Aspirations

I was in middle school when I first heard Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, and it touched a place deep within my soul. In it, I learned about keeping my “head when all around [me] are losing theirs and blaming it on” me. I learned that I “could talk with crowds and keep [my] virtue, or walk with kings nor lose the common touch.” In high school, I would actually commit the poem to memory. I learned that all of this was a way to grow into adulthood and be the kind of person who would be a valued part of my community and my world.

The interesting part about this was that it was a poem. It wasn’t a checklist. It wasn’t just a list of rules about how to live. It was an appeal … an invitation … to be the kind of person who would bring honor. It created an image … a narrative …  to which I could aspire.

In recent weeks, I have been doing a great deal of work on the distinction between two different ways we approach the witness of scripture, theology and … perhaps most importantly … the way we do church.

As I shared on Easter, there is a transactional way to think of the work of Christ through his death and resurrection. It is how we often hear people talk about what is known as atonement. Our God is a righteous God who exacts a price on humanity for our sin. The ancient Israelites offered sacrifices to appease God, and the assumption was that it lasted for a time and could atone certain sins. Then people would have to sacrifice again. Jesus then finally came to offer “the ultimate sacrifice.”

The notion of sacrifice … even the sacrifice of Jesus … is transactional. It is payment for a debt that is owed.

The problem here, however, is that Jesus talks about a new form of love, and does not speak of his own death in purely transactional ways. Interestingly, we find people who very easily talk about the “unconditional love of God” only to then turn around and talk about Good Friday and Easter in conditional terms. If not for the sacrifice of Jesus, we would never be able to afford our sin.

You see the dilemma here, I trust.

But when we consider an aspirational approach, we see that the cross of Jesus is not part of a divine transaction to settle up our accounts. As Father Richard Rohr shares in his Daily Meditation for Monday, April 15,

Jesus takes away the sin of the world by dramatically exposing the real sin of the world (which is ignorant violence rather than not obeying purity codes); by refusing the usual pattern of revenge, and, in fact, “returning their curses with blessings” (Luke 6:27-28); and, finally, by teaching us that we can “follow him” in doing the same. There is no such thing as redemptive violence. Violence doesn’t save; it only destroys—in both short and long term. Jesus replaced the myth of redemptive violence with the truth of redemptive suffering. He showed us on the cross how to hold the pain and let it transform us, rather than pass it on to others around us.

So what would it mean for us to understand the cross aspirationally instead of transactionally?

First, it would mean that we would not see it from a western economic worldview. It is very easy in the American mindset to think of the cross as that place where we get life the same as we get milk from the grocery store. I shared on Easter that we often think of “redemption” in the way that I grew up thinking of Green Stamps. We would collect enough green stamps from the grocery store or the drug store or the gas station, and then, when we had enough, we would go to the Green Stamp Redemption Center and turn them in for various household items. I grew up with a set of dishes and green glasses (which eerily went with our shag carpet) from the redemption center. The cross, however, doesn’t bring that kind of redemption.

An aspirational understanding of the cross would instead be the place where we would “hold the pain and let it transform us.” My doctoral work was centered around the notion that brokenness (specifically in the church) could be that which annihilates us or that which becomes foundational to our faith. Our culture is typically focused on the avoidance of pain and suffering. So much of our medicine, our psychology, our economy, and most especially, our religious life is too easily organized around the avoidance of pain and suffering.

The ancient church never considered the avoidance of suffering to be an option. Early on, suffering became a significant way to connect with Christ. It was not a masochistic suffering brought about by a sadistic God. Instead, it was the notion that authentic life brings with it authentic suffering.

Authentic faith … a faith that understands letting go and letting God … is rarely well-received by those in power because power doesn’t show up well in the light of such faith. Martyrdom (which comes from the word “witness”) was brought on when the Roman government was cast in a negative light by the people of faith … those who believed that the body could be killed but that the soul was outside the grasp of the powers of this world.

A second implication is that we are offered a different worldview than that of power sealed by violence. There are those who believe that Jesus simply gave up his life … passively … and let the world think it had won until God’s violent overthrow of the world should redeem us at the end of the age. This is not the Jesus of the gospels.

The Jesus of the gospels did not show up as people might have expected. He showed up as Dr. Martin Luther King showed up in the last half of the 20th century … leading a nonviolent movement that was contrary to the ways of human power. Jesus did not come as the warrior king. He came as a non-violent messiah who from the cross offered forgiveness for his executioners. He did not come to bring harm though he knew that his movement would not bring peace.

The General Rules of the Methodist Societies reflect this premise:

Do no harm. Do good. Attend upon all the ordinances of God, which directs us to the means of grace.

In the gospels, Jesus is anything but violent, and he is anything but passive. Those who have heard me use Walter Wink’s explanation of Jesus’ Third Way know that we no longer talk about Jesus as a passive victim. Jesus is, in every way, radical … in how he brings a non-violent revolutionary message … in how he stands his ground in creative ways … in how he offers us insight into this redemptive suffering referred to by Fr. Rohr.

Finally, the implication of an aspirational view of the cross comes in how following Jesus can radically transform our world. In so many ways, the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was just this message. We can effect a radical change in our world by following the path Dr. King sat before us.

It is true that direct action (active resistance) tends to create crises, but unjust power rarely changes its course when there is no crisis forcing its redirection. The Beloved Community of which Dr. King so eloquently spoke does not come easily (as evidenced by the continuing systemic racism found in every institution up to and including the church), and it will not be possible by keeping our minds focused on a transactional atonement. Dr. King’s is a truly aspirational model.

[NOTE: The next paragraph was not part of the original blog post, but comes as a postscript following the ruling of the Judicial Council of the UMC on Friday, April 26.]

The Judicial Council just ruled that parts of the Traditional Plan passed by the 2019 General Conference are upheld. Those include mandatory harsher penalties to be imposed upon clergy who defy church law and do same-gender marriages and mandatorily override the will of annual conferences who wish to ordain gay clergy and jurisdictions who wish to elect gay bishops. No matter how we try to look at this, there is no way to see that as the work of Jesus Christ, and it has no place in the body of Christ. It seems clear that a division is imminent, and we are witnessing one more time how our efforts at being church does harm to others with the implementation of laws that are unjust.

But as we consider the direction of the United Methodist Church, I think I see a pathway here. We who consider ourselves “progressives” (along with many centrists) have fallen into thinking that the only way to have this conversation was by use of transactional language … just speaking on the other side of it. We have thought that, if we just argue persuasively enough, we would be able to convince the people who think differently to change their viewpoint.

In Fr. Rohr’s language, we have returned curses with curses while ironically hoping that shouting louder might quieten the room a bit. But if we consider the third way … the way of Jesus … we will stand our ground because we know it to be the authentic and best way forward. We will “return curses with blessings,” and find a new way of living into our own authentic language.

An aspirational language that provides for us a different narrative … a narrative that challenges us much like Kipling’s poem challenged me as a child … may well provide us a narrative that is far more insightful and hopeful.

After all, we follow a savior who answered most questions with a story! A story of faith!

For Just Such a Time As This

The book of Esther is a fascinating tale of intrigue. It is a story of power that is used to harm and destroy. It is a story of how a young Jewish woman named Esther became queen to Xerxes, who ruled the Persian Empire when it was at it’s greatest height. When the diasporan Jews who lived among the Persians were threatened with destruction by Haman who was the premier to Xerxes (meaning he was second in power only to Xerxes), it was Esther’s uncle, Mordecai (who had saved the king from an assassination attempt early in the story), who realized that the only person in a position to save the Jews through Persia was Esther herself.

The words he spoke to her were simply this:

Don’t think that just because you live in the king’s house you’re the one Jew who will get out of this alive. If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive for the Jews from someplace else; but you and your family will be wiped out. Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this.

In my previous blog, I talked about taking deliberate steps and waiting on God. In no way is that a call to sit on our hands while harm is done. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, began (almost reluctantly) to work with his brother, Charles, in the formation of The Holy Club at Oxford University. This group was called “Methodist” as a term of derision for their methodical, deliberate way of moving forward.

During that time, John and Charles both began to see where the Church of England was seriously missing the mark. It had become an elitist religion. It was simply unavailable and insignificant for the common person who lived in the margins. These were people who worked in mines, who sat in prison for the inability to pay their debts, and who were largely disregarded. The only purpose they served for the church was to be the place where a pittance of charity was given so the religious folks could assuage their guilt and then go about their lives with a clear conscience.

John Wesley believed that he was born for “just such a time as this.” He believed that God had perfectly suited him and his band of followers to take the message of faith and holiness to the streets, to the prisons, and to the mines. He reached out with more than charity. He reached out with solidarity, offering not just his money, but offering his hand. And a movement was born.

It was dangerous at times to be John Wesley. He was threatened with physical violence on more than one occasion. There were those in the Church of England that believed he had gone way too far. He was preaching in open air settings (a big no-no), but worse, he was preaching in the parish (think territory here) of other priests. He was ordered not to do so. Wesley was a fellow of Lincoln College at Oxford, and he had no parish of his own, which meant he was free to preach where he liked. There was, however, an assumption that he would not offend a parish priest by preaching when he was not invited by that priest, and especially so if he was ordered by that parish priest to leave his parish.

Having been confronted about his indiscretions and his clear violation of ecclesial authority, he wrote in his journal on June 11, 1739:

I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.

In November 2017, I attended the inaugural gathering of the Uniting Methodists (who are a group of United Methodists seeking unity in our diversity). It was during that conference that I first heard Dr. David N. Field speak. In that presentation, he referred to Wesley’s statement from 1739 and said, “That, my friends, is an act of ecclesial disobedience.”

Wesley would not follow rules that continued to marginalize people, perpetuate exclusionary practices, or in any way harm people and leave them cut off from the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the John Wesley of MY Methodism!

God has given me the perspective and strength of faith. God has called me to ministry. I have been ordained as an elder in the United Methodist Church and told to “take authority.” I find myself amidst a growing movement of centrist and progressive clergy who can no longer abide with the harmful, exclusionary practices that marginalize and limit LGBTQIA+ people from full participation in the life of the church. It is time act!

But it is bigger still. In a conversation quite some time ago with a colleague, his message to me was clear. We haven’t finished our conversations about racial injustices, mistreatment of immigrants from our southern border, and a host of other social ills that continue to plague our society today.

Adam Hamilton said it well in a speech from the floor of the 2019 General Conference. He was speaking to the conservatives who call themselves the Wesleyan Covenant Association about the proposed adoption of the restrictive and punitive Traditional Plan:

Centrists and progressives never wanted a divorce. We were never looking for a gracious exit. We were looking for a little space.  You wanted to leave because you were tired of fighting about this.  But with this you’ve alienated not only the progressives but also the centrists. Will these churches protest less or more for LGBTQ persons in the future? Those proposing the Traditional Church Plan, you have inspired a lot of people to action at this [General Conference]!

The sleeping giant has been awakened. To my local church, to my centrist and progressive friends, to all who stand for the full inclusion of ALL people in the life of the church, I say with Uncle Mordecai: You are called for just such a time as this!

One Step at a Time

In recent days, I have embraced the fact that I tend to be deliberate, which means that I come off as moving a little slowly. Not physically (much) … and not vocally (I still talk a lot). No, the place that I am most deliberate and tend to take my time is in leadership. I tend not to shoot much from the hip when it comes to leadership, and it is evidenced in that the biggest decisions churches have made under my pastoral leadership have often taken time to mature.

One church added a large education wing and spacious activity center (almost doubling the size of the church itself) that took years to plan. In another community, the church I led in a complete relocation took seven years out of my eleven years as their pastor. Wellspring (the church I now pastor) took three years of conversations before we became a Reconciling Congregation, and we took three years (that partially overlapped the first conversation) to move into a new governance model.

In all my ministry, however, I have never faced a greater challenge than what is now facing us as a denomination. The strain on the United Methodist Church right now is capable of splitting the denomination apart. It is uncertain exactly how we will proceed. The temptation is to react quickly … to shoot from the hip … but I am still that pastor who wants to make sure we are deliberate and constructive in our work.

As we discern where God is leading us, I have begun working with other progressive and centrist pastors in our annual conference to find our voice. On Monday evening, I created an email that I sent to seven people (which seems like a good biblical number) with a link for clergy to join a dialogue in our conference. As of this writing, we now have 61 clergy members (active and retired) who are signed up and ready to organize.

This Sunday at Wellspring, we will meet to hear more about the plan that was passed at the General Conference, which is both punitive and regressive. We as a congregation will work to find our own voice in this conversation. It will be a time of sharing and learning about various potential emerging paths that can unfold before us.

The most important part of this conversation … any conversation worth having … is to invite the Holy Spirit into our midst. It is the first and most important step we can take. I am aware that there is a great deal of anxiety and fear within the church. There are those who are angry and those who are simply waiting to see where this leads. There are those for whom the word “wait” comes as something that is no longer an option.

But when we “wait upon the Lord,” according to Isaiah, we will renew our strength. We will find new energy where running will not bring weariness and walking with determination will not cause us to faint (see Isaiah 40). We are waiting only on God to work through our deliberations and discernment. What I have discovered is that, when we take one step at a time and trust God with each and every one of those steps, we will discover a new horizon that offers us hope in the face of despair … resurrection in the face of death.

The truth I have discovered in all of this is that it is not my leadership that is important. It is finally the leadership of the Holy Spirit that gets us to our destination. That, my friends, is the journey of the Lenten season.

Pastor’s Statement on the General Conference

Yesterday (3 March), I shared in our worship services a prepared statement on the recently completed special called session of the General Conference. I have been asked to share it multiple times, so I am placing it here for those who wish to read it. For those who wish to watch it as I presented it to the people in the 9:30 service, you may see it HERE.

Statement on the General Conference

Most of you have heard the news that came out of this week’s special called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. This session had been hoped to be one that would provide a way forward for all of us who desire to maintain a stance of open inclusiveness within our congregation, especially as it pertains to LGBTQIA persons. This is not the witness of big-tent Methodism that has been part of my life since childhood. What was sought was a way to share this house called Methodism. What was received was a house divided.

To you who are diverse in your beautiful, God-given sexuality, I come to you saying that I’m sorry for the way the church has treated you and then stood silently by as others mistreated you. To those who have been harmed by the hateful rhetoric … to those who have been treated as objects and not as beloved children of God … to those who parent children who are sexually diverse … to those who advocate and stand with LGBTQIA persons, as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, I ask your forgiveness. You have had your very being treated as “an issue,” and your value as a beloved child of God has been called into question.

My pledge to you is that Wellspring is a safe place for you. We will stand together to advocate for justice and equality for all people. While there is still much that is not known about the work done this past week because of constitutional challenges yet to be decided, we are using today as a service that reflects both our sadness and our hope.

We have clergy and leaders within the church who are here for you. We have clergy (both appointed and retired) within our church family who are more than willing to provide a safe space for any who have been harmed … to give you a safe place to express your pain, your fears, and your hope in the days to come. We have those within our congregation who are trained and licensed counselors and coaches who also stand ready to provide a safe space for you. Please reach out to me or any other leader in the church with whom you feel comfortable, and we will stand with you during this difficult time.

My friends, you are loved and you are sacred … my heart breaks with yours. More than that, God’s heart breaks with yours. Please know that nothing is changed at Wellspring. No matter what our denomination says, we will not marginalize any of you here! We are still the church where “All are welcome, all are accepted.” When we say that, we always add … AND ALL MEANS ALL!

Something God Alone Can See

What happens now? I have heard that question multiple times this week. Following the actions and rhetoric of the called session of the General Conference of the UMC, it has been difficult to see where we go from here. Only a small percentage of the delegates from the United Methodist Churches in the United States were in support of the Traditional Plan that was approved this week, but there is a growing percentage of the denomination that exists beyond the USA. Many of the delegates from the African continent and Central and East Asia tend to be more conservative in their values.

But the question of why the One Church Plan (which allowed greater contextual decision- making) failed continues to nag at us. There are multiple reasons that will come to light in the days ahead, and the Traditional Plan that was adopted is under serious constitutional review by our Judicial Council (which will next meet near the end of April).

What appeared to me at the close of the General Conference is that our United Methodist Church is now more untied that united. We are broken. We are, in fact, experiencing death. I agree with Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas, who is convinced that the Wesleyan Covenant Association has won the battle but has lost the church. You can read his blog HERE.

This Sunday in worship, we will acknowledge the brokenness and harm that has come to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who are further marginalized by this action. We will speak honestly with one another, and together, we will discover a way forward.

What I want my congregation to hear from me is that we are not going anywhere. We are still Wellspring, and nothing about our stance has changed. We are still the welcoming affirming church … a Reconciling Congregation … who still proclaims that, at our table and in our fellowship, all means all. When we feel shackled by this, it is perhaps helpful to remember that Paul calls himself “an ambassador in chains” in his letter to the Ephesians (amidst a chapter of scripture which is problematic, but which was conveniently overlooked by those wishing to force a literal interpretation of the Bible on us).

I think it is important for us to understand how God works through us even when we are shackled. My experience is that God has worked incredibly in my life during those times when I was most broken. God has liberated me during those times when I felt most constrained. God has spoken through my life when I have been left without a voice.

And God will work again … this I believe … here I make my stand. We will continue to work as partners with Jesus  “to proclaim release to the captives and … to let the oppressed go free.

Natalie Sleeth, in her hymn known as Hymn of Promise, shares the many and varied things in our lives that may seem to be hopeless and dead, but which ultimately are signs of something new. She shares that in buds, we find flowers … in seeds, we find apple trees … in cocoons are hidden promises that are soon to break free with life. In the last verse of the hymn we sing:

In our end is our beginning;
in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing;
in our life, eternity,
In our death, a resurrection;
at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see.

The United Methodist Church as I have known it … the big tent Methodism of my childhood and my youth … is dead. And it is in the midst of that death that God begins to do a marvelous thing. It is in the darkness amid the stench of decay … where the chain of death holds us down … that God is at work. There is a hope, my friends, that is coming to you and me.

No, I don’t know what the future holds, but I know this. I am still the same pastor who left last week for General Conference to watch this all unfold. Wellspring is still the incredibly hospitable, welcoming, affirming, reconciling church family we were called to be. And God is still God … working through our death to bring a resurrection.

Sixth (and final) Update on General Conference – Hope

Much is being said about this General Conference on social media and in the news. There are many things to consider, but let me start with a basic truth. The truth is that the struggle for justice for LGBTQ persons is far from over … in some ways, when many people think this was the last word, I would say that this was anything but the last word.

Here are my observations about this General Conference (albeit articulated with a weary mind):

Constitutionality

While what has been known as the Traditional Plan has seemingly prevailed, it has proven time and again to be plagued with constitutional challenges. The United Methodist Church has a constitution that has largely stood the test of time. And while the General Conference has full legislative authority, our Judicial Council (think Supreme Court) can declare any portion of that legislation unconstitutional, which will then render it null and void.

The Traditional Plan was again referred to the Judicial Council, and it is expected that much of it will not stand the constitutional test.

Exit Strategy

I have never known anyone who really thought they were winning the war to plan a retreat or an exit strategy at the while, at the same time, declaring victory. Yet that has happened here in St. Louis. More moderate to progressive delegates finally began speaking plainly about what was happening and called out those who were working so diligently to craft a “disaffiliation plan” that provides a framework by which churches may leave the denomination and subvert what is commonly known as the “trust clause” and keep their property while moving to be either independent or join or create a new denomination.

While making every effort at decorum, it is no secret that the group that calls itself the Wesley Covenant Association has been working to create a new Wesleyan denomination that would no longer be part of the United Methodist Church. The Reverend Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Church of the Resurrection, called out the group for that very thing in an impassioned speech.

The struggle by the WCA to keep the exit strategy in place affirms that there is much more to this story than meets the eye.

Direct Action

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, addresses direct action in the wake of broken promises and continued prejudice and oppression of African American people. In that letter, he writes:

As in so many experiences in the past, we were confronted with blasted hopes, and the dark shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us. So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.

Today, I watched it unfolding. As the traditional plan was approved a group of queer clergy and laity and their supporters began a direct action that laid out the case “before the conscience of the local and national community.” Delegates gathered in the middle of the bar of the conference and observers made their way to the front of the stands directly beside me and elsewhere in the stands. I watched as three of the people in the group near me (who were obviously from the same conference) yelled to their bishop as she walked by, begging her to come to stand with them … in front of them on the floor level of the arena. She offered them a sign of peace, but would not come toward them. She slowly walked away as they begged her to recognize them … to stand with them.

 

Direct Action.JPG
Protestors take to the floor and to the stands of the General Conference.

 

My heart was breaking at watching the rejection. My heart was breaking for them. A layperson from our conference seated near me also saw it, and she began to cry. She immediately walked toward them, and I was right behind her standing with them … in solidarity … wanting justice for them … wanting this nightmare to end.

As I moved back toward my seat, it occurred to me. This wasn’t the first time the church had been on the wrong side of justice. Dr. King’s letter from the Birminham Jail was written in response to an open letter to Dr. King from the “Alabama Clergymen,” and among the signers of that letter were Methodist bishops Nolan Harmon and Paul Hardin.

In that letter, they challenged Dr. King to refrain from protests and wait for justice to come through civil dialogue. It was in his response that Dr. King wrote: “We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Hope

I am saddened, but not without hope. We have seen and will see various news articles that are making declarations that this is a final decision of the church. There are many who will give up and walk away. Here it is enough to quote a tweet by Bishop Karen Oliveto, the only openly lesbian bishop in the UMC, who herself quotes Richard Smallwood’s Hold On, Don’t Let Go:

I know so many hurt right now. From my GC play list:
“Hold on, don’t let go, even though your heart hurts you so; He’ll never let go of your hand”
I’m not going  to let go of you, dear ones who are hurting so right now. Let’s hold us all tight. (words spelled out from Twitter)

My friends, the wisdom from Bishop Oliveto is spot on. We are holding onto hope.

Fifth Update on General Conference – Courage

The divide is deepening within our beloved United Methodist Church. Not only have we been unable to find a middle ground; we are now feeling the pull far to the side of a more rigid orthodoxy. I write this midday to encourage my Wellspringers and others amidst the uncertainties that are now unfolding within our denomination.

To answer a couple of the questions I have received via email and text:

  1. No, I do not immediately know the impact of this General Conference. The divide I am feeling suggests that a greater breaking may come in the future, but there is no crystal ball to see the full implications for our future.
  2. Yes, Wellspring will still be a Reconciling Congregation. Our association with Reconciling Ministries Network is no different from our brothers and sisters who associate with the Wesleyan Covenant Association (both are parachurch organizations).

I will have another update this evening, but I write just now to encourage us!

This is what faith is about … the courage to let God still guide us even when we walk through dark valleys.

Courage, friends! Take courage!