Monthly Archives: May 2012

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.


Filed under Bible, Spiritual Growth and Practice

My Journey through John’s Gospel- Day 3

Day 3: John 3:1-36 “Knowledge and Life Reborn… Again and Again”

In darkness the Pharisee Nicodemus approached Jesus while he was in Jerusalem. Jesus had just stirred a nasty conflict between himself and the Jewish religious authorities over his actions in the Temple courts. (Making a whip and driving out the officially sanctioned money changers and vendors was an easy ticket to trouble.) So it’s understandable that someone like Nicodemus, in order to protect himself and perhaps Jesus, would approach him in the cover of darkness.

But John bathes his writing in images that have both physical/temporal and spiritual dimensions. Nicodemus was still “in the dark” apparently seeking something from Jesus. I think he wanted some more understanding of who this Jesus of Nazareth is. The question for him and for any other seeker, myself included, is whether or not he would receive what he finds.

Nicodemus, however, doesn’t start his inquiry with a question. He leads off with a statement beginning with, “Rabbi, we know [fill in the blank]…” It’s an interesting way to begin an inquiry, but I think I see something of myself in Nicodemus’ approach, too.

Nicodemus is a seeker, but not a fully vulnerable one. There’s a certain security, a shield, maybe, when seekers guard themselves from within their established knowledge and from within their set parameters of what is true, reasonable, and real. I have a hard time faulting Nicodemus for that. That’s what we do to keep ourselves stable and grounded. We build any future knowledge upon the foundations of what we have already experienced to be true.

But the question is, how firm and impenetrable is that foundation of accumulated knowledge and wisdom? I guess that all depends on the substance and source of any new knowledge… and how open, humble, and unafraid we are. In Nicodemus’ case, he had just acknowledged what he (and apparently others as implied in his use of “we”) already claimed to know- that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God. With that admission, how vulnerable should he have been?

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

I can see in the rest of the dialogue that Nicodemus has a hard time grappling with what Jesus gives him here. “How can someone be born when they’re already old?” “Come now, someone can’t enter their mother’s womb again to be born!” “How can this be?”

I know how badly afraid I can be when someone says something so profound that I know has the potential to shake apart my convictions of what I really do know. It’s the fear of suddenly realizing that I am smaller and that God and the world is larger and more complex than I realized. It’s also the fear of realizing that perhaps what I do know is not nearly as complete or as accurate as I had presumed.

What Jesus says, however, is still rattling, even with as many times as I have read, studied, and taught this passage: in order to truly see God’s Kingdom, i.e. God’s reign, presence, people, and redeeming work in our world, one must be born anew and from above. A bit later in the conversation, Jesus says what this means in practice– to be born of water and the Spirit. This new birth encompasses both a temporal, human dimension (water) and an “other than, from above” God-given, Holy Spirit dimension. It’s clear from surrounding context that “water” is the practice of baptism for repentance practiced by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. “Spirit” is God’s activity of giving new life to people.

There’s been so much evangelical theological doctrine attached to being “born again” as the moment of conversion and salvation. Being “born again” often means in our theology the transition from being a lost sinner to being a newly redeemed child of God through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. I wholeheartedly affirm this, too.

But I think Jesus’ teaching here can possibly have that Nicodemus affect on me now, even as a “born again” disciple of Jesus. How? Well, wind is not static and it doesn’t leave things in their place. Jesus compares the Spirit to the wind. (Incidently, both the Hebrew ruach and the Greek pneuma are used for Spirit, wind, and breath.) Could it be that being born of the Spirit is a continual process of new birth?

My spiritual dryness and shallowness of late certainly points to my need to be continually born of the Spirit. Surely the Spirit needs to shake things up, blow things around, and take me to where I need to go. It’s time to be born into new attitudes, priorities, passions, and behaviors. That’s happening now, in fact. And it will happen even more when I can move from the darkness of my established and apparently insufficient status and into the light of Jesus.

And who is this Jesus? He is the one who has been sent, not to condemn me but to save me. Light exposes darkness, yes, but not to condemn those in the darkness, but rather to light their way. I can choose to either remain in the safe, shadowy ambiguity of my own darkness, or choose to put aside my own dark attitudes and behaviors to be in the light.

For me, plain and simple, it’s putting aside resentments, worries, coveting what I don’t have while forgetting to be grateful for what I do have, my stubborn insistence to be right and to fearfully defend myself. One thing all this darkness has in common– fear and anger. Let that go to become a grateful, one-day-at-a-time disciple is much of the light I seek!

Holy Spirit, have your way with me. Break down my fortresses of self-preservation and self-promotion. Jesus, I look to you as the one lifted up for me, that in you, I will live now and into the ages. Father, your incredible love and mercy overwhelms me. You are not the false god of angry condemnation as you are often depicted. I love you, God, that you do not condemn me, even in all my efforts to condemn myself and to project that onto you. In the end, the truth is shown in the giving of your Son for me and for the whole world. That is enough and more than enough, too.

1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Spiritual Growth and Practice

My Journey Through John’s Gospel- Day 2

Day 2: John 2:1-25 “Signs of the Times~Wedding Wine and a Temple Ruckus”

The Word of God made flesh continued to reveal himself at two very common, albeit special, everyday places– a wedding and a place of worship. Jesus was at a wedding feast in the village of Cana and at the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem. I notice that contrary to the ways God is often portrayed, the Word made flesh is not far away up there someplace in a celestial heaven. He is not locked away in a dusty book or in the confines of a religious holy huddle. Jesus is out and about among the people. It’s in these settings that he continues to reveal who he is and where he is from, two pivotal questions that often arise in John’s gospel.

And the everyday problems don’t magically disappear, either. They had run out of wine at the wedding party. That was bad! It would have been particularly embarrassing for the  bridegroom and his family. Mary tells Jesus about this problem. She doesn’t tell him what to do. She just relays to Jesus that there is no more wine. Jesus’ response seems abrupt and even rude. The Greek text here is even difficult to interpret. Jesus basically says to her, “Woman, of what concern is this between you and me? My hour has not yet come.” His hour? Seems cryptic.

Nevertheless, Mary shows her confidence in her son. She doesn’t retort; nor does she give any guarantees about what Jesus will do next. She simply tells the bridegroom’s servants to do whatever Jesus says. I like that. I have a feeling that Mary would have been just as perplexed at Jesus’ answer to her as we would be. But she goes forward trusting in Jesus’ words.

There are so many times I don’t understand why things happen the way they do– why God moves in some ways but not in others. Yesterday I prayed over and anointed with oil a woman in my church who was just diagnosed with stage-4 cancer. I do not know how God will act. I have seen some people make a full physical recovery, and I’ve seen others die. At times, that contrast has made it difficult for me to know how to pray. Dare I tell God what to do? Should I be bold and use a “name it and claim it in faith” kind of prayer? Who am I to presume how God will act on this woman’s behalf? Who am I to presume to know what is best for her and for all of us?

So, I prayed for God’s healing for this woman. The only thing I do know for sure is that healing runs far more deeply than cells and tissues. James seems to imply that (James 5:13-16). The only other thing I do know is Jesus’ promise of life abundant and eternal for all who trust in him (John 10:10; 3:16). Shouldn’t that be enough?

Mary’s confidence in her Son and my growing confidence in him might appear to be passive fatalism, i.e. “It will be what it will be.” You hear it in the defeated sounding sigh followed by, “It’s all in God’s hands– his will be done.” That’s not at all what I hear Mary saying, and that’s not the way I prayed yesterday.

What’s important here is my full confidence in God’s promises, God’s Word, and God’s character, even in the face of circumstances that would seem to paint a different picture. That’s not what some would call “blind faith”. Blind faith implies having faith in the parachute opening when it’s patently obvious that there is no parachute. That’s stupidity.

Many have called Mary-like faith naive or beyond reason. Whatever. Call it that if you want to. But it’s not stupidity.

Because Mary believed in her son, not sure of what he would do but confident in him, she passed her confidence along to the servants who then were ready to do whatever Jesus would say next. I see here that our faith in Christ (or lack thereof) affects others, too. Because Mary had faith in Jesus, the servants acted according to Jesus’ words, and the greater result wasn’t necessarily the miracle of new wine. The greater result was the new-found, deepened faith of Jesus’ disciples who saw the significance of what Jesus did and believed him.

The disciples saw, and I see, that indeed Jesus is the new wine reserved for the last, revealed when it seems that all else is withered and gone. Again, even within this sign is much of the same lesson Mary learned: Hold on just a little longer. The best is yet to come, even when it seems that all hope is gone.
But then Jesus enters an entirely different setting and reaction. He goes to the Temple, and in the house and place of worship and faithfulness, Jesus finds corruption and faithlessness– a market where surely there were all kinds of official attempts to soak money out of God’s people who were there to worship. Jesus makes a whip and drives them all out of the temple creating a confrontation with the religious leadership who then angrily demand a sign to prove Jesus’ authority.

What a stark contrast between these folks and Mary! Mary accepts Jesus words; the religious authorities flatly reject them, meanwhile losing the point of what Jesus was doing and saying.

It’s at this point in Bible studies that folks begin to trash all those blind, stubborn, power-hungry Jewish religious leaders. We imagine these harsh, cold, stern-faced men with long beards in black robes angrily defending their turf. It’s funny how we have a way of comfortably centering on the flaws of others, even people who lived thousands of years ago, while presuming and preserving our virtue. To a degree, I’m even guilty of that right now. (Oh no, I would never point fingers at the self-preserving, self-righteousness indignation of others, model of absolute humility and graciousness that I am. If only that were true…)

So much of growing in the faith is working through all those lessons in missing the point. Some people get it, and some don’t. That’s not my business about how or why. These stories are here to challenge me, not to cast aspersions on others. These Jewish religious authorities were learned, educated men, just like I am. They had the job of shepherding God’s people and ordering the life of their community, just like I do. They sought with all their heart to be faithful to keep God’s Word, just like I do.

If anything, reading of their failure to see should warn me, not vindicate me. Can I admit where I have been blind? Can I change my mind concerning things I have always been convinced were non-negotiable? Perhaps it’s not radically changing my mind so much as deepening and broadening where I am now. That’s a comfort.

Nothing Jesus taught was a radical departure, but it was a challenge. It was radical in that he opened up once-clogged wells of wisdom and truth to get back into purer water. Radical means “to the root”. Radical teachings aren’t meant to necessarily shatter as much as to help people become “unstuck” so that they can more freely get at the purity and essence of God’s heart and God’s ways.

Yet again, it all boils down to Christ and my receptivity to hear and trust what Jesus is saying, and to remember that his words are not disembodied epithets. They are living Words made flesh that reveal the Father.

Oh God, make my heart less stony and brittle. Make my heart a heart of flesh- open, mold-able, filled with passion, joy, peace, and faith in you and in your Son Jesus.


Filed under Bible, Spiritual Growth and Practice

My Journey Through John’s Gospel- Day 1

Day 1: John 1:1-51 “My Flesh and Blood God”

The key to unlocking the meaning of John’s Gospel is the first 14 verses, often called the prologue. The prologue begins with those famous words “In the beginning…” This isn’t my beginning or even the world’s beginning. This is the beginning of anything other than God, even time itself. John says that at the beginning, there was the Word who was with God and indeed was God. Word to me means ultimate truth- the source of all that is true, all that is known, all wisdom, all ideas, all concepts. Indeed, in Genesis 1, God brought order to the chaos of nothingness by speaking. The universe was formed by God through Word.

This Word is light and life for all people and for me. This Word through whom all things were made, this word of ultimate light which gives life, came to the world in which I live. He came, John said, to a particular people, implying Israel, and the Word was not entirely received. And then I read what I believe to be some of the most scandalous words ever uttered: the Word became flesh and– as Eugene Peterson once translated it– “moved into the neighborhood.” Of course, this Word is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, God’s anointed, the Messiah, Savior, and Lord.

A Paleontological Sketch of Jesus

I think I’ve lost touch with the reality of what John wrote here about Jesus. I think that for me, the Word became flesh and then I’ve turned around, and in my own heart and mind, made him “word” again. It’s a jarring, intriguing theological treatise. I love teaching it and preaching it and getting others excited about their Lord with this concept. But that’s the problem. Jesus as the Word of God made flesh makes the word “concept” mere chaff to be blown away. Some idea in abstraction doesn’t cut it. Tangible flesh and blood, boots on the ground, God in my home, church, and neighborhood– now that’s Word made flesh.

I think the part of John’s message I’m going to cling to is in verse 14, “We have seen his glory…” John and his fellow disciples saw, heard, and touched Jesus, finally understanding him for who he was and is- God made flesh. They touched his skin, shared meals with him, smelled his morning breath… They tell me nearly 2,000 years later about this flesh and blood reality of God. Skeptics will say what they may, but let me put all that aside and give these personal testimonies the benefit of the doubt. To see, hear, touch, and move around with God himself, the Word of God made flesh…

That’s just jaw dropping to think about.

But could I live with more confidence in God himself and with more confidence in God’s love and good purpose for me knowing that he is not an abstraction? Anyone who believed in Jesus was given the right to become a child of God. I’m not just living to uphold a religious doctrine. I’m not just maintaining an intellectual ascent to a creed. I’m not a propagator of words. I am a beloved child of God, a flesh and blood being who lives to love, serve, and live the ways of God shown to me in a very flesh and blood way by Jesus himself.

But in stating this conviction, have I gone back to being led along by an idea, by words? How do I avoid that?

The Scriptures are about as flesh and blood as it gets, really. This is living testimony of flesh and blood people. It tells the story of real flesh and blood people– John the Baptist, the Jewish leadership, Peter and Andrew, and Philip and Nathanael. They all were seeking after God like I am. They all struggled at various times to get it and to truly latch on to God. They struggled like I struggle. John the Baptist admitted that he didn’t know at first about the One he was preparing for… until he saw him. The Jewish leadership were struggling to sort out who John was and who Jesus was. Peter and Andrew and Philip and Nathanael had to be shown.

I see myself in someone like Nathanael. Here was a devout Jew who was seeking God and faithful to study and learn (as implied in the “under the fig tree” image). He was a seeker. And when he was told that Messiah had been found and that he was from Nazareth, he balked at even the idea of it. Good, Nathanael. Don’t take anything for granted. You’re a seeker, but you’re not naively gullible, either. Push the buttons and ask the questions.

The Word made flesh saw all of this in Nathanael and praised him for it. He looks at me with my questions and doubts and my struggles to find life and light. He sees how I smash the buttons and shove the envelopes all in my quest to really live and to really know. And these flesh and blood people from thousands of years ago tell us through their message that Jesus doesn’t shirk from revealing himself, calling, and embracing even the Nathanaels of the world.

I choose then to reincarnate their message now by trusting that Jesus’s words are for me, too: “Here you are, truly a child of God who shows your honesty in your struggles to know, learn, and live. I’ve seen you. And I’ll show you even glory than what you’ve seen so far.” Thank you, Jesus.

Oh God, especially in my darker, moments when I’m tired, frustrated, rejected, or alone, show me more than words. I want a flesh and blood reality of who you are- not just pleasant thoughts religious dogma. You became flesh and blood and “moved into the neighborhood” 2000 years ago. Jesus, move into my neighborhood, my home, and my life in a tangible way, too. Amen.


Filed under Bible, Spiritual Growth and Practice

My Personal Journey Through Johns Gospel- An Online Journal

Since confession is good for the soul, I do have a confession to make.

Perhaps the public nature of this confession will work even more medicine within me. I confess that over most of this past year, I have been spiritually very dry and near empty. That’s not an uncommon phenomenon for anyone, but believe it or not, I think running on empty is a more treacherously wide pitfall for spiritual leaders, those who are supposed to be shining examples of gushing fountains of spiritual fervor and depth. After all, don’t we have hours upon hours of idle time to prayer and searching the Scriptures at the center of our vocation? If only…

Coming out of last year’s bad personal depression left me emotionally and physically in a much better place, and I’m greatly thankful for that. But I don’t think I truly recovered the major spiritual losses from that dark time. In other words, God and I are not where we need to be on our personal one-to-one basis. In my ministry and as a husband, father, and friend, I pour out so much to others, but in the end, there is little left over for me– only a few faint embers of God’s love, truth, presence at this altar of my heart. It’s not that I expect a constant raging fire of God to consume me; no one can endure that.

But on most days, one should expect to find a steady, low-burning bed of strangely warm, glowing embers of Christ’s transforming, redemptive presence within the heart, stoked by God’s Word, fanned to flame by the Holy Spirit, fueled by a steady diet of prayer, Scripture, the Sacraments, and mutual holy conversation. All that is truly enough. I don’t ask for a whole lot in my life. At least I don’t think I do. But to have God this way, this intimately, and to be continually renewed by God’s Spirit to encounter the world, other people around me, and myself with a life uniquely my own and authentically inhabited by Jesus… That would be more than enough.
ImageSo… part of this re-invigoration of my heart will be a reading through the Gospel of John with you, if you care to keep reading and talking with me. Whenever I’ve gone dry, turning to a gospel, getting back in touch with the words, action, and person of Jesus, is my necessary beginning. This will not be in-depth biblical exegesis. I’ve done that already, and that will not do this time. This will not be writing to teach and inspire others. I do that already, and it won’t do this time, either. These posts will not attempt to stir up the pot or to push cutting-edge ideas through the blogosphere. I’ve done that and will continue to, but that will not meet the need this time. In fact, most of the world will probably find these posts exceedingly overly-personal and tame– not the stuff of trending blogs or bloggers at all!

None of that really matters. This is an attempt at an exercise intended to stir up my heart. Anything else is a purely unintended bonus. Even if only one other person reads what I write and offers a bit of reflection in a comment, the purpose has been served. Even if no one does that, I know that God has listened, and that his “comments” will show up somewhere much deeper within me.

Most days, I will center on a full chapter from John’s Gospel. I’ll provide a link to the passage en lieu of taking up precious space with a long Scripture passage. My writing will reflect on this passage’s inroads with me. What does God want me to see? What are the implications on my own life at this moment? How does this passage puzzle or trouble me? How is Jesus encouraging me to become more like him?

More later…


Filed under Bible, Spiritual Growth and Practice

Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church: We Must Do Better

Since 1972, whenever the General Conference of the United Methodist Church convenes for their quadrennial gathering, the issue of homosexuality has taken a quite visible, central place. We live in a strong tension between those who press our our church to fully recognize and bless gay and lesbian relationships and those who believe that homosexuality is not in keeping with a biblical understanding of love and marriage.  Equally pressing is the debate over whether or not openly gay and lesbian people can serve as pastors and if pastors and congregations can conduct and host same-sex weddings.

For the past 40 years, the United Methodist Church has maintained these basic standards in our Book of Discipline:

  • All people are of sacred worth and that we must not reject or exclude gay and lesbian people. Nevertheless…
  • …the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
  • Self-avowed, practicing homosexuals shall not be ordained or accepted as candidates for ordained ministry.
  • Pastors are prohibited from conducting same-sex weddings, and churches cannot host them. These are chargeable offenses.

Just this week, the General Conference voted to maintain our current denominational stances for at least another four years. But that wasn’t without lots of demonstration, advocacy, an attempt at dialogue and numerous petitions to change the UMC’s stances and policies.

I have heard church leaders predict that the General Conference’s decision could very well lead to a split in the UMC or to the exodus of deeply disappointed laity and clergy. Only time will tell, of course. This issue has certainly created similar schisms in other Christian traditions.

Now, I don’t want to use this post to debate the issues. I have already laid out my thoughts and reflections on homosexuality in previous posts. But in the confines of a nutshell, I hold a carefully considered, nuanced understanding that homosexual relationships are outside of God’s will and intent for human sexuality. I derive this from my reading of Scripture as God’s Word, informed by tradition, reason, and experience. I believe this while also passionately including gay and lesbian friends, neighbors, family members, and church members.

So you might easily assume that I am overjoyed and relieved by the General Conference’s decision to maintain our current language and policies on homosexuality. You would assume wrongly.

You might assume that I want gay and lesbian people and and others who want to change our church’s position  to cease and desist– to shut up and conform, or get out. Again, you would assume wrongly.

By now, my conservative brothers and sisters might be assuming that I’ve “caved in to a liberal, pro-gay” point of view. Once again, they would assume wrongly.

However, as I stated yesterday in a Facebook update, I am deeply torn by the General Conference’s handling of this issue.  I wasn’t there, but from what I gather, all of this was handled quite badly by “both sides” of the homosexuality debate. Once again, the same debate played out like a bad rerun. One side passionately battled to move our church away from current stances and policies. The other kept their ground, fighting to further solidify the church’s current position. At their core, both sides operate out of an  all-or-nothing approach. Each side is highly reluctant to fairly and openly understand the convictions of the other or to even slightly concede that perhaps there is a degree of credibility and integrity with both positions that might lead to an alternative way forward which upholds both Scriptural teaching on sexuality and the inclusion of gay and lesbian people.

From what I can see, several things went wrong this year.

First, just as in years past, there were several gay and lesbian advocacy groups on hand to demonstrate, hand out literature, and in general to be a visible proponent for change. As delegates went in and out of General Conference sessions, they had to move through groups of people singing, praying, and donning signs, clothing, and stoles advocating change. They were by no means violent or invasive. But they were quite vocal and at times purposefully disruptive to the sessions. At one point yesterday all non-delegates were asked to leave because of all the disruptions. In years past, there have even been arrests when protesters refused to abide by Conference rules.

I believe these folks have a right to be there– to be heard and seen. They stood for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ. We cannot ignore them or their message. They sought to do no harm to anyone.
However, while their presence posed no threat, their approach was not at all helpful. Let’s face it, most people’s hearts and minds are not changed by loud, forceful demonstrations. For folks who don’t hold a strong opinion, approaches like that can come across as intimidating and overly-zealous. For people who do hold a strong opposing belief,  these demonstrations only calcify their position.

Earlier in the week, there was an attempt at “holy conversation” on homosexuality between people of opposing views. All delegates were divided into large groups presided over by a bishop and were encouraged to dialogue. I very much applaud the effort. But I also know from hard experience that genuine, sincere dialogue is an extraordinarily delicate form of remedial communication. It doesn’t happen easily. If dialogue is forced, rushed, or if folks insist on using the dialogue table as a subtle form of advocacy, then dialogue quickly falls apart.

And fell apart it did… badly. These holy conversation sessions were delayed and shortened because preceding legislative sessions went longer than anticipated. I also suspect that participants were not adequately prepared for how to dialogue and what to expect. As a result, some groups’ dialogue devolved into debate. I’ve seen enough of these debates to know that both sides say hurtful, unfair things. As a result, these “holy conversations” left many participants feeling wounded.

Then through the legislative process there were some high profile attempts to change or add to the language on homosexuality by stating that as a denomination, we are divided on our understanding of homosexuality and that we agree to disagree. No one seriously doubts that reality! But for various reasons, that was also voted down by the Conference.
So, in the end nothing was changed. In the coming years, we’ll see what was lost or gained.
But I am torn by the fact that nothing was offered to guide our church through this great divide on human sexuality. We badly need that! I grieve for those who feel hurt and betrayed by the General Conference’s decisions, even if I cannot fully embrace their positions. I grieve that as denomination we are no closer to building unity on this issue, even in our diversity. That is everyone’s responsibility, not one side or the other.

I am dismayed that once again battle-hardened positions on homosexuality yielded very little wiggle room for other, more subtle ways to approach this very complex issue of homosexuality. Bumper sticker slogans and one or two sentence policy positions don’t cut it. This is going to take extensive, open conversation and a willingness to embrace perhaps an entirely new paradigm of thinking concerning homosexuality that takes into account the primacy of the Bible and the very real experiences of gay and lesbian Christians. We need both, not one or the other.

I just pray that it’s not too late, that God hasn’t already left us to our own vices of division and mutual exclusion. But until we know that for sure, let the peacemakers do their work with urgency and grace…


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