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.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Why I'm a Uniting Methodist

Yesterday a new group was unveiled. Uniting Methodists is a group that will be working to a united way forward in our ongoing controversy about LGBTQ marriage, ordination, and inclusion. Without giving a specific plan, they have proposed six principles for moving forward as a denomination. I hope you'll visit the website and prayerfully consider signing on.

And I would understand if you don't. You may be someone who supports the current positions of the United Methodist Church. Or you may believe that the proposal from Uniting Methodists doesn't go far enough. It is "inclusion lite" at best, giving clergy the option of officiating same-sex weddings and giving conferences the option of allowing LGBT ordination but not requiring either. If you believe it does not go far enough I hope you'll read the rest of this post, because I'm with you - and I have signed on. I want you to know why.

1. I signed because I needed a church that "agreed to disagree."

In 1996 I was a 23 year old lay delegate to General Conference. Up to that moment in my life I'd spent very little time even thinking about human sexuality outside of my stereotyped images. I wasn't "against" people who were different from me. I loved them, and believed that God loved them too. If pushed, I would have said something like "I believe that God's best for a person is heterosexual marriage. There are people who don't recognize that for themselves yet, maybe because there is a bigger issue for them to work through first." I considered myself to be open, loving, and just. And if there were two United Methodist churches, one dominated by the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and one dominated by Reconciling Ministries, I would have been with the WCA. I never would have experienced a tremendous number of influential people in my life, including a man about my age who sat behind my chair in my General Conference subcommittee who helped me start to understand a world that was bigger than I was aware of.

I want a United Methodist Church that can do for someone else what this one did for me in 1996. And the journey that began for me then continued for at least 10 years. Maybe in some ways it still continues. We need a Church that can give space for people like me to continue to process thoughts. And I also understand that there are some who cannot sign because they need a space where they know people will agree.

2. I signed because I can.

I'm a centrist in all kinds of ways. I spent time as a registered Independent, I always vote a split ticket, I try to preach sermons that invite people to consider multiple sides to issues rather than sticking with what they already believe, and I'm a Royals fan who can tolerate Yankees fans. I have heard from some who have been fighting this battle for more than 40 years. I have deep respect for them. I don't know if I could do that. And so I have no animosity towards those who now say "I can't do this anymore." You need to know that I haven't been fighting for 40 years. I've been fighting in earnest for maybe 8 years. You also need to know that I have friends of every theological stripe. I can work with them, even as I disagree with them. I'm convinced that we are better together whenever we can be together. UMCOR's response to the recent hurricanes is evidence of that. So because I can work with people across the spectrum I plan to continue doing just that.

3. I signed because I believe a United church is a faithful witness to the world "for such a time as this." 

If you don't know that our nation is divided you have closed off every sense organ you possess. Polarization is at an all time high. In fact, when I hear people say, "We shouldn't be following culture - we should be leading culture" I say, "I agree. But instead of following culture with LGBT rights I say we're following culture by dividing and conquering. We're following the cultural norm of dehumanization and polarization." The reality is the places in the United States where public opinion is opposed to same sex marriage are precisely the places where the UMC witness is strongest against it (and vice-versa.) If the times were different, I might come out in a different place. But at this time, and in this place, the need for us to find commonalities with others is critical. I believe that part of our witness to the world is to proclaim that we can be united through diversity. Which also means rejecting the notion of the WCA that a big-tent Methodism is a bad idea.

4. I signed because I understand that this is not the end of the story.

2019 will not be the last time that the question of human sexuality comes up or that other controversial questions come up. I've argued previously that a WCA dominated church will debate (not necessarily pass, but almost certainly debate) whether or not women should be ordained. I suspect that a denomination dominated by progressives will debate (not necessarily pass) theological questions of salvation and the divinity of Christ. And I imagine that a Uniting Methodist dominated church will continue to debate matters of human sexuality. The reality of our situation is that none of us are finished products and the Church will be imperfect until Christ comes again. So to those who cannot be part of this proposal because it continues to exclude, I hear you. It is not perfect. Not by a long shot. And I promise that if this picture of the future comes to fruition I will be among those who continue to work for change from the inside. I deeply respect those who feel they can no longer do the same.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Why the Monuments Matter...And Why They Don't

History does not repeat itself.

There will never again be a time when we churn our own butter and use horses as our primary means of transportation.

History does spiral. The same themes come up over and over again, reminding us of where we were but like the difference between a spiral and a circle never precisely replicating where we were.

In 1896, 41 years after the Civil War ended, the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to have "separate but equal" laws in the case of Plessy v. Fergusen. In the years following, more and more Jim Crow laws were enacted (the Louisiana law that Plessy challenged appears to be the first law referred to as a Jim Crow law) and more and more Confederate monuments and memorials went up. In fact, the large majority went up during this time period - it's not even close.

It was not another Civil War - history did not repeat itself - but the Supreme Court sent a message that discrimination was OK. That was not their intent. The majority opinion was that all people really should be treated equal. They just thought that we could have separate facilities, in this case railroad cars, and those facilities could really be equal. But that wasn't what your everyday ordinary racist heard. Monuments went up and there was a spike in lynchings. People were given permission by the government to be racists.

I heard President Trump with my own ears say that racism is not OK in his first statement about Charlottesville. But that's not what white nationalists heard. Both David Duke and Richard Spencer thanked Trump for his words. What they heard, regardless of Trump's intent, was permission to be racist. When we allow monuments to the Confederacy to remain up we do the same thing. We give an implicit message that we are OK with the racism represented in the monuments. And remember the timing of when those monuments went up is strong evidence that the motivation was racial - they came at the same time as the racist Jim Crow laws, not after the war in honor of the fallen.

On the other hand...

In 1954 the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education ruled that separate cannot be equal. It was not another Civil War - history did not repeat itself - but we can see the spiral. Civil unrest, protests, racism raised its head again, and we had another spike in monument construction. Once again, the monuments were built because of racism. But this time the racism came out as a result of the courts ruling against inequality. In other words, when racists felt vindicated monuments went up and when racists felt threatened monuments went up.

What's it mean?

The monuments of the Confederacy are not racist. They are stone and metal. But they symbolize racism in the same way that Trump's words symbolized racism regardless of his intent. and regardless of his heart. Allowing the monuments to remain is a sign for some that their racism is OK. They should all come down and go to museums where we keep our history. And at the same time, taking down the monuments does nothing to take down our racism. They are a sign of something deeper within us. Unless we are willing to dig into our hearts, look deep inside to see what is there, merely taking down monuments will matter very little.

**throughout when I reference racists/racism I'm speaking of individuals who identify as alt-right, white nationalists, etc. Systemic racism and the ways in which all of us who are in the majority have privilege are important subjects that deserve attention in their own right. Those are not my focus here.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Trump, Kim Jong Un, and "Moral Authority"

Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, who is one of President Trump's religious advisors, has announced that "God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un [of North Korea." He says this on the basis of Romans 13.

So let's take Romans 13 literally, as Jeffress wants to do. "Every person should place themselves under the authority of the government." We run into two very clear problems:

1. If you want to take every verse literally, then the leader of North Korea (and Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and Russia...) could use this same verse to demand authority be given to them by the citizens of their country. The passage makes no distinction between leaders of different countries or different types of government. In fact, the only kind of government that Paul had experience with was more like North Korea's dictatorship than the United State's democracy.

2. These verses have nothing to do with foreign policy. There is nothing here about how one leader ought to treat another leader. It is all about how residents of a country should relate to the leader(s) of that country. Romans 13 actually would treat Trump and Kim Jong Un as equals, both put in place by God.

It is clear that Pastor Jeffress is reading Romans 13 to justify what he already believes (as, by the way, we are all tempted to do.)

So what is it really about?

Context matters. The early Christians were trying to live out "the Kingdom of God," a Kingdom that we modern Christians also claim citizenship in, while also living as residents of the Roman Empire. How does one go about living in two kingdoms at once? Paul speaks to them (not to the rulers!), saying that governance rather than anarchy is part of God's plan for this world. We have freedom in Christ, but we still should follow traffic laws. We should give freely to the Church and to those in need, but we also should pay our taxes. Unless the law of the State contradicts the law of Christ we are to follow both.

There is also a longstanding Christian tradition that there are times when it is a Christian's responsibility to resist the state when laws are against the Christian's calling. So, for example, a Christian pacifist ought not fight even if drafted. We'll be talking about issues like this in a three part War and Peace series at St. Paul's in September.

Should Trump "take out" Kim Jong Un? That's a question I won't presume to be able to answer. But the answer doesn't come from an isolated passage from Romans. It comes from prayerful, faithful, study not only of Scripture but also psychology, sociology, and policy. It is dangerous to reduce such complex questions to our own biased readings of a text.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

From Pentecost to Babel

The United Methodist Church should not observe Pentecost this year.

Pentecost is the birth of the Church. It is also the culmination of a story that began centuries earlier. The story begins in Genesis 11:1-9 with the construction of the Tower of Babel. Remember in that story the whole world speaks one language. A prideful group gathers together and begins building a Tower to reach the heavens. To thwart their efforts God confuses their languages. They can no longer communicate with each other. Thus they have no choice but to separate one from the other into tribes and nations across the Earth.

Pentecost is Babel Part 2. As people from all across the world speaking all different languages gather in Jerusalem, the Spirit descends upon the believers and enables them to speak different languages. They share the Good News in multiple languages, or perhaps in a spiritual tongue that could be understood by multiple languages, and as the shared the news that has the power to unite all people 3,000 individuals were converted in one day.

It is not a complete reversal of Babel. The multitude of languages still exist. The multitude of tribes and nations still exist. But the multitude could exist together because even with the differences they were able to communicate. They were able to listen, share, and grow together. Diversity in the Church continued even into the writing of Scripture as we have four Gospels that tell the same story in four different ways.

The United Methodist Church should not observe Pentecost this year because we have gone back to Babel. We speak different languages literally (both in the United States and certainly across the globe) and figuratively traditional, progressive, centrist, exclusive, inclusive, conservative, liberal...) Our figurative language differences identify the tribe to which we belong (WCA, Love Prevails, Good News, MFSA...) Instead of being drawn together in Christ with our differences as happened at Pentecost we have chosen to withdraw to our tribes in the spirit of Babel.

We don't have to talk to each other. We can simply go our separate ways. We can associate only with those who think like us. But we can't do that and celebrate Pentecost. We have become people of Babel instead.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A New Methodist Map

Some helpful work has been done recently in attempting to categorize the various constituencies within the United Methodist Church as we inch closer to a report from The Way Forward commission and a special 2019 General Conference. Categories can be helpful handles for us to grasp as long as 1) we don't grasp so tightly that we can't unclench our fists when we find someone in a different category and 2) the categories fit with our lived reality. As Gordon Livingston (no relation) said, 

“If the map doesn't agree with the ground, the map is wrong”

Tom Lambrecht first developed the map that is now becoming well known. It was enhanced by Tom BerlinChris Ritter took it another step. In each design, the map categorizes United Methodists into four groups based on their position on LGBTQ inclusion and willingness to share a denomination with those who disagree. The groups are labeled Progressive Non-Compatibilist, Progressive Compatibilist, Traditional Compatibilist, and Traditional Non-Compatibilist. There is value to this map. It highlights well the immediate situation that we face. But it doesn’t reflect the broader ground around us. Once we get over the current hill in front of us the map becomes worthless. So I want to try changing the map. I want to try a map that speaks both to the ground we are walking on now and to the ground that we will inevitably walk on in the future.

If you are a reader of this blog you undoubtedly know that I have grave concerns about the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA.) It is ironic, then, that I'd like to change the map because of the words of Jeff Greenway, chair of the WCA, at a gathering in Memphis a few weeks ago. As reported by Good News Magazine, Greenway said, 
"... I believe human sexuality is the presenting symptom of much deeper theological fissures and systemic problems that are dividing The United Methodist Church. 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. There was a sense of mutual appreciation and tolerance at that time. I can remember talking with some of my older, more liberal colleagues who would not agree with my more orthodox perspectives, but they would say there was room in their church for me. It was a generous pluralism whose limits had not yet been truly tested. Those limits are now being tested...."
He's right.

The reality is we are divided on a great number of issues, not just human sexuality. This is the presenting issue for a deeper crisis. Which means that coming to a final resolution on human sexuality would not solve the deeper issues. One who is a Progressive Non-Compatibilist on LGBTQ rights may be a Traditional Compatibilist on rebaptism, for example. Thus, using Greenway's language as a springboard, I propose three different categories. 

The New Categories

Progressive Exclusionary - this group consists of those who take a consistently progressive view. But to belong to this group one must not only have a progressive theology, but also insist that this progressive theology is unquestionably the future of the church. Individuals in this group might say something like "We know through science that miracles can't occur and never did occur and it's embarrassing to be associated with people who still hold on to old superstitions like that." This group is sometimes labeled as "tolerant of everyone except those who aren't tolerant," which can also become "tolerant of everyone except those who don't think like them." In Greenway's quote above, this group is represented by the phrase "Those limits [of pluralism] are now being tested."

Traditional Exclusionary - on the opposite end are the traditional exclusivists. This group consists of those who take a consistently traditional stance AND insist that the denomination must always do so as well. They will fight for the faith that was handed down to us. They conserve. When they say "The Bible is True" they mean "The Bible is True in the way that I understand Biblical truth as it was handed down to me. Period." This group is sometimes labeled (unfairly) as haters of anyone who is not like them. But they are naturally suspicious of theological innovation. I cannot speak for where Rev. Greenway comes down, but the quote we began with sounds like what one would expect from the Traditional Exclusionary group.

Wesleyan Inclusivists – This is the final group. They are inclusive in their thinking. In Greeway's words, they are in favor of "big tent Methodism." Theological Pluralism is a good thing, in part because I may be wrong and you may be right and the only way we'll find out in this lifetime is if we stay in relationship. But this group is not entirely inclusive. The Wesleyan Inclusivist holds in Wesley's sermon on a "Catholic Spirit" high regard. Wesley clearly communicates in this sermon the inclusive principle that people of different opinions can coexist in the same church. “Every wise man...bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question. 'Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’” But there is more. In the same sermon Wesley also speaks against latitudinarianism, which today we could translate as an "anything goes" approach. A latitudinarian would end the story of the woman caught in adultery with "Is there anyone here to condemn you?" and skip the "Go and sin no more" part. Wesleyan Inclusivists, then, would hold to a core of the faith that the Progressive Exclusionary group would not hold to and simultaneously hold to a smaller core of essentials than the Traditional Exclusionary group. In the words of Albert Outler, "Here, then, is a charter for a distinctive sort of doctrinal pluralism - one that stands at an equal distance from dogmatism on the one extreme and indifferetism on the other." (from his introduction to “Catholic Spirit” in The Works of John Wesley.)

Making the Map

So now we can start making the map.

We need a new map because the Lambrecht/Berlin/Ritter map categorizes us primarily in relation to one topic, albeit a very important topic. The bigger question is the one Greenway named. "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." 

If you agree with Greenway that this is a problem and the solution is some form of denominational purification (aka enforcing the Book of Discipline) then you are in the Traditional Exclusionary camp.

If you agree with Greenway that the "big tent" is a problem but you think the solution is to enforce a deep pluralism and those who cannot accept the pluralism will need to exit then you are in the Progressive Exclusionary camp. 
Progressive Exclusionaries cannot agree with Traditional Exclusionaries. Again, Greenway is right. The limits of a generous pluralism are being tested. And we are failing the test. We are failing because, like the current culture of the United States, we are moving ever more rapidly to the poles - to the extremes. One extreme has forgotten how to be generous; the other has forgotten how to be pluralistic. And so we stand in opposition. 

In the middle of the map sits the Wesleyan Inclusivists. This is my preference and where I would place myself, so I’ll take a short tangent. As a Wesleyan Inclusivist I led the church I serve through the process of becoming a Reconciling Congregation. At the same time, anyone who has been a member of the congregation through the previous four senior pastors will tell you I am the most theologically conservative pastor this church has ever had. When I arrived we lost some members because I was too conservative. More recently we lost members because of our pro-refugee stance. Now I’m too liberal. Some will say we talk about sin too much and some will say you can only be comfortable here if you're a Democrat. And those statements will surprise the many Republicans in the congregation and those who thank God daily for saving them from sin. We've also baptized four adults in the last month who are finding a fresh, authentic faith.

In other words, the Wesleyan Inclusivist lives in the tension of the real world. Some say we will not be able to move forward as a church until we have a final resolution to the issues before us. I remind you that the first church fight is recorded in Acts 6, not long after Pentecost, "while the number of disciples continued to increase" (Acts 6:1, CEB). We live in tension not because of our current dispute, but because we are human. The church has always and always will exist in this tension.

The Wesleyan Inclusivist will embrace from the Progressive Exclusivist a spirit of Christian pluralism. The tent should be big because Wesley’s tent was big and Jesus’ tent was big. But there are pieces that the Wesleyan cannot take from the Progressive. For example, we must be able to say that Jesus is the Way. A universalism that says all religions are ultimately the same diminishes our own faith while also doing a disservice to other faiths (see Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One for a good survey.) We cannot succumb to a pluralism whose only boundary is excluding those who believe in boundaries.

The Wesleyan Inclusivist will also embrace pieces of the Traditional Exclusivist. In short, we would hold onto the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith in the Book of Discipline. And, to quote another WCA presenter, we would hold onto those statements "without crossing our fingers behind our backs." But the Traditionalist will have to let go of some things, too. The Traditionalist will have to note that our statements on Scripture include the phrase "Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith..." (Confession of Faith, Article IV.) This means that there are some things you might want us to hold as essential that...aren't. And we may have some legitimate disagreements about what precisely is revealed in Scripture.

Now to finish the map. In themselves, the Progressive and the Traditionalist cannot be reconciled. But the Wesleyan invites both into relationship, taking pieces that can be embraced by all in order to bridge the gap. Because the Methodist tent is big. It is not all-encompassing, but it is big. And that’s a good thing.

We need to be realistic. There will be those who are not able to stay united in this denomination. The person I interviewed years ago who held to the idea that God dictated Scripture word by word doesn’t belong in the same denomination as the person who believes the Bible is a human construct with divine inspiration.

Rob Renfroe said in the March/April issue of Good News that, “A win for the Kingdom is coming out of the present mess with as many faithful Methodists as possible connected to each other and working together for the Kingdom (p.3).” We will not stay entirely united. But if we can see beyond the presenting issue to the deeper issues, we can stay mostly united. We can work together towards common goals and allow differences in matters of opinion. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Even the Gentiles

Acts 10 tells the story of the conversion of Cornelius. As I preached on Sunday, the story could equally be referred to as the conversion of Peter. Not a conversion to faith, obviously. We're well past that time in his story. But Peter's conversion is incredibly important nonetheless.

As the story begins Peter holds the traditional understanding that a person had to essentially convert to Judaism before converting to Christianity. By the end of the story his understanding of how God is working is dramatically changed. Verse 45 is a key verse.

"The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the
Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles."

Did you notice that last phrase? "Even on the Gentiles." You can hear in this the way in which the circumcised believers felt about the Gentiles. It reminds me of John 1 when Nathaniel asks Phillip, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" The nerve of God! To go beyond our understanding, to go beyond our expectations, and bless someone who is different from me with the Holy Spirit! Yes, God blessed even the Gentiles.

Which group of people do we think of today as Peter and the others thought of as the Gentiles? What country, or gender, or economic status, or political party, or religion, or denomination, or sexual orientation, or skin color, or ... do you (we) assume God will not work through?

I pray that God surprises us again and again with the ones that God chooses to bless.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A Parable

A young man was walking home after a wonderful Sunday evening worship experience at the church. As he silently shared a silent prayer of gratitude to God for the light of the moon and chirps of the crickets, he heard a muffled voice from the crumbled sidewalk running perpendicular to his path. He crossed the familiar "work zone" tape that had blocked the walk for the last few days as crews worked to rebuild the old concrete. Quickly, he realized what had happened. Storms  had washed under the sidewalk, eroding dirt below. Over time, more and more dirt washed away until a large hole opened up. This was what the workers were trying to fix.

But now where the sidewalk should be he saw only the hole that the rain had left behind and heard, again, a voice, coming from below.

"Help! Anyone?"

The voice was weak.

"Hello!" The man replied. "I can hear you. I'll help get you out!"

"Thank God. I've been here for...I don't know how long."

"Well don't worry, I'll call for help. It's just after noon now."

A sigh...a deep breath...a word "so long."


"It's been so long. I was working all night Saturday in the office and into Sunday morning. Things had to get done, you know. 9:00 maybe when I started to walk home. I just wasn't paying attention. Fell right into the hole. My leg is bent...I know it's broken. The blood coming from...I don't know where. I hurt. Everywhere."

"So you've been here for, what, 12 hours? Oh my gosh. That's horrible. You need to get to a doctor!"

"I'm so thirsty...hungry..."

"I bet. Well, I'll get you all taken care of. You just stay there and don't worry. Or...wait. I'm sorry, but I need to ask you another question. Are you a Christian?"

"Yeah. Sure. Isn't everyone?"

"No, not everyone. But I'm asking because it occurred to me that you said you were working all night and into Sunday morning. I mean, I'm busy too. I work hard five days a week and sometimes on Saturdays. But Sunday is the Sabbath."

"Yeah, so?"

"Well, it's God's day. You understand you were breaking God's law, don't you?"

"I didn't know it was that important."

"Well, it is. And if you had been going to worship like you should have been instead of working in the office you never would have fallen in this hole to begin with."

"Look, I appreciate your view but can't you just help me out of this hole? You don't even have to do it. Just call someone else who can help."

"I'm sorry, I just can't do that. You didn't just break one law, you broke two. You were working on the Sabbath and because you were doing that you weren't worshiping the Lord. That's why you fell down the hole. I'm sorry, I really am, but when you live in sin there are consequences."

"What? That's not funny."

"Oh, I'm not joking. If I help you I'm just making it worse. I'll be enabling you to continue sinning. Plus then I'll be working on the Sabbath, too."

"You're going to leave me here until tomorrow?"

"I might be able to help then, sure. Hang tight. If you find where you're bleeding make sure to hold something up tight to it so you don't lose as much blood. And elevate that part too. That might help. I'll pray for you, too, that you might have a change in heart. Just remember this all would have been avoided if only you had followed God's law."

"Come back! Please!"

"Don't worry, I will. Tomorrow. Bye for now."

The man walked on. He truly was sorry for the person in the hole, the poor soul who had so misbehaved. He too, was one of the Shepherd's sheep who had gone astray. It was so hard to do the right thing. And yet every person has their struggles. Every person must learn to obey...

You have heard it said that homosexuality is a violation of God's law. You have heard it said that someone who is gay must change their ways. I ask you: How many lives must we lose to suicide before we choose to pick a person up out of the hole instead? How many people must run from the Church that condemns before we will be open to the fruit that comes with acceptance? How many times must we run to "But the law says..." before we run to the Gospel of Grace that says "You are welcome to the table."
- Matthew 12:9-14

Monday, April 24, 2017

We're All Afflicted

Finley Peter Dunne was the first to use the phrase "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." He said it in reference to the job of newspapers. I've always been told it's the job of preachers. And, as a preacher, I've subscribed to the theory. After all, that's what Jesus did. To the lepers dealing with disease and ostracism he brought healing and hope; to the pharisees who self-righteously spoke of their faithfulness he brought affliction. The church I serve is a place where all people can come no matter their station in life - no matter their affliction, one might say. My hope is that every person who walks into St. Paul's on a Sunday morning will leave having found a place of hospitality and love. Comfort. Equally, I hope that every person will leave challenged to follow God more faithfully, no matter what that means for them. Affliction.

Here's the rub. As the days and weeks and now months have gone by post-election I'm having a hard time finding anyone who is comfortable. Affliction is easy to find. President Trump has continued to find ways to speak or act against almost every category of person that can be named causing all of them (and all of us who care about them) affliction. At the exact same time, many who supported Trump are also feeling afflicted by a media that keeps pummeling Trump and a perception that those who didn't vote for Trump don't see him as a legitimate president. The church I serve has not lost any members for months because of the "hot topic" of human sexuality. We have lost members because of our pro-refugee stance. We have lost members, or at least attendees, because people are tired of hearing about contentious issues. And yet there is no question that if we had not taken the stand we have taken or talked about what we have talked about we would also lose members. How do you preach comfort to the afflicted when everyone feels afflicted and what comforts one group is precisely what afflicts another group?

As is often the case, the United Methodist Church is a reflection of our society. Everyone feels afflicted. This week we essentially hold a trial for Bishop Karen Oliveto. That's not really what it is, but certainly that's how it is perceived. Here's the interesting part. As an advocate for change in our denominational position on everything associated with LGBT rights I feel afflicted. For more than 40 years we have argued back and forth and virtually every vote has gone against change. There is some hope that this one decision will go our way (because it is clear to me that the Judicial Council doesn't really have jurisdiction in the case), but even if that happens the demographics and previous votes suggest that there is little chance of making true progress at a 2019 called General Conference. But that's not all! While the "progressive" side feels afflicted, it is the "traditionalist" side that is actually leaving the denomination even before General Conference...even before the Way Forward commission makes a recommendation...even before the Oliveto case. Repeatedly, I hear traditionalists say the UMC is a lost cause - even though that's not how the votes have ever gone.

I've sometimes shared in premarital counseling that there are times when it is more important to be in relationship than to be right. Sometimes being right is more important - for example, spousal abuse is never right and should end the relationship. But what if my spouse says it's my turn to take out the trash and I am positive that I was the last person to do that? Is it worth an argument and grabbing video from the security camera to prove that I'm right? Or is it better to say "Yes, dear" and just take out the trash? Is it more important to stand by the principle that I am right or is it better to stand by the relationship regardless of who is right?

As I've written elsewhere, the movement from the progressive-center wing of the UMC is not to say we are right. Indeed, that large group includes some who would say same-sex marriage is not right. The movement is to a position that says we are willing to allow space for a variety of opinions - even those that we disagree with , even if we are really sure that we have this right - because we value the relationship of all our sisters and brothers.

In the local church I will admit that I haven't figured it out yet. I don't know how to comfort the afflicted when everyone feels afflicted. I know I have to preach the Gospel. And I know that unity even with those we disagree with is part of the Gospel. It's a quandary. Maybe a microcosm of the State of the Church as a whole.

As we sort all of this out, please pray for your preachers. Pray for the Way Forward Commission. Pray for the Judicial Council and those representing differing views. Pray for wisdom, for restored relationship, and for a way through the narrow path that we must navigate.

Monday, March 20, 2017

May Unity in Diversity Be Our Witnesss

In a commentary titled Misunderstandings and Mischaracterizations first published by Good News and later by, Walter Fenton attempted to "clarify what United Methodists in the renewal and reform groups [like Good News and WCA] regard as misunderstandings or mischaracterizations of their positions." The commentary lists a series of "claims" that "centrists and progressives" make about "renewal and reform leaders" and then shows in turn how each of these claims is false.

Occasionally I'll hear someone who was raised in a church from the theological far right or left speak of why they no longer believe in God. Almost always I will reply, "I don't believe in that God either. Let me tell you about the God I do believe in." In the same way, I will not contend with Rev. Fenton's assessment of how the reform and renewal groups believe their positions are mischaracterized. As someone who travels with both centrist and progressive groups, I will contend that for many the mischaracterizations that Rev. Fenton sees are not ones that I am hearing. Indeed, the groups that I am familiar with are suggesting a very different future for the UMC than what Rev. Fenton seems to think they are looking for. Perhaps instead of Rev. Fenton telling us what the progressives and centrists believe to be the case it would be profitable to speak with them directly.

Instead of engaging in the mischaracterizations that, whether true or not, distract from the conversation (the God I don't believe in) let me tell you what I and many other centrists and progressives do believe.

We believe that theological diversity, including a variety of ways of interpreting the Bible, is good. There are limits to that diversity, both on the left and the right. For example, the Trinity is an essential belief in Methodism, as is made clear in our doctrinal standards. If a potential pastor denies the Trinity then that person should not be allowed to be a pastor. On the other hand, Christians have had rich debates about the exact nature of the Trinity. There is room for conversation and disagreement about the precise nature of the three-in-one God. Similarly, unlike some denominations like the Anglican Church of North America, the United Methodist Church does not restrict which version of the Bible can be used in worship. Every version is, in part, and interpretation and we recognize that a variety of interpretations helps us on our faith journeys rather than hinders us.

We believe the Bible is True. We also believe that there are various ways of understanding that truth. I believe the creation story in Genesis is beautiful poetry that describes the incredible truth that a loving God, out of love, created all. With God, we should celebrate that in creation God did something miraculous and "It was very good." Another pastor in our tradition (and in fact a pastor that I know who used to serve in the same conference as me) might argue that the creation story teaches us that everything was created in a step-by-step process over the course of seven days. We disagree about how Genesis 1-2 is true, but we agree that it is true.

We believe that the Church should not cave in to cultural norms. I have yet to talk to a person who has said "we should change our position on homosexuality because everyone else has changed their mind, too." In fact, the early proponents of change in our policy began their work at a time when concepts like same-sex marriage would be laughable. According to Pew, a majority of Americans remained opposed to same-sex marriage until 2013. Instead, I would offer that we are engaged in the common cultural practice, and unbiblical practice, of polarization. Jesus said that our unity would be a witness to the world. We are caving to the cultural notion that those with differing perspectives can't work together for the common good. Just as the Methodist church split over slavery at roughly the same time the country split, we find ourselves at General Conference as unable to work together "across the aisle" as our current Congress.

Because of this, we believe that there is room in the United Methodist Church for a variety of views and practices regarding same-sex marriage and "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" as pastors. Personally, I think there will come a time when we will look back on this in the same way that we do previous issues of equality with race and gender - we will celebrate the progress that has been made toward equality and note that there are ways in which we still fall short. However, I acknowledge that I could be wrong. In the meantime, I am more than willing to work in a denomination with those who disagree with me. Will I hope that they change their mind? Absolutely! Will I advocate forcing them to change their mind or leave the denomination? Absolutely not! In fact, there is no serious proposal to require any pastor to perform same-sex marriages or any conference to ordain "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." This is why I expect that if the denomination changes it's position there will be some on both the theological left and right who choose to leave. The choices at this time are very straightforward. We can continue something resembling our current arrangement, dig in our heals, and ultimately go our separate ways. Or, we can change our position to one that does not coerce pastors or conferences into practices that they disagree with.

Let's be clear. The Way Forward Commission and the next General Conference will not be choosing between whether our denomination is "pro-gay" or "anti-gay." They will be choosing whether or not we are willing to work together even as we disagree on particular positions and whether we will defy culture by staying united at a time when the world says we should divide.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Yes, WCA, God Is Good

You don't need to read much of my work to know that I have concerns about the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). So when I received an email from them asking me to watch a short video, of course I did. You can watch it too.

As is their habit, the WCA is creating a false narrative of what is happening in the United Methodist Church. In the video, Madeline Carrasco Henners shares three phrases that the WCA holds on to. God is Good. The Bible is True. Promises Should be Kept.

Amen and amen. But that doesn't mean that the WCA's narrative is true. To begin with, Rev. Henners makes the near libelous claim that, "There are those in the UMC who don't agree with all or even part of those three simple statements." I invite Rev. Henners to name those in the UMC who would refute the idea that God is Good. Even the most radical of our members left and right would not deny that God is Good. Do we have different understandings of exactly how God's goodness is lived? Of course. But we should be above playing games with each other in the serious times that we live in.

Rev. Henners then goes point by point, and so will I. That only gets us half way through her video but it's all I can stomach for the moment.

God is Good. 

The last sentence that Henners shares here gets to the crux of the matter. "If God tells us to refrain from something then it is good for us to obey Him." We all know that the WCA's primary concern is the "practice of homosexuality." They never use the words in the video, but everybody knows that this is the issue at hand. This sentence is code for 'If God tells us to refrain from [homosexuality] then it is good for us to obey." And I agree. But we aren't arguing about whether or not we should obey God; we are arguing about what God's will is.

The Bible Is True

Something else we can agree on. Rev. Henners quotes 2 Timothy on the authority of Scripture, which most likely originally referenced the Old Testament, but that's fine. We'll move on to the contention that some don't agree that the Bible is true. I have yet to find a pastor who doesn't start a sermon with Scripture. Or read Scripture regularly. Or seek to follow Scripture. Rev. Henners says, "The Bible provides us with authoritative teaching on what we should believe and how we should live." Yes! And yet we all agree that there are places where the Bible teaches things that on the surface appear contradictory and that must be sorted out by other means. We don't stone insolent children. We don't practice the Year of Jubilee. We don't attack those with lustful eyes as adulterers. We don't share all we have in common. The Bible is true AND we will sometimes disagree on how it is rightfully interpreted.

Promises Should Be Kept

Now we get to it. "Every ordained clergyperson...promised to God and each other to be accountable to the United Methodist Church, it's authority, it's Doctrinal Standards, and our Book of Discipline. This promise is absolute. It is without exception. That's what makes it a covenant." And so I'll go to my favorite part of the Book of Discipline, the footnote on Paragraph 310 (2012 BOD. This footnote reminds us that candidates for ordination should not be "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." But the history of the footnote goes back at least to 1976 and spoke only of tobacco and alcohol use - language that still remains as it was then. "...the burden of proof would be upon users [of tobacco and beverage alcohol] to show that their use of it is consistent with the highest ideals of the Christian life." I don't know about you, but I've never heard that question asked in a Board of Ordained Ministry interview. But promises should be kept! If you have ever had the wrong number of people on a church committee, if you have ever gone a year without receiving all of the special offerings, if you have ever served a church that does not have a United Methodist Women's chapter, then you have failed to keep the promise!

Is that what Rev. Henners really means? Of course not. And we know this because another vow we make in the Book of Discipline is to pay our apportionments. At least one WCA board member pastors a church that has not paid its apportionments in full even though it has found money to pay its WCA dues.

WCA members, if you are serious about keeping promises, then back it up with your words. And come up with some better lines to differentiate yourselves from the rest of us. We are all doing our best to stay faithful to God's call within the United Methodist Church.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Going Back to Look Forward

In the spirit of the Way Forward Commission and continuing conversation I've been reading Bishop Scott Jones' 2008 book Staying at the Table. The book begins with an essay by Bishop Jones and is followed by responses from several different prominent United Methodists. Bishop Jones' approach is not a surprise for those who know him, trying to chart an "extreme center" course that he believes would hold the denomination together and be faithful both to Scripture and our tradition. I disagree with his conclusion, but his approach is fair-handed.

Then I read the first response, from Dr. William Abraham. It was fascinating. As a prominent voice for the conservative wing of the United Methodist Church, Dr. Abraham's voice is important and his reputation is first rate. After a handful of criticisms of Bishop Jones' essay, most of which I agree with but none of which strike to the core of the issue, Dr. Abraham states as his major concern that Bishop Jones is willing to compromise on the morality of church members. He says, "The obvious compromise is to split the difference by not permitting homosexual practice for clergy but allowing it in the case of membership. I do not know if Bishop Jones is indirectly proposing this or not, but there are hints that he might be happy with such a way forward," and then goes on to tell us why such a compromise would be harmful.

Let me say it more clearly: In 2008, one of the most significant voices for traditionalist Methodists said that it would be a mistake to allow "practicing homosexual"* to be members of a United Methodist Church.

To put some context around this, Dr. Abraham's words came not long after a United Methodist pastor refused membership to a person who identified as gay. This was very controversial at the time and ultimately the pastor's decision was upheld by the Judicial Council because the pastor has sole authority to determine a person's readiness for membership. But Dr. Abraham clearly has a different rationale in mind. There is no other way to read his words. Bishop Jones goes too far because he would allow "practicing homosexuals" to join churches as members. 

Dr. Abraham is one of the founders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the new right-wing coalition pushing for retaining our denominational bans on LGBT clergy and weddings. Many of us have argued that despite their public statements a WCA led church would actually push us backwards. Dr. Abraham's statement confirms that fear. The status quo will not hold. A church that refuses to move to the left will not remain the same. It will move further to the right. As a centrist, one of the critical reasons that I believe the United Methodist Church should chart a true middle way is that we need both the theological liberals and conservatives to keep us generally focused in the best direction. For my friends who find themselves theologically right-of-center, please consider this. Would you prefer a denomination that allows but does not require conferences to ordain LGBT clergy and allows but does not require clergy to perform same-sex marriage OR would you prefer a denomination that drifts to the right, questioning whether LGBT individuals can even be church members? 

One of the most difficult challenges members of the Way Forward Commission and then the 2019 special General Conference will have to face is the potential of voting AGAINST their own personal beliefs for the sake of voting FOR a denomination that is bigger than themselves. The large majority of those who believe in ordination and marriage for LGBT persons are willing to vote for a permissive church that does not mandate agreement (a pastor could choose whether or not to perform same-sex weddings while a pastor could not make that choice about a multiracial marriage, for example.) The group that will determine whether we stay united are those in the center-right - those who would choose not to perform a wedding but would be willing to remain in a church with those who think and practice differently. If we divide, I'm afraid these same people will find themselves without a home as two new denominations inevitably drift further to the right and left.

*I reject the language of "practicing homosexual" because it implies that one can cease practicing a sexual orientation. I use this phrase only because it is the language we have in the Book of Discipline.