Category Archives: Ponderings

Products of theological reflection and divine inspiration.

Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness

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In just another day and a half, the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will convene.  I find myself here in our temporary Mecca of Roanoke, having made my annual pilgrimage a couple days early, for the task of assisting with worship preparation and set up.  This year, I am part of the Worship Planning Team, and worship is one of my passions both as clergy and disciple.  Worship will be vital to Virginia Methodism as clergy and laity alike gather for the business of the Church.  Worship is where God reigns, and there we experience the Ministry of the Word.  At its best, it is without prejudice or politics.  It forces us to set aside our will, and open ourselves to God’s.  As I help prepare and consecrate the make shift chancel and set the altar, I am praying that God’s will be done, and not ours.

I have been praying that prayer for a long time.  I was praying it up to and in the midst of Called General Conference in February.  I left St. Louis with sorrow and tremendous hurt, both of which made for an unholy union, and gave birth to hopelessness.  Many on all sides of the issue of human sexuality and inclusion felt that same hopelessness.  I have watched as it has expressed itself in a myriad of means.  From declarations to protests to acts of defiance, hopelessness casts a heavy shadow on the vibrancy of the Virginia Annual Conference.  Thank God that Christ’s light can permeate even the darkest of shadows (2 Corinthians 4:6).

So where do we find hope in the midst of hopelessness?  As some have declared that the United Methodist Church is dead, I have watched entire households join the local church I serve.  As some have railed at the decision of Called General Conference, I have watched non-heterosexuals refuse to leave our denomination, and instead, recommit to continue the dialogue, the journey, and the holy quest for full inclusion.   I have been given the opportunity to witness the Holy Spirit continue to speak and move in our midst, and that always brings me hope.  Can that happen here at Annual Conference?  That depends entirely on us.

Just as John Wesley asserted that we can sin away our baptism, we can close ourselves off from the Holy Spirit.  We can refuse to hear and be moved, but I have more faith in my fellow Methodists from the beloved Commonwealth of Virginia.  I choose to believe that we are a people ever faithful and desirous of God’s Word for us.  I choose to open myself to what God has to reveal to us next.  I come here with great conviction, born of my own divine encounter and post-Called General Conference vision.  Yet I know that nothing is ever finished until God declares it so.  Thus far that consists solely of the salvation of the cross (John 19:30).  So if we open ourselves up to what God has for us next, then Methodists on all sides of the issue can experience new direction and even new hope.  As the Psalm cries out: “But I will hope continually, and will praise you yet more and more” (71:14).  Hope and praise, specifically in worship, are intimately tied together.  When we declare God’s mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ and give thanks for our blessings, then hope begins to feel tangible.

So if you, like so many, feel like there is no hope, then I urge you with all that I am to turn to praise.  Gratitude for what we have, no matter how small and insignificant it feels, is a gateway to hope.  Hopelessness is incompatible with gratitude.  Hopelessness cannot stand before hearts that rejoice in our Lord and Savior.  Hopelessness will always fall before the Body of Christ that refuses to be silenced in praise in the midst of struggle, division, and disagreement.  Hope will rise out of the void, because that is the miracle God promises: “Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope” (Psalm 119:116).  So we worship and we hope.

Over the next few days, Virginia United Methodists will worship and work.  I, like thousands of others, will be here working, worshiping, and witnessing.  If you are not here in person, you can be in Spirit.  May our prayers and hopes rise to the highest heavens, and petition God to reveal what we have not yet seen: a bright and beautiful future for a denomination that freely gives the world a theology of unparalleled grace.  I do not know what that may look like, but I know that God can do what we cannot.  This evening, I wait with bated breath to discover what God will do next, and I pray that I am faithful enough to follow the Spirit’s lead.

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Connectional Pain and Suffering: A Coming Out Story

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One of the most underappreciated, yet beautiful things about United Methodism is its connectionalism, how a global church connects local churches and individual members to others to combine our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness into a world-wide Body of Christ.  Methodism makes the world a small place, as the saying goes.  It is not uncommon for people to hear I am United Methodist clergy and ask if I know someone in another state, and then find I do!  I have been in airports all over the country and run into fellow clergy I personally know.  Many of my church members have been members of United Methodist churches while residing in other parts of Virginia, and we discover that we know the same people, have been in the same churches, and funded the same missions.  The United Methodist Church has created a family of faith in a tangible way.

Yet like all families, we have our issues, our dysfunction, and our struggles.  We are not perfect, and yet we profess to strive actively to be made perfect in God’s love in our concept of Christian Perfection.  Living in community, even holy community, brings with it a certain amount of expected tension, drama, and conflict, but things have gotten to be so painful.  I know that from pain something beautiful can emerge, that God can bring forth blessing from burden.  I have given birth, and I know that it is not all sunshine, roses, and smiles.  It was a struggle, a test of my endurance, and filled with gnashing of teeth, literally.  In the end, I have my son, and as the days go by, I can see that he is not only a blessing to me, but he will continue to grow in God’s love and bless many others.  I find this a fitting metaphor for my beloved denomination.

The Friday after Called General Conference I had a vision, a divine encounter with God.  In it, God simply told me that “it was time” for full inclusion of non-heterosexual persons and the extension of holy matrimony to same-sex couples.  This was not my previous position.  I was raised and educated as a Traditionalist.  I am so grounded and immersed in Scripture that I could never justify overturning the nine prohibitive texts around non-heterosexual sexual expression.  Even as my family and friends came out as gay or bisexual, and my heart longed to see them fully embraced as I am in all my heterosexuality and human sinfulness, I could not find the Scripture to justify it.  So like what I suspect are countless other United Methodists, I defaulted to Traditionalism around the issue of human sexuality and inclusion.  Yet here was God Almighty telling me that I had to now totally reverse myself, and, oh yes, tell my church in my sermons in  the next forty-eight hours.  I cried for hours until I was dehydrated.  I tried to get God to tell me what I knew I would need: the Scripture citations.  God simply told me to remember Peter and his attempt to walk on the water.

This was not my first vision.  I have had three others, two around my call to ordained ministry.  They are always very biblical, in that they are disturbing, confusing, unwanted, and terrifying.  This was no exception to my past experience.  I was terrified at the ramifications of publicly coming out in favor of full inclusion when I had not even come out publicly in favor of the Traditionalist position!  I knew what was at stake: I could lose the confidence and acceptance of my church members, I could lose my appointment, and thus lose custody of my child to his father.   I knew I would make people angry, and that I would cause hurt to those I love, including members of my own family.  Despite all of this, I never tried to argue with God.  I have done that in previous visions.  It never works, makes God angry, and leaves me in a state of spiritual brokenness.  I knew that this was God, God’s will, and God’s word to me, and set about trying to figure out how to do what God wanted two days later in Sunday Worship.

I started reading Matthew 14, the passage that records Peter’s attempt to walk across the water to Jesus, over and over again.  God directed me here for a reason, and I had less than two days to figure it out, incorporate it into my ministry of the Word, and present the riskiest, scariest, and most prophetic sermons of my life.  What I read was not helpful in easing my fears.  In the story, the Apostles, without Jesus, are in a boat overnight on the waters assailed by a storm’s winds and waves.  As morning breaks, they see Jesus walking on the water, coming towards them.  They become terrified (running theme), mistake him for a ghost, and cry out in fear (Matthew 14:26).  Jesus speaks to them to try to ease their fears, and then Peter issues both his challenge and his faith: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28).  Jesus gives a one word reply: “Come.”  Peter does, getting out of the boat, onto the water, and making his way over to Jesus.  This is where our visual depictions cause us to stumble, because almost every image or moving recreation I have ever witnessed had Peter seemingly between the boat and Jesus when the rising strong wind scares Peter and he starts to sink.  But for the first time in all the countless times I have read this passage what jumped out and slapped me in the face was that “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him” (Matthew 14:31), which means that Jesus was right there.  He did not have to run over, or even quickly shift his body to be in closer proximity.  He was already there, so he could immediately reach out and save Peter.  Peter was on top of Jesus, and yet doubt and fear caused him to fail.  This was not the kind of inspiring revelation I wanted, much less the difficult truth I wanted to share with my people on Sunday.

I started yelling out loud to God, and in retrospect have never been so grateful for an empty house on Fridays.  “Are you kidding me?!  Peter fails!  How can I share a Scripture text where he fails in order to convince people to be open to this message you have burdened me with today?  They are going to lynch me!”  God’s voice rang out in my home once more,”Peter failed because he doubted.  You do not doubt.”  I hate to admit it, but God had me there.  For all my flaws and sins, I do not doubt.  I been talking with God since I was six, and those are just the conversations I can clearly remember and recall.  I know that voice.  I know that power and presence without image.  I knew who was talking to me the moment I heard it with all that I am in body, mind, and spirit, and I never questioned.  It also helps that I have two professional psychological evaluations from my ordination process declaring that I am certifiably sane.

It was then that I declared my seemingly insurmountable obstacle out loud to God: “I know the Traditionalist position.  I was born into it, raised with it, and educated in it.  I not only honor and respect it, but I held it myself.  I know what Traditionalists want to hear, because I have spent over two decades searching for it!  Now you want me to give them not just Peter failing, but your declaration that I do not doubt?!”  I could feel my blood pressure rising, my blood pulsing in my head, and nausea erupting.  I was going to be martyred.  “No,” replied God, “I want you to remind my people that Scripture is testimony, and it gets you very close to me and my truth, but in the end you must step out in faith and not doubt that my grace is sufficient.”  The world stopped.  I had never heard that in all my years of yearning, searching, and seeking.  There is nothing more biblical than this, and Jesus declared it himself: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).

The United Methodist Church has used its own method for theological reflection to create and perfect our Book of Discipline.  It is the culmination of our searching the Scriptures, engaging the tradition of not only Methodism, but the Church Universal and the whole of Christian tradition, as well as utilizing our rational minds through reason, while being attuned to our experience as individual disciples and communities.  I gave my vow to the Clergy Session of my Annual Conference who voted to ordain me, as well as all those gathered to witness the presiding bishop lay hands and speak the ordination blessing upon me, and conclude with the command to “take authority as an elder to preach the Word of God, and to administer the Holy Sacraments and to order the life of the Church, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  In my ordination is the covenantal duty to uphold The Book of Discipline, and my vision does not change that.  Within the Discipline, either as an expression of human ingenuity or divine wisdom, perhaps the ironic union of both, is the means by which to make change to the same book at General Conference.  That is the path by which those of us who feel convicted to see the United Methodist Church shift its position to full inclusion of non-heterosexual clergy and same-sex holy matrimony must walk.

After I preached that Sunday after Called General Conference, and came out to my church about my vision and new position on human sexuality and inclusion, I sent out over four hundred letters to the households in my church explaining my divine encounter, my sermons, and my new position.  In the letter I also promised that I would not “break Discipline,” commit any willful acts of disobedience, because I recognize that to do so and incur punishment would hurt them, and cause them unjust pain and suffering for my actions.  Many took the time to reach out to me to let me know how much they appreciated my explicit statement about not “breaking Discipline.”  To me, it is about keeping my covenant with the Church, honoring my vows and role as the elder at my appointment, and modeling patience and faithfulness while working for justice and transformation.

On March 26th, a digitally signed “Statement in Response to General Conference 2019 from the Undersigned People of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church” was sent to the bishop, and posted on the official Facebook page of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I saw the statement prior to publishing as several people forwarded it to me both to sign and get my thoughts.  I read the statement which includes language about refusing to uphold The Book of Discipline, and outlines certain actions of willful disobedience regarding clergy and marriage, as well as voting in matters of clergy ethics and the appointment of retired clergy.  Hundreds of clergy signed, proclaiming that they would “break Discipline” in these areas.  Even more laity signed in their support of these declarations.  After having just promised my church that I would not do this, I felt this concern for how the statement would be received.  It was not well received, even by those who share the belief of full inclusion.  I was immediately inundated with upset and concerned church members.

From my pastoral perspective, I want to offer this reflection on the statement, in light of my union with the sentiment and my own work to bring about changes to The Book of Discipline at the 2020 General Conference.  As a notoriously impatient person, I cannot stand the idea of waiting, but we have just over a year before the next General Conference convenes.  The Judicial Council will meet after Easter to rule on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan passed at Called General Conference, and then Annual and Central Conferences will have their annual sessions.  After that, there will be less than a year before General Conference.  We need to model and practice patience.  I cannot imagine how hard it was for Joshua and Caleb to hear that they would have to endure forty years of wandering before they could enter into the Promised Land, simply because God and the people of Israel had things to work out in that time!  Yet we are not talking about years in this instance, we are having to live out non-anxious presence for about a year.  We have work to do in that time, and acts of disobedience are too readily received as rebellion and anarchy, which only further hurts the efforts to engage in meaningful and transformational conversation.  It thwarts the work of those who feel convicted to work for change and full inclusion.

I would not be Methodist if I was not willing to grant grace.  Perhaps the language was nebulous enough in the statement to convey a sense of outrage and not intentional disobedience.  Maybe those that signed their names and publicly stated their position wanted to show that they were not giving up or going quietly into the night, but still very present and willing to struggle for those who have been prevented from experiencing the fullness of ordination and holy matrimony.  No matter what, I hope and pray that my fellow clergy, whether licensed, commissioned, ordained, or retired would not forsake our promise to the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to uphold The Book of Discipline.  After all, it is the very same book that allows females like myself to be clergy when some of the largest Christian denominations in the world still do not.  It is not all bad, and neither is it perfect.  I do have hope that through our continued commitment to one another we can have authentic conversation, experience true holy conferencing, and discern the next iterations of The Discipline.  It will require us to be patient, prayerful, active listeners, and wiling participants in the ongoing work of the Church.  Breaking Discipline is received as impatience, reactionary, closed off, and unwilling to be engaged.  I recognize that most of those who signed the statement were convinced of the necessity of full inclusion long before I was, and that I am new to this side of the conversation, but again Scripture speaks out to me that “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4) is not something determined by humankind, but something we experience.  It was not until the fullness of time for me, that God spoke to me, gave me this vision, and laid this mantle across my spiritual shoulders.  Now that God has done this, I am at work.  Who knows how many others have joined this cause since the close of Called General Conference, and perhaps add to our numbers daily?

There would be no more redemptive moment for our non-heterosexual siblings in Christ than to have the book that once excluded them proclaim in written word that they are truly us in every way.  I and others like me are committed to seeing our Book of Discipline be transformed like Saul to Paul, and God will not let us stop until we do.  But the process of transformation must be righteous and without reproach.  Sarai and Abram took divine matters into their own hands to conceive and bear a son (Genesis 16), and the result was incredible pain, suffering, and brokenness for Hagar and Ishmael.  If we are willing to set our will, even with the good intention of bringing about justice and holiness, before the covenants we made before God with the Church, then we are creating greater obstacles, which will ultimately cause the most hurt to our non-heterosexual members of the family of faith.  What greater hypocrisy than “breaking Discipline” now and decrying those who would do so later?  We must run this race with perseverance and integrity.   We must demonstrate our respect for God’s Word and our own, especially those who have given their word in vows of ordination.

I believe that change is coming.  Not because I am right or in favor of it, but because I have read the Bible too many times to believe that God’s will can ultimately be thwarted by human beings, even well intentioned and faithful ones.  As I struggle to remain patient, I hope others will struggle with me.  I hope we will all endeavor to hold fast to our faith, our word, and one another.  None of us are in this alone, and we need to find affirming and inspiring ways to reveal that truth.  We serve an unbroken Savior (John 19:36), but not with broken vows.

A Long, Hard Look in the Mirror

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I am used to being rejected by Christians.  Many denominations reject female clergy: “I don’t believe that women should be pastors.”  Many Americans reject the validity of my authority, because Ageism, discrimination on the basis of a person’s age, is culturally normative: “You’re too young to be a pastor.”  I seem to fail to fulfill visual expectations daily, even though for our Traditional Worship I wear a traditional alb robe and the liturgically appropriate broad stole, a symbol of my ordination as an Elder in the United Methodist Church: “You don’t look like a pastor.”  For too many Christians, yes, some even in my beloved United Methodist Church, I am too female, too young, and too weird looking.

The one catalyst for rejection that often goes unnamed (although not entirely), but routinely felt is that I look like I might be a lesbian.  I have a very short haircut, maintained every two weeks like clock work by the town barber.   I wear flamboyant clothing, and atypical shoes.  All right, let’s be honest; I wear shoes that literally stop traffic and regularly having people make comments, take pictures, and reel when they find out that I’m not a stripper, but a pastor.  That is the honest, brutal reality.  Now I could grow my hair out; it used to be past my hips in length.  I could wear more sedate, normative clothing, and I could trade my platform boots with seven inch heels for serene flats.  But I won’t, because my outward appearance is about expressing my vibrant personality, my joy for life and God’s people, and the playfulness I have with fun footwear.  I know all too well how people’s attitudes, conversations, and affect towards me shifts when they learn that I am heterosexual.  I have developed a keen awareness and sensitivity to how people act around and towards me.  I pay attention, and I pay even more careful attention to how others around me are being treated.

I have confronted a young man beating his girlfriend in public.  I have confronted children bullying other children.  I have stopped meetings when adults were getting out of line and hurtful towards each other to call out and censure such behavior.  I am fiercely protective of those that are being hurt, because I have spent a lifetime being hurt because I am too female, too young, too weird, too lesbian looking, too…

I have never witnessed bullying, rudeness, intolerance for difference, and hateful affect like I witnessed at this Called General Conference, and I saw it from all sides.  I saw it from Christians!  People who supported the Traditional Plan, but just as equally in people who supported the One Church Plan and the Simple Plan.  We have become a snarky, hateful people all the way around.  It is very seldom that I am at a loss for words, but countless times I was so shocked and outraged by the behavior of not only delegates, but especially observers like myself.  Those who gathered to be present and witness the events like me had to register for a name badge that read “Observer,” but few just observed.  Many from all ends of the spectrum interfered, bullied with displays, verbal outbursts, and hateful posts on social media.  This included lay persons and clergy.  Shame on us.

I was not the slightest bit surprised that Called General Conference deteriorated into the chaos and pain-filled anarchy it did.  I have been here since midnight on Friday, and every day since.  I have watched as more and more people attended and their behavior brought shame upon our denomination.  Just when I thought I had seen, heard, and painfully experienced it all, yesterday happened.  In order to “encourage” delegates to support a Hail Mary attempt to pass the One Church Plan, a clergy person from my own Annual Conference attacked me.  I sat stunned, as if my face had been slapped, my gut punched, and my painful experiences co-opted for rhetoric, to hear that we should “eliminate all the divorced.”  Following it up with a call for those of us who were to surrender our credentials, meaning that I should stop being the clergy God called me to be and whom the United Methodist Church ordained me to be.

Yes, I did not mention that yet.  I am divorced, not once, but twice.  I am not proud of this, nor am I proud to be able to claim to have survived the irrational shame and self-loathing that accompanies when your spouse commits adultery.  I have yet to officiate holy matrimony that ended in divorce in eleven years, and I hope and pray with all that I am that I never do, but I know the statistics, and I know the likelihood that I shall.  I tried to hold it together after those words inviting even more condemnation, rejection, and hatred towards me rocked outward at the speed of sound to the whole delegation, the entire dome arena, and into the internet via live-stream all across the world.  I managed to hold it together long enough to move to the section where others from the Virginia Annual Conference were seated observing, but as I lowered my fractured form to the seat, my pain, hurt, suffering, heartache, and tears erupted.  I was so ashamed to uncontrollably weep in public, to let the attack hit me and not nonchalantly bounce off my iron exterior, but the truth is my divorces have hurt me, changed me, and fractured me in ways that no words can convey.  I have been attacked and forced to defend myself for this before, but after all that I had experienced at Called General Conference, I broke.  I am breaking again as I compose this.

We have become a people of perpetual pain, and we perpetuate it on others.  We are not content to disagree, but must lash out, strike back, and harm those that do not agree with us.  Progressives and Traditionalists, Liberals and Conservatives, Heterosexuals and Non-heterosexuals alike.  Shame on us.  All during the course of the anger and rudeness of Called General Conference, I yearned, prayed, and awaited the intercession of our leaders of the highest office.  I wanted our bishops to call us into account, teach us to do no harm, and to speak and act in a different way, a Christ-like way.  Instead, there was silence.  Instead, some instigated behind the scenes, in their media outlets, and in their participation of displays for the side they aligned with most.  I thank God that my bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference was not present, because I did not have to witness her complacency, yet I highly doubt she would have ever allowed that.

When I reflect on all I observed, the atrocities in Christendom I witnessed, and the attacks I personally suffered, I doubt that any plan passed would have been sufficient to gloss over and overcome the sinful ways we act towards each other in our Church.  Shame on us.  Our failure to be an obedient Church was made manifest long before the first plenary vote yesterday, and long before the first legislative vote the day before.  United Methodists of all walks, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, genders, socio-economic class, political affiliations, and status in the Church have been acting this way for so long that we accept it as acceptable.  Shame on us.  None of us would be willing to stand before the Risen Christ and act and speak like this to him, therefore it should never be done to another person.

We are broken this day in many ways, but we were broken before Called General Conference convened, because we have allowed ourselves to perpetuate the brokenness through our words and deeds towards others.  Christ does not want to hear snarky comments about those he suffered and died to save.  Christ does not like our Facebook statuses attacking others and their beliefs that are diametrically opposed to ours.  Christ does not retweet our one hundred and forty characters of snide attacks upon our “enemies.”  Christ does not deem our blogs of outrage and attack as righteous.  Christ does not think it is ok to shame people, attack them with words and visual displays, to label them with pejorative terms, and be inhospitable towards them.   Christ does not accept our ways as his own, but repeatedly calls us to accept his ways for our own.

After a long, hard and frankly beyond painful look in the mirror of United Methodism, here is what I know… I am ashamed of how we act towards each other.  I am ashamed to have been present at such a hate-fest on all sides, ON ALL SIDES.  I am ashamed that I allowed that irrational, unwarranted, and unrighteous experience to be internalized and shame me, when I know that I am forgiven, loved, and free because of the sacrifice of my Lord and Savior, the blood of the cross, and God’s abundant grace for me.  I am grateful that no one can steal my faith.  I am grateful that my faithful following of Christ Jesus supersedes any stance, position, or affiliation in any denomination.  I am grateful that today I go home to my people: Crozet United Methodist Church of the Virginia Annual Conference.  I go back from this exile to a place where I am never too anything, but too blessed beyond measure.  I go back from this wilderness wandering of the dark side of United Methodism to a place where the best of my beloved denomination is visible, audible, and tangible every day, EVERY SINGLE DAY.  I am going back to where the grace of God and love of the Lord are for all, FOR ALL.

As the pastor of my church, I am more committed than ever to preach, teach, live, and embody the truth that: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).  I return to live this out with more passion, fervor, commitment, and authentic me.  I know that there are United Methodists, clergy and laity, who go back to their church home to do the same, and so I hope.  For now I hurt and hope, and on Sunday, I will lay that hurt on God’s holy altar, and leave it there.  It cannot stop me from being the United Methodist Christ demands.  “The Lord is my portion” and my hope is in him alone (Lamentations 3:24).

 

Perception Problems

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One of the most difficult things about the United Methodist Church is following, understanding, and navigating our parliamentary system for denominational governance and legislation.  Even for ordained clergy, trained in polity, it can be confusing.  We follow Robert’s Rules of Order, a procedural system based upon consideration of the rights of both individuals and the collective.  It can be a very cumbersome system, that often appears to complicate rather than streamline, and confuse rather than clarify.  Yet this is what we have for now, so we must work within its scope.

Yesterday many people present and watching the live-stream, social media, and news coverage, found themselves feeling hurt, upset, and even angry.  There are votes cast and preliminary decisions made that would bring that about anyway, but much was unnecessary as it stemmed from confusion.  The task of the Conference delegates yesterday was to function as the legislative committee, and perfect (amend, modify, and work upon) petitions submitted to the General Conference for consideration.  In a normal session of General Conference, this would occur in smaller committees in the week preceding the plenary, or full gathered body meeting, that makes final votes, and issues final decisions through the voting process.  Due to the Called nature of this General Conference, and the drastically compressed work schedule, the perfecting process occurred on the floor with the entire delegation serving as a singular legislative committee.  It is awkward because the same group making changes and perfecting will turn around tomorrow and make final votes.

Many of those invested and concerned following the Conference saw the results of perfecting votes and thought that was a final vote, killing some petitions in specific cases.  No one has asked me, and I have no power to speak, much less vote, but I personally would prefer to perfect every petition for a church plan, so that everything that came before the delegates tomorrow would be it its best, most perfect, and fully constitutional form.  This is true for petitions I may not even support, but upon which I would vote.  So what people observed and heard yesterday was that some of the votes on particular petitions, such as the One Church Plan (to create a system to specifically and openly affirm non-heterosexual persons), and the Simple Plan (to delete the current language of prohibition that causes pain to non-heterosexual persons), did not pass.  It readily appeared as though they were completely lost, and the Traditional Plan (to strengthen current language regarding non-heterosexual persons, and require adherence to The Book of Discipline), was passed.

In fact, a majority approval vote in the legislative committee still requires a final vote and full delegation approval during the plenary session, which will occur today.  A petition that did not get a majority vote in the legislative committee can still come before the full delegation as a minority report, with a significantly smaller threshold for passing to be heard.  So the One Church Plan and the Simple Church Plan are not dead, and the Traditional Plan is not final.  Today will be the day when the final discussions are held, the final votes cast, and a final decision is determined.  Yet even then, the Judicial Council, the United Methodist equivalent of the Supreme Court, will need to review and verify that anything passed is constitutional, and therefore valid.

For many United Methodists, we watch without having a voice or vote.  We are not officially elected delegates to this Called General Conference.  We seem to watch from the sidelines, and wait to see what will be handed to us from our legislative body.  No matter our theological stance on the issue of human sexuality and inclusion, we feel helpless and anxious to know what will be when all the votes are cast and a plan revealed as the way forward.  Having been in St. Louis and interacting with delegates since midnight on Friday, attending the day of worship and prayer on Saturday, and being present for Sunday and Monday, here is what I have discovered:

  1. Robert’s Rules of Order cause more pain, confusion, and frustration than we should tolerate.  Robert is not an Apostle of the Risen Christ, nor do the Scriptures outline this form of order.  Many clergy appointed to local church I have personally spoken with, do not follow all or any of Robert’s Rules.  They instead engage in a drastically simplified and modified version, if any version at all.  Preferring to be in conversation, collaboration, and work for consensus, rather than a winner and a loser as determined by Robert’s Rules.  There has to be a better way, and it is beyond time for the United Methodist Church to seek it out in order to go on to perfection legislatively.
  2.    We are such a huge denomination founded upon space for divergence in thought, practice, and emphasis, that we are not all alike in these areas.  We are alike in our fundamental Trinitarian theology, our foundational doctrine of grace, and our belief that our faith should transform the world.  All three are united to fulfill what we refer to as The Great Commission from Jesus Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).  We may never all be of one mind outside of those holy and spiritual truths, but it is not to be taken lightly either just how powerful and vital that agreement is.  Much less how effective it has been in making disciples and growing our faith called Methodism.
  3. No matter what plan is ultimately passed tomorrow, we need to address how we speak to one another, and how we behave towards each other.  It is not all right to speak of those who disagree with us as all sides have been doing.  It is not all right to make assumptions and use our vast platforms for our voices to be heard to degrade our delegates, our leaders, and our family of faith.  I have seen so many people hurt on all sides in the past couple of days.  I have watched us speak of each other as we should never speak of our enemy, much less our fellow members of the Body of Christ.  We need to learn to speak with a Christ-like Spirit first and foremost, or the message too deep and profound for words will never be heard, received, or allowed to take root in each other.  We did not have a dialogue, nor did we engage in Holy Conferencing.  Growing up outside of Washington D.C., I all too readily recognized our tone, words, and behavior, and while it is readily American and political, it is not fit nor effective for the Body of Christ.  We are called to better, and should rise above such methods and manners.

So many non-heterosexuals have been hurt by Christianity in a scope larger than just the United Methodist denomination, but significant damage has been done within our Church and throughout its history.  Perhaps if we had been willing to focus first on addressing that, creating encounters for expressing that in healthy and reconciling ways, and seeking to create relationships rather than pursue legislation, we might have found ourselves in a different place that is not necessarily marked by a different outcome in voting, but a different way of processing, dealing with, and moving forward with it.  I heard arguments for and against all three plans yesterday.  I heard non-heterosexuals express their immense pain and suffering, their feelings of rejection in and from the Church, and their acquiescence to these plans rather than a clear unity on which plan was God’s will and justice for the entire community.  One delegate boldly identified himself as non-heterosexual from the floor, and rejected the Simple Plan, because he said it did not go far enough, since it lacked affirming words.

I honestly have no idea what will happen today.  Anything is possible.  I refuse to claim that our Church is already broken, or that the decision is already made, because God is greater than me, and all of us.  God can do what I could never envision, and God can redeem anything and everything.  Instead, I keep watching, praying, and making note of what we need to address no matter what.  For a Church that repeatedly today used the legalistic language of divorce in its discussions and legislation, I know from personal experience that sometimes there is a separation that results ultimately in reconciliation.  We saw that in our history with the Methodist Episcopal and Methodist Episcopal South Churches, who split over inclusion of slave owners, and later found unity once more.  That is not what I or I suspect many wanted, but I also know that there have been long periods of growth in the Bible as people seemed separated from their goal, i.e. bondage in Egypt for four hundred years, wandering the wilderness for forty years, exile in Babylon for seventy years, Jesus being tested for forty days before starting his earthly ministry, and many others.

Does that mean we want to endure this?  No!  Does that mean that God cannot take our mistakes, missteps, and failures, and make something new after a time of separation where all sides grow, and ultimately grow back together?  No!  I hope not.  God knows I hope not, but God also knows that sometimes we make such a mess that we have to lie fallow to heal and be ready to be fruitful again.  How long will depend on us and how much we truly want to be reconciled and united with those who share our unique theological emphasis on grace.  My point?  No matter what happens today, this does not have to be our end as United Methodists.  We can find a way to move forward, even if it is separate for a time, but we will truly have failed if we allow all hope for reconciliation in the future to die.  That is something that will be determined and lived out in our hearts, our minds, and in our churches.  May God help us all to find our way forward, and may we all find ourselves together in the Kingdom to Come, and hopefully in this world long before then, too.

 

Do No Harm

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Methodism has three General Rules, and the first is “By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind” (The Book of Discipline 2016, page 78). The Book of Discipline goes on to list some of the “most generally practiced,” naming specifically “returning evil for evil” and “railing for railing.” If we feel hurt, wronged, or made to suffer, then we are not to seek vengeance by becoming the one who perpetrates evil so that the other feels our pain. Jesus did not come to make us feel pain, but take pain upon himself that we might be freed from the cycle of sin and suffering to live a new, holier way. Railing is complaining in the extreme, protesting strongly and persistently. This can be the more insidious of the two, because we are not trying to cause physical pain, but using our words to bring about emotional pain in another, defaming them in some instances, and continuing to nurture the brokenness brought about by the original painful event against us.

What does any of this have to do with Called General Conference? Yesterday was a painful reminder that unchecked suffering, anger, and pain can lead good Christians to do harm to other Christians. It was a long day, and kicked off the business at hand with parliamentary procedure on full display. It culminated after the lunch break with multiple votes in rapid succession to determine what order the petitions would be heard on the floor of those already submitted. The vote was literally about high or low priority from each delegate’s perspective. Then the results were shared showing that the first item the delegates wanted to hear and address was the pensions. This unleashed many snarky comments in the stands, social media rants, and people wondering if it was all about the fiances rather than the faith of the United Methodist Church. Perhaps the delegates wanted to get that over with first. Maybe they wanted to ensure that no matter what they helped those like myself who are already invested in the denominational pension system feel better about our future, knowing that our money would be safe and secure when the time came and we needed it. I honestly do not know what the delegates were thinking, and I cannot exactly ask all of them. Then again, neither can anyone else.

The second item would be the Traditionalist plan, the least change to the tone and tenor of the current language of human sexuality and inclusion in The Book of Discipline, and setting up a higher system of accountability for those who disregard The Discipline around issues of human sexuality. Again, maybe the delegates wanted to hear and pass this most, but maybe they wanted to hear it, and then move on, but show the global church that they considered things as they are now before moving in a new direction. I have no way of knowing exactly what they were thinking, and I will never have the chance to ask over eight hundred voting delegates what they intended with that vote. Nor will anyone else.

Right after the results were shared with the Conference, a group of those who were against the Traditionalist plan gathered together in the walk way where the observers like myself are seated, and began to make decisions and plans to disrupt the Conference proceedings. They started to loudly chant “Hate divides, love unites.” They chose to do this even when the presiding bishop attempted to lead the Body together in prayer. Seated in the second closest row, I could not hear the bishop’s prayer over the disruptive behavior. It brought back all the horrible feelings and memories of intimidating behavior and yelling I encountered from protesters at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. For my fellow Methodists to prevent us from praying felt like a violation of our fellowship, not to mention rudely insensitive. I, and most of those gathered, have no voice and no vote. We did not hurt anyone, and no one should assume they know how we think or feel based upon a vote to prioritize discussion that did not include us. We may be feeling sorrow and pain, too. We may be confused and undecided. We may be struggling along side those that protested.

I recognize they feel pain. Some feel personally attacked and hurt, others feel the pain and suffering of their loves ones. I do not deny them that state of suffering, but we are called to a different response as Christians. We are not to lash out, strike back, or seek to make others feel our pain, so that they might suffer as we suffer. We are shown first by Jesus himself that his response to unfathomable, unjust pain and suffering in his passion and crucifixion was to pray for his enemies, going so far as to ask for forgiveness for them (Luke 23:34). This radical response in the face of pain and suffering is echoed in the account of the martyrdom of Stephen in the Book of Acts: “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died” (Acts 7:59-60). This is the model the Bible offers to us, because to react in the first human way only fuels the fire of pain, continues the destructive downward spiral of suffering, and further divides us from one another.

What I have not been addressing in my posts is that from the first morning we gathered here, there have been several protesters stationed across the street, with vulgar signs, and amplified hate speech towards us. They say abhorrent things, and verbally attack anyone they see and suspect is part of the Called General Conference. Their goal is to disrupt and dishearten. They have not done so, because they do not know us, and they are at enough of a distance to make us feel safe from physical harm. Yesterday’s protesters were us, other Methodists, and well within what we thought was our safe space from angry words meant to wound our hearts. The outside protesters were never able to disrupt all the prayer we enjoyed and experienced on Saturday. Inside the Conference center, we were blissfully enshrined in our sacred space where we worshiped and prayed in peace with one another. But yesterday that peace and safety was violated such that even prayer was denied to us.

I found myself thinking, “What would I do if someone walked into the Sanctuary at my church, and tried to shout over my lay liturgist or myself while we led communal prayer?” We would be hurt, threatened, concerned for our safety, and deeply sad, but I would not turn around and shout at them, nor would I allow anyone else to do so. I would ask for our peace, look for another way to hear them, address their concerns, and seek to find a different way. But to violate the means of grace that is prayer is not all right.

I do not hate those that intentionally stripped us of our prayer together. I am disappointed that they would think it is all right to rail at their perceived enemies, and return what they feel is a painful slight by causing pain in retaliation, but that will abate. It is embarrassing to hear the chants in the live stream, and have people question how we can treat each other this way during prayer. It is devastating to think this is what we show to the rest of our denomination watching, and the world looking on.

Yet even now I have hope that we can all choose a different way. That the protesters of our Family of Faith will return to a position that can honor prayer time, and the leadership of our bishops in their office during this difficult time to navigate. I have hope that we can use our words to explain, rather than lash out. That we can lodge our complaints in a way that reflects our desire for reconciliation, not vengeance. I have hope that we can hear their pain in their words, and honor their experience, so that we can all come together in prayer. I wish no one felt harmed, but I know that many do, both of those present and those in our fellowship. Christ gives me hope that we can all speak without seeking to transfer our pain to others. Sometimes people have a bad day, and things happen they might never enact again. Perhaps we can make space for that, so we can look for ways to continue to strive for a way forward together. It will not be easy, or any easier now, but no less vital, important, and our duty to God and one another. We have to try, and hope demands nothing less.

Signs of Hope

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Perhaps some might say it is too early to be hopeful for the United Methodist Church.  Others would say it is too late.  As people of the Living God revealed in the Old and New Testament, we should never limit hope to our conceptual timelines, because we are actually putting God in a box.  It would be hubris to think God is constrained to our expectations.  The opposite is true: our expectations are unrestrained due to God.  Hope is not optimism, but the gift of God for those who know God, love God, trust God, and believe that the promises of the Scriptures can and shall be fulfilled.

We prepare ourselves for that fulfillment by nourishing hope through intentional contact with God.  Nurturing our relationship with our Lord through worship, personal devotion, fellowship in the Body of Christ, and, of course, prayer are crucial to this.  So I was thrilled beyond words to have spent yesterday doing all of these things.  The bishops carefully and thoughtfully planned the first day together at the Called General Conference to be just that.  Over six hours of prayer together yesterday, led by our spiritual leaders of the highest office in the Church.  Those of us who gathered were privileged to experience this in person, and were blessed beyond measure.  Our concerns melted away, even if it was just for that sacred time together.  Our spirits were soothed by the comfort of Christ in our midst.

I consider myself an optimistic realist.  I hope for the best, but make practical plans for whatever outcome.  I, like so many, have had my moments of doubt and despair about this Called General Conference, but with so many unknowns, making practical plans seemed impossible.  As a single parent, I am used to triage, making long term plans around safety nets, and living with caution, because I have another person for whom I am responsible, another being in my trust.  As a pastor of a mid-sized church by Methodist standards, I do this as part of my ministry to order the life of the church to which I have been appointed, the congregation I hold in trust for the Virginia Annual Conference.  Whenever I felt the need to make a back up plan, just in case, I felt this nudge from the Holy Spirit to lay that burden aside.  It was a burden, and one no single person can bear alone.  There was a tension that perhaps I was relying on hope in God to the point that I was failing to make back up plans, and so failing my congregation.  All of that dissipated yesterday.

I am not alone.  There were so many who came to St. Louis like me, not in an official capacity, but crashing because we just had to be here.  We looked down at the floor where the delegates were seated, and saw over eight hundred other Methodists sharing in this profound love for our denomination, care of our Church, and the burden of leading us into the future.  We watched as the bishops from around the world offered prayers, words of hope, celebrations of our faith at work transforming communities, and their commitment to lead us.  One of the great blessings of General Conference is to experience bishops from outside of the United States.  Their people experience difficulties and suffering most of us in the United States cannot fathom, much less will ever have to experience for ourselves.  Yet these same bishops erupt with hope.  They have seen miracles.  They have witnessed what God can do in the midst of strife, war, violence, extreme poverty, and death.  They know that God can and will not only help God’s people, but do what we think must be impossible.  Their testimonies and prayers reminded me that my American perspective often is centered around political and ideological conflict, when God has transformed physical and deadly conflict in their ministerial settings.

As the Conference starts back up today, the work on the proposals and plans will earnestly begin.  Our day of prayer and abiding presence yesterday has prepared and reminded us that we have hope.  What needs to be restrained is our assumptions, our desires, and our will, so that God’s plan for us can be revealed.  This is not a time to resort to the same worldly approach of politics and legalism, but the time to fully embrace Holy Conferencing.  If over a dozen years in pastoral ministry has taught me anything, it is that God can do anything when we open ourselves to God’s will.  Jesus tried to instill that in every believer by teaching us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10b).  How many times have we prayed that without paying homage to what we are asking, praying, and needing to do?  We lay aside ourselves, that God may be revealed.

My grandfather, a deacon in the Southern Baptist Church, would have recognized “Thy will be done.”  While I prefer the New Revised Standard translation, the core remains the same: God’s will, not mine.  My will cannot fathom all that is, all that God can see, and all divine wisdom encapsulates.  So if my will is an obstacle to what God wants and what God can do, then it is my duty to lay that down, and make room for something that perhaps we have not yet seen, heard, or even thought for the glory of God is that God is too big to truly comprehend.  God’s hope is just as massive and beyond our full grasp.  So let us cling to that hope, the icon of which is the cross, and only then shall our wills align with God’s, for God will then have overshadowed our good, but often misguided, intentions and our unintentional sin, letting grace and glory wash over us.  Hope is not just a sensation, an emotion, or an esoteric concept.  Hope is the gift of our faith to spirits that abide in a world of sin and suffering, yet desire the Kingdom to Come.  Hope is our light in the darkness, our inheritance in Christ.  Today I have hope bigger than my fear, more solid than my doubt, and more holy than myself.  That is what I choose.  What about you?

The Beauty and Blessing of Methodism

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My travels here to St. Louis did not go as planned.  In fact, one might say they went dreadfully wrong.  Right after I checked in to the first airport and made my way through security, I discovered my flight had been delayed, and I would miss my connection.  I waited patiently in line to make new flight plans.  I stood there and smiled, willing myself to embody hope and the intention to take this hick-up in stride.  While smiling, the young woman in front of me turned around and struck up a conversation.  We joked, laughed, and wished each other luck when her turn came first.  We departed, her heading to meet her boyfriend in Denver for a vacation skiing in the mountains, and me heading to meet my fellow Methodists for a work conference in St. Louis.

The airline staff were able to make a shift for me, but now I would have a four hour layover in Charlotte, and not arrive until almost midnight in St. Louis.  I smiled, thanked her, and remained committed to taking all of this as part of the journey.  I finally got on my first flight, and the steward came up to me and asked if he could take a picture of my furry, pink moon boots.  “Sure,” I laughed.  It started a conversation with my previously silent neighbor, and she and I enjoyed the hour we had together.

Then I found a perfect little place to enjoy some food and wait out my layover in the Charlotte airport.  I sat at the bar, and made three more friends.  Laughing, getting to know one another, and wishing each other the best of luck with our remaining travel, I felt better about being waylaid.  Then I headed to my gate to make my final flight to the temporary Methodist Mecca of St. Louis.  Once on board my flight, my next neighbor and I struck up a conversation and managed to chat away an hour before I discovered to my surprise that one of my Methodist family was on the same flight.  Lori and I once worked at the same church.  We have had lots of laughs, heartaches, and celebrations together over the years.  Suddenly Methodism made this world much smaller, more intimate, and manageable.  We hugged, promised to carpool to our hotels, and laughed at the irony of being on the same flight.

That is when it occurred to me: Methodism is not just another Christian denomination.  It’s a blessing, a gift that makes this world brighter.  It makes friends out of strangers, and family out of friends.  It lets me adopt an outlook of thriving when I would otherwise barely survive the trials and tribulations that come my way in the course of living.  Methodism has given me an identity: I am a beloved child of God, of sacred worth, forgiven, loved, and free.  That is what makes it possible for me to smile when others frown, be nice when others yell in anger, make friends when others withdraw, and keep going when other give in, give up, and go home.  Methodism makes me better, and that makes it possible for me to do what Methodists do: strive to make this world better for others.

This is what is at stake over the next four days.  We cannot let Methodism suffer because we are frail, fallible, and fraught with discord.  We cannot allow our differences become the wedge that breaks such a beautiful manifestation of holy community, God’s grace, and what is means to see the world as a blessing rather than a burden.  I realized just how much Methodism makes me who I am, makes me better than I was before, and will make me better still in the days ahead.  This flawed, imperfect denomination is just that: flawed and imperfect, but it is mine, and millions of other Methodists’.  If we commit to it as it has been committed to us and generations of other Methodists across time and the globe, then it will bless others for generations to come.  Perhaps we are here to recommit ourselves.  Maybe God has allowed of this to happen so that it culminates in us recognizing how much we love Methodism, and how much it has loved us into the disciples we are today.

St. Louis may not be Mount Sinai, the holy site where God and the people of Israel made covenant with each other, but it is here on the banks of mighty Mississippi River, the closest the United States has to a holy river, like the River Jordan in the Promised Land.  Not all of the tribes were willing to cross the river and enter into a new phase in the relational journey God invited them to travel.  Those that crossed over discovered that there were still trials and tribulations.  There was still sin and mistakes.  There was never going to be a perfect nation, but a perfectly loved people of God.  I do not know what God has waiting on the other side of river, but I know that God will make a path for us to traverse, dry land where we are safe from the waters of chaos.  This has been God’s way, and I suspect God’s will all along.

So today I am hopeful, because I know how much I am willing to fight, strive, and commit to the United Methodist Church, and I know that some of the best Methodists the denomination has to offer are here, not just in person, but through prayer.  We can only rise above our differences with the help of God.  It will not be human design, but God’s that will show us how to continue the journey of the people called Methodists.  May our prayers be for God to do what God has done in the Scriptures, in Church history, and promises to do now and in the days ahead: “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:14).  Let us stand still, firm in our commitment to God and one another in this glorious Church of Methodism.