Conjectures from this Guilty Bystander — Part II

Conjectures from this Guilty Bystander — Part II

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Overwhelming – Exhibit A

Colin Murray, stood before me holding  the elements for Holy Communion.  He was one of the fifteen newly confirmed on Pentecost Sunday, May 20, 2018.  I didn’t anticipate having a soul-shaping experience on that Pentecost.  Not in this is formal, traditional worship service.  Does the Holy Spirit move in United Church of Christ congregations?  Even on Pentecost?  Even with a pipe organ playing Bach? It was overwhelming.  I took several deep breaths.  They didn’t seem to help.  So, I let the tears flow and reached for a handkerchief.  Tears of joy, of hope, of transformation.   The young man, Colin, standing at the end of the pew sharing the body and blood of Christ with us, was my grandson.  This extraordinary moment was more than grand-parental pride.  Scales were falling from my eyes, new insight, awareness of the ways God works beyond my limited understandings of the Jesus movement.

What were the odds?  One in fifteen?  Who arrived with the communion elements at our pew?  I melted. Gratitude?  Yes.  So much more — I thought of Isaiah 43 — “I am doing a new thing, can you not perceive it?”   It was more than a passing of generations.  Much more.  It was more than a septuagenarian grandpa’s delight.  A burning bush?  Nope, no voice from heaven; but it was certainly an awareness of a transforming love that was always ready to bring a change in me — let’s call it an overwhelming.

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The temptation for us all, especially those of us in ordained ministry, is to believe that our work, our point of view, our plans, our strategies, our voice will somehow figure it all out, be a difference maker in the church and the world.  More often than not, we fail to know that God’s purposes and actions are far beyond our activities or ideas or speeches.

We are instruments to be sure — but weak reeds, frail passing voices in God’s realm.  I was aware that each of these young confirmands was a part of a family much larger and more gifted by the Holy Spirit than I understood upon entering that sanctuary that day.  I understood that God’s family included the youth being confirmed in the Black churches on the south side of Chicago and the Hispanic youth on the west side.   Or the young Poles, or Serbians or Chinese or Koreans all around town who were stepping into a new place in their baptismal identity.  Sadly, we are still separated by culture and language and tradition.  Centuries of racism, the building of enclaves, and the impoverishment of our social and political systems still separate us — but, “Can you not perceive it?  I am doing a new thing,” says the lord.

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An Overwhelming – Exhibit B

One of the best known passages from Thomas Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” is this:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of ‘separation from the world’ that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudoangels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.”  Page 153.

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My re-reading of Merton in 2019 helps my spiritual vertigo.  The ups and downs of United Methodist conferences befuddle and depress.  They can confuse and offer such a small horizon on the realm of God.  Today (mid-June 2019) my spirits and aspirations are on the upswing. 

All across the nation in recent weeks a new generation of persons are being elected as annual conference delegates.  Many of these folks are young and committed to a more open and inclusive denomination.  It is a youth driven revolution — young clergy are saying “NO” to the harmful decisions made in February 2019 United Methodist conference.  The Febraury so called “Special General Conference” enacted mean-spirited legislation to exclude LGBTQI folks from ordination or same-sex marriages in the denomination.  Further, it was designed to punish anyone who acted in ways that disagreed.  Something as marvelous and no less surprising than a grandson standing beside you bearing the sacrament was underway.  Still, it is a miniscule part of the Holy Spirit’s handiwork.  The Holy Spirit can surprise us still — (S)he is already at play in the church, even within a broken and disoriented part of the body like United Methodism just now.

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Overwhelming – Exhibit C

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As news continues to come in from around the United Methodist Church in the United States, it is clear that change in almost every corner is underway.  I do not know that it will be sufficient to bring about an apology for the damage done or begin to mend and redirect a denomination into patterns that do not do harm to our gay siblings.  However, as I attended the California- Pacific Annual Conference (a place I consider my second ecclesial home), I was again overwhelmed.  Again I took deep breaths and reached for my handkerchief.  There was newly ordained deacon, and my colleague this past year, Melissa Spence.  She is serving the sacrament with an elder, former student, fine pastor and friend, Brian Parcel.

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Looking around the Chapel at the University of Redlands on this day, I see others.  They are, I now understand, my spiritual grandchildren, my grandnieces and grantnephews.  The great gift of the California-Pacific Annual Conference is its ability to welcome a wide and blessed cultural diversity.  Oh, the Tongan choir sings as communion is served.  Words cannot capture the glory of the harmonies that surround us. 

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There they are — former students, colleagues, friends and a few foes, persons who have taught me and who mostly learned without my aid, persons I do not know — all sharing in the holy meal.  There is my long-time friend, Bishop Charles Jordan among those presiding at communion.  There are other bishops at table… the host bishop has been generous in his invitations and his words. And there he is, Bishop Grant Hagiya, on his knees calling on us all to be repentant for the ways we have held hostility toward others.  Bishop Hagiya said it well in his sermon on the first day — “there may be irreconcilable differences… still might we not stay together in mission and give space to be contextual in governance?  Perhaps divorce is inevitable — and certainly separating can be a gift to both parties — still must we make the only a best option a complete separation?

This family, all of it, all around, shines with the glory of God.  We may have to divide, I grieve it.  At the same time, I join Bishop Hagiya in seeing a New Church where compassion for one another is the currency used toward creating a future of mission.

Dear God — grant me the gift of years so that I might witness more of these youth revolutions.  Grant my colleagues who now feel left behind or unappreciated the gift of knowing that the contribution they have made to bring us to this place are used by the Holy Spirit in unsuspected ways — whether the renewal is inside or outside the familiar structures.  I pray we are given the time to see this unfold in ways that bring transformation for our world.

More deep breaths and stifled tears, the Tongans continue to sing.  In the pew alongside me are many of the friends from First United Methodist Church in San Diego.  They are a wonderful group of fellow disciples.  I will be leaving them soon — returning to Indiana, one of the sites of the your revolution in the church.  I may not return to my beloved California-Pacific Annual Conference in this life but I will remember a bishop on his knees, a people of many hues and languages, together ready to serve and a Spirit at work among us all.  It is OVERWHELMING.

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Of the work of the Holy Spirit Merton writes; “Yet the air of the outside world is not fresh air.  Just to break out and walk down the boulevards is no solution. The fresh air we need is the clean breath of the Holy Spirit, coming like the wind, blowing as He pleases. Hence the window must open, or be able to open, in any direction. The error is to lock the windows and doors in order to keep the Holy Spirit in the monastery.” (Conjectures, p. 7)

 

Conjectures from This Guilty Bystander – Part I

Conjectures from This Guilty Bystander — Part I

A preliminary note: It is June, season of personal anniversaries, marriage (53 years) and ordination (51 years). 

For United Methodists, this is a time when regional gatherings called Annual Conferences meet and plan– or at least that is the theory.  After a fractious and harmful called Special General Conference in February, it appears that the denomination which I have served for over five decades is headed for a nervous breakdown – or an amputation of various body parts.  Who knows what will survive and in what form?

I find myself thinking there must be some way to think about this in a larger context than “my denomination” and “my years of ministry.”  I am reminded of the marvelous quote by Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, then you are not thinking big enough.”

So, I turn first to Thomas Merton for a larger frame on the world and the church — then over the next several postings (don’t know as yet how many) I will share some reflections from the view outside my window.

Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was published in 1965.  This wide-ranging collection of snippets from his notebooks is a rich resource.  Merton wrote, “We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to beand spoke of the importance of “living fully in the condition of limited knowledge.

I recall the day a van load of us, young seminarians, were carted off to Gethsemani Abby near Bardstown, Kentucky. The Vietnam War was raging; I remember the compelling call from “Father Louis” to live fully into our Protestantism.  We should offer our delight in this struggle as “way-finders to the peaceable kingdom,” he said. Imagine my embarrassment upon learning later that this remarkable, robust monk, was in fact, Merton.
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When I read Merton I read a provocateur, a convivialist, whose insights push me forward.  My paltry, pale insights offered here are but wisps of smoke in comparison.  He writes as a “bystander” from the monastic life.  He shares “personal reflections, insights, metaphors, observations, judgements on readings and events.”  I write from the balcony of retirement — or at least my several recent attempts to retire.  I pray that while my thoughts will not match this master, I might have the vulnerability and a bit of the humility he displays in his work. Throughout Conjectures Merton reminds us of our vulnerability and that “We need not seek happiness, but, rather, discover that we are already happy.”

I will say more about near encounters with Merton and those who knew him in future posts. Before a few reflections on my denomination, United Methodism, and its current fracturing, this passage below from Conjuctures seems apt.

“I will be a better Catholic,” Merton writes, “not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot affirm and accept, but first one must say “yes” where one can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 133)

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I’m having that sinking feeling — “Help, help,” United Methodist’s cry, “we’re Melting!”  For me, these weeks of United Methodist Annual Conferences

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Disappearing Glacier on Columbia Ice field in Canadian Rockies

around the U.S. have been times of Despair and Delight.  United Methodism in  2019 feels like a glacier confronted with rapid climate change.  We are, as the Brits would put it, in omnishambles.  There are fissures all around.  I delight because each week in May and June from many Annual Conferences has come good news.  We are electing delegates to the next regular General Conference in the spring of 2020. Delight — a strong majority thus far, as represented by the delegates elected from Texas to Missouri to Florida to North Carolina want to turn away from the punitive past regarding our homosexual siblings.

Across the south and Midwest there is  change.  Trends strongly favor of Centrists and Progressives (as they have been labeled) picking up dozens of delegates.  Will it be enough to change things?  Well, probably not.  Legislation may change, but hearts and minds are less pliable.  It may be that we are stuck.  Many of these new delegates are folks who seek to reverse the harmful and mean-spirited actions take at the February 2019 Special General Conference —  reclaiming a more open stance for the church on issues of LGBTQI acceptance. The General Conference in February uncovered the ugly divisions that have been dividing the church for more that four decades.  The presenting issue is homosexuality but it is so much deeper than this. 

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Truth is the denomination in the U.S. has been melting for years and we have been seeking answers in all the wrong places.  Hearts and minds will never be changed so long as we see one another in categories, rather than as fellow children of God.

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I am told by friends I trust on all sides that there is no mending this shattered church.  “This broken family must now be dissolved,” they say.  Many families, kinship networks are already stressed and separated.  “Divorce is painful but it is not all bad,” I hear.  I am told “Methodists have done this before” — remember we divided over slavery in 1844!  I am told that United Methodism must be abandoned so that a new church can emerge.  To my ears some of this talk sounds a bit like the language from Vietnam when some foolishly said “We had to destroy the village to save it.”  Frankly, the talk of division comes too easily — Disaffiliation for what?  Toward what end?  It is the old metaphor of a glass half full and focusing on the empty part of the glass.  What is the value, the potential, of that which is already in place?  Yes, I will say it, there is a kind of naivete abroad when folks quickly say it is time to separate.

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Nor does this talk of division ring true theologically for me.  I think of I Corinthians 12 and 13 or the message to the early church found in Galatians.  This month our Gospel lections were from John 14 and John 17.  Are these not calls for the followers of Jesus to stay together?   The prayer of Jesus presented in John 17 has been called the High Priestly prayer and the Great Ecumenical Prayer.  Of course, Richard Rohr reminds us that United in Christ is not the same as the unity of the church.  I know.  Even more, however, I am shaped by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who even in the face of the division of his Lutheran Evangelical home in Germany between the Confessing Church and State church called on the focus to be on “Christ the Center” and not on the boundary lines of time and place.” Shall we separate now so that we can re-affiliate in twenty or thirty years?  Have the so-called traditionalists listened to their adult children and grandchildren about this issue?  A majority of young persons who call themselves “Evangelicals” don’t buy the desire to exclude  others based on sexual orientation.

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What might we do?  This is the question many have pondered and most (including bishops and congregational leaders) have felt powerless to answer.   It is about agency.  By this, I mean, no one seems to have sufficient influence to make a difference.  I am told that there are folks working on solutions behind the scenes.  This is precisely my worry — how many groups are there?  Doing what?  Trading what for what? It feels very “in house” and based on old paradigms.  Still, I acknowledge my ‘guilt’ in this whole mess.  Even more, I grieve the pain caused by a church that for so long did such damage to persons based on the bigotry and discrimination of homophobia.  I struggle with the question of what more might I have done?

My sense is that we are thinking too small, we are talking too much to ourselves, we are working in the star chambers called the Caucus Groups, General Conference, Annual Conference and Boards and Agencies. 

Isn’t there a larger frame?  Can we admit that we are asking the wrong questions? I think of Roseanne Haggerty’s Community Solutions and her emphasis on Housing First.  She shows the need to “flip the script” on homelessness.  First, she argues, provide a place to live!  Stop believing persons much first earn safe shelter.  Then work on the other social and emotional needs.  In the wider economy and ecology, this is a better, more cost effective way of approaching things.  And it also happens to be Christian!

What if instead of dividing up the church we saw the great potential of having tens of thousands of communities where we worked in new ways to offer a witness?  What difference might be made regarding our ecological crises?  What if we used funds for community environmental renewal ministries and didn’t funnel everyone though some sausage-making congregational development matrix?  What might we learn from economists? Health Care specialists?  What new patterns of citizenry? — make that discipleship — might be modeled?  Might United Methodists seek to live more fully into our heritage and be way-finders to the peaceable kingdom?  Well that is a dream that certainly extends beyond my life time.

 

 

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. 

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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.)

 

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.

 

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.