I often suffer from bouts of insomnia. Rather than fight it, I usually get up out of bed and do something. I used to read… but since I like to read, that often kept me up the rest of the night. So instead, I watch movies. Sometimes I get sleepy. Sometimes I don’t.
Watching movies, I marvel at how well actors do their job and to what lengths they will go to perfect their craft. Among the best acting jobs ever was Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. Thornton portrays a man named Karl Childers, a simple-minded man who is released from a psychiatric hospital where he has lived since committing murder at age 12. He befriends a young boy and his mother and must confront the mother's violent boyfriend, as well as his own dark past.
Thornton’s acting was brilliant: Karl comes off just as complex as any other human being, with struggles and history. His strange mannerisms and gait are so good that you really have to remind yourself that it’s Thornton. I later learned how Thornton made himself to consistently look so awkward while walking during the shooting of the film: he placed crushed glass in his shoes.
Some might think that extreme… but there are thousands of tales similar to that in the history of movie and television: Leonard Nimoy’s molded pointed ears (Mr. Spock) caused him a lot of physical pain. Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Woodsmen in The Wizard of Oz but he was highly allergic to the toxic aluminum power makeup, had a severe reaction, and was replaced. Chevy Chase was known for his imitations of President Gerald Ford falling, and now suffers from a lot of back pain as a result.
Some would say that it’s not worth it. The counter to that is that learning and perfecting a craft often comes at a price. I think it’s no different with discipleship: if we learn and perfect the craft of discipleship, it will come at a price for us. But I would say that it’s worth the price when we consider the price Christ paid for us.
I have spent some time this afternoon thinking about what we mean by “conscience.” Not in a metaphysical, psychological, philosophical way (that would actually be consciousness, I think) but in a theological way. I mean, if theology is the study of God, we’re all theologians, right?
The word conscience appeared twice in the United Methodist Reporter last week. The first time was in an article about the Judicial Council ruling regarding a pastor’s responsibility in determining membership readiness. One of our bishops, Bishop Janice Huie, said that her fear was that “the conscience of the pastor” could be put above the church as a whole. Of course, there are going to be people at odds with either stance.
A couple of pages over a byline reads, “Bishops Release Statement of Conscience of Iraq War,” (italics mine). In it, the bishops state their “complicity in what we believe to be the unjust and immoral invasion and occupation in Iraq.” Not all of the bishops signed it – our bishop didn’t. However, ninety-five did. I know two retired servicemen, both highly decorated officers, who are split on their opinion. One says that America needs to be in Iraq no matter what the costs. The other, a World War II veteran, says that it’s Vietnam all over again and we need to get out.
It’s clear that our bishops aren’t united on these issues; neither are the rest of us. But how do we allow for conscience in some things yet deny it in others – especially in matters of the faith? I’m firmly convinced that these things fall under the heading of “Life is Messy.”
I did disaster clean-up the other day in Marshall County, KY (the site of a recent tornado) and I got pine sap all over my Carhartt’s. My small efforts were barely perceptible – helping to clean up one lot among hundreds. I suspect the work of the Kingdom is like that: messy, tedious… nothing fast or easy about it. But I know God is there, and He expects us to struggle with it, as He struggles with us. Thanks be to God.
This week’s United Methodist Reporter has these bylines: “Judicial Council Reinstates Virginia Pastor Who Denied Membership to a Gay Man.” “Judicial Council Reverses Lower Court, Rules Against Lesbian Pastor.” Both cases are complicated and confusing.
In the case of the Virginia pastor, the Rev. Ed Johnson denied church membership to a gay man in a same-sex relationship. The pastor had knowledge of the relationship and the man was unrepentant about it – a relationship that is at odds with the UMC’s stance on homosexuality. Mr. Johnson was ordered by his D.S. and bishop to accept the man into church membership, and he refused based on his understanding of church vows and repentance of sin. He was removed from the pastorate and placed on leave of absence. The Judicial Council, the UMC’s highest legislative body, reversed the bishop’s decision and reinstated Mr. Johnson.
The other case involved the Rev. Beth Stroud, who stated last year that she was a practicing lesbian in a same-sex relationship. Her bishop filed charges that resulted in a church trial and her being defrocked. The Northeast Jurisdictional Appeals committee ruled in her favor and reinstated her. However, the Judicial Council ruled that the Appeals committee erred and restored the original trial court ruling. She is now defrocked.
To complicate matters, the Council of Bishops released a Pastoral Letter stating that while pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier. They also wrote that pastors are accountable to the bishop, superintendent, and fellow clergy on matters of ministry and membership. What the Council did not address was how to address the matter of practicing homosexuals who (1) seek church membership and (2) are making no plans to repent of or change their practices, which are in conflict with the Book of Discipline as it reads: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” (¶161 G). The Judicial Council ruling has made it clear that the Book of Discipline “invests discretion in the pastor-in-charge to make determination of a person’s readiness to affirm the vows of membership.”
Is this a spitting match between the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council? It certainly puts pastors in the middle and on the spot: how can you be obedient to your superiors AND be obedient to the Discipline/Judicial Council AND keep your integrity?
To answer any questions you might have: I am bound by the Book of Discipline by vow and practice; if I couldn’t live with that, I wouldn’t be United Methodist. I take baptism and church membership very seriously. I also see grace and hospitality as tools to help people confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. To be clear, another part of ¶161 is this: We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian or gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons. We are not bound by hate, but by love.
What does this mean? Anyone who becomes a member of the United Methodist Church under my pastoral authority will be one who, in my pastoral determination, is ready to affirm the vows and responsibilities of membership. S/he may not be perfect, but s/he is someone who rejects the evil powers of this world, repents of their sin, accepts God’s grace, and will profess Christ. As far as I’m concerned – nothing has changed. That is my vow to the Church, and that is my vow to you.