Wednesday, May 22, 2019

After UMC Next

We wrapped up the UMC Next gathering just a few hours ago. A few thoughts as we prepare for what comes after.

1. The event was good. In the earliest stages of organization there was concern about having an inclusive leadership team. The concerns were heard and addressed, and a fantastic group of 17 led us through the three days together.

2. The event was hard. After the 2016 General Conference, Tom Berlin gave us a really helpful map for understanding the different groups within our denomination - four groups based on progressive/traditional and compatible/incompatible. The map was helpful but I discovered this week that we are much more complicated. I'm hoping to blog tomorrow on an expanded version of this map with 12 groups instead of four. nine different groups in my twelve group format would have felt welcome to attend UMC Next. It will not be possible for all nine to live in the same denomination. So if our goal was to reach complete consensus we were set up to fail.

3. We were able to reach some significant consensus. We adopted four principles to guide our future work. That's a significant accomplishment. As we journey forward and further refine our principles I expect three of the nine groups will find they can't continue in the long term - but it's not clear which three.

4. The key question for the moment - Is resistance futile or is resisting the resistance futile? One of the four commitments that we agreed to is rejection of the Traditional Plan and resistance to its implementation. Frankly, some forms of resistance are pretty easy to accomplish. It will begin with some annual conference sessions this year. It will expand after new rules take affect January 1. It will continue at General Conference 2020. Those of us in the One Church Coalition worked very hard at ensuring there would be no protests at General Conference 2019. It will not be possible to stop at least one of the twelve groupings within the denomination from significant protests in 2020. I really mean that. It will happen - it cannot be stopped. I don't think every group represented at UMC Next will vocally resist. Some probably will choose not to resist for a long period of time. But I guarantee that a significant number will resist for a significant period of time.

"Traditional Incompatabilists" - one of Rev. Berlin's groupings - are going to be the first people with a hard decision to make. They need to understand that when we said in St. Louis that we will not be moved we meant it. Our baptismal covenant to resist evil and injustice is part of our commitment to the United Methodist Church. A General Conference decision does not take precedence over our baptismal covenant.

Monday, May 20, 2019

UMC Next, John Wesley, and Star Wars

I'm spending three days at UMC Next having learning and conversing with about 600 people. Everyone who has been part of any church committee knows that after the meeting adjourns there's a meeting in the parking lot where you talk about the meeting that just happened.

So that's where I was tonight. Except it was raining really hard so we weren't actually in the parking lot. I was drinking a milkshake. It was delicious. Then I drove home.

The meeting after the meeting, just like the UMC Next gathering itself, was a mix of centrists and progressives. I heard some hurt from progressives, which I think it's fair to say was also heard in the full gathering. I also shared my own kind of hurt. Mine is of infinitely less quantity and quality than those who are LGBT+. It is real, but I acknowledge it is much, much smaller. The hurt I spoke of stems from a frustration that I want to be an ally and an advocate and also sometimes feel like I get attacked or yelled at simply for being a white heterosexual male. Some of you reading this right now are saying YES! and others are saying YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! and I acknowledge that both of those view are correct. I'm telling you how I feel sometimes, and I'm aware that it may be analogous to a person complaining about stubbing his toe while kicking a turtle. I have more sympathy for the turtle than for the jerk that kicked it. Let me explain my frustration in Wesleyan terms, and then with the help of Rey and Finn take a step back.

My hope for UMC Next is that a large majority of United Methodists, at least United Methodists in the U.S., will be able to walk together into the future hand in hand in the spirit of Wesley's sermon Catholic Spirit. Wesley takes as his text 2 Kings 10:15. Jehu meets Jehonadab and says, "if your heart is as my heart, take my hand." If our hearts are the same, even if we disagree on particulars, then take my hand and let's walk together. That's what I want to do.

Now go back a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away to one of my favorite scenes in The Force Awakens (which in this Star Wars geek's opinion is one of the best movies in the series). Finn (John Boyega) is on the run from the First Order. He's standing next to Rey (Daisy Ridley), who is now guilty by association. When they're spotted by stormtroopers, Finn grabs Rey's hand and tells her to run. He keeps tugging her hand while they're running until Rey says, "Let go of me! I know how to run without you holding my hand!" After hiding briefly they take off to run again. Finn - again - grabs Rey's hand and Rey yells, "Stop taking my hand!"

So here's my aha moment on the drive home. I want to put myself in the role of Jehu (Finn) and not Jehonadab (Rey). I want to say, "If your heart is as my heart, take my hand," or "I want to help save you, so take my hand."  In today's context, that's not what I need to say. I do believe that we need to hold hands and move forward together. But I don't get to demand it. I don't get to offer a hand to someone on my terms.

A better approach in today's context for me, and maybe for some of you reading this too, is a question instead of a command. "I think my heart is as your heart. Can we hold hands together?"

I hope the answer is yes.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church?

I had never really thought about it before. For 20 years I've confirmed students into full membership in the United Methodist Church. I've always used the prescribed liturgy from the Book of Worship. So I've always read that question and expected an affirmative answer.

Last Saturday we took the Confirmation Class of 2019 through a rehearsal so they would know exactly what to expect and when to do what. I read the question in a new way. "Will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries?"

I had a brief internal crisis. I have been clear that I do not intend to leave the denomination. I have been equally clear that the February passage of the Traditional Plan is unacceptable, unworkable, and unenforceable. So how can I ask our Confirmands to be loyal?

I can ask them to be loyal in the same way that I am loyal - by supporting that in the denomination that can be supported and holding our denomination accountable when it does not live up its own ideals.

I said as much during the Confirmation service itself on Sunday. I interpreted the question before the Confirmands were able to answer to clarify what I understand the question to me in the context of a Reconciling Congregation and our current denominational dispute. In that way, our public Confirmation Sunday became also for me a private reconfirmation moment.

I confirm that I will be loyal to the United Methodist Church by strengthening its historic ministries, including ministries of love and reconciliation.

I confirm that I will be loyal to the United Methodist Church by continuing to follow Wesley's First General Rule, to do no harm. I will fail at that, but I will continue to strive to do my best. Doing no harm includes treating all people as whole people even when the Book of Discipline makes some people "less than."

I confirm that I will be loyal to the United Methodist Church by fulfilling my baptismal covenant to "resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves." I will fulfill that covenant even when the actions of General Conference itself perpetuate injustice and oppression. I will not oppress those who disagree with and I will not oppress those who are harmed by our current position.

I confirm that I will do this by "accepting the freedom God gives me" to resist. I will not be coerced to disregard the Spirit's clear leading by threats of punishment. I will not reject the oppressed

I confirm that I will be loyal to the United Methodist Church through my:
Prayers - that we may be healed from division and distrust and constant prayer for discernment
Presence - that I will be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves out of fear of retribution
Gifts - that I will use my God-given gifts including financial gifts to support equal treatment
Service - that I will use a portion of my time and energy to move the denomination in the direction I believe we are compelled to move
Witness - that I will share the Good News of God's love and redemption through Jesus Christ, who is my Lord and my Savior. It is this love that calls all people to turning toward God and working for God's Kingdom.

I will be loyal to the United Methodist Church - not to the Church as it is, but to the Church as God is calling her to be. And so I pray that "The God of all grace, who has called us to eternal glory in Christ, establish [me] and strengthen [me] by the power of the Holy Spirit, that [I] may live in grace and peace." So may it be for all of us.

**quotes taken from Baptismal Covenant 1 of the United Methodist Church.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

What Has Changed with the Judicial CouncilRuling

Methodist watchers already know that the Judicial Council has issued their ruling on the actions taken at the special 2019 General Conference. So what does it all mean?

1. The UMC is officially anti-gay. But I want to put a caveat on this. The only true change in the UMC position comes in one petition that references "self-avowed homosexuals" instead of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." Even though our language is archaic this change is significant. Proponents of the Traditional Plan said that this petition's language was a mistake - that they accidentally left out the word "practicing" - and they were prepared to amend the language had we not run out of time. I can't ask the authors because while we have been told a small group of bishops were involved in writing the petitions none of them have ever come forward and taken credit. I believe that it was a mistake. I also believe it speaks to the subconscious. When we have been using the same phrase for 40+ years it seems incredulous that the same word was left out twice in the same petition completely on accident. I think it speaks to the true intent and a tacit acknowledgement that the phrase "self-avowed practicing" is nonsensical - which will be a blog for a different day.

2. There were no real surprises. Some hoped for a different decision, but ultimately Judicial Council ruled the same way that they ruled prior to General Conference. There were no surprises.

3. With one exception. Judicial Council did surprisingly reverse their decision on an exit provision. For the record, I think that from a legal perspective their original decision was incorrect. Now that there is a legal exit plan I invite you to read the WCA's interpretation of the rulings. Because,

4. The WCA is revealing their true intent. My last speech at General Conference was in favor of the exit plan. I said that if they want an exit plan so they can leave then they can have it. The exit was advertised as a plan for progressives, which importantly no progressive said they wanted. In the interpretation above, the WCA notes that some traditionalists will welcome the exit so that they can leave - and makes no mention of the possibility of progressives leaving. In the days ahead you will see more traditionalist congregations preparing to leave than progressive or centrist congregations.

5. Finally, I encourage you not to make any new decisions based on the Judicial Council outcome. In the course of greater events in our denomination this is a minor occurrence. It confirms what we already knew would be the case, mostly beginning January 1st and lasting only until May 2020. Stay the course. Resist the harm. Something new will emerge and you will want to be part of it.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Case for Divesting from Africa

That's a tough title for a blog post. And I should be clear from the top that I'm not endorsing divestment. But I do think that a case can be made for United Methodists in the United States to change their giving and partnerships with African conferences without it being viewed purely as being punitive after the General Conference vote.

The argument is actually very simple. I have now been to four general conferences. At each of them there has been at least one speech from an African that goes something like this: "Africa is different from the United States. We need for you to understand that our context is different. We need to not recognize homosexuality as OK because in our context that is important."

I know that this is not universally true. I know a United Methodist in Nigeria who actively works for LGBT inclusion. I'm familiar with an MCC ministry (the MCC denomination is predominately LGBT) is Uganda, where it is illegal to be gay. But I will accept that this is largely true. This is one primary reason that the One Church Plan allowed decisions to be made by every annual conference and every pastor - no church in Africa would have been forced to change.

Because this is largely true, every general conference has respected the different contexts in Africa and other central conferences and has not forced a change. I believe that was and is the right thing to do. With that in mind, if I could talk to all the African United Methodists, this is what I would say today:

The United States is different from Africa. We need you to understand that our context is different. We need to not universally condemn homosexuality so that we can do ministry in our context." I recognize that this may not be true throughout the entire U.S. It is true, though, in my context. The fact that roughly 2/3 of U.S. delegates voted for the One Church Plan is evidence of this.

We have willingly entered into a relationship with Africa that recognizes that cultural adaptations need to be made. Now we need for that to be reciprocated. The truth of the matter is if that is not reciprocated then our connections with African United Methodists will end. As long as we are all United Methodist denominational loyalties will help us continue to work together. But if progressives and centrists are forced out by traditionalists (which is what they seem intent on doing) then that connection is severed. Why would I, for example, not work with the MCC church in Uganda instead?

I serve in the Great Plains Conference. We have three mission partnerships - Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Haiti. If Nigeria and Zimbabwe refuse to allow us to do ministry in the context that we live in does it really seem unreasonable to redirect our funds and mission efforts to other places where we can actually have a partnership? There are so many places in the world that can benefit from our work. Why would we feel morally compelled to continue a partnership with a group that is not treating us as a partner, too?

It would be morally unacceptable to reduce our total funding or mission work overall. We couldn't just redirect those funds to, say, our camping ministry or conference staff salaries. But we could redirect funds and efforts to places where there is truly mutual ministry.

Should we do that? I don't know. I haven't made up my own mind. But it's not crazy to ask the question.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Art of Eisegesis

This is not a post about General Conference or LGBTQ rights. But it does start that way.

Over the last several months LGBTQ+ allies have insisted that Jesus said nothing about same-sex marriage. This has been one of their responses to the use of "clobber verses" like Romans 1:26-27 that are used to show the Bible speaks against same-sex practices.

The response from traditionalists was...creative. Citing Matthew 19:4-5, they claim that Jesus did indeed speak against same-sex marriage. “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the creator made them male and female?And God said, ‘Because of this a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.’” In reminding us of the words of Genesis, Jesus tells us that marriage is between one and one woman. Let's set aside for the moment that Genesis repeatedly talks about marriage as one man with multiple women and looks specifically at Matthew.

Taken at face value, one might concede that the traditionalists have a point. But it would be a mistake to take these verses at face value. This is actually a perfect example of something we are all guilty of - eisegesis. Exegesis is the art of interpreting scripture. Bible commentaries are full of exegesis and hopefully your pastor is as well. Exegesis helps us understand the meaning behind the text. Eisegesis is a lesser known word that means the opposite. In eisegesis we take our own interpretations and understandings and read them back into the text. One good (and for the large majority of us uncontroversial) example of eisegesis is end-time prophets. Somebody who is convinced that the world is about to end can easily take current events and find a way to interpret the Bible so that it seems to confirm the prophet's prediction. So far the end-time prophets have all been wrong - at least I think they have - but that doesn't stop others from continuing to make predictions allegedly based on the Bible.

The eisegesis of Matthew 19:4-5 is not much more complicated than those end-time prophets. The best way to avoid eisegesis is to look at the context around the verses (especially if the passage questioned cites only one or two verses.) In this case, the context is clear. In verse 3 Jesus is asked a question about divorce. "Does the law allow a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" Saying that Jesus answer rejects same-sex marriage is the same thing as saying that Jesus commands a married couple to be physically grafted to each other when he says the two become one flesh. That's just not what he's talking about.

The proof comes just two verses later when Jesus makes his point clear: "I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." This is also proof of how easy it is for us to practice eisegesis without realizing it. An amendment to ban pastors from remarriage was defeated at general conference by the same people who used the first part of Matthew 19 to same-sex marriage. There is no possible way Jesus meant for this whole passage to refer to same-sex marriage and also not refer to remarriage after divorce. No rational person can make that argument. But when we already know what we believe we tend not to think rationally.

My point is not about whether general conference ultimately made the right or wrong decision in continuing to ban same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ ordination. I'm quite confident that traditionalists could point to other texts that they believe I have interpreted wrongly. My point is that all of us, regardless of theology, must always be vigilant about how we read the Bible. We all interpret. Even the act of translation from the Hebrew, Latin, and Greek manuscripts to English involves interpretation. We all need to be incredibly careful that we do our interpretation as faithfully as possible.

Friday, March 1, 2019

A Glimpse Behind the Curtain: GC2019

I waited in the car for my contact to return. It was 10:30 at night in the parking lot of a hotel. My contact told me to stay where I was - it would be dangerous for the person we were meeting if I were to go inside. After a couple of minutes of nervous silence my contact returned with an African man who glanced around before coming to our vehicle. He opened the front door for a brief hug before sitting down in the backseat. We visited for about five minutes. He got out, returned to the hotel alone, and we drove away.

It sounds like a spy novel. But I'm no spy. I'm just a clergy delegate to General Conference 2019. The story is 100% true. After this encounter I was driven to a second hotel where I met two acquaintances. Together we followed my contact to a room and waited there until he returned with three people from another African country. We shared with one another for maybe 15 minutes and followed the same ritual in reverse for our departure.

I'm pretty naïve. I texted my daughter about what I was doing. When she asked why we were meeting so late in the hotel I told her that I thought it was because of the time zone difference - that maybe this was just the time that worked best for them so I was adjusting to their time as an act of hospitality. My contact cleared that up. At 11:00 not many people were milling around the hotel so it was safer to meet.

This is the nature of discussing homosexuality in a worldwide church with close to 40% of the votes coming from parts of the world where being gay itself is, in some cases, illegal. We counted our votes. We believed that we had a minimum of 88 votes from Africa and potentially 30 from the Philippines. We believed this because we had people we believed were working with us in those various countries who agreed that the One Church Plan was best for the denomination even if they personally did not agree with same-sex marriage or LGBT ordination. Today our estimate is of those 88 and 30 we probably actually received 15 from each. I don't know how any of the four that I met with that night voted. I do know that three of the four said if their vote was known they would lose their jobs.

The pressure on Africans in particular to conform to the wishes of their bishops and fellow delegates is intense. And the pressure on American delegates and political interests to use whatever tools are needed is real, too. Here's a portion of a message I received via Facebook from another African acquaintance last fall as we talked about how to increase our votes: "And let me be clear here about getting the votes from Africa on our side, we must do everything that we can do to make this happen. This is about politics and using money to influence votes from Africa must not be ruled out." Let me be clear that my response to this individual was an unequivocal "no." I was involved at the highest level of the One Church Coalition and I know of nobody in that coalition who ever took any unethical act to secure any votes. Quite the opposite. We were clear that if saving the denomination required bribery then it wasn't worth saving. The day after my late night meetings it was clear that we never had the votes for the OCP. We had been outmaneuvered before General Conference even began. So what do you do when the Traditional Plan train is rolling and you don't have the votes to stop it? You change the game and use strengths as a weakness. The traditionalists had given voting guides to all the African delegates. Please hear me - I do not doubt the ability of people from all across the world to have their own minds and make their own decisions. The cultural differences, language barrier, and parliamentary procedure make it very difficult to have everybody on an even playing field. It is also true that the traditionalists didn't want an even playing field. I'm quite confident that at the multiple meals and the days long pre-conference session for African delegates there was no attempt to give an unbiased view of the One Church Plan or Simple Plan. To the contrary, I was told by one African friend that if I were to speak on the floor I should make a point that I am married and have kids because Africans had been told that everybody who was not for the Traditional Plan was gay. You can hear me awkwardly mention my wife and kids at the beginning of the first speech I gave for precisely this reason. So we used the voting guide against them. The Traditional Plan as it passed is largely unconstitutional because of the one parliamentary victory that we achieved. At the beginning of legislative committee day the traditionalists quietly told everybody to vote for their amendments and then vote to Call the Question to end debate and go to a vote. We let them make a couple amendments - we argued against them but knew we would fail - and then we called for the question. This is how you know that so many people didn't understand what was going on. They needed a minimum of eight more amendments to make their plan constitutional. There was no rational reason a TP supporter would vote to end debate without those amendments. But the instructions given were clear: vote for our amendments and then vote to end the debate. So they did. We moved to end debate and even though we only had 45% of the delegates on our side of the question the motion passed 577-234. The incomplete, unconstitutional plan moved on to the following day's plenary session where we mostly successfully killed clock until the end of the General Conference session. I attended my first General Conference as a delegate in 1996. As we drove to Denver, my GC mentor told me that I would see the Church at its best and at its worst. The political machinations that you read hear and, I'm convinced by second hand accounts, far worse on the opposing side, are the Church at its worst. What will follow from this vile event will, I believe, be the Church at its best. General Conference has become the Principalities and Powers that Paul says in Ephesians 6 that we should work against. It is the evil and injustice that we are baptized to resist. I intend to do that. I invite you to join me.