Friday, December 07, 2018

America At Its Best

I will have to confess that I am usually a political cynic at heart. I was relieved when I moved back to Tennessee after 18 years and didn’t have to choose a political affiliation, where election primaries are open, since being a “non-affiliated” voter in Kentucky usually meant I didn’t get to vote in many election primaries. 

You can click here to read more of my ramblings about my wrestling match with American and church politics, but the short version is that I’ve never thought that we had to compromise our faith, morals, or ethics to offer Christ to others. The hard questions might be: 
  1. Are we willing to give up labels that are stumbling blocks to those who are already stumbling? 
  2. Are we willing to jump into the middle of the fray rather than take a side in it? 
My beef with American politics is that we tend to pick a side, and too often it rubs off on our faith and discipleship. - hence my cynicism.

I also have to confess, that at least for this week, my political cynicism was briefly put aside. I rarely watch anything on television live, relying on the news or a YouTube video to catch up on newsworthy events in the world or sports. Yesterday, I watched a few clips of President Bush’s funeral. I always liked President Bush, and I remember my parents both liked him (even though they didn’t vote for him). My mom really liked Barbara Bush. He made tough decisions, including one that probably cost him his presidency. The bottom line was that he loved his country, and he felt called to serve it. Serve it he did - with distinction. 

My admiration for him was that he seemed to “get” that life is about balance. He loved his country and fought for it… yet he wrote many, many letters to his family while in service, because his family was important to him. His service to the country not only included military and legislative service, but he also took on directing the CIA for a year after it had been rocked by scandal and poor morale, and helped get President-elect Carter properly briefed for his presidency. He put service above self… but never above family and faith. He was a life-long Episcopalian (which was reflected in his funeral service), but also had an appreciation for the “freer” side of the faith, as a little Michael W. Smith got thrown into the service for good measure. 

His balance was also reflected in his humor - he never took himself too seriously, and could put himself into a joke as well as anyone (even parodying himself on Saturday Night Live, telling Dana Carvey that his impression was nothing like him. In fact, Bush said, “It’s bad. It’s baaaad.”). 

I was so pleased to hear so many people testify to President Bush’s legacy, and so uplifted to see, amidst all the civil religion pageantry on display, that at the heart of it all was a full-on, smells-and-bells worship service that honored God and celebrated President Bush’s life. Everything about it was at the heart of what being Christian is like and should be. And with respect and kindness, I hope those of other faiths or of no faith felt that, for a couple of hours, the United States was at its best.

It has always galled me that governments, the military, and the police, fire, and EMS services usually “do” funerals better than churches do. There is so much to celebrate when we celebrate someone’s life, beyond just a few memories about the deceased.

I think I was most moved by former Senator Alan Simpson’s testimony about his friend George Bush, who put honor and friendship above appearance and politics, helping to support and lift up Sen. Simpson at a tough time in his political career. I also read in the Washington Post where a couple of years ago Sen. Simpson was in Texas having treatments for his cancer, and President Bush insisted on taking him out to a construction site where a new, magnificent sanctuary was being built at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, where the Bushes were members. Simpson told him, “This really is something.” Bush’s deadpan response: “I think they built that waiting for me to croak.” 

Senator Simpson said two things in his witness that are sage worthy: 
  1. “Humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life.”
  2. “Hatred corrodes the container it’s carried in.”
Those two things will preach. Anytime. Anywhere. At any church.  Or anywhere else, for that matter.

In the midst of that worship service, I forgot who the Democrats and the Republicans were. We were Americans who were mourning and celebrating the life of one of our leaders, veterans, and family men. We were, for a couple of hours, at our best. 

I had to dig to find this picture, but it was the last time I felt this same way about our country: at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center/Library in 2013. George W. was not a perfect president anymore than his dad was, and I will leave it to historians and scholars to debate that all out. But in this picture I see everything that the United States ought to be about. I see everything that people of faith should be about. I remember what is important: people. I remember what matters: Goodness. Honor. Respect. Service.

Of course the feeling won’t last. We will soon be back to partisan bickering and political oneupmanship. I will quickly become a political cynic again. And I know that on some days, I feel the very same way about the institutional church and its politics, and I find myself ashamed about my attitude and role. Wednesday gave me a glimpse of what is important and what can be lifted up - if we choose to do so. 

I have recently begun my mornings and ended my days with an old Celtic prayer, talking to God as He is. May we all find the peace that is within us, and the peace that we can CHOOSE to live out:

I awake in the name of the Father who made me.
I arise in the name of the Son who died to save me.
I rise to greet the dawn in the name of the Spirit who fills me with life.

I lay me down in the love of my Father.
I surrender my body to rest in the love of my Savior.
I trust my life in sleep to the Spirit who fills me with life.

May it be so.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Passion, Position, and Possible

Three things to make clear at the beginning:
  • Passion is good. We should have a burning passion for God and God's people.
  • Position. Knowing what we believe and proclaim is faithful.
  • Possible. With God all things are possible. 

One word that needs to go along with all of the above: Intractable.
in·trac·ta·ble  [ˌinˈtraktəb(ə)l]
• hard to control or deal with.
"intractable economic problems"
synonyms: unmanageable, uncontrollable, difficult, awkward, troublesome, demanding, burdensome: "intractable problems" 
• (of a person) difficult; stubborn.
synonyms: stubborn, obstinate, obdurate, inflexible, headstrong, willful, unbending, unyielding, uncompromising, unaccommodating, uncooperative, difficult, awkward, perverse, contrary, pigheaded, stiff-necked: "an intractable man"
We often say that "two out of three ain't bad." That holds true for many things, but when it comes to living as a community, passion and position without some concept of what is possible today, leads to intractability. While some folks call that "unacceptable compromise," "selling out," or "justice denied," I would argue that it is part of evolution: we cannot be what we can and should become if we do not make a means for us to get there. We are not a homogeneous society.

I once thought that church politics was above government/state politics; that was horribly naive on my part. In some ways, it is much worse - when someone doesn't get their way in government/state politics they protest with campaign signs, stickers, t-shirts, and Facebook posts... but very few people threaten to leave their country over it. In the Church, however, not only will be threaten to leave - we will and do, or even start our own church.

I've always been a fan of Martin Luther, who (may have) said at the Imperial Diet of Worms, "Here I stand - I can do no other." However, we sometimes forget what he (may also have) said as he left: "I am finished!" In the short run: he took a stand against the injustices of Catholicism of his time. In the long run: we've had schism upon schism upon schism. The numbers of Christian rites, communions, and denominations is impossible to tally, but it is safe to say that it is over a thousand, and that number is getting bigger instead of smaller. 

Should we be willing to take a stand? Yes. But the extreme of "me" above "us" leads us to the priesthood of each believer, instead of the priesthood of all believers. It cannot have been Luther's intent for the church to devolve into such. (A great article about this, "Methodists, The Politics of Leverage and the Future of Protestantism," can be found here.)

My hunch is that, within my lifetime, we will see U.S. politics become a multi-party system. Already, we see inklings of what England went through at the end of the 19th century, as there were disputes within the two major parties. I see this in my own United Methodist Church as well: presently, there aren't two neatly-defined sides: we're more like "facets," and no facet has a totally monolithic constituency. As we head to a called 2019 General Conference, I presently see passion and position. I don't see much that is possible. I see a lot of intractability.

United Methodists have never been as monolithic as we'd like others to think we are: John Wesley and George Whitefield's correspondence confirmed that early in Methodism's history. In 1784 Wesley sent the first Methodists the Sunday Service for Methodists in North America, which was supposed to be the liturgy used in this new denomination. It fell into disuse quickly, and didn't help that brother Charles Wesley strongly disapproved of it, thinking John had taken great liberty to give this new movement a Reader's Digest condensed version of the Book of Common Prayer:

  Why change it then for your Edition, 
  Deprav'd by many a bold omission?
  We never will renounce our creed,
  Because of Three but One you need,
  No longer the Nicene approve,
  The Athanasian Mound remove,
  And out of your New book have thrown 
  God One in Three, & Three in One.

We are far from the only tradition that has an "orthodoxy" set up but still finds a wide interpretation and practices present:

  • How many Roman Catholics uphold their official teaching on birth control (and how many Protestants remember that it was forbidden until 1939 when the Episcopal Church changed its stance on such)? 
  • How many United Methodists embrace the official stance of the UMC on the Real Presence at the Lord's Supper/Holy Communion (real presence not to be confused with transubstantiation), which says, "Christ’s presence in the sacrament is a promise to the church and is not dependent upon recognition of this presence by individual members of the congregation." 
  • "One baptism for the remission of sins." Ever pastored or been a DS to a rural UMC in the middle of John Calvin country? Surely you don't know anyone who got "rebaptized" in the Jordan River on their last trip to the Holy Land! And related to the Nicene Creed... 
  • Which Nicene Creed? Will you have yours with or without filioque? That led to the Big Split of 1054, you know. 
  • Could it be that we are selectively intolerant about some things?

The dichotomy of priesthood of each believer and the priesthood of all believers is what United Methodists are going to have to wrestle with. It is also going to mean that some embrace of the art of the possible has to be in the mix if we want to move from imperfection towards perfection. We will also have to remember that, as much as we seem to want to make contextualization and culture as irrelevant to the Gospel truth, the fact is all of us use both every day. As Sam Chen said in a recent issue of Christianity Today (June 2018): " 'Just stick to the Gospel,' we say. But if we under-adapt (culture & context), we are giving them legalism instead of the gospel. The opposite of syncretism isn't the pure gospel. The opposite of syncretism is legalism." And we will always find ourselves in the struggle of over adapting or under adapting context and culture in presenting the Gospel.
  • If you use an English biblical translation instead of Aramaic and Greek, you have embraced local culture and context.
  • If you've ever used a movie or piece of literature in teaching or preaching, you have used cultural hermeneutics.
My hunch is that at General Conference 2019, we United Methodists will wrestle with, try to amend, perfect, and then vote down every "plan" of going forward as a denomination where human sexuality is concerned. We have so designed our polity and structure that we have now legislated ourselves into intractability and designed it to operate from a position of distrust. 

In my opinion, our approach is all wrong. "We" versus "they" cannot create an us. Everyone is going to have to swallow some pride and move toward with what's possible, so we can reach perfection. None of us, regardless of the label we've chosen for ourselves, have "arrived." We see through a glass, darkly.

A few years ago, Orthodox and Evangelical Christians in Turkey realized that their greatest obstacle to the Gospel wasn't the secularized world or culture - it was their fighting with each other. So a little book was written: Christianity: Fundamental Teachings. Instead of stating the beliefs they DON'T have in common, they approached it from what they DO have in common. Who endorsed this book?
  • The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch
  • The Armenian Patriarchate
  • The Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate
  • The Catholic Bishops Conference of Turkey
  • The Associate of Protestant Churches
Sahak Mashalia, an Armenian Orthodox bishop who was a central writer of the book, said, “Our common wish is that this book may be like a stone thrown into a lake, and its waves reach out to the most remote parts of Christendom.”

That's a better use of stones, at least to me, for us. All of us. Along with passion and position, what is possible for us to better be the Body of Christ... instead of bodies?


Thursday, June 28, 2018

REPOST: Politics, Faith, and Vacuum

(Note: this is an article I wrote in February of 2017. As the sermon this week is about hope, I think this article is just as apropos today as it was last year. We have a plenteous mission field in which to immerse ourselves.)

I have had the glorious gift of retreat for the past week and a half. Six days on an island/key with two old and wonderful friends, and (so far) three days at a Trappist monastery. I have purposefully surrounded myself with creation, friendship, religious icons, solitude and silence, and prayer offices. I have purposefully avoided the news and social media banter. Time and distance has allowed for thought and reflection, and I’ve come to believe that the Church, and more specifically the United Methodist Church, is missing – and has been missing – some grand opportunities.

I’ll preface this by saying I was raised and am a social and political oddity. My father was a lone Democrat in a family of Republicans, yet wouldn’t avoid the draft for the Korean War even at the insistence of my grandfather, who had lost a son in World War II. My mother was a social liberal as well, growing up a coal miner’s daughter and whose mother’s only sources of income were social security and the Black Lung Benefits Act. Both of my parents grew up in poverty, and while social liberals they were fiscally conservative - yet very generous with their own money in their community and in helping aging parents. My father became a college professor. My brother and I are well educated as well; my brother has four degrees and I have two. We grew up in a small southern college town that hosted students of many different nationalities. Our neighbors were Cuban refugees, and their youngest son and my brother became best friends (in fact, my brother’s Spanish became nearly as good as his English). He, like my father, went into academics and is a college professor and research scientist in immunology. You could probably call both of us “educated rednecks” – my brother has a farm where he regularly hunts and fishes. I gave up both early in life and became a motorcyclist and shade tree mechanic instead, at least where hobbies are concerned.

Unlike my Midwestern parents, my brother and I became products of Southern culture. We hunted, fished, and hauled hay in the summer. At the same time, we also played baseball, tennis, and golf. At home we were surrounded with books, intellectual conversations, and political discussions, yet we also went out in the evenings and ran around with friends whose parents were white-collar and blue-collar, upper-middle class and lower-middle class, and (because of the university) of every color and nationality: white, black, Cuban, Indian, Korean, Arabian, Lebanese - and we all did things that were wholesome as well as the things that can often land young people in trouble. We both went to the same college where our father taught, and met and became friends with even more diverse folks: Japanese, Venezuelan, Iranian, African, and Russian. We were both active at the Wesley Foundation. It was a unique childhood and education.

As I reflect on where I’ve been, and where I am now, I see a lot of angst and fear. Not just in the rural area in which I serve as a district superintendent/shepherd of a few counties in far Western Kentucky, but across the world. So much anger and division around politics – and not just here in the U.S., but also in the United Kingdom, where the Brexit campaign has caused great chasms amidst its citizenry. This spring France will have an election that has the potential to be as divisive as our own U.S. election. And immigration woes are not unique to the U.S., as the U.K., Germany, and Sweden are struggling with how to handle refugees. Some of it is logistics, for others it involves cultural biases, and for still others, fear. There are no easy answers. It becomes more complicated when you try to live in the tension of logistical and political realities versus a Christian faith that embraces the Beatitudes and Great Commandment not as suggestions, but as a way of life.

The temptation is great to pick a “side” in all this – and in the U.S. we tend to think and align ourselves in polar terms, using an either/or logic. Picking either side would make my life easier, and either side would probably win me more friends. But there is a reality that, as one who is both Christian and a pastor, I can’t escape: on any given Sunday, either in the United Methodist Church or most other churches, the folks in the pews are usually split 60/40 on political alignment, one way or the other (at least, according to a study quoted in a recent issue of Christian Century). There are of course exceptions, but it’s fair to say that God-fearing and believing people are Democrats and Republicans alike, and both attend our churches. My own denomination finds itself in the same ideological camps beyond Democrat or Republican: are you Good News/Confessing Movement/WCA or are you RMN/MFSA?  Preaching partisan politics or alignment, at least to me, just seems pointless and possibly violates the vow to do no harm. But more importantly, it’s just plain ineffective - and I believe - theologically and biblically unsound.

As my friend Allan Bevere wrote a few weeks ago, if you read Romans 12 AND 13 in context, we pray for our leaders that they might be godly people, and then - pretty much - pray that they might leave us Christians alone to do our work: sacrifice, don’t allow ourselves to be transformed by the world, please God. Let Caesar, the President, and the Prime Minister be about their work, but know as Christians that love fulfills the law and does no harm to a neighbor. We put on the robe of Jesus the Christ. That’s our task; not to be about a political party’s business, but to be about the Lord’s business.

That may mean that we willingly and sacrificially place ourselves in the middle of the fray;  in that messy middle isn’t a fence, but a cross, and a cross we are commanded to bear. Not in a martyr, “look at me” sort of way, but in a servant, sacrificial way. And it’s not to avoid being political, but in fact to EMBRACE a politic: the many, many folks for whom the Church may be saying it is doing something for, but when it comes to doing, has done damned little. I would add that I have to indict myself as well. The Church has not filled a vacuum – it has created one.

The very same people who are in “backlash” politically have seen (a) the government fail them, and (b) the Church fail them. Why or how that’s occurred, or even if their reasons are “right” or “wrong,” matters little. People are hurting. In the area I live in, I’ve watched factories and industries dry up in the 50+ years I have been alive. Hopelessness turns people to drugs and addictions. Nones and Dones either found the Church wanting, or (worse) shooting their wounded. Secondary and tertiary doctrinal matters have become idols while the primary Gospel message of love, grace, and hope has been lost.  That’s less my observation, and more the observation of the growing number of people who love God and Jesus Christ, but have come to the conclusion that the Church sucks. Some of those same people have concluded that government sucks, too. I grew up with these folks, lived with these folks, and now seek to shepherd and pastor these folks. Many of them no longer attend a church, or have never attended to begin with – and in their minds, for good reason. You can learn a lot by occasionally hanging out with people outside of the Church. Jesus did some - most - of his best work there.

Charles R. Morris, a columnist for Commonweal, wrote a great article in the January 6th issue, “Backlash: Trump’s Rise Is Part of a Pattern.” It discusses the historical and present political sways endemic to our world. One takeaway is this: things are very broken – both in government and in the Church – and those who have been ignored and hurting for a long time are now responding. In response to a perceived void, the void is being filled - for better or worse. One fact is undeniable: nature abhors a vacuum.

This could be an opportunity for the United Methodist Church - as well as any other church or communion - to shine. Instead of continuing the mostly insular argument about who’s theologically and ideologically correct, we could decide to make disciples and let God sort it all out. In short: progressive folks? Go make disciples who are progressively minded and need a place of hope and refuge. Conservative folks? Go make disciples who are conservatively minded and need a place of hope and refuge. Pastors? Go shepherd wherever you’re sent and love your people, even if some of them have politics you don’t like. Let your call and your love outweigh your opinions (wow, that even sounds Wesleyan!). Build bridges across the gaps. Outdo others in showing love and compassion (wow, that even sounds biblical!). And everyone: realize that as a Church, we are a minority that more and more people have less and less respect for, and even less inclination to be a part of. We are called to minister to the least, the last, and the lost – of which the number continues to grow. Our world needs hope. Our Church used to be in the hope business. Jesus still is.

There is no shortage of people who need saved from despair, pain, and hopelessness. They are rural and urban alike. But we DO have a shortage of professed Christians who are willing to ditch their own politics and partisan theology and go tell people that they are children that God loved and cherished since the day that they were born.

The reality is that there aren’t just two sides. This world and the people in it represent a multifaceted reality that needs hope, love, grace, and peace. We don’t have to compromise our faith, morals, or ethics to offer Christ to others. The question is: what are we willing to give up that is a stumbling block to those who are already stumbling? Are we willing to jump into the fray rather than take a side in it?

“They will know we are Christians…”


Abbey of Gethsemini
Season after the Epiphany, February 2017

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

New Staff Roles - Being Church In a Rapidly-Changing World

Beloved Jackson First UMC folks:

The Lord be with you.

I am sure the staffing changes at the church are filtering down to Sunday school classes, coffee shops, golf foursomes, and other groups across the church. With that, I am sure that there are questions about who will be doing what, why is this happening, and what does this mean? Here are some (beginning) answers:

1. Who will be doing what? It's a great question. The quick answer is: we're working on it! Our next few staff meetings, along with working with the staff-parish relations committee, are to address this questions. One of the things that we're sure of as we've worked and prayed for months about this: the Spirit is nudging us to move from being a staff-driven church to a Christ-driven church.

2. Why is this happening? We are encountering the same realities that many Christian churches are: a diminishing congregation, a more secular country, and a culture that is less friendly to the institutional church. Sundays and Wednesdays are no longer "sacred space" and school, athletic, and community events are regularly scheduled during times previously protected for church activities. We have buried a lot of saints in the past several years, and even in years we have broken "even" in the number of deaths and new members, our new members are often not able to contribute to the church financially at the level of those who passed away. From 2004-2016, our membership and worship attendance has looked like this:

During all of this time, our budget has basically remained about the same. As you can tell, we have been asking fewer people to give more... and they have. We are a remarkable, generous, and faithful church! Those who are on our Finance and Staff-Parish Relations Committees cannot in good conscience ask you to do more, and we need to be the best stewards we can where money, resources, and staffing are concerned. In January, I began to share with our staff and key leadership about these realities, and it has been something all of us have been committed to pray about. While this may seem abrupt, this has not been a hasty decision or one made from panic; we wanted to address this before it became a problem.

3. What does this mean? I have been blessed to know many of your previous pastors and the work ethic of this church - and it is clear that "working hard enough" has never been the problem. We are living, however, in a season where the church has to move from a membership-model to a discipleship-model of ministry, where we can make disciples... who in turn, can make disciples. We live in a world of wireless communications, online banking, and virtual relationships - which means we have to work harder than ever at establishing personal relationships. We are also a church that has members of varying ages and cultural backgrounds who have different experiences of worship, communications, small group activities, and church programming.

This just doesn't mean our staff will have to assume new roles because they are smaller in number; all of us as a congregation will have to assume new roles. The lines between what we became used to staff doing and what we do as church members will sometimes blur. We are all responsible for each other. All of us are now ministers, not just some of us. This is nothing new; this is what the Apostle Paul told us about being a community of faith:
For as in one body we have many members, and not all of the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us... (from Romans 12:4-6, 1 Cor. 12:4-31)
Culture Shock. This is what we are going to encounter - all of us - culture shock! If you've ever traveled outside of our country, you know what this is like: people do familiar things differently than we're used to... but they get done. Even if they speak English, it sounds different and some words have different meaning... but they communicate as effectively as we do. We start to feel odd and out of place... yet we find people who love and embrace us anyway. These next few years will be the same for us. And yet... can you imagine the first twelve disciples being asked by Jesus to "let the dead bury the dead" and "follow me, and I will teach you how to fish for people," and what they must have thought at first?!?

Reality Has Occurred. I have seen the United Methodist Church as a layperson, a preacher serving a 3-point charge, a senior pastor, a district superintendent, and as a present General Conference delegate; in short, I have seen it from the basement to the pew to the pulpit to 30,000 feet above it, and have witnessed incredible changes and shifts in 50-plus years. The history of Christianity shows similar changes and shifts in its 2000 years.

What We Have Isn't Bad! There is still a place for the traditional and sacred. There is still a need for our stories to be told, our legacies to be continued, our fellowship to grow stronger. Our music and youth programs are strong and continue to grow stronger. Our link with Methodist history is something God has used and continues to redeem. God honors and will honor these things. Alongside those things, God also refreshes and renews us:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
- Isaiah 43:19
God's Not Done with Us. In fact... God may just be getting started. We already have a great history, a wonderful building, and an awesome location to do ministry in Jackson, Tennessee. It need not, and can not, be confined to our building. We have learned a lot in these 192 years as a church, and still have much to learn. And while no one knows the future "or the day or the hour," this much we do know: God is with us. Let us not be afraid!


Thursday, April 12, 2018

Inventing/Re-Inventing/ReRe-Inventing Orthodoxy: It's Like Deja Vu All Over Again

My beloved United Methodist Church finds itself at a "place" that many other Christian movements, denominations, etc., have found itself at sometime or another (or even before): where shall we draw the line? To be sure, Methodists are no strangers to this; we've split, come together, and merged before.

So has Christianity. Many, many times. As shown below, splitting off to form another church/communion/denomination/movement is nothing new. It seems like every time there was an ecumenical council, the church split. And split. And split. And then there was the Big Split of 1054. And then another REALLY Big Split of 1517 (Protestant Reformation). And then in 1532 (beginnings of the Anglican Communion). And so on. And so forth.

The church that I presently serve is an awesome, awesome church. It made the decision years ago to remain downtown rather than move to the suburbs, because we believe there is much to be done here. Our church also has much history to it: we were the host (and sponsor) of a new denomination starting - the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. That came about from a question asked during the 1866 General Conference of the M.E. Church, South: "What shall be done to promote the religious interests of our colored members?" Four years later (December 16, 1870), forty-one former slave members met in the basement of the church I serve to start the CME Church. UMC and CME folks have told me that this is something to be proud of - and I am thankful for the generosity shown by our church members so many years ago. A state historical plaque in front of our church commemorates this piece of history. 

While there are things to celebrate about that, there are also terrible things to mourn. In the background of that plaque is our beautiful church building, with a painful reminder carved in stone below the pediment:

I see it every day. It is a painful reminder of our past - and a ever-present catalyst to get things right.

In the midst of our conflicts and talks of division in our denomination, some have said, "We are better together." Others have asked, "Are we really better together?" I think the real question, given time and history, is, "Are we any better than before?" And I don't mean the last fifty years.

Mandeanism. Gnosticism. Manicheanism. Arianism. The Filioque. Subtle and profound differences in theology and ecclesiology. Secular governance vs. theocracy. Clergy celibacy. Liturgical practices. Owning slaves. Birth control. Divorce. Female clergy. We Christians have evolved (or perhaps devolved) into what we are now by schism. In all of these issues across two millennia, all "sides" have argued that their positions are the correct, faithful, true, and "only" way. Each side (and there are always more than two) will argue that to do or change anything about that (whatever "that" is) is a compromise that people cannot in good conscience make. Sincerity and conviction are present on all of these sides.

In the midst of this I believe that one word needs to be stricken from our Protestant vocabulary: orthodox. I once applied it to myself as an "Orthodox Wesleyan," but I now realize that any Protestant using the word "orthodox" is - at best - using a bastardized definition of the term. Orthodox as compared to what? Catholics? Coptics? Eastern Orthodox? Early Reformed? Lutheran?

And when it comes to the current "hot topic," sexuality, what exactly is orthodox? The apostle Paul thought that the End was near, and shared with the church at Corinth that it's probably best "for a man not to touch a woman," but conceded that marriage might be better for some people. The Eastern Church allowed their clergy to marry, while the Western Church didn't... until the Reformation, in which Protestants (at first reluctantly) permitted clergy to marry. Later, in Protestant circles, singleness was viewed with suspicion (regardless of whether you were clergy or laity). Having children was encouraged ("be fruitful and multiply"), and in Protestant and Catholic circles alike birth control was neither discussed nor upheld by doctrine or precept, seen as in contradiction with Natural Law and the procreative purpose of marriage and sexuality. 

It wasn't until 1930 when the Anglican Communion decided (after much debate) to adopt a statement on birth control, that any Protestant entity had ever considered to remove procreation as the main component of marriage and sexuality: the statement read that birth control was permissible "when there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood and when there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence." After that, laws were (slowly) changed that had previously prohibited any type of contraceptive education or the sales of any contraceptives. Seventy years later,  in 2004, Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention stated that, "Evangelical couples may, at times, choose to use contraceptives in order to plan their families and enjoy the pleasures of the marital bed." Whoa!

That is a far cry from the sexual ethic that prevailed for a long time in Protestantism, and still prevails in Catholicism: marriage, and the gift of sexuality, was created for procreation. I could go into a similar discussion about divorce, too: how did we evolve to the point where divorce became permissible? How many divorces can you get until it's wrong? 

To me, the question is less about the Church getting it right about just homosexuality, and more about having a faithful ethic of marriage and sexuality, period. What's orthodox? Who's right? Did Protestants leave the Catholic Church to suit themselves, or to be faithful? Did we change from marriage and sexuality being about procreation to "enjoy the pleasures of the marital bed" to suit ourselves, or to be faithful? Did we go from disallowing divorce to allowing divorce because of tragic situations to suit ourselves, or to be faithful? I think those are questions we'd rather not delve into... or we might find that our present arguments regarding sexuality might not hold water.

I have no easy answer to the latest challenge of the Church regarding sexuality. Quite frankly I'd rather get up and fight for the cause of discipleship and the lack of it we seem to have across our denomination. But this issue is not going to go away. For some folks, this has become a "Here I stand, I can do no other" moment... in which I find some irony. Martin Luther gave us the model to challenge orthodoxy and dogma. As one learned colleague of mine said, "Luther was right on some things... and he was wrong on some things." Depending on who you ask, anyway.

What I do know is that the scriptural and theological reasons we once gave before regarding sexuality and God's creation (i.e., being single being preferable, and being married for procreative purposes) seem to no longer apply. I think it will take us a long, long time to get all of this "right." I find little comfort in knowing that it took over 300 years for the church to formulate the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, and less comfort in knowing that even they led to schisms great and small.

I do wish we could be more patient and tolerant of each other. It seems the height of hubris to think that we as a United Methodist Church can get this right within 50 years. I am sure that people were convinced they were right 173 years ago, when in May of 1845 annual conferences throughout the South sent delegates to Louisville, Kentucky, where they formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Some folks were so convinced that they even carved those words in stone...

Are we really any better than we were 150 years ago? 200 years? 500 years? 1000 years? I am thankful that God is patient with us, because we are certainly not a patient people.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Why I'm Cynical About Politics

Today is MLK, Jr. Day. This quote (which is often misquoted) is the most poignant of his quotes: "In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." (from "The Trumpet of Conscience," Steeler Lecture, Nov. 1967).

My own experience with secular politics has not been good - and I find such continually at odds with the Christian faith. If politics is truly the art of the possible, I find our present state of politics getting an "F" where such is concerned. We are not living in a time of statesmen and stateswomen; we are living in a time of tribalism and intractability. Today's policy-makers are not concerned about the totality of the people they serve; they are concerned about winning over 50.1% of them and making lobbyists happy. It's an "us versus they" mentality. This is not acceptable.

Many are upset about our president's language regarding friends around the world. Whether he ever said it or not we'll never be sure. If he said it, it's reprehensible. Lord knows I can be as earthy with my language as anyone, but I don't use it in the pulpit and I certainly wouldn't label whole nations with such. And of course all presidents use profanity... but there are some places where some things simply shouldn't be said. The late Tony Randall probably says it as well as anyone in this game show clip:

I don't know that we'll ever know what our president said last Friday. But here is what I do know: our senators, representatives, and anyone else present in that room point to the most prevalent problem: they don't have our country's best interest in mind. Just themselves or their party.

If indeed our president said what he said, why didn't our "country's best" meet afterwards and say, hey, we've got a problem here, and we've got to work together to address it? And why do we have a couple of senators from each side of the aisle who agree that one thing happened, but two other senators who (at first) said, "I don't recall," but now say, "It didn't happen?" And a cabinet member this morning who, after being pushed by a Fox News reporter, finally said, "I understand the question, it was an impassioned conversation, I don't recall that particular phrase being used. That's all I can say about that."

Really?!? It only happened last Friday...

And if our president didn't say it, then shame on those fabricating that he did. Again... how will we ever know what was said? Who do we trust? Who can we trust?

To be sure, a lot of words are being said, but the silence of what's not being said is palpable. The complicity of silence from our friends who are supposed to have our best interests at heart is not being forgotten.

Leaders need to lead: not kibbutz, lie, waffle, say "I have no recollection of that," or play partisan politics. Until you do, the number of cynics will increase and our great country will continue to suffer.

In short, senators and representatives: some of us simply do not trust you - you being the collective YOU. You're going to have to work together to get some trust back.