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Jason Micheli —  March 3, 2019 — 1 Comment

Transfiguration Sunday — Luke 9

    If you’ve endured more than a handful of sermons in a United Methodist Church, then, chances are, you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go. 

     I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus all wrong. 

If you’ve sufferd through a few sermons on the Transfiguration, then you already know I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience instead of rolling up his sleeves and going back down into the valley of life where we are called to serve the least, the lost, and the left behind (which, for the record— just so you get to know your pastor a little better— is my least favorite Christian cliche). 

But that’s how preaching on the Transfiguration is supposed to go, right? 

The way down the mountain is almost always a descent into moralism— about how discipleship is about going back down into the valley, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and embrace the outcast and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm in front of their non-Christian co-workers. 

     If you’ve endured more than a few Sundays in the mainline church, then you already know that’s usually the way preachers preach this text on the Transfiguration: Don’t rest in Christ.  Go back down the mountaintop, back into “real life,” and do like Christ.

     Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think that’s the only  option allowed. 

——————

     Except- 

If Peter is wrong, if this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, then when Peter professes “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” why doesn’t Jesus correct him? 

     Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

     Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter: ‘Peter, it’s not about resting in me. It’s about doing like me, for the Son of Man came not to serve but to send you out to serve?” If Peter’s suggestion that they rest there is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does just before this scene and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan?’ If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?  It’s not an idle question.

      In fact— pay attention now— here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him. 

You got that? This is the only instance in the Bible where someone says something to Jesus and Jesus doesn’t reply. 

—————-

     Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology, that rather than talking about God, as we claim, most of the time we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice. 

     There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this preview of the Gospel message into moralism. 

     Just think- 

     What would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching— how we should go and do what he doesn’t seem to understand he should go and do? Which is but a way of making ourselves the focus of this story. 

     Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down. More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that the takeaway from the Transfiguration is not what we must go down and do for God through our good deeds or holy living. The takeaway from the Transfiguration is what God is about to go down and do for us. 

For ALL of us. 

For ALL of us. 

I’m going to say it again— for ALL of us.

The Transfiguratin is about what God is about to go down and do.

Once for ALL. 

The Transfiguration— it is a preview of the Gospel. 

————–

Luke spells it out for you:

Just before this scene, Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the super-pious holiness enforcers, and get crucified by an angry crowd taking the only democratic vote in scripture (“We want Barabbas!”)

Next scene, today’s scene: 

Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, are there on this mountaintop “speaking with Jesus about his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.”

Accomplish. 

Luke doesn’t say Jesus was about to experience something unfortunate or unintended in Jerusalem. He says accomplish.

It’s vogue among preachers today to downplay the crucifixion, but when you read the Gospels straight through you discover that not only does Jesus talk about his death all the time, he speaks of it as a necessity. 

He speaks of it as a mission he will accomplish.

Luke says here that Jesus speaks of his crucifixion as a departure that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.  

And the Greek word Luke uses for departure? Any guesses?

Exodus. 

They’re talking about the exodus he will accomplish in Jerusalem.

You see, what St. Luke shows you here on the mountaintop is what St. Paul tells you in his Letter to the Romans: that our baptism into Christ’s death— it is our exodus from the Pharaoh called Sin.  In case you miss that point— Luke piles on the clues. He tells you about Jesus’s shining happy people face and his bedazzled Rick Flair clothes.  And Luke tells you that Moses and Elijah appeared there in glory.  And that Christ became it. Became the glory That Christ was transfigured before them into glory.

————–

Luke doesn’t throw around glory as just any generic adjective. 

It’s like Indiana Jones asked in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “Didn’t any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?” 

In the David story, the glory of God is what spilled forth from the ark of the Law and struck an innocent bystanding boy named Uzzah dead. That’s 2 Samuel 6. That’s why Indiana Jones tells Marion to close her eyes when the bad guys open up the ark— he knows the Uzzah story.

And likely, Indiana Jones knows too that the glory of God is what dwelt in the Temple. 

In the holy of holies. 

Behind the temple veil. A veil that was there— pay attention now— not to protect the holy God from sinful us.  A veil that was there— by God’s own mercy and design— to protect sinful us from the holiness of God. 

Elijah and Moses appeared to them on the mountaintop in glory, Luke tells us. 

The glory of God transfigured Christ, Luke tells us. 

And Peter and James and John beheld the glory, Luke tells us. 

Notice what Luke doesn’t tell us— they lived. 

They lived. All three of them, they’re like Harry Potter. They’re the boys who lived. 

Peter and James and John— sinners all, Peter maybe most of all— beheld the umediated glory of God, loosed from the Temple, in the flesh in the transfigured Christ, and they did not receive the wage their sins had earned them. 

They were not struck dead. 

They lived. 

That’s why they walk away dead silent. 

They were dumbfounded by this preview of the grace of God where another’s death will do for undeserving sinners. 

————–

    All the news in the United Methodist Church this week, all of the acrimony over inclusion and acceptance, on the one hand, and sin and holiness, on the other hand— it can obscure a basic presupposition of the Bible that’s implicit here in the Transfiguration. 

What even Indiana Jones knew that all those folks at General Conference in St. Louis seemed not to know is this basic Gospel grammar:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

(So who are we to draw lines?)

What makes you a child of God isn’t anything inherent to you or achievable by you. Not a one of you. All of us— the gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. So great, in fact, that when we even begin to argue about whether this or that is a sin is to have lost the Gospel plot. 

     You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are. 

     You have to be rendered acceptable. 

     You have to be made acceptable. 

You are a child of God not by birth but by adoption— an adoption that St. Paul calls an exodus, our baptism into Christ’s death.  You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are— not a one of us. That’s the assumption that animates all the action at the Temple where glory lived, and it’s the assumption that leaves Peter and James and John speechless after they run into that glory on the mountain.  

To understand this you have to go back to the Book of Leviticus. 

Once a year a representative of all the people, the high priest, would draw the short straw and venture beyond the temple veil, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the glory of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord. Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord. Acceptable to be counted among God’s People.

     After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

     And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away into the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God. 

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God veiled in glory as alien from the New Testament God we think we know. But, as Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. 

    We’re meant to see them as preparation. 

We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice. 

That’s exactly how the New Testament Book of Hebrews frames Jesus’ death: 

As the perfect sacrifice for sin. 

    One sacrifice. Offered once. 

The temple veil is no longer needed. 

The glory of the Holy God need be feared no more.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

Such that now our justification before God is based not on who we are or what we’ve done but on who God is and what God has done in Jesus Christ. 

Because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice— because of our exodus, our baptism into his sacrifice offered in our stead— our acceptablity before God— for all of us— must always and forever be spoken of in the past, perfect tense. 

It has been accomplished.

It is finished.

Ephapax is the word the Bible uses to describe the sacrifice, which Luke here calls an exodus. 

Ephapax: “once for all.” 

For all sin. 

For past sin. For present sin. For future sin. 

Ephapax. 

Once for all sin. 

Once for all those believers adopted by the baptism of his blood.

————–

So why in the hell are some arguing in the United Methodist Church about who is and is not compatible with Christian teaching? 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching. 

According to the survey I sent, there’s two dozen LGBTQ people in this congregation.

If you think they’re the ones incompatible with Christian teaching, you need to read your Romans, or try the Sermon on the Mount on for size (Be perfect?!). 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching. Why are we dividing Christ’s Church by arguing over who is acceptable? None of us— not a single one of us— are acceptable. All of us have been made acceptable.

Don’t you see—

The cross of Jesus Christ already contains everything conveyed by a rainbow flag.  

God judges not a one of us according to us. God judges every one of us according to Christ— according to Christ’s perfect (once for all sin, once for everybody) sacrifice. 

Such that, now, by grace alone— not by what you do or who you are— by grace alone— now, like those three disciples on the mountaintop today, you and I (though sinners we are and sinners we always will remain)  We can sleep easy before the glory of God.

We can sleep easy before the glory of God. 

Luke shows you in their sleeping what St. Paul tells you: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…there is therefore NOW NO CONDEMNATION…NOTHING CAN SEPARATE US FROM THE LOVE OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS.”

Why are we arguing when all of us— gay or straight, liberal or conservative, married or divorced, addicts or clean, racists or sexists or homophobes, skinny or not so skinny, black or white or brown, male or female (or somewhere in between), old or young, rich and poor, even people who actually like Maroon 5…all of us sinners have been made acceptable.

Not by our behavior.

Not by by our belief.

But by our baptism.

By our baptism into his departure, his exodus, his once for all death accomplished for you, for your sin…by our baptism, you and I— still in our sins— we can sleep easy before the glory of God.

That’s the Gospel. 

Everything else— every single other thing we can say—is the Law not the Gospel. 

And Christ is the end of the Law, scripture says. 

For freedom from the Law, Christ has set us free, scripture says. 

That’s the other takeaway Luke wants you to see in this preview of the Gospel. 

Jesus appears there with Moses and Elijah, the giver of the Law and the prophet of the Law, because the Law— with all of its demands for holiness, all of its expectations of a lifestyle compatibile with its commands— the Law ends in Jesus Christ. 

Full stop. 

Moses and Elijah appear there in glory but their glory fades. 

The glory of God is the Christ who delivers grace. 

You see—

Christianity is either all grace (what God has done for you) or it’s all works (what you must do for God). 

Grace and Works— they’re mutually exclusive. 

That is the insight of the Protestant Reformation. 

If it’s not all of the former, it is all of the latter— no matter the lip service you might pay to grace.

Any attempt to balance or blend grace with works destroys the very notion of grace. 

It muddles the Gospel with the Law. It creates a kind of Glawspel, which is exactly the sort of toxic religion I witnessed this week in St. Louis. 

Everything that is not the Gospel of grace is the Law.  

And as soon as you make Christianity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands— it’s funny how, as much as we fire off scripture at each other, we don’t much quote that scripture. 

As soon as you make Christiantity about the Law, you become a debtor to every single one of its demands. And thus far, only one guy has been able to clear that bar. He was as perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect. 

So why don’t we worry about proclaiming what Christ has done for us— for ALL OF US— instead of yelling at each other about what we think the other ought to do for Christ?

————–

Whenever you make Christianity about the Law— about living a life compatible with the commandments— you become a debter to every single one of its demands. 

Don’t you see?

That’s why this is the only place in all of scripture that Jesus doesn’t reply. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t rebut him. 

That’s why Jesus doesn’t say “Get behind me, Satan.” 

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here— at least, it should be.

Peter is right. 

It is good for us to be here. 

It is good for us to see that the Law, according to which not one of us measures up, ends in the glory of his grace; so that, the Law is fulfilled in us not through our pious deeds or holy living but through faith alone. 

Faith alone in the Gospel of grace is what reckons to you the credit of a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching. 

That’s not just good news. 

That’s the good news.

So Peter is right.

It is good for us to be here. 

Because the Church is the only place in the world— at least, it should be— twhere we can lay down all our burdens of what we ought to do but don’t and what we oughtn’t do but did— this is the only place where we can lay those burdens down and rest. 

Rest in his grace.

————–

On Tuesday afternoon in St. Louis, after the vote, I watched from up above in the press box, as a group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor. They fell on their knees and wept.

Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration. 

If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity— it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box.

Peter is right. 

Until we learn to lay down the Law and go cold turkey from commandment-keeping and holiness-enforcing, until we learn to rest in Grace, every journey back down the mountain will be a descent that leaves the Gospel behind. 

So come down to the Table. 

And roll up your sleeves. 

Come down to the Table. 

Where Christ invites you not to serve but to be served. 

Wine and bread. The Body and Blood. The tangible promise of grace. 

Come down.

Taste and see the goodness of God  that is yours. 

Not as your wage, something you earn. 

But as your inheritance, something that’s yours by way of another’s death, something that is yours as an adopted child of God. 

       

     

Like scores of other United Methodist pastors, I wrote the following letter to my congregation on my way back from General Conference in St. Louis. I thought it might be helpful to share it here as well.

Hi Folks, 

If before this week you had been paying only minimal attention to matters in the larger United Methodist Church, then you’re likely well-aware that something happened this week. Many of you have forwarded me articles from the NY Times, NPR, Washington Post, et al about the General Conference here in St. Louis. Even more of you have reached out to me over email and text to express confusion, saddness, and anger. Some of you have conveyed that you’ve either decided or are considering leaving the United Methodist Church. Some staff even have acknowledged that this makes them reassess their work relationship to the UMC. 

I understand.  

Ask our last bishop, I’ve never been a company man. I don’t intend to start now. 

So before I communicate anything else about General Conference’s decisions and what they mean for Annandale UMC, let me clear: we’ll still be having church come Sunday morning; that is, what happened here in St. Louis in no way changes the ministry of Annandale UMC. What Annandale UMC did last week to proclaim the Gospel of grace in our context is what Annandale UMC will be doing next week to proclaim that same message. And I believe— to the point where I’d get another job were it not so— that the Gospel of grace is unintelligible apart from the good news that all are welcomed by Christ and, by our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, all are incorporated into Christ. 

I often joke that the Church would be healthier if church people, pastors especially, actually read Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I’m not in a joking mood today, but I’ll double-down on my point. It makes absolutely no Gospel sense to me to divide the Church according to who’s in and who’s out when Paul tells us in Romans that by our baptisms we’re all already in Christ. We’re not speaking Christian when we draw lines according to some righteousness equation when Paul tells us unequivocally in Romans that not one of us is righteous. We’ve muddled the Gospel into G-law-spel when we presume to have achieved a righteousness of our own through our holy-living or right-believing. Paul tells us in Romans that for all of us righteousness is not achieved but received— through our baptisms. We have been have been gifted with an alien righteousness— Christ’s own righteousness. It’s been given to us not through the Law but through Grace. And Grace is always an undeserved gift because Grace grants what you could never earn. What makes us a “child of God” is not anything inherent to us by birth nor anything we accrue in life; what makes us a ‘child of God” is our adoption by Christ through his death for us.

I wish more Christians would actually read Romans because it’s there God gives us the most inclusive of all doctrines:

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

As I repeat all the time to you on Sundays: Christ came not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or salvage the salvageable. Christ came to raise those who are dead in their trespasses. God’s Grace isn’t cheap; it isn’t even expensive. 

It’s free.

It turns out that it’s costly when we forget that Grace is free. Indeed I fear our Gospel amnesia has broken the United Methodist Church.

These past few days have only confirmed for me how easily we end up with a toxic form of Christianity when we fail to make this distinction between Law and Grace.

What I witnessed at General Conference in the tit-for-tat of weaponized parliamentary procedure was a whole lot of people preaching the Law at one another, liberals and conservatives alike. The Law of Inclusivity vs. The Law of Biblical Authority with all the unsurprising talking points and proof texts marshalled to their sides. All this Law-laying left no room for Grace. Without Grace, there can be no charity, and without charity compassion remains only a concept.

I realize all this sounds overly theological compared to what you’ll read in the Atlantic or USA Today this week, but theology matters— especially now. 

What I witnessed from the press box in St. Louis is a theological failure. Over the last four days, 864 delegates have argued (in often unholy and callous tones) about what constitutes a “lifestyle incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not only is this unfortunate, it’s unnecessary. It’s unnecessary because the Gospel truth is right there in Romans as plain as the nose on your face: 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching. 

So, before I get into the weeds of what the hell happened I want you to know that you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re LGBTQ, you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. Notice, I said still. The unfortunate part of this decision is that it fails to appreciate how local churches already have, in fits and starts, figured out ways to be inclusive. Speaking of inclusivity, if you’re an outright, unapologetic homophobe you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church, too. If you’re somewhere between those poles still working out your own convictions on this question, you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re conservative, you’re welcome. If you’re liberal, you’re welcome. We’ll take you if you’re too skinny, if you thought Green Book actually deserved Best Picture, and even if you post annoying status updates whenever you’re exercising at the gym. 

If all Christ requires of you is your need, then we as a church need nothing from you in order for you to participate fully in the Body of Christ. 

While we’re on it, recent events have made it so I can longer be coy in my own beliefs: I believe marriage and ordination are very clearly vocations through which we live out our baptism. The liturgy makes that point crystal clear. And most Methodists get baptized long before they’ve figured out their sexuality— so if you’re LGBTQ and feel God is calling you to one of those vocations, I want you to know that you’re welcome here with me to discern God’s call upon your life. It’s been my experience that Jesus, in his great humor, persists in calling queer people and I’m enough of a biblical literalist to think we ought not tempt God by thinking we can put up barriers to God’s work in the world. 

Bottom Line—

No matter what a handful of bureaucrats and lobbyists in St. Louis insist, I say all of you are welcome here because the Gospel says the basis for your inclusion is not your goodness but your ungodliness. All you need for admission is your sin and I’ve been your pastor long enough to know that you all, gay and straight, have got that covered. 

Take a deep breath because I’m about to pivot to Church business, and the business of the denomination couldn’t be further from the Gospel. 

On Tuesday afternoon, as you’ve no doubt read in the papers or heard at your kid’s bustop, 438 delegates to 384 (53% to 47%) voted to adopt the Traditionalist Plan. As a pastor, I would never allow such a close, divisive vote to happen in our congregation but that’s exactly what happened here because both sides in the UMC have been playing this brinksmanship, winner-take-all game since before I became a Christian. The General Conference also considered several and approved one plan that would allow for churches to exit from the United Methodist Church with their assets and property.

After the vote, many wept and gathered to pray in the center of the floor in protest. Meanwhile, another group— only an arm’s distance away— sang, clapped, and danced in celebration. The mutual hostility and callousness were bracing.

If you don’t believe in original sin and low anthropology, this would have convinced you.

The Traditionalist Plan not only keeps our Book of Discipline’s restrictive language about homosexuality, it aims to ramp up enforcement of it, expediting the punishment of pastors, bishops, and congregations who marry or ordain LGBTQ Christians. Covering the General Conference as press for my podcast, I can tell you how I was surprised by the sheer number of gay clergy and gay clergy couples in attendance. In other words, parts of the United Methodist Church have found ways, despite the Book of Discipline’s restrictive language, to marry and ordain LGBTQ people. The One Church Plan would’ve protected this reality while respecting traditional norms in other contexts and cultures of the global Church. The Traditionalist Plan does more than maintain the Book of Discipline; it eliminates what has become a norm in many parts of the Church in America. 

This is what my friend Bishop Will Willimon (who is nobody’s idea of a progressive) meant when he said to the Washington Post:

“This is not a victory of “tradition,” but another lurch toward punitive, exclusionary practice.”

The finance department of the denomination, for example, had cautioned the delegates before this week’s General Conference that the Traditionalist Plan was the one option before them that would break the UMC’s pension system because the new degree of loyalty to the Book of Discipline it will demand from churches and pastors likely will mean an exodus of centrist and progressive pastors and churches from the denomination. 

Just last night, Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest church in the UMC, announced that he’d be convening a gathering of like-minded pastors and lay people after Easter to begin discussions about a new form of Methodism in America. Meanwhile, the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC is preparing to leave the denomination. The New England Conference has already announced it will not abide the decision. I realize all this could sound alarming, but I think I owe it to you to tell you what I know. Pending a Judicial Council review of parts of it, the Traditionalist Plan will go into effect in January 2020. If the Judicial Council overtuns the Traditionalist Plan, a real possibility, then it is probable that the traditionalist wing of the denomination (the global, but not American, majority of the denomination, keep in mind) will exit with their property and assets. General Conference was already scheduled to meet this time next year so the fight will continue. However, because of the rate of growth in the global church, the traditionalist delegation will only be greater moving forward. 

How Methodists have structured ourselves as a denomination for these past decades is clearly broken— that may be the only observation on which the General Conference delegates would concur and would require no translator. And it was no small part of the sadness I heard from older pastors. Of course, we’ve only structured our Church this way for a relatively short amount of time and, truthfully, United Methodists have never really been all that united. As Will Willimon put it:

“what’s passed for church unity for the last 40 years in the Methodist Church is a kind of bureaucratic, rule-driven, top-down, corporate-America type unity. If that unity is disrupted, that puts us back to where we’ve always been: That’s a gathering by Christ of all kinds of people that make up the church.” 

Any honest United Methodist pastor or parishioner who’s not been in a coma during our institutional gatherings already knew the way things have been cannot be for much longer. The status quo needed disruption. Perhaps the Holy Spirit, by giving the United Methodist Church this disruption, has actually blessed it. 

What’s the way forward now that the Way Forward has brought us here? 

All this House of Cards-like ecclessial maneuvering gives you, Annandale UMC, three possible responses. There’s probably more, but three sounds biblical. 

1. You can celebrate the passing of the Traditionalist Plan. 

2. You can watch for the Judicial Council’s ruling on its constitutionality while aligning with like-minded congregations to amend it, undo it, or resist it.

3. You can discern if you want to stay within the United Methodist Church. I’ll get in trouble for acknowledging number three but I’ve told you I believe in transparency, and the reality is other churches will be talking about it so you may as well know it’s on the table.

The survey about the Way Forward I asked you to complete in the fall tells me that most of you don’t have the stomach for number three. Likewise, it tells me that even the traditionalists among you aren’t going to much like the tone of the Traditionalist Plan. That puts most of you somewhere in the neighborhood of number two. 

This isn’t a conversation a pastor with six months in a congregation would ever want to have with a new church, but I believe I would be a bad leader if I pretended like everything was fine and was going to be fine. 

The United Methodist Church is going to be different, no matter what happens. 

I don’t invite conflict into my life, but I’m not afraid of it. Moving forward, we’re going to need to have conversations about this as a congregation, and we need to be honest that not everyone will like that we’re having the conversation. Some may not like where it goes. And that’s okay— after all, what got us into this mess was the expectation for uniformity of belief. What’s not okay, from a leadership perspective, is to wait passively for events to unfold and roll like a tsunami against your church.

However you feel about #1-#3 above, no matter if you would’ve voted at General Conference for the Traditionalist Plan or the One Church Plan, here’s what we should all be able to agree upon. The headlines in the news outlets coming out of General Conference have portrayed the UMC as a prejudiced, bigoted, and homophobic institution. Many in our community won’t take the time to learn the ins-and-outs of our polity to understand how and why the vote went as it did. They likely won’t even read the story. They’ve just seen the headlines shared across social media.

Like it or not, we’re now going to have a perception problem, made all the more tragic because it’s a perception I do not think corresponds to the character of our faith community. 

Whatever is the way forward, I believe it begins with us, both individually and as a congregation, being the local PR in Annandale for the United Methodist Church. We need to find ways to communicate clearly and tangibly the good news:

God’s Grace does not require us to have a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching.  We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching.

After this week and its unhelpful media blitz, I think that work of welcome should probably start with the LGBTQ folks in our pews. If you’re reading this, I want you to know that God’s Grace is for sinners, which makes you every bit as welcome as me*. 

Jason

*Actually, I’m clergy. Next to lawyers, we’re always the bad guys in Jesus’ stories. So you’re probably more deserving to be here than me. 

Last week my friend and podcast partner, Taylor Mertins, cribbing from a podcast we did with Fleming Rutledge last Ash Wednesday, argued that the trend of ‘Ashes-to-Go’ must go. I concur with much of what Taylor wrote and I applaud Fleming’s larger point that we who claim the Protestant mantle have become overly fixated on the sacramental-seeming to the detriment of the actual kerygma.

I also see the other side of the argument.

Ashes are not sacraments. Indeed to argue ‘What’s next, drive by eucharist?’ is to underscore Fleming’s point that we don’t know what we’re doing with the ashes in or out of the church.

Of all the things we do as Church, ashes express that which is most existentially and universally felt: you’re going to die (and you’re probably a sinner too). Despite what Fleming says, I’m not sure that requires a scripture text or interpreter for someone to know in their bowels it’s true. I may be self-justifying as I’ve both given and received ashes, not outside in a parking lot, but in a hospital ward shorn of any exegesis or expositor. Because I can see the validity to the counter point, I invited my colleague, Michelle Matthews, to write an apologia for ashes-to-go.

Here you go:

Two years ago I bit my theologically-trained tongue and publically mixed olive oil and ashes for the first time at the back table of our local Peets’ Coffee. That morning, I slapped on my collar and a nametag that read “Ask Me for Ashes”, pitched a quaint storefront chalkboard sign that read “Ashes-to-Go with a Cup of Joe,” and waited, somewhat nervously, for a stranger to approach, someone whose coffee I could buy, whose prayers I could share, whose ashes I could impose.

I could say that doing Ashes-to-Go was merely a practical decision on my part. That if my church had a building, I would have had an Ash Wednesday service. That as a new church planter, without yet a space or a discernible and consistent gathered community, taking ashes to the coffee shop was circumstantial and therefore deemed acceptable for me and those like me.

I could say this, I could explain it away, but to do so would support the common and characteristically condescending assumption that us church planter types get to play at church, do “Ash Wednesday light,” with ashes in one hand and a macchiato in the other, while the rest of the clerical lot in the real world get church right, bearing the burden for us all of liturgical preservation, corporate worship, and communal teaching on a day such as Ash Wednesday.

To say it was a merely practical or circumstantial church-planting decision would also be to undermine the courageous willingness by clergy at churches of all types and sizes to, like the Apostle Paul, try something possibly theologically questionable for the sake of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.

I could say it was simply a decision of convenience, but it wasn’t. It isn’t.

Taking ashes to the streets, the metro, the coffee shop – the work of carefully adapting and translating our private, sacred liturgies for the public square – is a prayerful, purposeful, and pivotal decision within the Church in post-Christendom.

When I say prayerful, I don’t mean the kind of prayer that critics of Ashes-to-Go obsess is missing from its representations. I’m not talking about the kind of prayer that is artfully crafted and nestled appropriately within a liturgy, of which a worshipping community consciously and responsively takes part before the imposition of ashes.

No, when I say prayerful, I’m talking about the kind of prayer that is paying attention. The kind of eyes-wide-open prayer where we vulnerably lend ourselves to seeing what God sees, hearing what God hears, where we open ourselves up to conversations, questions, stares, and even concerns of unaffiliated people, who by the grace of God and our presence, now have a fresh curiosity about what the Church uniquely has to offer the world in Jesus.

For the mom in the coffee shop, inclining her body to receive the ashes while tearfully whispering her recent breast cancer diagnosis. Lord in your mercy.

For the jaded and self-professed “ex-catholic” man who, after reluctantly receiving ashes, insists on knowing what kind of church accepts “lady priests”. Lord in your mercy.

For the 19 year old barista watching skeptically from a distance until on his break he pulls up a chair to ask all the questions swirling in his head about God. Lord in your mercy. 

For the Hindu man at the neighboring table quietly googling Ash Wednesday and then asking permission to receive ashes because of its “coherence with the virtues of Hindu faith.” Lord in your mercy.

For the woman exceedingly grateful for a complimentary coffee who later returns with her entire book club for communal prayer and ashes. Lord in your mercy.

The decision to take ashes to the street corner or the coffee shop is wholly prayerful and wholly Lenten, as my friend, United Methodist church planter Brian Johnson, believes. “If Lent is calling people to repentance, including people who aren’t otherwise listening for God, beckoning people to turn and encounter Jesus,” Brian says, “then Ashes-to-Go is our best shot of doing this all year.” 

Ashes-to-Go is prayerful, but it’s also purposeful.

When I say purposeful, I don’t mean to chalk it up as another strategy for church growth, another attempt at making the church relevant in the Innovation Age. When I say purposeful, I mean that adapting and translating our private, sacred liturgies for the world is a decisive culture-setting, identity-driving work within a mainline denomination like the United Methodist Church, where we have spread ourselves so theologically thin, attempting to be the church for all people, that we no longer know who we are.

Who we are is embodied in our worship, vivified in our prayers, hymns, creeds, and history. As who we are becomes more and more obscure to us, it feels safe and righteous, within the panic of losing who we are, to hoard, preserve, and protect our liturgies and sacred habits from the world’s dilution. In so doing, though, we create further barriers between the church and a growing populous who will stay away from the church, not because the church is antiquated or irrelevant, hypocritical or judgmental, but because they have no opinion of the Church at all as we have not adapted our shared language and practice to adequately introduce the world to who we are and why church is worth contemplating anyways.

My friend Matt Benton, pastor of Spirit & Life Church, sees this lack of identity, this lack of discernable culture, even within our United Methodist church plants. “In many ways, our church planting culture has been borrowed from the non-denominational world,” Matt says, “but it hasn’t served us well.”

Ashes-to-Go becomes a means to ecclesial distinction. It is culture-setting, identity-driving. It pulls back the veil and approachably shares with the community who we are. “It says, ‘We do Lent. We do Advent. We do ashes. We do palms. We embody a faith with more than a 50 year (or even 200 year) history,’” says Matt.

Ashes-to-Go is prayerful, purposeful, and, dare I say, pivotal for the Church in post-Christendom. When I say pivotal, I mean the word in its etymological richness. The United Methodist Church’s willingness to carefully adapt and translate our private, sacred liturgies for the public square, our ability to communicate who we are and why it matters to our communities, is the hinge pin, the pivot point, I believe, on which the Church currently spins.

As Brian and Matt reminded me:

Adapting, translating, and trying something theologically questionable

for the sake of the mission

is what Methodists do.

Our ordination does not afford us the luxury of being pretentious about our liturgy. For John Wesley the mission was always greater than the details of what was deemed liturgically and theologically proper.

Taking ashes to the streets and coffee shop is to dust off our fear of evangelism and proclaim who we are and why it matters amidst the backdrop of the Church’s growing invisibility. For my friend Kate Floyd, the offering of ashes and prayers from an Arlington metro station is to proclaim that “none of us have it together, that it’s okay to be broken, and that God in Jesus Christ meets us where we are in our life and in our mess with radical grace” – a message Kate believes people do not hear enough from the church.

There will always be a place for Ash Wednesday worship, space created to turn Christians away from our navel-gazing, to reorient us to our shared mortality, brokenness, and need for God’s healing, to remind us that forgiveness begins with repentance and that we cannot save ourselves. There will always be a place for Ash Wednesday worship, but the necessary pivot lies in us realizing that as beautiful as Ash Wednesday is, it is an intensely internal and unintelligible thing to a world where the church is rapidly becoming inconsequential.

13502037_1615405398788080_7321135075900787492_nA few weeks ago the Crackers and Grape Juice team assembled for our first ever Live Podcast.

We kicked off our denomination’s Annual Conference by hosting a Pub Theology at an awesome rooftop venue in downtown Roanoke, Virginia. In this 2nd half of the night, we fielded questions from a crowd of about 150.

 

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

For the love of all that is holy:

Give us a review there in the iTunes store.

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

In about a month my little corner of the United Methodist Church (the Virginia Annual Conference) will be convening an event called a ‘Day of Holy Conversation on Sexuality.’

Isto Es: We’re talking about the ‘homosexuality issue’ in the Church.

While I hope the event bears fruit and I plan to participate as well, my fear is that it will be yet another church gathering where we talk about homosexuals in the Church rather than talk with– or, better, listen to– homosexuals in the Church.

No gay Christians will be among the official presenters at the Day of Conversation.

(I asked and then politely advocated)

I understand that putting together an event like this for so many disparate parties is a sisyphean task so I can grumble but not begrudge their decision.

But here’s something every pastor knows and everyone who volleys soundbites should know:

Homosexuals exist in the big -C- Church.

Worshipping. Leading. Fellowshipping. Grieving. Serving. We baptize them. Hand them the Eucharist. Confirm them. Bury them.

The reality in the Church is marriage is the only thing we don’t do for them/with them.

Gay Christians have existed in every little -c- church I’ve served, from the lucky-to-have-30-on-Sunday congregation in Jersey to the prison congregation I ‘chaplained’ to my present congregation just outside DC.

You could double the size of that Jersey church if you just rounded up all the congregants I’ve known with gay children. And I even know a few at the church where the Day of Conversation will be convened.

Something else every pastor knows and every partisan on TV should know:

Most people in churches have no problem with those gay Christians in their congregation.

In the flesh, grace almost always trumps doctrine.

So regardless of how one feels about the ‘issue’ and what one thinks the Church’s position should be on it, the fact remains that gay Christians aren’t simply ‘issues.’

They’re not reducible to an issue because they’re people.

They are fruit-bearing (yes, they are) parts of Christ’s Church.

Are they sinning members of Christ’s Church? Sure. But so am I.

I suspect the reason this ‘issue’ is so painful and difficult for the Church is precisely because gay Christians are a part of all our congregations, because their faith bears fruit and because church members bear them much love and friendship.

But that’s exactly the reason too, I think, that they deserve to have their Church listen to them.

All of that is just prologue to say that I think this video, already viral in the church nerd world, gets at the ‘conversation’ exactly the right way. Props to the saints and sinners at House for All.

In case the video doesn’t load on your computer, you can find it here:

We Are The Church from Angie van Broekhuizen on Vimeo.

rp_rainbow-cross_april-1024x640.jpgWhile I’ve got plenty of rebuttals to the assertions below, I’m a believer that the internet/social media is open-sourced and shouldn’t be censored.

I’m also a believer in the Church as a space where divergent views can meet in peace.

To that end, this post is from Rev. Brent White, a fellow pastor in the UMC. Our similarities probably begin and end there. All the same, I encourage you to check out his blog here.

In the email in which Jason asked me to write a guest post for him while he’s in Guatemala, he began by saying, “Long time no disagree!” To which I wanted to say, “You know me better than that, Jason! If you’re blogging, I’m disagreeing.”

I have long and loudly disagreed with Jason over the past couple of years. It’s a credit to his skill as a writer and thinker that he gets under my skin. What Jason has written about the LGBT issue currently dividing our United Methodist Church doesn’t even represent my most profound disagreement with him: I was most bothered by his Advent series last year, “Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross,” followed closely by his bizarre (in my opinion) interpretation of God’s impassibility.

Good heavens, if I never see a quotation from Herbert McCabe again it will be too soon!

Be that as it may, I believe Jason is wrong on homosexuality for the same reason he’s wrong on atonement and impassibility: he fails to seriously engage scripture on the topic. He buys into a highly rationalistic theology that rarely makes contact with God’s Word.

There… I gave myself away: I called the Bible Gods Word. Even capitalized the “W.” I am an ordained United Methodist elder-in-full-connection who is also an evangelical—and I guess a rather conservative one. (After all, if Rachel Held Evans is somehow still evangelical, I’m not that.) 

If it helps, I wasn’t always this way. I graduated from Emory’s Candler School of Theology, alongside most of my classmates, happily liberal on human sexuality. I used to make many of the arguments that I’ve read some of Jason’s commenters make. I share this autobiographical detail in part because it gives the lie to the liberal Christian narrative that there is some ineluctable march toward acceptance of homosexual practice. To the dismay of many of my clergy colleagues, I for one moved to the right. And I have other friends who did too!

Before my evangelical re-conversion, however, I bought into the liberationist view of scripture that was part of the air we breathed at Emory: that our task is to find the “canon within the canon”—that kernel of gospel amidst the culturally relativistic chaff—and once we find it, we’re free to disregard the rest. Doesn’t Adam Hamilton do something like this with his “three buckets” approach to interpreting scripture?

Jason may disagree that this is what he does, but even in yesterday’s post he writes stuff like this: “One of the most prominent parts of this debate has nothing to do with those icky stone folks for who-lies-with-who passages in Leviticus. ¶ No, the grown-up part of this debate has to do with scripture’s positing the male-female complement as the created norm.”

Can we “grown-ups” not be bothered with all that “icky” stuff in Leviticus? Does Leviticus, even when properly exegeted, interpreted, and applied, have nothing whatsoever to say to us today about homosexual practice? (Never mind in the same context it also condemns incest and bestiality. How are we to interpret Jesus’ “silence” on those behaviors?)

Of course, on the very day I accuse Jason of failing to engage scripture, I concede that he did engage scripture in yesterday’s post—one verse at least—saying that Galatians 3:28 implies that Paul believes that the complementarity of the sexes is no longer relevant: “No ‘male and female,’” after all.

Therefore the seemingly powerful complementarity argument of traditionalists like myself—that our being male and female with complementary sex organs isnt incidental to God’s intentions for human sexuality—goes out the window.

I suppose in the absence of all other information, including the rest of Paul’s writing and the immediate context in which v. 28 appears, one might reach that conclusion. But Jason’s interpretation (by way of Eugene Rogers) isn’t shared by every other smart commentator I’ve read on this verse. They say (and I with them) that Paul is speaking only about one’s standing before God as God’s beloved child, fully equal in every respect.

 

Distinctions still exist and are relevant, of course. Paul himself considered his Jewish-ness one important part of his own identity. Nevertheless, Paul isn’t more approved or accepted by God on that basis.

Therefore, while there’s no difference between men and women in their covenant status before God, that hardly relates to how men and women behave sexually!

Imagine what Paul would say if we could ask him if this is what he intended by Galatians 3:28!

Jason even enlists Paul’s (and Jesus’) singleness and celibacy as evidence for their alleged indifference to gender distinctions. “If the male-female union, if being fruitful and multiplying is God’s ironclad intent for human creatures both he and Jesus were in clear violation.”

No, Jason, “being fruitful and multiplying” isn’t God’s “ironclad intent for human creatures,” only for those human creatures who are married. Paul himself makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 7—and Jesus in Matthew 19:12.

If Jason is going to argue scripture, he needs to argue it all the way.

Truthfully, I question how committed he is to the task. I pegged him as someone like Luke Timothy Johnson—the nearest thing my alma mater has to a rock star—who knows that both Old and New Testaments unambiguously condemn homosexual practice per se, but who believes that the Spirit is now revealing something new to us (something that, inconveniently, the Spirit kept to himself until around 1971).

To quote Dr. Johnson:

“The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says.”

But now, contrary to Dr. Johnson, Jason is arguing that scripture says something “other than what it says”: “Not only does Paul list homosexuality as a vice worthy of God’s wrath (it’s supposed), same-sex unions violate the clear (it’s supposed) creative intent of God (it’s supposed).”

(As always, Jason conflates “homosexuality,” about which the Bible says nothing, with homosexual practice, which is condemned in the strongest terms possible in both Old and New Testaments.)

Be that as it may, I look forward to Jason’s explaining those parenthetical asides. Why, for nearly two millennia, has the Church supposed that this is what scripture says, and why do we now know that the Church got it wrong?

If Jason is arguing scripture, he knows that there are plenty of really smart people who can argue back. Could they change his mind? Could scripture, properly exegeted, interpreted, and applied, convince him he’s wrong?

Or would he say, “Nevertheless, regardless what scripture says, the Spirit is showing us something new when it comes to gays and lesbians”?

If so, why bother with scripture?

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.

 

chuck_knows_church_JCRYTPLT-300x142In 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.

Last year I wrote this and more about the video series:

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.

Though I stand by what I said in reference to that particular video (Church Knows Stoles) and have done my best to resist commenting on even more inane, insider topics (Apportionments, District Superintendents…District Superintendents? WTF?), I took a lot of crap for my critique. I don’t like to be a bully but with a target as easy as Chuck it’s difficult not come across as such.

One response, however, made me feel especially douchey (even if my name isn’t Jeremy):

Hello Jeremy,

I am the creator and senior producer of Chuck Knows Church (one of about 20 staff and volunteers). I just wanted to post here to say that there are real people that work hard each week to bring these short messages. I can assure you we are all very devout Christians who love Jesus and certainly have God at the center of every one of our conversations as we produce the series.

The series, like any on 250 cable networks and more than a million YouTube channels, is not for everyone. I get that. We are trying to reach an audience not normally captured with traditional methodologies. In that regard, it’s rather unique I guess.

And I also get that the success of any series or effort often has backlash. It’s to be expected. I’ve produced videos and films for the denomination and secular studios for more than 20 years, and that’s always the case.

As far as “where is Jesus” and “where is God”, I suggest watching this week’s episode on Transfiguration Sunday. You will find God and Jesus at the center.

I’ll stop there, but thanks for letting me post a comment.

I thought your comments were clever! I wish you the very best in your ministry.

Rev. Steve Horswill-Johnston

Egg, meet Face.

If I call them like I see them I figure, in a bit irony, I should be gracious enough to throw a bone at the exceptions. So here’s a Chuckie video more along the lines of actual Christianity I said I wanted:

UnknownThe guys at Homebrewed Christianity better watch out. We’re going to start doing a weekly podcast here at Tamed Cynic.

To kick things off, we snagged Will Willimon.

Jesus must have a sense of humor, and I love the irony.

A year ago I got in trouble with my bishop for posting about farts on this blog.

Last week I found myself on the phone with Methodism’s most famous and important voice, Bishop Will Willmon, making jokes about sex and mas%$#$@#$%^ (‘it’s sex with someone I love).

All sprinkled with a generous helping of curse words.

We edited some- but not all- of it.

The rest is vintage Willimon: pithy, deeply theological and as arresting as a slap across the face.

Which, by the way, is how he describes Karl Barth’s effect on him.

For those of you who don’t know Will Willimon, he was recognized by Baylor as one of America’s 12 Best Preachers. The Pew Foundation lists him as the 2nd most read author among Protestant clergy, selling over a million copies. Take that Beth Moore.0

The former dean of Duke Chapel and former Bishop of North Alabama he currently teaches at Duke and pastors Duke Memorial United Methodist Church. The very best of my preaching is just a shallow imitation of this master artist.

As a young seminary student, Willimon’s sarcastic, caustic demeanor freed me to be me in the pulpit.

You can find his blog and links to his books here.

Bishop Willimon will be our guest preacher on Sunday, March 30 and will host a ‘Lunch with the Bishop’ Forum that same day.

Be on the lookout for the next installments. We’ve got Kendall Soulen, Stanley Hauerwas, Thomas Lynch and others in the queue.

You can listen to the Willimon interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar. You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

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
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. 

imagesIf you attend my church, read this blog or listen to my sermons then you know I tend to give Dennis Perry, my associate pastor and partner-in-crime, a lot of crap.

Good-natured, ribbing.

You know I tend to talk about how Dennis is old, forgetful, lazy, obvious, boring, tired, uninspired, old, predictable, vain, shallow, past his prime, full of himself, phones it in, takes credit for others’ work….just to name a few things.

As more than one parishioner has expressed with not a little exasperation, we have a ‘unique’ relationship.

He’s my Jerry Lewis to my Dean Martin.

My Kramer or Costanza to my Jerry.

Case in point:

Earlier this summer Dennis and I gave a presentation for a group of clergy at an annual conference. Because we were riffing off of one another’s comments, it was perfectly natural and predictable that I would start to yank Dennis’ chain in the course of our presentation.

He was the only one laughing.

Besides me.

It’s true that clergy in particular and Christians in general aren’t particularly strong in the  funny category, but the silence suggested something else too, I think: how unique our relationship actually is.

Behind the lack of self-seriousness is an actual friendship, a partnership that has no need for competition, oneupsmanship or self-aggrandizing- all of which, sadly,  are rare among clergy.

And it started a long time ago. Right around the time I was learning to drive, I was learning about Jesus.

From Dennis.

He’s not just my Kramer.

He’s my Yoda too.

And that’s not an age joke.

The thousands of books in my office began with one book (on Aquinas) Dennis handed to me as I left church one Sunday morning. I was just one out of 1,000 people he rubbed elbows with that morning but it was an important gesture.

The theological wrestling I’m wont to do on a daily basis began with just one question (Time vs Eternity) to which Dennis sketched an answer on a dry erase board- and suggested still another book, Screwtape– one confirmation class long ago.

The friendship and ministry we share today began back then with mentorship. Quick casual gestures of interest and encouragement.

It was he who boiled down the pained ‘How do you know if you’re called into ministry?’ agonizing to its essence: ‘It comes down to whether you can really see yourself doing anything else and being happy.’

Simple.

This nostalgia has been brought to you by the article I was forwarded from United Methodist Connections, “Why I’m Called to be a Mentor.”

The article, by Rev Melissa Pisco, a pastor in Florida, is the sort of unsurprising institutional promotion you’d expect from any organization, and it’s certainly the sort of bureaucratic PR you’d expect me to mock and satirize.

But I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

In the United Methodist system, ‘mentors’ are pastors you don’t know- and, chances are, will only get to know slightly better- assigned to tugboat ordinands through the hoops of the ordination process.

You’re not supposed to refer to them as hoops but that’s what they are.

Or, more accurately, that’s how they’re experienced.

As hoops.

Psychological tests, district committee interviews with open-ended questions, conference board interviews with open-ended questions (‘What can you tell me about the resurrection?’), essay questions, interviews about the essay answers.

It’s an anxiety-inducing process. It was for me and I got through without a hitch, and it was for my peers in the process too.

And that’s my point.

It doesn’t allow for the kinds authentic relationship-building that I think makes for fruitful mentorship.

Ordinands, who’ve already invested years and cringe-worthy amounts of debt, don’t feel permission to be themselves in front of ‘mentors’ who’ve been assigned to them by the people who soon will be examining their fitness for ministry.

It’s like asking a defendant to confess to the jury instead of his counsel.

I remember the first time I revealed a particular struggle I was having in my rookie ministry (the lack of anyone anywhere near my age within an hour’s drive).

The response I got from my mentor: ‘Well, I’d recommend you not share that with the board.’

Signal received.

I’m not trying beat up on Rev Melissa Pico or others who serve like her. And I understand that every process has to have…process.

But true mentorship doesn’t happen just because that’s the name you’ve affixed to an institutional process.

Actual, fruitful, vibrant mentorship is relational and while it’s not equal, it is safe; and therefore, much more likely to happen within the local congregation than inside a top-down prescribed process.

I had a handful of assigned ‘mentors’ as I wound my way to being a full-fledged minister and all of them were/are good guys and effective pastors.

But the mentoring that really made a difference in my life and for my call was the relationship I began with my local pastor and continue to this day, the kind that can’t be assigned but must instead evolve.

The same is true, I think- I pray- for the three friends in my own congregation for whom I’ve assumed the role Dennis played and plays to me.

 

METHODIST1-articleLargeThe NY Times story about the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree has been all over the web (at least the church nerd part of it). Ogletree is a United Methodist clergyman and professor of ethics at Yale Divinity School.

Ogletree recently performed a wedding ceremony in New York for his gay son, which obviously violates the current law of the United Methodist Church.

Ogletree is hardly the only Methodist pastor to preside over a heterodox wedding ceremony but, given his post at Yale and his former work in the Civil Rights movement, he’s the highest profile pastor to do so.

Ogletree’s move has set off the predictable- and, to me, increasingly uninteresting- condemnations. Some Methodist leaders in the New York area are pushing for a court trial.

Considering Ogletree’s age and retired status, such a trial would be a symbolic- and expensive- charade. But I’ll get off my soapbox.

You can read the story here.

Since yesterday’s Times story came out, I’ve seen numerous FB postings about it.

A few of you even forwarded the story to my email, asking me for my response.

My initial responses had nothing to do with the issue per se. They came to me in this order:

1. It struck me as (morally) gross that someone would refer to a father presiding at his own son’s wedding as ‘a crime.’ Making a father’s love sound like colluding with the holocaust is just bad character. Enough said.

2. I don’t think pastors should be performing religious rituals for their children or family members- baptisms, weddings, funerals. Dads should be dads, moms should moms etc. Don’t confuse one role with another.

After thinking about the article some more and what my requested ‘response’ would be I settled on this: 

Arguments in favor of gay marriage need to be more theological.

The Ogletree article, and Ogletree himself, largely views the issue through the lens of Civil Rights. That’s fine and that’s one (secular) way to approach it; however, Christians should be thinking Christianly about the issue.

What’s more, since the conservative argument for ‘traditional marriage’ trades heavily in scriptural and theological jargon, it’s all the more important for a counter proposal to employ the resources of scripture and theological reasoning.

Gene Rogers was my very first teacher of theology, back when I was an undergrad at UVA. As a theologian, he’s ‘conservative’ or, better put, he’s ‘post-liberal.’ He also happens to be gay.

Here’s an excerpt from him making precisely the sort of theological argument- one that is ‘conservative’ in its respect of and adherence to the historic tradition- I wish more Christians and clergy attempted to make:

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.”

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.

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.

You can read the full of Rogers’ here

 

I get calls all the time to my office from people shaking me down for money. Admittedly some of the calls are from people with a legitimate, sudden need where the church can be a helpful one-time help. However, working as a prison chaplain made me pretty good at recognizing a hustle.

On those days, when I decline to help the caller and instead direct them to one of our partner agencies in the community who are in a better position to assess their needs and route them through county services, it’s not uncommon for my refusal to help to be met by an angry rant about me being a Christian/pastor and I’m obligated to help everyone.

To which I sometimes reply (but always think): Jesus didn’t help everyone.

And he didn’t. Indeed for many an encounter with Jesus seemed to ruin their life not make it better (see: Young Man, Rich).

It can be shocking for readers of the Gospels to realize, perhaps after reading them straight through, that Jesus didn’t offer a miracle to everyone who needed one. He didn’t heal everyone who crossed his path.

His path to the cross was more important. 

That the previous sentence will strike many of you as callous/conservative/dogmatic is revealing. I mean isn’t it telling that in many United Methodist churches the terms ‘mission’ and ‘outreach’ refer exclusively to works of mercy for the poor and refer not at all to professing our core conviction?

Richard Stearns’ is correct that oftentimes our definition of the Gospel has a ‘hole’ in it, yet the Gospel is still a bigger piece of our calling than is the hole.

I think we often lose sight (and I count myself guilty here too) that we serve the poor not because it’s a good thing to do (the Red Cross takes care of that), and not because Jesus told us to and we feel obligated (that would make us just as joyless and duty-bound as Pharisees).

We empty ourselves on behalf of the poor as an expression of our worship of the one who made himself poor so we might become rich. In turn, because Jesus made himself poor we serve the poor with eyes expecting to find him among the poor-who accordingly are actually rich- thus, engaging the poor, is no different than bible study. It’s how we grow more deeply in Christ.

Because mission and service are means of discipleship for us, it’s all the more important that how we engage those ministries reflects and is consonant with our confession about Jesus Christ.

Here’s how a post from Relevant Magazine puts it:

Christianity is about self-sacrifice, but if it’s not for the purpose and glory of Jesus, there really isn’t a point. We would love to tell others we believe it’s all about Jesus. Yet, our actions say we don’t. It’s obvious in how we give. We often give without researching the organizations we’re helping. And when we do research, our focus is often fiscal—what does my dollar accomplish?—not on Christ-inspired outcomes. We must ask, “How are lives being changed?”

For Jesus, the most important outcome possible is the glory of God. When on earth, He profoundly understood that everything should serve this purpose. He also understood that the connection to God’s glory came through His work on the cross, as the savior for God’s people. When we realize this, Jesus’ reasoning for allowing a woman to spend an entire expensive perfume flask on Him makes sense. Those around Jesus scold the woman, because the perfume could have been sold to help the poor. Jesus rebukes them, saying, “For the poor you always have with you, and you can do good for them whenever you want, but you do not always have me” (Mark 14:7). Jesus is foremost.

This is not to say that justice and mercy cannot be brought through non-Christian organizations, because it certainly can. Life change does that; life change also involving the good news of Jesus, though, is even better.

Click here to read the rest of Relevant’s Post.

I don’t know which depresses me more: that the only way Methodists make a mention in the Wall Street Journal these days is through an in-house dispute over pastor job security or that we Methodists long ago surrendered our distinctive Christian identity, not to mention our theological imagination, by patterning our governance after the United States’ secular model.

That’s right, for those of you who don’t know- and really, lay people, there’s no reason you would need to know- we’ve got a Supreme Court!

Ours is called the Judicial Council, which, admittedly, makes it sound a little like the Star Chamber. 

Unlike the actual Supreme Court (or the Star Chamber I bet) ours apparently doesn’t observe the sabbath because on Sunday, the Judicial Council struck down a plan by denominational leadership, passed late this spring, to eliminate ‘guaranteed appointment’ for clergy.

Guaranteed appointment works just like tenure does for public school teachers. Just like public school systems, the United Methodist Church is beset by problems of outdated bureaucratic largesse and ineffective clergy that bishops are powerless to remove from ministry positions.

That’s right, as long as I don’t steal the offering plates or sleep with someone in my congregation, I can be demonstrably ineffective at my job but still be guaranteed an appointment at a church near you. 

The motive for eliminating guaranteed appointment was to give bishops the freedom to make appointments based on ministry rather than the minister. One bishop quoted in the WSJ says:

“I’m frustrated, I’m saddened, and I’m disappointed. The church is upside down in that we are so focused on clergy, clergy rights and clergy security that the church can’t be in mission.”

As the WSJ went on to explain:

Bishops argued that the policy hinders their efforts to energize the denomination, which, like most mainline churches, is facing declining membership. The bishops, who make or reaffirm clergy appointments each year, say they must place some ineffective pastors in churches, or go through an administrative process that can take months or years to remove them from ministry.

Obviously this move was not without complaint.

Many laity and clergy pushed back, arguing that it gives greater power to bishops, puts clergy’s lives further in bishops hands, adds more risk and less reward for incoming clergy and makes the appointment of women and minority clergy less secure.

Of these arguments, the only one I found missionally compelling is the one about women and minority appointments.

I think the fear of bishops is largely a misguided scare tactic.

Any honest assessment of how the UMC is structured would point out that one of the reasons for our decline is that we do not empower our leaders- bishops- to lead. And on the denominational level there is no other person or body to do the leading.

Any honest assessment of the UMC would also point out that clergy ineffectiveness is a fact. Just ask the laity.

While it’s true removing guaranteed appointment would have made clergy’s appointments less secure, that reality would make us no different than all the clergy in Baptist, Pentecostal and Non-Denominational traditions (you know the ones who tend to have stronger, growing churches and innovative, entrepreneurial pastors).

Strong leaders, I think, invite the opportunity to demonstrate their effectiveness and grow from not hide from assessment.

Here’s Bishop Will Willimon earlier this year speaking about this issue. He puts it better than me and I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Okay, so the title is a tad too confrontational, but if it’s not then you won’t actually open the post and read it.

It’s no secret that there’s a ‘crisis in clergy health’ as Amy Frykholm writes in a Christian Century piece, Fit for Ministry.

I’ve seen the statistics, showing the pastors’ health is right up there- or right down there- with professions like prison guards. Clergy ‘self care’ has been a denominational mantra at least since I entered the ordination process, and because clergy’s poor health impacts local churches, in that they must kick in more money for their pastors’ insurance, it seems an appropriate issue for denominational folks to tackle.

But here’s my beef. Amy Frykholm writes:

Being a pastor is bad for your health. Pastors have little time for exercise. They often eat meals in the car or at potluck dinners not known for their fresh green salads. The demands on their time are unpredictable and never ending, and their days involve an enormous amount of emotional investment and energy. Family time is intruded upon. When a pastor announces a vacation, the congregation frowns. Pastors tend to move too frequently to maintain relationships with doctors who might hold them accountable for their health. The profession discourages them from making close friends. All of this translates, studies show, into clergy having higher than normal rates of obesity, arthritis, depression, heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes and stress.

There is this mythology among clergy, at least in United Methodism, that being a pastor is somehow the most demanding job in the world, a vocation that leaves pastors with little time for friends, family, recreation or exercise.

Pastors have bad health because they’re always running from meeting to meeting or from hospital to hospital, the mythology goes. Congregations only begrudgingly let their pastors take vacations. Church potlucks serve up bad food. Pastors can’t be friends with their parishioners and so on.

Not only is this mythology just that, false (and it’s oblivious to just how difficult other people’s vocations are too); it also points to a larger issue of which clergy health is only a symptom.

It’s true ministry is a unique vocation with peculiar demands on a pastor’s time, choices and family but it’s not one that demands a poor quality of life. Pastor’s schedules are flexible- that’s one of the aspects I love about it.

By and large we control our time and that means we can control it badly too.

I remember as a chaplain at UVA Hospital, seeing pastor after pastor sitting all day with families from their church when the situation was not critical. I’m sure those gestures were appreciated. Were they a good use of those pastors’ professional and personal time? Not at all.

I’ve served as the solo pastor of a small, under 50 folks on Sunday, church in Jersey, as the pastor of a church that had 120 on Sunday and for the last 7 years as the associate pastor of a large church. I work hard, do a good job and am appreciated by most in my congregation.

Of course there’s always the chaotic week but I’ve never not had time to cook a good meal at night, spend time with my kids and get in my daily jog. I’ve made friends, which I’ve continued to keep, in each place I’ve served (what kind of Christian witness do we offer as pastors if friendship is ruled out automatically as a component?).

And it’s not that I’m not busy. I’m busier now than I was in my previous two churches. We have 4 worship services every weekend. We have 120 kids in confirmation and Tribe Time, a 4th-5th grade youth program. We performed like 30 funerals this past year, and that’s hardly scratching the surface.

And here’s where it gets confusing for me.

The average United Methodist Church in the nation has less than 150 people on Sunday morning. That’s roughly the size of our youth group here at church. That’s not an enormous amount of people to lead. 

That pastors’ health suffer because of the demands of leading that many people, I think, says a whole lot about the bad habits and bad expectations of churches and pastors who’ve been taught not to upset them.

If our youth director told me his health, eating habits, friendships and marriage were all suffering because of the time he was expected to spend with the youth, I’d say he was spending too much time with those youth. I’d say they either had unreasonable expectations on his time or he had an unhealthy need to be needed and present in every moment of their lives. I’d say it sounded like he had a codependent relationship with the youth. I’d say that by doing so many things with the youth- by making every thing important- nothing was important, making it impossible for him to lead them anywhere new.

Have you ever taken a look at the job description for United Methodist clergy? It’s ridiculous. It’s longer than my sermon on Sunday. By making everything important, the United Methodist Book of Discipline effectively makes nothing important. Churches have suffered because of it and now, it seems, so has pastors’ health.

It’s great that denominational folks are taking measures to improve clergy health, but I’m skeptical they’ll help apart from those same denominational folks taking steps to create healthier expectations in congregations and empowering pastors to lead.