Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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)

It’s getting a bit lonely in the middle between conservatives/traditionalists (those who hold to the UMC’s stance on homosexuality since 1972) on the right and liberals/progressives (those supporting full LGBTQIA inclusion in the UMC along with same-gender marriage) on the left.  A few years ago I might have assumed that there was a silent majority traveling the via media with me, but my denomination appears increasingly, and alarmingly, to resemble the widening separations we see in American culture–social, economic, and, especially, political.  Our politics once divided the opinions of people who otherwise embraced each other as colleagues and friends, but now are the basis for distrust and even hatred of each other.  Something disturbingly similar is taking place in the UMC.

As I talk with colleagues on both sides of the conservative/liberal (traditionalist/progressive) divide I am hearing something new to my experience of United Methodism–deepening distrust.  On both sides are colleagues and friends who can no longer (in my opinion) effectively, maybe constructively, work with each other or support each other be cause they no longer trust each other to be faithful ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And that trust ripples through how they experience the connectionalism of our church and its administration.  More than one colleague is now voicing the suspicion that their conservatism has become an impediment to advancement within the Michigan Conference and to consideration for appointments to larger, more prominent churches.  While this is hardly a new concern in our conference, it is now present with an intensity that is new.  I hope my experience is due to the passions of my closest colleagues, which are intense, but my suspicion is that this is happening around our conference and denomination.

The middle ground I inhabit feels a bit more lonely and a place.  I experienced this at a recent meeting of Michigan Area clergy with our bishop to discuss GC2019.  Following the bishop’s remarks, he opened the floor for comments and questions.  Immediately, a large group came forward and read The Michigan Statement, which declared profound disappointment in the choice of the traditional plan at GC2019 and unequivocal support for both ordination of LGBTQIA clergy and same-gender marriage, punctuated by a declaration to disobey The Discipline if conscience led otherwise.  The asked that those in sympathy rise in support.  As the statement was read, people around the room stood up.  I did not.  I also became uncomfortably aware that their action was forcing each of us to pick sides.  We either stood to support full inclusion of LGBTQIAs or we stayed seated to affirm the traditional stance that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  It felt as if there was no middle ground.  By choosing to not be counted with those standing up for full LGBTQIA inclusion, I had to be seen as throwing my support to the other side.  Without putting too fine a point on it, I reset being put in such a position where I have to pick between two views I am unwilling to fully own.  I am also more than a little unhappy that our bishop, at the beginning of the meeting, asked that we suppress any applause as it would exacerbate tensions, he allowed the silent applause of standing during the reading of The Michigan Statement. . . same effect either way.

At present I inhabit the middle ground.  I will obey The Discipline and the covenant it represents, but I cannot just write off the full inclusion of LGBTQIA persons in the life of the church or same-gender marriage without serious and critical consideration of scriptural exegesis and the traditions of the church, which indeed have evolved over the last few millennia.  I take the Bible seriously and authoritatively, but I do not take the church’s interpretation of it slavishly.  The church evolves and grows both in the Spirit and in our continued exploration of the mind and heart of God.

I inhabit the middle ground . . . I hope it doesn’t get too lonely here.

General Conference 2019 effectively did almost nothing.  If all of its elected petitions go into effect (which is uncertain at this time due to issues of constitutionality to be determined by the Judicial Council), then the only significant changes will be a more robust punishment for violating The Discipline‘s prohibitions regarding homosexuals in clergy and marriage, and a sort-of graceful process of separation from the UMC.  In other words, since the language and basic stance of the UMC regarding homosexuality and marriage remains unchanged, GC2019 did almost nothing.

What GC2019 did do was expose, surface, and exercise divisions in the church in a way that parallel the way we are divided and the ways we express our divisions outside the church.  For a GC that did almost nothing with policy and governance in the church, it did manage to hurt–even traumatize–a lot of people.

LGBTQIA persons have taken the UMC’s decision to retain the position that “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching” and its related prohibitions on ordination of LGBTQIA persons and the ban on same-gender marriage as a declaration that only cis-gendered, heterosexual persons are fully accepted by the UMC.  LGBTQIA persons feel disenfranchised and outcast, regardless of declarations that we of the UMC love all persons, including those among LGBTQIA.  How else can one interpret the mixed language we now use that says, “We love you and welcome you, but you have this characteristic that precludes you from full participation in the life of our church, even though we have yet to effectively justify our doctrinal position with a critical, compelling, and comprehensive argument.”  In other words, we of the UMC have now taken that stand that the LGBTQIA persons we say we love are sinful in such a way that makes them unworthy of the UMC.  While this surely sounds hyperbolically critical to my fellow UMs, I have tried to look at this from the perspective of someone outside the UMC where our mission field as a church lies.

LGBTQIAs are not the only ones hurting.  As GC2019’s decision to adopt the Traditional Plan has created ripples throughout the UMC, those who supported this plan are breathing easier that the UMC chose to retain its long-held doctrine and polity.  Their fears that the UMC would break from centuries of orthodoxy to accommodate liberal shifts in American and Western European culture were allayed.  Unfortunately, traditionalists are now being criticized, even attacked, as being ignorant, intolerant, bigots.  Traditionalist colleagues and lay UMs are being vilified as if their faithful and thoughtful interpretation of scripture and their love of the church and its traditions has made them monsters.  They, especially in a conference such as the Michigan Conference, feel disenfranchised and outcast, regardless of the majority declaration of their position at GC2019.

It is most disconcerting, and painful, that the UMC–my church–which should be a model of the Kingdom of God in order to show the world a more excellent way, has taken the model of division, partisanship, and emotional violence of our world as its own.  If we UMs are truly committed to following Christ and being a people of the Bible, then we should remember these commitments and do better.

“We’ve a story to tell to the nations . . .” . . . or do we?

A special General Conference held in St Louis 23-26 February 2019, met to decide what to do with the report from the Commission on a Way Forward, which described several plans to deal with how the UMC might move forward amidst the differences among its membership on whether to ordain LGBTQIA persons and perform same-gender weddings. In the end it would have to decide what to do with the The Discipline‘s language asserting the “incompatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching.”  By a vote of 57% the so-called Traditional Plan was accepted, a plan which retains the UMC’s ban on homosexual clergy and same-gender marriage and adds rigor to the enforcement of these bans.

Did I miss something . . . something critically important to the arguments, way-forward plans, and decisions made at GC2019?  I read through the plans (One-Church, Traditional, and Connectional Conference), watched much of the live stream from St. Louis, listened to lots of speeches, and heard how the One-Church Plan allows for our expression through our polity of Christ’s love for all, while the Traditional Plan upholds biblical truth and authority.  Somehow, I missed the discussions/debates over the fundamental issues around our understanding of what the Bible says related to the questions GC2019 met to answer.  I do not remember hearing anything about how the UMC interprets scripture.  I realize that diversity within the UMC prevents our settling on a consensus about we interpret scripture, both in general and specific.  Even so, I have not seen anything in documentation to provide the detailed exegesis upon which to base the various plans and positions, especially vis-a-vis LGBTQIA and marriage.  At the risk of sounding naive, do we not need to do careful, critical, and comprehensive exegesis of all relevant biblical material?  How can we appeal to the Bible’s revelation and authority without such a foundation?

For example, I heard a number of supporters of the Traditional Plan cite Jesus’ teaching that marriage is a coupling of a man and a woman but I have yet to hear their, or the plan’s authors’, exegesis to support this claim.  In the places where Jesus quotes Genesis regarding marriage, one may use the cotext of those quotes to argue that Jesus is not concerned about whether marriage involves a man and woman since its composition is assumed within his tradition and culture, but about the strength of the marriage covenant and its longevity, not to be undone by easy divorce. In other words, Jesus cites marriage as involving a man and woman because there was no other conceptualization of its composition, and what he is truly concerned about is treating the marriage relationship as something a man can void on a whim.

My big question then is this:  Did anyone involved in the plans that were before GC2019 do the necessary exegetical work to provide defensible biblical foundations for their plans, or did the Commission on a Way Forward, Traditional Plan authors, and GC2019 move forward without having established such a foundation?

If I missed this step, then I apologize for wasting your time having read this. . .

Text:  Mark 2:13-17   “Why is he eating with sinners and tax collectors?” (v.16)

Today’s text, picked from the daily lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer is amazingly topical today.  The president of the U.S., yesterday, bemoaned immigration from Africa and Haiti with a vulgarity, in effect giving voice again to his prejudice against non-white, non-European, mostly poor people.  Closer to home, my own town’s city council has been waffling on using an empty nursing home unit of our local hospital as a transitional shelter for homeless women and children in a way that gives the impression that some council members are struggling with the notion of housing “those kind of people” here.

Both situations distill down to this question:  Who is worthy of compassion, consideration, and respect?

To the Pharisees who witnessed Jesus at a dinner hosted by Matthew, those worthy of Jesus (or any other “good Jew”) were not the tax collectors and “sinners” with which Jesus was breaking bread.  Because of their prejudice, all they saw was a faceless, less than fully human group unworthy of Jesus’ attention and respect.  Jesus would later answer one of his critics by reminding him that all it took to be a “good Jew” and fulfill the Law was to love God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves, to which the critic responded by asking who qualified as his neighbor.

Today’s reading hits the ground fast and hard as I imagine the following dialog:

Pharisee 1:  “Jesus, why are you eating with poor, useless, probably criminal immigrants who don’t look like white, middle-America?”

Pharisee 2:  “And Jesus, why do you want poor women and children around?”

Jesus:  “Remember the Greatest Commandment: Love God with all you’ve got. And the second is like it–Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Pharisees 1 & 2:  “Fine, but surely my neighbor is not Haitian, African, or a poor woman with a child.”

Jesus:  “You don’t get it, do you. . . .”

Text:  Mark 1:1-13

Somewhere, back in the ’90s, Eric Clapton performed a series of concerts playing nothing but traditional blues–no “Cocaine,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “White Room,” . . . No “Layla.”  For those of us willing to hear him play music other than his radio-worn hits, it was an amazing and sublime experience.

Like most major musical acts, Clapton was preceded by a warm-up band.  His was led by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, who played a fabulous opening set, making me forget for a moment that I had come to see and hear Eric Clapton.  And then the master took the stage . . . Wow!

Claption had “Gatemouth” Brown musically prepare the way.  Jesus Christ had John (the Baptist) to prepare his way.  As an opening act to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God through word and deed, John called sinners to repentance and baptized them as a sign of that repentance.  His presence and message was compelling, so much so that many went out into the countryside to see him.  Yet John told all that “One stronger than I am is coming after me.”  Jesus indeed followed John’s opening act, beginning with his proclamation of the coming kingdom just after John’s arrest by Herod, the nominal king over Galilee.

“One stronger than I am” . . . ?!?  This from a guy who boldly called out sinners and hypocrites, wore a camel’s hair shirt (it ain’t no Merino!), and ate bugs (locusts)!  John’s was a powerful opening act for Jesus’ ministry.  He knew his role and did his best to “prepare the way of the Lord.”

How might I–how might we–“prepare the way of the Lord” if we thought of ourselves not as Jesus’ audience but as his opening act?  To tour with the Master . . . it’s a great gig!

Text:  Philippians 4:6-9

Option 1:  Be frustrated, worried, and eventually bitter.

Option 1 has so much going for it:  It keeps one’s energy level up during periods of anger.  Stress-induced cortisols flood the body, ready for fight or flight on a moment’s notice 24×7.  Hypervigilance for the disaster that must be just around the corner.  Bitterness and spite keeps people away so one can have some solitude.  Emotional paralysis at those times when clear-headed decisiveness is just too much bother.  The generation of lots of nervous energy without accidentally putting it to use.

Tried this option.  It’s a grand waste of time and effort.

Option 2:  Be relentlessly positive, optimistic,  & enthusiastic.

Option 2 . . . are we kidding?!?  Positive and optimistic with all the troubles this world throws at us?!?  Naïve idiocy! . . . or . . . faith and wisdom kicking a**!

Since option 1 is worthless, I can’t come up with a reason against option 2.  If positivity, optimism, and enthusiasm get me nowhere, then at least I’ll he happy and content when I get there.  And people are drawn to positivity and energized by it.  (I really don’t want to finish as a bitter and isolated old man)

Our attitudes and perspectives on things more often drive where we take them.  If we think something will likely fail, then it almost surely will (that ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ thing).  So why not take it the other way–give our expectation a positive spin and see if that helps to work things out.

I’d rather be a happy failure than a miserable one any day, and if not failure . . .

We pastors are people too, which means we react emotionally to the world around us, become blinded to our faults, and respond to real concerns in less than helpful ways.

Been there, done that!

I have serious concerns about how issues of poverty, health-care access and cost, environmental stewardship, and international diplomacy are being handled by our national leadership, especially our president. My response has been a massive, long-lasting knee-jerk that has surely put people off given how I have sometimes expressed myself. I have been strident regarding the politics involved and I have been especially hard on our president.

I sincerely apologize to all who have experienced my knee-jerk making me a jerk. I apologize for the insensitivity and gracelessness, especially to those who have placed their hopes and support with the current administration. I have allowed my concerns, however meaningful, and my reaction to them to get between my congregation and their experience of God and community within the holy space of our church sanctuary. There is indeed a place for the conversations about difficult issues in our world and how we approach them through our faith, but not in worship in the ways I have addressed them.

To all I have caused upset, I ask forgiveness, grace, and a chance for redemption.

Chastened by the Holy Spirit yet in Christ’s love . . .

. . . mark

Another Monday

Posted: 2017/11/06 in Uncategorized

Another Monday begins in the aftermath of a tragedy.
Another Monday begins in the shadow of a mass murder by someone with a so-called “assault-style” weapon.
Another Monday when the knee-jerk reaction of politicos in power in Washington DC is a whispered, “so sad. . . “, followed by a much louder, “it’s not a gun problem!”

Another Monday when too many (and one is too many) grieving families are planning funerals and asking “Why?!?”

Another Monday when the tacit message of our time is “this violence is the new normal.”

Another Monday . . .
. . . Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy.  Lord have mercy.

Suckered into a brief, but unnecessary waste of time?  Maybe.  But I’ve been provoked by a specific use of the word “interpretation.”

Tuesday, 8 August 2016, Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, was in the midst of throwing red meat to gun-rights supporters by warning that the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, was committed to abolishing the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights. He said the following:
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks, although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

To many, this became a “What the . . . ?!?” moment as Clinton supporters, Trump haters, and many others, including a number of sitting congressional Republicans either criticized or wondered if Trump had inferred that Clinton ought to be assassinated should she be elected.
Trump has responded, dismissively, that he has been misinterpreted, saying, “This is a political movement [referring to ‘Second Amendment people’]. This is a strong powerful movement, the Second Amendment. Hillary wants to take your guns away. She wants to leave you unprotected in your home. And there can be no other interpretation. I mean, give me a break.”

“Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know,” Trump said. “But I tell you what, that will be a horrible day, if Hillary gets to put her judges in, right now we’re tied.”

The phrase that gives me pause is, “there can be no other interpretation,” as if “nothing you can do folks, although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is,” is crystal clear in its meaning. Really?!?  Is his statement so obvious about his intention?

As a pastor who specializes in Biblical theology, I spend a great deal of time interpreting things said and written.  So, if I may offer an interpretation of Trump’s statement, “nothing you can do folks, although the Second Ammendment people, maybe there is” . . .

(1)  I tend to always begin with the larger context, which in this case is a part of Trump’s speech in which the topic was gun rights per the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights. He was seeking to characterize his opponent, Clinton, as someone whose intention is to abolish the right to bear arms.

(2)  “If she gets to pick her judges . . . ” — The only way Clinton could set the composition of the judiciary is as the President of the United States.  Thus, we may reasonably begin to interpret the clause in question to set the scene for his upcoming main point by asking us to consider the possibility of a Clinton presidency.  However, “pick her judges” is less obvious. Let us, for now, take this to refer to the appointment and successful approval of judicial appointees.  Furthermore, given the context, we might also reasonably infer that Trump is referring to the appointment of Supreme Court justices and the Supreme Court’s future potential to change the legal interpretation of the Second Amendment.

(3)  “. . . nothing you can do folks” —  Should the Supreme Court take on a case that challenges the current legal interpretation of the Second Amendment, then whatever ruling they make would be the law of the land.  The inflection of this phrase, along with its context, implies that, should a future Supreme Court ruling change the legal interpretation of the Second Amendment to become more restrictive of the rights of gun ownership, then there would be no recourse but to live with that change.  Less clear, but hinted at, is a stoking of anxiety about such a change.

(4)  “although” — This word implies an upcoming statement of an alternative to a prior description of a state of affairs.

(5)  “the Second Amendment people” — Ironically, this is ambiguous enough that it could refer to scholars of the Second Amendment, people committed to preserving the current legal interpretation of the Second Amendment, people who have committed themselves to changing the legal interpretation, the NRA, or, most likely, gun owners with who support the extant legal interpretation of the Second Amendment. This latter group is concerned with maintaining and possibly expanding gun ownership rights.  In other words, gun owners who will not give up their firearms unless pried from their cold-dead fingers.

(6)  “maybe there is” — “Maybe there is” . . . what?  This ambiguous phrase is the interpretive trouble-maker.  Syntactically it is unconnected to the rest of the sentence.  It could be the beginning of the next thought (“although the Second Ammendment people; Maybe there is a fly in my coffee”), or a clause attached to the previous in an awkward way. The most likely interpretation involves associating “maybe there is” with “nothing you can do folks” as the thought seems to be “nothing you can do folks [but] maybe there is [something that can be done]”.  Furthermore that something would be done by “the Second Amendment people”.

(7)  If “the Second Amendment people” could do something to preserve or enhance gun ownership rights that those whom Trump was addressing could not, what is that something?  Trump’s audience and “Second Amendment people” can both vote, so the something must be other. If “Second Amendment people” are the NRA then we might reasonably infer that they could lobby lawmakers, something the NRA has been quite successful at doing.  However, if “the Second Amendment people” are simply gun owners who resist any notion of further gun control, then a more sinister possibility arises.  “Maybe there is” something they could do with their guns: threaten, maim, or kill.

Having observed the ambiguity and dark possibilities of “nothing you can do folks, although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is”, we should look again at Trump’s rebuttal, vis
“This is a political movement. This is a strong powerful movement, the Second Amendment. Hillary wants to take your guns away. She wants to leave you unprotected in your home. And there can be no other interpretation. I mean, give me a break.”

“This” is ambiguous.  The Second Amendment is not actually a “strong powerful movement” but a clause in the Bill of Rights.  He changes subject to an opinion about Clinton’s intentions.  Then he says “there can be no other interpretation”, which, in this context, is ambiguous as he has not delineated the interpretation to which he refers.

This interpreters conclusion is that Trump has said something that is dangerously ambiguous and open-ended.  There are indeed several possible interpretations that can be made.  If he wanted to be clear about what he meant and that what he meant was that action should be taken in the voting booth or in lobbying visits with lawmakers, then he should have spoken with such clarity.  As it is, he has left dangling an ambiguous call to action that could also be taken as a call to arms and even assassination.

What then did he really mean?