Category Archives: Religion and Spirituality

All things related to spiritual experience, expression, church, and biblical topics.

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.

6 Comments

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Bible

And So, We Press On: A Post-General Conference Reflection

The 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church has just concluded. I think it’s fair to say that no one is walking away from St. Louis with a resounding victory for their respective cause. Yet I can’t bring myself to conclude that General Conference was a total waste of time and energy (I’ll say more about that later.)

So, just in case you’re still wondering what’s going on, the purpose of this gathering was to somehow move through our glaring differences over homosexuality. The United Methodist Church at this point is nearly divided in half between traditionalists/conservatives who uphold our current restrictions on marrying and ordaining lesbian and gay persons and moderates/progressives who want to make room for their full inclusion along with all LGBTQ people.

I had a hunch before this General Conference session that nothing certain and decisive would be accomplished. Why? It’s because we have been gridlocked in this debate now for 47 years. Our inner dynamics have not changed enough to make room for anything substantially new or different. Even though the Traditionalist Plan passed, basically keeping our current restrictive language on homosexuality while tightening the enforcement of our rules, our future is far from certain.

Now that said, there are two major narratives coming out of General Conference, and I believe neither of them are altogether true or helpful.
The first and most passionate narrative says that the United Methodist Church is now dead. We have closed the doors on LGBTQ people. We have turned away and turned off an entire generation of young people who fully embrace LGBTQ people. In so doing, we have set our church backwards, pushing it headlong into its grave.

In response, let me say that I too am feeling the brokenness, anger, bitterness, and despair with those of us who have wanted— and still want!— a fully inclusive church. Some who have been in this struggle a lot longer than I have are understandably devastated. What happened is not at all right. It’s unjust. It’s not righteous, loving, or Christlike. And I would say, it is blatantly unbiblical to be this discriminatory against our LGBTQ neighbors. I make no apologies for being that blunt. We are living under bad church law. Period.

BUT, I am not sounding the death knell of the United Methodist Church. Not yet. I’ll say more about that after dispelling the second narrative that is coming out of General Conference.

The second narrative, especially promulgated by the press, is that the United Methodist Church is now a far more conservative church who has severely tightened our grip on the ban of same-sex marriages and gay and lesbian ordinations. One headline I just saw says that conservatives have retaken the United Methodist Church!

This, too is not at all accurate. While it’s true that the Traditional Plan won the day, it has major flaws that could very well be struck down by our Judicial Council (the UM equivalent of the Supreme Court). So, this may result in one of two possible outcomes. The Judicial Council will either gut what was passed, leaving a badly truncated plan without much substance, or the Judicial Council could rule the entire plan out-of-order, leaving us where we started. In either case, it’s widely believed that at that point, the conservative bloc of the United Methodist Church will leave and begin a new denomination.

So what then?

If for nothing else, General Conference was a much-needed exercise in showing ourselves and the world, once and for all, who we are, who we aren’t, and what we’re we’re committed to. It was a sober reality check. For many people, including myself, it has given us stronger resolve to be the church in these trying days.

In summary, nothing right now is for absolute certain.
77BFB3B8-A7FD-4C03-9C09-3AC311E487DEWell… nothing except for one crucial thing: we will press on to be the church of Jesus Christ. I find myself now in the same place I was before, perhaps more so. I am and I will be a shepherd of a church who fully embraces and includes all people, no matter their race, nation of origin, gender, age, ability or disability, sexual orientation or identity, economic status, or legal status. I make room for all people at my table, committed to nurturing them into the beloved children of God they are. And there is nothing— no denominational standard, no scare headlines, or dire warnings of doom— that will stop that mission. This is the mission of Jesus Christ. It’s the way he lived his life. And until the day he returns in glory, or I die and meet him in Paradise, I will walk in his footsteps.

As I mentioned yesterday, we stand in what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap.” It’s that expanse between cold, hard reality and the hopeful future we know is possible. Right now, that gap is feeling especially tragic. Yet I will stand in it, push ahead, and join hands with all people of goodwill who share my heart. Together, we will be the church for and with all people.

4 Comments

Filed under The United Methodist Church

The Church Is a Whore, But…

The late commentator Charles Krauthammer once said that in the newsroom there are always some favorite stories of historical figures that people love to tell, and everyone knows the origins of these tales may be somewhat apocryphal, but we dare not check! They’re that good.

The same is probably true of this famous quote often attributed to St. Augustine:

“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”

8AFF0CCA-D71E-4202-A147-CE9DE02DF620

It may be a misquote of something else Augustine said, or it could be totally apocryphal, but I dare not check. It’s that good… and timely, especially in this moment. (By the way, if you are more scholarly than I am and are tempted to dispel the myth, please don’t spoil it. At least not right now!)

It’s a timely reminder for me and for many fellow United Methodists as we watch the proceedings of a special General Conference Session that is focusing on THE major issue that threatens the future of our church’s unity: homosexuality. I’ve written about this elsewhere, just in case you’re not familiar with what the hubbub is all about.

For me, this season of the church’s life is gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and demoralizing. Many of us, who make up almost half of the United Methodist Church, want to see a church in which all perspectives on homosexuality can be honored. Just as importantly, we want a church in which those who are LGBTQ could finally have a full seat at the Lord’s Table, especially in terms of marriage and ordination. At the same time, those of us who cannot accept that kind of inclusiveness would also have a full seat at the table. We want one United Methodist Church with enough room for all of us.

Well, the chances of this happening are not looking very good right now. From what I can surmise, we’re either looking at 1) a far more conservative-leaning church; 2) an ideological split, leading to separate denominations; or 3) no major decision of consequence leading to more angst, uncertainty, and a nasty splintering apart of the church.

Our problems are manifold and maddeningly cyclical:

  • People of different views are talking past each other, don’t really understand the other, and fundamentally don’t want to be associated with the other.
  • Ideological factions are fighting for the power to “own” the namesake, spirit, direction, and resources of the church. It’s truly a struggle over power.
  • We’re insane. We keep using the same means and tactics to solve our problems, each time expecting a different, elusive result.

I have to confess, I have given serious thought to throwing in the towel and giving up on the United Methodist Church for good. I’ve even had fleeting thoughts of giving up on church altogether, at least this manifestation of it. My reasoning: after spending all this time and money for nearly 47 years, all the while doing great harm to people who are LGBTQ, why bother anymore? Surely, I could offer my gifts and graces as a pastor to something that is more functional and less harmful to people I love.

Yet… yet… just tonight, I had three conversations with non-Christian friends and family members of mine. Amazingly, they all said the same thing:

Keep on keeping on.
Be the shepherd and mentor God has called you to be. Don’t give up.
Shine the greater light. Keep yourself open to truth and growth. It will serve you well.

Keep in mind, none of that came from the church. All of it was said by non-Christians, my wider “church family.”

So, I’ve consigned myself to that wonderful, perhaps apocalyptic reflection of St. Augustine: the church is a whore, but she is my mother.

The United Methodist Church, with all her ugly warts, terrible inefficiencies, and gross inadequacies is far removed from the kind of faithful church I want her to be. Yet she is my mother. Admittedly, if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I’m far removed from the kind of faithful son of God I should be, too. Perhaps she’s a reflection of me, and I of her.

Still, the United Methodist Church is my mother. She is the church who birthed me through the waters of baptism when I was 18-years-old. God used her to call me into ministry. She’s nurtured that call and has had a huge hand in shaping me into the person I am today.

There have been times when being a disciple of Jesus has meant rejecting the aspects of this mother I can’t stand. On a few occasions, I’ve even had to shout a clear  “Hell no!” (literally) to some of her tendencies, attitudes, and values.

But this mother of a church still loves me. (Now I really, really wish she loved some of my other siblings in Christ as much as much as she loves and makes room for me! However…) She’s still here. There’s lots of good in her. I can keep doing some real good with her. Even when she’s got her priorities and focus out of whack, she still does great things. Somehow, the world is a better place because of her.

Oh my Lord, she’s a whore! And yet the Lord knows that and still insists on calling her his bride. There’s no doubt about that. So yes, the United Methodist Church is my mother, and I’ll always be her child, even if that means the possibility of one day striking out in a different direction. But for now, I will continue to struggle with her, for her sake, mine, and for the sake of the world that Christ died to save.

At this moment we stand in what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap.” It’s that long expanse between cold reality and the desired future we know exists. In the end, when all is said and done, the struggle will have been well worth it. That’s God’s promise. And as hard as it is to say right now, she, this sordid church mother of mine, is worth it, too.

5 Comments

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

What Kind of United Methodist Church Will We Be? (A Late Hour Reflection)

This is the question haunting my beloved United Methodist Church: what kind of church will we be? As the delegates from our worldwide UMC connection meet as a General Conference over the next four days in St. Louis, MO, this is surely the question of the hour. After their work is through, what kind of church will we be?
D9BABDA2-CC60-4699-BD58-718795795AAB

It’s almost too painfully cliché to ask this question, let alone write (yet another!) blog post on it. So why bother?

Well, I am still stunned— in awe, really— that the most compelling visions for what the United Methodist Church can be and should be are so incredibly disparate. Many are struggling for a church that is fully inclusive of LGBTQ people, in marriage and ordination, especially. Many others are struggling for a church that upholds biblical authority, particularly as it pertains to traditional understandings of human sexuality. These are two different visions from two very different starting places of concern.

And yet, I find a glaring irony behind these disparate visions: we would be loath to find any General Conference delegate who does not cherish both an inclusive church and a church formed under biblical authority, no matter their starting assumptions! That may seem incredibly obvious to all who have been deep in the conversation, but it’s clear from the pre-General Conference rhetoric I’ve seen that many of us still don’t really appreciate that about each other. One group believes that they possess the most genuine vision of what real inclusiveness is all about. Meanwhile, another group claims to have the true, faithful grasp on the Bible’s teaching regarding human sexuality, that they are the ones who truly uphold biblical authority. Yet we all claim to walk as inclusive, biblical Christians, obviously with varying understandings of what this means!

So it’s now a tug-of-war between which vision of inclusiveness and biblical authority will garner the most votes. And again, as it has been since 1972, this fight will result in winners and losers, all equally claiming to be in the right, on God’s side, of course. Except this time, there is the strong gumption, on both the progressive and the conservative wings of the church, to part ways, if their respective vision of “what kind of church we will be” does not prevail.

It’s deeply troubling for me to even imagine splitting apart like that.

I have to confess, I do not know what will come of things, and that has me feeling quite anxious right now. I know I’m not alone in harboring this kind of fear. If you’re still reading this and have a stake in what’s happening, you’ve probably got some share of the anxiety bug, too. Just admit it!

So I offer both myself and you a biblical thought that just might ease off the anxiety and lead to the best future for the United Methodist Church, come what may.

“…we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
‭‭1 John‬ ‭4:16-18‬

John Wesley quoted from the biblical book of 1 John a lot, especially when talking about being perfected in love. Deeply profound passages like this one certainly explain why.

We all know it, and yet we easily forget it. At the end of the day, and in the great Right Now of our lives, it all really does boil down to love, or a lack of it. If we want to understand love, then go deeper in God. If we want to understand God, then go deeper in love. Daring to surrender ourselves to this intimate power of Love, a Love we all hunger for, forces our shadows of fear, judgment, and rejection to simply fade away into the nothingness they really are. All that’s left is the bond of God, made known in God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for one another, gathered within the sacred “love dance” of the Triune God.

The presence of fear, suspicion, anger, accusations, side-taking, ideological banner-waving, and self-righteous crusading, is the conspicuous absence of love. I know that sounds so naïvely obvious. Yet for Christ’s sake and ours, could we not pause long enough to call out all this shadowy behavior for what it is— the rejection of Love for the expediency of power— and reclaim God who is Love, and Love who is God? Could we claim Love to effectively exorcise our demonic tendencies to glorify our positions, stances, and political tactics to the detriment of our brothers and sisters? Let’s try it.

Looking at things again as I bring myself back down from my lofty “love” perch for just a moment, it may very well be that a unified church is simply not possible. If we’re honest, we don’t have a “United” Methodist Church now. I have desperately wanted us to remain one united church. I still do. I’ve prayed and worked for it.

If it’s simply not possible, we may be forced to painfully admit it and own up to our failure. It may very well be a sober admission of “it is what it is.”

But no matter where we find ourselves, even between the most gaping ideological divides, we still have the opportunity to be the living incarnation of Love towards one another. If that alone could happen— if we could truly grasp the depths of Love for one another— it would be a powerful witness. And then, the crucified Christ who embodies our collective sin and failure could be glorified in our midst, even if his Body is still broken on the cross of our shortcomings.

If we simply let it all go, rest in Love, and unconditionally give this gift to one another… If we could put flesh to the presence of God who is Love among us, then maybe… just maybe… we could all discover the glimpses of a compelling vision for what the whole Church could be, no matter what becomes of our beloved United Methodist Church.

11 Comments

Filed under The United Methodist Church

What If My Church Told Me I Could Not Serve?

One of my Facebook friends asked a provocative question.

To place his question in context, in case you’ve not heard, the United Methodist Church is at a schismatic loggerheads over the issue of human sexuality, specifically on whether or not openly LGBTQ persons can be married in our churches by our clergy and licensed or ordained as ministers. We’ve been at this debate now for nearly 47 years, and in less than two weeks, delegates from our worldwide church will meet to (hopefully) decide our collective fate. In any case, we’re more than likely looking at some degree of fracturing over this issue.

So, my friend made an observation and asked me to comment on it:

Presumably you did not just one day decide that being a pastor would be a cool profession but believed that God called you to the vocation. Given that God has called you to that vocation, what is your response if the church tells you that you are not fit to be a pastor? The Bible is replete with references of God using what others might consider broken to do His work. Indeed, from God’s aspect, we could all be considered broken vessels.

Very good point. I’m assuming, hopefully not in error, that my friend is making the case that we are all imperfect, broken vessels, and God makes use of our lives anyway. I can certainly vouch for that. So, his case continues, why then would we single out someone’s sexual orientation as an absolute litmus test for ministerial fitness. (That’s presuming, of course, that a sexual orientation other than “straight” is an area of brokenness. I’ll address that below.)

In response to my friend, I wrote the following, and modified it a bit for this post:
I know that nothing I say here will change anyone’s mind. The lines are clearly drawn and most everyone is well beyond reasonable dialogue. But since you asked…

I’m first and foremost a student of the Word made flesh, Christ Jesus, and the written Word (our Bible). I discern truth by asking how Christ and the timeless truth of Scripture play themselves out through our long tradition, through the filter of sober reasoning, and within the scope of our experience. (That’s the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.) I state all that to lay the groundwork for what follows.

You originally asked what I would do if the church told me I was not fit to be a pastor, even if I was called, gifted, and graced to serve the church in this role. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question because up until this point, the church has never invalidated me or my call. And if the church ever did negate my call or fitness for ministry, I’d have to evaluate those circumstances then.

However, I do know some folks who have been forced into this terrible dilemma. They are authentically Christ-like, gifted, graced, called people whom I would be honored to have as colleagues. But because of their sexual orientation, they are denied commissioning and ordination in the United Methodist Church, under our current code of church law. I know what the Bible says about sin and homosexuality, and I have made the case elsewhere that what the Bible condemns as sexual sin on the one hand, and the lives of our LGBTQ Christian brothers and sisters on the other hand, is NOT the same thing. I honor both the truth of Scripture and the personhood of these folks, without violating either one, at least in my mind and heart.
Some of these folks— a few are gay and a few are lesbian— have chosen to be ordained by another faith tradition that would honor their call. They are happily and effectively serving congregations who value their faith, graces and gifts. Praise God for that!

Other folks have chosen to stay with us as United Methodists and struggle on for change. They’re not angry zealots, at least the ones I know. They are patiently, persistently working towards change by sharing their living witness. I must say, rarely have I found their kind of graciousness and courage mirrored by most other Christians I know.

(As for the issue of same-sex marriage… I’m supportive of clergy celebrating them and churches hosting them per se, but I don’t think our progressive/liberal friends have done enough biblical and theological homework to demonstrate how marriage can be so radically redefined. The issue of same-sex marriage is far more than a matter of equal rights and equal access. We’re really talking about the redefinition of marriage as an entire institution, and I don’t feel that we have done nearly enough deeper, higher level biblical and theological work to understand same-sex marriage as a celebration or sacrament of the church. So far, we have been content to dig in to those tired, entrenched arguments— equal rights vs. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”— and fight it out. Not good.)

So… all this to say that yes, I’m in support of the One Church Plan, and firmly so. It’s our best option to move forward together. The One Church Plan would allow clergy, congregations, and Annual Conferences the latitude to decide for themselves how they will be in ministry with our LGBTQ neighbors, and would allow Annual Conferences to determine if they will or will not license and ordained LGBTQ persons for ministry. It recognizes that we are all United Methodists, and choose to remain together as one church while giving each other some contextual breathing room to be in ministry, in the ways we discern the Holy Spirit is leading us.
Some may stop me here and ask, “How can the Holy Spirit guide one group of people a certain way, and another group in a very different way? Isn’t that pneumatological confusion?”

Ultimately, God and God’s church is so much bigger and expansive than we try to make it. That’s always been the case. Look at how Jesus operated in the gospels, and you’ll see what I mean. Just as in Jesus’ circle there was room for Pharisee and sinner, zealot and tax collector, men and women, Samaritan and Jew, there’s room for all of us, conservative and liberal and all in between, because we all hold to Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Eph. 4:5). Jesus and the ancient church never demanded uniform conformity on much of anything except in our allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Christ. (Credal conformity was a much later development.)

Yet here we are, and tragically, we have elevated this issue of human sexuality to the forefront of everything else as the make or break item, and because we have, we are irreconcilable in our differences. The conservative and liberal extremes have brokered our church’s unity into an all or nothing paradigm, between biblical integrity and justice, as if one could ever be separable from the other. We need both things held in dynamic tension within one church. Too few, however, want to hold this tension for long, meaning that ultimately, in one way or another, we’re going to split.

And we’re all going to pay for it, no matter how “gracious” we intend to be while parting ways.

To the prospect of a split, I say without apology: shame on us. We’re only damaging ourselves, our witness, and our ability to live out the Great Commission. The ideological golden calves we have fashioned and worshipped for the past 47 years have distracted us from our worship and trust of the One God who has made us all, gay and straight, conservative and liberal, in his image. But one day, those golden calves will be burned and ground up, and we’ll be forced to repent by drinking the bitter water of our idolatry. Or we will cease to be the church.

That said, no matter what happens, the Church Universal will go on, and as a pastor of the Church, I will, too, in one way or another. And thankfully, no one has disqualified me from living out God’s call on my life… at least not yet.

11 Comments

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

Christians and Halloween—Fright, Flight, or Fight?

8BA642DA-3F20-4092-A717-96F5D66EFB5AHappy Halloween? Or wait… should I be wishing you a Happy Halloween? I’m a Christian and a pastor, after all.

So, I’ll admit it, when it comes to major festivities like Christmas or Halloween, we Christians have had our hang-ups and complaints, and Halloween is no exception to the rule.

Depending on what Christian you talk to you about Halloween, you’ll hear various responses ranging from…

  • “Halloween? That’s a completely evil, pagan holiday. We should have nothing to do with it.”
  • “Oh for crying out loud… It’s just a fun day for dressing up, having a good time, and trick-or-treating.”
  • Or… a shrug.

Because I like learning about this kind of thing and then writing on it, I did some research into the origins and evolution of the October 31 festivity we have come to know as Halloween. I wanted to know where it comes from. And I was especially curious about what kind of connections we Christians have to it, since it seems to evoke visceral, cheerful, or nonchalant responses. My findings were quite fascinating and varied!

Want to learn more? Read on with me…

So the first thing I learned is that the origins of Halloween are pretty complex, funkier than a witch’s brew. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Seriously, it’s a strange synergy of ancient Celtic, Christian, and even Germanic traditions, ginned up in the last nearly 100 years by our American retail and entertainment industries.

From what I can surmise, the earliest roots for Halloween come from the Celtic tradition of Samhain. (That’s the pagan influence which sends some Christians screaming for the exit doors.) It’s actually a beautiful tradition. A friend of mine who practices Celtic-based spirituality described it for me this way:

Samhain has its roots in the end of harvest celebrations around the world, by many different names. On the agricultural calendar it marks the time before the frost when anything in the fields were rendered dead. the dying of the crop- a sacrifice as it were- makes the fields fertile for buried seeds that bring the promise of a new crop to come in the spring- the rebirth. Because of the shorter days and less sunlight, the gate or veil between the living and dead is so thin.

So there it is. Samhain is an end-of-the-harvest celebration and an acknowledgment of the transition from the life of summer to the sleep of winter. This gave rise to the belief that on Samhain, the veil between the living and the dead was particularly thin, which meant that our ancestors along with good and evil spirits would come to visit the living.

Bonfires were lit and turnips were carved into faces to ward off any evil. People would go out mumming– a mix of caroling and gift giving/receiving, disguised, to celebrate the visit of the dead to the living, while attempting to ward off evil spirits. Great feasts were held to welcome the visitation of the dead with the living.

From this you can see some of the early influences of Samhain still at work today– Halloween bonfires, pumpkin carvings, costumes and mask, parties and feasts, trick or treating, and harvest festivals.

But… that’s only half the story.

Once upon a time, the Catholic Church had a fascinating practice of combining Christian and pagan traditions together, in order to make a bridge from paganism into Christianity. They believed that taking something pagan and “baptizing” it into something Christian would be a way to make connections between the church and the existing culture. And they were wildly successful. (Placing Christmas right around the winter solstice is another successful attempt at the same thing.)

In the 9th Century, Pope Gregory IV took the May 13 “St. Mary and All the Martyrs” celebration (which was itself an approbation of a Roman holiday commemorating the dead) and placed it on November 1, calling it “All Hallow’s Day.” All Hallow’s, later called All Saint’s has taken on many meanings through the years, but largely, it is a time to remember and commemorate the saints of God who have gone on before us and to celebrate our ongoing connection and communion with them, as they surround us in the heavens. We give thanks for them, look to their example, and look forward to sharing in their resurrection from the dead with Jesus Christ, joining together in the New Heaven and New Earth at the end of all time.

Major Catholic feast days were always preceded by a day of preparation- an Eve. That made an All Hallow’s Eve on October 31. Since many of our Halloween traditions came to America from the Irish and Scots, All Hallow’s “Even” (“even” is the Scottish word for Eve) came with them. “Even” was routinely contracted to “E’en”. Over the years, All Hallow’s E’en was shortened to Hallow’een and eventually shortened again to our modern day Halloween.

Put all of that together, and as I mentioned earlier, the Halloween of today is a very odd mix of old pagan and Christian traditions, greatly expanded by American commercialism, leaving these pagan and Christian traditions weaved together into this strange– and at times– uncomfortable hodgepodge of culture and religion. Of course, today, most people, even many Christians, are unaware of the Christian roots of Halloween.

So what can be done about that?

It begins by looking at our modern celebration of Halloween. It seems to be made up of several key things:

  • Community. This is the one night of the year that kids happily go from door to door collecting candy from neighbors they might not otherwise talk to. People gather together for parties, community bonfires, and harvest celebrations. I see in all this our ongoing need for connection with our neighbors.
  • A festive burlesque of death, evil, and the things that frighten us. Why do we go after all this stuff? Why so many ghosts, vampires, zombies, witches, and tombstones? I think it’s our attempt to laugh at and even mock the things we fear the most. Death, evil, and our shadows lurk in the outer wings of our lives. At least we like to keep them there as long as we can. But once in a while, we feel an innate need to face our fears and shadows and to parody, mock, and play with them. It seems to me that Halloween has become a major vehicle folks use to do that very thing.
  • An embrace of the changing seasons. This time of year is an ingathering time– something we felt much more profoundly when more of us lived agrarian lives. It’s a time to say goodbye to the life, light, and warmth of summer and to greet the deep, dark, cold sleep of winter. Perhaps this moves us to think of our own lives, specifically how truly thin the veil is between this life, death, and the next life.

I think we Christians can embrace Halloween in a whole new way, very intentionally, without running from it or heedlessly partaking in it without any consideration to our beliefs and unique witness.

First, we must share and live out the truth that through every season of our lives, God is faithful. It’s just a matter of fully embracing the season we are in and trusting that God is fully present in that season (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15). This includes, of course, the passing of summer and our transition into winter, in nature and over the course of our human lives, too.

Second, we can join in the community! Halloween stuff is fun. It’s a special time that people get together, enjoy one another, and hopefully build relationships. It’s within these human connections that the good news of Jesus is shared, both by our gracious speech and the good news of our lives, filled with the goodness of Christ.

Third, we do indeed have good news to share. Death and evil are defeated foes! Through Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross, we have the freedom to resist evil and to move through death into resurrection. Halloween may be one day of the year to laugh off evil and death. But every day we Christians all over the globe openly defy the powers of evil and death through the unstoppable power of God’s Holy Spirit within us and in the world. This segues very nicely into the celebration of All Saints, after the revelry of Halloween is over and packed up. There are so many creative ways to share this awesome good news with an anxious, bitterly divided world. How could we Christians do that, authentically and creatively, without being obnoxiously preachy, during this time of year?

So… Happy Halloween! See the presence and good news of God, even within the strange, growing darkness of the day. It’s the kind of hope and peace that will carry us through all the seasons of our lives.

3 Comments

Filed under Christmas and Holidays

The Flurry and Fun of Baptizing a Toddler

Toddlerhood. I think it is the most magical time of childhood. I use the word “magical” quite intentionally. For figuratively speaking, magic can result in amazement and wonder, laughter and joy, or wholesale destruction, all at a moment’s notice and with nary a hint of warning.

Toddlers, fueled by wellsprings of energy have the wide-eyed curiosity of a thousand cats, empowered for the first time by upright mobility, the beginnings of fine-motor dexterity, language and their first inkling of independence. They’re unpredictable, moody, perpetually playful, and offer us adults the gift of re-experiencing the world with fresh wonder. (I’ve often said that toddlers and teenagers are strikingly similar, but that’s a subject for another post.)

So imagine centering a toddler within the sacramental rite of baptism. Baptism is an orderly, highly scripted, predictable ritual. For babies, youth and adults- no problem. For toddlers? Well…
AAA2CAA4-D249-4E6C-9139-47FABF1BE536

When some parents from my church approached me with a bit of cautious trepidation about baptizing their almost two-year-old son Graham, I told them, “You know, we’ll make it all work somehow.” Inwardly, however, I was nervously wondering how adaptable and flexible the parents, congregation and the ritual would be to the temperament of a toddler. That was the big question.

Yesterday, Sunday morning, came, and the parents arrived with their son Graham, their pre-school daughter (who was insistent that her little brother should not be getting wet for this whole baptism thing), and a whole gaggle of family and friends. Graham was the epitome of cuteness- a white dress shirt, tan-colored vest and slacks, a tie and black shoes. He seemed to know something big was afoot, so he was extra primed with nervous, curious energy, toddler-style, of course.

I’m not always the most conscientious pre-planner, but something told me to make a few strategic adjustments. So first I switched out the cold, room temperature water in the baptismal font with warm tap water. Granted, that wouldn’t make Graham’s big sister any happier, but perhaps warm water would soothe his nerves a bit more. And then I gave Graham’s parents the baptism certificate before the service began. That way, if a quick getaway was needed after the baptism ritual, his parents wouldn’t leave empty-handed.

Well, the moment we had all anticipated arrived. Right on cue, as soon as we had gotten underway with the baptism ritual, the game of “Pass the Fidgety Child” commenced between the boy’s mom and dad. That game quickly lost its charm, and then Graham’s impatient chattering and complaining ramped up, quickly accelerating towards a 5-alarm nuclear meltdown.

Now I’m pretty calm in a storm, and that includes being in the presence of crying or screaming children. In a worship setting, I just carry on as if nothing is happening, trusting that the child and parents will work things out. My operational value in all this is let children with families be themselves. But when Graham’s protests were clearly distressing his parents while my congregation stirred with uneasy laughter, clearly it was time for a tactical change on my part.

My paternal instincts kicked in, and in a split moment I asked myself, “What would Pope Francis do?” He’s an amazing example of allowing children to be children, and in unprecedented and impromptu moments of grace, he unflinchingly finds ways for children to be included in his leadership of highly ritualistic Roman Catholic liturgy. So, in Pope Francis style, I improvised.

I found myself stepping closer to the father who by then had broken out into a visible sweat and was hoisting his son at the waist in one arm. Graham was facing out kicking and protesting. I showed Graham my hymnal and the words of the liturgy I was reading, and instantly, he stopped fussing, followed my finger in the text and went back and forth between looking at me and looking at the words of his own baptism liturgy.

I then adjusted my voice a bit from my normal boomy “this is the Word of the Lord” public speaking voice to a quieter, side-by-side reading inflection. I’m sure he had no idea what I was talking about (or maybe he understood more than I give him credit for, especially the all important non-verbal stuff of communication.) At any rate, for the first time in that service, I think Graham felt included in what was going on, and during the next several minutes of liturgy, he was as well-behaved as any watching adult.

It’s ironic. This was the church’s and his rite of baptism, and yet we were about to unwittingly leave this highly aware toddler completely unengaged in it. Why shouldn’t things be such that a child like Graham could fully involve himself and have his own sense of ownership of this tremendous gift of God’s grace that he was being given?

Then the time came for the administration of the water. By then, it seems I wasn’t a threat, so Graham came willingly into my arms and enjoyed the gift of his baptismal waters. It was truly one of those authentic, natural moments of grace for Graham, his family and his new congregation of brothers and sisters in Christ.
35BBEE0F-33CC-4C5F-B07C-F7D2E1CCDBF9While I suppose there are many lessons to be learned from an instance like this, one stands out for me. Be fully present in the moment. Being fully present allows for maximum connection with those around us and the greatest opportunity within our connection for God to show up and do things that clearly demonstrate God’s power, God’s grace, and God’s amazing love.

And yes, as we all learned, that can even include a toddler.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

A Broken Christ for a Broken Annual Conference

This year, 2018 marks 18 Annual Conferences I have attended with my Baltimore-Washington Conference. (That number seems like a lot to me, but it’s meager compared to a whole lot of other people!).

Without a doubt, this year’s 234th Annual Conference is certainly the heaviest I have ever felt.

At the center of our time together has been a full display of our division and discord over human sexuality and specifically two people, both married to someone of the same gender, who have been seeking commissioning and ordination as clergy within our Conference. Serving as a backdrop to all our proceedings has been the theme of our Conference sessions— “We are One Beneath the Cross” It has been a constant reminder of the tragically ironic tension in our midst: in a Christological sense we are one, but in many ways, with our differences over human sexuality and the looming threat of denominational schism, we are clearly not one.

After our Clergy Executive Session on Wednesday, in which these two siblings in Christ were not recommended for commissioning and ordination, I have tried to take a collective pulse of our Conference. That’s been hard to do. I sense much fear for our future, frustration, deep sorrow, betrayal, anger, disillusionment, numbness, and yes, some hope, too.
Yet one thing most of us can agree on: our Annual Conference is broken. As Bishop Easterling just wrote to us, there were no winners as a result of our deliberations over human sexuality and our gay and lesbian brother and sister in Christ.

So I wonder, in all of our deliberations, why has no one asked, “What would Jesus do?”

Sure, over the last several days, the question has been hinted at and perhaps included in some more theologically nuanced statements and questions. But I’ve not heard anyone ask, and repeatedly ask, “What would Jesus do?”

Well, given our diversity and divisions, undoubtedly there would be no consensus around an answer to that question! What would Jesus do? Lob that onto the Conference floor and settle in for a very long, tedious, painful debate.
2F6BE56C-7C77-4933-9A6D-1E1145D1050E

But perhaps there is a way to answer this simple question, and the answer has been expressing itself within a major symbol on the Conference floor stage: the cross.

Whenever Jesus taught his disciples how to follow him and to be like him, the cross always loomed large, shaping his entire outlook on what it means to live, love, and die. He said it most emphatically like this:

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
‭‭Luke‬ ‭9:23‬

There it is. What would Jesus do? Take up his cross. And ultimately that means surrender. In his surrender, Jesus became crucified and broken for the brokenness of all humanity, for all time.

Back to our brokenness as a Conference… I believe it is a broken, crucified Jesus who speaks most deeply and powerfully into our brokenness and failure. This broken Jesus speaks, simply by offering us his wounds— wounds from his crucifixion, wounds he suffered to directly address and heal our wounds.

What would Jesus have us do?

First, gazing at his cross, we can admit to our utter brokenness and failure. We can weep and mourn. We can stop the denial game and come to grips fully with our inability to be the church united in purpose, vision, and spirit.

And then, in our brokenness, Jesus invites us to be crucified with him. We can learn what it means to surrender our wills, our wants, the things we fight and strive for, and the blistering battles we have won or failed to win. In Christ, we can learn what it means to crucify all of that and to finally lay down our lives for God and for all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The bleak nadir of our brokenness and failure, with the cross in the middle of it all, can be a new birthplace for us to rise up together into a uniquely humble, shared cruciform life, a life unapologetically surrendered to God and for the welfare of one another, all for the sake of Christ. No agendas. No fights. No more cold proceedings and rules to determine our collective fate. Only love.

Love. That sounds just as profoundly naive as “What would Jesus do?” And yet, didn’t Jesus also tell us that his newest and greatest command is to love one another? Note: he gave no qualifiers to muck up and complicate the simple profundity of this command.

So what does all this look like for me?

Personally, I am terribly hurt, upset, and angry over our inability to commission and ordain people like T.C. Morrow and Joey Heath-Mason. I have wanted a church that allows clergy, congregations, and Conferences to discern their ministry context and to follow their conscious as to matters of inclusiveness and human sexuality. And I have wanted a church that fully embraces the gifts and call of all people.

However, for the sake of the cross, the church, and the world, I am surrendering my wants and desires. I’m crucifying the urge within me to fight for what I want. Instead, I am offering my life wholly to God, asking that God would use me only as God wills, come what may. I want to do this daily as Jesus commanded. And I want to lay down my life for my brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to bless each of them, love them dearly, passionately and unconditionally, supporting the call and life of each of them, with no agenda except blessing them in real, live-giving ways.

That may sound… naive, simplistic, irresponsible, dangerous, and even heretical. But isn’t that what Jesus did? And the ones who crucified him called him all those things.
One beneath the cross. That will truly happen when we embrace these words of the Apostle Paul:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
‭‭Galatians‬ ‭2:20‬

Let it be so in me, and in all of us. That’s what a broken Jesus did and continues to do within our brokenness and failure.

4 Comments

Filed under The United Methodist Church

unChristian Attitudes Towards LGBTQ People

[This a sermon I shared with Trinity UMC on Sunday May 13, 2018. The biblical text was Romans 1:18-2:5.
8DEBDBFE-E621-45C9-85C2-066577C78ED2I’m sure some of us are asking why we are talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people and issues on Mother’s Day of all days. Well, in some ways, it’s quite fitting. Ultimately we’re not just talking about issues, beliefs, and rules. We’re talking about people. And each of these people has a mother— a mother who has gone through on a much deeper level the struggle we all have of learning how to love, understand and include other people.

A Tale of Two Mothers

Today, I’d like to honor two mothers I know very well. (To safeguard their privacy, I’m keeping their names anonymous.) These mothers are very different women, yet they both have two things in common.
First, they both have a child who is homosexual. One has a daughter and one has a son. Here’s the second thing they have in common: they unconditionally love their children— one who is gay and one who is lesbian.

They have both been fully involved in their children’s lives and the lives of their respective partners. They’re proud of their children and fully support them. Indeed, these two children have wonderful mothers whom I would be privileged to have as a mother, too.

As I mentioned, these mothers are also quite different. One mother embraces her child’s sexuality with no condition and with full acceptance. The other mother has found her child’s sexuality to be unbiblical therefore sinful.

But here’s the beautiful thing: just watching these mothers unconditionally love their children, we would never know they had any kind of ideological difference between them. They are mothers who love, nurture, and fully support their children. They remind us that when it comes to loving and nurturing our children, ideology rarely comes into play.

What’s the Controversy All About?

So, back to the issues… A lot of people ask me what all the controversy is about. Why are we as a local church and denomination caught in a debate about LGBTQ people, homosexuality in particular?
Right now, the future unity of United Methodist Church sits on a knife’s edge directly over the matter of homosexuality and three questions in particular:

1) Is homosexuality sinful or not?

2) Can same-sex marriages be performed by our clergy and in our churches?

3) Can people who are LGBTQ be licensed and ordained as clergy?

The United Methodist Church has been locked in this debate since 1972. (Not to make you feel old, but that’s longer than I’ve been alive!) In 1972, the UMC took a stance on homosexuality, stating that it is incompatible with Christian teaching. Through the years the rules have gotten more specific, stating quite explicitly that self-avowed “practicing” homosexuals cannot be licensed or ordained as clergy and cannot be married in our churches or by our clergy.

The UMC has not clearly addressed how we understand people who are bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. This morning, I don’t have time to explore all of this here. Yet by and large the debate has been around homosexuality.

Ideologically, there are three main camps of people.

In one camp are those who want gay and lesbian people fully included in the church. They want to see marriage and ordination completely opened to people who are gay or lesbian.

To make their argument, they say several things. They state that all people are made in God’s image, and that some, for no fault of their own, have been born as gay or lesbian. That is their God-given identity. They state that Jesus never taught on homosexuality, and that Jesus challenged social norms that excluded groups of people from the faith community.

Furthermore, the few places where the Bible addresses homosexuality do not apply to people who are gay or lesbian living in covenanted relationships.

In the second camp are those who uphold and are striving to protect our Book of Discipline’s teachings and standards on homosexuality. They believe the Bible clearly teaches that all homosexuality is sinful. God made marriage for one man and one woman. Thus, people who are in homosexual relationships are living in sin and should not be married or ordained.

In the third camp are those who feel caught in the middle of this massive debate without strongly holding any particular ideological view. These people are more interested in loving and not judging, and they want to move on from the debate to just being the church.

As you can see, there is a lot of divergence on the issues related to homosexuality. And once again, it’s over a range of issues including biblical interpretation, the definition of marriage, and our standards for ordination.

From My Non-Religious Friends

So, once again I turned to my non-religious friends to get their reaction to Christians and the LGBTQ community. Let me tell you, I was not prepared for the Pandora’s Box of highly emotional responses I got. Clearly I touched a raw nerve within these friends.

Their response reminded me of studies conducted with non-religious young adults. When these young adults were asked what they think about the church, typically their top answers have been: hypocritical, judgmental and anti-gay.

I’m going to share a few things folks said. In all fairness I’ve had to edit them quite a bit without losing the essence of their thoughts. As always, by hearing these folks, I’m not asking you to agree with them. I am asking you to listen and to try to understand them. We can offer that to anyone, regardless of how much we agree or not agree.
One friend who has a child who is transgender said,

The problem stems with the Bible. I realize that it’s Old Testament and a lot of folks discount much of what’s in the Old Testament, often touting the New Testament as being the kinder, gentler portion of the Bible. And while it’s often argued that “being gay isn’t the problem, acting gay is” … in other words, you can be gay as long as you act straight … that argument is idiotic. It’s a bit like telling a cat that it’s okay to be a cat, as long as you can bark like a dog.

And it leads to oppression and persecution, because it allows, or in fact, demands, that homosexuals, and other members of the LGBTQ community be persecuted. It is, to me, one of the most heinous parts of the Bible, and the Christian religion. And it’s unforgivable to me. I know those are very strong words, and I usually try to temper my words with as much understanding as I can. But this part stirs me up so much that I find myself being angry and resentful.

Another friend who identifies as queer— in other words, not having a definite sense of sexuality or even gender says,

I’m queer and there are many parts of this country I don’t feel safe in. If god created all things, then god created me and other LGBTQ people. Sadly the more Christian the environment the less safe I feel. I work at a suicide prevention hotline and we have many callers who have self harmed or have thought about killing themselves for something they have no control over. It is heartbreaking to hear stories of parents abandoning their children for being honest about who they are. You have not failed as a parent if your kid is LGBTQ. You have failed as a parent and as a Christian if you abandon your child for being who they are. People are literally dying because of the archaic views perpetuated by the church. Before you speak out and criticize someone for who they are, remember that what you say has an impact and can cost someone their life.

When I asked my friends what they would like to see the church do better, one friend replied,

In my rosiest day-dreaming, the churches would own up to what they have done and take a stand for change. “Just like scriptures were once used as an excuse for slavery,” they would say, “we have also used them to justify misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other despicable attitudes. No more! We must now admit that Jesus never spoke about sexual orientation, and that even Leviticus has so much more to say about drunkenness and food restrictions than about homosexuality. We should have not used these few words to ruin the lives of so many people. We are sorry and we will try, for the rest of our lives, to make up for our mistakes.

My Take

So… where do I personally sit with these issues regarding our LGBTQ neighbors?

First let me say that I have not addressed these issues very much with you because literally no one has ever asked me what I think. And I’ve been okay with that, actually. I have not wanted these issues to become a distraction for us. We have a mission to fulfill of becoming like Christ and sharing his gospel with the world. I don’t want anything to take our eyes off of Christ and the mission he has put us on.

I have not wanted— and I still don’t want anyone— to hear what I say and use it to justify and strengthen their own hardened position.

Worse yet, I have not wanted to share what I believe and have someone come to the conclusion that if I believed all that then they could no longer have me as their pastor and Trinity as their church, especially since there are far larger and more important things we do agree on.

I share with you today, asking that you receive what I say as my personal, biblical convictions. I’m not asking you to agree with me, but I would like you all to take a step back and listen, not only to what I say, but also to why I say it.

To get at that, let me tell you a bit of my journey with these issues.
Before becoming a Christian when I 18-years-old, I had no opinion one way or another about gay and lesbian people, other than the typical stereotypes most of us had.

As I came into the church, I heard my pastor teach from the Bible showing quite emphatically that homosexuality is condemned as a sin. One of the main passages he used was our passage from Romans. So, I took that as my point of view, quite stridently. I didn’t hate gay or lesbian people. I did not reject them. For me, it was simply a matter of upholding the integrity of the Bible as the Word of God and upholding its teachings.

As I continued to grow, I began to meet and get to know gay and lesbian people. The first thing I began to see is how extraordinarily complex this whole issue is. It’s not just a matter of whether or not homosexuality is a sin, as important as that is. It also has to do with the very complex nature of how and why people are gay and lesbian in first place. And it has to do with how we Christians relate to and minister with gay and lesbian people.

I also heard many, many stories of gay Christians who grew up knowing that they were somehow different. They prayed and prayed for God to make them straight and take away these feelings towards people of the same gender. Many even tried straight relationships. After causing immense pain to themselves and to others, they came to accept themselves for being gay. In other words, it was not a choice to be gay. While they would have rather been straight to avoid all the stigmas of being gay, they came to the conclusion that they are who they are. More importantly, they came to realize that God loves them for who they are.

I have spent countless hours reading Scripture and getting to know gay and lesbian people better. All along, my desire has been to be true to Christ and true to the Bible’s teachings. I have wanted do so in a way that meets the reality of the gay and lesbian people I know.

I believe the strongest, most applicable passage from the Bible that addresses homosexuality is the passage in Romans 1:18-32. In a nutshell, it says that the very humanity of people has become corroded and corrupted by our turning away from God.
Paul says,

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.‭‭ Romans‬ ‭1:18-19‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Since we have turned away from God, Paul says,

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.
Romans‬ ‭1:24-25‬‬‬

God’s punishment for turning away from God is to give us over to very worst of ourselves.

From there Paul gives a whole list of things that illustrate the worst of humanity turned away from God. He says,

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. ‭‭
Romans‬ ‭1:26-27‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Then it gets worse. Paul says,

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.
Romans‬ ‭1:29-31‬‬‬

In other words, we are made by God in God’s image. So when we purposefully turn away from God, we turn away from the source of our humanity. Then we become sub-human and animalistic. We even embody evil itself.

We see this kind of awful sub-humanity all the time, don’t we? We see it in the news. We see people we know acting this way. Sometimes we even see it in ourselves.

A prime manifestation of sub-human evil in Paul’s day was temple prostitution. Men and women would go in to pagan temples and do unspeakable, lust-filled things with both men and women, even when they were heterosexual. That’s what Paul means when he says that men and women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, lust-filled relations, all with the intent of merely using other people for their own desire and pleasure.

So the question is, does this awful picture of humanity describe all gay and lesbian people?

The answer for me, quite clearly, is NO!

There are certainly heterosexual and homosexual people who act out of lust and use other people for pleasure. Young people today call this “hooking up.” That is a terrible travesty of the gift of sexuality God has given us. Adultery, hooking up, one night stands, and any other kind of sexual activity outside the covenant of a firm, lifelong commitment between two people is always a degrading of our bodies. It degrades God’s gift of sexuality and is therefore sinful.

But this doesn’t at all describe the relationship between two people of the same gender who make a lifelong commitment to one another, and now within the bond of a legal marriage.

In other words, the kind of homosexuality the Bible condemns does not describe gay and lesbian people who are committed to a lifelong monogamous relationship. These people are not degrading, abusing, or lusting after each other. These folks are committed to mutually nurturing love, commitment, and respect, just like heterosexual couples.
I don’t understand same-sex orientation and attraction. Because you and I have been raised in a culture which has shunned and closeted same-sex relationships, it all does seem strange to me.

But I’ve come to learn two things: first, same-sex relationships are authentically loving and nurturing. Secondly, the kind of degrading, lustful, abusive, coercive homosexuality the Bible describes does not fit the gay and lesbian people I know.

There is certainly homosexuality and heterosexuality that is degrading, abusive, and lustful, but in the case of two people committed to a lifelong covenant of love, it is not.

So that said, doesn’t the Bible establish marriage and sexuality as between a man and a woman? The answer that is yes- most definitely, yes. In the beginning were Adam and Eve. From there, the Bible celebrates the love and commitment between a man and a woman.

Yet that does not necessarily exclude the loving fidelity and commitment between people of the same gender.

The Bible continually makes room for people who would ordinarily find themselves on the outside looking in. In the Bible, God makes room for women in male-dominated cultures to step up and become leaders. In the Bible makes room for Gentiles, eunuchs, those with disabilities, foreigners, and strangers to take their place in the fold of God’s people, no less than God’s own chosen people.

Surely then, with this kind of open-armed invitation, God makes room for gay and lesbian people who are striving to be God’s holy people.
I know many people who are gay and lesbian who have given their lives to Jesus Christ and are baptized and Holy Spirit-gifted. They clearly demonstrate Christ-like love, holiness and leadership. Their lives are exemplary. They often far exceed straight people in the their ability to offer grace and love.

To say that gay and lesbian people do not have an equal share at the table of Christ with us is a travesty to their humanity, an insult to their baptism, and a blatant denial of the fact that they are made in God’s image and are restored by grace, just like you and me.

So as a human being and as a pastor, I am committed to embracing and fully including my LGBTQ neighbors as fellow sinners along with me. They are just as much in need of God’s grace as I am- no more and no less.
I’d like to switch gears now and address three important questions some of you may be asking.

Some may be asking: “Do you or would you conduct same-sex marriages?”

The answer is no. Our Book of Discipline outlaws this. Purposefully going against the Book of Discipline is a very serious matter, and at this point, I have not felt convicted to break this critical standard of our church.
Some others may be asking: “Do you support someone who is gay or lesbian being ordained?” If they meet all of the qualifications set forth in the Discipline, if they exhibit outstanding Christian character and are single living in celibacy or faithful in marriage, then yes.

However, this is difficult, too. Our Discipline outlaws gay and lesbian people becoming clergy. As I just mentioned, intentionally breaking our church’s Discipline is a grave matter. It’s something I take very seriously.

Thirdly, some may be saying, “All my life I’ve been taught that homosexuality is sinful. Now you’re trying to tell me that it’s not?” I’ve tried to show us this morning that it’s not simple.

As I’ve said, there are forms of homosexuality that are every bit as sinful as some forms of heterosexual sex. (In fact, the Bible has far more to say about heterosexual sin than homosexual sin.)

But a covenanted monogamous relationship is not the kind of homosexual sin the Bible was talking about.

And just because we’ve been taught something all our lives doesn’t necessarily make it true.

For example, many, many people have been taught that Bible establishes black people as inferior to white people. People have used Genesis 9:25 to make their point. And from a very basic reading of the Bible, it would seem that over and over again the Bible upholds slavery.

But we know full well that slavery is evil. We know full well that black people and white people are intrinsically equal in every way.
So to read the Bible in a way that merely affirms our prejudices is bad biblical interpretation! Let me say that again: Reading the Bible in a way that merely re-affirms our prejudices and our stereotypes of people, especially our LGBTQ neighbors, is a terrible misreading of the Bible.
Where Do We Go from Here?

Now, with all that said, where do we go from here?

I fully recognize that many of us here don’t see things the way I do. I want you to know, that’s okay.

This is a difficult issue. So, I do not look down on people who believe differently than me or read the Bible differently than I do on issues about human sexuality.

Why?

The simple fact is, there is an enormous amount we already do agree on- very important and more important things. As it says in book of Ephesians:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians‬ ‭4:4-6‬

That is just as true, no matter how we come down on issues of human sexuality.

Not only that, but right after Paul laid down that awful picture of humanity without God, he says to God’s own people,

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.
Romans 2:1

In other words, when we judge and condemn other people for any reason, we judge and condemn ourselves. We forget that we are messed up sinners, too- people in need of continual repentance and forgiveness of our sin.

As a congregation we do not see the same on these issues. Many of us passionately believe different things about human sexuality. We are deeply conservative, very liberal, and everywhere in between.

I respect that because I respect you.

I do believe we can make room for each other because we’re all disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Christ laid down his life for each of us, we can put our differences aside to love and lay down our lives for each other.
We have our differences, yes. Yet you and I decide what to do with those differences.

If we allow our differences to divide and distract us, then we’re letting the devil have his way. The devil wants us to take sides, divide, fight, and walk away from each other.

But if we commit ourselves to humility, to respect and to Christ-like love, then we can continue on, committed to Christ’s mission of taking his good news to all people. After all, at the end of the day, everything I’ve mentioned here boils down to God and to people.

I worship a God who sent his son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for all people. That means I am committed to loving, serving and including all people— all of you and all of our neighbors. I hope you’ll do the same for me, for each other, and for all of our neighbors, gay or straight.

In that way we will continue to crucify the unChristian tendencies within us to judge, make and choose sides, to exclude, to hate, to gossip and slander.
Then we become fully like Christ who died on the cross and was risen for us and for all people everywhere. Amen.

3 Comments

Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Human Sexuality