Category Archives: Bible

Biblical studies and reflections

Is There Truly an “Original Design”?

Let me tell you a story that’s been passed down in the church of the West for centuries. If you’re at all familiar with Christian religion, it’s a familiar one. It goes like like this.

God made the heavens and earth and called it good. The crowning moment of creation on the last day, Day 6, was the creation of humanity, male and female. God looked at everything he made and said that it was (note the past tense “was”) very good. Everyone and everything lived happily, wholly, and in perfect harmony within the Garden. Everything was flawlessly perfect.

But then… [cue the da-da-dum music], Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, whereupon they unleashed the curse of sin, reducing all humanity and the rest of creation to a fallen, less-than-ideal state, separated from God, from one another, and from themselves. Sin corrupted everything from its original, idyllic condition.

Skip ahead to the New Testament. To fix the problem of sin, God had to send his Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross so sinful humanity could be redeemed from the curse of sin. All who believe in Jesus and repent will be restored to a heavenly Paradise upon their death or at the return of Christ, whichever comes first. In the meantime, we live as sinful, less than ideal beings in a cursed creation. But all that will go away one day when all of God’s saved people will be gathered with God in heaven. The End.

For many of us, this is the story of the Bible. It’s the traditional narrative construct that frames the whole biblical cannon into roughly five distinctive parts: creation, sin, fall, Christ, church.

Frameworks like these, often called narrative constructs, are necessary tools. They serve to hold together the massive amount of literature— story, poetry, worship psalms, books of wisdom, prophesy, and letters— that makes up the Bible. Without it, it’s hard to see how the whole thing hangs together.

However, every narrative construct is bound to have its flaws, and this one has some major ones, a few having proved to be downright deadly. Here are several of its more problematic flaws:

  • It assumes that God’s use of “good” to describe humanity and creation means “perfect”, as in fully whole, complete, flawless, sinless, and deathless. I would argue that this is a Platonic usage of the word “good”, implying perfectly ideal. But that is not the Hebrew understanding of goodness, which points more to something’s God-given, good purpose, value and blessedness.
  • It totally skips over the role and purpose of Israel, i.e. everything else in the Old Testament between Genesis 4 through Malachi. It’s simply not mentioned, back-burnered as non-essential to salvation history. This is very unbiblical, literally, since the authors of the New Testament continually pointed to the whole cannon of the Hebrew Bible, only occasionally quoting from Genesis 1-3. I would also argue that this elimination of Israel from the narrative construct is the product and one of the root causes of Christian antisemitism.
  • It reduces Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection to God’s Plan B. In the Plan B presumption, Adam and Eve screwed up. That doomed the rest of us to screwing up. So God resorted to sending Jesus to clean up our mess. However, Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection is not a Plan B. From the very beginning, he is the epicenter of creation (John 1:1-4; Colossians 1:16-17), the one who brings unity to it all (Ephesians 1:10) and the herald of the New Creation (Isaiah 65:17). His death and resurrection is part of God’s continuum of Creation and New Creation.
  • It assumes that the goal of God is to fix a problem by getting everything back to the way it was. (Milton wrote of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.) Meanwhile, the Bible tells a different story. It always points forward to something new and better— a new covenant, a new heavens and a new earth, an Eden-esque garden within a new City of God (Revelation 22:1-3). Neither we nor creation will be what we once were. We will be transformed into something new (2 Corinthians 5:17). That’s what the resurrection of Jesus points to, as well.

But to me, the most insidious error of this traditional narrative of the Bible is its notion of “original design.” It implies that a good creation is equivalent to an idealistic perfection, and that we, as as fallen creatures, are sinfully imperfect.

I was recently in an online conversation with a friend of mine who argued (as many others have before him) that defects, disabilities, or a non-straight sexual orientation is less than the ideal norm, and is therefore the result of sin. We’re defective in a variety of ways because we messed up or someone else messed up. God can’t be blamed for a creation that is less than perfect, so somehow, somewhere, the error is within us. We’re the culpable ones.

What bothers me— strike that!— terrifies me about this line of thinking are the implications and unintended consequences.

For example, my son Jacob has Down Syndrome. This is caused by a mutation of his 21st chromosome whereby he has one extra chromosomal part, resulting in the condition of Down Syndrome. (You could argue he’s got more substance than most of us do!) Nevertheless, something like this is scientifically labeled a genetic anomaly. Jacob is classified as having a cognitive disability along with physical abnormalities.

My son Jacob

Do you see where this is going? Because of the pervasive attitude in our culture of idealistic perfection, he is seen as less than ideal, less than a whole, complete person. He’s seen as disabled, as in less-than-ideally-abled. People have called him, by words and actions, a “retard.”

My friend tried to argue that he is this way, and the rest of us are flawed the way we are, because of sin. If that’s the case, then one would have to conclude that my son’s life is less blessed than my own, since he has been inflicted with more of the consequential damage of sin than typically-abled, chromosomally “normal” people.

One would have to further conclude that Jacob is less in the image of God than most of us since his condition is further removed from the ideal of God’s “original design.” After all, is God disabled, too? Does God have Down Syndrome? Why, of course not! Jacob’s “less than ideal” condition, is by God’s judgment on our collective sin. Some have even hinted and implied that my wife and I must have sinned somehow. It’s our fault that Jacob is disabled!

Here is the truly terrifying part. (I haven’t even gotten to that yet!) This whole notion of “original design” is more than a coffee house, abstract theological discussion. It’s been acted on quite often— and still is!— to horrific consequences.

In the not-so-distant past, people like my son were left uneducated and institutionalized, completely marginalized from “normal” society. In Nazi Germany, people like Jacob were experimented upon, tortured, and murdered, all because they they were less than the “perfect” Aryan humanity that Hitler claimed to be the superior human race. People like Jacob are still excluded from mainstream education and society. If they cannot adapt to the dominant “more ideal” typically-abled culture, then they are left behind and left out from opportunities that most of us take for granted.

All of this kind of thinking is a direct result of the terrible theology of “original design,” which has its roots, not in biblical thinking, but in Platonistic idealism.

The truth is, there is no biblical notion of the “perfect ideal.” Everything is always being transformed and renewed. And even if there were a perfect “original design,” would we know what it is? Do imperfect beings such as we have the capacity to grasp what is truly perfect and ideal?

And what if, in some dramatic reversal, people we have labeled as disabled ended up being more abled, more ideal and closer to God’s goodness than typical people? Who is to say they are not? Didn’t Jesus say that to enter the kingdom of God, we must become like children— less sophisticated, less developed, weaker, and far more vulnerable than us adults? Could this be an invitation to become “less than ideal”?

His mother Mary sang of this same reality! In a great, dramatic reversal of power and value:

“[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

Luke 1:52-53

And speaking of Jesus, he said something which flatly dismisses any notion of a sinless “original design.” Look at this:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

John 9:1-3

Did you see it? There’s no sin! In fact, this man’s blindness is not a liability or a fault. It’s the other way around. His blindness would be the very thing through which God would be glorified!

Yet every time I read this story, especially the disciples’ questions, I can see the source of all human shame. Shame is a diminishing blow to our worthwhile-ness and value when somehow we don’t measure up to a plastic world of idealized beauty, power, finesse, and wealth. When we don’t— and we never do because the “original design” of perfection doesn’t exist— we shame ourselves or we allow others to shame us into believing that we’re not good enough, not valuable enough, and hopelessly flawed. It’s a fault. It’s a sin, even.

Please hear the truth: Nothing in us is inherently bad. Nothing. God created us and called us good. That does not change. Ever.

Is there sin within us and the world? Of course. Sin mars and distorts our God-given image and separates us from our full communion with God, with others, and with ourselves. Christ’s death and resurrection gives us the freedom to be our true created goodness and to be resurrected into a new glorious body- the New Creation.

Still, we are who we are. God can work in and through anything, no matter how weak or strong, to bring about wondrous good. (See 1 Corinthians 1:27 and 2 Corinthians 12:10). Everything God does, especially within the painful, weaker parts of ourselves, is amazingly glorious.

In God we move from our created good to infinite glory. That is the nature of Christ’s redemptive work. God created us as good. And then, by the merit of Christ’s death and resurrection, we and all creation become a New Creation, resurrecting all of us, including our shadowy, weaker parts, into absolute glory. By his blood, Christ reconciles to himself all things (Colossians 1:20).

True glory will always outshine shallow notions of idealistic perfectionism. That’s because God doesn’t need our delusional notions of perfectionism. I’m convinced it never really existed, anyway.

All of us— abled and differently-abled, weak and strong, gay or straight— shine with the light of God once we realize that it’s been there all along. When we see ourselves as God sees us, then we shine so brightly. We illuminate the presence of God in all people and in all things. God transforms us from our created goodness to divine glory. And the best is yet to come.

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Filed under Bible, Spiritual Growth and Practice

When Quoting Scripture Inflicts Harm

Please note— the contents of this post will elicit one of three responses from you: 1) “What a bunch of misguided garbage;” 2) “Thank you for saying that;” or possibly… 3) “I had never thought of it that way.” Reader’s discretion is advised.
Check this out:

Chris Owens says, “I love to wear sandals in the summer months. There’s something about the freedom of open air on my feet that gives me an extra boost.”

Now, you can isolate that first sentence and make some rather strange, false assumptions:

  • Chris Owens dislikes and condemns closed-toed shoes. (Untrue. I’m wearing some right now, since it’s really cold outside.)
  • Chris Owens prefers summer. (Untrue. In fact, I love snow and changing seasons.)
  • Chris Owens would be happier further south so he could wear sandals more often. (Well, maybe. But choosing to live further south would be for reasons other than living in a more sandal-friendly climate.)

You can see how pulling a statement out of context can lead to some far-out untruths. So consider this…

I have a very dear friend and colleague who recently quoted this verse on social media:

“Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭19:4-6‬

Reading that passage truly hurt me, and to others I know, it would have been an excruciating gut punch. On the surface, that may sound extreme or even ludicrous. But in this case, context and purpose is everything.
84226A50-58E5-47D8-8855-C5FF5317C601During our agonizing United Methodist Church General Conference session which centered on our 47-year debate over homosexuality, my friend quoted this verse. It’s been bantered around ad nauseam over the years. Knowing my friend, it was used to make an argument that God establishes marriage between only one woman and one man. Therefore, Jesus is upholding traditional marriage, which by proxy condemns homosexuality. Thus, the church should follow Jesus’ teaching and keep our ban on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and self-avowed “practicing” lesbian and gay Christians from ever becoming clergy.

Depending on your views on homosexuality, hearing a scripture quoted like that might rouse you to shout a hearty “Amen, Lord!”

Or, if you’re of a different mind, you might walk away wincing in pain.
So why on earth should a passage like Matthew 19:4-6 elicit a negative response? It’s the Bible, after all. It’s God’s Word! It’s God’s timeless truth! Don’t I believe in the truth and authority of the Bible?

Of course I do. In fact, I have joyfully read this passage while working with almost every couple I have ever married, inviting them to recognize and treasure the sanctity and permanence of their marriage vows.

But let’s take a more careful look at the passage in question. Remember, context is key. Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, the popular religious teachers of the day, whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. There were Jewish laws being codified, based on scripture (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4), establishing that a Jewish man could divorce his wife under any circumstance, as long as he issued her a certificate of divorce.

(On a slightly tangential note, I had lunch yesterday with a very good rabbi friend of mine who reminded me that there is an entire tractate of the Talmud which establishes the stipulations and procedures for divorce. He told me this while sharing about an Orthodox Jewish friend of his who is about to be married for the fourth time, all in faithful observance of Torah. But I digress.)

So to the problem of an easy, no-fault divorce, Jesus went all the way back to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to remind them that it is God who has created male and female for one another. In the sacred, mystical bond of marriage, God joins them together to make, in effect, a new creation— a man and woman who share in one flesh. Therefore, divorce is the destruction of God’s good creation.

That was Jesus’ point. He was not making an argument against homosexuality. He wasn’t even trying to establish a heteronormative standard for marriage. In the travesty of divorce, Jesus was upholding the holy, divine origin of the marital bond.

That’s why I was so hurt by the usage of this passage. It was being terribly misused to condemn the humanity and the relationships of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. And by the way, if you think it’s over-the-top to say that condemning homosexuality is akin to condemning gay and lesbian humanity, then think more deeply about the nature of human sexuality. It is a core aspect of who we are. To condemn somoene’s full embrace of their sexual identity is to condemn a significant part of their personhood, since we are all created by God to love and be loved— sexual intimacy, both emotional and physical, being one of the most profound sharings in God’s wonderful gift of love.

Back to how we quote the Bible… We’ve talked about context. Now let’s mention purpose.

We Christians have a holy obligation to read and share the Bible’s message with profound humility. We must read Scripture in a spirit of self-emptying respect for God, all creation, and ourselves. We faithfully read the Bible with a constant openness of mind and heart, in ready expectation that as we study scripture, it’s for the primary purpose of changing ourselves, even when it hurts, and especially when scripture challenges our tightly-held attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors.

Yet if any of us, conservative or progressive, open up the Bible simply to carve out self-justifying talking points or a handy sword to advance our causes, we are well on the road to spiritual blindness and deafness. We shut off the Holy Spirit’s guidance, “…having a form of godliness but denying its power…” (2 Timothy 3:5). At that point, our actions do great harm, especially when laced with our pet Bible verses.

Certainly, the Bible has been used quite prophetically to address evil and injustice. Some of our greatest leaders have lived and taught the scriptures in the heat of their struggles. The Bible has given definition and direction to the cause of life over death. Yet in all these cases, the Bible’s purpose was to bring the good news of liberation, freedom, justice, and righteousness for the greater good of our shared humanity. That’s a far cry from using the Bible to subjugate, exclude, condemn, and repress whole groups of people in the name of tribal, group-think “truth.”

I don’t believe my friend was attempting to harm anyone by quoting scripture. That was never the intent. That said, I think we all have a serious responsibility to pause and ask ourselves a few questions before quoting scripture:

1) Am I truly honoring the context and intended meaning of the verse I am quoting?
2) What kind of impact will I leave on those who hear my message? Will it do good or inflict harm? Will it bear any fruit?
3) How well am I mirroring the presence and love of Christ, even when confronting an evil?
4) What kind of accountability is in place to keep myself from self-deception?

It’s my firm belief that if more of us slowed down, calmed down, and exercised the James 1:29 principle— “…everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry…”— we would do less harm to one another with our words, especially with God’s Word. God has always purposed his Word to be life-giving, not life-taking. That’s the nature of genuine, authentic Truth.

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Pastor Robert Jeffress, Your Statement on Trump’s War Footing is Dangerously Unbiblical

Dear Pastor Jeffress,
In your August 8 statement, you made the startling claim that, “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” You based your statement on a reading of Romans 13 which says,

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
‭‭Romans‬ ‭13:1-4‬

IMG_1521While it’s true that God has established and empowered secular authorities to exercise justice, your application of this scripture is reckless and unfaithful to its original context and intent. Thus, your statement is an alarming case of biblical prooftexting and therefore dangerously unbiblical.

For you to personally commend President Trump’s fiery rhetoric against the North Korean regime is your prerogative. You’re just as free to do that as others are to condemn it. However, I take grave exception to your theological implication that God also commends Trump’s words and actions. That God has entrusted presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, and dictators with the sword of authority is established in scripture. However, to also suggest that God has given President Trump the green light of heavenly blessing to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea is one of the worst and potentially most deadly pieces of unbiblical theology I have ever encountered.

Let’s look again at what the Bible says.

In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul was establishing the church’s relationship with the governing authorities. For these Christians residing in Rome, Paul was pointing straight to Caesar and the local authorities Caesar empowered to maintain his rule. Everyone knew that Caesar was no friend of the church. In fact, Emporers Claudius and Nero both persecuted Jews and Christians, using them as scapegoats for Roman civil unrest or disaster. Nevertheless, Paul urged the church to respect their governing authorities by following the law, paying taxes, and giving honor as required. After all, these authorities derive their power from God who is the source of all power and authority.

This, however, does not mean that God sanctions everything that these authorities do. Far from it. John the Baptist confronted King Herod’s adultery with his brother Philip’s wife, which would inevitably lead to John’s imprisonment and execution. Jesus warned his disciples to “watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” The book of Acts reports that an angel of God publicly struck down King Herod when he refused to acknowledge God while relishing the divine accolades the people were giving him. The Old Testament is filled with example after example of God punishing kings and rulers when they abused their power.
Back to your argument, Pastor Jeffress, if we were to follow your “divine authority and sanction” thinking to its logical conclusion, then we must also reasonably assume that God has given Kim Jong Un the authority to build nuclear warheads to protect his people and stamp out whatever he deems to be evil. And why not? God has given this despot the authority, so according to your theology, it must be good for him to use it to advance whatever he deems to be good, too.

Still, let’s assume that we arrive at the dreadful point in which all diplomatic avenues are closed and war with North Korea is the only remaining deterrent to their launching nuclear weapons against the United States and our allies. I don’t envy the terrible decisions Presidents of the United States must make to protect the American people and our interests abroad. Putting our country on a footing towards war is a weighty decision many Presidents have had to make, and President Trump may be yet another President to push that button. War with North Korea would devastate millions of lives in Asia, and for the first time in history, might even unleash retaliatory nuclear war. Foreign policy experts agree that there is no good way to deal with North Korea. For that reason alone, President Trump and our allies certainly need our prayers for wisdom and guidance.

Yet no one should ever gleefully declare as you have that war and threats of war against North Korea is God’s will, simply because the President has the authority to crank up the American war machine and you happen to endorse his actions. You, the President, and all the rest of us could use a dose of President Lincoln’s humble theology:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.

While some might try to use these words from Lincoln to claim God’s moral authority in their great struggle, Lincoln’s intent was quite the opposite: do not assume we are perfectly in God’s will. Do what we believe to be right, but do so knowing that we operate alongside God’s sovereign will, and that may not be within our side of the struggle. God may ordain something very different with consequences farther reaching and devastating than we could imagine, as Lincoln stated in his Second Inaugural Address.

All this said, it is clear, Pastor Jeffress, that you have taken scripture out of context and have twisted it to claim divine approval for President Trump’s rhetoric. That, sir, makes you a false prophet espousing a dangerous kind of theology that will ill-serve this nation or any other. I doubt you possess the wherewithal to recant your statement, but it would be a much welcomed and needed thing to do, for the good of the church, our nation, and the world.

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Filed under Bible, Politics

Why I Stand with T.C. Morrow

Tara “T.C.” Morrow is a Certified Candidate for Deacon in the United Methodist Church, and for the last two annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, our clergy session has considered her candidacy. In 2016, T.C. did not receive the required vote majority of our clergy session to be elected into provisional membership as a Provisional Deacon. This year, our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry did not forward her candidacy to our clergy session for consideration. Still, her candidacy was a central topic of discussion, even with no formal vote taken.

Why all the fuss? What’s so terribly wrong with T.C. Morrow?

In the past, I served on our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry, and in that time I considered many candidates for ministry. T.C. stands out as a uniquely qualified, exemplary candidate for Deacon. She has demonstrated outstanding Christian character. She is deeply committed to Jesus Christ and his church. T. C. is already a model of what Deacon ministry is all about while serving as a leader in her local church and working for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in Washington, D.C. T.C. graduated from seminary and passed through the rigorous District and Conference candidacy process with flying colors. As a Deacon, she would continue in the call God has already given her.

Ordinarily, T.C. Morrow would be a person any Annual Conference would enthusiastically commission and ordain into ministry.

But there’s just one thing…

T.C. is a woman married to another woman. And in our Book of Discipline, recently clarified by Judicial Council decisions, this one thing disqualifies her from candidacy, commissioning, or ordination as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. This one thing. If we were to put aside T.C.’s sexual orientation for just a moment, I would be writing about the Rev. T.C. Morrow. Yet church law has made this impossible. To quote the former Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman, it’s “bad church law.”

Our inability and unwillingness to commission and ordain someone like T.C. Morrow is a glaring example of an entrenched injustice propped up by poor biblical theology.

Now before I go on to explain my claim, let me say that I have traditionally stood right of center on the issues surrounding gay and lesbian people. This is for no other reason than the fact that I take the Bible– the whole Bible– seriously. I do not dismiss scriptures that make me uneasy or challenge my assumptions. It’s all God’s inspired Word to be read, believed, and lived out. That said, the few times that the Bible does mention homosexuality, it’s always a condemnation. Meanwhile, the Bible consistently lifts up heterosexuality as the established norm.

I have spent countless hours reading and rereading the Bible to understand what it has to say about homosexuality. I have spent many hours in dialogue with others whose views are different from my own. I have spent time getting to know people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians. The overwhelming conclusion I come to is that the kind of sexual deviancy the Bible describes and at times calls homosexuality does not reflect the character and life of people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians.

Case in point: let’s take another look at one of the strongest biblical condemnations of homosexual sex in the Bible.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Romans‬ ‭1:18-32‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Writing to the church in Rome, Paul was describing the full impact of turning away from God to engage in idol worship. God’s wrath against idolaters is to “give them over” to the worst aspects of human depravity. Among the worst examples of human depravity was men and women, inflamed with lust, who exchanged natural sexual relations with one another to engage in “shameful acts” of orgiastic sex with people of the same gender. Most likely, Paul was referencing Greek and Roman temple prostitution in which it was not uncommon for visitors to engage in cultic sexual acts. It was another form of leisurely entertainment.

Then Paul lists off a whole litany of acts resulting from a depraved mind void of “the knowledge of God.”

I fully agree with Paul’s assessment. Any people or society who abandons God and God’s ways devolves into the worst of sexual and moral depravity. They are allowed to ruin themselves, and we see clear examples of that all around us.

Back to T.C. Morrow and other lesbian and gay Christians. Only the worst of biblical hermeneutics would suggest that somehow they fit the mold of human depravity Paul was describing in Romans 1. T.C. is a worshipper and servant of God, a baptized member of the United Methodist Church and a disciple of Jesus Christ whose life emulates the best of Christ-like character. In terms of her sexual orientation, she is legally married. She and her wife foster children who otherwise would not have a home. In the midst of the controversy surrounding her candidacy, T.C. has carried herself with a gracious courage embodying the very character of Jesus when he faced opposition and persecution.

Still, let’s say that the Bible does not outright condemn T.C.’s marriage, does it make room for gay and lesbian marriages, especially since the commended, normative form of human sexuality is heterosexual? My short answer is yes. First, there are many things we do and believe that the Bible does not specifically commend. Most Christians hold to creeds and traditions that are not commended in Scripture. For example, the Bible does not mention Lent, and yet most Christians adhere to that tradition. The Bible never mentions or spells out the Trinity, and yet where would our theology be today without the classic Christian doctrine of the Triune God?
Yet the Bible does commend faithfulness, loyalty, purity, and covenant- qualities which so many married gay and lesbian Christians uphold and model.

Furthermore, the overall trajectory of the Bible is towards an inclusive community, a community in which those who were previously denounced as unclean or unworthy are brought into the community of God’s people as valued equals. Jesus shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. The Apostle Paul asks his friend Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). In a beautiful passage from Isaiah,

Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
‭Isaiah‬ ‭56:3-7‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

For someone like T.C., a woman in a married relationship with another woman, a disciple of Jesus who exudes Christ-like qualities, gifts, and graces, how could God not embrace her as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s church? Whether we acknowledge it or not, God already has.
And if God has accepted T.C. as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s body, then let’s be done with bad church law and commission her as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Until that day, I stand with T.C. Morrow and others like her who are being unjustly barred from God’s call to a life of ordained ministry in Christ’s church.

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Filed under Bible, Church Culture and Leadership, Human Sexuality, The United Methodist Church

Live Report: St. Paul Delivers a Speech at General Conference Addressing the LGBTQI Debate

Paul of TarsusFrom the back corner door in a tense, crowded convention hall, a short, modestly dressed middle-aged man appears. He wears a beige shirt and pants with street-worn brown shoes. His face bears jagged, careworn lines from an arduous life of work and great sacrifice, and yet there is an otherworldly serenity about the way he carries himself. His eyes have a sharp intensity to them- critical, sad, and yet longing. He has olive-colored skin, a balding head with sparsely greying dark hair, and a thin beard. He doesn’t have a Conference delegate badge, and yet he confidently walks into the room as if he had always been there. Hardly anyone notices his arrival at first, but in a matter of moments, all of that is about to change.

It is late-afternoon on May 18, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The delegates of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church are once again embroiled in an emotionally passionate debate that has eventually taken center stage of every General Conference since 1972. It’s the debate over Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people. What should the church think about them? Is the practice of homosexuality and transgender people compatible or incompatible with Christian teaching? Is it right or wrong to host and celebrate their marriages? Can LGBT persons be ordained as clergy?

One can glance around the room at the delegates and feel the immense weight of everything they must consider and vote into church law. Whatever they decide could determine the fate of the United Methodist Church as we know it.

Emerging from a back corner of the convention hall, the visitor slowly makes his way up an aisle and to the desk of the presiding bishop. With a hand cupping the microphone, she quizzically engages this stranger. At first the bishop seems annoyed but then suddenly freezes as the color drains from her face. She gazes up at the stranger for a few moments longer and then slowly stands. Her eyes never leave him.

Speaking into the microphone, the visibly shaken bishop says, “Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, our General Conference has voted on parliamentary rules which I am required as your Presiding Bishop to uphold, but I am making an extraordinary decision. I am unilaterally suspending these rules in light of the person I am about to introduce. Brothers and sisters, I yield the floor to none other… than the Apostle Paul of Tarsus.”

Stunned silence overtakes the room followed by a rash of whispering. “Is she crazy?” “Who orchestrated this?” “She doesn’t have the authority to do that!” “Who did she say he is?”

Amidst the clamor, Paul begins to talk in a clear, calm voice. He adds no hint of polish or flourish to his words, and yet he speaks with a methodical, earnest passion:

“My dear brothers and sisters, yes, it is I, your brother Paul of Tarsus, an apostle sent not from any person but rather from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have watched your proceedings with great interest over these last 44 years, and at the bidding of Christ Jesus, I have come to bring you a word from the Lord. May the Holy Spirit enlighten the eyes of your heart to my gospel, which I faithfully preached throughout the world. I now proclaim this same gospel to you.

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to embrace any form of legal marriage, but another embraces only heterosexual marriage. The one who embraces both same-sex and heterosexual marriage equally must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not embrace same-sex marriage must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

“One person considers one form of marriage more sacred than another; another considers both same-sex and heterosexual marriages alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards only one form of marriage as sanctified does so to the Lord. Whoever regards same-sex marriage equally sanctified with heterosexual marriage does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever does not, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

‘”As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.'”

“So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that all monogamous, covenanted marriages are right and holy. But if anyone regards something as not holy, then for that person it is not holy. If your brother or sister is distressed because of your convictions, you are no longer acting in love. Do not let your advocacy for what you deem to be just and holy destroy someone for whom Christ died. Do not let what you know is good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of sex and marriage, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of sex and marriage. All legal marriages are good, but it is wrong for a person to advocate for what they deem to be just and holy in a way that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to self-righteously or angrily advocate for your beliefs and convictions or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

“So whatever you believe about these things, keep yourselves humble and open, as if this matter was between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they force themselves to go along with something they believe to be wrong, because their acquiescence is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written:

‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

At that, Paul bowed his head, backed away from the microphone and quietly exited the hall.

Everyone was subdued into stunned silence. No one shouted “amen.” No one protested. No one flinched. Then after a few minutes, an elderly statesman of the church stood up from his seat and said, “Bishop, for the sake of our whole church, conservative and progressive, gay and straight, of any gender, and of any conviction thereof, I rise to offer this motion…”

(The main body of Paul’s speech is a hermeneutical application of Romans 14:1-15:7. This is an edit of a previous post.)

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A Scriptural Way through the LGBTQI Debate

Joining HandsOnce again, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church will be discussing and voting on resolutions that seek to fully include LGBTQI people into the life of our church, accept and normalize same-sex marriage, and to stop trials for those clergy who violate our Book of Discipline by conducting same-sex marriages. It’s yet another chapter of a debate that’s been raging in my United Methodist Church since the subject of homosexuality first came up in 1972. Yes, we’ve been debating this subject for 44 years, longer than I’ve been alive.

Most everyone would agree that we are locked in an irreconcilable debate between two disparate points of view. To state these views concisely:
Our Reconciling (progressive) friends say that fully including LGBTQI people into the life of our church– into membership, leadership as lay people, marriage, and ordination– is a matter of biblical love and justice. God does not exclude anyone from the gospel and the body of Jesus Christ. God also shows us how the Holy Spirit is at work in and through our LGBTQI members as disciples of Jesus Christ who serve and lead the church just as powerfully as anyone else.

Our Transforming (conservative) friends say that this is all a matter of two things: the authority of Scripture, especially the Scriptures’ teaching on human sexuality, homosexuality especially; and the preservation of marriage and family, as established by Scripture. The bottom line: the practice of homosexuality is a sin and therefore outside of Christian teaching established by Scripture and 2,000 years of church tradition.
Here’s the problem with this debate in a nutshell. They are talking past each other. These two “sides” are speaking two different languages- the language of inclusive love vs. the language of biblical authority.

Yet there’s an irony to all of this. Both sides read the same Bible and hold to its authority as the inspired Word of God. And both sides believe in an inclusive, loving church!

Now– let me stop right here because I can sense that both my conservative and progressive colleagues are already chaffing against what I just said.

Friends, I’ve made these observations after having spent hours upon hours talking to people on both sides of the LGBTQI debate. There are some eerie similarities between both sides. Here are two striking commonalities:

First, both conservatives and progressives read the same Bible and they take it seriously as the authoritative, inspired Word of God. Or, if we want Wesleyan common ground to stand on, we all can affirm that, “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation…” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, ¶104). By and large, progressives do not simply toss out passages of Scripture they don’t like. They wrestle with them through the lenses of careful biblical study, criticism and experience- something that everyone from any ideology does. Our ideological differences stem from how we interpret biblical teachings on human sexuality and hermeneutically apply them to our present-day circumstances.

Second, both conservatives and progressives strive for an inclusive, loving church, and in this case with our LGBTQI neighbors. It is simply wrong to assume that all conservative Christians hate gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer and intrasex people and don’t want them in their churches. We all want and strive for an inclusive church. Where we differ is in the nature of inclusivity. What are we including? Many of our conservative colleagues advocate for and practice radical hospitality to their LGBTQI neighbors. They love them, even if they cannot affirm the ways they live out their sexuality or gender. This is not hate or exclusion, at least in their eyes and hearts.

However, I want to say here that this does not at all diminish the real painful histories that LGBTQI people have experienced being ostracized, hated, and excluded from their families, friends, and church. This still goes on. That said, conservatives (and everyone else) have come a long way in getting rid of bigotry and homophobia. Much more needs to be done. Yet we can confidently say that a large and growing number of my conservative colleagues are weeding out hate and homophobia, extending love and grace to all, while at the same time upholding what they believe the Bible teaches about human sexuality.

To sum up what I’ve just said: by and large, both progressives and conservatives read the same Bible and advocate for a loving, inclusive church. Albeit, there are noisy, visible exceptions who always show up to steal the limelight. Put them aside, and we still find these striking similarities between a vast majority progressives and conservatives.

If it is true– and I firmly believe it is!– that progressives and conservatives on LGBTQI issues affirm biblical authority and an inclusive church, then I believe there is a scriptural way forward for all of us. Call it a third way apart from either extreme, and yet it can be a place for all of us to stand together.

That Scriptural way forward is Romans 14:1-15:7. A while back I wrote a fictional account of the Apostle Paul addressing the 2016 General Conference of the UMC , hermeneutically applying this passage to the LGBTQI debate. I invite you to give it a read.

Basically, in this passage Paul addresses a dispute between Christians of the ancient Roman church over eating meat that could have been offered to an idol. There were those who believed, based on firm Scriptural premises, that eating this meat was taking part in idolatry and so for the most part, they lived as vegetarians. Others in the community had the faith to believe that idols and idol worship is false anyway, and had no qualms with eating this meat. Then there were those who believed that the Sabbath (and other Jewish holy days) are sacred and must be strictly kept. Meanwhile, others saw everyday as holy.

The Apostle Paul framed this debate by calling it “disputable matters.” In other words, these Roman Christians were not differing over basic Christian dogma or doctrine. None of these things were in question. They were debating disputable matters of ethics, matters that do not inform essential Christian dogma and doctrine.

Paul’s solution was both simple and genius: accept each other at the same table of grace. Don’t force your beliefs onto the other as a stumbling block to them. Respect each other’s convictions as holy convictions, unto the Lord. Give each other space and room to live as they believe the Holy Spirit has led them to live. Strive for the things that build each other up, not tear each other down. Be patient with each other. And above all, be like Jesus, who humbled himself to be crucified for all of us. Welcome each other in the spirit of our crucified and risen Lord.

What would this look like in practice here in 2016, dealing with the LGBTQI debate? We would accept each other within the same church. We would make room for each other to live and practice ministry as the Holy Spirit has directed us. We would remember that our unity does not need to be based on our agreement over disputable matters like human sexuality; rather, our unity is based on our unified embrace of the dogma and doctrine of our church, our shared Wesleyan heritage as United Methodists.

This is more than merely “agreeing to disagree”. I can agree to disagree with someone without having to maintain a relationship with them. But, if I say that I accept someone whose views on disputable matters are different from mine, then we agree to stay in a covenanted relationship as siblings in Christ within his body. We need not part ways or remain locked in a debate that paralyzes and polarizes our church into winners and losers.

Having said this, let me address some possible objections:

1) “So you’re saying that we should just accept sin and let it remain. I cannot be in a church that passively accepts sin.” The fact is, we the church have always debated what is within and outside of God’s will. Take the issue of remarriage after divorce. In many places the Bible condemns remarriage for divorced persons. And yet, for pastoral reasons, we’ve made room for these persons while allowing our differences over this matter to remain. (I am a divorced and remarried person, ordained as an Elder. No one has ever held that against me, even though one could condemn my remarriage on biblical grounds.) Also, there are a number of other sins we passively overlook– greed, gluttony, gossip, etc. How well are we doing actively pointing out and condemning each and every instance of these sins? The point is this: we are all growing disciples of Christ, always discerning what is sinful and what is not, while growing in holiness. We can still accept each other, even in our differences over what is sinful and what is not.

2) “So you’re saying that we must live in a church which tolerates exclusionary attitudes towards LGBTQI persons? Where is the justice in that?” I think we all need to drastically lower the volume of our individual convictions on human sexuality. I’ve found that it is very possible to work side-by-side with someone whose convictions are very different from my own on LGBTQI  or any other range of issues. How do we get along? We simply don’t go there. We value the wonderful things we have in common, and we value each other as people. On the matters we dispute, we simply give each other space.

This third way of biblical acceptance will require the progressive and conservative sides of the LGBTQI debate to change tactics. We can no longer afford to impose our will and views regarding human sexuality on the whole denomination, no matter how biblically correct we feel our view to be. It is a disputable matter.

However, the third way of biblical acceptance will give us all tremendous freedom while keeping our church united around the essential things which already unite us. We can all freely hold and live our convictions on human sexuality while keeping our church from further fractions and schisms.

Then the prayer of Jesus will be more fully realized in our time:

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20b-21)

(This is an edited version of a previous blog post.)

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A Scriptural Way through the LGBT Debate

Joining HandsMy Annual Conference will once again be discussing and voting on resolutions that seek to fully include LGBT people into the life of our church, accept and normalize same-sex marriage, and to stop trials for those clergy who violate our Book of Discipline by conducting same-sex marriages. It’s yet another chapter of a debate that’s been raging in my United Methodist Church since the subject of homosexuality first came up in 1972. Yes, we’ve been debating this subject for 42 years, longer than I’ve been alive.

Most everyone would agree that we are locked in an irreconcilable debate between two disparate points of view. To state these views concisely:

  • Our Reconciling (progressive) friends say that fully including LGBT people into the life of our church– into membership, leadership as lay people, marriage, and ordination– is a matter of biblical love and justice. God does not exclude anyone from the gospel and the body of Jesus Christ. God also shows us how the Holy Spirit is at work in and through our LGBT members as disciples of Jesus Christ who serve and lead the church just as powerfully as anyone else.
  • Our Transforming (conservative) friends say that this is all a matter of two things: the authority of Scripture, especially the Scriptures’ teaching on human sexuality, homosexuality especially; and the preservation of marriage and family, as established by Scripture. The bottom line: the practice of homosexuality is a sin and therefore outside of Christian teaching established by Scripture and 2,000 years of church tradition.

Here’s the problem with this debate in a nutshell. They are talking past each other. These two “sides” are speaking two different languages- the language of inclusive love vs. the language of biblical authority.
Yet there’s an irony to all of this. Both sides read the same Bible and hold to its authority as the inspired Word of God. And both sides believe in an inclusive, loving church!

Now– let me stop right here because I can sense that both my conservative and progressive colleagues are already chaffing against what I just said. Friends, I’ve made these observations after having spent hours upon hours talking to people on both sides of the LGBT debate. There are some eery similarities between both sides. Here are two striking commonalities:

First, both conservatives and progressives read the same Bible and they take it seriously as the authoritative, inspired Word of God. Or, if we want Wesleyan common ground to stand on, we all can affirm that, “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation…” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, ¶104).  By and large, progressives do not simply toss out passages of Scripture they don’t like. They wrestle with them through the lenses of careful biblical study, criticism and experience- something that everyone from any ideology does. Our ideological differences stem from how we interpret biblical teachings on human sexuality and hermeneutically apply them to our present-day circumstances.

Second, both conservatives and progressives strive for an inclusive, loving church, and in this case with our LGBT neighbors. It is simply wrong to assume that all conservative Christians hate gay people or don’t want them in their churches. We all want and strive for an inclusive church. Where we differ is in the nature of inclusivity. What are we including? Many of our conservative colleagues advocate for and practice radical hospitality to their LGBT neighbors. They love them, even if they cannot affirm the ways they live out their sexuality. This is not hate or exclusion, at least in their eyes and hearts.

However, I want to say here that this does not at all diminish the real painful histories that LGBT people have experienced being ostracized, hated, and excluded from their families, friends, and church. This still goes on. That said, conservatives (and everyone else) have come a long way in getting rid of bigotry and homophobia. Much more needs to be done. Yet we can confidently say that a large and growing number of my conservative colleagues are weeding out hate and homophobia, extending love and grace to all, while at the same time upholding what they believe the Bible teaches about human sexuality.

To sum up what I’ve just said: by and large, both progressives and conservatives read the same Bible and advocate for a loving, inclusive church. Albeit, there are noisy, visible exceptions who always show up to steal the limelight. Put them aside, and we still find these striking similarities between a vast majority progressives and conservatives.
If it is true– and I firmly believe it is!– that progressives and conservatives on the LGBT issue affirm biblical authority and an inclusive church, then I believe there is a scriptural way forward for all of us. Call it a third way apart from either extreme, and yet it can be a place for all of us to stand together.

That Scriptural way forward is Romans 14:1-15:7. A few months ago I wrote a fictional account of the Apostle Paul addressing the 2016 General Conference of the UMC , hermeneutically applying this passage to the LGBT debate. I invite you to give it a read.

Basically, in this passage Paul addresses a dispute between Christians of the ancient Roman church over eating meat that could have been offered to an idol. There were those who believed, based on firm Scriptural premises, that eating this meat was taking part in idolatry and so for the most part, they lived as vegetarians. Others in the community had the faith to believe that idols and idol worship is false anyway, and had no qualms with eating this meat. Then there were those who believed that the Sabbath (and other Jewish holy days) are sacred and must be strictly kept. Meanwhile, others saw everyday as holy.

The Apostle Paul framed this debate by calling it “disputable matters.” In other words, these Roman Christians were not differing over basic Christian dogma or doctrine. None of these things were in question. They were debating disputable matters of ethics, matters that do not inform essential Christian dogma and doctrine.

Paul’s solution was both simple and genius: accept each other at the same table of grace. Don’t force your beliefs onto the other as a stumbling block to them. Respect each other’s convictions as holy convictions, unto the Lord. Give each other space and room to live as they believe the Holy Spirit has led them to live. Strive for the things that build each other up, not tear each other down. Be patient with each other. And above all, be like Jesus, who humbled himself to be crucified for all of us. Welcome each other in the spirit of our crucified and risen Lord.

What would this look like in practice here in 2014, dealing with the LGBT debate? We would accept each other within the same church. We would make room for each other to live and practice ministry as the Holy Spirit has directed us. We would remember that our unity does not need to be based on our agreement over disputable matters like human sexuality; rather, our unity is based on our unified embrace of the dogma and doctrine of our church, our shared Wesleyan heritage as United Methodists.

This is more than merely “agreeing to disagree”. I can agree to disagree with someone without having to maintain a relationship with them. But, if I say that I accept someone whose views on disputable matters are different from mine, then we agree to stay in a covenanted relationship as siblings in Christ within his body. We need not part ways or remain locked in a debate that paralyzes and polarizes our church into winners and losers.
Having said this, let me address some possible objections:

1) “So you’re saying that we should just accept sin and let it remain. I cannot be in a church that passively accepts sin.” The fact is, we the church have always debated what is within and outside of God’s will. Take the issue of remarriage after divorce. In many places the Bible condemns remarriage for divorced persons. And yet, for pastoral reasons, we’ve made room for these persons while allowing our differences over this matter to remain. (I am a divorced and remarried person, ordained as an Elder. No one has ever held that against me, even though one could condemn my remarriage on biblical grounds.) Also, there are a number of other sins we passively overlook– greed, gluttony, gossip, etc. How well are we doing actively pointing out and condemning each and every instance of these sins? The point is this: we are all growing disciples of Christ, always discerning what is sinful and what is not, while growing in holiness. We can still accept each other, even in our differences over what is sinful and what is not.

2) “So you’re saying that we must live in a church which tolerates exclusionary attitudes towards LGBT persons? Where is the justice in that?” I think we all need to drastically lower the volume of our individual convictions on human sexuality. I’ve found that it is very possible to work side-by-side with someone whose convictions are very different from my own on LGBT or any other range of issues. How do we get along? We simply don’t go there. We value the wonderful things we have in common, and we value each other as people. On the matters we dispute, we simply give each other space.

This third way of biblical acceptance will require the progressive and conservative sides of the LGBT debate to change tactics. We can no longer afford to impose our will and views regarding human sexuality on the whole denomination, no matter how biblically correct we feel our view to be. It is a disputable matter.

However, the third way of biblical acceptance will give us all tremendous freedom while keeping our church united around the essential things which already unite us. We can all freely hold and live our convictions on human sexuality while keeping our church from further fractions and schisms.

Then the prayer of Jesus will be more fully realized in our time:

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20b-21)

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St. Paul Addresses the LGBT Debate at the 2016 General Conference of the UMC

Paul of TarsusFrom the back corner door in a tense, crowded convention hall, a short, modestly dressed middle-aged man appears. He wears a beige shirt and pants with street-worn brown shoes. One look at him, and anyone could sense that he didn’t quite belong there. His face bears jagged, careworn lines from an arduous life of work and great sacrifice, and yet there is an otherworldly serenity about the way he carries himself. His eyes have a sharp intensity to them- critical, sad, and yet longing. He has olive-colored skin, a balding head with sparsely greying dark hair, and a thin beard. He doesn’t have a Conference delegate badge, and yet he confidently walks into the room as if he had always been there. Hardly anyone notices his arrival at first, but in a matter of moments, all of that is about to change.

It is late in the afternoon on May 18, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The delegates of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church are once again embroiled in an emotionally passionate debate that has eventually taken center stage of every General Conference since 1972. It’s the debate over Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people. What should the church think about them? Is the practice of homosexuality and transgender people compatible or incompatible with Christian teaching? Is it right or wrong to host and celebrate their marriages? Can LGBT persons be ordained as clergy?

Every quadrenium the resolutions pour in, demonstrations are rallied, and delegates are asked to decide which “side” will hold the day for at least another four years. And they know full well that whatever they decide will deeply impact the ministry of the United Methodist Church and how well they can remain united as one body. One can glance around the room at the delegates and feel the immense weight of everything they must consider and vote into church law.

Emerging from a back corner of the convention hall, the visitor slowly makes his way up an aisle and to the desk of the presiding bishop. With a hand cupping the microphone, she quizzically engages this stranger. At first the bishop seems annoyed but then she suddenly freezes as the color drains from her face. She gazes up at the stranger for a few moments longer and then slowly stands. Her eyes never leave him.

Speaking into the microphone, the visibly shaken bishop says, “Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, our General Conference has voted on parliamentary rules which I am required as your Presiding Bishop to uphold, but I am making an extraordinary decision to unilaterally suspend these rules in light of the person I am about to introduce. Brothers and sisters, I offer the floor to none other… than the Apostle Paul of Tarsus.”
Stunned silence overtakes the room followed by a rash of whispering. “Is she crazy?” “Who orchestrated this?” “She doesn’t have the authority to do that!” “Who did she say he is?”

Amidst the growing clamor, Paul begins to speak in a clear, calm voice. He adds no hint of polish or flourish to his words, and yet he speaks with a methodical, earnest passion:

“My dear brothers and sisters, yes, it is I, your brother Paul of Tarsus, an apostle sent not from any person but rather from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have watched your proceedings with great interest over these last 44 years, and at the bidding of Christ Jesus, I have come to bring you a word from the Lord. May the Holy Spirit enlighten the eyes of your heart to my gospel, which I faithfully preached throughout the world. I now proclaim this same gospel to you.

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to embrace any form of legal marriage, but another embraces only heterosexual marriage. The one who embraces both same-sex and heterosexual marriage equally must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not embrace same-sex marriage must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

“One person considers one form of marriage more sacred than another; another considers both same-sex and heterosexual marriages alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards only one form of marriage as sanctified does so to the Lord. Whoever regards same-sex marriage equally sanctified with heterosexual marriage does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever does not, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

‘”As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,

‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.'”

“So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that monogamous, covenanted same-sex and heterosexual marriages are right and holy. But if anyone regards something as not holy, then for that person it is not holy. If your brother or sister is distressed because of your convictions, you are no longer acting in love. Do not let your advocacy for what you deem to be just and holy destroy someone for whom Christ died. Do not let what you know is good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of sex and marriage, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of sex and marriage. All legal marriages are good, but it is wrong for a person to advocate for what they deem to be just and holy in a way that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to self-righteously or angrily advocate for your beliefs and convictions or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

“So whatever you believe about these things, keep yourselves humble and open, as if this matter was between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they force themselves to go along with something they believe to be wrong, because their acquiescence is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written:

“The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

At that, Paul bowed his head, backed away from the microphone and quietly exited the hall. He would never be seen or heard from again.
Once more the hall was subdued into stunned silence. No one shouted amen. No one flinched. Then after a few minutes, an elderly statesman of the church stood up from his seat and said, “Bishop, for the sake of our whole church, gay and straight, of any gender, and of any conviction thereof, I rise to offer this motion…”

(The main body of Paul’s speech is a hermeneutical application of Romans 14:1-15:7)

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My Journey through John’s Gospel- Day 5

Day 5: John 5:1-30 “The Healing Word”

Jesus was a master at asking questions. His questions always had a specific purpose: inviting someone to take that pivotal,  next step forward in their journey of faith. That step  was to a place they had not yet been, or more often, to places that had been badly neglected and doggedly avoided.
Those are never easy questions for me. They’re intimidating and often painful. Questions like that ask me to call out those inner demons, name those lifelong fears, and push me into shadowy valleys I had been deathly afraid to even acknowledge. Through Scripture, through prayer, through his working in others, Jesus has invited me to confront my nagging need for approval, my fears of abandonment, my tendency to defiantly go it alone as the misunderstood kid on the playground, my impulsiveness, and my tendency towards addictions. Those are a few of my biggies.
So one day, Jesus is in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival and goes to a place within the city called the Pool of Bethesda. John records that at this pool, people who had paralysis, the blind, and others with crippling disabilities gathered to find healing. Bethesda means “house of mercy.”

When I imagine this scene of so many broken people in this one place, I think of the many nursing homes I have visited. It’s a pretty agonizing prospect for me to visit a nursing home. I do it, but not without a lot of personal preparation. To see people bound to wheelchairs, beds, and walkers, in various mental and emotional states, many neglected and alone, some visibly pained, others staring lost and confused. And the smells… Nevertheless, it’s that one smile or that one hand I hold of a fellow human being deeply blessed that another fellow human being took the time to sit and listen that makes my visit well worth the while. Jesus is there.

And Jesus approached a man at the Pool of Bethesda who had been an invalid for 38 years. 38 years! (Yes, that’s my lifetime.) Who knows how long he had been lying there before Jesus walked along. Any time is too long, isn’t it?

Every time I read this passage and think of those nursing homes I have visited, Jesus’ opening question to the man strikes me as insensitive and out of place to the extreme. “Do you want to get well?” he asks. C’mon, Jesus. That would be akin to walking up to you, slapping you on the back after your 40-day fast in the desert, and with a beaming smile shout, “Hey Jesus, are you hungry?”

But then I remember that Jesus’ questions are never careless. There’s a purpose behind his question. He must have seen something in the man that needed to see the light of day. The man is lying by the pool to find healing, but does he really want to be well?
The man’s response is quite telling. He doesn’t respond with a simple, “Yes!!” Instead, he responds with a litany of self-pity which he had undoubtedly rehearsed many times in his mind. “No one is here to help me,” he complains. “On top of that, everytime I do try to get in to those healing waters, someone shoves in ahead of me.” He decried the injustice of his life and his loneliness, but notice that he did not directly answer Jesus’ question.

What did the man really want? Did he want pity or did he want to get well? Did he want self-justification or to be truly whole?
Let’s bring this man’s story home for a little bit. On some level, all of us express some degree of dissatisfaction with the way life is right now. Some of us will live for years in a chronic repetition of pain and sorrow without knowing how to enter life any differently.

Granted there are things we can influence and things we have no control over. Wisdom and sanity is knowing the difference and choosing to take responsibility for what we can control. Much of what we can control has to do with the way we react to things, how we view and understand things, our attitudes, our actions, our will.

Yet often it’s much easier to remain within our patterns of life as they are now and justify them, no matter how painful, than to step outside of those patterns to live a different way. What we know seems safer, more familiar and comfortable and less fearful than the “new thing” we don’t know. So very often, people will remain where they are for its false sense of comfort and security than to venture into the unknown of something new, even if that new thing is the better life they have always wanted. We get burned and cynical at false promises and shallow hopes. We’ve been hurt before trying to get to something better. We don’t want to make that mistake again, even if our way of life now is slowly killing us. Better the devil we know…

Maybe that disabled man had some semblance of that fearful, self-pity when he responded to Jesus. Wellness? He had grown far too cynical to believe in some foolish notion of being made well. All he could do is wallow in his own afflictions.

But notice that Jesus’ compassion for this man was far greater than the man’s doubt and self-pity. Jesus was too concerned for him to leave him there. That’s why Jesus breaks through the mire of this man’s heart to say, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Somewhere within the man, there had to have been a spark of faith to respond with obedience. The light of faith had not entirely gone out because he did indeed get up and walk. He was an invalid no more thanks to Jesus whose living words are greater than our faithlessness and brokenness. How beautiful is that??

That’s all the more reason for me to keep trusting Jesus when I find myself in my own self-imposed funks or during those times when it seems that life beats me up and tears me down too much. I can keep going by trusting something else Jesus said in this same chapter,

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” John 5:24-25

This is not a mere religious affirmation of Christianity. Rather, it is a clarion call from Jesus himself, openly telling me and everyone else that if we really want to step out, step up and live, now and into the ages, we can listen for the word of Jesus, trust in his word and in God who sent him. That trust raises us up out of the mire and into the heights of eternal life. That’s where I want to be. It’s scary, sometimes. Sometimes it’s easier to settle for the familiar-far-less that I already have, no matter how innefectual it’s proven to be so far.

But Jesus is better… far better. It’s time to stop being afraid of the life he offers. It’s time to get busy living!

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My Journey through John’s Gospel- Day 4

Day 4: John 4:1-42 “Finally Quenching My Soul Thirst”
It was the heat of day in Samaria, located in what is now central Israel. Depending on the time of the year, it could have been upwards of 90-degrees F. In any case, it was rugged land, and when Jesus and his disciples arrived in Sychar in Samaria, he was worn out. Resting at Jacob’s well at noontime, the last thing one would have expected to see was someone coming to draw water. That was hard work reserved for the cooler early morning or late evening hours.
Something was odd about a Samaritan woman coming by herself to the well. Surely she didn’t expect to find anyone there, least of all a Jewish man. It was equally odd to find someone like Jesus there. John even points out the obvious: “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) That was an understatement. It was every bit of a long history of mutual resentment and exclusion between these two peoples.

So when Jesus asks this Samaritan woman for a drink from the well, her incredulity-laced response was well put. [Paraphrasing a bit] “How on earth can you ask me for water? Don’t you know who I am– who you are??”
Then Jesus gives an invitation she could have never expected. He offers living water. That’s an image surely even a Samaritan would have gotten.

Living water was a well known image for God’s gift of life, healing, and salvation. (See Isaiah 44:3 and Jeremiah 2:13) But I think the shock of what Jesus said and her own defensive animosity got in the way. Jesus doesn’t have anything with which to get water. What is he saying– that he’s greater than the patriarch Jacob who gave them this well?

But Jesus persists. Water from even the best of wells will leave people thirsty again. But the water he gives will be more than a cup of water. It’s a real spring of water that makes a well of eternal life, he says.
I remember once drinking fresh water from a spring. It was on the downside of Mt. Baldy in New Mexico while on a Boy Scout backpacking trip. We had just climbed with full packs thousands of feet to the top of the mountain, and equally as difficult, went down the other side with tired legs.

At the bottom was a fresh water spring. To this day, I have never had water more clear, fresh, and naturally cold than that. That more than quenched my thirst.

Then we learn about some scandal concerning this Samaritan woman. She had been married 5 times before and was now with a man who was not her husband. Jesus revealed that. Somehow he knew, and it explained why this woman, obviously the loose woman in town, used and thrown away, came to the well by herself to get water alone.

Alone… unloved. I have felt that way so many times. It’s even worse to feel that way surrounded by other people. Nothing I know of makes me feel more alive than to know that I am loved and embraced for who I am, not just what others want me to be, project onto me, or want from me.
This Samaritan woman had tried and failed so many times to be that alive. Six men later, and she’s still at the well by herself to be unnoticed at the heat of the day. She was thirsty. Oh how thirsty she was.

*******

Why is it hard to pray? Why is it hard to worship? Why can I go so long and realize that during that whole time, I’ve neglected to pray? How can I go through the motions of worship for so long only to realize that it was only words? I know I’m not the only one who could admit this. How is that possible?

Answer: It’s because we’re not sure of who’s on the receiving end of a prayer or a praise. If we were, we’d be all about it! If one of my favorite musicians was in the same room, it would be hard to not strike up a conversation, ask a bunch of questions, and tell him how much his music means to me. (Prayer and worship?) I know who this is and their value.

But God… Yes, God is infinitely huge and God’s ways and thoughts are beyond our full comprehension. We understand as much of God as an ant does of a giant oak tree. But probably the most mysterious, fearful thing of all is what this God thinks of me. Does God want to bother with me anymore? Does God like what he sees? Does God really have my best in mind? How well does God tolerate all those doubts and quibbles I have?

Living water is not mere religion. The living water Jesus mentioned is himself. It’s God. It’s the gift, as he goes on to explain, of being a beloved worshiper not bound by any human cultural or religious categories. Jesus demonstrates that in his willingness to be in the “despised” land of Samaria, patiently engaging and accepting of this Samaritan woman. Then Jesus was welcomed by the other Samaritan town folk and stayed with them for two days. That kind of fellowship and hospitality was completely unheard of in that day. That’s the refreshing power of living water.

These Samaritans embraced Jesus as Savior because of what he taught and because he demonstrated what he taught by being with them as their Savior. Oh God, let this truth sink into me even more.

I am so thankful that living water is not a religious formula, a program, or a book. It’s not dogma or ritual or rules. Sure, I have found I have drank in living water from the sacraments, from the company of other believers, and from the traditions of the church. But living water is not confined to these things– not at all. Living water is the embracing, transforming presence of God in Jesus Christ in my heart.  Drinking the water is simply my opening up to receive Jesus again and again. Anything that communicates and affirms his love, truth, and way can indeed quench my deepest thirst for love, for meaning, for joy.

Now… to not settle myself on “water” that still leaves me thirsty. It greatly comforts me to know that even then, Jesus is there at those wells to offer something much, much more. He offers me– Christopher David Owens– himself. I am truly never alone or abandoned to myself!

Jesus, Living Water, continue to teach me what it means to take in the life you provide. Continue to show me how through simple worship of prayer, praise, listening, seeking, questioning, you quench my deepest thirst, welling within me life that has no end– life for today and into the ages to come. That is enough for me.

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