Tag Archives: general conference

Immeasurable Loss

Turn in Your Pre-Conference Journal to page…

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.

Council of St. Louis?

or What the Council of Jerusalem can tell us about General Conference 2019.


Introduction

After Easter, I’ve been exploring Acts with my congregation. The concept was ‘let’s see what people did with the news that Jesus rose from the dead’. The second understanding was that Pentecost gave the Holy Spirit-the fiery courage to take the gospel to all the world, but the resurrection of Jesus was the content of the Gospel. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses,” Peter testifies on Pentecost (Acts 2:32).

God’s Invitation to the Apostles from the Gentiles

It’s interesting how Acts tells the story of the Gentile’s inclusion in the church. The notion that God is with Apostles is quickly turned on it head. It’s as if the Holy Spirit burst out of the Upper Room and the Apostles just couldn’t keep up.

God appears to Cornelius in a dream first before God says anything to Peter. And Peter has to be thrown into an hallucination before he would dare enter Cornelius’ territory. It is ultimately Cornelius who invites Peter. Peter testifies with aplomb. A second Pentecost breaks out and Cornelius’ household are all baptized. It’s as if this was for Peter’s awakening as much as Cornelius’.

Ananias was approached by God to relieve Saul of his blindness. Saul/Paul was chosen by God to be an apostle to the Gentiles. A vision of Ananias was given to Saul/Paul before their meeting. The testimony is that God is clearly acting on behalf of the Gentiles that God wants to receive the gospel.

The gospel gets to the Gentiles by accident again after the stoning of Stephen. As a precaution, the fleeing Apostles only taught in the synagogues. It was in Antioch that Hellenists heard the Gospel. By crossing a language barrier, the gospel inevitably crosses an ethnicity barrier as well. The swelling of the church in Antioch prompts Barnabas to go get Paul. The two of them minister in Antioch for about a year. God readies the Gentile people before Barnabas and Paul minister to them.

This issue of gentile inclusion leads up to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) where leadership from the entire Christian planet gathers for a special general conference on inclusion of Gentiles in the church. By this time, God has on numerous occasions directly intervened to clear the way for Gentiles to be included. It would require a massive revision of Hebrew law.

Don’t Look Now, but the Quadrilateral gets Upended in Jerusalem

Not everyone was of one mind regarding Gentile inclusion in the church. A group of Pharisees insisted that Gentile Christians be circumcised. To us, that sounds complete preposterous. But the Pharisees had scripture on their side.

Circumcision as the emblem of the Covenant

Remember, circumcision was the sign that the Hebrews were serious about following God. Abram was 99 years old when the sign of circumcision was given. And it was ordered as a serious custom from early on. It was a law before there even was a law. Circumcision was the threshold into the family of God.

Did you know that foreigners were allowed to observe Passover in ancient Israel, but only if they were circumcised? “If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land” (Exodus 12:48). You can’t have the promised land without the pain.

Circumcision was also a saving grace. Did you know that en route back to Egypt, Moses wrestled with God the same way Jacob did (Exodus 4)? But in a twist, God not only overwhelms Moses, but is on the brink of killing him. Moses’ wife Zipporah sees what’s going on and performs an emergency circumcision on their son. Touching the freshly butchered foreskin to Moses “feet”* (feet in the OT is often a euphemism for genitals) God’s wrath is satisfied. Moses then goes on to free the slaves from Pharaoh. Apparently God really cares about circumcision.

The biblical record (at least as Peter and Paul understood) was very clear on circumcision: it was required. The default setting in Jewish theology was that circumcision marked one as part of the family of God. It was the foremost symbol of Israel’s relationship with God. Circumcision and the covenant went hand-in-hand. Before Passover, before the Torah, there was circumcision. It identified. It saved. It purified. It marked you as God’s favored one.

On the anti-circumcision side, the only answer Peter has was what he observed. From Acts 15:

The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’

Paul and Barnbas testified to what they observed in Antioch. James added a prophetic interpretation. In all, the Council of Jerusalem concluded that circumcision was not required. A letter was sent the churches throughout the world to explain the conclusion and to encourage Christians to steer clear of sexual immorality. I wonder how an intercultural church would have interpreted “sexual immorality”. Certainly Jews and Gentiles differed greatly on this.

This is no small matter. Through experience and a touch of reason, a major biblical and traditional emblem was discarded. Paul later details in Romans how the Law was really great at convicting one of sin, but otherwise terrible at actually saving anybody (Romans 7:7-12).

A Revolutionary Angle

Since Advent, when I gave myself a crash-course in the Maccabean revolt, I’ve had an altered view of the Pharisees. The Maccabeans ousted the Seleucids who were formidable world conquerers in the centuries before Christ. The Maccabeans were able to set up their own miniature dynasty (Wikipedia actually has an excellent summary here) until the Romans came along. Part of the Maccabean success was attributed to their penchant for their legal purity. They studied the OT prophets and concluded that their demise was due in part to God’s unwillingness to protect them. They rededicated themselves to their food laws and only begrudgingly chose to fight on the sabbath. They were able to defeat a grotesque and terrorizing army through their dedication to the covenant (the Law) that God had with them.

The Pharisees are the heirs of the Maccabean way, even as the Hassmonean dynasty splintered into factions. Their dedication to the law was not just for greed or power, they had good historical reason to believe that this was the way to oust the Romans and have their land back. It worked in the days of Exile, it worked in the days of the Maccabeans, this is clearly the way God will save us. For Jesus and then Peter and Paul (a Pharisee even!) to say that the Law was no longer necessary not only thwarted God’s word, it risked the continued occupation of the Romans in the holy land. The stance made at the Council of Jerusalem had far-reaching radical consequences.

What does this Mean for Saint Louis?

I say ALL of this to get us to General Conference 2019 in St. Louis.

I don’t know what is going to happen. But I feel as though there is a contest not unlike the Council of Jerusalem. The black-and-white readers have the book on their side (kinda). I personally believe that what the Bible says about homosexuality is ultimately apples and oranges since the Bible doesn’t recognize that homosexuals can actually mutually love each other. The scripture conflates homosexuality with other matters like violence or wanton lust…or worse. And what we now know about genetics is not accounted for in scripture. Nevertheless, those who see the Bible as unquestionably right do have a few lines of prohibition on their side. (Though it seems portions of the early church had found fault with that thinking.)

But is the Holy Spirit done? This seems to be the rebuttal. The harm assumed by including LGBTQ+ people in the church is not born out by the evidence. The good is hard to account for since all LGBTQ+ contributions to the church are couched in their being marginalized. What if Jorge Lockward was not marginalized? We simply do not know all that we’ve lost as a denomination. When I observe LGBT+ clergy in other denominations being just, loving, compassionate–all the things Jesus was–I do two things: I celebrate the ministry and I mourn my church for being so stubborn. When I observe LGBT+ married couples being joyful, mutually sacrificial in their love, raising kind-hearted children–putting to rest the stereotypes against them–I have two thoughts: I celebrate their family and I mourn my church for not having the eyes to see what’s going on. It is not Christian to be so nose-down in the Bible that you can’t recognize the Holy Spirit at work in the world around you.

I don’t know what will happen in St. Louis. The ramifications are huge. But so too are the hurdles for change in either direction! How can members of a family that are fused in their positions find peace?

The Council of Jerusalem sticks out to me as a similar battle. The potential for a flood of losers seems high. Then again, Peter, Paul and the like were then able to go to their constituents and say “Yes, we recognize what the Holy Spirit is doing here. Let us break bread in peace.” Perhaps that day is coming when we in the UMC can share the bread of with our LGBTQ+ neighbors without prejudice or shame.

Tradition as a Spiritual Foundation

Since marrying almost 11 years ago, I have entered the realm of another family’s traditions. It’s nothing new. Ever since Cain met that girl from somewhere else, family traditions have always come and gone and evolved. As a child, I never thought much of the traditions of my family. They seemed plain and were less taught than assumed. During holy seasons, you went home, gathered around the table and talked about life. The food was good, the company was quiet but dependable, the conversation polite, the mood warm.

Now I live out west and the holidays are spent elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with any of it. The food is still good, the company is less quiet but still dependable. But the people are different, and my people are “back home”. The routines that feel familiar out here are not illogical…they’re just not my routines. As our family grows, the tradition changes and all of that is okay.

But I feel foreign. And I am foreign. Even if someone were to ask me about my traditions…well part of my traditions were the unspoken-ness of them all.

As it stands, the only tradition I have left is my religion.

What is Tradition?

Tradition binds us to space and time. Tradition recognizes my connection to my ancestors. Tradition also is my gift to give to people who will come after me. Tradition is the community of time. It is the wisdom database that is stored within my bones containing all the lessons and tendencies of those who have gone before me. And I am contributing to that wisdom database by simply living. I reinforce the wisdom that I understand to be true by practicing the traditions of my ancestors. I also correct the wisdom database by exposing the falsehood within it. Finally, I add new practices and tendencies for my offspring based on my living in my environment in my time. Hopefully, my descendants will inherit a more true and fulfilling wisdom database because I contributed.

It seems to me that the sources of tradition are family, location, culture, religion (both formal and folklore) and history.

Rootless Society

I wonder about a populace that is maniacally mobile. I wonder if our mobility is the cause or the result of our societal restlessness. I wonder if our mobility contributes to the ideological silo-ing of America. I know that I moved because my ideas and beliefs were not welcome where I was. And neither party was interested in further conversations to work out differences. So that population of uprooted people includes me.

But rootedness feels good. It feels safe. It gives me guidelines for how to act and what to decide. Of all the things lost in my various moves, gained is a surer rootedness in my religious tradition. Now people want to break that up.

The United Methodist Church, Tradition and Transcendence

In 2017 the momentum within the United Methodist Church will continue toward a showdown over human sexuality. This year will be a bridge year between General Conference 2016 and a specially called session of General Conference in 2018 to address all matters of human sexuality. It is a shadow that hangs over me and my family in a particular way. After bouncing wastefully around the connection for better part of a decade, we both find ourselves in positive and fruitful appointments. We fully expect that in short time, we will have to make very tough decisions about our callings and our appointments. The irony is that we are both skilled enough to lead our congregations through such moments. But we could end up on the outside.

Add to this the emerging uneasiness politically in America and you have a recipe for tremendous upheaval. For any aspect of my tradition to give me wisdom for this particular journey, I’d have to go back to my ancestors who fled the homeland to come to the New World. That is a very murky time to me now. More apropos is going back to the very roots of my faith: to Jesus touching the leper and eating at Zacchaeus’s house.

I’ve been working on this idea of ‘sectlessness’ for a while now. It is a feeling that all the divisions between humanity are ultimately arbitrary and meaningless. That among the lessons of Christ is the oneness of earthly life. We all need each other and we’re built to be bound as one. Jesus transcended the divisions of his day and joined humanity together through his life, death and resurrection. Trying to be like Jesus means also transcending these divisions.

[My hesitation is that this feels very easy given my privilege. I am aware that people in minority groups often cannot and do not want to escape their distinctions. I know many embrace their distinctions as a matter of pride and identity and I see nothing inherently wrong with that. I think for me, my desire to transcend may actually arise out of my place of privilege. I often feel entrapped and minimized by the privileges assigned to me. This is an unresolved dilemma for me.]

So What?

All of this rootlessness, both forced and sought, leads me to the only rootedness that seems trustworthy…my identity as a child of God in a universe of siblings. I give thanks to God that my church tradition has propelled me to this revelation. I also fear that this revelation will outlast my church. The ultimate tradition is that of innovation and growth and why should I not embrace this reality.

Dude, I love the United Methodist Church, but I can also live well without it: A thought or two on Schism.

About a year ago, a family circumstance forced me to reconsider my profession as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. The family circumstance called for a greater income that I could ever hope to make in the church. I informed my DS and bishop of the circumstance and began to look for work. There were lots of intriguing options and I submitted about a dozen resumes and applications.

The family circumstance forced the matter and I had no choice but to act. I have always loved being a pastor, even with all the turmoil my particular career arc has brought. And I have almost always felt called and equipped for this work. But family is what it is and I had to live with the possibility of having to leave the ministry. Surprising even to me, was how readily I was able to accept this new reality and the parameters it would be placing on my life. In short, I was at peace with leaving the church.

The family circumstance changed just as quickly as it had arisen, and I was appointed to Orchards where I have loved being since day one. But that almost 3 month period made a deep impression on me for both the family circumstance and what it would have meant for my career.

I learned that my calling was from God. I learned that my calling was to God and God’s people. I learned that the church has been a great conduit and facilitator of this calling. But I was reminded that the calling is not to or for the church. And if the avenue of the church is not available, God’s will will be fulfilled some other way. Even though I was leaving the institutional church, I never felt that I was leaving ministry.

Today, the United Methodist Church facilitated a very Pentecostal occurrence at Orchards. I was privileged to welcome Bishop Mary Ann Swenson to preach. Bishop Swenson had served Orchards for 9 years early in her career. We also welcomed Janjay Innis a Young Adult Mission Advocate with the General Board of Global Ministries. A former US-2 classmate of mine was also in attendance. She is now a deaconess and her brother is being commissioned as a Home Missioner Monday morning at General Conference. We also had missionary trainers and PNW’s Conference Secretary on Global Ministries. In all it was a joyous gathering that highlighted much of what is great and beautiful about the United Methodist Church.

Then I went to lunch with a couple of Texans who want to bless the PNW with an awesome program called Project Transformation. It’s Methodist to the core: it cares about the poor and structures a program to put the resources of the church to work for the vulnerable around us. Holy Lord, I really want this to come to Orchards. It is right up our alley. And it is so connectional it’s almost embarrassing.

Then I got home and got back to watching the twittersphere inebriate itself with talk of schism. It just seems so stupid.

But in the end, I work for the Lord. And so do you. If God has called you and there is no more church…well, God has still called you, so you’ll have to find another way. And another way will open. I’m not trying to play fiddle while Rome burns. I’m trying to say the church, even in all its splendor and meaning, is not Rome. And the forces of division cannot prevent people of good will and hope from accomplishing what God has set out for us to do.

The one who has begun a good work in you will be faithful to complete it. Thanks be to God.

Something Happened on the Way to General Conference

General Conference 2012 is approaching.  Petitions are submitted; delegates are elected; travel arrangements are being made; reimbursement accounts being tapped, as we speak.  One might get the illusion that it’s a big deal.

I was part of the illusion.  Three times in the past twelve years, I applied to be a Page or a Marshall at General Conference.  Never expecting to be elected as a delegate, I assume that is the only way I’ll get that close to the action.  This year, I was accepted.  “Congratulations on being accepted to serve as a Page,” the letter said.  All of a sudden, I get to join the throngs in Tampa.  My family is excited.  I’m looking for money (Pages serve at their own expense).  I have an lead on free lodging.  It is the chance of a lifetime.

Except for how it meshes with my calling.

On the one hand, if ever a place in General Conference was built for a guy like me, it would be as a page.  I like politics, even church politics.  At heart, I am a servant, not a politician.  So doing the dirty work of @gc2012 sounds like a job for me.  (Okay, the janitors have the really dirty job, but I digress.)  I am fit, organized, focused, independent, disciplined: all things you need to be a Page.  I would get to see the church in action on a global scale.  I would be in the room when really important decision are made.  Being a vote-less, voice-less witness…well it just feels like me.

Who is ‘me’ anymore anyway?  Is what I am becoming at the expense of what I have been?  In terms of sin, let it be so.  In terms of righteousness, that’s another story.  Several occurrences have led me to a real conundrum about going to General Conference.

The first occurrence happened within the context of my appointed charge.  In attendance at our mission committee, an envelope was passed around from West Virginia Volunteers-in-Mission.  The envelope contained 20 different offerings of mission service.  Some as close as 45 miles away, others across the continent, others across the globe.  It’s been so long since I’ve done deliberate, hands-on, face-to-face-with-suffering kind of work.  As I seek a diagnosis for my intermittent spiritual malaise, this has to be it.  I have a craving for sacrifice, one that hits me personally.  I began thinking of the cost of going to General Conference.  Ten days in Tampa will not be cheap.  My continuing education funds are going elsewhere.  Chance of a lifetime?  Meh.

The second occurrence came to me via Facebook.  An invitation to submit my contact information, as 2012 marks the 60th Anniversary of the US-2 program.  My service through the US-2 program is still shaping me, over a decade later.  I have no regrets about the current contours of my life.  Mission service was such a big part of my life.  In completing paperwork for ordination, my two years in a children’s home kept coming up.  It shaped my approach to seminary.  It was a background factor in my biggest pastoral failure.  My US-2 classmates are still my best example of Christian community.  I doubt if I can make it to the reunion.  The spark of memory wasn’t really about the reunion anyway.  It was about recalling an important time and the importance of purpose.  It’s not that there is no importance in my current vocation.  In fact, things are going swimmingly.  It’s that mission service contains a sense of urgency that is unmistakable.  The stakes are higher; failure is more costly.  It’s about the urgency.

The third occurrence came to me during this week’s sermon preparation.  Our Epiphany process has been an exploration of the seven “I AMs” in John’s gospel.  While exploring the “Good Shepherd,” I looked up various occurrences of shepherds in the Old Testament.  Of course, Psalm 23 first comes to mind.  But then I found a recurring shepherd motif in the prophets.  I knew of Zechariah’s prophecy regarding the shepherd that gives over the sheep to a shepherd that will devour them.  I came across a companion prophecy in Ezekiel 34.

Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

As I struggle to get my weight under control, these words have struck me.  I learned that shepherd was a common metaphor for royalty in the Ancient Near East.  I’m no king, but I am a pastor, a leader of people.  I haven’t devoured the fatlings.  But neither have I unfailingly strengthened the weak or bound up the injured.  The specificity of the Lord’s claims have convicted me.  I don’t want to devour fatlings nor any widow’s houses.  I want to be a good and faithful servant.

I know that General Conference will feature new legislation around the Call to Action.  I know that it may very well have abiding impact on my career.  But it’s not poverty.  It’s not flood relief.  It’s not orphans.

I learned a valuable lesson as a US-2.  During our mid-term evaluation, many of my classmates were struggling with various matters in their places of service.  Many were struggles related to culture shock and the process of acclimation.  Then one classmate shared of her experience in ministering to the impoverished children in her neighborhood.  Her struggle was genuine compassion for the kids.  Their pain hurt her so bad that she cold hardly speak.  Their pain and struggle in life affected her personally, spiritually.  Another mentioned that that was the experience all of us were hoping for as US-2 missionaries–the experience of costly, compassionate, sacrificial service…a glimpse of Christ-likeness.

The struggle and pain of General Conference may be genuine.  Those still hoping the doors of the Church will open for them will genuinely struggle at General Conference.  May God’s mercy be upon them.  But from a purely personal perspective, I get a sense that I need a different struggle than paging at General Conference can provide.  For the money, I could help clean Joplin or pick olives in Bethlehem.

Furthermore, the most important work in the United Methodist Church the last week of April will not be the competition for votes at General Conference.  The most important work will be done by people at Glide Memorial or Mary’s Cradle.  It will be done in places of violence and crippling poverty.  It will be the dispensing of food and the time taken to comfort the bereaved.  It has always been this way and it has been this way through scores of various conferences.  It’s not that General Conference isn’t important.  I fully believe that it is.  But its importance pales in comparison to the ongoing dispensing of mercy and grace that is the primary purpose of the Church.

I don’t know what I’ll do.  I tend to hold on to tension longer than I ought.  Regardless of ultimate actions, my ultimate belief is that service is the calling card of the true Church.  That was God’s call to action to Ezekiel centuries ago.  Perhaps it still is.