Balance, Imperfect but Balance

Balance, Imperfect but Balance

News of the death of Senator Richard Lugar arrives.  Not surprising, but saddening.  Coming two months after the death of Senator Birch Bayh it causes me to think about the gift of balance. 

Balance — that which allows us to stand  upright and walk forward.  Balance — that which keeps us from being overwhelmed by vertigo — whether physical or ethical.  Being Hoosiers, of a certain generation, for many years in the later half of the twentieth century, we United Methodists knew these two, one a Republican and the other a Democrat.  Each different, yet each shared our common Methodist heritage.  We United Methodists watched and lived with a balance displayed in our public/political lives — and in our churches.

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Lugar and Bayh were different — yet they seemed to come as a matching set.  Lugar modeled modesty and graciousness; an intellect – a political and ethical realism; an openness to bipartisan solutions to complex national and world situations.  Bayh was passionate, a natural leader, and could light up a room with his rhetoric; he too was an informed realist, and when prepared, could debate with the best, and his drive to make a difference saw him take a lead in essential societal changes.

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Bayh’s leadership on Title 9 legislation guaranteeing equal rights for women in education, sports and commerce was a difference maker.  Lugar’s commitment to disarmament resulted in much of the nuclear arms control that emerged and his persuasion finally lead to the ending of South African Apartheid.  They both clearly understood that the “perfect could be the enemy of the good.”

Balance: it is missing from our body politic as a nation.  It is missing from United Methodism.  One cannot help but wonder as to how the nation and church moved to our current state of mean-spirited dysfunction.  As a clergy person, I can say that I have watched much of United Methodism in Indiana move away from the welcoming of difference, the welcoming balance, in our faith life and practice.  I have watched as we have had bishops and pastors who were too fearful of conflict to understand the gifts Lugar and Bayh modeled for us as a nation and a church. 

One recent bishop in Indiana now wonders what happened to the “Methodist Middle” and I chuckle.  I watched as honest debate was stifled and only one limited model for being church promoted.  Cautious theological conservatism and focus on seeking the magic formula for “congregational development” was promoted over emphasis on the denomination’s social witness and honest public debate or support for church ministries with the poor or marginalized persons.  We increasingly became a church in Indiana that placed our resources and commitments toward white, suburban, conservative enclaves.  Expressed differences, and openness to other views  — like those modeled by Lugar and Bayh — were discouraged. 

Why for example were certain “preferred,” certain “more conservative” congregations allowed to thumb their noses at the giving to larger denominational causes (something we call a tithe or an apportionment)?  This preference and lack of accountability didn’t go on for a year or two, no, but for decades. Meanwhile such giving was expected by ALL others.  Other congregations, progressives and moderates, were never offered this same “tolerance.” In other words — the progressives and moderate congregations carried the financial responsibilities for all — freeing up resources for those who were more exclusionary in their perspectives and practices to invest.

I watched as decisions were made that moved United Methodism in Indiana to a more fundamentalist and exclusionary stance — preferred over encouraging honest listening and learning from one another about our differences and a seeking of balance.   I am not naive enough to miss the fact that the nation as a whole was drifting toward more bitter language and divisive understandings.  Or, that some leaders do their best to avoid as much conflict as possible — meaning they give more space to the louder voices of “so-called-traditionalists” backed by the political and media sway of the Institute for Religion and Democracy or the so-called Good News or Confessing organizations.  So, it is understandable that leaders might surround themselves with persons who did not search for the balance valued by a Lugar or a Bayh — an ability to seek compromise while still moving ahead.

It required balance to move forward and not end up in a cul-de-sac of narrow-mindedness — something our denomination is seeking just now.  I fear it may be too late… but if there is a way forward, we do have the gift, the model, of two men, Lugar and Bayh, both United Methodists, who brought very different gifts and perspectives.  Yet both made our nation better for their service.  I give thanks for them — and pray for balance to be regained in our nation and our church.

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Practicing Resurrection

How can it be?  Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames?  And, early on Holy Week no less.  There are not words to capture the sense of our world’s spiritual and cultural loss.  Serge Schmemann, comes close when he writes “beauty and human genius lies gravely wounded” (New York Times, 4/16/19).

In response we hear brave words about rebuilding.  Good.  Yet, we know some things are forever gone.  Amidst the rubble and ashes lies an awareness that all our desires for permanence are ephemeral. Constancy and immutability are never fully within human grasp.  Great Cathedrals serve as pointers to something more eternal yet even they come with no guarantee-of-forever.  Small rural African-American churches, like those destroyed by fire in Louisiana recently, served as miniature cathedrals, for their faithful. They too now grieve irreplaceable loss.  Our call is not to believe we hold a final word or permanent design as to what God is about.  At our best we point the way, catch a glimpse of something better, and share what we have seen with others.  We offer our best, our highest aspirations, mixed in with our frailties, our vulnerabilities.  How then shall we proceed?  In the places we live and work?  In Louisiana? In Paris?

This Easter, with Notre Dame in view, I am reminded of a favorite poem by Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”  Closing lines include these delicious words:

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium.  Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest…

Expect the end of the world.  Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it.  Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go.  Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice Resurrection.

Practice Resurrection — My prayer is that you, that we, will practice our Easter prerogatives and that the practice of resurrection will become routine.  May it be our habit, our nod to that which is indeed eternal.

Philip Amerson

Reflections and Prayer for United Methodists, Transfiguration Sunday 2019

Reflections and Prayer for United Methodists

Reflection: John Wesley’s guide for living has been distilled down to Three Simple Rules: 1) Do Good; 2) Do No Harm; 3) Stay in Love with God.*  On Tuesday of this past week, in St. Louis, the United Methodist Church walked away from one of our core commitments: “Do no harm.”  The actions taken at that gathering have done immeasurable damage to many, especially friends and family who are in the LGBTQ community and to the United Methodist Church’s witness among the young in future generations. 

Eight-hundred-sixty-four (864) delegates gathered to consider plans related to our stance on same-sex marriage and matters of ordination. Two-thirds of the delegates from the United States did not support this punitive and restrictive plan.  Even so, 53% of all delegates did.  Delegates from other nations voted overwhelming “to do harm” to millions.

Those gathered could not agree to join what this congregation has already agreed to do – which is to leave room for loving disagreement about how we interpret scripture.  Five (5) passages of scripture, out of 31,000, are cited to offer sanctions against same-sex relationships.  Those who voted in favor of the new restrictions believe these verses capture the entirety of God’s timeless will and purposes.  We know that scriptures have been misused in the past.  There are more than two hundred (200) verses on slavery.  There are dozens that have been used to marginalize women — even suggesting they should “keep silent in church.” (Can you imagine!?). In this congregation and thousands of others, we have studied, grown and learned – over the decades.  We understand that some beliefs reflect a limited cultural frame.  In some cultures, capital punishment may be practiced against those engaged in same-sex relationships.  We believe, in this church, just as our fore-bearers did regarding slavery, that there are truths that call us to a greater understanding of God’s purposes than the narrow reading of a few verses.

Sadly, those of us who are Centrists, or who seek a Generously Orthodoxy, or who are Progressive in theology, we who represent the clear majority of United Methodists in the US, are now left with a sense of being exiles in our own denomination.  This matter is not resolved.  It will take many months, probably years to sort out where the denomination is truly heading.  It is messy just now.  Here at SD – FUMC, as a leading congregation in the nation and in the west, we are called on to resist, to pray, to think, to give witness, to lead; but more than anything else we will display, here and now, the depth and breadth of God’s love for ALL people.

Our congregation IS NOT CHANGING.  We will not be turning back the clock.  We will resist being a church that does harm in this way.  We will not treat LGBTQ people as second class.  We will welcome everyone.  There has been much pain  — and much grace displayed this week.  I have seen tears and also heard whispers of hope for the future… hope that grows stronger and louder each day.  Of all the grace, the greatest I have comes from LGBTQ folks. 

Join one of the conversations next week or in Trotter Chapel tomorrow evening at 7:00.  On June 2nd, on Ascension Sunday, we will focus our worship on the gifts LGBTQ persons bring to the church and this congregation in particular. One final word to all our members, especially our LGBTQ members, their family and friends: I love you., we love you.  The great pain the General Conference has caused you is not who we Methodists in this place are – nor who we will be.

Prayer:  O God, even in our darkest hours, you surprise us.  You lead us into new glimpses of your glory each day… yet we often fail notice.  Often, we are caught up in the mundane musings of everyday routines.  Then, there are other times, when we overwhelmed by the brokenness of our church and the fractured realities of your world.  Today, our prayer is that we will experience a break through, a renewed awareness of your glory.  We commit anew to resist the forces that would exclude and harm – that we will stand on the side of faith rather than fear, of acts of love rather than rigid rules that exclude – and, even then, we will open our hearts to those who hold a different view.

We pray that you will give us imagination for the future, strength for our weakness, hope where there is fear, light for the way and grace in the times of trail.  We are called to be a people who love one another, a people of grace, a people who seek to do no harm, a people who now that our final home and hope is in your care.  Move us today from houses of fear to houses of love.   

Knowing that there are many burdens, joys and thanksgivings we bring today, we now pray in silence seeking to better know your purposes for our church, the church universal and our world. 

  • Silence –

Might we see the world with new eyes – We pray for your church, understanding that we are a small part of your people.  Forgive our arrogance for thinking our little disagreements hold any ultimate significance in your kin-dom.  Open our eyes and minds and hearts to your guidance.  Might we dream new dreams for the church, new openness to others in our ministry and new hope for the future.

Amen.

  • (See Rueben Job’s Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living.)

 

A Mess in St Louis

Thanks, Will Willimon for this honest confession and call. We elders will struggle to assist others in cleaning up the mess we have made. As an example of emerging wisdom, see the letter Rev. Mark Feldmier shared with his congregation, St. Andrew in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Mark Feldmier’s call to the future. 

 

A Peculiar Prophet

Before the United Methodist Special General Conference opened on Saturday, we prayed. Perhaps God would miraculously grant a fruitful discussion among 800disputantswho have very little in common except our cross-and-flame nametags. We prayed for openness to different points of view, unity, communion, gracious listening, holy conferencing, empathetic feelings, and generosity of spirt.

It didn’t work.

At some point I shifted my own prayers to, “Lord, please melt the hardened hearts and smite everyone who intends to vote against the One Church Plan.” This plan, recommended by the UMC bishops, aimed to give more discretion to local churches and annual conferences in LGBTQ inclusion, ministry, and mission. It was summarily trashed early in the voting; the rival Traditional Plan, which reaffirms the denomination’s prohibitions against same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy, was approved.

The Lord, as far as I could tell, had business elsewhere. In fairness to the Lord…

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Orphaned or Exiled?

Orphaned or Exiled?

This will not be long.  I have been avoiding adding to the verbiage surrounding the United Methodist Special General Conference in St. Louis.  Perhaps I know too much, or is it too little?  I awoke this morning considering the actions taken yesterday by the United Methodists gathered in St. Louis.  It is certainly one of the most painful days in my more than fifty years of ordained ministry.  Whatever, I was even more painfully aware of the ways my many LGBTQI friends have been spiritually brutalized by the language and actions of this gathering.

I saw it coming… and I understood what it will likely mean for the future.  As the conference voted to continue to exclude gay and lesbian folks from the full ministry of the church and to punish anyone who would join in seeking a more open church, I found myself wondering what has happened to the denomination I joined as a young man.  Yes, I felt orphaned by mother church… or, perhaps it is that I felt exiled.

Let’s just say that as an elected delegate to four General Conferences in the past, I have been in the room and seen the “sausage made.”  The result is our guidebook, the Book of Discipline.  However, words are insufficient to capture the whole human story and the ways God keeps leading the faithful forward.  This is, after all, evidenced in the unfolding story of our scriptures.  God’s people learn and learn again of God’s faithfulness and love.

John Wesley
John Wesley – Methodism’s Founder

More to the point, I have seen the ways we United Methodists have struggled to live our lives together over the past fifty years.  The intrigues, the deceits, the political distortions — yes.  I have also seen the affection and generosity of persons who come together from many places geographically and theologically to seek to discover what God had in store for a church that was willing to take risks — to be a messy church on the behalf of sharing the transforming love of Christ in the world.

 

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John Wesley suggested that Methodists should begin and end our work with a “watching over one another in love.”  Let me recommend a fine sermon by Dr. Robert Hill that looked at what is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience) as our way to know God’s will.  (see http://www.fumcsd.org)

N.T. Wright suggests that the church is merely the scaffolding for God’s Kin-dom work in our world.  This helps.  But not much this morning.  I confess to feeling orphaned in the face of decisions being made by this “special general conference” in St. Louis this week.  Or, perhaps it is an exiling that is underway.  This is a more helpful image — from scripture.  What shall I do? — well, it is time to listen, watch and look for new connections with old friends.  I think of the dozens, make that hundreds of churches where a Methodism of the heart and mind continue to be practiced.   I think of places like Wesley United Methodist Church in Urbana, Illinois or… the list goes on, by the hundreds it goes on, in the U.S. and around the world.  Here gather people who are not afraid to think AND pray.  To welcome and include.  To be open to changes they need to make rather than seeking to make other fit into their categories.  Maybe there will be a gathering-of-orphans — or exiles — that will become the next chapter in our faith journey.  Would that I could stay in the familiar world of mother church.  Sometimes, however, we must leave home (or be pushed out) to grow in ways God would desire.

 

I Won’t be Attending General Conference But . . . .

Sacred work indeed. Methinks our hope may involve being near those we love in these days – some in St. Louis — some wherever the people of God live and work. Thank you, my brother.

Shifting Margins

UM-General-Conference1920x485-1024x259I’m going to miss an important event in Methodist history–the called session of the General Conference in St. Louis, February 23-27.

A lot is at stake as delegates wrestle with ways to deal with the important matters of homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture. The decisions made will chart the denomination’s future for decades.

Missing the conference makes me sad! I feel some guilt for my absence.  Although as a retired bishop I have no official duties,  I do feel responsible to be present in support of colleagues and delegates.

I know from previous General Conferences that significant things happen apart from the formal sessions. Old friendships are renewed and new ones formed. The vast diversity of the denomination is on full display.

Great music! Outstanding preaching! Challenging speeches! Profound worship!

I’ll miss all of that!

I must forego the experience. But, I’ll be pursuing my current primary vocational calling…

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Bishop Judith Craig

Recalling Greatness: Bishop Judith Craig

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So many memories, joyful ones, of Bishop Judith Craig. That laugh — so often laughing at herself.  Those hands on your shoulder as she teased or counseled or intermingled the two and you didn’t realize you had been “schooled” until the next afternoon.  Those eyes — that voice.  That wisdom — cutting through the antics of clergy or lay person who would seek to damage the whole. 

I think of her as one always open to delight — she lived with an expectancy of something better.  And could she preach and pray — yes, my Lord, she could!  Losing dear Judy in this hour in the life of our United Methodist Church is heartrending.  I salute you, dear sister and beloved friend.  May perpetual light shine on you.

I remember how moved I was when Judy was the first woman to give the episcopal address for the denomination back in 1996.  She called for a church that could be bigger than the narrow bigotry that entrapped us.  She was unashamedly a champion of full inclusion of our LGBTQ siblings.

At the time (1996), I thought the church would make a transition to a more accepting and courageous witness quickly.  I was wrong.  It has now been over twenty years of regressive movement.  Twenty years of narrow interest caucus groups using the scriptures and our guiding documents as a blunt instrument of exclusion and harm.  How can the good news of Jesus have been so disfigured into another kind of news?  What hermeneutic can justify this push to separate and move away from one another in a time when the gospel is so relevant to a hurting world? 

We seem to have been “trading down” as a denomination for these two decades. Giving away our legacy, our commitment to loving acceptance for all. Open hearts, minds and doors of welcome has been replaced by a move for the withering of the church by exclusion.  It is fostered by those who build fences of fear and use the very resources and structures of the church against it. The church has lost a great visionary leader.  She was mentored in East Ohio by another great, Bishop James Thomas. They were of an uncommon kind.  I see them together — one testimony to our church at its very best.  Both were able to stand tall for justice and piety.  Neither would sell out for a false sense of peace.  I saw both of them stand tall in difficult circumstances.  Each possessed a wisdom that would not accept the ill-considered proposal, the seeking of unfair advantage of others, or the mean-spirited tactics of a caucus group.

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Mary Oliver

Judy’s death comes within hours of poet Mary Oliver.  Two women, two singular voices.  I wonder if they ever met?  Let me suggest that Judy offered us the poetry of a life-well-lived and of poetry-in-action. Or, as Mary Oliver might say, Judy “didn’t end up simply visiting the world.” She was indeed “a bride married to amazement.

 

I give thanks for the witness, the joy, the friendship of Judith Craig… I now laugh through my tears.  I have been touched by greatness and I know her expansive witness will endure and thrive in places we do not yet see, no matter the petty politics of the current United Methodist Church.