Archives For United Methodism

5058886937_3bcf357e06_zThis 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.

First today is this piece by John Milbank.

John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is without a doubt one of the most influential works of theology of the last 50 years. It sparked the Radical Orthodoxy movement and is the jumping off point of another nearly as important book: David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. 

Here’s Milbank’s argument:

During the course of recent debates in the British Parliament over the proposed legalisation of gay marriage, it has gradually become apparent that the proposal itself is impossible. For legislators have recognised that it would be intolerable to define gay marriage in terms equivalent to “consummation,” or to permit “adultery” as legitimate ground for gay divorce.

Thus, despite the telling squeamishness in much contemporary conversation on homosexuality, which invariably steers away from its physical aspects, the legislators have been forced tacitly to admit the different nature of both gay sexuality and of gay sociality. But such an admission destroys the assumption behind the legislation and the coherence of what the legislation proposes to enact.

The assumption behind the legislation is that “fairness” must involve the application of universal rights to each individual in the same way and in the same respects. But this admission reveals that, in the current instance, such application would prove grossly unfair, inappropriate and unrealistic.

The coherence of the legislation depends upon erasing the clear distinction between civil union (which is already available for both straight and gay couples) on the one hand, andmarriage on the other. But if the binding and loosing of gay and straight marriage are stipulated in different ways, then in effect such a distinction has been reinstated.

The suspicion arises that the proposed legislation before the British Parliament seeks only an empty change in nomenclature – this is borne out by the fact that the intended circumscription of gay marriage is so diluted as to render it indistinguishable from gay civil partnership.

Why, then, should Christians worry, if this is all just a matter of terminology? Can we not live with differing definitions of marriage? Perhaps, in order to safeguard the churches from pressures to conform to the norm, we should now welcome a withdrawal from the churches of their rights as a civil marriage broker. This would leave the churches free, in their turn, to claim that only natural and sacramental marriage are genuinely “marriage,” while state marriage is mere civil union. They could trump secularisation by declaring that the era of civil marriage had been a failed experiment.

This may, indeed, be the direction that the churches now need to take. However, the graver fear surrounding the new legislation is that secular thought will not so readily let go of the demand for absolutely equal rights based on identical definitions. In that case, we face an altogether more drastic prospect. Not only would “marriage” have been redefined so as to include gay marriage, it would inevitably be redefined even for heterosexual people in homosexual terms. Thus “consummation” and “adultery” would cease to be seen as having any relevance to the binding and loosing of straight unions.

Many may welcome such a development as yet a further removal of state intrusion into our private lives, but that would be to fail to consider all the implications. In the first place, it would end public recognition of the importance of marriage as a union of sexual difference. But the joining together and harmonisation of the asymmetrical perspectives of the two sexes are crucial both to kinship relations over time and to social peace. Where the reality of sexual difference is denied, then it gets reinvented in perverse ways – just as the over-sexualisation of women and the confinement of men to a marginalised machismo.

Secondly, it would end the public legal recognition of a social reality defined in terms of the natural link between sex and procreation. In direct consequence, the natural children of heterosexual couples would then be only legally their children if the state decided that they might be legally “adopted” by them.

And this, I argue, reveals what is really at issue here. There was no demand for “gay marriage” and this has nothing to do with gay rights. Instead, it is a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution.

Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very “grammar” of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.

For the individual, the experience of a natural-cultural unity is most fundamentally felt in the sense that her natural birth is from an interpersonal (and so “cultural”) act of loving encounter – even if this be but a one-night stand. This provides a sense that one’s very biological roots are suffused with an interpersonal narrative. Again, to lose this “grammar” would be to compromise our deepest sense of humanity, and risk a further handing over of power to market and state tyrannies supported by myths both of pure human nature and technocratic artifice.

It is for this reason that practices of surrogate motherhood and sperm-donation (as distinct from the artificial assistance of a personal sexual union) should be rejected. For the biopolitical rupture which they invite is revealed by the irresolvable impasse to which they give rise. Increasingly, children resulting from anonymous artificial insemination are rightly demanding to know who their natural parents are, for they know that, in part, we indeed are our biology. But this request is in principle intolerable for donors who gave their sperm or wombs on the understanding that this was an anonymous donation for public benefit.

The recipe for psychological confusion, family division and social conflict involved here is all too evident and cannot be averted. In this instance we have sleep-walked into the legalisation of practices whose logic and implications have never been seriously debated.

From this it follows that we should not re-define birth as essentially artificial and disconnected from the sexual act – which by no means implies that each and every sexual act must be open to the possibility of procreation, only that the link in general should not be severed. The price for this severance is surely the commodification of birth by the market, the quasi-eugenic control of reproduction by the state, and the corruption of the parent-child relation to one of a narcissistic self-projection.

Once the above practices have been rejected, then it follows that a gay relationship cannot qualify as a marriage in terms of its orientation to having children, because the link between an interpersonal and a natural act is entirely crucial to the definition and character of marriage.

The fact that this optimum condition cannot be fulfilled by many valid heterosexual marriages is entirely irrelevant, for they still fulfil through ideal intention this linkage, besides sustaining the union of sexual difference which is the other aspect of marriage’s inherently heterosexual character.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

chuck_knows_church_JCRYTPLT-300x142Below is what I posted about Church Knows Church earlier this year.

 

Apparently, the powers that be in the UMC don’t read my blog because they’ve struck once again, serving up another quick “teaching” video.

What’s more important for people to hear and learn than the message of sin and grace, atonement, resurrection, hope or new creation?

That’s right, District Superintendents.

That’s like Five Guys doing a promo video that makes no mention of juicy burgers and fries but instead informs you that such-and-such a person works in a regional Five Guys office to make it all happen.

I’m sure such a person exists and is essential to Five Guys success, but my enjoyment of a Five Guys burger in no way depends on my knowledge of such a position.

Why would Chuck bother to teach people about their own particular vocation as given to them in baptism when Chuck could instead tell us about an incredibly specific vocation in the gears of the church?

‘District what?’ you will probably ask.

They’re administrative leaders in my particular denomination. God loves them and I love every one  with whom I’ve served, but why they rate as essential Christian (or even UMC) knowledge escapes me.

That the vast majority of folks in Methodist pews have no idea such a thing as a DS exists is probably what motivates this Church Knows Church episode.

That the bureaucracy of the Church thinks this lack of knowledge is bad- or even tragic-thing but explains why the Church, confusing evangelism for institutional preservation, is in decline.

 

I realize Chuck is intended to educate Methodists about our particular brand of Protestant Christianity in the hopes that they may then become more enthusiastic about the message and mission of the Church, but that’s to get the order of excitement exactly backwards.

If United Methodists were more (unabashedly) passionate about Christ we wouldn’t need videos meant to pep us up about the nuts and bolts of our denomination.

To paraphrase Paul: no Jesus, no Church.

Here’s the original post and here’s the latest video:

 

chuck_knows_church_JCRYTPLTI’ve tamed my tongue. I’ve holstered my rhetorical fire and ire. I’ve kept my thoughts to myself. But I can’t see another ‘Chuck Knows Church’ video ‘liked’ on Facebook without venting my own deep-in-the-bowels dislike of Chuck and the things he likes about the Church.

Up until now, Church Knows Church has been akin to Farmville or people’s personal Spotify playlists: something slightly annoying for which you could care less but your social media peers persist in posting with evangelistic fervor.

But like Farmville, if not Spotify, Chuck Knows Church is a cloying annoyance that ultimately warrants a smackdown.

In case you don’t already know, Chuck Knows Church is a PR campaign produced by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. It’s a series of online, informational videos ‘about stuff in the church.’

The ‘stuff in the church’ is explained to us by ‘Chuck,’ the host with a floppy head of hair and the harmless, vacant expression of Huey Lewis.

Some of the urgent ‘stuff’ in the church Chuck feels the need to explain includes: the symbols on paraments, candles, collects, stoles, robes, doxologies and (prepare for to vomit in your mouth) ushers.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list of things Chuck knows about the Church, it is representative. So my question is a fair one:

Notice anything missing in that list above?

Like….Jesus.

Or maybe…God.

In this respect, Chuck Knows Church is similar to the multimillion dollar ad campaign the United Methodist Church pushed a few years ago: ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.’ In addition to being a campaign that verged on false advertising (I can think of plenty of friends who don’t think we’re that open-minded and my church has all but door #3 locked), it spent millions pushing the institution of the church without ever making mention of Jesus and his movement.

Providing further evidence that mainline Christians never met a cultural trend they weren’t safely and inoffensively behind, Chuck Knows Church begins with an opening montage that hearkens back to the lead credits and theme song of Friends (albeit with hints of Chopped).

The viewer is then greeted by Chuck, who, despite looking like a naif, appears to know quite a lot about things in Church that don’t matter.

In truth, it’s not Chuck’s fault.

He’s assigned his topics and fed his lines by the people behind the camera.

This Charles isn’t really in charge; he’s just a professional actor.

You read that right.

More false advertising.

Though we’re led to believe Chuck is real life preacher man, he’s really a (apparently down on his luck) thespian. So the stuff Chuck knows about Church that doesn’t matter is chosen by other real life pastors and church professionals who don’t know what matters about Church: Jesus.

I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. That United Methodist pastors are collectively such poor communicators a professional actor is required for 3 minute online films is all the indictment the Church needs.

I mean…a video explaining everything we need to know about stoles? This when 2/3 of the nation know not Jesus?

A video about ushers?

Usher isn’t even a religious category. The Kennedy Center and Nationals Park have ushers.

It’s a matter of function not faith.

And maybe that’s the most revealing thing about Chuck Knows Church and what irritates me so. It’s concerned with the function of church but not its faith.

Chuck Knows Church majors in the minors precisely at a time in the life of the Universal Church when millions are choosing other majors.

Chuck Knows Church works to explain why people should be interested in our institution and its habits rather than exhibiting any evidence of having reflected on what we can do (different) to interest people in Jesus.

As scores of business experts have written, once an institution needs to explain and justify its practices (rather than offer the product) to customers, the institution is already in the throes of irreversible decline.

And as Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, once you need to translate a language into modern terms (doxology, collect) its a sure sign the language you’re speaking is a dead one.

Chuck may know Church but, so far at least, not many people seem to know Chuck. The only people I see ‘liking’ him are pastors and church nerds. People who already know everything Chuck knows and most likely are excited by the unchurched getting to know Chuck.

But I don’t think that’s happening.

And I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

LUXEMBOURG ? Boy Scouts from Troop 69 Kaiserslautern, Germany, salute as the Star-Spangled Banner is played during a Veterans Da

In 2005, Matthew Fox, a disaffected Dominican, posted his own, new 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany- the same door Martin Luther famously nailed 95 Theses of his own, an act of defiance against Mother Church which supposedly ignited the Protestant Reformation.

Casting himself in Luther’s role (talk about self-important ego), Fox declared that it was time for ‘a New Reformation.’

And then with his theses in the church door and the media’s eye upon him…

Nothing happened. 

In fact, unless you have a remarkable memory for minor, two-bit media stories, the only Matthew Fox you’ve ever heard of is the dude who played Jack, the hero in Lost.

This is my point. Christians, Protestants at least, imagine the Protestant Reformation happened in a vacuum. We have an Idealist assumption that Great Men and/or Great Ideas change the tide of history. And so, Luther, armed with hammer, nail and his individual conscience made the world something it would not have been without him.

But, as anyone who didn’t sleep through every minute of AP European History in high school knows, that just isn’t the case. The Protestant story was but one component of a much larger cultural shift.

The Reformation wasn’t sparked by Luther’s 95 Theses; Luther’s Theses were a product of the cultural phenomenon of reformation.

During this same period, Western Europe experienced massive political change as it transitioned from feudalism to nation-states. That shift was occasioned by the rise of a new economic system, mercantilism, which was made possible by vastly more efficient means of travel. The period we call ‘the Reformation’ with our in-house church lingo was actually the first Information Age, sparked by the advent of the printing press. What was happening in the church was only a small part of what was happening culturally.

Rather than Luther changing the tide of history, as Protestants like to imagine, Luther was swept up by the tide of history, taking the shifts and discoveries of the culture and applying them to his religious context. 

What’s this have to do with Emergence Christianity? Or the Boys Scouts’ policy on homosexuality?

Last week, in response to a post I wrote about the Boy Scouts’ possible change in policy, in which I noted that the culture is rapidly moving away from the Church and BSA on this issue, a friend pushed back that perhaps the Church should be wary of accommodating to the culture.

I understand that caution. As a post-liberal, I have an affinity for the argument that the Church should be a distinct, alternative to the culture. And yet, I think that profoundly misunderstands (or at least misstates) how culture functions.

Culture isn’t an ‘other’ to which the Church or Christians can determine to be set apart from or independent of. It doesn’t work that way, even if we wish it did. As James Davidson Hunter puts it, culture is a thick web of structures and networks that shape all of us. It’s unavoidable. You can’t retreat from culture or out of culture; you can only contribute more culture.

So, when it comes to issues like the BSA’s looming decision, we can talk about how the Church should be an alternative to the culture and not accommodate changing trends but to do so is to live in a fantasy world. ‘Church’ isn’t an institution. It’s a movement of people and, like it or not, those people have been shaped as much- if not more- by the culture of Will and Grace as they have been by the culture of traditional (whatever that really is in the end) Christianity.

We can’t pretend to be independent of and an alternative to culture. We can only contribute more culture (Christian culture) and choose the spots, topics, issues and idols from which we call people to repentance. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, I personally don’t see homosexuality as the most urgent Kingdom witness Christians can offer our culture.

And that brings me to Emergence Christianity.

In case you’ve been living in a cave (or just aren’t a pastor or youth director) Emergence Christianity names a movement/trend/shift in the traditional Church as it reacts to postmodernity. As with the seismic cultural shift that marked the Reformation, Emergence Christians see postmodernity as an analogous paradigm shift that’s only just begun and will be long-lasting.

In mainline seminaries all across the country, in typical late-to-the-party fashion professors are breathlessly trying to inculcate future pastors in the “techniques” and “aesthetic sensibilities” of Emergence. But rendering Emergence Christianity into a technique that can be taught, I think is a mistake akin to crediting Luther the author of what we call the Reformation.

The real offering Emergence Christianity has made the larger Church isn’t in techniques, aesthetics, fads or rebellious counter-theology.

It’s in their recognition that the Church finds herself in a new cultural situation. As was so with Luther, our challenge is to determine how best to incarnate the Gospel in our time and place.

LUXEMBOURG ? Boy Scouts from Troop 69 Kaiserslautern, Germany, salute as the Star-Spangled Banner is played during a Veterans Da

The husband of a friend recently asked me these questions in response to my post about the Boy Scout’s possibly changing their policy on gay leaders. Here are his questions, abridged, and then my reply. I thought they were questions others might have too so I decided I’d open up my thoughts to everyone.

“So if the Boy Scouts of America (which includes many youth and adult females too) were to allow “… chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting” to “accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs” would you:

  1. Register your sons in Scouting (if not why not)?

If the BSA changed their position and that was adopted locally, I wouldn’t disallow their participation in scouts. We’d consider it if they expressed an interest. On a simple parenting level, they probably don’t have time in their schedules to do another activity with the swimming they do.
2) Not only accept, but advocate for Scouting, since it’s mission “to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath(a) and Law(b).” If you find it so abhorrent that BSA does not presently allow openly homosexual members such that you won’t allow your children or yourself to associate with them, don’t you find that you are living in personal conflict since the United Methodist Church also does not permit homosexual leaders (The UMC officially will not ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals, nor does it condone same sex marriages. Ref: The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2012)? I find it odd that you won’t associate with one group, but are a leader in another group with similar stance. 

I guess I should’ve been more clear in my original post, in which I tried to make the distinction between homosexuality as theological category and a political category. Issues of gay marriage and ordination are different matters to me because they’re in-house Christian issues for the Church in how we interpret scripture. Excluding gay people from an extracurricular activity isn’t a religious question, it’s a matter of discrimination in my view. It’s true that the UMC does not ordain gay Christians nor does it perform same sex marriage. However, the Book of Discipline also stipulates:

“all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God,” and that United Methodists are to be “welcoming, forgiving and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.” The Book of Discipline also condemns homophobia and heterosexism, saying the church opposes “all forms of violence or discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice or sexual orientation.”

Again, my own view, which I think is reflected in the Discipline is that homosexuality may preclude people from certain theological status in the Church but that it should not warrant discrimination. For example, our previous bishop broke bad on a pastor who had refused to accept a gay Christian into church membership.

My own view, as I said, is in flux on the question of marriage. I think the Church has the right to define marriage in a way distinct from the country or culture. However, I personally believe gay Christians should be allowed to seek ordination. I have a theological problem with the Church baptizing people into the ministry of Christ but not allowing them access to all forms that ministry takes. I also have many classmates from seminary and friends who had a legitimate call and obvious gifts for ministry but were not able to pursue what I believe God had called them to do.

3. Knowing the UMC’s position on homosexuality, how would you advocate regarding the acceptance of homosexuals in the Scout unit that Aldersgate charters and is legally the “owner of?”

Well, that’s not really my decision to make. Or rather it’s a decision that would be shared with the lay leadership of the church but I would be honest- as I have been in this venue- about my own view. Incidentally, I got an enormous amount of emails about the original post and only one of them was to express disagreement with the post. When it comes to this issue, the demographics are moving much faster than the Church or the BSA.

 

LUXEMBOURG ? Boy Scouts from Troop 69 Kaiserslautern, Germany, salute as the Star-Spangled Banner is played during a Veterans DaI saw this headline in my inbox today.

I’m sure someone will ask what I think about this, and I’m sure someone else, assuming I agree with them, will complain about the possibility of gay scout leaders or gay scouts (News Flash:  there have already been plenty of both, I personally know that for a fact).

Just to be up front, I was a Cub Scout for about 3 weeks. Not having a Dad in my life, my pinewood derby car was basically a log with tacky paint and wheels that wouldn’t roll. Everyone else’s cars (I’m sure it’s still the same today) were obviously made by their Bob Villa fathers. They were awesome, and I was shamed and angry and never went back.

So I’ve never been a scout, but I’ve known people for whom the scouts did wonderful things and I hope that continues.

Back to the question (and if my answer bothers you and makes you think I’m some over the top liberal, please go back and reread it again because I’m not).

If the headline turns out to be true, I think it’s a good thing. In fact, I’ve had a big problem in the past with the scouts excluding gay people- often on the nasty, inaccurate insinuation that all gay people are pedophiles. I’ve always been bothered that my denomination, by sponsoring scout troops, has condoned- or at least never challenged- what I think is discrimination, and this policy has been the primary reason my wife and I won’t allow my own children to join the scouts- to be fair, my wife, whose character is 100% better than mine, has made sure we didn’t buckle.

It’s not that the scouts wouldn’t be good for them; it’s that opting my kids out is the only means we have to express our family’s disapproval.

Back to the ‘I’m not a liberal’ point.

We’re talking about the scouts. We’re not talking about church, marriage, ordination, scripture or theology.

The scouts (despite what some presume) are not a Christian or even religious organization. Just as it seems ludicrous and discriminatory that a gay man or woman would be excluded from coaching my sons’ swim team, it seems prejudicial to exclude them from leading a scout troop, den, pack or what have you. I mean, why don’t we just make them drink from separate water fountains too?

Sincere, faithful people can argue about what the bible teaches about homosexuality.

Sincere and faithful people can debate what should constitute Christian marriage.

And every church tradition must sort out its understanding of calling and ordination. I get that, and my own position is always in flux as I listen to friends on both sides. 

But the scouts is a different issue entirely.

For me, it comes down to two questions:

Are all gay people predators from whom we must protect our children? Only a monster who knows only a caricature of ‘gay people’ would argue in the affirmative.

Can children learn from gay people as mentors, leaders, and role models in their lives? Since I have myself benefited from the wisdom and friendship of such people, my conscience requires me to answer yes.

And back to my experience as a Cub Scout. This was me: misfit kid with a gossiped about Dad from an unconventional family who slipped through the cracks of the scout masters’ attention and concern. I’ve got to wonder. Had the ban been lifted decades ago might there have been a leader who also knew what it was like to be a misfit, gossiped about, or from an unconventional family? And might he or she have noticed me?

And are United Methodists now reaping the bitter fruit of having done so a century ago?

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church, the past week. In it, Keller gives much attention to the task/question of contextualization; that is, how we do communicate our message to the given context in which we live.

Keller notes that it’s not really a question of whether or not we should contextualize.

We can’t avoid contextualization unless we’re willing to avoid communication altogether. Every time we paraphrase a scripture passage, every time we extrapolate a point or a meaning, every time we settle upon what we think is the ‘plain sense’ of scripture we’re contextualizing BECAUSE, after all, we’re also a part of the culture and formed by it in ways we don’t always know.

Just ask Harrison Ford in Witness, Christians can’t avoid being in the world and  we never really cease to be of the world either. 

Preaching, then, is just a simpler term for contextualization.

So the question isn’t if we should translate the Gospel to culture but how.

Keller argues that Mainline (liberal) Christianity in the early 20th century sought to make Christianity palatable to the modern world by redefining orthodox Christian doctrine in naturalistic terms– terms stripped of a reliance upon revelation and the supernatural.

 The result was a Christianity redefined thus:

The Bible is filled with divine wisdom, but this doesn’t mean it’s inerrant. It’s a human document containing errors and contradictions. 

 Jesus is the Son of God but this doesn’t mean he was preexistent or divine. He was instead a great man infused with God’s Spirit. 

Jesus’ death is not a cosmic even that propitiates God’s wrath at Sin. It’s an example of sacrificial love that changes us by moving our hearts to follow his example. 

 Becoming a Christian, then, doesn’t entail the supernatural act of new birth (conversion prompted by grace). It means to follow the example of Jesus, follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. 

You can agree or not with Keller’s point of view, but there’s no question the breakdown above quite simply IS the dominant articulation of Christianity among most United Methodist (and other mainline traditions) churches and clergy.

This is what makes most mainline Christians ‘liberal’ even if they think of themselves as conservative politically.

Here’s Keller contention:

You can’t make such adaptations to what scripture is, who Jesus is, what the Cross does and how you become a Christian without creating a religion that is entirely new and alien to Christianity. 

The Mainline/Liberal effort to reconcile Christianity to the modern world of the 20th century (the naturalistic world), Keller says, results not in an adaptation of Christianity but in an entirely new religion that contradicts orthodox Christianity.

Even if you would quibble with Keller’s characterization, his next question remains TNT:

By adapting the faith to the norms of the ‘modern early 20th century world’ did Mainline/Liberal Christianity back the wrong horse?

Mainline Christians a century ago assumed that what was ‘modern’ for them would remain so- that those who clung to a revelation-based, supernatural understanding of the faith would be judged to be on the wrong side of history.

Keller says this was a category mistake.

Late modernity and postmodernity, he notes, has rejected modernism’s confidence that science and reason can ultimately answer all our important questions and that technology can solve all our problems.

In other words, 100 years removed from Methodism’s capitulation to culture, that culture has shifted out from under the Church. 

In other words, Mainline Christianity wedded itself to what is now a fading, obsolete view.

And since adapting its faith claims to the culture a century ago, Mainline Christianity has experienced steep decline; meanwhile, Pentecostalism (the least modern- Enlightenment based- form of Christianity) and Eastern Orthodox Christianity have grown exponentially in the past hundred years.

So its a cautionary tale.

The how of contextualization should refer more to our mode of communication than to the content of our confession.

Spoiler Alert: If you presently have appointment authority over me or anticipate having that authority in the future, you can stop reading now. 

In one way, denominations are all the same.

We all have our our special coded language we use to describe and organize ourselves. In the United Methodist Church we tend toward boringly secular-sounding words like ‘conference’ and ‘superintendent’ and ‘itinerancy.’

Itinerancy refers to the United Methodist system of a resident bishop choosing the pastor for the congregation versus, say a Baptist church, that chooses its own pastor. Up until the very recent past, and still not the case everywhere, such appointments lasted only 3-5 years before the pastor would be moved on to another parish. Pastors, then, are treated almost like interchangeable parts.

The practice of itinerancy had very specific geographic and historic reasons for its inception. It was the best missional means for the church to follow the growth of the population across the western frontier. It was also a practice that presumed the congregation and its community were stable and it was the pastor who was transient, hence ‘itinerant.’

More recently, the system of itinerancy has allowed Methodist bishops to make ‘prophetic’ appointments to congregations; that is, itinerancy empowers bishops to appoint female and minority pastors to congregations that might otherwise resist such clergy. This, I believe, has been a good thing for the Church.

Today, itinerancy is a major hoop through which aspiring clergy must jump. To be ordained, clergy must articulate the theology of itinerancy, agree with it, pay lip service to it and vow to submit to it. As a young ordinand I jumped through said hoops better than most and passed with flying colors. And I wasn’t lying. But now I’ve got some questions.

I’m not suggesting that itinerancy is stupid or antiquated. Nor am I even really complaining about it.

I am suggesting, however, that when we treat itinerancy as theologically sacrosanct, when in fact it was a contextually necessitated process, we miss something.

So here’s my pushback:

When I was at Princeton Seminary, Dr Robert Dykstra, my Yoda, offered me this advice:

‘You should insist on being appointed anywhere so long as you had the guarantee you could stay there for at least 5 years. It takes at least that long for people’s pretenses to die and for the curtain to be drawn back from their lives. After that happens, you can do real ministry together.’

I had no idea at the time whether it was good advice or not. After all, he wasn’t even a Methodist.

I’ve now been at Aldersgate for 7 years. It hardly seems that long, but this summer a couple of things have struck me.

This July, on a mission team in Guatemala, I spent several days laying mortar with Laura Paige Mertins. LP was a sixth grade confirmation student when I first came to Aldersgate and now she’s about to start her freshman year at JMU. I’ve watched LP grow into a remarkable young adult with a faith more mature and grounded than many 3x her age.

What’s more, for the purposes of my argument, LP feels comfortable asking me anything when it comes to the faith and I feel comfortable answering, knowing that she trusts what I’ll offer. While I attribute much of her abundant faith to her family and the church, I also know, without being egotistical, that some part of her faith/worldview is my doing and it’s only been possible because of a relationship that’s been built over time.

She’s but an example. I’ve been at Aldersgate long enough now to know whose marriages aren’t as strong as they seem and whose marriages are even better than they appear. I know who’s struggling with issues of addiction or sexual identity. I know who’s lost their faith and who’s made a major leap in their relationship with God.

In 7 years, I’ve confirmed something like 350 kids in the community, and this fall the congregation is actually letting me try out a children’s program based on the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus of all things should point out how after 7 years the congregation and folks in the community trust me, and I trust them. We both know each other’s strengths and not-so strengths. It’s time and relationships, I think, that allows us to take the leap from being directors of programs to actual pastors.

I normally hate it when pastors say ministry is all about relationships. That’s usually code, I think, for laziness or ineffectiveness. I’m not suggesting ministry is all about relationships. It is about relationships though. I’m suggesting that having an appointment process that operates as though relationships- and the trust engendered by them- mattered not at all may be missing something.

I didn’t mention any of this when they interviewed me for ordination and asked me about itinerancy. Not because I was holding back or hiding my thoughts but because it’s only now, with enough time in one place under my belt, that I appreciate Dr. Dykstra’s wisdom.

Spoiler Alert: If you presently have appointment authority over me or anticipate having that authority in the future, you can stop reading now. 

In one way, denominations are all the same.

We all have our our special coded language we use to describe and organize ourselves. In the United Methodist Church we tend toward boringly secular-sounding words like ‘conference’ and ‘superintendent’ and ‘itinerancy.’

Itinerancy refers to the United Methodist system of a resident bishop choosing the pastor for the congregation versus, say a Baptist church, that chooses its own pastor. Up until the very recent past, and still not the case everywhere, such appointments lasted only 3-5 years before the pastor would be moved on to another parish. Pastors, then, are treated almost like interchangeable parts.

The practice of itinerancy had very specific geographic and historic reasons for its inception. It was the best missional means for the church to follow the growth of the population across the western frontier. It was also a practice that presumed the congregation and its community were stable and it was the pastor who was transient, hence ‘itinerant.’

More recently, the system of itinerancy has allowed Methodist bishops to make ‘prophetic’ appointments to congregations; that is, itinerancy empowers bishops to appoint female and minority pastors to congregations that might otherwise resist such clergy. This, I believe, has been a good thing for the Church.

Today, itinerancy is a major hoop through which aspiring clergy must jump. To be ordained, clergy must articulate the theology of itinerancy, agree with it, pay lip service to it and vow to submit to it. As a young ordinand I jumped through said hoops better than most and passed with flying colors. And I wasn’t lying. But now I’ve got some questions.

I’m not suggesting that itinerancy is stupid or antiquated. Nor am I even really complaining about it.

I am suggesting, however, that when we treat itinerancy as theologically sacrosanct, when in fact it was a contextually necessitated process, we miss something.

So here’s my pushback:

When I was at Princeton Seminary, Dr Robert Dykstra, my Yoda, offered me this advice:

‘You should insist on being appointed anywhere so long as you had the guarantee you could stay there for at least 5 years. It takes at least that long for people’s pretenses to die and for the curtain to be drawn back from their lives. After that happens, you can do real ministry together.’

I had no idea at the time whether it was good advice or not. After all, he wasn’t even a Methodist.

I’ve now been at Aldersgate for 9 years. It hardly seems that long, but this summer a couple of things have struck me.

This July, on a mission team in Guatemala, I spent several days laying mortar with Laura Paige Mertins. LP was a sixth grade confirmation student when I first came to Aldersgate and now she’s about to start her third year at JMU. I’ve watched LP grow into a remarkable young adult with a faith more mature and grounded than many 3x her age.

What’s more, for the purposes of my argument, LP feels comfortable asking me anything when it comes to the faith and I feel comfortable answering, knowing that she trusts what I’ll offer. While I attribute much of her abundant faith to her family and the church, I also know, without being egotistical, that some part of her faith/worldview is my doing and it’s only been possible because of a relationship that’s been built over time.

She’s but an example. I’ve been at Aldersgate long enough now to know whose marriages aren’t as strong as they seem and whose marriages are even better than they appear. I know who’s struggling with issues of addiction or sexual identity. I know who’s lost their faith and who’s made a major leap in their relationship with God.

In 9 years, I’ve confirmed something like 350 kids in the community, and this fall the congregation is actually letting me try out a children’s program based on the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus of all things should point out how after 7 years the congregation and folks in the community trust me, and I trust them. We both know each other’s strengths and not-so strengths. It’s time and relationships, I think, that allows us to take the leap from being directors of programs to actual pastors.

I normally hate it when pastors say ministry is all about relationships. That’s usually code, I think, for laziness or ineffectiveness. I’m not suggesting ministry is all about relationships. It is about relationships though. I’m suggesting that having an appointment process that operates as though relationships- and the trust engendered by them- mattered not at all may be missing something.

I didn’t mention any of this when they interviewed me for ordination and asked me about itinerancy. Not because I was holding back or hiding my thoughts but because it’s only now, with enough time in one place under my belt, that I appreciate Dr. Dykstra’s wisdom.