Sunday, May 27, 2018

They Have Builded Him an Altar

Arlington National Cemetery

they shall beat their swords into plowshares, 
and their spears into pruning hooks; 
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, 
neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah 2:4

When I was a little boy we had a Memorial Day tradition of going to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves of relatives. One time, we stopped for gas on the way home, and my dad went inside to talk with the guys who ran the station, while my sister and I waited in the car with my mother. 

I asked Mom about the flags we had seen at many of the graves and she told me that the flags marked the burial places of veterans. I asked if they had all died in the Second World War, and she said, no, some had died in other wars. But the flags did not mean that they had been killed in a war; the flags marked the graves of all veterans. It meant that they had served in the military.

Then we talked about those who had died in the war and she told me that when a family lost a son they would put a flag in the window (I know there is a tradition of stars, but I think she talked about flags). Mom had been in high school during the war, and she was visibly moved by the memory. 

“That must have been very sad for their mothers,” I said, seeing her emotion. “Yes,” she said, with tears in her eyes, “some families had more than one flag.”

“I wish I had been alive then,” I said. “I wish I had been in the war. I would have killed all those Japanese and Germans who made those mothers so sad!”

I was trying to cheer her up, and I could tell she knew that I meant well. She was quiet for a moment and they she said softly, “You know, Billy, Japanese and German soldiers had mothers, too.”

And I said, “Don’t say that. I don’t want to think about that!”

If we really think about it, it is almost unbearable. But as Christians, it is precisely what we ought to think about. 

Mom’s thoughts come back to me every Memorial Day. 

My other Memorial Day memory is of singing Julia Ward Howe’s epic, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She wrote it with the goal of inspiring the Union troops, blending biblical apocalypticism with patriotic militarism, she set it to what had originally been a tune used in Methodist camp meetings.

At the time, the music provided the tune for the melancholy, “John Brown’s Body” and Howe wanted to use it for something more inspiring. The result is stirring and encouraging. 

And if you think about it, it is also deeply troubling.

Lest there be any doubt about her belief in the righteousness of the Union cause, the third verse sets it forth with brutal honesty:

I have read a fiery Gospel
writ in burnished rows of steel,
"As ye deal with My contemners
so with you My grace shall deal,"
Let the Hero born of woman
crush the serpent with His heel,
Since God is marching on 

The "Hero" is the Union soldier, but the heel that crushes the Confederate soldier (aka "the serpent") belongs to God. Not surprisingly, that verse is omitted from our United Methodist Hymnal.

She is best known for that hymn, but she was also an abolitionist and a suffragist, and she was one of the founders of what we now call “Mother’s Day.” 

Although she never wavered in her affirmation of the cause for which the Civil War was fought, she was appalled by the human cost.

In response to the carnage she had seen in the Civil War, she called for a Mother’s Day of Peace, in which the women of the world would declare a common interest in nurturing and protecting life. Her Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870, presented that bold vision:

Arise then ... women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered 
by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, 
reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them 
of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil 
at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, 
to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel 
with each other
as to the means 
whereby the great human family 
can live in peace,
Each learning after his own time, 
the sacred impress,

Not of Caesar, but of God.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

*This post includes material originally published on this blog in 2010.

Friday, May 25, 2018

American Pie, Three-in-One Oil, and the Mystery of the Trinity

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9

In a thought provoking blog post which he provocatively titled, “There Is No Such Thing as the Trinity (Some Dudes Made It Up),” Richard Lowell Bryant argues (And if you were paying attention, you could see this coming . . .) that there is no such thing as the Trinity.

He’s wrong, of course.

If there were no such thing as the Trinity, then Don McLean wouldn’t have given it such an important place in his immortal song, “American Pie.”

After all, McLean tells us that he “went down to the sacred store” and I’m sure they would not have sold him a bogus doctrine.

Apparently Rev. Bryant did not research this a thoroughly as he should have.

In his opening paragraph he writes:

“There is no such thing as the Holy Trinity. There is a means of referring to the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy the Spirit which Christians call the ‘Holy Trinity’. We don’t know if that’s what God calls God’s relationships or if the Trinity exists anything at all as we describe. My inclination is to believe God functions beyond language terms and classifications. It’s our word. No one’s gotten a message back from God as to whether God agrees with our system or choice of terms. Yet we, the church, live and die by three in one, one in three.”
The first sentence says that there is no such thing as the Holy Trinity. And then the second sentence tells us what the Holy Trinity is.

In other words, this is about the words. That’s not a bad thing. Theology is about finding the right words and defining the words, and using the words to understand the reality.

What is perhaps even more amusing than Rev. Bryant’s clever sleight of hand was the reaction to it among United Methodist Clergy colleagues. More than a few called for his dismissal from the covenant. “Send him packing,” said one.

Suddenly it was as if being a United Methodist pastor was all about following the rules of doctrine. Never mind thinking for yourself. Never mind searching for new ways to understand something. Forget about how we can understand ancient doctrines in a twenty-first century context. If you can’t stand up and salute a literal reading of the Nicene Creed, then you need to leave. And the sooner the better.

Monty Python said, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

I certainly didn’t expect it in a United Methodist Clergy discussion.

In the great debate about United Methodist schism, this is an issue that looms in the background. The literalism that stunts our understanding of LGBTQ issues is not limited to those issues. It threatens to turn us into medieval Roman Catholics, hunting for heretics lurking behind every attempt at theological inquiry. This is the same narrowmindedness that generated attacks on Bishops Oliveto and Sprague among others, for their intellectual creativity.

The point that Bryant is making (I think) is that the Trinity is not is not a biblical doctrine.

He notes that the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible. It is “a (semantic, logical, cosmological, theological, psychological, and philosophical) construct, a theological conjecture; created by flawed and fallible Homo sapiens who want to understand something no one really understands: the way God relates to God’s self.”

And that is true.

But it is true of all theology.

Theology, all theology, is a human construct. It is an attempt by fallible human beings to think systematically (philosophically and/or biblically) about God.

And what is true of theology is also true of the Bible. Regardless of your beliefs about inspiration, the actual writing was done by human beings.

In his memoir, “Soul on Ice,” the late political activist and early Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver told of his experience with theological reflection while he was a guest of the California Youth Authority.

“It all ended one day when, at a catechism class, the priest asked if anyone present understood the mystery of the Holy Trinity. I had been studying my lessons diligently and knew by heart what I'd been taught. Up shot my hand, my heart throbbing with piety (pride) for this chance to demonstrate my knowledge of the Word.

“To my great shock and embarrassment, the Father announced, and it sounded like a thunderclap, that I was lying, that no one, not even the Pope, understood the Godhead, and why else did I think they called it the mystery of the Holy Trinity?

“I saw in a flash, stung to the quick by the jeers of my fellow catechumens, that I had been used, that the Father had been lying in wait for the chance to drop that thunderbolt, in order to drive home the point that the Holy Trinity was not to be taken lightly.

“I had intended to explain the Trinity with an analogy to 3-in-1 oil, so it was probably just as well.”
Three-in-One Oil is not a bad analogy. Just don’t tell your clergy friends.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Mean and Meaner

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28

On May 7 the United Methodist Council of Bishops announced the results of voting on five amendments to the church’s constitution.

The first and second of the proposed amendments dealt with promoting gender equality and both were narrowly defeated, falling just short of the two-thirds majority needed for adoption.

Our church failed to support gender equality.

I know. 


You’re thinking, “Did I just get caught in a time warp? Isn’t this the twenty-first century?”

Apparently, some of those wacky Methodists are still stuck in the 1800’s. We really are a crazy bunch of folks. This is the point at which our atheist friends just roll their eyes. And the church—the whole church—takes another step toward cultural irrelevance.

To their credit, the Council of Bishops expressed “dismay” at the results.

But not everyone is unhappy. Writing in the “Juicy Ecumenism” blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, John Lomperis celebrated the vote as a victory for “faithful” and “orthodox” United Methodists.

The good news is that this clearly reveals the patriarchal bias behind the “orthodox” objections to the full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the life of the church. The IRD and the Wesleyan Covenant Association and their allies embrace a narrow biblical literalism which leads to an anti-female as well as anti-gay agenda.

This is the full text of the first amendment, which fell short of adoption when it received 66.5% of the vote:
“As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of women’s and girl's equality and well-being.”
The problem, according to Mr. Lomperis, is in this sentence: “The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine.”

Mr. Lomperis acknowledges that “there is some to truth to this sentence,” but he argues that “some radical United Methodists have challenged honestly acknowledging the fact that Jesus Christ is a human male,” and worries that this sentence might be used to advance “such agendas.”

It would be helpful if “traditionalists” could “honestly acknowledge” that while the historical Jesus was a male human being, that is not a proper description of the cosmic Christ, the risen one who is present to us now. When we see Christ present in the world today, that presence is not limited by gender.

But wait.

There’s more. And Mr. Lomperis puts it in bold for emphasis:
“Among older generations of seminary radicals in our denomination, there was once a strong movement to avoid using any ‘masculine words’ in reference to God – such as ‘He,’ ‘Him,’ ‘His,’ ‘Father,’ ‘King,’ or ‘Kingdom’ – no matter how awkward this could make some sentences sound. The defeat of Amendment #1 would seem to indicate that this movement has crested, and is now mercifully fading within the United Methodist Church. Thanks be to God!”
Speaking for at least some members of that “older generation,” I am flattered to be called a radical. Isn’t that what disciples of Christ are supposed to be? (If only we really lived up to that description!)

I confess that the movement led to some awkward hymn lyrics, but there are two very important points on the other side. First, the masculine language for God is part of the devaluation of women. And second, that language reinforces our tendency toward anthropomorphic images for God.

Mr. Lomperis finds the second proposed amendment, which gained 61.3% of the vote, even more objectionable:
“The United Methodist Church is part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ.  The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection.  In the United Methodist church, no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, ability, or economic condition, nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.”
This, he argues, was a “sneaky” attempt to commit the United Methodist Church “to absolute non-discrimination for ALL levels of leadership (‘in the life, worship, and governance of the Church’) on the basis of ‘gender,’ ‘marital status,’ ‘age,’ or ‘ability.’”

He fears that “marital status” might be used to support those in same sex marriages and that a “transgenderist ideology” might insist on the ordination of “individuals who reject their God-given sexual identity and claim a ‘gender’ of being something other than male or female.”

I am sure Mr. Lomperis does not see the hatefulness and cruelty in his statement. 

But read it again. 

He defines transgender folks as “individuals who reject their God-given sexual identity and claim a ‘gender’ of being something other than male or female.”

When I think about the pain some people go through in understanding who they are and struggling to align what they know to be true about their deepest identity with how they present themselves in the world—and when I think about how they are often bullied by “Christians” who believe that they have “rejected their God-given sexual identity,” it breaks my heart.

Writing again in bold face, Mr. Lomperis concludes:
“The defeat of Amendment #2 shows that not only have liberals been losing ground in their efforts to get our General Conference to submit to LGBTQ ideology, but that liberals lack the strength to sneakily achieve their goals even through such a roundabout way as this innocent-sounding, hard-to-oppose proposal, which was effectively a Trojan horse.”
It is worth noting again that though we did “lack the strength” to enact these amendments, the “yes” votes were over 60% on both amendments, and significantly higher in the United States. This was not really a rejection; it was a failure of affirmation.

But beyond that, the vote and the explanation of it give us a clear indication of the motivations behind the work of the IRD, the WAC, Good News, the Confessing Movement, UM Action, and their allies. 

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Finding the Way Forward

Bishop Bruce Ough, Preaching to the Council of Bishops

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 

Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 

Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Mark 10:46-52

Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, used that text for his sermon as he addressed the Bishops gathered in Chicago for a weeklong meeting to develop a response to the work of the Commission on a Way Forward for the United Methodist Church.

For decades the United Methodist Church has been willfully blind to the cries of our LGBTQ siblings and their allies. Bishop Ough did not say that to his colleagues, but he came close. You can read the whole sermon by clicking here.

“Dear colleagues,” he declared, “the church is watching. The world is watching us. The eyes of the entire denomination, and many of our ecumenical partners, are upon us as we gather this week. An anxious, schismatic, yet profoundly hopeful church is watching, waiting, wondering what will be our response to the final report from the Commission on a Way Forward.  What will we recommend?  What will we discern?  What will we decide?”

For better or worse, the world is not watching. I don’t even think most Methodists are watching, though perhaps they should be.

This is a momentous time for us as a denomination. And Bishop Ough challenged his colleagues:
“We will have to determine – individually and collectively – if we are seeking a win for the whole church, particularly those on the margins of the church and society and the generations yet to be reached and yet to be born – or if we are only seeking an immediate, short-term win for our constituency, caucus or conference. This is the only way we will have a chance to become a leadership group.”
Are we “seeking a win for the whole church, particularly those on the margins?”

Will we finally end our discrimination against our LGBTQ siblings, or will we double down on exclusion by increasing the penalties against LGBTQ pastors or pastors who officiate at same sex weddings?

Bishop Ough told a story about the first time he served communion as a student pastor. As soon as he gave the invitation, his son Stuart, who was five or six at the time, jumped up from his seat and raced toward the communion table. A woman in the front pew reached out at the last possible moment, grabbed Stuart, and sat him down beside her. Stuart was in tears.

On the way home from church, Stuart sat in the back seat of the car, crying. Bishop Ough and his wife “tried to explain to him why the congregation’s tradition of not having children participate in communion was to be respected for the time being” (emphasis mine.)

Not surprisingly, those explanations “were hollow and did not heal his broken spirit.”

In between sobs, Stuart repeatedly asked, “Why can’t I come and have some of Jesus’ bread and juice?”

And that story led the bishop to this conclusion:
“Friends, there are tens of thousands of persons within our churches, and many hundreds of thousands more beyond our churches, who are sobbing uncontrollably today because in one form or another, intentionally or simply mistakenly, we have kept them from the table of the fullness of God’s grace, love and healing presence.”
I don’t know whether or not his colleagues said, “Amen!” but they should have.

As I understand it, at this point the United Methodist Church has four choices.

We can get rid of the discriminatory language in the Book of Discipline and become a fully inclusive church.

We can embrace the idea that more severe  punishments will solve the problem. Under this plan there would be mandatory suspensions and expulsions for rule violations in terms of same sex weddings and LGBTQ clergy.

We can structure an amicable divorce. There would be a denomination for those who want to continue a practice of LGBTQ exclusion and another one for those who don’t.

Or we can allow for a local option in which Annual Conferences will decide whom to ordain and Pastors will decide whom they will marry.

The first three plans will all result in schism. The Wesleyan Covenant Association and its allies will not stay in a denomination that does not allow for discrimination. If we go with more severe punishments, some progressives may leave and others will continue to defy the rules, which will then lead to more WCA defections. And in the third option, the schism would be planned.

The problem with the local option is that it allows for both inclusion and discrimination.

Allowing for discrimination is not enough for the WCA  and it is too much for many progressives. The traditionalists want discriminatioin to be mandatory and the progressives want it to be prohibited.

What all four options have in common is that changes to our Discipline and structure will not change hearts and minds. Some folks will continue to exclude and others will continue to include. The debate is not really about what people will do or believe; it is about whether or not they will continue to call themselves United Methodists.

When the United States Congress passes a law against discrimination, everyone has to obey it. But church policy is a very different matter. If people don’t agree with a policy; they can leave. Churches and pastors don’t have to change their behavior; they can leave.

If it is not completely obvious in this post, regular readers of the blog know that I am passionately in favor of full inclusion for all of God’s people. In terms of Christian social ethics, this issue was settled years ago. But I also care deeply about local churches. Deciding whether or not a local church will support same sex weddings may be painful, but it will not be as painful as deciding whether or not to leave the denomination.

The traditionalists will change their minds on this issue, just as they changed on slavery and segregation and women’s issues. Times change. The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. 

Change will come whether we separate or stay together. But I believe that change will come sooner if we stay together than if we separate.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

If the Church Were More Like Starbucks

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:33-34

After Starbucks announced plans for anti-racism and diversity training for all of their workers, one of the protestors held up a sign saying, “Too Little, Too Latte”

(Full disclosure: I am drinking Starbucks Coffee as I write this and I have been through more anti-racism workshops than I can count. I have actually been to the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks in Philadelphia where the incident took place.)

And lest anyone misunderstand, I do not think for a nano-second that Starbucks is any more racist than the rest of us. But that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Unless you have been subject to a news blackout for the past few days, you know the story. Two young black business men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were waiting for a colleague to arrive for a business meeting. 

Mr. Nelson asked to use the Rest Room and was told that it was for paying customers only and since he had not yet purchased anything he could not use it. 

No problem. He sat down with his friend and business partner to wait for their colleague to arrive.

Errin Haines Whack, AP National Writer, describes what happened next.
“A few minutes later, they hardly noticed when the police walked into the coffee shop — until officers started walking in their direction.
“’That's when we knew she called the police on us," Nelson told The Associated Press in the men's first interview since video of their April 12 arrests went viral.
“. . . Robinson said he thought about his loved ones and how the afternoon had taken such a turn as he was taken to jail. Nelson wondered if he'd make it home alive.”

A white customer recorded the incident on a cell phone and then posted the video

As outrage spread across the internet, the two men spent hours in a jail cell with no outside contact and no idea what would happen next, unaware of the storm generated by the incident on social media. They were released after midnight when District Attorney Larry Krasner declined to prosecute them for trespassing.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has met with the two men to apologize and hear their concerns. Johnson has also announced that 8,000 stores will be closed on the afternoon of May 29 so that 175,000 Starbucks employees can attend workshops on racism and diversity.

Some sociologists have expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of anti-racism and diversity training in curbing the implicit bias that white people have toward people of color.

They point out that the training may backfire as white employees may feel that it puts them down by elevating the status of minorities. And they note that sense of white victimhood was a factor in the last presidential election.

I don’t doubt that the skeptical sociologists know the data in ways that I do not. And I agree that real progress requires a lot more than a few hours at a seminar. But I believe this is a very good first step.

First, because it is big. And it’s very public. Without making any excuses, Starbucks is saying that they have to do better. 

And second, they are sending the clear message to their employees that racism and racial profiling are unacceptable.

Of course it’s also good publicity and it’s about brand preservation. Self-interest is always a motivating factor. (Thank you, Reinhold Niebuhr.) But that doesn’t diminish its value.

And it makes an important statement to the culture beyond Starbucks.

Thinking about the Starbucks response led me to thinking about the United Methodist Church. What if the church were more like Starbucks? 

Of course we still have lots of work to do on racism. We are Americans, after all. 

But I found myself thinking about our continued discrimination against our LGBTQ siblings.

We don’t have a CEO, but would it not be amazing (as in grace) if our Bishops and District Superintendents went to high schools and spoke to the local Gay-Straight Alliance (or other appropriate group) and apologized for the harm we have done—and for the harm done by other “Christians?”

What if we took an afternoon, or a Sunday morning, and dedicated that time to learning how to be better neighbors? Maybe we could learn to stop talking about the “homosexual lifestyle,” for starters. Maybe we could work to make sure that our LGBTQ siblings never feel like they are going to be “charged with trespassing” when they come to church.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Note to Pastor Snowflake: I Feel Your Pain

We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39

Last week I read a commentary piece by a pastor in the United Methodist Church  who is feeling angry and burned out. 

The pastor identifies only as “Pastor Snowflake,” so we know nothing of gender or background, beyond a general impression that the writer is relatively young and new to ministry, but I could be wrong about that.

The first paragraph gives a fair indication of what is to follow:

“Being a pastor in the United Methodist Church sucks right now. And if you are reading this and the word ‘sucks’ bothers you, quit reading. It isn’t going to get better and you aren’t worthy of the point I’m going to make.”

The critique of the church and the denomination is neither surprising nor new: we are fighting over the inclusion or exclusion of folks based on their sexuality, while the world is going to hell. The congregation is apathetic and shallow. Denominational leadership doesn’t get it. Pastors are blamed for everything. 

There’s more, but you get the point.

My first response is that I hear you and my heart goes out to you. 

This morning we hosted the ordination service for the New England Annual Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

In his ordination sermon the Rev. Dr. William Watley told the ordinands they needed to understand that if they are in ministry they are going to be wounded.

United Methodists are not alone in their struggles.

But still, this is not an easy time to be a pastor in the United Methodist Church. It’s not easy to be a pastor in an age of both increasing secularism and increasing right wing politics among so-called Christians. Adding in the unique struggles within United Methodism and it can be overwhelming.

In the immortal words of Bill Clinton, “I feel your pain.” And for more than a few decades in many ways I have lived your pain.

Pastor Snowflake (my goodness, I do not like that label!), describes what led them to the present crisis:
“Lent is what my congregation needs more than anything. They need a season focused personal reflection and repentance. Because, we are a people who’ve fucked things up and fallen short of doing good most days. I need the season of Lent because the darkside of my soul has gotten pretty cranky and mean and I need to be getting back to the heart of God. 
“So, I preached my heart out during Lent and had a few of my best sermons. At the same time, I’m leading my congregation through a visioning process to do more focused and pro-active community ministry and discipleship. . . .  I did it because I believe in God and see the Holy Spirit at work in my community. I did it because the iconoclastic befoulment from the last national election demands that the faith community get it together!”

Reading the essay, I see honesty, compassion and confession. This is written by someone who is as clear about their own faults as they are about the faults of others.

They go on from local church issues to denominational issues:
“I’m especially tired of the ridiculous argument about gay people…  and I’m calling out both liberals and conservatives here! You are all being assholes!”
It is certainly ridiculous to argue about the acceptability of our LGBTQ siblings. And it may be true that at least some of the time we are “all being assholes.” 

But there is no moral equivalence between the two sides.

Years ago, when we debated women’s issues, I can remember the oft-repeated observation that “there is pain on both sides.” But the pain of those being excluded is not the same as the pain of those who feel ill-used because they are called to account for their advocacy of exclusion.

After a lengthy list of crucial issues crying out for the attention of serious and faithful Christians, Pastor Snowflake laments, “Good men and good women trying to put life back on track for themselves and their families while the church fights a civil war over the place and worth of gay people!”

Clearly, we should not be fighting over this. “The place and worth of gay people” ought to be obvious to every human being.

But until it is obvious, we can’t give up. This is an argument that may seem minor and irrelevant to cis-gender straight folks, but it is life and death to our LGBTQ siblings.

Yes, in many ways, “Being a Pastor in the United Methodist Church Sucks Right Now.” But it is much worse for those who are excluded and told that they are “less than.” This is not where we want to be, but it is where we are. And we need to do our best to find a way forward that is faithful and just.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Friday, April 6, 2018

Resurrection: You Are the Body of Christ

Now you are the body of Christ
and individually members of it.

I Corinthians 12:27

In the days surrounding Easter I encountered many articles about the resurrection.

A recurring theme was the assertion that belief in the resurrection was essential to being a Christian, and that was followed by the insistence that believing in resurrection meant believing in “bodily” resurrection. And lest there be any confusion, the writers wanted to make it clear that by bodily resurrection they meant the literal, material body of Jesus.

Characterizing the resurrection in literal terms is theologically clumsy, but it is also biblically suspect.

If the resurrection is about the literal, material body of Jesus, then why didn’t Mary recognize him when she saw him in the garden outside the tomb? And how is it possible that Cleopas and the other disciple could talk with him for hours on the way to Emmaus and sit down with him at dinner, and still not recognize him? And when Jesus came to them on the beach, while they were cooking breakfast, why didn’t they know who he was?

Finally, if we can get by all of the strange contradictions, we come to the ascension. Can we really believe that Jesus literally rose up into heaven? Do we believe that his body levitated up into the clouds?

These are not mistakes in the narrative. The Gospel writers knew what they were saying. They were trying to describe something that was fundamentally indescribable. Biblical language is always symbolic. But there is more going on than can be explained in terms of symbolic language.

In order to understand what they were saying we need to read the story backwards.

The New Testament would not exist if its authors had not encountered the risen Christ. They met Jesus in the form of the risen Christ and then they wrote about how that came to be and what it meant. They were looking back and asking, “How did we get here?”

And that message transformed the world. Literally. 

The little band of fearful followers who went into hiding after Jesus’ crucifixion grew so rapidly that within a few hundred years they numbered between a quarter and a half of the population of the Roman Empire.

In an excellent essay in the WallStreet Journal on the day before Easter, Roman Catholic scholar George Weigel explains:
“How did this happen? How did a ragtag band of nobodies from the far edges of the Mediterranean world become such a dominant force in just two and a half centuries? The historical sociology of this extraordinary phenomenon has been explored by Rodney Stark of Baylor University, who argues that Christianity modeled a nobler way of life than what was on offer elsewhere in the rather brutal society of the day. In Christianity, women were respected as they weren’t in classical culture and played a critical role in bringing men to the faith and attracting converts. In an age of plagues, the readiness of Christians to care for all the sick, not just their own, was a factor, as was the impressive witness to faith of countless martyrs.”
True story.

Without the resurrection this would have been impossible.

Their encounters with the risen Christ convinced them that they could live differently. They lived as he lived. They recognized that the Kingdom of God really was among them and they lived that way. They lived the way that they did because they were convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

In the words of the angel in Matthew’s Gospel, “He is risen as he said.”

For the first Christians the resurrection was both the foundation of their faith and an event that they found to be thoroughly incomprehensible.

To speak of resurrection in literal terms reduces its meaning and ignores the biblical record. Resurrection is not about flying bodies or a resuscitated corpse. Easter transcends and transforms our normal categories.

In his earthly ministry, Jesus’ message was that the Kingdom of God was as hand. Weigel argues that the early Christians came to believe “that the cataclysmic, world-redeeming act that God had promised had taken place at Easter. God’s Kingdom had come not at the end of time but within time—and that had changed the texture of both time and history. History continued, but those shaped by the Easter Effect became the people who knew how history was going to turn out. Because of that, they could live differently. The Easter Effect impelled them to bring a new standard of equality into the world and to embrace death as martyrs if necessary—because they knew, now, that death did not have the final word in the human story.”

In his second letter to the Church in Corinth Paul proclaimed that “when anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. The old has passed away and a whole new world has begun.” (II Corinthians 5:17) Everything has changed. For the early Christians this was the reality of the resurrection. 

In his first letter to those same folks in Corinth, just before he launched into those immortal words about love as the most important characteristic of Christian living (even more important than faith), he reminded them of the meaning of the resurrection: “You are the body of Christ.”

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.