Left PNWAC18 early to make it back for the dedication of Project Transformation interns. Missed a moving floor address by Rachel Byers (38:00). Thanking God for the powers of the internet to see what I missed.
Welcomed a new season of Project Transformation to Orchards UMC. We had increasing attendance all week. The interns performed well. I’m glad to open this sanctuary to so many different people.
M & the kids went for a visit to grandparents in Ashland, OR. Got my new running program in gear. Tried to get a new writing program in ear, too. I don’t sleep well while they’re away.
Long work days with evenings this week.
Had 47 kids at Project Transformation on Thursday. They come from all walks of life, unified mostly by economic status. They represent 15 local schools, 4+ racial groups (not sure how to count multiracial kids), multiple languages and family make-ups. At least one of the families does not have stable housing. We’ve been working really hard to find a Russian translator to help befriend a sibling group who doesn’t speak any English. NEVERTHELESS, the young boy was still getting into mischief with some peers, despite the language barrier! I love that. I was asked where these kids came from. After some research, I realized the vast majority came from within 2 miles of our church. These are our literal neighbors. And we’re no longer that white church in a diverse neighborhood. A threshold has been crossed. A remembered that I shared a goal with the DS 2 years ago that our congregation begin to look more like our neighborhood, having not a single clue as to how to do that. And here we are…God’s hand is upon us. I don’t see how we can go back.
Spent my day off alone. Even the World Cup was off Friday. So I did a lot of housecleaning preparing for my family’s return the following day. Then I drove into Portland to attend a conference held at my old congregation’s building. It was very surreal. Even driving up Belmont, I know exactly where to go, but it felt…distant. Entering the building I saw a former parishioner, a wonderful lady who was looking for her path when I crossed as her pastor 3 years ago. I did a lot of listening to the consternation in her life as she discerned God’s call. I remember being very impressed with her sincerity and her efforts to simplify and pray more. Back then she entertained an idea of actually living in a church, ancient nun-style. I was intrigued by her desire and wished I could’ve offered that space to her. That was a really good re-connection. Sitting in the sanctuary, gospel music bleeding my ears, I felt out of place. I felt MANY different feelings. I recalled that 3 years earlier, I was leading that congregation to its own death. I was faithful in navigating their struggles and desires and opportunities. I was secretly readying myself in case someone were to speak disparagingly of ol’ Sunnyside. I was leading that congregation in a season of my own grief, having lost a child before her birth and finding myself barreling toward unemployment. I gave my all to Sunnyside and employed my best pastoral judgments. I wasn’t mistake-free, but I was faithful. Of that I’m sure. I finally had to recognize the sheer blessedness of being where I am. I get to live out my calling still. I am in a run-of-the-mill congregation that happens to be spiritually curious and missionaly situated. How awesome is that!
Saturday I watched some World Cup then went to a local march protesting the government’s decision to separate immigrant children from their families. I don’t like chanting, but I do like walking. And I began to strategize how this silly little introvert can participate in the resistance. Turns out, with a little effort and creativity there are many moving parts to the ongoing struggles in our country. These parts are pressure points that need to be addressed. And it’s time to start caring. Caring little for marches, I can care QUITE big through other means.
I got home in time to finish preparing the house for my wife and kids’ return. It was so nice to see them.
Is there a statistic anywhere of LGBTQ+ clergy who have fled the UMC for other denominations or other fields of service? I suspect not. I further suspect that there is no accounting for the LGBTQ+ laity we have lost to other denominations as a result of the ongoing consternation over including LGBTQ+ people in the denomination.
I ask this because of a notable phrase by Rev. Rob Renfroe on the Good News Magazine website. In responding to the Council of Bishops’ recommendation to General Conference 2019, Renfroe says: “We believe the Traditionalist Plan holds the most hope for a fruitful future for The United Methodist Church.” In thinking about the term fruitful, I became more aware of a gaping hole in the debate.
We know, to a certain extent, how fruitful I am as a clergyperson. You can check the statistical reports, journals and even interview parishioners past and present as to my effectiveness as a minister. Likewise, I can attest to the fruitfulness of many lay people in the church. Three lay people at my congregation fed 30 middle schoolers just this past week.
Not accounted for are the contributions from LGBTQ+ United Methodists who never got a chance to serve or whose service was hampered by marginalization or discrimination. It doesn’t even get to go down as a deficit in our column. The best we can do is surmise from LGBTQ+ United Methodists who stayed in the church. Or we can observe LGBTQ+ Christians who joined other denominations. But just as the accounting on the statistical reports is flimsy, we really don’t know what we’ve missed out on.
A personal angle
I know of one such person. She began as a missionary in our denomination. It was through her service to the church that her orientation came to light. She fell in love, which is no small thing! In order for her to serve God through the church, she had to leave United Methodism. Now she’s legally married and is legally marrying others. And I rejoice in her ministry and her family. But I mourn that there is a divide between her and me…and I’m on the wrong side.
In my old conference, there is a traditional memorial service at Annual Conference grieving and remembering clergy and clergy spouses who have passed away in the past year. It is a beautiful simple ceremony. I first became aware of the loss of a LGBTQ+ clergy colleague when I realized that she and I will not stand for each other at the Annual Conference Memorial service back home. Through the beauty of social media, I have seen her stand up for justice, rejoice with her congregation and bring beautiful children into this scary world. How many more like her have we missed out on?
So as General Conference 2019 approaches, I will be watching with great consternation. She has moved on, buoyed by a loss from her past and free to serve God with all that she is. I hope all of us in United Methodism can enjoy the same freedom to serve.
An Evangelist is someone who brings a message of good news. This is the opposite of that.
Gun violence and mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas are not going away. We can’t even call them the new norm anymore. They’re just the norm. And the norm is increasing gun violence.
President Obama famously noted that we have a routine for mass shootings and their aftermath. We hold vigils. We offer prayers. And we ultimately do nothing. “We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved one because of our inaction,” he said two years ago after Roseburg.
Guns are the true American idols. We worship them. We grant them salvific powers. We credit them for our nation’s existence. We treat one gun law as untouchable and sacred while calling any other gun law pure evil.
Identifying the idolatry of guns in America is part of the healing in the sense that step 1 of 12 is to admit you have a problem. Sadly, we cannot even agree that we have a problem. Even if we were to agree that there is some problem, Congress won’t even allow the matter to be studied. We value our ignorant adherence to unfettered gun ownership more than basic truth. You can psycho-analyze this reality all you want, be forewarned that your head might begin spinning rapidly.
Idolatry, sadly, does not go away easily. When I think of idolatry, I think first to YHWH’s famous screed against it in Isaiah (44:12-17):
The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!” The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!”
God must be having a really painful laugh at us Americans right now. Laughter over the absurd faith we put into our firearm culture. Painful, because God hurts over the pain of her children. And we are hurting.
Isaiah is not fully chronological. There are themes that weave throughout the book. In section 1, YHWH lays out the charges against the nation. “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made” (Is. 2:8). God later chides the people for trusting in chariots to save them when trouble arises (Is. 31:1).
I fear that this current generation will have to pass before the wisdom of peace will be known. I know that the money protecting our current lack of gun legislation is a mighty force. Presidents past and present have decided that taking on the gun lobby was either too tough or against their ideology. And it is well-known that mass shootings often lead to a spike in gun sales. I’ll never forget after Sandy Hook, going to my local Wal-Mart and seeing AR-15s on sale with a queue lined up. Rather than be abhorred by the slaughter of first graders…we chose to make money and double-down on our gun-worship.
That to me was the moment of truth. The funny thing about moments of truth is that they reveal the truth. President Obama wept openly. A panel led by VP Biden recommended many changes. Obama signed numerous executive orders but Congress ultimately could not pass any action. The NRA spent ~$800,000 lobbying Congress that year. It worked.
Now after Las Vegas, with far less concerned leadership at the federal level, the prospects of even a debate taking place seem slim. Surprisingly, there is some chatter in Congress this time. Joe Manchin says he will revive a previous effort with Pat Toomey. The bump stock ban seems to have some steam. (But, then there’s this.) I know that Wayne LaPierre practically lives at the US Capitol building. He’s certainly waving his checkbook at vulnerable Senators. I would welcome any progress…but I can’t bring myself to hold my breath.
What now then?
Basically, a weird thing Jesus said comes to mind. When asked about a recent tragedy where a tower fell on top of the builders, killing scores of people, Jesus simply responded with a call to righteousness (Luke 13:4-5).
Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
None of the victims in Las Vegas deserved their fate. And it’s not like God picked a few to protect. They just got lucky. And it’s not like I can free myself from the fate of dying in an idiot’s hail of bullets. Rain falls on the just and unjust. So too does gun violence. What can I do given this atmosphere in which I live? Basically, all I can do is live as well as possible. Eliminate any regrets. Heal all broken relationships. Purge myself of all vices and fears. Love as fully as possible. Raise my kids well. Hold my wife tightly. Walk the woods a lot. Preach more boldly. Listen to people more carefully. That kind of thing.
Certainly, I can fight the lobby and call my representatives, etc. John Oliver is right about that. But I cannot ignore the immensity of that particular hill, either.
When someone gets a killer disease, they typically make a bucket list: things to do now that life is precious and fragile. Well, gun violence is a disease that is killing our society. As it stands, we’d rather die and let our neighbors be killed than to find another diety. The doctors with the power to heal are in bed with the disease makers. If they wake up, great. But you better have a contingency plan otherwise.
On September 1st, I began my 3rd year in ministry with you here at Orchards. It has been an honor to have been with you for 2 good years. I just want to briefly mention my love for you and this congregation.
You may not realize it, but 2.5 years ago I was looking for work outside of the church. I am glad that circumstances have changed that allowed me to come here. And I am forever grateful for the myriad of people who advocated for my arrival here. It has truly been a reprieve on my life in ministry. And I still feel a great burden to make this reprieve count.
I am proud of what have done together so far: Village Support Network, WHO, Project Transformation, camping ministries, Covington breakfasts, LifeGroups, etc. And as the Church Council meets soon to set a course for the following year I have both confidence and enthusiasm for the work ahead. I have begun describing you to my colleagues and friends as a “small but mighty” congregation. I think there is a power within you from God that has yet to meet its limit. Here’s to finding that limit together.
In a few weeks, 50-60 kids will descend upon our humble church facility for Project Transformation. And I am so excited for them to meet you. I am excited for the kids to be nurtured and loved all summer long. I am excited for the college interns who will run Project Transformation to grow in their service and dedication to the “least of these” (who happen to have a ton to offer, by the way). I am excited for the church to be abuzz with activity that is meaningful and fruitful. The more I think about Project Transformation, the more I think how this is what I’ve always wanted to do in church. I am nervous, too, no doubt. But excitement and anticipatory joy is what I most feel.
My local school district in Ridgefield sent out an email last week about “safe routes” for kids walking to Union Ridge Elementary. It was useful to us since we are a walking-to-school family. The email was a map of our little town with orange arrows denoting the safest way to walk to school as well as the placement of crossing guards. It’s the kind of thing small towns do well: taking care of little ones. (Our house is just off the upper left corner of the map.)
Churches are good at taking care of little ones, too. We do so by teaching and exuding love. We care for children by equipping them with wisdom to navigate this tough world. We take care of kids by being trustworthy, thoughtful and helpful and for providing for their needs. One of the basic needs kids have is the need to understand the world. Project Transformation provides many methods for helping kids understand their needs. Help with reading is the method that is measurable. Other methods include teaching soft skills like kindness, cooperation, appropriate expression, etc. These are less measurable just just as vital. It inspires to be part of a program that will tangibly care for the kids around us.
Finally, I was so impressed with the Ridgefield school walking map, I created a map of my own. We have been working closely with Family Resource officers at Orchards and Silver Star Elementary Schools and the Transitions coach at Covington Middle School. As registration for kids opens in the coming weeks, we are focusing our attention on some housing units where many of the kids we will serve live. And I made a simple map, showing how, through Project Transformation, we will be connected to these residential areas. As I drew the lines I began thinking about the church as a hub for the community. It’s really an old-fashioned concept but oh so needed in our neighborhood. I began thinking about how these kids right now have no idea what we are about to offer them. I began thinking about how they will know us at the end of the summer. I began thanking God for Orchards and for putting us in the right place at the right time. I am so excited for you to meet these kids. But I am equally excited for these kids to meet you.
The best way for these kids to meet you is to volunteer to read with them. It really is a rewarding way to spend your summer mornings. To volunteer to read, please CLICK HERE to go to the registration page. From there you’ll be able to plan out the mornings you can read with the kids.
As I shared yesterday in church, I feel like the church is like a bag of popcorn just turning innocently in the microwave oven. But as the Project Transformation nears, it gets a little warmer, very soon the kids will be here and the church will burst with energy. Praise be to the living God, who does not give up on people, for the privilege of watching these little ones burst with promise and joy.
Everything I’ve ever learned about loving my LGBTQ neighbors as myself, I learned through the United Methodist CHurch. Everything I’ve learned about fully including, welcoming and valuing LGBTQ people in the church and society at large, I learned through the UMC.
This weekend, while the church was spinning from the Judicial Council’s decision regarding Bishop Karen Oliveto, I was with the United Methodist Women training to teach Mission U this summer. There was a wild convergence of my life in the church. This convergence of representatives from my life in the church intersected with this current matter of Bishop Oliveto’s consecration to provide an internal history lesson.
I saw people from my old conference, West Virginia there. That conference raised me and is a primary lens for my understanding of life, God, home, church and morality. I remember debating in UMYF whether it was okay for a gay person to be a parent. I argued yes, while still believing homosexuality was a sin (that assumption was never challenged).
I saw an old friend from my days at the GBGM who was a US-2 and is now with the Women’s Division. She reminded me of my own US-2 experience and the richness of knowledge that era gave me regarding gay and lesbian people. I had never encountered gay people in the church, much less leaders and activists. As a US-2 I encountered an openly gay clergyman who ministered to our class during mid-term and end-term conferences. He was gentle and heartbroken over what he saw among LGBTQ students on the campus where he ministered. He shared his wisdom and Holy Communion with us. I also had to confront internal biases I didn’t even know I had. I used the term ‘gay’ in a derogatory way one time and got seriously chastised by a classmate. I had to come to grips with the fact that I conflated homosexuality and pedophilia, which I now know is a horrendous charge. I came to realize that no one ever taught me that association. I have since concluded that I picked it up at college where Christian students often harbored strident views on purity. I witnessed the struggle for acceptance among LGBT youth where I served as a US-2. Another classmate debunked my immature understanding of genetics and sexuality. My classmates were an amazing bunch on many levels. On this matter, I am deeply humbled that they received and accepted me as their friend while I struggled to understand. I’m now 20 years older and I don’t see that happen very often.
I saw another friend at Mission U training who went with me when I lived in the UK for a year through the Time for God program. While there, I encountered for the first time a transgender woman in church. The congregation’s gentleness with her was natural and easy and a great lesson in acceptance for me. The pastor at the time was a very caustic personality in a very demanding church that had both extraordinarily gracious people and extraordinarily petty critics. Regarding the transgendered woman, the pastor displayed immense understanding and patience, even compassion. He was aware of how this woman was likely treated in many aspects of society and yet was at church regularly in search of God. I clashed often with that pastor. But his lesson on compassion to trans persons has stuck with me. My Time for God friend later joined that US-2 program while I headed to the GBGM. The GBGM was full of committed, gracious, non-straight Christian people operating this amazingly fruitful wing of the church. It was also during my time at the GBGM that I witnessed someone “come out” for the first time. I saw how painful and courageous such a confession could be. I also saw how the church itself-this thing I loved so much-was the sole source of this young person’s pain. Ironically, the church had grown me so much that I was able to see the dissonance of these two truths about the church: it could raise amazing servants of God AND it was perfectly willing to cast aside those servants based on an outdated, immature and ultimately false view of humanity and sexuality.
While with the UMW this weekend, we also sang a hymn by Mark Miller, professor of Sacred Music at Drew Theological School. Mark was commissioning the organ in Seminary Hall when I visited as a prospective student. We studied a lot of liberation theologies at Drew. Mark shared with one class his story of being a gay United Methodist. He shared about the overwhelming graciousness of his dad when he came out. He shared about being at General Conference as an openly gay United Methodist There were other LGBT faculty members at Drew who were each amazing scholars in their fields. Drew was where my ideas and beliefs about sexuality were finally deconstructed. Debating scripture, tradition, experience and reason with some of the best theological minds has proven to be fruitful training. It was while at Drew that Judicial Council decision 1032 came down. That decision stated that a pastor could deny membership to a person based solely on their sexual orientation. I recall an emergency meeting of UM students and the electricity in the air over 1032. I immediately recalled the story of Bishop Elijah Jones, who was a clergyman when the Methodist Episcopal church split over slavery. Jones was pastoring a black north church in New Orleans. When his DS came to visit, the DS who was white had to lodge with a white ME South clergyman in town. Jones’ decision to stay in the church has stayed with me. Why should I give ‘my church’ up to the forces of exclusion?
Furthermore, we sang another song that was arranged by Jorge Lockward. I had worked with Jorge at the GBGM. Jorge was the musician and worship leader for Annual Conference in WV after I had returned as a clergyperson. Jorge was well received and immensely effective. He was slated to lead another event when his sexual orientation was discovered. A controversy arose and many calls were made to rescind his invitation or boycott the event. I remember defending his ministry at a clergy picnic. We attended the event. Every time Jorge arose to lead a hymn, a section of people would leave. There was room in the church for adulterers, but not a homosexual. Also as a clergyperson in WV, I encountered numerous parents of gay and lesbian children and saw the agony they experienced from the church through their children. I heard the vitriol toward LGBTQ people at Annual Conference. It was after I had decided to move west that I finally was open about wanting LGBTQ people to be fully included in church and society.
Then, I met people from Oregon, where I served as pastor for 1 year. That church, Sunnyside-Centenary United Methodist Church in Portland, OR was the only reconciling church I’ve served. They were quite small at the time but were quite active in RUMs: Reconciling United Methodists of Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. RUMNs held their annual meeting at Sunnyside on “What is trans?” a seminar educating people of issues relating to transgendered people. I was impressed with how in flux the matter is. Nevertheless, trans people have their own difficulties and their own need for grace. And yet, the church is a primary source of exclusion. I saw at Sunnyside an immense dedication to living faithfully and living out the Micah 5:8 charge to do justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with God.
Finally, I was part of a contingency from my current conference, the Pacific Northwest. I serve a long-standing congregation who dedicates itself to serving the poor. This issue of sexuality in the church seems likely to demand a stance from us soon. Part of our contingency is the former pastor of Orchards, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson. I see her current work in ecumenical circles and see the beauty of the church at its best: understanding, intelligent, truthful, just and peaceful. I see our conference trying earnestly to do justly by our LGBTQ neighbors. I see us on the wrong end of church history, perhaps having to endure a period not unlike what Elijah Jones endured: cut off, ostracized and belittled based on the color of one’s sexuality. I’m not resigned to this fate, but I am prepared for it.
In the end, I can see why Bishop Oliveto was elected. She has been an amazingly fruitful minister of the gospel for a long time. She has been openly gay for a long time. It’s notable that no one has questioned the quality of her ministry. No one questions if she loves her partner. All of those deep down spiritual matters are beyond reproach. All that’s left are matters of ‘legality’, wrapped in church-lawyer language.
At some point, perhaps in the not so distant future, it seems likely that all United Methodists will have to choose where they stand on these matters. Each jurisdiction will ask each conference which will ask each congregation which will ask each member and clergyperson to state their place in the debate. It seems like the time for honest reckoning is approaching. When that time comes, this personal history of the church’s lessons on what is right and wrong for LGBTQ people will carry my own position.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.