Vegas shooting, the brother-in-law of one my parishioners was killed by a gun in a home burglary. He was killed right in front of his family, including kids the same age as mine. He had a right to defend himself. If he had a gun it could well be that the burglar would have turned tail and run (he actually did run after shooting the man, so we know courage wasn't his strong suit). So my heart breaks again.

One of the reasons I suggested we not immediately respond with calls for action is that the action/reaction is so predictable. The conversation starts this way:

"We need to do something about gun control!"
"If we ban guns then only the bad people will have guns"

Then it goes downhill. As if the only options are a total ban or no restrictions on guns at all. So it's not a conversation. Like with so many other issues today, it's just two people or two sides shouting at each other without listening.

We can only hear each other when we are emotionally moving toward each other. Before a person who disagrees with you can hear you, they have to be open to listening. That's not happening today, on either side.

So here's what I would ask you to do. The blog title comes from Ecclesiastes 3:7. I ask that you do both. First, be silent. In the silence, ask yourself what would you be willing to give up if you were on the other side of the issue. I think we need more gun control. As I consider the positions of those who are pro-gun, I can understand why they would be in favor of concealed carry and stand your ground laws. I disagree with both, but I can understand where they are coming from. However 26 states allow a person to carry a weapon without any training whatsoever. I have to think that even if I was pro-gun that would seem like a bad idea. Same for the new silencer law that has been proposed.

Then speak. Contact your state and federal representatives and senators. Say, "I've really thought about this. I can understand why we may need to allow (fill in the blank with what you can tolerate. This gives you something in common and the person can emotionally move towards you and be open to what you're saying). And (this word is important - the word "but" negates what you just said and starts moving the person away from you again) and I also think it would be good for us to (using the next federal vote coming) restrict the sale of silencers because of the danger that they pose."

Silence and speaking. Listening and sharing. We need both. Or we can keep doing what we're doing right now.