The Season of Splintering

The Season of Splintering

Somewhere in this nation there are probably folks who are celebrating the United Methodist Judicial Council’s decision #1341.  The body ruled that the consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto in the Western Jurisdiction was a breaking of church law.  Somewhere.  Somewhere they must be slapping one another on the back, saying “we did it, we fixed it.”  Somewhere.

There was nothing fixed by this.  This whole kerfuffle just adds more fissures undermining the denomination’s ability to remain “united” Methodist.  Our energies, mission, identity and witness — all are predictably falling to pieces.  And somewhere there are folks who think they have won something. 

It is just one more indication that we are further removing ourselves from being a church for others, a church that shares the good news of the love of Christ for all people.  Busy with trials we miss finding ways forward that can acknowledge God’s call on many and diverse people — all being able to carry the name “United Methodist.”  This is placing ever more stress on the cracks in the earthen vessel we call the church.  And, somewhere there is celebration.

The Judicial Council’s decision ironically says that Karen Oliveto “remains in good standing as a clergy person” and now must be granted a “fair process” as to her ordination status.  A fair process based on whose assessment?  Is there one annual conference that has the perfect evaluation for clergy qualifications for all other conferences? Is the Judicial Council saying that the California-Nevada Conference got it wrong in assessing who might best serve in their area in ordaining Bishop Oliveto in the first place?  Should Bishop Oliveto have been judged by another better suited group?  Maybe a body in Texas, Mississippi, Indiana or Congo?

Somewhere there is joy.  Somewhere hearts are light.  It is the Western Jurisdiction that now has been named the “fall guy” in this travesty.  They are the one’s who failed when they consecrated Karen.  Is that it?

Oh yes, and why do we have Jurisdictional structures in the first place?  Is there any memory that back at the time when the Methodist Episcopal Church North and South came together that the south didn’t want to have any of those northern bishops overseeing their conferences?  Is there memory of the desire to keep segregation alive by setting up a separate “Central Jurisdiction” for blacks?  Not wanting to welcome persons without distinction or category, the southern church (aided and abetted by many in the north) “allowed” black Methodists to have a separate jurisdiction.

I know something of the south and value so much of what I know.  My college and seminary work were done in Wilmore, Kentucky at Asbury College and Seminary.  There are so many good things represented by these schools, especially the commitment that was once focused on mission.  At the same time this is were some of the seeds of perfectionism, and the proclivity to exclude and divide, are sown. 

Chapel was required at Asbury College.  My seat mate was Patty.  Patty was remarkable — talented and intelligent and had a nose for prejudice and discrimination.   If a sermon was racist or sexist or dismissive of those who were, dear God, liberals or Democrats, Patty would smile and whisper “Holiness Unto the Lord Has Nineteen Letters.”  She was saying to me “count the letters on at the front of the auditorium and ignore this simplistic drivel.”  Once after chapel she confided that “too many of these folks need an enemy to feel good about themselves.”  Patty didn’t acknowledge much else about her identity, her background or her pain — but I knew she carried a burden and a wisdom beyond my experience.

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Front of Hughes Auditorium, Asbury University

Fortunately, most of my experiences in chapel were uplifting and valued.  Still Patty had it right, I think.  She died a few years back — may eternal light be upon her.  Often these days I think of her and the code she was sending by whispering “Holiness Unto the Lord has nineteen letters.”  Many, many good folks attended Asbury and learned the lesson that Patty was teaching me.  Sadly, others from Wilmore, and ones who claim to be shaped by the “holiness tradition,” carry on the tendency toward exclusion and now sow the seeds for this splintering in the denomination.

In many respects the Civil War didn’t end one hundred and fifty years ago.  It simply has shape-shifted into new forms and battles.  Old style bigotrys turn into new ones and every generation struggles with permutations of false perfections that lead to such splintering and pain.

The splintering that has been a part of so many other denominations in recent years, is upon us in United Methodism.  It arrives now in real and troubling ways.  In truth, neither side, of the many sides in this tragedy, wins. 

I recently visited with a friend, a middle-aged father.  He was a cradle United Methodist coming from a family with deep links to the leadership and hierarchy of the denomination.  As we talked, he spoke with pride of his talented son, a young adult just beginning his higher education.  Then my friend said, “It was during the 2016 General Conference sessions that my son told me he was gay.  I have lost any pride in my United Methodist legacy since that day.”  It was heart wrenching. Here is the irony — the son still finds a home in a fine United Methodist congregation in the south.  I wonder for how long this will last, given the splintering at hand?

I am struck by how many of the “leaders” of the groups pushing for perfection have not served as pastors, or at least not pastors in places where there are diverse populations.  Perhaps this falls in the category of “enough said;” even so, I think back on the way God opened my eyes to the beauty of others who were different from me.  It has been in the relationships with others that I saw the greater gift of God’s realm on earth.  And I still think of Patty.

During this splintering season, I think of all the pastors who have children, or siblings, who are gay.  And, of course, I think of all the pastors (closeted and out) and lay leaders (closeted and out) who are gay.  Somewhere there is celebration.   Not among these good folks.  We have substituted rules for relationships and… I believe we have snuffed out the very essence of the gospel.

Somewhere there is celebration.  I know this — those who “celebrate” and will either take control or break away carry within their theology and world view the seeds for another splintering, and another, and another. This is the way perfectionism thrives until it is a majority of one.

Some may celebrate.  I weep, I grieve.  The church of Jesus Christ will go forward, even as we United Methodists splinter. 

ReCentering Methodism: Open Letter to the Wesley “Covenant” Association

First — this apology to my non-United Methodist friends and readers.  We United Methodists are amid some “denominational challenges” just now.  I have written this letter as a way to encourage some of our more traditional and conservative leaders to answer five questions about their purposes and basic intentions.  You see, I fear this “new effort” known as the Wesleyan Covenant Association in North America is merely a building of a highway for schism among folks in our denomination divided by our views around homosexuality.  My prayer is that raising these questions may help identify some of the distortions often made by these, my friends, who claim to be more “Biblical, evangelical, and Wesleyan” than others of us.  Forgive this interlude in my blog entries — please check out the recent post on my  embarrassing moments as a pastor.  It is much more fun… and probably more enlightening.
 

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Dear Friends of the Wesley Covenant Association,
As I read the names of the founding sponsors of the Wesley Covenant Association, I know many of you — have known you for years.  You have been colleagues in our work as United Methodists.  You are committed pastors, known theological educators and activist organizers in the Confessing Movement and the Good News Movement in United Methodism.  Now you offer a new organization, a new association.  Hopefully your claim that the Wesley Covenant Association is a re-booting, a move toward re-discovery, a signal of readiness to traverse beyond the tread-worn battles of the past is true. 
I pray  you join me in the realization that the younger, rising generation of United Methodist seems rather disinterested in a rehearsal of the same old arguments, using the same labels and categories.  Our battles still may appear to be unresolved, but there is little doubt they are increasingly insignificant in the lives and faith of our grandchildren.  I would be helped if you could answer five questions.  They are ones asked before, at various times and places.  Not yet having received an answer I repeat them now – this time with a renewed sense of urgency as I fear the WCA may be simply a laying of the predicate for a schism in our denomination.
These questions of you are not rhetorical.  I sincerely would like to hear from you:
  • If “evangelical,” what is the “good news” you share? 
  • If “evangelical,” why so little attention to Christian experience, to personal conversion?  Why so little mention of the transforming love of Jesus Christ for persons and society?
  • If Wesleyan, why the silence about ministry with the poor?
  • If uniquely “Biblical Christian,” what is the basis of scriptural interpretation?  What is the hermeneutic employed?
  • If Wesleyan, what of John Wesley’s concern about schism and his clear guidance to learn from others who differ as expressed in “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”?

 

Answers to these questions would help me know if I might be included in the “covenant” you seek to draw.  You see, I fear your appropriation of the word “covenant” is more of a way to exclude and narrow than it is a way to a hope-filled future.  It is a misdirection away from the more profound meaning of covenant that comes from scripture.  The covenant, I believe we share is much broader and more profoundly enduring than that which can be restricted by a few paragraphs in the ever-shifting-language of The United Methodist Book of Discipline.  Using the word “covenant” in this narrow way may be beneficial to an ecclesial political agenda.  It may serve to set folks like me outside of “the elect.”  I reject this use of covenant language in this way.  I will not be thus separated by your linguistic legerdemain.
It was after all, conservative theologian, Richard John Neuhaus, of blessed memory, who taught the essential difference between “contract” and “covenant.”  Our faith covenant binds us together by something deeper and more profound than contractual language can ever contain.
A contract is limited to the temporal, “quid pro quo” reality.  It is an effort to control and claim exclusive authority over things that are passing, temporal.  It seeks to hold us together, by our past rules, limited language and small understandings.  It is a way to count up grievances and deny our commonweal.  It suggests the interpretation of scripture is the exclusive possession of one party and only this view will be acceptable for all United Methodists.  A “contract” seeks to limit vision, thwart new expression, block new insights walling them in to past categories and perspectives.
Covenant is not contract.  Covenant is God’s gift for us ALL — something that draws us into the future, TOGETHER; it is the power of God’s Spirit at work in the world and it is beyond our ability to limit this.  Covenant continually ReCenters us in Christ.  Bonhoeffer wrote clearly of the church being centered in Christ where boundaries drawn by those who seek to limit the expansiveness of God’s activity in the world will not hold. 
Believing we all belong to Christ and this is our true covenant hope, I remain, your brother,
Philip Amerson

That Dumb Preacher and the Gift of Embarrassment

“That Dumb Preacher” and the Gift of Embarrassment

Fifty years ago this past summer I was provisionally ordained as a Methodist pastor.  Young and determined to change the world, I was “set aside” for ministry by Bishop Richard C. Raines in a pomp-filled ceremony in the Indiana University Auditorium.

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I. U. Auditorium

I was ready to change the world — and I was so little aware of the way the world would change me.  Now there is time to look back, to reflect, to laugh and learn anew.

These past five decades as a clergy person have been filled joy and sadness.  All in all, it has been good ride, especially as I came to value the whimsy in life.  It has been good, in part, because of many moments of embarrassment.  Yes, I said embarrassment.   It keeps one humble.  One sees in these times both the stodgy excesses of organized religion and one’s own foolish efforts at vocational perfection.  Here is my top ten list — memories of times I played the role of “that dumb preacher.”

  1. One Saturday in June, presiding at the fourth wedding of the day, at the point of exchanging the vows, I heard myself say, “Will you Jennifer, take Mike, to be your husband.”  Even before I saw the confused and terrified look in the bride, Susan’s, eyes, I knew that she was not “Jennifer” and he was not a “Mike.”  And, I couldn’t remember their names.  I searched papers tucked in my Bible.  It took an eternity — probably 20 seconds before I could match the couple with their true identities.  I suspect that for years following, maybe even these decades later, Susan must have thought, “that poor, dumb preacher.”
  2. Rushing to complete my daily visits on another day, I decided to drop by the funeral home, speak words of condolence to members of my congregation who had lost a loved one.  I was not presiding at the funeral, but as pastor I wanted to support these folks.  I entered the visitation room, circulated, greeted several folks not recognizing anyone.  As I met the grieving widow and children it became clear that this was the wrong visitation — I was even at the wrong funeral home!  Turning to make a quick exit, the daughter asked, “How did you know my father?”  No words came for several seconds.  Then I muttered, “Oh, I knew of him.”  Blushing, I made my rapid exit.
  3. Oh, friends, this is an all too familiar experience for me.  More than once I have stopped by a hospital room to visit with a patient only to discover I was engaging the wrong person.  Often, in a shared room, I prayed with the roommate before learning he or she was not the person I had intended to visit.  I still smile thinking of the nice Jewish man who, after I had prayed, said he appreciated the prayer and knew his rabbi appreciated it too!
  4. Then, there are the multiple misadventures with cordless microphones.  On more than one occasion, I continued to “broadcast” when I should have turned the darn thing to “OFF.”  Let’s just say that needing some relief, I quickly slipped out of one service as a colleague was praying.  Moments later the congregation heard a great flushing sound.  These were not the rushing waters from Elijah.  These waters poured across the sound system drowning the prayer!
  5. Rarely was I more embarrassed than the time I received a call from a couple in a nearby state park who, with family and friends, waiting for me to officiate at their outdoor wedding.  We had visited earlier, done counseling together, and… yes, all was ready.  Except, I had the wrong date on my calendar!  Fortunately I was able to rush to the park (almost an hour away) in time to confirm what a non-ordained uncle had already done pronouncing them married.  I greeted everyone, heard the story of the improvised ceremony, asked the uncle to “say it again” and then confirmed it by shouting “yes, to what he said!”  I prayed a prayer, signed the wedding license and was the brunt of multiple jokes as we enjoyed slices of cake.
  6. We were celebrating the 70th wedding anniversary of a dear couple on a Sunday.  I broke my unwritten rule of never offering an open microphone to another.  This seemed safe enough.  Speaking to the couple in front of me I said, “It must be great to have 70 happy years together?”  The woman grabbed the mike and before I knew what was happening she said, “Well, actually, he ran around a lot on me during the first years of our marriage.”  The congregation roared with laughter.  Too late.  Nothing else would be remembered by any of us that Sunday.
  7. And, what could go wrong with wearing a new suit to worship?  Well… somehow the tailor didn’t tie off the knots along the leg seams.  As I greeted folks after the first service, I felt a breeze along my leg up to the crotch.  It was, so to speak, open territory.  What to do?  Fortunately we wore robes in the next two services.  Not many noticed my alabaster legs beneath the robe.  I wore a robe all the way home that day!
  8. I was a guest pastor, covering worship for a friend who served in a more liturgical tradition than my own.  On arrival, I was surprised to learn that I was not only to preach but also to preside at the eucharist — at all five services!  Let’s just say I wasn’t prepared.  At the first service, I realized too late I had consecrated an empty chalice.  More to the point at the end of the morning I learned that I didn’t need to empty the contents of the chalice after every worship service!  I don’t recall much of the sermon in service number five — I am certain it was brilliant, even if some words were slurred.
  9. Advice to young pastors — don’t attempt an infant baptism if your hands are already full.  As I recall there was a microphone, hymnal, the baptism certificate, a candle for the family, and… oh yes, the baby!  I thought it was all balanced and ready just as the baby’s pacifier fell out of her mouth.  Just above the baptismal font I reached to catch the pacifier.  The baby came down as well.  She was baptized on the wrong end!  The certificate, hymnal and microphone were also baptized that day.   I did catch the pacifier — after all, what is truly important?
  10. Sitting on the steps outside the door of our core-city congregation, I was waiting for a ride home.  Before I knew it three small children were beside me… then crawling over my lap and shoulders.  Snotty noses and grimy fingers were running through my hair.  The papers in folders on my lap were opened and explored.  I tried to engage the children, offering a pen to draw on my papers.  One little girl who had plopped beside me looked up and said, “You don’t know what to do with us, do you?”  Somewhere today that little girl, now an adult, must think back on “that dumb preacher.”
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Wesley UMC, University of Illinois

Much has changed over the past fifty years.  Mainline denominations, like my own, are regarded by many as more and more “sidelined” denominations.  We grow anxious, serious, more determined.  We focus on the latest organizational/leadership development programs designed to help us avoid decline.  Meanwhile we miss the larger movements of the Spirit that reach over decades.  We fail to see the basic demographics of our social settings and, mostly, we miss the joy and humanity all around, and within, us. 

Our institutions have much to be embarrassed about.  In fact, too often we seek to measure our value by the wrong metric.  Last winter I was fortunate enough to preach at one of the grand old churches of our denomination — Wesley UMC at the University of Illinois.  I had just attended an event where there was hand wringing about our need to be a global church and about worship attendance in the U.S. continuing to decline.  All of this is true.  Still, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud after the sermon in Champaign, Illinois, as dozens of international students came by to visit with me after that worship service.  I was aware that our global reach might be wider than our limited vision could see.  Too serious, too anxious, we should be embarrassed by our clumsy failures to hear the words, “you don’t know what to do with us, do you?”

I would not argue that we should not seek to be relevant.  I would, however, suggest a much lighter touch.  Some laughter might be good for the soul of the church — some acknowledgement of our embarrassing moments.  Maybe more humanity and a focus on awkward, surprising, relationships could help.   A little less certitude and a little more embarrassment is in order.  I have shared ten of my own embarrassing moments — there are dozens more I could offer.  This will do for now.  Enjoy… and consider what the little wiggly girl sitting on the church steps said.  I think she is right.   We just don’t know what to do with all the vibrant and bouncing protoplasm all around us.  I think we may miss our embarrassment of riches.