What is the most pressing issue facing the church these days? People have been asking and attempting to address this question for the nearly 50 years my United Methodist Church has been in statistical decline. Some would say that church revitalization is the key. Or some say that getting it right on divisive issues like homosexuality is the main issue. Some say that recruiting the next generation of leaders is our most dire need. Some say we must focus on reaching and discipling young people. Others say that we need to restructure our 20th Century-modeled General Church to be a more effective organization for our 21st Century world.
I say it’s all of the above and at the same time none of the above. All those issues are indeed very important, and as a church we need to get it right on every one of them if we hope to continue on. But at the same time, if these are the only issues in our collective scope, we’ve missed the point and missed it badly. Why is that? All those issues- church revitalization, social issues stances, leadership, our young people, structure- are all about us. They are largely church-centric. And because they are church-centric, they have little to do with the much larger picture beyond church and religion. That larger picture is the kingdom of God.
I’m writing this post in Baltimore. Over the weekend, the people of Baltimore suffered the worst three days of violent crime in years. 28 people were shot in gun violence, 9 fatally. I am so grateful that our Conference is present- praying, marching in the streets, giving out much needed supplies for Baltimore’s residents. But when our Conference is gone at the end of the week, God’s kingdom will still be coming. God will be working to bring redemption and life to Baltimore. Where will we be? Hopefully the answer to that question will not be snuggled away in our church buildings and homes.
This week the Baltimore-Washington Conference will be electing delegates for next year’s quadrennial General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference. Those delegates will go to Portland, Oregon and Lancaster, Pennsylvania next year to face, deliberate and vote on all the regular institutional church issues. And yes, they are vitally crucial issues to address to bring this part of the Body of Christ into better health and usefulness to God.
But we as the Body must have a focus. That focus is God’s redemptive work in the world, and how we as a church can partner with God in redeeming his world. Our discussion of that parternship with God in the world must center on local congregations as the main conduit through which we as a denomination operate. The very best of our prayers, holy conversations, and decision making must be about that. If that happens, then we’ll be talking real kingdom stuff. We’ll be deliberating the eternal stuff of God that really matters.
I wonder if we would all stop and pause long enough to say to ourselves, “It’s not about us. It’s not about me.” It’s not about the salvation of the United Methodist Church. It’s about the salvation of the world through the coming kingdom of Jesus Christ. His kingdom is restoring communities to life at its best, the way life should be, of true shalom, loving righteousness, true wholeness, and plenty for all. Will we have the faith to see it?
So for next year’s General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference, I’m praying for one thing: that we take seriously the part of Jesus’ prayer that the kingdom of God would come and that we would do God’s will here on earth as it is in heaven. Let’s seek out our role with God in the communities we serve. Then we’ll best know how to structure, organize, and galvanize our United Methodist part of the church for the greater work of answering the Lord’s Prayer by the power of the Holy Spirit within us.
They both are Christians. They both are outspoken. And, they both got fired today. The cause: their stances on homosexuality. The real irony is that their positions could not be any more different.
Rev. Frank Schaefer, (as of today) a former United Methodist pastor, married off his son to his partner in a church wedding. He and his many supporters and advocates saw this as a sacred act of compassion and love for his son and a necessary, conscientious act of disobedience to church law. After a painful church trial which found him guilty, a 30-day suspension, and massive protest, the Board of Ordained Ministry from his Annual Conference removed his credentials as an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church.
Phil Robertson, star of the popular reality show Duck Dynasty, also spoke out on homosexuality, calling it sinful and lewd. Today the A&E Network indefinitely placed him on filming hiatus. His numerous supporters call this a breach of personal free-speech, protesting A&E’s actions as punitive, discriminatory, and intolerant. Meanwhile, members of the LGBT community are angered and hurt.
Two men. They represent polar opposite positions of a contentiously emotional debate. Both got fired for standing up for what they believe to be right. Is there a message or at least a lesson to be learned?
I think so.
This message would appeal to most people but offend passionate believers from both sides of the LGBT debate. There must be a way to honor each other, talk and act respectfully towards each other, and give space for each other to exist. Time will continue to bring about change, and I imagine that in generations to come, there will be no relevant debate. But for the time being, we must learn to allow space for all in the same room and at the same table.
In no way do I believe that these polar views on LGBT to be reconcilable. One side finds the views of the other equally appalling and morally detestable. But until the day in which one view becomes the prevailing view of most, we can find ways go forward together without violence or collateral damage.
I believe the church can and should lead the way to discovering a mutual way forward. That’s because in the church, we all claim one Christ, we are one family of God, and we love each other as brothers and sisters… well… ideally. It’s all a work in progress, and certainly the struggle over LGBT is testing our mettle.
But the Apostle Paul just might provide a model of unity we can apply to our struggle. In the First Century church of Rome, there was division among those who ate meat purchased in the market place and those who believed that eating this meat was blasphemous because it was first used in idol worship as an offering. (Remember the Second Commandment!) The division was so irreconcilable that these two groups refused to eat together any longer. That was a big deal because shared meals were majorly important to the life of the church. Why? These meals were the celebration of the Lord’s Table. One group saw that eating meat was perfectly fine; the other thought this to be utterly sinful. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?
Paul’s solution stated in Romans 14:1-15:13 was ingenious. And I believe it is quite applicable to our struggle to find unity in the church over the presence of LGBT people. Please take the time to read this passage for yourself, but here are the highlights:
We are all God’s servants, so who are we to judge fellow servants who belong to God?
Whichever side we’re on, as Christians, we are both convinced that what we do and believe, we do for the Lord.
Treating others with contempt because of their divergent convictions opens us to the judgment of God.
Respect the fact that what one calls sin is to them truly sin. Acting in a way that distresses them is not love. So don’t let something one calls good to be spoken of by the other as evil.
Do not let your convictions be a stumbling block to another. Rather do anything necessary that leads to peace and mutual edification.
The kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking, but rather peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Could we also say that the kingdom of God is not about sex and marriage? Jesus says as much.)
Whatever you believe, keep it between yourself and God.
We are called to bear with each other, especially when we find the faith of the other to be weak.
Accept each other since Christ has already accepted each of us so that we can glorify and serve Christ together.
That’s the gist of it. But imagine what the church would be like if we operate this way towards each other, in the gracious love of Jesus Christ. Larger still, imagine a world in conflict that loves each other this way… Perhaps if we did, Rev. Frank Schaefer and Phil Robertson would still be employed today.
There is one thing about which we can all agree: the ongoing battle within the United Methodist Church over sexuality is an extremely exacerbating debate. Everyone hates it. We all want it to go away. Everyone- young or old, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, United Methodist or not- implores why we must persistently lock horns over the issues surrounding the presence of LGBT people, especially when this fight distracts us, divides us, and paints a picture for the rest of the world of the church at its very worst.
Nevertheless, for nearly 42 years, this issue has increasingly been the defining issue of the church to grapple with. Now it threatens to tear the United Methodist Church apart. With the conclusion of the Schaefer trial and news of many more of these trials already in the works, tensions are rising to historic levels. We are indeed in the midst of a major crisis of sexual identity in the United Methodist Church.
Crisis doesn’t just mean “pain and distress” as commonly used. Crisis comes from the Greek word krisis, which means “a decision”. A crisis is a major point of decision in which several paths are laid out before us. We must choose which way to go.
The problem has been that at our point of crisis, the people of the United Methodist Church have been asked to choose from one of two paths. The first, which has been the standard of our Book of Discipline, has established that the practice of homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching. As such, same-sex weddings are outlawed, clergy who perform them can be charged, tried, and lose their credentials, and no self-avowed practicing homosexual may be ordained. The second path continually and persistently offered our church has been a change to our Discipline that would allow for the full inclusion and embrace of LGBT persons into the church: membership, marriage, and ordination.
When our denomination meets for General Conference every quadrennium, we are thrown into the same crisis in which yet another excrutiating choice must be made, a choice that will ultimately pain and exclude a significant portion of the church. That choice for nearly 42 years has been made to uphold the incompatibility of homosexuality within the life of the church: with special emphases on marriage and ordination.
Now we are in a state of chaos. As gay marriage became law in 16 states and in the District of Columbia, some clergy and churches have been conducting same-sex marriages and in doing so, have conscientiously defied church law in the name of righteousness, fairness, and what they uphold as a true example of the gospel. Charges, trials, and verdicts ensue as well as a growing possibility of a devastating split to the church, or a grand exodus by those who can no longer tolerate the standards and practices of the church.
Then there are so many more folks who don’t strongly subscribe to one side or the other, who are afraid of being torn apart in this tug of war. They never receive the press or the attention that the sides of the debate always seem to garner. But they are suffering and hurting, too.
As for me, I am in deep pain over the state of the United Methodist Church. I am deathly afraid of a split or an exodus. We would never recover from a loss like this, and I don’t want to have to choose between which side, which of my church family, I would remain loyal to. I love and need all my church family, including the ones I don’t see eye to eye with. They especially have enriched and deepened my life and my vision.
However, I have a proposal that I believe most fair-minded, open people will embrace. It’s admittedly quite vague and undefined right now, but better defined, it will restore our unity and uphold the greatest truths we all share.
I am proposing a via media, a third alternative which can rise above the two choices we’ve always been given and become a place we can all live in, even with our great differences.
I believe we can find a biblical model or principle that will allow our full United Methodist church to co-exist, even with our great differences. We can each uphold our passionate convictions while making room for the other. In that way, we can cling to Jesus, to each other, and to our church, even when we are not able to agree.
Many on both sides would vehemently challenge me here. They would claim that a third way would compromise essential aspirations and truths from their side. They argue that there are fundamentally incompatible convictions and aspirations that cannot possibly co-exist in one body, not without damaging the integrity of the whole.
Well, so far the two-choice paradigm we’ve been living with for nearly 42 years has proven one thing: it’s killing our church. If it’s allowed to continue out of principle while each side entrenches itself even more deeply, we will be reduced to a much weaker, smaller shadow of our former selves which I firmly believe will summons the death knell for Methodism in America. None of us will be better for it. Each side is killing the church in the name of preserving it.
I also firmly believe that the Holy Spirit has been trying to lead us in a different way, to a different place. It’s a place quite different from the places people are entrenched in now. It’s a place, not necessarily of compromise, but of shared community in which there is respect, trust, love and embrace of common, higher, Christ-like principles. The problem is that we’ve not been able to listen among the calamitous voices of the debate over LGBT. Or, afraid of backlash from the ideological right or left, we’ve feared to go there. Well now, with the church in jeopardy, we have nothing to lose, especially if we believe in the future of a United Methodist Church.
To get there, God will call some open people who are not afraid of backlash from their respective side to engage in this work. They are the blessed peacemakers whom Jesus names “the sons and daughters of God” (Matthew 5:9). It will be hard painful work, but I believe that the Holy Spirit will lead us. If we can be humble and moldable enough and endure the friction from within and without, God will show us this different way. And Jesus’ disciples who make up our church will see and respond.
~A Postscript: For Those Still Reading~
Right now, I can hear some of you saying, “I don’t care what you say, Chris. I will not be a part of a church that calls sin acceptable and tolerates anything that goes against the Word of God.” News flash: none of us do, liberal or conservative! Of course we don’t want a church like that. I hear no one saying, “Yup, I’m all for proliferating sin and evil in my church!” And of course, we all want to uphold the Word of God as our light and truth. The problem is that we cannot agree on what is sin and what is not. What one calls sin is a painful stumbling block to the other, and what one doesn’t call sin is also an offensive stumbling block to the other. Perhaps the Apostle Paul might have a word to say about that…
Right now, I can hear an entirely different group of people saying to me, “I don’t care what you say, Chris. I will not be part of a church in which people are excluded and oppressed on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or any other kind of identity.” News flash: none of us do, conservative or progressive! Of course we don’t want a church like that. I hear no one saying, “Let’s go the way of Westboro Baptist Church and cast out all the [insert pejorative].” Of course we want to include and embrace all people. An inclusive church is one of founding tenants of the United Methodist Church. The problem is that we all don’t agree on the nature of inclusivity. It’s not a question of who we include, but what we include, specifically standards, behaviors, and the qualities we want (or don’t want) for clergy.
As you can see, neither of the critical statements I mentioned here about sin and inclusivity which we hear bantered about in the debates are helpful.
No one wants a church who tolerates sin. No one wants an exclusive church. But perhaps a step forward would be to claim what we all do want: an inclusive church which loves biblical righteousness. Can we all say that together, even if our definitions differ from time to time?
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…
I never thought to exert any effort addressing this topic, or worse yet subject you, my patient readers, to this dribble. Yet every time I think it’s gone away, it starts barking again. I recently posted a question about this on Facebook and got overwhelmed with the varied responses. Yes, I’m talking about the battle over Christmas.
Every year, this time of year, without fail, it goes something like this:
Do we have a Christmas Tree at the town square or a non-sectarian Holiday Tree? Do we put up a Nativity there, scrap it all together for lights and snowflakes, or maybe put up a Nativity alongside a Menorah and a Kwanzaa kinara? Oops… forgot to add the Festivus pole… oh yeah, and the Yule Log.
And of course, there’s the seasonal salutation question. Do we keep to a faithful “Merry Christmas” or offer an all-inclusive “Happy Holidays”? If we ask that, we might as well consider whether to boycott those ungodly, anti-Christian stores who refuse to acknowledge Christmas with that secular “Happy Holidays” garbage or perhaps shun the stores who sold out to the Bill O’Reilly evangelical fundamentalist right-wingers and now emblazon that bigoted “Merry Christmas” hate speech all over their stores. How oppressive!
You get the idea…
Now, just to turn down the heat with a reality check, let’s keep three things in mind.
First, Happy Holidays was originally shorthand for Merry Christmas and Happy New Years. While it’s become a polite, non-sectarian seasonal greeting for most people, some still use Happy Holidays as a catch-all for Christmas and New Years.
Second, the widespread celebration of Christmas with Santa Claus, decorations, Christmas Eve services, gift giving, and the whole nine yards is a fairly recent phenomenon. Ironically enough, 200 years ago, most Protestants could have cared less about Christmas or even wrote it off as a “papist” folly. Christmas is the Christ-Mass, after all. That’s why, historically speaking, it’s pretty amusing to hear us evangelical Christians coming to the rescue of a once-avoided Catholic feast day.
Third, for Jews and Christians, Christmas and Hanukkah are not the most important religious celebrations of the year, despite all the hoopla. For Christians, Easter Sunday is by far the foremost feast day, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And for a long time, the January 6 celebration of Epiphany was more prominent than Christmas. (I know some folks who out of principle purposefully still honor this.) For Jews, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most important day of the year, followed by Rosh Hashanah. Hanukkah, a far less important Jewish celebration, has earned a place of unintended cultural prominence for Jews living in the clang and clamor of Christmas, which again, once upon a time, was never all that important to a significant segment of Christendom.
So why all the fuss over Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays or whether or not it’s appropriate to have a Nativity on public property?
This is part and parcel of the ongoing culture wars. Looking at the scope of human history, the transitional years between major periods of history have always been politically, economically, and culturally turbulent. I believe we are in that time of turbulent transition from Modernity to the next thing. That’s why we speak of everything now as post—post-Enlightenment, post-Imperialism, post-Christendom, post-Western, postmodern. These are not definitive, concrete terms, only negations of what used to be, making way for the next thing. Meanwhile no one seems to know what that next thing is. Until the next thing comes, we get to endure the culture wars of our times, the struggle between what we conserve versus what we change or simply throw out.
The struggle over Christmas is over the identity of Christmas and the place of Christmas, among many other traditional things, in an increasingly pluralistic culture. When we see the bumper sticker slogan “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” we’re dealing with a strictly contemporary sentiment that would have seemed patently absurd to people just forty years ago. That’s recent past, really.
But there’s another oddity about our post-everything age. When dealing with cultural differences, we have set up an incongruent paradigm. It’s kind of funny, actually.
On the one side of this paradigm, it is increasingly poor manners to “judge” anyone or anything. Live and let live. I don’t have the right to tell you how you should live, what you should think, and what you should do, most especially if it doesn’t directly affect me. Nor do I have the right to enter your personal space with my values and beliefs without your explicit permission. Personal freedom, privacy, and tolerance are the basic, inviolate interrelational virtues of our day.
However, on the other side of the paradigm, we hold a fundamental right to never be offended. Maybe that’s why we get so cranky! Someone says or does something that clashes with my life and values, and I feel personally violated, as if what was said and done was explicitly intended to attack my personhood. For example, I wish you a Happy Holidays, and you might interpret that as my trivializing your Christian holiday or even your Christian faith. Or if I wish you a Merry Christmas, you might interpret that as a manipulative form of proselytizing. So much for tolerance. (For the record, I don’t know of anyone who ever became a born again believer or who was ever coerced into Christianity after being wished a Merry Christmas. And no, I don’t buy the argument that saying Merry Christmas is a necessary preservative of Christmas. Unpretentiously working in a homeless shelter on Christmas Day, however—now that’s preserving the gift of Christmas.)
So, we live in this paradigmatic tension of tolerance versus never offending or being offended.
Strangely enough I live with this same tension in the church culture. On the one hand, we mainline Protestants pride ourselves for practicing “Open Minds, Open Doors, and Open Hearts” (a recent United Methodist slogan). But on the other hand, the baseline question that drives the bulk of our decisions and behaviors is, “That won’t offend anyone, will it?” Unfortunately, all too seldom do we ask, “What is the right thing, the most holy thing, the most Christ-like thing?” Instead we walk on eggshells, neurotically sanitizing everything we say or do, lest this group or this person should get their panties in a bunch (oops, that last image might have offended someone!) and walk out… with checkbook in hand, of course.
Getting back to Christmas, all sides of the debate have made it a politically correct nightmare. Both Christians and non-Christians want tolerance but are offended when their sensibilities are violated. Christians cannot charge non-Christians and secularists with a politically correct tyranny of Happy Holidays and non-sectarian winter solstice festivities and at the same time turn around and demand carte blanche for Merry Christmas and Nativities. Both demand tolerance while simultaneously filing a public grievance over the cultural violations of the other.
So, how do we go forward? I think we need to ask a question to ourselves. We need to go beyond the question, “Can’t we all just get along?” That question asks for basic toleration, and toleration isn’t enough. We must ask ourselves, “How can I fully embrace the other, honoring them while remaining true to myself?” That doesn’t mean I agree with all they believe, do, or say. But I don’t have to let those incongruities bother me. Instead, I can appreciate them for the gift from God they are and the gifts from God they offer, and fully value and include them for that.
That would mean you could see me out on the street and wish me a Happy Holidays, a Happy Hanukkah, a Happy Kwanzaa, a Happy Winter Solstice, a Happy Christmakwanzukkah, or just a “Hey there, Chris!” and I would receive that as your blessing to me, and receive it with joy because I receive you with joy. At the same time, I could joyfully wish you a Merry Christmas in my excitement over the birth of Christ, and you would receive that and me for what they were intended to be: a blessing and a gift to you, however you choose to receive me.
All this would be a significant down payment on the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds of “…good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people” (Luke 2:10).
[Disclaimer: For my friends and readers with passionately defined views regarding the nature of human sexuality, homosexuality in particular, no matter your views, you will most likely encounter things in this post that will offend, upset, or even shock you, i.e. “Wow, I didn’t know he thinks that way! How dare he!!” You’ve been warned now. Keep in mind, however, that I continue to listen and strive to love and respect both you and your perspective, even when we have serious points of disagreement. Having spent countless hours in learning, conversation and dialogue about LGBT sexuality, most especially with people who are LGBT, I have learned to tolerate the heat of disagreements I’ve encountered with both conservative and progressively minded folks. I have also come to see that we share far more in common than we often realize, even in the heat of our differences.] Scripture: Romans 1:18-2:5 I had originally intended to share a message grappling with the topic of homosexuality in the last series of sermons I preached called “When Christians Get It Wrong… and How to Get It Right Again.” But then things like surgery got in the way. And of course, none of my stand-in speakers wanted to touch that topic with a ten-foot pole!
Yet God has a way of continually showing me that nothing is by accident, including this delayed sermon. In the time I was recovering from surgery, two dramatic things concerning homosexuality have happened. In light of these things, I think the time is particularly right for us as Christians to call on the Holy Spirit’s guidance, read up on Scripture, examine again the historic teachings of the Church and take an honest look at the present realities of gay and lesbian people, all so that we can get a grip on what we believe concerning homosexuality. Just as importantly, we need to understand how to live those beliefs with our gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors.
The first dramatic thing to happen occurred at the beginning of this month– a statement of counsel prepared by 33 retired bishops of the United Methodist Church. They are asking for the removal of this statement from our Book of Discipline:
“…The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” ¶304.3
They understand this statement to be embarrassing, insensitive, and discriminatory towards gay and lesbian men and women who demonstrate the necessary graces, fruits, and abilities to be ordained clergy.
It’s important to understand a few things about this statement. Because it’s crafted by a group of bishops, it does carry a lot weight and importance. However, bishops cannot change our church’s stances and policies. That is left to our General Conference, a body of elected clergy and laity who meet every four years primarily to edit and update our denomination’s Book of Discipline, which alone articulates our policies, protocols, and procedures.
In the mean time, this statement’s gravity cannot and will not be ignored.
Then only a few weeks later, some historic legislation has been moving through Maryland’s state government. Just this past week, the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings committee approved a bill for a Senate vote that would legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. Up until this point, the Maryland Senate had been one vote shy the filibuster-proof majority it would need to end the debate and vote. State Senator Jim Rosapepe, our state Senator, has agreed to be that deciding vote. That all but assures passage of this bill through the Senate. The House of Delegates is expected to pass the bill, and Governor O’Malley has promised to sign the bill into law. When that happens, Maryland would become the sixth state in our country to legalize same-sex marriage.
It almost goes without saying that this is a very, very emotionally charged issue. Why? It’s because we’re dealing with the fundamental aspects of our humanity: love, relationships, marriage, and family. For us Christians, we’re also talking the role of the Bible in defining sexuality, what is sin and not sin, and how the pages of Scripture might possibly speak to the experiences of gay and lesbian people.
When talking to Christians about homosexuality, especially when events such as I’ve mentioned unfold, there tend to be three distinct responses.
One Christian response strongly affirms the rights and dignity of gay and lesbian people. This response believes that gay and lesbian people are made in God’s image and are therefore of sacred worth to God. They were born, at no fault of their own, with a propensity to be attracted to people of the same gender, something that is therefore not a sin but an essential make-up of their being, no less than heterosexual people. The most important aspect of the Bible to them is Jesus’ treatment of all people and the fact that he never condemns homosexual relations. In fact, he embraced and included people whom the religious community rejected for being sinful or unclean.
Another Christian response, just as passionate but very different, is condemnation of homosexuality– not of gay and lesbian people as people, but of homosexual attractions and relationships. They too affirm that gay and lesbian people are made in God’s image and are therefore of sacred worth to God. Yet in reading the Bible, they see several passages, including the Romans passage above that denounce homosexual relations as an act of sin. They believe, based on their reading of Scripture, that God designed sexuality exclusively to be shared between a man and a woman.
Then there is a third Christian response that often goes under the radar. This response doesn’t really see this issue as all that important, or doesn’t quite know what to think about something as complicated and controversial as homosexuality. These Christians would be content to see that all people are loved and respected by one another, understanding that God loves each of us, especially when we fail to love God and others as we should.
Overall though, I believe that Christians have done a pretty terrible job dealing with the issue of homosexuality and our differences over this issue. We have been stuck in a fierce debate for close to 40 years. Each side as demonized the other for being unloving, ungodly, compromising the gospel, and causing division in the Church.
Not only that, but when young adults are asked to describe Christians and the Church, one statistic shows that 91% would describe us as anti-gay. The reality is, right or wrong, young people understand homosexuality much differently than their parents and grandparents do. In my personal experience, I know many people, young and old, who will have nothing to do with the Church primarily because they perceive us to be anti-gay.
In our church, I’ve talked to enough people to realize that we have very diverse opinions on homosexuality which encompass all three of the above Christian responses I just mentioned. So I realize that no matter what I teach regarding homosexuality, I risk upsetting some people. Therefore, I believe that we must commit to some critical things when dealing with this or any other hot-button topic: commit to listening, respecting, and loving each other through the differences we may have. We must continually affirm that the greatest common factor among us is never a conflict but rather Jesus Christ our Lord.
Switching gears, I thought that a good way to teach about homosexuality from my Christian point of view would be to share my own story of how I have arrived at my understandings of homosexuality. I don’t share this in order to ram anything down your throat. I share these things to give you a springboard to formulate your own biblical, Christ-centered views, realizing that at the end of the day, we will most likely remain diverse in our views.
Before coming into the church and becoming a Christian at the age of 18, I had no opinion one way or the other concerning the morality or acceptability of homosexuality. I lived in a world of stereotypes, especially of gay men, but that never formulated into any kind of strong view. Yet when I came into the church, I began to hear my pastor and many others teach and preach from the Bible that homosexuality is condemned as a sin. The Romans 1:18ff passage was certainly one of the main passages that was repeatedly quoted.
Hearing all of this, how could I argue with the Bible, especially if the Bible is God’s Word? So, I took as my point of view that the practice of homosexuality is sinful, and I took it quite stridently, too. I didn’t hate or look down upon gay or lesbian people, nor did I reject them. For me, it was a matter of upholding the authority of biblical standards, and in this case, biblical standards on human sexuality.
As I continued to grow and mature, I began to meet and get to know more and more gay and lesbian people. I began to see first-hand how extraordinarily complex this whole issue is. It’s not a mere matter of whether or not homosexuality is a sin or not, as important as that is. It also has to do with the very complex nature of how and why people are gay. It also involves the question of how Christians relate to and minister with gay people.
I also began to listen to many, many stories, particularly from gay Christians who all shared that they grew up knowing that they were somehow different, that unlike most all their friends, they were attracted to people of the same gender. They prayed and prayed for God to take those feelings away and make them straight. Many even tried straight relationships, and some even married someone of the opposite gender, only to fail at their marriage. In other words, it didn’t seem to be their choice to be gay. In fact, given the choice, many would rather have been straight to avoid all the stigma and rejection from being gay. Finally, they came to accept themselves for who they are, recognizing that God loves and accepts them just as they are.
In reflection, I believe, based on how I read the Scriptures, that God designed sexuality to be shared between a man and a woman and that homosexual attractions and relationships, while not necessarily a conscious choice, is not within God’s plan and intention for human sexuality. The best biblical understanding I can derive comes from that same Romans passage in which Paul attributes homosexuality to be the result of a fallen humanity that has turned away from God. When it comes down to it, I cannot see Scripture affirming homosexuality, only condemning it as outside of God’s will.
However, I do not and I will not teach or preach this belief stridently or often at all. I prefer to get into it as little as possible. And that has been to the dismay of many church members I’ve worked with who would prefer that I become more ardently vocal against homosexuality. I will not.
The fact is, this is a deeply painful issue for me. I have very close family members, friends, and neighbors who are gay and lesbian. I trust and love them very, very much, and I always will. I have listened to many of their stories. As a result, I live every day in a tension between my biblical beliefs and the fact that most often those same beliefs stir up so much hurt within my gay and lesbian friends, family members, and neighbors. I just can’t relinquish my love and embrace of them or my love and embrace of God’s Word. Therefore I live in this constant, painful tension.
I’m also deeply conflicted over the nature of the debate concerning homosexuality. It can get particularly nasty and polarizing. While I vote my conscious whenever I’m asked to, I do not want to contribute to the divisive intensity of the debate. Furthermore, I do not tend to sign on to petitions or take strong public stances on homosexuality. My God-given role has been to be a peacemaker by attempting to bring about dialogue and understanding between different points of view on homosexuality while seeking an alternative way forward for us Christians to take other than the disparate options offered by either side of the debate. Let me tell you, this has been every bit as difficult as taking a strong public stance on one side or the other. I have been treated as a traitor and a compromiser by some of my conservative friends and colleagues. I’ve been viewed as anti-gay and a bigot by some of my progressive/liberal friends and colleagues. I’ve been called out by both crowds for all the above on the same day, even! Peacemaking has not been an easy road to take… at all.
Yet, all in all, there is something I want you to hear loud and clear. As long as I am pastor of this church, I will not tolerate anyone being turned away, mistreated, demeaned, ostracized, or in any way unloved because of their sexual orientation. If you are gay or lesbian, I will always be your pastor, and this will always be your church as much as you allow us to be. I will always love you, and I will defend you in the face of any attitude that is less than fully loving or accepting of you as a child of God and my sister or brother in the Lord.
I will gently tell you what I believe the truth to be about human sexuality. We may wrestle through that, and sometimes we may both come out of it limping. But I will always embrace you as my brother or sister in Christ. If anything, I’ll learn to hold on to you more tightly and compassionately, as long as you allow me to.
So, how do we as a church get it right when understanding and relating to our gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors?
First, we must always affirm our faith in the Bible as God’s Word and what it teaches while remaining open to listen to the Holy Spirit’s counsel, especially in the voices of others. We must respect the fact that while I believe the way I do, it may severely contradict they way you believe. I may firmly believe you’re wrong, and you may believe the same about me. Yet we must listen to each other. We must especially listen to understand not just what the other believes, but respectfully listen to why they believe what they believe. And who knows? We might actually learn something from the Holy Spirit that would impact our own views!
Secondly, we must live in an unconditional love towards others whose views are different from our own and towards those who are gay and lesbian. As for me, I know I’m doing this well when others who are different from me don’t perceive me as standoffish, guarded, close-minded, holier-than-thou or in any way unable to love and accept them. When I can fully identify myself with them and they sense that, then I know that I’m getting closer to Christ’s unconditional love.
Believe me, that’s not a compromise or a cop out. I’ve learned my methods from none other than Jesus himself. Do you remember when Jesus shared a meal at Matthew’s house? He was there with the notorious ragamuffins of his day: tax-collectors and “sinners”. And of course, the religious people were all over Jesus’ case for that! “Jesus, don’t you know who you’re eating with?” In Jesus day, you only shared a meal with those whom you closely identified as your trusted friends and family. Jesus ate with Matthew and his guests anyway, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t sitting around arguing with the tax collectors about their unscrupulous tax collecting methods or calling out the sinners for their wrongs. He was simply being with them in an embracing love of God. And that love of God has the power to transform us all, gay or straight, sinners all, into God’s holy people, in God’s time and in God’s way.
In other words, in the turmoil and complexity of these tumultuous times and debates, it really does come down to asking that simple question, “What would Jesus do?” By God’s grace, we endeavor to do it, and we discover the abundance of life that comes from living like Jesus.
For those of you visiting my blog, I want to thank you for checking it out. I also invite you to leave your thoughts and comments anywhere you like. I strive to keep my posts thoughtful, sincere, and as authentic as I possibly can. I find that when people think and write that way, they leave the door open for some honest conversation, even between people who disagree.
I’ve had enough of talking about Pat Robertson, so I want to turn to something far more positive.
Undoubtedly, you have already heard pleas from many different relief organizations who are already collecting funds for Haiti relief. I know how difficult and overwhelming it can get, deciding who to give to, how much, and all the while wondering how your hard-earned money will be spent. Will those funds really be used wisely? I’m a United Methodist pastor and part of the United Methodist “tribe”. (Tribe is a much better word than “denomination” .) I don’t support everything that most of our UM agencies do, but one whose work I always fully support is the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). UMCOR is often among the first relief agencies to arrive at a disaster area, and they are always among the last to leave. For example, four-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, UMCOR is still there working with the community, government, and other agencies to continue the rebuilding process.
UMCOR’s values are simple. They value all human life and form partnerships with the people they serve in order to make their lives more sustainable and healthy. They’re not there to proselytize or to convert people to Christianity. They’re there doing what the world expects Christians to do– to serve with love and humility, expecting nothing in return except the satisfaction that they are doing Christ’s work with people who need it the most. UMCOR already has a strong relationship with Haiti and has been an ongoing presence there already. So, they are already hard at work in the relief process.
And the other incredible thing is that every dollar given to UMCOR goes directly to the ground and becomes the resources people need to rebuild. All of UMCOR’s administrative costs are covered by the United Methodist Church. They don’t run slick advertisements and commercials. They simply hunker down, do the work they were called to do and rely on a website and word of mouth. That’s it!
If you’d like to make a donation to UMCOR’s relief work in Haiti, simply click here.
I also realize that many of you might not be so sure about giving to a religious organization. Maybe that’s too uncomfortable, no matter how good and honest their intentions may be. I can understand that. So, if you’re uncomfortable giving to UMCOR, the American Red Cross is a also a fantastic organization to give to.
For those of you who pray, please do. I firmly believe that God works through the prayers of people everywhere to bring healing and help. I’m not sure how that works. I just know that the prayers of God’s people can accomplish so much.
I hope you’ll join me in being a blessing to the people of Haiti!
Jabbing and slinging mud at the mainline church has become a new intellectual sport among church leaders, and at first glance, this blog may be yet another fruitless contribution to the worn out question, “Why is the mainline church dying?” It is not. I’m moving on from mudslinging to asking questions that might lead us into resurrection. How can the mainline church enter into Christ’s resurrection, and what does that resurrection look like?
What few church leaders seem to understand is how the negative bantering back and forth has contributed virtually nothing towards the church’s health. My attempts to sound more dire and apocalyptic than you don’t revive a thing. Besides, we’ve all seen the statistics: steep declines in membership and money, aging buildings and church members, ineffective programs and initiatives, an irrelevant vestige of religion from a bygone era, yada, yada, yada, etc, etc, etc… While we must confront the truth head on, break the denial, and accept that Church in the 21st Century takes on a shape markedly different than before, we’re still left asking, “Now what?”. Suddenly the room grows eerily silent. We then realize that those who complain but offer nothing substantive to mediate the problem are the problem.
So, beginning from my little island in the blogosphere, I’d like to offer a new set of questions for the mainline church which I will address over time. (I’m doing so as loudly as I can to anyone who will listen!) My bishop once wisely said that we don’t arrive at the truth by offering answers but by asking good questions. In other words, the mainline church finds itself retreading the same debates over its decline because it begins the conversation with inadequate questions. Let’s take a look at some of those questions and then reword them to be more authentic, biblical, and Christ-like.
Question #1:How can we get our churches growing again?
There are two major faults with this question. First, the question preoccupies the mainline church with institutional survival. Let’s face it, the mainline church, especially my own United Methodist tribe, loves to crunch numbers. We count numbers like worship attendance, the number of new members, numbers of people in classes and activities, how much money is brought in and spent, and on and on.We love it when the numbers project upward because that means the institution is thriving. We worry when the numbers spiral downward because that means the institution is in jeopardy. But there’s a major problem with this kind of focus: individual souls are just another number which props up the legitimacy of the institution. At the end of the day, what the institution values most is its own viability, not the viability of each person the blood of God was spilled to save.
The second fault is in the word “again.” That presupposes that the same construction and configuration of church we’ve inherited will be an effective means for today and the future. It is not. Pioneering books like George Barna’s Revolution warn us that congregational styles of church may have a limited shelf life, and that we need to rethink what Church is, how it gathers, how it disciples people into the likeness of Jesus, and how it spreads the good news of Jesus to the world. So can we see growth, absolutely! But… not by pouring new wine into old wineskins.
Question #1 Rephrased: How can we build the kingdom of God with new disciples of Jesus?
Notice that the emphasis is no longer on us or on our survival, but on the survival of a lost world. It heals us from our addiction to numbers and moves the growth from institutional growth to kingdom growth, the latter encompassing every local church, every denomination, and indeed our whole world. It mobilizes us outward, looking towards the reign of God and the healing of our world by the blood of Jesus, one person, one family, one community at a time.
Please note that I’m not trying to dismantle or disregard the mainline church. I love my heritage as a United Methodist, and in fact, the kind of thinking that I’m suggesting is more in keeping with John Wesley’s vision than the dead form of religion he feared we would fall into and have indeed become. If there is any hope for United Methodism, we must once again rekindle our love for Jesus Christ, his gospel, and people who have yet to be born again into a new life with Christ and his Church.
Along these lines, I believe the answers to this question make themselves clearly apparent when we simply shift our focus from ourselves to Jesus and the world he died to save. When we do that, we find ourselves simplifying how we carry on as a Church– our worship, study, and engagements with the world around us. We find ourselves gathering together in the outside world where people normally live, work, and play. We realize that we captivate people not with pizazz but with authenticity. We move from being clever, cute, and flashy to being transparent, honest and profound. We see that the world has already heard about God so many times before. They’re not standing around waiting for us to say it again, this time with PowerPoint and a band. If they gives us a chance at all, it will happen when they see us doing what we say we believe and then speaking a message that points straight to Jesus.