Friday, November 22, 2013

Call It What It Is

I'm going to say it: The United Methodist Church is at the brink of another schism. The first schism came just before the Civil War, supposedly because of slavery. This one will come supposedly because of homosexuality. The underlying issue in both cases is fear.

I want to start with statistics that need to be shared even though we don't want to talk about them. A study released in April broke down support for same-sex marriage by state. At the beginning of the Civil War there were 34 states. 15 were slave states. Today, of those 34 states the 11 lowest in support of same-sex marriage are former slave states. The only outliers are two that didn't secede (Delaware and Maryland), Florida, and Virginia.

Now, back to the cause of the split: fear. In his fantastic book A Disease in the Public Mind, Thomas Fleming persuasively argues that the primary motivator of the Civil War was fear. He notes that even in the slave states there were many, many people who found slavery abhorrent. They knew it was wrong. They just didn't know how to end it. Some people thought slaves should be sent back to Africa (which is how Liberia was founded), some people thought they should be set free at once, but most thought they should be set free very gradually if at all because they feared what would happen when the slaves were set free. They had a reason for this - slave rebellions had taken place in other regions and, in some cases, the former slaves had killed their masters. In what is now Haiti former slaves killed every white person on the island. They were also fearful of the economic implications. Slaves were an asset to the economy that many didn't feel could be relinquished.

If the southern states knew that there was a way to free slaves without losing their lives or livelihood, the Civil War may never have happened. But fear got the best of them.

So what are the concerns about allowing same-sex marriage in the United States? Obviously there are theological concerns. But we have widely different theological beliefs in the United Methodist Church. We are not having church trials over those! We are having church trials only over this one issue! When was the last time that you heard of a pastor on trial for re-baptizing? Here's a great list of 25 things we could be having trials for. But we don't have trials for any of these. The concern over same-sex marriage (and I would argue ordination as well) has to be something else.

So what are the other reasons?
"We'll continue to decline as a denomination." (we're pretty good at that already. Besides, in the Episcopal Church less than 10% of churches left since approving of gay pastors.)
"We will no longer stand for anything" (yes, because allowing same-sex marriage will eliminate the entire Book of Discipline)
"I can't in good conscious marry two men or two women" (that's fear based too - pastors already can choose who to marry or not marry
"It is a threat to the institution of marriage" (can you say that with a straight face with the divorce rate as high as it is?)
"It imposes bad morals on society" (I assume this is because it forces you into same-sex marriage even if you're straight)
"We stop believing in the Bible" (this will come to a surprise to people like me who believe in the Bible and believe that it does not say what you think it says)
"We'll surrender to culture" (we already evidenced by the fact that our conferences vote the same way as the states that they are in, by our rush to criticize and demonize each other, by our refusal to have real dialogue, and by giving in to fear instead of standing firm for love)

And some unspoken fears:
"I don't want a gay pastor" (switch to a different UMC - plenty of people are already doing that)
"I don't want gay people in my church" (too late. Also reminds me of an African American pastor friend at a predominantly white church where one member was concerned that it would be become a "black church." In all fairness the pastor and spouse did double the size of the African American population in that church.)

So we're having our own civil war. Because we're afraid. Because of fear, even though it is obvious to every thinking person that we are not of one mind, a fairly narrow majority will refuse to admit the obvious and not allow a statement acknowledging our division. Because of fear we are willing to split on this one issue alone.

So we can split. It might even be a good idea. But let's understand what the real reason is. We are afraid.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Accept the Mission: Reject the Rule

It's a big weekend for the United Methodist Church! Tomorrow Bishop Melvin Talbert will marry two men, completely violating the rules of the church. There will be another wedding tomorrow also.

I've been watching Facebook postings today as a couple who are members of the church I serve are sharing pictures of events the day before they are married. In Pennsylvania instead of Kansas. On a beach instead of a United Methodist church. By another pastor instead of by me. I can't marry them in their own church in their own state because they are both women. Even though they have been together longer than many heterosexual marriages. Even though they are committed Christians and among the most faithful participants of their local church. Am I missing something here?

Of course I am! "The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching." (2012 Book of Discipline, paragraph 161F)

Setting aside the question of how one would distinguish a "practicing" homosexual from a "non-practicing" homosexual (am I not a practicing heterosexual since I am typing right now and not engaged in coitus?), I'd like to suggest that those opposed to LGBT equality are missing something much more important than a paragraph in our Social Principles.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I have participated in making more disciples of Jesus Christ at the church I have served for the last  3 1/2 years than my previous 10 years as a pastor. Almost every Sunday we have someone new walk into the church building who was ready to give up on God. Many of these people are ready to reject Jesus because they have been taught that Jesus has already rejected them or somebody they love because they are gay. THIS IS WHAT WE HAVE TAUGHT! To simultaneously say  "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" and "God loves you"  is like a parent who beats a child while saying "I love you." It is nonsensical. And it drives people away from faith in Jesus. If our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world then we would be far better off casting the nets wide and truly welcoming all people into our congregations.

Imagine an alternative to what is happening this weekend in Pennsylvania. Imagine that instead of getting married in a private ceremony we were able to host a wedding with 150 people in attendance. Imagine half of those people were people without a church home. Imagine that those people without a church home were people, like some I know, who have felt betrayed by God because no matter how hard they try they can't "pray the gay away" (i.e. they can't make God turn them into sense that God did not make them to be!) Imagine that in the moment of marriage the gathered people experience the scriptural truth that we love because God first loved us. Imagine that, say, half of those who had previously rejected God choose to give Jesus and the Church a second chance. Do you know what would happen then? We would have taken another step in fulfilling our mission as a church. But we can't do that because 55% of delegates at the last General Conference say so. And we all know that the majority always gets it right.

It has been said, "If we don't stand for something then we stand for nothing!" I agree. Let's stand unequivocally for God's love as revealed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It has been said, "We can't sell out to culture!" I agree. Let's sell out to our God-given mission.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Government Shutdown: We're All to Blame

The government shutdown is good for one thing. It shows us again how the Bible is relevant to real life.

In Genesis 3 immediately after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge God appears on the scene. You can read the story here or just reading the Livingston Version of the Bible here: 
God: "Adam, do you want to tell me what you've done here?"
Adam: "Um...I don't really know what happened. I was just standing here and this woman gave me this fruit to eat. What was I supposed to do? I was trying to be polite. It's her fault1"
God: "And Eve, what about you?"
Eve: "Well, yeah, I gave Adam the apple but only because this snake made me eat it first."
Snake: "Hissssss"

You see how quickly we resort to blaming each other instead of taking responsibility for our own actions? So maybe we shouldn't expect Congress and President Obama to act any better. Regardless of our expectations, they are playing the blame game and playing it well. I watched helplessly last night while person after person came on TV pointing the finger at someone else. I never heard anyone say "I'm part of the problem." How can an intelligent human being say with a straight face that this problem is all because of one side of the aisle or the other? They are all obstinate!  I put the blame 1/3 on President Obama for not being more assertive in talking with Republicans in Congress, 1/3 on Congressional Republicans for not proposing a serious compromise (they repeatedly say their first compromise was defunding Obamacare. How exactly is that a compromise?), and 1/3 on the Senate for not passing a true budget it I don't  know how many years. Oh, and if we had responsible spending and taxing policies we might never have been in this mess to begin with.

But now, notice what I'm doing. Notice how quickly I began to place the blame. President Obama was elected not even one year ago. So was all of the House of Representatives and 1/3 of the Senate. I'm spreading the blame evenly across the field, but I'm leaving out the group that put these buffoons in office. Don't get me wrong, they are all acting like buffoons. But it was buffoons like you and me who gave them the power to shut down the government by putting them into office.

Reality check: Politicians want to get elected. They get elected by getting votes. They get votes by giving people what the people say they want. These politicians have heard that ideology is more important than governing. Polarizing policy is more important than getting along. Rhetoric is more important than reasoning. They have been told this by 1) the extremes in the population that contact politicians and 2) the silence of the non-extremist majority of Americans who are tired of this nonsense. If you are in the silent majority STOP BEING SILENT. DO SOMETHING!

Here's a place to start.
1. Find out who your representative is here
2. Contact your representative by following the links or go here.
3. Say something like this: "I'm interested in voting for politicians who are interested in making a positive difference in the world. You have a chance to be that kind of politician, but you're not doing it right now. Please get back to work fulfilling your responsibility to govern this country. I, and people like me across the country, are sending this message to Washington so that Democrats and Republicans alike know that we the people are far more interested in governing than one-upmanship. I understand that in elections politicians sometimes feel the need to cater to the extremes. You need to know that if you do so you may get their vote but you will not get mine."

I've just emailed my Senators and Representative. I hope you do the same.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Monkey and the Golf Ball

A story has made the rounds for the last few years about a golf course in Calcutta. I heard it for the first time a week ago at an Eagle Court of Honor. Here' the story as shared by a blogger.

"The story is told of a golf course in India. Apparently, once the English had colonized the country and established their businesses, they yearned for recreation and decided to build a golf course in Calcutta. Golf in Calcutta presented a unique obstacle. Monkeys would drop out of the trees, scurry across the course, and seize the golf balls. The monkeys would play with the balls, tossing them here and there.

At first, the golfers tried to control the monkeys. Their first strategy was to build high fences around the fairways and greens. This approach, which seemed initially to hold much promise, was abandoned when the golfers discovered that a fence is no challenge to an ambitious monkey. Next, the golfers tried luring the monkeys away from the course. But the monkeys found nothing as amusing as watching humans go wild whenever their little white balls were disturbed. In desperation, the British began trapping the monkeys. But for every monkey they carted off, another would appear.

Finally, the golfers gave in to reality and developed a rather novel ground rule: Play the ball where the monkey drops it. As you can imagine, playing this unique way could be maddening. A beautiful drive down the center of the fairway might be picked up by a monkey and then dropped in the rough. Or the opposite could happen. A hook or slice that had produced a miserable lie might be flung onto the fairway. It did not take long before the golfers realized that golf on this particular course was very similar to our experience of life. There are good breaks, and there are bad breaks. We cannot entirely control the outcome of the game. "

It's a good story with multiple messages:
1. The breaks aren't your fault. Sometimes life just happens. Resist the urge to take responsibility for all of the problems that come in life. They aren't all your fault!
2. But some of them probably are your fault! We all make mistakes. If you made one, admit it. But here's the good news: even the breaks that are your fault can be redeemed by God. God's in the business of taking the past and making it new (2 Corinthians 5:17). Be made new! You still have to play the ball from where the monkey dropped it, but your "score" starts over.
3. Sometimes we're the monkey in the story. We think about ourselves as the golfer when we read the story, but sometimes we take the role of the monkey. Don't monkey around with someone else's life. But if you do, drop the ball on the green, not the rough.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Two Visions, One Church

We had a new member session last Wednesday with eleven adults representing about 20 children, women, and men. We had great conversation and good questions. My favorite question: "Are you trying to make this church grow?"

I thought it was a trick question. Our church is growing. We talk about membership expectations (prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness) in every session and mention that we continue to have capital campaigns to pay down debt and/or add to facilities because we are growing and anticipate more growth. But, then, I know there are people in every church who say "I hope this church never gets bigger." So I tried to answer the question honestly. "We aren't 'trying to grow.' We're trying to be faithful to our mission. If we do that, I think it's likely that we will grow." I hoped that would satisfy but was prepared for it not to. Then she said, "Good. I just wanted to make sure you were focused on the right things."

I am rarely this blunt, but Don House is not focused on the right things. He has a plan that you can read about here. The purpose of the plan is to save the United Methodist Church (UMC). Rev. Lovett Weems and Rev. Gil Rendle are cited as co-developers of his plan. I've appreciated much of both Rev. Weems' and Rev. Rendle's work, but they are wrong too.

In a nutshell, Dr. House believes that the problem with the decline of the UMC is that we aren't spending enough money in the right ways. His plan would have 998 churches invest $161.5 million dollars between now and 2021 in their churches. This isn't surprising. Dr. House is an economist. Like a hammer thinks every problem is a nail, an economist is inherently more likely to see a problem as economic (and a theologian as a theological problem, etc.). There are some very important facts to be gleaned from his strategic plan, but there is one fundamental flaw. To measure whether or not the new inflow of cash makes a difference or not he has to control for other variables. He does this. For every variable except one. We're living in a different world today. I believe there once was a time when Dr. House's plan would work. This is not that time.

Historical data is only relevant if history is relatively static. For example, I very much doubt that Dr. House would use data all the way back to the 1800's even if it were available. The entirely different world we live in today would skew the data. Well, the world has changed a lot since the beginning of the 28 years that Dr. House has data for. Perhaps one of the most fundamental changes in reard to religion is articulated by Rachel Held Evans. She wrote recently, "Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances." What is throwing more money at staffing and programs to entice new members other than consumerism in disguise?

Let's follow Cynthia Astle's advice instead: "The Church's future lies in authenticity – proclaiming and demonstrating that following Jesus Christ genuinely transforms life here and now. It's about building beloved community beyond church walls, so that the thirsty have drink, the hungry have bread, and the stranger is welcomed. It's about making sure that those sick or imprisoned, downtrodden or desperate, have someone embrace them and reassure them that nothing, nothing, makes them undeserving of God's love and of human respect and dignity."

That sounds more like the Gospel. It also means that we will have to spend some money on our churches - on programs, staff, and buildings. One could argue that what Dr. House is really proposing is that we simply do a better job in our churches of encouraging better financial stewardship and making good choices about how to use the money that people freely share. Perhaps he has a good tool for helping churches know whether or not they are giving as faithfully as they should. So far so good. Let's do that. But let's do that because it's the right thing to do, not as a strategy to get more butts in the seats.