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.

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. 

The Last Apple


November 2015


Autumn sharpens one’s imagination.  Days are filled with transition.  The weather teases — do we chance leaving the tomatoes on the vine one more day?  Was it frost last night, or nearly frost? When will the leaves turn?  Will they be mostly golden or red or brown this year?  Day to day, transition comes, sometimes slowly and sometimes in a burst.  Some things end, some things anticipate a spring.  

This year, again, I have been planing bulbs (300 of them in the last week).  Tulips, daffodils, allium.  I know better, especially setting those tulips in bed for the winter, as the deer find them irresistible in the spring.  I foolishly calculate that if 100 bulbs are set this fall, maybe 50 will survive, especially if I spred some deer repellent nearby next spring.  Okay, so sign me up as an eternal optimist!  Still, there is something compelling about autumn.  A thinking person and/or a person of faith will see this as a time for hope… or, so I tell myself.

Each fall I think of the haunting passage written by E. B. White who described his wife Katherine, as she aged, still kneeling each fall to plant bulbs.  He wrote: “As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical in her bedraggled appearance… her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.” [Forward in Katherine S. White, Onward and Upward in the Garden, Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.]

I’m with Kathrine White — calmly plotting the resurrection, indeed.  As I plant bulbs and trees I am aware that I may or may not be around to enjoy them 15 or 20 years hence — but my prayer is that someone will benefit and thereby be reminded of the beauty and promise found in these autumn days.

This year I also planted trees — decorative plum, pear and magnolia.  They stand all along the driveway.  And there were three apple and two cherry trees planted last spring.  I find I have to protect them all from the deer, who like to munch on the apple or cherry tree leaves or, in the case of the other trees, the bucks will come and scar the trunks during rutting season. 

IMG_1064 We lost the old apple tree in the front yard this fall.  A friend who knows about such things tells me the tree was approaching its 100th year… but we watched as it slowly faded in health over the past three years.  Someone, a century or so ago planted this apple tree; perhaps, like me, hoping it would be appreciated by another in a distant future.  This fall the time had come; we had to cut that tree down.  Sad, as the old apple tree in the front of the house was one of the features we loved when we bought the place three years ago.         

In  mid-September, walking past the tree, I noticed one last apple hanging up among the few branches still clinging to life.  (For those of you wondering, I took a cutting off that branch, in the hope I might plant it next spring — yes, my hope springs eternal!)    The tree is now down, the wood cleared and stump ground up.   That last apple — tart and memorable — has now been eaten and enjoyed.  In my imagination, that last apple lingers, remaining for me as an autumn metaphor.

IMG_1052As my seventieth birthday approaches on the cusp of a New Year, I still think of myself as young.  I do this even when I am sometimes offered the “senior discount.”  And this without my even asking!  More and more often, when speaking of friends, I add the words “of blessed memory” upon mentioning their names.  Time passes, life’s autumn season arrives.  Thankfully it does not mean that imagination disappears.

It is not only friends who have passed on.  I find institutions and organizational cultures are often “of blessed memory.”  Some gifts of courage and quality of thought I saw in the life of others seem to have evaporated in recent decades.  I confess to grieving the loss of courage and imagination among many who lead my denomination, the United Methodist Church. 

It is strange to go to denominational gatherings and realize that there is little appetite or awareness of the need to speak prophetically on matters of justice.  In this early autumn season of my life, when I look at Indiana United Methodism at least, it is easy to feel like I am one of the last apples. 

(Thankfully there are a few other ‘last apples’ around, but too few.  Hopefully we are not the “bad apples” as some now seeking to reform United Methodism seem prone to suggest.  Please know that I am all too aware of the inadequacies that were abundant in earlier generations.  I remember the bigotries and peevishness of some laity, clergy and denominational leaders — I remember these well.  I also remember courageous bishops and pastors who spoke prophetically about racism, war and peace, sexism and economic injustice.) 

Today, few wise and clarion voices are speaking.  The denomination is knotted up a homophobic dystrophy.   There is silence.  Or worse, we find a continuation of bigotry and exclusion toward gay and lesbian folks, lay and clergy.  There is more — there is too often silence regarding issues of economic injustice or environmental destruction.   In May 2016, the denomination will join in another General Conference — signs are not encouraging.  In Indiana, I find so-called United Methodists have little in common with those who provided a place for the prophetic tradition over the past century. 

Maybe the old tree has been removed, chopped down, and I missed the felling of it.  Maybe.  There is an old saying the “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”   I wonder.   Sometimes I look around and think the whole orchard has been moved or chopped down.  What was once Methodism has become something wholly different.  Perhaps this new orchard is one of persimmons or crab apples.  I am surprised by the way a pathetic, poorly articulated and distorted Calvinism (dividing the world into the “saved and the fallen” with no hope for transformation or renewal) has replaced the Wesleyan vision of redemption and perfect love.

Even so, I can’t stop kneeling and planting the bulbs — and trees — of the future.  I will still try to take cuttings from the old tree and see if these can be brought to life — and perhaps appreciated by someone 100 years from now.  Maybe I am not among the last apples after all.