I’m not even sure how to react to this anymore.  According to the Washington Post on 9 October 2019, President Donald Trump has made 13,435 false or misleading claims since taking office.  This comes down to 13.5 per day.  It’s amazing enough that one man can fabricate or distort so much, but that’s trivial.  His linguistic creativity wouldn’t be an issue if it were not for all among the great American populace who support him unreservedly.

I understand the Grand Accommodation made by Christians who support Trump and their willingness to compromise their own ethical integrity in order to have a man in office, who, working with a Republican Senate have begun to place conservative judges on the courts.  For those who have been bemoaning, cursing, and fighting legalized abortion, this seems like the horizon of golden days when such embryo extermination and feticide will be abolished and, as a bonus, traditional American family values (whatever those are) will be returned to the land.  Apparently, routine and frequent deceit, along with other behaviors most of us were brought up to find reprehensible isn’t costly enough to matter.

I wonder what God thinks about that.

Yes, it’s a very bland and almost tedious title, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

Recently I explained my problems with taking one side or the other in the UMC’s ongoing response to General Conference 2019 (GC2019).  As I described with more detail, I don’t feel that either side–conservative/traditionalist or progressive/liberal/inclusivist–has made sufficient theological arguments based on critical exegesis of the Bible, which we claim as our primary authority.  I recently bumped into an article by on William B. Lawrence that effectively makes my point and raises an issue that deserves some exploration.

Lawrence argues that the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” distorts and otherwise violates the UMC’s theology and doctrinal standards.  The “incompatible…” phrase refers to “the practice of homosexuality,” which by the letter of the current (2019) Discipline prohibits those engaged in “the practice of homosexuality” from entering the ordination process.  Moreover, same-gender marriage is prohibited.  Because Methodism never developed a single doctrinal statement, it synthesizes its doctrine from a variety of sources, which include its Articles of Religion (adapted from those of the Church of England and the Evangelical United Brethren Church), and a particularly revered collection of John Wesley’s sermons plus some of his journals and his notes on the New Testament (forgive me if I’ve forgotten one or two).  Even with this rather chaotic framework for its doctrine, Methodism has a structure for theological reflection that is called the Quadrilateral, with its four vertices being church tradition (teaching), reason, experience, and in the preeminent position, the Bible.

But that stuff isn’t what Lawrence leans on.  Instead, he argues his position for doing away with “incompatible with Christian teaching” because it violates the General Rules of Our Methodist Societies (so called by John Wesley).  The General Rules are a trinity of ethical statements:
(1)  Do no harm.
(2)  Do all the good you can.
(3)  Attend to the ordinances of God (I.E. do those things that maintain one’s relationship with God).

The problem Lawrence strays into is that, while he asserts that “incompatible with Christian teaching” has harmed LGBT persons, he maintains that this ethical violation is also a violation of our theology and doctrine, but he never substantiates this claim.  Instead, he seems to conflate ethics, theology, and doctrine.

While I accept his assertion that LGBT persons are experiencing the harm that comes from exclusion and discrimination based upon the current polity of the UMC, I am unwilling to use that ethical valuation to make claims about the UMC’s theological and doctrinal understandings.  Doing no harm is not an ethical position unique to Methodism.  Lawrence, like many (all?) of his progressive colleagues, needs to address what scripture and a few thousand years of church teaching say about homosexuality, as hostile as they may be.  They cannot simply be ignored because people are experiencing changed realities within our current societal culture.  Nor can we impose a generic ethic on the church and declare it doctrine without demonstrating how its roots dig down into scripture and church teaching.

None of this is to say that our ethical sense in these matters is invalid.  It may be that our ethics has gotten ahead of our theological and doctrinal formulations.  After all, the church has changed its doctrine and dogma over the centuries and our understanding of theology, even Biblical theology, isn’t entirely fixed.  However, acknowledging such change hardly gives license to avoiding the hard work of constructive, competent, and critical exegesis and theological reflection.

As someone occupying middle ground between conservatives/traditionalists and progressives/liberals in the UMC, I have been pushed to reflect on GC2019 and its aftermath. This piece comprises my observations regarding about the conference’s debate (if we can call it that) and the One Church Plan.

Point of disclosure: I was once both disaffected by the church and an Atheist, and can still look into the church from the outside. I am also the Peter Abelard of the UMC in that I question everything.

The following are issues and a question raised by GC2019 that are based on the following observation:

Neither the Commission on the Way Forward (CWF), progressives (Progs), nor the traditionalists (Trads) effectively argued their positions. The Progs and Trads simply presented their long-held and hardened positions and the CWF laid out its plan without any underlying justification based on our Wesleyan (or any) theological process.

ISSUE: There was a failure to look at the conflict over human sexuality, specifically how to approach non-cisgendered persons and the new realities they present the church, from an outside perspective. The conflict remained internecine with positions on all sides being presented but not adequately defended. It was a significant error to not give serious consideration to the perspective of NONES, the unchurched, those disaffected by the church, and Atheists, all of which are persons we are called to reach out to by The Great Commission. Had these perspectives been considered, I believe there might have been far more work put into establishing the positions that were taken rather than simply putting them forward. It was most disappointing that the CWF presented their One-Church Plan with the implicit assumption that no one outside the UMC would be interested in the denomination’s debate, thus they failed to include critical arguments regarding the Bible, church tradition, current understandings of sociological and psychological issues, and the dynamics of lived experience.

QUESTION: What is the exegetical, ecclesial, and pastoral position of Trads and Progs that takes into account the best biblical scholarship and exegetical practices, the historical scope of church teaching from a wide perspective (I.E. not just about human sexuality), sociological and psychological understandings, and the lived experience of real people (both cisgendered and LGBT)?

Both Trads and Progs needed to present critical, detailed arguments to support their positions. Neither did this.

Trads simply claimed homosexuality a sin, marriage as comprising a man and woman, and biblical authority as if they owned the Bible and its exegesis yet they did not make the case for why they believe they are right (more specifically, they did not make the case to someone who does not hold the same perspective and presuppositions). They also leaned on church teaching as if it never changes. If that were so then the Bible would still be in Latin and withheld from laity, and we might still be burning witches following trial by the Inquisition.

On the surface, it seems that Trads look at experience and reason somewhat abstractly rather than as integral parts of who we are as humans created in God’s image. If we use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a rubric for theological reflection, then what I have observed is that Trads address Bible and tradition while ignoring reason and experience (or they look upon them with skepticism).

Progs were just as presumptuous, claiming that because LGBT persons suffer exclusion and disaffection due to language in the Discipline, then that language needs to be removed. They claim a felt need for inclusion in a church that has failed to keep up with changes in society, but they have not addressed how changing the position of the church is not mere cultural accommodation. If the church means to be the counter-cultural reflection of the kingdom of God, then more needs to be said by Progs as to how their position comports with almost 2,000 years of biblical exegesis and church teaching. They need to address what the Bible says about human sexuality (specifically homosexuality) and the composition of marriage as we claim the Bible as our primary authority. They need to address the church’s historical positions on these matters as well.

ISSUE: During GC2019 debates, an number of Trads argued Jesus’ teaching on marriage from what I consider to be a manipulated eisegetical viewpoint. Over and over, Matthew 19.4-6 was cited as the argument that Jesus taught that marriage is between a man and woman, thus same-gendered marriage is wrong. I believe this interpretation reads too much into the text and does so in order to support the Trads’ position on marriage. A close and more extensive read shows that the context is a question about divorce, not about the composition of marriage. In his answer, Jesus was reciting the traditional rubric about marriage found in Genesis 1.27 and 2.24 in order to set up his argument against divorce in Matthew 19.6-9. In other words, Jesus was not teaching about the composition of marriage, which no one in his audience would have questioned, but about commitment to the marriage covenant. Trads needed to work a lot harder to establish their claim that Jesus taught heterosexual marriage.

“Puked out the prophet” was surely the best line from the sermon on Jonah offered by the double-teaming preachers who led worship at the Beaver Island Christian Church this past Sunday. Although they made two points too many, thus making it hard to remember any of the three, they did a fine job, except for one thing. I was distracted by how much effort one of the preachers put into asserting the historicity of Jonah’s story. Most awkward was the rather graphic description of Jonah following his three-day stint inside a large fish, whale, or whatever. Bits of seaweed, having been tenderized by marinating in gastric juices, and the powerful stench, all offered in order to make sense of Jonah’s post-puke visage.

If one wants to look for them, there are several things in Jonah’s story that confound. There is, of course, three days inside a large fish or whale amidst gastric juices but within an air bubble large enough to provide three days of air (good thing the fish didn’t belch). And then there’s that thing that happens at the gates of Nineveh. Arriving there, apparently in much the condition he was in after becoming the worlds first puked-up prophet (or so one of the preachers told us), Jonah, in a fine snit for having to go to Nineveh in the first place, gave a brief but to-the-point oratory that went something like, “You’re all evil and you’re gonna die!” The inhabitants of the Assyrian capital, cut to the quick, responded by donning sackcloth, fasting, and repenting as they turned toward God, all very Israelite things to do for a non-Israelite people who knew nothing of Israelite religion or Israel’s God.

While I have no interest here in arguing whether these events happened exactly the way a surface reading of the Bible relates, it is quite apparent that dwelling on these problematic parts of Jonah’s story does a fine job of helping one miss the points the story makes, all of which are as relevant to us today as they were to the original audience of the Jonah story. Trying to rationalize Jonah surviving three days inside a fish might lead one to miss the point that we cannot escape God. And trying to understand how all of Nineveh’s populace in a flash gets (Israelite) religion can distract one from understanding how God gives second chances, forgiveness, and reconciliation when we turn our hearts, minds, and lives to our Lord.

All too often I have been dragged into discussions on both sides of the continuum between uncritical reading of the Bible that takes all at face-value and thoroughgoing skepticism of the miraculous based in empiricism and science. Although a world apart, both sides make what I believe to be the same basic mistake: they ask questions and offer arguments that are beside the point of what the scriptures are telling us. While the unquestioning believer is busy trying to reason the supernatural, the miraculous, or any of the creation story with the skeptic who questions all of it claiming it all to be fictional, both have forgotten to ask the more important questions: What is the significance of these accounts? And What do these tell us about God?

The most simple example of this is from the first chapter of Genesis. People often get hung up about God doing God’s creative work in six days, followed by a seventh day upon which God put up the divine feet and rested. Arguments and rationalizations try to make sense of the six days. And some have gone as far as to use the genealogies in the Old Testament to date the universe at around 6,000 years . . . Plus seven days.

So what?!? Why should I care whether God created the universe 6,000 years ago and in six terrestrial days? The 300,000,000 year old Trilobite fossil displayed in my bookcase doesn’t care.

Instead, my interest in Genesis 1 (and 2) is why God created what God created and what the account tells us about God and us. Since I wasn’t around when God created the universe, I cannot say with any certainty how it all happened. I can, however, allow myself to be distracted trying to rationalize the text of Genesis as read from a 21st century, Western, post-Enlightenment, information-age point of view, and in doing so I would be committing the interpretive error of asking questions that are beside the point. The moment I shift from how and ask why, the text opens up in way that invites more exploration and reflection about God and our relationship with God and with each other.

It’s the same for Jesus’ resurrection. Getting into a debate as to whether it really happened or is a fiction created by the early church is, to me, a worthless effort. Asking why Jesus chose to not stay dead (and I cannot make sense of God’s new creation without him doing so) leads me to a far more fruitful understanding of what God is up to as God’s salvation history unfolds.

We’ve been educated to ask the “reporters’ questions”: what, who, when, how, and why. Unfortunately, we often try to read the Bible, an ancient near-east document written over the span of 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, with the same rubric forgetting that the biblical writers were most interested in why and far less interest in what, who, when, and how outside of the mechanics of crafting their narratives.

I’m not all that interested in how the Bible’s miracles and other supernatural events took place, nor do I care all that much what people choose to believe about them. Instead, my concern is that, instead of asking questions that are beside the point, readers ask why, and then let the scriptures take them down the rabbit hole to see how deep it goes.

The following is liturgy used at Tecumseh UMC to work through a difficult week nationally as I reflected on how the focus of our public discourse has been misdirected toward President Trump’s prejudiced rhetoric, white supremacists, and the two shooters in last weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.  While each of these have some responsibility for the conflict and suffering of our recent days, what is missing is a call to us–to America, and especially white America–to look into our own hearts and lives.  After all, we elected Trump having heard plenty of his hateful speech.  We are willing to be tempted into fear of the non-white ‘other’.   And we now routinely cycle through trauma, outrage, then acceptance of “the new normal” with every new mass shooting.  We are complicit.

Call to Worship

The table is set
The food is prepared

Invitations have been sent . . .
to Whites, Blacks, Browns, Reds, and Yellows;
to Anglos, Africans, Asians, and Latinos;
to citizens, immigrants, and refugees—with and without documentation;
to straights, gays, and trans;
to conservatives, liberals and progressives, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents;
to you and to me.

Will you come to the table Christ has set for all?

Prayer of Confession

Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other so that you may be healed. (James 5.15-16)

Holy God, we are a people loathe to admit our mistakes, ill-chosen words, neglect of others, and harmful actions.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

We too easily forget that all people—every race and nationality, party and ideology—are created in your divine image.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

In our day we have too often welcomed the hateful speech of others, claiming they refreshingly “tell it like it is” while denying how such speech affirms our darkest impulses and tempts us to validate our own fear and hate.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

Leader: We have allowed ourselves to become insensitive to the suffering caused by the violence of word and deed.
Lord, in your mercy . . .
Break our hearts and forgive us.

We thank you, Holy God, that through your Son Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Bring us now to repentance—change our hearts and lives that we may be more Christlike in all our ways.

The Great Thanksgiving

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us lift up our hearts.
We lift our hearts to the Lord.

Let us give thanks.
It is good and right to give our thanks and praise to God

We give thanks to you, Almighty God,
not to serve the need of ritual or tradition,
but because it is good and right for us
to acknowledge your love wherever we are
and in any season.

You created a good world.
Having made us in your image and given us life,
you placed us into the world to care for it
and build community with each other.

We confess that we have not been satisfied to be your people;
that we have rebelled against your authority
as spoiled children wanting things our own way.
We have abused your creation and each other
through what we have done and left undone.
We have let prejudice, difference of opinion,
and fearmongering build walls of suspicion and hatred between us.
We have broken your heart.

Yet out of love, you pursued us and cared for us.
When slaves in Egypt, you freed us.
When wanderers in the wilderness,
you offered us a covenant to guide us
in our relationships with you and with each other.
When we strayed, you sent prophets to call us back to you,
prophets who cast before us your vision
of justice, righteousness, and peace.

For these mighty acts of love, we raise our voices with
all people on earth and all the company of heaven
to praise your name:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

You are holy, perfectly righteous,
and likewise your Son Jesus Christ who, at the right time,
entered our corrupt and broken world to be a beacon of hope
to a people stumbling desperately through the dark.

Through him you gave sight to the blind, good news to the poor,
belonging to those on the margins and beyond,
and love to the untouchable.

Through him you lifted up the lowly and humbled
and repudiated the status, position, and honor
of the rich and powerful.

Through him you fed the hungry and healed the sick for no charge.

Your own Son came to us as a servant to be Emmanuel,
your presence with us.

He obeyed your will without question,
trusting in your wisdom and your plan
as he freely accepted death on the cross.

Through his suffering, death, and resurrection
you gave birth to your Church,
freed us from sin’s power and our souls from death,
and renewed you covenant with us.

[ Institution of the Lord’s Supper
Bread – took, gave thanks, broke, gave to disciples, said…
Cup – took, gave thanks, broke, gave to disciples, said… ]

In this remembrance of your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves with thankfulness as a living sacrifice
in union with Christ’s offering for the world.

May your Holy Spirit rain down on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and juice
so that we may experience them as the body and blood of Christ.

In that experience, may we be the body of Christ for the world.

Knit us together with Christ and with each other by your Spirit,
that we may go boldly into the world to minister and to offer the gospel
until Christ comes again in final victory, and we join his heavenly banquet.

Through your Son Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit in your holy Church,
all honor and glory is yours, Almighty God, now and always.

Amen.

Let us in The United Methodist Church stop calling ourselves, or even aspiring to be, countercultural.  We have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are thoroughly accommodated and inured to our 21st century American culture.

Lest you think I am adding my voice to those of conservatives who decry the an accommodation to society’s cultural mores regarding human sexuality by progressive UMs and conferences such as the Michigan Area Conference, such is not what I have in mind.  Instead, I am taking a much broader view and seeing a UM church comprised of conservatives/traditionalists/evangelicals and progressives/liberals that looks like the greater culture in which it lives.

I had hoped, at the start of General Conference 2019 and again at the start of the Michigan Annual Conference 2019 that its delegates would do what we have forgotten how to do in our society’s public discourse: hold constructive conversations that present the issues of the day in depth so that opposing views (and opposing sides) might be understood and considered.  I had hoped that there would be substantive theological and ecclesial debate in which both conservative and progressive view would be compellingly defended.

Instead, from GC2019 through MAC2019, the pattern of presentation (the word debate is inappropriate) was like that in our national discourse.  Each side raised their flag, stated their position without defending it, labeled the other, and assumed the other performed political maneuvering to undercut the other.

Conservatives claimed adherence to orthodox biblical authority and church tradition regarding homosexuality without arguing why their position remains the necessary one today after so much in the church has evolved in the last two millennia (for example, we no longer attribute mental illness to demon possession, withhold the bible from the laity, or treat divorce as a sin leading to excommunication).  Nor did they address the suffering caused to LGBTQIA+ by their position, nor current scientific understanding of sexuality and sexual identity beyond calling anything other than cis-gendered heterosexuality a sin.

Progressives appealed to the pain LGBTQIA+ feel when confronted with language such as “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching” and prohibitions against ordination and same-sex marriage without dealing with almost two millennia of church tradition regarding human sexuality, and, more importantly, the passages in the Bible that speak quite forcefully about homosexuality.  They did not defend their position in a way the church, with the Bible as its primary source for theology and authority, could embrace let alone understand.

I realize that what I wanted to see—thoughtful, constructive, and critical debate—would have been hard work.  Unfortunately, without that debate all that was accomplished was the further separation and solidification of the opposing positions with an unhealthy dash of suspicion and distrust thrown in.

We had a chance to be countercultural and we wasted it.  We call each other names (using labels), raise our flags of “orthodoxy” and “inclusive love”, and eye each other warily across the ever widening divide.  How is this different than the world around us?

The following is a Facebook post that looked meaty enough to blog.  It references the following UM News item:
https://www.umnews.org/en/news/denominations-future-under-discussion-quietly

It sounds as if there is a sense of ownership of the denomination underlying the discussions mentioned in the attached article–more so by the progressive side but also by conservatives.
What everyone might want to consider is the statistical implication of the GC2019 vote to adopt the Traditional Plan. It was 438 for to 384 against. The difference is just about 6% or +/- 3%. Anyone who does polling will tell you that this figure is the standard margin of error. Any poll within this margin is statistically equivalent. Except for the technicality of a majority vote (a quantitative but not qualitative rubric), one might conclude that neither side “owns” the UMC; neither side “won”.
For progressives, who are feeling that there is no place for the draconian hard-line of conservatives in their church, and conservatives who are feeling a bit triumphant that they “won”, the statistical equivalence suggests neither side has accomplished anything but a more public articulation of our differences.
I expect all of the above may be labeled “gobbledygook” (or worse) by anyone who feels that discernment of the divine will has been achieved by a narrow numeric superiority and that there is nothing more to be said. One can print this off and paper a bird-cage with it if desired.
My take on this, from a qualitative interpretation of the vote, is that both sides dug trenches and threw ideological grenades at each other, never really making a compelling case that might have inspired at least a moment of consideration of each other’s views. It’s not enough to simply say, “LGBT persons feel disenfranchised and 2nd class, which is wrong” or “this is what the Bible and the church have always said, therefore it is so”. Such statements are little more than introductory summaries to the debate.
(time to wrap this up . . . have probably hacked off enough people for a Tuesday morning)