Archives For homosexuality

rainbow-cross_aprilThis past weekend my cranny of Methodism in Virginia, clergy and lay, gathered for our annual conference. The theme of this year’s meeting was ‘Doing Bureaucracy Better than the IRS.’

Actually, it had something to do with the Holy Spirit, but you get the idea. The Spirit does blow where it will (John 3) but I’m pressed to think of any scripture where the Spirit blows as slowly or trepidatiously as United Methodism.

The most only anticipated item on this year’s agenda was Resolution 1, a move to petition the larger denomination to amend its official language about homosexuality at it’s global gathering in 2 years.

After the flurry of whereas’ the salient portion of the resolution read:

“Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to expunge the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching”…from the Book of Discipline…”

As soon as the motion was opened up for debate, a counter-motion was offered to table, ignore, stick-our-head-in-the-sand, push-to-the-back-burner, pull the blankie-over-our-eyes-and-pretend-this-issue-is-not-under-our-bed suspend discussion indefinitely so that we could instead engage in a ‘conversation’ on homosexuality in our denomination.

Even though this conversation has already gone on for decades and the respective sides have long since calcified and even though the ‘let’s have a conversation instead’ motion strikes me as not unlike those clergyman who tried to persuade Martin Luther King to ‘wait’ (‘this “wait” has almost always meant never’ King replied from his cell), here’s my ‘conversation-starter:’

If Paul can contradict Jesus on divorce, why can’t we reevaluate Paul on homosexuality?

Brian-BlountIn his essay, Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality, biblical scholar Brian Blount advocates the position that certain biblical ethical prescriptions may be modified by the contemporary church, and, in their modified form, they may more faithfully reflect Paul’s own theological perspective.

Blount cites Paul himself as the precedent for the ethical re-evaluation of homosexuality.

For example, Blount points out, the Gospel writers are all unanimous in their presentation of Jesus’ views on divorce.

Jesus, according to the Gospels, is unambiguously against divorce.

Only in Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus allow the stipulation of divorce in cases of sexual infidelity (5.31-32).

In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul acknowledges Jesus’ teaching on this matter (1 Corinthians 7.10-11).

Nonetheless, in that same passage, Paul claims his own apostolic authority and allows for a reevaluation of Jesus’ teaching based on the context of the Corinthian congregation.

In other words, when it comes to divorce, Paul offers up his own ‘You’ve heard it said (from the lips of the Word Incarnate) but I say to you…’

The church at Corinth was struggling to apply their faith in a thoroughly pagan culture. Aware of the destructive effects pagan culture potentially posed to an individual’s and a church’s faith, Paul changes Jesus’ tradition and allows for divorce in the case of Christians who are married to unsupportive pagan partners.

In light of the Corinthian’s cultural context, and even though it stands in contrast to Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels, Paul believes this ethical modification to be consistent with his larger understanding of God’s present work in and through Jesus Christ.

Such ethical deliberation and re-evaluation is not dissimilar to the process of discernment that the Christian Church later undertook with respect to scripture’s understanding of slavery.

Just as the Holy Spirit guided Paul to re-evaluate Jesus’ teaching in light of a different present-day context, Brian Blount posits that the Holy Spirit can and does lead Christians to re-evaluate Paul today.

When it comes to the matter of homosexuality, Blount argues that Romans 1 understands homosexuality as one symptom among many of the fallen world’s idolatry. Our contemporary situation is different, according to Blount.

If it is possible for contemporary Christians to concede that a homosexual person need not be an idolater, then Paul’s chief complaint may be removed, opening the way for Christians to re-evaluate Paul’s ethical prescriptions in a faithful manner.

It becomes possible then, Blount says, for Christians to conclude that faithful, monogamous, homosexual relationships can be consistent with God’s present-day redemptive activity.

It’s possible for Christians today to say faithfully ‘You’ve heard it said (from Paul) but, with the Spirit, we say to you…’

 

Church-RainbowA few days ago a friend in my congregation emailed me, responding to a series of posts I’d written about the ‘Way Forward’ proposal in the United Methodist Church. The Way Forward is an attempt for a third way through the impasse over homosexuality which presently besets the church.

He writes- and, trust me, he’s not whatever comes to your mind when you think ‘liberal:’

In 1990 golfer Tom Watson, one of the best players on the PGA Tour and winner of 8 majors, abruptly resigned from the exclusive Kansas City country club where he had grown up and learned to play golf. He said that as a matter of personal integrity, despite great memories and a long association, he could no longer belong to an institution that discriminated aganst and blackballed Jewish, black, Hispanic and Asian prospective members.
I can belong to a church where members disagree about whether the Primeval History in Genesis is literally word-for-word true. That difference does not affect our ability to live, love and serve together in Christian community.
The homosexuality issue is different.
As part of a Christian community, we are charged to make disciples; to invite friends and acquaintances to join us in that community. How can we invite friends and acquaintances who are gay and lesbian to join a community that publicly affirms and proclaims that they are evil, cannot hold positions of leadership and may not enjoy the blessing of holy matrimony?
I question more and more whether as a matter of personal integrity I can continue to be a member of such a group. How can I acknowledge (witness) on a Facebook post that I am a member of a Methodist church and then look my gay and lesbian friends in the face the next day? Make no mistake, about 50 of my Facebook friends are gay or lesbian.
“A Way Forward” is something I can live with. I’m not sure that the status quo is. If I were not positive that you do not hold the hard-line position on his issue I would already be gone.
In case you skipped ahead, my friend’s point boils down to this:

Methodism’s posture towards gays makes for increasingly bad advertising.

Or as we like to call it in the Church: evangelism.

My own cul de sac of the United Methodist Church begins its annual 3 day conference today, and the first resolution on the docket is a motion to amend our denomination’s official language that homosexuality is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching*.’

If the resolution passes, not at all a certainty, the motion simply moves on to (possibly, maybe) be debated at the global meeting of the United Methodist Church in 2016.

 

Two full years from now.

 

Where most of the delegates will be from the most conservative parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination which educated me, just this week voted to allow gay marriages.
By the healthy margin of 429 to 175. You can read about it here.
Where Methodists are still stuck in the love the sinner/hate the sin time warp, debating whether we can officially regard homosexuals as fully human or not, Presbyterians have moved ahead to grant homosexuals access to the sanctifying grace Christians call ‘marriage.’
The Presbyterians, as this article rattles off, join the ranks of other mainline denominations which have ameliorated their previous positions on sexuality, such as the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, and the United Church of Christ. Not to mention 2 out of 3 of America’s Jewish denominations.
Which leaves who exactly other than the United Methodist Church as the remaining ‘mainline’ Protestant traditions that still take a hard line against gay Christians?
Can Methodists really consider ourselves mainline anymore when we now have more in common with Southern Baptists than we do Presbyterians or the Episcopal tradition whence we came?
Do we really want to be the last ones to this party?
What will be the demographic cost of lingering prejudice associated with our particular brand of Christianity?
And I know this is the place where some will want to interject and point out how the above mentioned denominations are all smaller than they were mid-century before they purportedly went liberal. Therefore, the argument always goes, United Methodists cannot change their position without losing members and their money.
Two quick responses:
If people really do led-by-the-Spirit believe the Church should change its stance towards homosexuality then the moral imperative of that belief- our compassion for people- should outweigh our ‘compassion’ for an institution.
Likewise, if people really do led-by-the-Spirit believe the Church should keep its stance towards homosexuality then that’s fine too so long as institutional maintenance is not the mission.
Two:

There’s a pernicious fallacy in linking the gradual decline of mainline Protestantism with its supposedly liberal policy positions.

We’re not the only ones in the decline as the Pew Survey on Religion has helpfully revealed. Southern Baptists and Evangelical Churches, no liberals and no friends of gay Christians, are in their own moment of decline and, were it not for immigration, ditto the Catholic Church in America.
The ecclesial decline to which we so often turn to homosexual-support for a scapegoat actually suggests a more general cultural shift towards secularism, a shift that shows no partiality to liberal and conservative alike.
And if what churches are really experiencing is a seismic shift away from religion in general, then the stakes of the current debate over homosexuality suddenly seem a lot smaller and more urgent.

How we vote on sexuality will not determine the demise or the future of the Church; how we tackle secularism will.

 

And if secularism is the true threat to the institutional faith then, to my mind, it’s all the more imperative that we do right by what the Spirit is showing us about gay Christians.
*Of course, our denomination’s official language also marks out war, unfettered capitalism, alcohol and tobacco, and disregard for the creation as contradictory with our Christian faith so let’s keep things in perspective and not suppose sexuality is the lynchpin of the moral universe.

Church-RainbowAs I mentioned in previous posts, Last week I received a book in the mail, gratis: Seeing Black and White in a World of Gray. In both its title and cover design, it’s meant to be the rejoinder to Adam Hamilton’s ‘Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.’

arnoldbook‘Seeing Black and White’ purports to be the orthodox correction to Hamilton’s insufficiently biblical, conservative, traditional, historic, theological, _____________ book; that is, Hamilton’s book doesn’t take a sufficiently strong stand ‘for the bible’ and against ‘the gay agenda.’

The freebie book arrived at a time when some, like Adam Hamilton, in my United Methodist tradition are proposing a third ‘way forward’ through the stalemate over homosexuality and others are openly advocating for a conservative schism from the United Methodist 843504001902Church.

‘Strategic disunity’ is the euphemism I’ve seen used by those who don’t want to see the Church’s strength frittered away in lawsuits.

I suspect those advocating for an amicable schism now have read the tea leaves and realize that, demographically speaking, they’ve already lost the debate on homosexuality. For people my age and younger, even amongst the most conservative evangelical tribes, homosexuality is a non-issue.

Conservatives will never be stronger on this issue than they are at the present, or perhaps better put, the conservative argument is only going to find a rapidly shrinking audience on this issue as public opinion continues to shift.

So better now than later for conservatives to take their assets and run.

The issue of sexuality aside, I find it ironic- and indicative of a deeper problem- that conservatives, those who by definition seek to ‘conserve’ historic institutions and whose frank assessment of human sinfulness leads them to take a dim view towards utopian-minded movements (like creating a ‘purer’ church), are the ones agitating for a schism from the larger UMC.

No matter how we might disagree over sexuality, conservatives should at least agree that an even graver sin we Protestant Christians continue to commit is Protestantism itself, our continued, unreflective disunity from the Church Catholic.

Conservatives routinely pray for revival in the Church but seldom, if ever, do they pray that the Spirit will so manifest itself by repairing what was torn asunder in the Reformation.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes:

The very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully worship.

Unfortunately, the Catholics are right. To be saved requires our being made part of a people separated from the world so that we can be united in spite of — or perhaps better, because of — the world’s fragmentation and divisions. Unity, after all, is what God has given us through Christ’s death and resurrection. Catholics can celebrate their disagreements because they understand that our unity is founded upon the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that makes the Eucharist possible. They do not presume, therefore, that unity requires that we all read Scripture the same way.

The Church’s unity is a present reality won by Christ on the Cross; it is not a goal we can attempt to achieve through politicking or persuasion.

All we can ‘achieve’ is harm to the unity already established through Cross and Resurrection.

There are myriad groups in the United Methodist Church advocating various causes in and around sexuality. There are those who want strategic disunity, those who want to maintain the status quo by asserting their demographic strength, those who want to find a third way and those who want to make the denomination more welcoming and inclusive.

Thus far, I’ve not seen any groups on Facebook or Twitter advocating for the reunification of Methodists with the Church Catholic even though the reason for the original ‘protest,’ justification by grace through faith, has been settled since the 16th century.

So rather than advocating for ‘strategic disunity’ through yet another schism in the One Body of Christ, rather than making another ‘protest’ an end in itself in the face of the unity won by Christ, I think conservatives should instead begin advocating for a Methodist reunification with the Catholic Church.

After all, at least there they’ll find brothers and sisters who already share their views on sexuality. Why wound Christ with another division to his Body when what conservative Methodists seek is already found?

Rather than spend their time and energy bringing yet another wound to Christ’s divided body, conservatives could expend those same resources attempting to persuade our Catholic friends to ameliorate their positions on celibacy, female ordination and the primacy of the bishop of Rome.

Moves that would give the rest of us fewer and fewer reasons, save our outright nationalism or prejudice, not to (re)become Catholic.

Not to mention, there’s the whole question of whether in a post-Christian culture the religious marketplace can afford to have so many competing, niche products.

Already ours is a culture that asks ‘What’s a Methodist? Presbyterian?’

The first resolution proposed for next week’s annual conference in my corner of United Methodism proposes that we make our official language more progressive towards homosexuality.

I expect that resolution will meet with its predictable counter argument.

Perhaps as the denominations that once fractured the Church Catholic 4 centuries ago fracture themselves it’s time for a different sort of resolution altogether.

I doubt the schismatic conservatives would claim me, but on their behalf: I move that we United Methodists seeking to heal the wounds long ago done to Christ’s Body take measures to reunify with the Catholic Church whence we came.

Only such a motion, I think, is true re-form.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Church-RainbowLast week I received a book in the mail, gratis: Seeing Black and White in a World of Gray. In both its title and cover design, the book presents itself as the doppleganger to Adam Hamilton’s ‘Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.’

843504001902‘Seeing Black and White’ purports to be the orthodox correction to Hamilton’s insufficiently biblical, conservative, traditional, historic, theological, _____________ book.

My church folks will be the first to tell you that I’m neither a Hamilton aficionado nor apologist. His books and sermons have always struck me as so intentionally unoffensive as to be uninteresting. I’ve always thought him too vanilla, serving up barely spoonful of medicine with all the helpings of safe, saccharine piety.

This is a confession that will probably prevent my ascension to bishop but I’ve even (and often) joked that Adam Hamilton would be the perfect pastor for the First Church of Pleasantville– before the residents of the cinematic town discovered color.

But apparently my estimations of Hamilton as milk-toast, whitebread, and benign to the point of narcolepsy were wrong because somehow he’s managed to offend the black-and-white residents of the United Methodist Church.

Let me pause there and just reiterate the point:

The fact Adam Hamilton has managed to offend an entire segment of the UMC- offend to the point of provoking a rival book- says much more about the self-righteous, persecuted self-image of the offended backers of Seeing Black and White than it does Adam Hamilton.

You can judge a lot by a book’s cover. That ‘Seeing Black and White’ mimics (mocks?) Hamilton’s book and is not published by the official publishing house of the United Methodist reveals much about the state of the denomination.

The introduction alone to the book damns Hamilton with faint ‘bless his heart’ praise for his leadership and pastoral wisdom while accusing him of elementary missteps of logic and contradictions against the plain reading of scripture.

The rest of the book goes on to deconstruct Hamilton’s work and to argue the traditional perspective on marriage and sexuality. There’s nothing surprising or new in the book save the posturing of its title, it’s self-professed brave stand against the ‘gray’ of our postmodern, permissive relativistic society.

Indeed the only real surprise in Seeing Black and White is the delusion that what this stymied debate needs is but another impassioned exegesis of the conservative (or the liberal) position.

You’d think if it’s one thing conservatives and liberals could agree upon it’s that both sides are well aware of the other’s facts, texts and arguments.

Seeing Black and White is a clever title given its a rejoinder to Seeing Gray.

Still, while I’m neither liberal nor conservative, I have to admit I’m at a loss how anyone could seriously survey our culture, which is hyper-partisan to the point of dysfunction, and come away with the conclusion that what our world or Church needs MORE of is black-and-white thinking.

Black and white is exactly what ails my (increasingly) little corner of the Christian world.

Case in point, last night I viewed a live chat on Twitter hosted by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, two of the primary sponsors of A Way Forward, a proposed third way through the Church’s impasse on sexuality.

In a nutshell the third way boils down to this statement:

We propose that the United Methodist Church entrust to each local church the authority to determine how they will be in ministry with gay and lesbian people   including whether they will, or will not, allow for homosexual marriages or unions.

The live chat I viewed involved Methodists, mostly pastors, from all over the country discussing the (de)merits of A Way Forward.

I sat transfixed the way one is when there’s pileup of cars and limbs strewn across the highway.

Karl Barth once quipped derisively that it’s a miracle any one comes to Church expecting to hear a word from the Lord. Watching the ticker-tape of mean-spirited condescension and self-righteous finger-wagging from my duly ordained colleagues, Barth’s words hit home last night, revealing the true sinfulness of this debate.

It’s not simply that one side has equated their view with ‘biblical authority’ and the other with ‘the Gospel of inclusion and love’ such that to compromise isn’t just impossible but immoral, for it would be to compromise either the scriptural word or the Word Made Flesh.

It’s not simply that the heels-dug-in nature of both the liberal and conservative views prevents the Church from addressing more urgent concerns like poverty in the developing world and discipleship in the post-Christian one. arnoldbook

No, the true sin is that the assumed righteousness of the conservatives’ and liberals’ respective causes is so BLACK AND WHITE that it leads to- and even justifies- self-righteousness.

There’s something wrong with a position when pastor upon pastor on Twitter don’t even pretend to be practicing what they preach.

I don’t give a damn about what Romans 1 says or what part of Leviticus Jesus never contradicted or who is the 21st century equivalent of the eunuch Phillip came across in the Book of Acts. None of that matters.

Because  there’s something very wrong about the ‘rightness’ of a cause that permits ministers to be mean and blithely so.

As in most things, I think Barth was right.

It’s a miracle people even go to Church given what I see from her leaders on Facebook and Twitter and Tumbler.

And maybe Adam Hamilton is wrong.

Maybe the best way forward for the UMC is for its members to get rid of its pastors. Maybe then they could find the path to comprise.

Church-RainbowIf you’re a member of church or a pastor, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In my little corner of the Christian world, the United Methodist Church, we’re split down the middle on the issue of homosexuality with both sides recalcitrant about so much as attributing Jesusy motives to their opponents.

We’re split and both sides absolutize their cause to the point where they have no rhetorical choice but to double-down and see the other as opponent.

Conservatives have dug their heels in in the name of biblical authority such that any compromise on sexuality is to betray the Word. Liberals meanwhile advocate their position with the certainty that Jesus would be on their side, a rhetorical ledge from which its hard to back away.

The result is an impasse that distracts the Church from other (more biblical, I would argue) issues and stymies the Church’s attempts to reposition itself for ministry in a post-Christian context.

Such an impasse with two sides cemented in their views and agendas would seem to beg for an alternative third way.

This is what’s offered by A Way Forward, a proposal by a group of leaders in the United Methodist Church.

You can read about the proposal in this Washington Post article.

The proposal is such that advocates on both sides will be left wanting, which, to my mind at least, makes it a sound approach.

The too wordy proposal can be summarized so:

We propose that the United Methodist Church entrust to each local church the authority to determine how they will be in ministry with gay and lesbian people including whether they will, or will not, allow for homosexual marriages or unions.

And also this:

We suggest that local annual conferences be permitted to determine whether they will or will not ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals

While I have theological qualms about individual churches choosing their doctrine for themselves, I also think Protestant Christians should be working to undo the wounds caused by the Reformation not exacerbating them.

Unity not purity should be our goal as the Church.

But will liberal United Methodists countenance congregations in, say, the Southeast, that are not affirming of gay Christians? Will conservative Methodists lay down the mantle of biblical authority and permit churches in the Northeast to minister in a way they feel contradicts the clear teaching of scripture?

Have both sides so absolutized this issue that compromise on it is the equivalent of compromising the Gospel?

I’ll paste the text of the proposal below, but you can click over to the website devoted to it and see who has signed it (did I?) and even sign it for yourself.

A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church

We stand at a crossroads in the United Methodist Church. The ongoing debate over homosexuality continues to divide us. One side believes that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The other side believes that scriptures related to homosexuality are like scriptures related to the subordination of women, violence or the acceptance and regulation of slavery, reflecting the values of the times in which the scriptures were written more than the timeless will of God.

Every four years United Methodists meet for General Conference, devoting much time and energy to the debate over homosexuality. We leave General Conference more divided than ever. Some, believing the current policies of our denomination regarding homosexuals are unjust and do not reflect God’s will, call for a reversal of the language in the Book of Discipline restricting the rights of gay and lesbian people to marry or be ordained. Others suggest that if this were ever to happen, they would have no choice but to leave the denomination.

Some, in frustration with the current impasse, are now violating the Discipline and officiating at weddings for homosexuals. Others, frustrated that the Discipline is being flouted, are now calling for the formal division of the United Methodist Church into two denominations: one that holds that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and which forbids the marriage of homosexual people and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. The other, presumably, would embrace homosexual marriage and ordination.

We, the undersigned, believe the division of the United Methodist Church over this issue would be shortsighted, costly, detrimental to all of our churches, and not in keeping with God’s will.

While some on either side of this issue see only two sides in the debate, a vast majority of our churches are divided on this issue. United Methodists have gay and lesbian children, friends, co-workers and neighbors. A large number of our churches have gay and lesbian members. Our members, like the broader society, are not of one mind on the issue of ordination or marriage for gay and lesbian people, and many find themselves confused about bisexuality and those who are transgender. Most of our churches, regardless of the dominant view of the issue in their congregation, stand to lose members if The United Methodist Church divides into two churches over homosexuality.

We believe the decision to divide the church over homosexuality would be shortsighted. Views on this issue in our society are rapidly changing, yet are far from settled. The February 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that 54% of Americans now favor the right of gay and lesbian people to marry, up from 31% just ten years ago. Among young adults, support for gay marriage is now at 66%.[1] The church does not determine Christian ethics by looking at poll numbers. But, the poll numbers tell us that the people we are trying to reach, and the people in our pews, are divided and shifting on this issue. To form a new denomination primarily based upon opposition to homosexuality would negatively impact that Church’s ministry with 54% of the population, and two-thirds of young adults. Further, a significant majority of young clergy in the United Methodist Church hold a more progressive view on homosexuality. A denomination formed largely due to its opposition to homosexuality may find its ministry to younger adults increasingly difficult in the decades ahead.

We believe that the question of homosexuality is virtually irresolvable at General Conference. Maintaining our current position will force progressives to continue to violate the Discipline as a matter of conscience. Reversing the position at General Conference would force hundreds of thousands of our conservative members to leave the denomination as a matter of conscience, with devastating consequences to many of our churches, and in turn, to our shared mission and ministry together. We believe there is a better way forward than the current impasse or the division of the United Methodist Church.

Paragraphs 201-204 of The Book of Discipline note that the local church is the “most significant arena through which disciple making occurs.” It is “primarily at the level of the local charge…that the church encounters the world,” and “the local church is a strategic base from which Christians move out to the structures of society.” Further, it states that, “Each local church shall have a definite evangelistic, nurture and witness responsibility for its members and the surrounding area…it shall be responsible for ministering to all its members.”

In recent years the General Conference, through the Discipline, has given increasing permission for local churches to organize in ways that are most helpful to the congregation. Further, local churches already determine their own strategies and plans for making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This leads us to the following suggestion for how we move forward as a denomination:

We propose that the United Methodist Church entrust to each local church the authority to determine how they will be in ministry with gay and lesbian people including whether they will, or will not, allow for homosexual marriages or unions.

Under this plan the current position of the Discipline would become the position of each local church, but a local congregation, at the request of the senior pastor and with a supermajority vote of the members of the congregation and only after a process of prayer, study and discernment, could determine their own position. Churches could vote to adopt a more inclusive policy allowing for homosexuals to be married in their churches and welcoming gay and lesbian clergy. Conversely, they might take the position that their members are “not of one mind” on this issue and therefore postpone any decision until they gained greater clarity on the issue. Doing nothing would mean that they affirm the current disciplinary language. Traditionalist churches around the world would retain the current language in their local congregations. Strongly progressive churches could adopt more inclusive language and practices.

Regarding ordination, in keeping with the current provisions in the Book of Discipline empowering Boards of Ordained Ministry to review candidates for ordination, we suggest that annual conferences be permitted to determine whether they will or will not ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals while allowing local churches to determine if they would or would not be willing to receive gay and lesbian clergy. In conferences where the ordination of gay and lesbian people was allowed, they would be held to the same standard heterosexual clergy are held to: fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.

This proposal is, at this point, merely conceptual. There are many questions that must be answered and many details to be worked out. A study team will be working on legislation required to implement this policy. But we believe this concept gives us the best opportunity to address one of the most challenging issues the church faces today, and to do so in a way that honors each local church and reduces the harm that will inevitably come from either dividing the United Methodist Church, or continuing to force all churches to conform to one interpretation of scripture regarding the issue of homosexuality.

What Unites Us as United Methodists

United Methodist congregations already hold different views on how to interpret the scriptures related to homosexuality. They also have different ways of being in ministry with gay and lesbian people. What makes us United Methodists is not our position on homosexuality, but a core set of theological, missional and ministry convictions.

To be United Methodist is to believe, follow and serve Jesus Christ. It is to hold together a passionate and personal evangelical gospel and a serious and sacrificial social gospel. It is to hold together a deep and wide understanding of grace and a call to holiness of heart and life. It is to hold together a faith that speaks to the intellect and a faith that warms the heart. To be United Methodist is to be a people who study and seek to live scripture and who read it with the help of tradition, experience and reason. To be United Methodist is to invite the Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives to the end that we might love God with all that is within us and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

United Methodists believe that God’s grace is available to all, not only a predestined “elect.” We believe that God brings good from evil, but we don’t believe that God causes evil. We believe that it’s okay to ask questions and that we’re not meant to check our brains at the door of the church. We find helpful those guidelines we call the General Rules: Refrain from evil, do all the good you can, and do those things which help you grow in love for God. The Covenant Prayer is for us a powerful reminder of what it means to call Jesus Christ Lord: “I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what you will…”

United Methodists have at times been called people of the “radical center” or the “extreme center,” holding together the best of each side of the theological divide. It is this ability to hold together the important insights and perspectives of both the left and the right that is exemplified in a church that allows local congregations to hold varied scriptural interpretations on the issue of homosexuality.

We believe the world needs a vital United Methodist Church now more than ever. In an increasingly secular age, the world needs churches that can make an intellectually sound case for the gospel, proclaim a faith that touches the heart, and call Christians to action seeking to help our world look more like the kingdom of God. A vital United Methodism will remember its heritage and mission. It will be deeply devoted to Jesus Christ, and serious about its role as his body – in the world. If it will have a future, it must help gifted young adults to answer God’s call to full time Christian service. And it must focus on both starting new congregations and working to revitalize existing congregations.

By moving the decision-making regarding homosexuality to the local church, we hope to end the rancor, animosity and endless debate that divide our denomination every four years at General Conference. What we propose would allow conservative, centrist and progressive churches to come to their own conclusions regarding this important issue and to focus on how best to minister in their own communities. We will be bound together by what we share in common, rather than posturing to impose our will upon one another in areas where we are so deeply divided.

United Methodists have an approach to the gospel that 21st century people can and will respond to. Our hope is that United Methodists might be united around our common heritage and our theological and missional convictions, so that we might be used by God to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

 

cake_topper_c-445x287This past weekend I presided at the wedding of a friend and former youth in my church, Taylor Mertins.

While I officiated the worship service, I signed no license from clerk of court nor did I announce during the liturgy ‘by the power vested in me by the State of Virginia.’

That’s because, tired of marriage being a political football, I gave up credentials to serve as an agent of the state when it comes to weddings.

Since the blog readership is about 10x what it was when I posted this over a year ago, I thought I would pull it out from the vault…

 

Two exchanges with congregants have been running through my mind the past week. This may agitate some.

Take a deep breath, give me the benefit of the doubt, and trust that this is all the fruit of a good faith wrestling of theology and conscience.

Exchange #1

There’s an engaged couple in my congregation who recently asked me to perform their wedding ceremony this summer.

Nothing unusual about that, right?

I do weddings all the time. It comes with the territory.

Here’s the thing.

They’re already getting married in May.

In the Caribbean.

When they stand in front of me- in July- to exchange vows of Christ-like, sacrificial love they will already be married.

As far as the State goes, they don’t need to do anything else. Their- secular- wedding in the Caribbean is good enough for the State of Virginia.

It’s just not good enough for them.

For this couple, Christian marriage isn’t the same thing as marriage as its defined by the State.

And how could it be, really?

Christian marriage is marriage in the name and likeness of Jesus, a crucified and risen Jewish Messiah.

By definition that sort of marriage will (or, at least, should) always be distinct and peculiar from the wider pagan culture.

This couple is intentional enough about their faith to sacrifice the time, effort and expense to do, essentially, a do-over in our sanctuary with me presiding in the name of Christ.

I do weddings all the time. And I can tell you that’s unusual as hell.

My takeaway from this exchange?

I wondered:

How is it that Christians spend so much time and vitriol in the public square advocating for the preservation of “biblical/Christian marriage” when even this couple in my congregation knows, or at least intuits, that the present legal understanding of marriage bears no resemblance to what Catholics call a ‘sacrament’ and what Protestants call a ‘covenant?’

Exchange #2

Last week a friend, who shall remain anonymous, lamented to me how their child soon will be getting married to their partner in a locality in which same-sex unions are legal.

This friend lamented not their child’s wedding.

This friend lamented that their child, a lifelong United Methodist and who’s been with their partner nearly as long as I’ve been married, cannot have a Christian ceremony.

(I’m not going to get into the arguments pro/con about homosexuality. You can do a search on my blog and read everything I’ve ever written on the question.)

My takeaway from this exchange?

I wondered:

What if it was the other way round?

What if my Church didn’t have this position on marriage? What if the United Methodist Church permitted committed, faithful homosexuals to marry?

If it did, then I still wouldn’t be able to perform those weddings because the State, the State of Virginia, would still consider them illegal.

And that, we would say, is crazy.

My Conclusion from Exchanges 1 and 2?

Why in the world is the Church allowing, and in very many cases encouraging, marriage to be kicked around like a political football?

I don’t want conservatives telling me marriage is between a man and a woman when Abraham had more than one wife and Jesus didn’t have any.

And, I don’t want liberals tellings me that marriage is a right. We can debate whether it is in the legal sense, but for Christians, marriage is much more than that. It’s a vocation.

No matter how one feels about marriage and homosexuality, surely Christians should find it odd that we would allow the secular State or the pagan culture to tell us what constitutes the definition of marriage.

Just as we can disagree about homosexuality, Christians can disagree over the particulars of the Eucharist.

But would Christians EVER turn to the State to define the meaning of the Eucharist for us?

Would we EVER think it normal for a government document to be signed by the pastor every time the sacrament of communion or baptism is performed?

Would we EVER waste time lobbying the government to define the Eucharist in terms of consubstantiation or immersion as the proper mode of baptism?

Of course not.

But then every time a couple gets married, I have to sign a marriage license.

And every time I do I’m acting not as a vicar of Christ but as an agent of the State.

And every time, signing that document makes me feel weird because in both the Old Testament and the New prophetic critique of the government is part of the priestly role {See: Jesus, innocent victim of the government].

eucharistwallpaper1024So these two exchanges have prompted me this week to do something I’ve toyed with for some time now:

Today I called the Clerk of Court to surrender my wedding credentials.

This means I’ll no longer able to perform ‘legal’ weddings. In other words, couples whom I marry will be married in the eyes of God just not the State. Couples will have to get a justice of the peace to do that for them.

My priestly role is now untethered from Red/Blue social politics.

It’s another hoop for couples to jump through, admittedly, but then it won’t take them any more time than they’ll spend taste-testing their wedding cake. 

And anyone who does jump through the hoop will be that much more likely to treat their wedding like that couple who’ll say ‘I do’ in July for second time. 

This time in Christ’s name.  

 

 

 

 

 

WV-logo_rgbIn the Church world, no matter what side you are on at some point this week you found this to be outrageous, embarrassing news.

First, World Vision, a global Christian non-profit announced it would no longer discriminate against married gay persons per the policies of their employees respective Christian denominations. Not to mention, World Vision is headquartered in a state (Washington) where gay marriage is legal, making WV a potential target for discrimination lawsuits and thereby jeopardizing the millions of children and impoverished people in the developing world aided by WV.

Not that that actually matters because droves of conservative Christians (or just plain old conservatives) responded by pulling their sponsorship of children in protest. Nice!

It’s not like Jesus ever said anything negative about those put ideological purity above compassion towards those in need.

Wait…well, crap, I guess Jesus did teach about it (See: Samaritan, Parable of)

But that’s why the epistles of Paul more important!

In response to the backlash- and understandably not wanting to throw the world’s vulnerable children under the partisan bus- World Vision reversed its decision.

That I’m sure their decision was carefully planned and discerned and backlash anticipated yet STILL the vitriol was such that they had to do an about face in 24 hours says a lot about the bullying in the American Church on this single, freaking issue.

I get that people disagree about issues of marriage, sexuality etc. I really do.

But let’s be honest.

Just the other night, I was watching the Ken Burns’ Civil War film with my boys.

Haven’t seen it since I was in Middle School. In the first episode, Sam Waterston quotes a Protestant pastor (Methodist, I think) in the South  (Virginia, I think) speaking about how due to the context of slavery the Church amended [willingly] its MARRIAGE LITURGY AND VOWS.

‘…until Death- or Distance- do us part…’

The idea that marriage has been a bible-based, a-cultural institution until only recently is patently, objectively false.

The suggestion that 2 gay Christians who are faithful to each other poses the gravest threat to said institution is repugnant when considered against other historical exigencies in which the Church as proved nimble in what constitutes “biblical marriage.”

Realizing full well that faithful Christians disagree about the issue of marriage and sexuality (as my denomination puts it), the World Vision clusterf#$% prompts me merely to point out this black/white, no wiggle room Bible Math:

# of Times the Poor Mentioned in Scripture: 400+

# of Times Homosexuality Mentioned in Scripture: 2*

*4 if I’m in a generous mood

 

r662738_4757386Perhaps not surprisingly, my sermon 2 weeks on (homo)sexuality in the Church prompted quite a few people to ask me for names and titles of reading on the matter, readings with substance and depth. My first answer is always Rowan Williams‘ 10 page essay ‘The Body’s Grace.’ It’s the best theological reflection on sexuality, marriage and grace out there. The nuance of Williams’ argument points out Stanley Hauerwas‘ contention that the Church should stop arguing about homosexuality until it figures out what we mean by ‘marriage.’

Here, Williams’ examination of sexuality through the lens of grace reveals how little popular, ‘biblical’ books on sex and marriage like Mark Driscoll‘s Real Marriage pay attention that most central of Christian doctrines.

imagesHere’s a snippet. You’ll have to click over to read the rest. It’s worth it.

But is should be clear that the discovery of joy means something rather more than the bare facts of sexual intimacy. I can only fully discover the body’s grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures.

There is more to expose, and a sustaining of the will to let oneself be formed by the perceptions of another. Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another.

The worst thing we can do with the notion of sexual fidelity, though, is to “legalise” it in such a way that it stands quite apart from the ventures and dangers of growth and is simply a public bond, enforceable by religious sanctions.

When we bless sexual unions, we give them a life, a reality, not dependent on the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved, true; but we do this so that they may have a certain freedom to “take time,” to mature and become as profoundly nurturing as they can.

We should not do it in order to create a wholly impersonal and enforceable “bond”; if we do, we risk turning blessing into curse, grace into law, art into rule-keeping. In other words, I believe that the promise of faithfulness, the giving of unlimited time to each other, remains central for understanding the full “resourcefulness” and grace of sexual union.

I simply don’t think we’d grasp all that was involved in the mutual transformation of sexually linked persons without the reality of unconditional public commitments: more perilous, more demanding, more promising.

Yet the realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly.

Decisions about sexual lifestyle are about how much we want our bodily selves to mean rather than what emotional needs we’re meeting or what laws we’re satisfying. “Does this mean that we are using faith to undermine law? By no means: we are placing law itself on a firmer footing” (Romans 3.31): happily there is more to Paul than the (much quoted in this context) first chapter of Romans!

I have suggested that the presence or absence of the body’s grace has a good deal to do with matters other than the small scale personal. It has often been said, especially by feminist writers, that the making of my body into a distant and dangerous object, to be either subdued or placated with rapid gratification is the root of sexual oppression.

I cannot make sense of myself without others, cannot speak until I’ve listened, cannot love myself without being the object of love or enjoy myself without being the cause of joy.

Thinking about sexuality in its fullest implications involves thinking about entering into a sense of oneself beyond the customary imagined barrier between the “inner” and the “outer” the private and the shared.

We are led into the knowledge that our identity is being made in the relations of bodies, not by the private exercise of will or fantasy: we belong with and to each other, not to our “private” selves (as Paul said of mutual sexual commitment), and yet are not instruments for each other’s gratification.

There is something basic, then as Freud intuited, about how we make sense sexually, basic for the fabric of corporate human life. But beyond the whole question of how the body’s grace is discovered is a further, very elusive question.

Sex is risky and grace is not discovered by all; and there is something frightening and damaging about the kind of sexual mutuality on which everything comes to depend – that is why it matters to locate sexual union in a context that gives it both time and space, that allows it not to be everything.

But, as I hinted earlier, the body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption.

To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.

lt is perhaps because of our need to keep that perspective clear before us that the community needs some who are called beyond or aside from the ordinary patterns of sexual relation to put their identities direct into the hands of God in the single life. This is not an alternative to the discovery of the body’s grace.

All those taking up the single vocation – whether or not they are, in the disagreeable clinical idiom, genitally intact – must know something about desiring and being desired if their single vocation is not to be sterile and evasive.

Their decision (as risky as the commitment to sexual fidelity) is to see if they can find themselves, their bodily selves, in a life dependent simply upon trust in the generous delight of God – that other who, by definition, cannot want us to supply deficiencies in the bliss of a divine ego, but whose whole life is a “being-for,” a movement of gift.

There is the great freedom of the celibate mystic in deploying the rhetoric of erotic love in speaking of God; and, even more importantly, there is that easy acceptance of the body, its needs and limitations, which we find in mature celibates, like Teresa of Avila in her last years.

Whatever the cost, this vocation stands as an essential part of the background to understanding the body’s grace: paradoxical as it sounds, the celibate calling has, as one aspect of its role in the Christian community, the nourishing and enlarging of Christian sexuality.

It’s worth wondering why so little of the agitation about sexual morality and the status of homosexual men and women in the Church in recent years has come from members of our religious orders. I strongly suspect that a lot of celibates do indeed have a keener sensitivity about these matters than some of their married fellow Christians.

And anyone who knows the complexities of the true celibate vocation would be the last to have any sympathy with the extraordinary idea that sexual orientation is an automatic pointer to the celibate life; almost as if celibacy before God is less costly, even less risky, for the homosexual than the heterosexual.

It is impossible, when we’re trying to reflect on sexuality, not to ask just where the massive cultural and religious anxiety about same-sex relationships that is so prevalent at the moment comes from; and in this final part I want to offer some thoughts about this problem.

I wonder whether it is to do with the fact that same-sex relations oblige us to think directly about bodiliness and sexuality in a way that socially and religiously sanctioned heterosexual unions don’t. When we’re thinking about the latter, there are other issued involved notably what one neo-Marxist sociologist called the ownership of the means of production of human beings.

Married sex has, in principle, an openness to the more tangible goals of producing children; its “justification” is more concrete than what I’ve been suggesting as the inner logic and process of the sexual relation itself.

If we can set the movement of sexual desire within this larger purpose, we can perhaps more easily accommodate the embarrassment and insecurity of desire: it’s all in a good cause, and a good cause that can be visibly and plainly evaluated in its usefulness and success.

Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff’, but – just as worryingly – of non-functional joy: or, to put it less starkly, joy whose material “production” is an embodied person aware of grace.

It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. lf the creator were quite so instrumentalist in “his” attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy… ?

The odd thing is that this sense of meaning for sexuality beyond biological reproduction is the one foremost in the biblical use of sexual metaphors for God’s relation to humanity.

Let No One Tear Asunder

Jason Micheli —  February 3, 2014 — 14 Comments

1391011150566.cachedThis weekend I concluded our marriage sermon series by reflecting on how the issue of marriage, in particular homosexuality, threatens to split the United Methodist Church.

In it, I tried to survey the four broad perspectives that exist within the larger Church and within my own congregation, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each view. Ephesians 2.13-22 was my text.

Here’s the audio. You can also download it in iTunes or, better yet, download the free mobile app.

 

      1. Let No One Tear Asunder

A Case for Gay Marriage

Jason Micheli —  February 1, 2014 — 5 Comments

RogersThis weekend I will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the marriage debate in the larger Church and unpacking the divergent perspectives in a fair way.

To prepare, I thought I would post a pro/con series of posts by written by former teachers of mine at UVA whom I respect immensely and whose work has shaped me.

Today, it’s an argument from Eugene Rogers, whose book, Sexuality and the Christian Body, is the best theological treatment of marriage in general that I’ve discovered.

Rogers was my very first theology teacher, my very first religion professor. I didn’t go to college thinking I’d be doing this with my life and I wouldn’t be had he never entered my life and ignited my curiosity about God.

Here it is:

I want to consider gay marriage by first reflecting on the theology of marriage, and I want to reflect on the theology of marriage under the rubric of sanctification. This approach is consistent with the tradition of the Orthodox Church, which regards marriage as a way of participating in the divine life not by way of sexual satisfaction but by way of ascetic self-denial for the sake of more desirable goods. Theologically understood, marriage is not primarily for the control of lust or for procreation. It is a discipline whereby we give ourselves to another for the sake of growing in holiness — for, more precisely, the sake of God.

In this respect marriage and monasticism are two forms of the same discipline, as the Orthodox writer Paul Evdokimov has argued. They are both ways of committing ourselves to others — a spouse or a monastic community — from whom we cannot easily escape. Both the monastic and the married give themselves over to be transformed by the perceptions of others; both seek to learn, over time, by the discipline of living with others something about how God perceives human beings.

Rowan Williams has written, “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s [Son] makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created [and we marry] so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.” Like all forms of asceticism, this is a high-risk endeavor. It can expose the worst in people — so that it can be healed.

Sexuality, in short, is for sanctification, that is, for God. It is to be a means by which God catches human beings up into the community of God’s Spirit and the identity of God’s child. Monogamy and monasticism are two ways of embodying features of the triune life in which God initiates, responds to and celebrates love.

Monasticism is for people who find a bodily, sexual sanctification first and foremost in the desirous perception of God. Marriage is for people who find themselves transformed by the desirous perception of another human being made in God’s image. In a marital or monastic community, the parties commit themselves to practicing faith, hope and charity in a situation in which those virtues get plenty of opportunity to be exercised.

This way of understanding the Christian life obviously takes seriously the embodied character of human life. And embodiment implies diversity. The Holy Spirit characteristically rests on bodies: the body of Christ in Jesus, in the church, in the sacraments and in the saints. As the Spirit forms the bodies of human beings into the body of Christ, she characteristically gathers the diverse and diversifies the corporate, making members of one body.

We can see the Holy Spirit working for a harmonious diversity as she hovers over the waters in creation. Let us suppose that “Be fruitful and multiply” applies to the commands “Let the earth put forth vegetation” and “Let the waters bring forth swarms” and “Let the earth bring forth everything that creeps upon the ground” (Gen.1:26, 1:11, 1:20, 1:24). In all these cases, the earth and the waters bring forth things different from themselves, not just more dirt and more water. And in all these cases, they bring forth a variety of things: one might almost translate the phrase as “Be fruitful and diversify.”

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke. Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it. The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke? Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons? Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit. But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question. And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side. It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness? Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others. Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another. Says Williams:

“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us to so order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.”

Perhaps the signal case of the blessing of diversity is God’s promise to Abraham that by him all the nations of the earth would become blessings to one another (Gen. 18:18). The promise to Abraham interprets “otherness” as primarily moral, in the sense that the other is the one that sanctifies — difference is intended for blessing.

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates. But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

For large sections of various Christian traditions, blessing does not float overhead. Sanctification comes through concrete practices of asceticism, a discipline or training through which lesser goods serve greater ones. This asceticism is not a bizarre, antiquated Christian weirdness. Americans are already deeply if sometimes mistakenly invested in one kind of asceticism: dieting and working out at the gym are physical disciplines that are supposed to bring spiritual benefits. Indeed, they are supposed by some to bring the greatest of these, love. Surely there are more effective disciplines than those.

To reflect trinitarian holiness, sanctification must involve community. It involves commitments to a community from which one can’t easily escape, whether monastic, nuptial or congregational. (The New Testament devalues commitments to one’s family of origin.) Even hermits and solitaries tend to follow the liturgy, the community’s prayer. The first hermit, Anthony the Great, emerged from solitude with an increased sociality, so that people were drawn to him. His “heart had achieved total transparency to others” (in the words of Peter Brown).

Gay and lesbian people who commit themselves to a community — to a church, or to one another as partners — do so to seek greater goods, to embark upon a discipline, to donate themselves to a greater social meaning. Living out these commitments under conditions of sin, in a community from which one can’t easily escape — especially a community such as marriage, and monasticism — is not likely to be straightforwardly improving. The community from which one can’t easily escape is morally risky. It tends to expose the worst in people. The hope is that community exposes the worst in people in order that the worst can be healed.

Christians will see such healing as the work of Christ. Many Christian traditions portray Christ as a physician who must probe people’s wounds in order to heal them. For example, St. Romanos the Melodist offers this account of Christ explaining his mission to his mother at the foot of the cross:

Be patient a little longer, Mother, and you will see how, like a physician, . . . I treat their wounds, cutting with the lance their calluses and their scabs. And I take [the] vinegar, I apply it as astringent to the wound, when with the probe of the nails I have investigated the cut, I shall plug it with the cloak. And, with my cross as a splint, I shall make use of it, Mother, so that you may chant with understanding, “By suffering he has abolished suffering, my Son and my God” (from On the Lament of the Mother of God).

For the risk of commitment to be worth it and to have the best chance of success, the community must have plenty of time and be made up of the right sort of people. Growth takes a lifetime. The right sort of people are those who will succeed in exposing and healing one another’s flaws.

For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires. The crucial question is, What sort of created diversity will lead one to holiness?

The answer is no doubt as various as creation itself. But certainly same-sex couples find the right spur to vulnerability, self-exposure, and the long and difficult commitment over time to discover themselves in the perceptions of another — they find all this in someone of the same sex. Theologically, says theologian David McCarthy, a homosexual orientation is this: “Gay men and lesbians are persons who encounter the other (and thus themselves) in relation to persons of the same sex.” Some people, therefore, are called to same-sex partnerships for their own sanctification. Opposite-sex partnerships wouldn’t work for them, because those would evade rather than establish the right kind of transformative vulnerability.

The difference between members of a same-sex couple is not “merely psychological,” but also an embodied difference, if only because sexual response is nothing if not something done bodily. Difference cannot be reduced to male-female complementarity, because that would leave Jesus a deficient human being. Jesus did not need a female other half to be fully human. (This point raises the issue of what singleness is for, but that’s a question for another day.)

If this account is correct, then it turns out that conservatives wish to deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification. But that is contradictory, because so far as I know no conservative has ever seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than cross-sex couples do. It is at least contradictory to attempt in the name of holiness to deprive people of the means of their own sanctification,

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways. It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings. I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion. I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast to his son, and sent his servants to those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.” But they made light of it and went off . . . Then he said to his servants, . . . “Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find. And . . . so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt. 22:1-13).

Not to celebrate same-sex weddings may also be morally dangerous.

1391011150566.cachedThis weekend we will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the current marriage debate in the larger Church, particularly around the issue of homosexuality. 
Adam Hamilton, author of Love to Stay, recently sponsored a motion at General Conference, the United Methodist Church’s international gathering, which stated that faithful United Methodists disagree on our understanding of homosexuality but that we’ll continue trying to find ways to work together. 

 
The intent this weekend will be to examine the various perspectives that exist within the larger Church and our own congregation, and to do so in a fair way so that those who agree with a particular position would recognize it as their own.
We hope that, by offering a charitable reflection on this issue, church members will be empowered to think critically about the merits and shortcomings of each perspective and to imagine a hopeful way forward as a community of faith.
 
For those with children, we want to convey our special assurance that the content will be thoughtful and theological, not explicit in any way. 
If you have questions about the issue that you would like to hear addressed, questions you think worth raising or points that you would like to hear articulated, we would love to incorporate your feedback into the sermon.

Send me a message or leave a comment below.

Because this is an issue over which United Methodists disagree, it’s all the more important to make this time a dialogue as much as possible. 

n-t-wright

ἀδιάφορα, or adiaphora to those of you who don’t use Greek, is the theological term for:

“things indifferent.”

How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?

As John Wesley is reputed to have said about Christians and their beliefs:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.

Of course, proving that we Methodists get our doctrinal slipperyness honestly, how do you determine what is ‘essential?’

Who determines what is essential?

And perhaps most important of all: how do they determine it?

Historically, essential doctrines have always been discerned and debated over time by means of ecumenical councils. Think Nicea or Chalcedon and the creeds which they produced as a result of their consensus.

Presently, as any sentient creature knows, issues of marriage and homosexuality divide the ‘big C’ Church with passion and biblical motivation on both sides and no small amount of fatigue in the middle.

As much as those in the middle would like to move on from the issue and get about the Church’s ‘mission,’ we can’t.

As much as those on the ‘progressive’ side would like the Church to hurry up and get with the times, we can’t.

And as much as the traditional side would like to persist in its tradition and ignore the segment of her Body which believes the Holy Spirit is leading in a new direction, we can’t.

That’s because marriage- and sex within marriage- is not ἀδιάφορα. It’s a belief about which the universal Church has always held a particular, universally-held view.

It’s too important a belief, in other words, for individual churches (or individual Christians for that matter) to chart their own path.

Likewise, it’s too important a belief to ignore what many Christians believe the Holy Spirit has persuaded them about the matter.

Marriage is not ἀδιάφορα; therefore, marriage is a belief that necessarily calls out an even more essential marriage: ours to Christ. The Church’s unity.

And so, like any marriage, we’re stuck with each other for the long haul and, as in any marriage, we need to figure this out together. In conversation.

Here’s how NT Wright put it in his final address as bishop:

“Unlike the situation with children and Communion; unlike the situation with the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate; in the case of sexual relations outside the marriage of a man and a woman, the church as a whole, in all its global meetings, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. But the substantive issue isn’t the point here. 

The point is that the Church as a whole has never declared these matters to be adiaphora. This isn’t something a Bishop, a parish, a diocese, or a province can declare on its own authority. You can’t simply say that you have decided that this is something we can all agree to differ on. 

Nobody can just ‘declare’ that. The step from mandatory to optional can never itself be a local option, and the Church as a whole has declared that the case for that step has not been made. By all means let us have the debate. 

But, as before, it must be a proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices.

No doubt it isn’t perfect. But it is designed, not (as some have suggested) to close down debate or squash people into a corner, but precisely to create the appropriate space for appropriate debate in which issues of all sorts can be handled without pre-emptive strikes on the one hand or closed-minded defensiveness on the other…to recognise and work with the principle of adiaphora; and that requires that it should create a framework within which the church can be the church even as it wrestles with difficult issues, and through which the church can be united even as it is battered by forces that threaten to tear it apart.”

 

13TIMMETRODCbwThis past Saturday I spoke at the TIM Talks at Virginia Theological Seminary, a TED Talks homage sponsored by the Metro DC Synod of the Lutheran Church.

I haven’t been surrounded by that many reformed people since seminary. It turned out to be great day. Mike Gutzler and Kate Davidson, both young Lutheran pastors, organized and staged a provocative slate of speakers (myself excluded).

My contribution for ‘Ideas for 21st Century Ministry:’ The Priesthood of All Believers. I’ll post that presentation when it’s available.

Here are my three quick-ish takeaways from my experience:

  1. Theology Matters (to Lutherans):

Speaker after speaker, lay and cleric alike, on topics as diverse as glitter (seriously), elder care, chili-making and sexuality, repeatedly echoed the distinguishing feature of Luther’s theology:

Simul justus et peccator

‘at once justified and a sinner’

Each of us is simultaneously a woe-begotten sinner and justified by the grace of God offered in Jesus Christ. Each of us has within us an enormous capacity for (self) destruction and an enormous capacity for love. Each of us is always, at the same time, both sinner and saint.

Not one of us is earning our way into God’s good favor. Not one of us is climbing the spiritual ladder. Not one of us is ‘improving’ in any way that’s meaningful from infinity’s perch.

We’re all accepted just as we are by the grace of God in Christ. Sheer gift.

And the only way to respond to a gift is…gratitude.

In its worst forms, Luther’s theology can lead to a ‘it doesn’t matter’ attitude towards the virtues, spiritual life and lived faith.

In its best forms, on display this Saturday, it leads to Christ-centered humility, radical hospitality and parable-like inclusivity.

This single event is hardly an objective survey, but I did also spend 3 years of seminary with Calvinists, which leads me to this conclusion:

Theology matters to Reformed Christians in a way that it does not to Methodists.

This could be explained by the fact that John Wesley never set out to deviate from Anglicanism in any meaningful way or to the fact that he wrote only occasional, ‘practical,’ works and never sat down to compose a thoroughgoing systematic theology. But then, Martin Luther wasn’t really a systematic theologian either.

Whatever the reasons, the TIM Talks on Saturday couldn’t have been more different than most United Methodist conferences and the like which I’ve attended.

For Lutherans, their core theological convictions really do guide and inform their worldview. Typically at United Methodist gatherings what’s emphasized is not our theological identity.

Instead what you’re likely to hear emphasized is our ‘connectional system,’ the administrative structure which yokes all individual congregations together to accomplish the ‘big C’ Church’s mission- an administrative structure, it should be noted, that is shared by all traditions save Baptists and Pentecostals.

You’ll also hear themes of social justice lauded as distinctively Wesleyan which is demonstrably not true. To think Methodists have the corner on living out our faith is silly.

In our worst times, United Methodist gatherings will praise the itinerancy, the system by which pastors are sent (not hired or called by) to local congregations. I don’t disagree with itinerancy, but the TIM Talks on Saturday reaffirm my fears that we Methodists have made our methods of administration more determinative for our identity than our founding, core convictions.

2. German is Cooler:

Every denomination has its birth stories, its insider jargon and lame, churchy humor.

Methodists make jokes about circuit-riders and 3-point charges and ‘moving day’ (see above: itinerancy). Sophisticated Methodists might lampoon our belief in perfection.

The problem: all those insider jokes are in everyday, pedestrian English.

I recall enough high school German to think all of the above would sound infinitely more sophisticated in Deutsch.

Saturday, surrounded by Lutherans, I was also surrounded by insider jokes- particularly in reference to Martin’s famed constipation-induced, Reformation-provoking epiphany.

But in German…it all sounds cooler.

Plus, there’s the whole teetotaling (thank you United Methodist Women…not) vs. bier-drinking tradition.

3. The Gay (non) Issue:

No speaker wants to go last in a long line of speakers, and no speaker wants to follow a dynamite, creative speaker.

That’s what happened to me, but I’m grateful nonetheless.

The speaker before me was Rev. Megan Rohrer, the first openly gay clergywoman in the Lutheran Church. She works in San Francisco with the homeless. Again and again in her 18 minutes talk it was clear: she’s just an ordinary Christian doing ordinary ministry as an ordinary pastor. She doesn’t want or seek anything but the recognition given to every other ordinary person. Megan-Rohrer

My friend Morgan Guyton recently wrote that his experience in the ordination process gives him hope that the Church will be okay despite our differences.

My time on Saturday, especially listening to Megan and watching the reception to her, also gives me hope.

I had friends in seminary who were gay and whose call to ministry was clear but whose eventual ordination, at the time, was highly in doubt.

I have Methodist friends in seminary who are gay and whose call to ministry is clear but whose eventual ordination, at this time, is in doubt.

What I do not presently have are clergy colleagues who happen to be (openly) gay. I’ve long believed that any Church that baptizes gay Christians into should be prepared to ordain them for ministry.

In my own denomination, the debate over sexuality continues all the while beset by a ‘what will come of the church’ hand-wringing.

Gay clergy strikes the majority of Methodist-casters as an extraordinary impossibility. Indeed ours is a denomination where even a vote aimed at acknowledging our denominational divide on the issue failed for fear of appearing to placate the ‘pro-gay’ agenda.

By contrast, the TIM Talks on Saturday were my first experience of a clergy gathering with gay clergy in attendance and other clergy who saw them only as colleagues and a bishop who thought their sexuality not worth even commenting upon.

Though the quality of her presentation was worth noting.

I’m under no illusions about how painful, difficult and costly was the path the Lutheran Church chose, but I can say that what’s on the other side of that decision isn’t extraordinary at all.

It’s very, very ordinary.

And that is exactly how they would like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pastorial_2425_Waselchuk1384735747Since so many of my peers, readers and FB friends occupy that rapidly evaporating niche of American culture that is United Methodism, I’ve got no firm grip on whether the rest of you have heard about the trial of Rev. Frank Shaefer in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Church trial, that is.

Aside: That the United Methodist Church has a judicial system that virtually mirrors, in every jot and tittle, not the Gospel of Matthew but the American system of justice should give you pause and is itself a good indicator of the problems besetting our particular brand of Jesus-following.

Rev Frank’s offense (sedition is a more apt term)?

Officiating the wedding ceremony of two gay men.

Oh- it might seem relevant to the empathetic among you- one of the two grooms is Frank’s son, Tim.

Whereas the Catholic Church makes news when Pope Francis kisses the cheeks of a modern day leper or some other Jesusy act, the UMC makes news when it asserts for the umpteenth time how much we don’t like gay people.

Just last year, for example, at our international gathering called ‘General Conference,’ we made news for being incapable of acknowledging publicly what everyone knows to be true: that Christians of good heart and faith disagree on the issue of homosexuality.

Now, I’m no liberal.

Typically, I have little patience for pastors with an ego-driven need to be ‘prophetic,’ derailing the Great Commission in their local congregation for their own activist mission.

What’s frustrating is that Rev. Frank appears to be an exception.

He didn’t marry his son to make a stand. He married his son because he loves his son.

What instead instigated the ecclesial trial is as depressing as it is cliche:

disputes between older, lifelong members of his church vs newer, younger members

traditional worship devotees vs contemporary worship aficionados

and- to the surprise of 0 pastors out there- the dismissal of a choir director

with more tenure and fans than the pastor

Rev. Frank didn’t make a stand by officiating a gay wedding. Months and months went by without any one in his church knowing he had done so.

Instead church people looking to undermine him, for reasons having more to do with liturgy than lifestyle, went digging for dirt.

The painting-into-a-corner result?

They’ve made Rev. Frank exactly what he was not the day he said ‘dearly beloved’ to his son and his son’s beloved:

an activist.

Issues of theology, biblical interpretation and sexuality aside….this is what I can say without equivocation:

News stories like this one piss me off.

Why?

My usual snark and cynicism aside, I actually believe the United Methodist Church- strike that, the Wesleyan tradition- is uniquely positioned to offer the 21st century a compelling vision of Christianity.

I actually believe we have a fruit-bearing future if only the Pharisees hell bent on safeguarding the UMC would stop and desist.

Unlike many other flavors of Mainline Christianity, Methodists believe in the Bible.

Nay, we believe in God, a living God.

We believe God speaks as much today as God ever did in bearded, bible times. And we believe the Bible is the reliable mode of God’s communication to us. Wherever else God may speak or appear or tease, we believe scripture is as regular and reliable as a bus stop.

But unlike so many brands of Christianity, Methodists don’t believe the Bible has to be interpreted woodenly.

It’s not a dead text; it’s a living text because we believe Holy Spirit is but another name for God. We Methodists, on our best days, are neither literalists nor cretins. We worship Father, Son and Spirit not page 3, 46 or verse 9.

Likewise, Methodists don’t believe God lies to us.

We believe all truth is God’s truth. If our intellect, if science, if reason, if our human experience, if the experience of other believers or non-believers tells us something about God’s world we don’t have to dismiss it as wrong, demonic, false or unbiblical. If it’s true, it’s true.

In a culture that increasingly sees Christianity as anti-intellectual, Methodism is a made to order alternative.

Contrary to many shy, mainline Christian traditions, we Methodists are a repentance-preaching, conversion-measuring sect. We expect that turning towards Jesus means you turn away from other things.

In an American culture captive to greed and individualism, Methodism could be a made to order alternative.

Distinct from our evangelical friends, Methodism is sacramental and liturgical (at least on paper).

We believe the prayers of the saints are probably better than a ‘Fatherweejust..’ prayer. We believe bread and wine are the best conveyors of God’s grace and should be taken as much as freaking possible. We believe in them Jesus makes good on his word and is really present to us in the Eucharist and unlike our Catholic friends we don’t bother trying to figure out how that’s possible. With God, after all, all things are possible and this, as luck would have it, makes Methodism the perfect tradition for a postmodern culture yearning for the mysterious and transcendent.

Like many of other Jesus brands, we believe we’re saved by grace through faith. Unlike many of those brands, we believe the proof is in the pudding. That you very likely do not have faith in God’s grace if you’re not practicing, embodying, doing God’s grace for others. For the poor.

In a culture that hungers to make a difference by serving others, by serving the poor, the followers of John Wesley are obvious candidates to take the Jesus torch into the next century.

The UMC is perfectly positioned for the century unfolding before us.

Except…

A simple Google search of ‘United Methodism’ earlier today resulted in a full 3 pages devoted to how we believe “homosexuals are persons of sacred worth” just as long as they don’t desire to express their humanity in any of the ways normal humans do.

Again, I’m no liberal.

Aside: when the US Military is more liberal than the UMC…

that’s saying something.

I believe in scripture.

I get the need for Church order. I get the need for ecclesial discipline.

But I also believe in a Savior who routinely violated his own church discipline (See: Mark, Gospel of)

And I get that this is a losing demographic issue for the UMC and, however you feel about homosexuality, being ‘right’ on this issue is not worth the cost of whole generations not hearing the Gospel because Google et all only communicate what/who we’re against.

Not what/who we’re for.

Rev Frank is only now being tried for a wedding that took place years ago.

My oldest son is a year or so away from puberty so let the UMC be warned…

Should it happen that he discovers he’s gay in the same unintended way I realized I wasn’t…and should it happen he finds love worth a lifetime…and should he ask me to…

There’s no way I’d say no.

And dammit, I don’t care what (you think) Paul said: I’m betting the house Jesus would understand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

james_dobson_756079At a friend’s house for dinner recently, someone compared me to Anthony Bourdain or, rather, called me the Anthony Bourdain of the Church world.

Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and host of No Reservations, brings a dark cynical eye, soul of a poet, biting tongue and sometimes bigger heart to the culinary world. Bourdain can bring crappy cooks to tears for their sloppy ways but then around and wax poetic about the Jersey sliders of his youth.

Simply put, it was the most flattering comparison any one has ever made about me. I was on cloud 9 for days.

But then came this comparison from the blogosphere, contrasting me with James Dobson, the blowhard Pharisee who heads of Focus on the Family. Dobson got his start peddling his own particular brand of ‘use the rod, beat the child’ common sense psychology and today serves as the unelected Caiphus of Texas.

As the article rightly notes, I’m not in Dobson’s league at all- but I really like the comparison.

The article is from Slacktivist, arguing that what really defines evangelicalism today isn’t biblicism or orthodox belief but strident antipathy toward homosexuality:

james_dobson.06.01.07_lrgWhite evangelicals who are like that are completely secure in their place within the subculture. They get speaking gigs, tenure, book deals and constant affirmation from throughout the larger white evangelical community. Their standing within the tribe is unquestioned, unchallenged and  not “controversial.” But those of us who aren’t like that are, at best, treated as “controversial” and only semi-legitimate members of the tribe. We aren’t usually even allowed to say that we’re part of us.

The tribe draws its own boundaries. That’s done by the gatekeepers within the tribe — not by some conspiratorial “narrative advanced by the news and entertainment media.”

Those rabidly political types who claim to represent all of white evangelicalism are allowed to do so. The tribal gatekeepers never refer to Tony Perkins or James Dobson or Pat Robertson as “post-evangelical” conservatives. Yet folks like Brian McLaren or Jay Bakker are routinely classified as no longer legitimate members of the tribe.

The message there is clear: Rabidly political evangelicals who revile LGBT people in the most vicious terms remain welcome in the tribe. Bible-quoting, Jesus-loving evangelicals who refuse to condemn LGBT people have crossed a boundary and are no longer welcome. The news and entertainment media did not create that boundary, the tribal gatekeepers did.

Or, to put it another way: Here is Jason Micheli’s response to the Supreme Court rulings on marriage equality. Here is James Dobson’s response. One of those men is an evangelical icon, was the subject of a hagiographic Christianity Today cover story, and his books can be found in the homes of millions of white evangelicals. The other is not regarded as an evangelical at all, even though he’d fit any Bebbington-style theological definition anyone would care to use.

Such theological definitions don’t matter. You will never be branded as “controversial” or banished from the evangelical tribe for insufficient biblicism. Or because your enthusiasm for crucicentrism, conversionism or missional activism is regarded as suspect. But if you’re feminist or pro-gay, you’re out. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Bebbington, schmebbington. The tribe defines itself: An evangelical is a white Protestant who opposes legal abortion and homosexuality. Period.

You can read the full article here.

cake_topper_c-445x287-300x193This past weekend I said ‘dearly beloved…’ to a small gathering in our hot, stuffy church library (ac wasn’t working/sanctuary was closed for roof repairs) as a couple who’d already been married in the Caribbean took the vows again before God and God’s gathered church.

They bothered with the trouble of planning yet another wedding service and they suffered the weather and the unromantic decor because it was that important for them to have an overtly Christian ceremony celebrated in their church by their pastor.

Do I have to connect the dots? …… They are NOT the bride and groom norm.

Among pastors, I’m hardly alone or prophetic in arguing that the partisan debate over DOMA and homosexuality obscures a far more troubling and seismic shift happening in plain sight, in black and white font, on the pages of the NY Times wedding announcements.

Namely, the waxing of secular wedding rites and the waning of liturgical ceremonies officiated by a genuine clergy person who wasn’t credentialed via the internet.

Many Christian conservatives bemoan with biblical fervor how quickly the culture has shifted on homosexuality.

Far fewer seem to have even noticed that, just as quickly, the culture has shifted to the point where a non-religious friend getting vested online by American Marriage Ministries to perform your wedding ‘event’ is no longer considered a joke.

While Christians battle over sexuality, secularism- which doesn’t dissipate with age and libido- takes ever deeper root.

Fleming Rutledge, my paramour in another life I’m certain, observes:

Setting aside the discussion about same-sex weddings, let’s take a look at what’s happening on the male-female front. The New York Times for Sunday, June 2, 2013, has notices of 34 such weddings. The overwhelming majority of them were held at “event spaces.” The Roman Catholics are holding their own, as usual; three of the weddings were held at a Roman Catholic church with a priest presiding. Several rabbis presided at weddings held in various secular “venues.” There was only one wedding held at a church with the church pastor presiding, and that one–wouldn’t you know–was held in the South.

Most remarkable, though, is the long list of non-denominational officiants. They include numerous “Universal Life” ministers and “American Marriage Ministries” ministers (“a friend of the couple became a Universal Life minister for the event”), 2 ministers of the Church of Human Spiritualism, and a minister of the World Christianship Ministries (Google that one to get a shock).

Granted, the list of couples chosen for the New York Times is hardly representative of the rest of the country–or even the city itself. But given all the beautiful New York City churches that used to be the scenes for weddings, and all the hard-working clergy of this city, one would think that we could do a better job.

Such is the power of the cultural trends.

How did these Universal Life “ministers” achieve this status all of a sudden?

How can anyone take that seriously? Wouldn’t you think that would be a joke?

During the 14 years that I was on the clergy staff at Grace Church in New York (1981-1995), I started counting the number of married couples who had met at the church. I stopped counting at 50. Most of them were married at Grace Church and all of them at a church somewhere. All were married by a member of the clergy (need I say legitimate clergy). Most–though, granted, not all–are still married. Am I bragging? not really, since the circumstances at Grace in those years were truly remarkable and God-given. However, I think a case can be made for the help given to couples by a strong grounding in the church.

This business of do-it-yourself weddings speaks volumes about the unmoored, self-created ethos of the institution of marriage today. This is a very serious matter for families and for our society as a whole. May God bless all those who are working hard to strengthen marriages in the context of religious faith and Christian community.

largeThat liberal Christians do not pay appropriate deference to scripture is certainly a common assumption among Christians on the other end of the spectrum, and, as Derek Penwell points out, that assumption is something of a hermeneutical dodge.

A friend brought this article to my attention:

I’d had a long day talking to young ministers and seminarians. So, when I lowered myself into the jacuzzi at the hotel, I wasn’t looking for conversation. I just wanted to let the heat work its magic.

Apparently, though, the gray haired man in an over-sized NASCAR t-shirt misread my closed eyes and generally round-shouldered posture as a signal that I was in the market for a little friendly fellow traveler chinwag.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“Louisville.”

“I love how you people from Looey-ville say it. Say it again.”

“Looh-a-vul,” I said, playing along.

“That’s it! I love that! What brings you out to California?”

“I was giving a talk to some young ministers and seminarians at Claremont.”

He gave me a knowing look. “If you’re a church guy, you don’t want to spend any more time in California than you have to. It’s Obama country out here, full of liberals. And I’ve got a pretty good idea about your politics, being a church guy and all. I suspect your political leanings are pretty much like mine: starts with an ‘R’ and not a ‘D.’

Apparently finding a response from me unnecessary, he plowed on. “Yeah, this state is a Mecca (sly wink) for lefties. You probably heard we got gay marriage here again (exaggerated eye-roll). And I know how you feel about that. Am I right?”

This time I didn’t wait for him not to wait for me: “Actually, I’m proud to be in California on this historic day when marriage for all people begins again in earnest.” And, being unable to help myself, I said, “I suspect God’s proud of California today, too.”

At that point, the discussion hit something of a lull, which wasn’t my intent, but a fact I considered serendipitous nevertheless. My conversation partner quickly excused himself, and I went back to staring at the inside of my eyelids.

As I sat there soaking in the jets of heated water, I recalled an exchange I’d had with a seminary president about this very issue earlier in the day. The seminary president made the comment that those Christians who support the full inclusion of LGBT people have done a lousy job over the past twenty years disabusing people of the mistaken notion that one can be supportive of LGBT people or one can believe the Bible — but not both at the same time.

He’s right, you know — the seminary president. My exchange with the jacuzzi conservative only served to illustrate the casual assumption that Christian support of LGBT folks is a hermeneutical dodge … “because, you know, everybody understands that the Bible says God hates gay people (Well, God doesn’t hate gay people; God hates the sin and not the sinner — just like we do. You know what we mean.).”

Unfortunately, all too well.

But here’s the thing: Liberal Christians love the Bible. No, seriously. We love the Bible. We just refuse to treat it as though it is a set of timeless golden tablets that says all that needs to be said once and for all about everything of importance. (It doesn’t say anything, for instance, about why the Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series in over 100 years.)

We liberals refuse to treat the Bible as a casuistical rule book for every conceivable eventuality, or as a precise blue print for every possible organizational contingency.

Liberal Christians aren’t liberal in spite of the Bible, but because of it. They don’t pursue justice for LGBT people because they haven’t read Scripture, but precisely because they have. And in the arc of the narrative of God’s interaction with humanity, liberal Christians find a radical expansiveness, an urgent desire to broaden the embrace of God’s hospitality to include those whom the religious big shots are always kicking to the sidelines.

In fact, on behalf of liberal Christians, I’m calling for a moratorium on the Liberals-hate-the-Bible meme. I’d like to suggest that the burden of proof should be on those who would read the Hebrew prophets and the Jesus of the Gospels and come away thinking that God has no problem tightening the screws on the abused and the powerless:

“Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden … and I will make sure that, until you get your life together to suit Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee, your weariness and heavy laden-ness will increase exponentially.”

Look. If Christians are ever going to establish credibility with anyone besides themselves, they’re going to have to start reading the Bible through the same eyes as the people with whom Jesus spent most of his time–those folks whom the religious power brokers are convinced don’t quite measure up.

The problem with assuming liberal Christians hate the Bible isn’t just that it fails to take liberals seriously, but that it fails to take the Bible seriously.

Cue eye-rolling.

 

largeA number of you have asked me my thoughts on the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling last week. I’m not sure if I have anything new to say on the topic. You can search for previous posts on the blog or scroll through the ones here.

Rather than rehashing previous essays, I thought I’d offer you these thoughts from Adam Hamilton, the de facto pontifex maximus of the UMC. Usually, I’m left nonplussed by the fiercely moderate tone Hamilton strikes in his writing and speaking; it’s often pastoral to the point of being vanilla.

Here in this pastoral letter, however, I think Hamilton hits just the right notes while being both clear and bold.

I’m sitting in front of my computer today finishing a chapter on the New Testament epistles for my new book on Making Sense of the Bible. The chapter is called, “Reading Someone Else’s Mail.” In it I am trying to help the reader understand the importance of reading and interpreting the 21 New Testament epistles in the light of the culture and circumstances in which they were written. The New Testament letters were written to answer questions, to give instruction and pastoral guidance, and to address concerns among first century Christians living throughout the Roman Empire.

To help readers think about what a difference time and culture make in one’s perspective and the kind of advice, guidance and instruction one might give, I invited readers to imagine a Christian leader writing a letter to Christians in America in 1950 versus the same leader writing today.

In 1950 the Cold War was going on and the Soviet Union was our enemy. In 1950, 3 out of 4 college grads were men and women were seldom found in leadership positions even in the church (women could not be ordained pastors in the Methodist Church until 1956). Separate But Equal had been the accepted norm for the races since the 1896 Supreme Court Ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson so that even in Kansas City African Americans could not swim in the public pools with white children. This norm was accepted by most white Christians. Though in 1948 the Supreme Court rendered them unenforceable, deed restrictions continued to keep Jews and other minorities from purchasing homes in many of the more desirable neighborhoods in our city. All of this in a “Christian” culture where more than 90% of the people who wrote the laws considered themselves Christians.

The world has changed a great deal in 63 years. The Soviet Union no longer exists, more than half of all college grads today are women, “Separate but Equal” is unthinkable to most Christians, and no one would dream of deed restrictions to separate people of different religion or race from a community. But many Christians could not imagine the world we live in today back in 1950.

How different our world is today from the first century Roman world. Yet often we read the New Testament as though the letters of the apostles were speaking directly to us. They do speak powerfully to our time, but there are elements of the letters that are clearly shaped by the cultural norms of the times. Slavery and the subordination of women are two of these norms reflected in the New Testament which 21st century Christians no longer believe reflect God’s heart and character even though they are recognized in the New Testament epistles.

One of the things that precipitated my decision to write this book on scriptures is the conflict over homosexuality in the church. As I’ve taught our congregation, within the Christian faith the question of homosexuality is not a question of biblical authority, but biblical interpretation. Both conservatives and liberals agree that there are places where the Bible reflects the cultural norms and needs of the times rather than the timeless will of God. Even the apostles recognized this, as we see in Acts 15 when they decided that most of the Law of Moses – the early church’s Bible – was no longer binding upon Christians. The apostles were recognizing that the needs of the children of Israel, and the expectations of God for his people were different in the first century than when Moses had led the Israelites 1,300 years earlier. The apostles continued to value the law of Moses and saw much of it as timeless, but there were sections they believed were no longer applicable.

The question conservatives, moderates and liberals in the church disagree upon is whether the handful of verses on same-sex intimacy, are like the passages on slavery, women’s subordination and those sections of the Law of Moses the apostles set aside.

This week there were three news making events that were focused on this issue. The first was a week ago when Alan Chambers, the President of Exodus International, publicly apologized for the ways that Exodus had hurt gay and lesbian people in its work. It’s board then voted unanimously to close down the ministry. Exodus International was founded 37 years ago and was the leading advocate in America of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy in which they held out the hope that same-sex attraction could be “cured.” You can read Chambers’ remarkable apology here. This created waves within large sections of the Christian community.

Then on Wednesday of this week the Supreme Court issued two decisions related to homosexuality. The first was concerning a case brought by 84-year-old Edith Windsor who was partner with Thea Spyer for 44 years. They married in 2007. When Thea died in 2009 the Federal Government did not recognize them as married because of the Defense of Marriage Act, despite the fact that the State of New York did recognize their marriage. Consequently Edith had to pay estate taxes on half of their shared property – something that married couples do not have to do when one mate dies. Edith paid $363,000 to the IRS and $275,000 to New York (who recognizes gay marriage but follows IRS tax practices).

The Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that applied to this case and thus the Federal Government had to recognize a legal marriage because it was legally recognized in the State of New York and must return the taxes paid.

Had Edith lived in Kansas or Missouri she would have still been required to pay the estate tax as though she and Theo were not married because neither state recognizes same sex marriages from other states. The Supreme Court’s ruling has no effect on what happens in Kansas and Missouri.

The second Supreme Court decision was that private parties do not have “standing” to defend state constitutional amendments that the state itself refuses to defend. This related to Proposition 8 in California, a constitutional amendment that was passed in California with strong support from conservative and evangelical churches in 2008 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman thus overturning a state Supreme Court decision in 2008 allowing gay marriage. In essence the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday turned the case back to the lower courts, refusing to rule on its merits which had the affect of reinstituting gay marriage in California.

Because these are both limited decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court there will be more cases brought before the court in the years ahead.

There’s a major sea of change happening in our culture and world regarding our understanding of sexual orientation. Conservatives believe the church must stand its ground – its ground being an opposition to same-sex relationships. The basis for this are two Old Testament passages and three New Testament passages condemning same-sex intimacy as well as the broader model of heterosexuality found throughout the Bible.

Yet a large number of Christians are beginning to see the issue differently. This is particularly true for a younger generation of Christians.

I was recently in a meeting with ten pastors of large evangelical churches. Every one of them was wrestling with this issue in their congregation. Some were committed to “holding the line” while others were questioning, as I have been for some time, whether these passages in the scripture actually capture the heart of God toward gay and lesbian people, or if they might be more like those scripture passages that accepted slavery and the subordination of women – a reflection of historic cultural norms not necessarily the heart of God.

You can try to pretend that the issue will go away, but, as we’ve seen this week, that is highly unlikely. You can leave churches that are open to wrestling with the issue like ours in order to find churches that “hold the line.” But it seems unlikely that even those who “hold the line” will see this issue the same in the years ahead.

As a church we don’t all see eye to eye on this. Your pastors don’t all agree about this. And we’ve learned to be okay with that. We have to learn to agree to disagree on this issue as our society and the broader church are going to continue to wrestle with this issue – it is not going away and greater change is coming. As a church we’ve committed to be a place that welcomes everyone. We’ve committed to be a church where thoughtful, committed Christians on both sides will agree to disagree with respect and love.

I personally believe that twenty years from now most churches will welcome gay and lesbian families, will call gay and lesbian people to live lives of faithfulness and sacrificial love in their relationship just as they call heterosexual couples to do, and that they will see the passages on same-sex attraction as reflecting cultural norms just as the passages on slavery and on the subordination of women reflected cultural norm and not God’s heart and timeless will.

imagesIf you’re a theology nerd like me, trolling Christian blogs into the wee hours, you notice how many Christians are obsessed over the homosexuality issue. Perhaps rightly so.

Either way, the arguments tend to run one of two ways.

One line of argument is suggest that the progressive perspective runs counter to what Christians have believed over two millennia.

Another line of argument harvests writing from Paul and Acts to hold that current cultural shifts are the ongoing work of God.

Karl Barth might respond to both these arguments by asking: “Who cares?”

In concluding he prolegomena (§1.7.2-3) of his Church Dogmatics, Barth takes a last stab at keeping theology thoroughly biblical in a way that contrast with both Catholic and Modernist theology.

While Barth is aware of how theology is a deeply contextualized endeavor, he’s equally sensitive to how this fact is subject to losing the plot in one of two ways.

In one way, there is the (Catholic, Fundamentalist) danger of turning theology into a repetition of the past. Good theology becomes merely repeating what Thomas Aquinas said, say. Our understanding of what scripture is shackled to what John Calvin believed scripture said. Historical Christianity becomes tantamount to what the church today- and always- should believe and preach.

In another, equally fraught way, theology is always done within a particular culture, which can lead to us simply listening to culture as our defining standard.

This is the mistake of liberal modernism, of unreflectively assuming that what is happening in the world or in culture is equivalent to what God is doing in the world. Eventually, the danger is real that we end up with something that is no longer recognizably Christian.

The work of theology, as Barth understands it, is never simply or uncritically to affirm either what the Church once said and believed or what the world presently says and believes.

Because Christianity is always embodied by sinful people in particular locations, the faith of the past and the present must always be open to correction and criticism.

The Christianity of the past can never become what scripture is, our canon. Rather scripture must always bring the Christianity of the past and the present into critical, revealing light.

I think this is the refreshing both/and manner of Barth’s theology: a recognition that we must never be content with the faith as its been passed down to us because the Bible, as the living word of God will always correct where we have screwed up and carry us to fresh expressions in new times and places.

As you may know from this blog, I spent the Memorial Day weekend at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. That place is just one example of how the Christianity of the past got ample wrong and should not be accepted or rotely repeated without examining it in light of the converting, living Word.

We’re done with chapter 1 of the Dogmatics…on to chapter 2 and Barth’s treatment of ‘revelation.’

12EVANGELICALsub-articleLargeThis past Sunday our scripture text was Romans 3.9-20, a passage that begins with Paul reiterating the Torah’s insistence that ‘no is righteous, not one.’

Like much of what Paul writes, that phrase is meant to be a breadcrumb trailing the reader back to a story in the Hebrew Bible. In this case, Genesis 18, the story of Abraham negotiating with God over the imminent destruction of Sodom.

In my children’s story, I retold the narrative of Abraham going back and forth with God, pleading with God to spare Sodom if only 50 righteous people could be found in it…only 45 righteous people could be found…and so forth until…zero, nada.

I left out of my children’s story the actual destruction of Sodom, even I have boundaries. I don’t mind telling kids violent stories as long as its not God doing the wielding.

I also left out, to one person’s mind who was leaving worship perturbed with me, the reason for Sodom’s destruction: homosexuality.

To conflate the issue of homosexuality with the destruction of Sodom is not only a gross adventure in misreading the text, it’s simply anachronistic. It’s true a sordid little confrontation happens in Sodom in the next chapter of Genesis, an encounter from which we now unfortunately derive the word ‘sodomy,’ but that’s actually quite irrelevant as God had already determined Sodom should be destroyed.

And why was Sodom on God’s s$%^ list?

The Book of Ezekiel provides the answer, making it all the more infuriating that people read homosexuality into the passage:

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.”  

–  Ezekiel 16:49

Christians can (and do) debate homosexuality but the biblical passages that discuss homosexuality are few and, narratively, incidental.

By contrast, how God’s People relate to ‘the stranger in your land’ is a core confession of scripture.

God explicitly commands we extend compassion and care to the alien. What’s more this isn’t but one command among many but it’s rooted firmly in remembering our core identity. We love the alien in our land because once we were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Much like bread, wine, lamb and bitter herbs, our loving relationship with the immigrant recalls the Exodus story- the story of the Old Testament and the guiding metaphor in the New.

This year we kicked-off a new youth group experience for 4th and 5th graders I developed called Tribe Time, in which every session is playfully grounded in the Book of Leviticus.

While most adults shy away from it, Leviticus’ combination of gross, random imagery and moral stipulations makes it good fodder for training in the virtues.

You can check out the sessions outline for Tribe Time here: Tribe Time Sessions Outline

My point is that we have 80 kids in Tribe Time who all know that God commands us to welcome, love and respect the immigrants in our land because once we were in their shoes. And yet most church-going adults in America do not sense that immigration is in any way a theological or biblical concern.

One hears many warnings that welcoming immigrants will be the undoing of the American way of life. One does not hear many any warnings that failing to love the immigrant will be the undoing of our Christian way of life.

That this is so is but another indication, I think, that most of us are more truly formed not by the story of Israel/Christ but by the story called America.

Here’s a good, fair-minded piece from the NY TImes about how immigration is being rethought in many evangelical circles.

IMMIGRATION reform is not a liberal idea. It is good, old-fashioned conservative policy — at least that’s what its supporters want the Republican faithful to believe.

The Republican Party has “historically been pro-immigration,” Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, said after the 2012 election. The conservative National Immigration Forum declaresthat America needs reform that “celebrates freedom and values hard work.”

Some of the most enthusiastic endorsements of the new immigration bill have come from traditional evangelicals, who insist that reform “respects the God-given dignity of every person.” Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader who was among the 300 evangelicals who went to Washington last month for “a day of prayer and action for immigration reform,” said that once Republicans toned down their anti-immigrant rhetoric, Latino voters would follow.

“They’re social conservatives, hard-wired to be pro-family, religious and entrepreneurial,” he told me. Mr. Land pointed to Senator Marco Rubio as the face of this “new conservative coalition.”

“Let the Democrats be the party of dependency and ever lower expectations,” Mr. Land added. “The Republicans will be the party of aspiration and opportunity — and who better to lead the way than the son of Cuban immigrants?”

The Christian right may be too optimistic about any change in the political sympathies of Latinos. Increasing numbers tell pollsters they favor same-sex marriage, for example. But the real surprise is that evangelicals may be wrong about the unyielding conservatism of their own movement.

Evangelicals’ growing support for immigration reform suggests an important shift in how conservative Protestants — who policed the boundaries of our national identity for almost four centuries — think about what it means to be American. It may also point to the beginnings of real change in how evangelicals understand the problem of justice in a fallen world, and the challenge that Latino and other minority Christians pose to the assumptions of the culture wars.

From the anti-Catholic paranoia of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s to today’s Tea Party tirades about immigrants’ taking American jobs, each wave of nativist hysteria has had its own enthusiasms. But all have feared that newcomers would subvert democracy and sabotage citizens’ claim to the American dream. Racism often inflamed this anxiety (Benjamin Franklin worried about the influx of Germans settling in Pennsylvania and doubted that they could ever “acquire our Complexion”).

Yet the more basic fear — underlying warnings that Irish Catholics corrupted elections by voting in blocs or, more recently, that undocumented Mexicans and their “anchor babies” sponge off the welfare state — has always been this: These foreigners don’t respect our values and if we let them in, they will destroy us.

For much of American history, most white Protestants shared in the belief that immigrants were vectors of anti-democratic viruses like Catholicism, anarchism and Bolshevism. Although by the 1950s liberal mainline Protestants had come around to the idea of relaxing immigration restrictions, the conservative National Association of Evangelicals opposed the liberalizing reform act of 1965, fearing “infiltration by influences subversive of the American way of life.”

Today, the culture wars and the constant skirmishes over the size and scope of the welfare state have convinced conservatives that the country’s direst enemies are not “subversive” foreigners, but homegrown liberals.

International experience has connected more American evangelicals to Christians living in immigrant-sending countries, and they now view them as ideological allies. Organizations ranging from Focus on the Family to Anglican splinter churches have been building relationships in the global south for decades. They have come to see Latin Americans and Africans as defenders of traditional gender roles and Christian civilization.

“We have a very positive ‘immigration problem’ in this country, in that the Latino community coming in, both legally and illegally, generally possesses a value system that is compatible with America’s value system,” Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, told me.

It’s true that Latino Americans tend to be religious (according to Gallup, 54 percent are Catholic and 28 percent are Protestant). However, even those at the forefront of collaboration with white evangelicals stress that important differences remain. Jesse Miranda is a Pentecostal who founded a national organization for Latino Protestants, Alianza de Ministerios Evangélicos Nacionales (AMEN), in 1992. “We used the term ‘evangélico’ when I founded AMEN, and said we won’t use the word ‘evangelical’ so the media won’t identify us with our white brethren,” he said.

Most Latino evangelicals are recent converts to Protestantism with no stake in the battles between fundamentalists and modernists that divided white Protestants a hundred years ago, or in the more recent campaigns of the Christian right. They care more about education for their children than quarreling over the theory of evolution.

This difference is not just political, but theological, and has consequences for the fate of illegal immigrants. For a Christian, the question of whether an undocumented immigrant is a criminal or a victim trapped in an unjust system depends on how one thinks about sin and human responsibility.

A century ago, preachers of the “Social Gospel” argued that sin was not only a matter of personal depravity: it was also a social problem. Our society, built by flawed human beings, is full of institutionalized sin, of greed and cruelty cemented in the structures that govern our lives.

The theologian Walter Rauschenbusch lamented in 1913 that “as long as a man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present order, he is still in a state of moral blindness.” He urged Christians “to see through the fictions of capitalism.”

Conservative evangelicals decried Social Gospelers as liberals who replaced soul-winning with social work — or worse, socialism. They stressed personal responsibility and argued that genuine social change could come only through converting one sinner at a time to Christ.

Latino Protestants may share the core doctrines of white evangelicals, but not the fusion of Christianity and libertarianism that has come to pervade the right, perhaps in part because they have intimate experience with the inequalities ingrained in American institutions.

They have left their forefathers’ faith, but they tend to retain the common Catholic conviction that being “pro-life” requires combating social injustice and reining in capitalism when necessary. In 2011 the polling organization Latino Decisions found that although Latinos are committed to the American ideal of self-sufficiency and hard work, most don’t believe the free market can solve all problems. “Minority citizens prefer a more energetic government, by large and statistically significant margins,” wrote the organization’s researchers Gary Segura and Shaun Bowler. In 2012, 71 percent of Latinos voted for President Obama.

Americans’ opinions on immigration have always been connected to their broader ideas about the role of government authority. The platform of 19th-century nativists contained more than racist invective. It also proposed strong states’ rights, a smaller standing army and tight limits on government expenses — all to preserve the American ideal of the independent yeoman free to defend his homestead from crowned tyrants and foreign invaders.

White evangelical leaders are loudly rejecting the xenophobia of their ancestors, though most still cherish that old libertarian creed. It