The Treasure of a Human Life: Lessons (Re)learned

As a pastor, I have conducted so many funerals for both older people and younger people. I’ve lost count of how many. People ask me how I manage to do that, especially for someone I don’t know. The answer to that is another story. But the one thing that continually compels me when I memorialize someone is the effort to capture the existential substance of their being, the worth and reason of their life. I look at each life as a stained glass window through which God can shine. The questions: how did God shine through this person? Who benefited from that light? How does this person reflect who I know God to be? The answer to those questions become the substance of what I share at a funeral.

Justin Kurlychek

Justin Kurlychek

Admittedly, all this can come to be routine until I’m smacked in the face with the death of a friend like Justin Kurlychek. Justin died early Tuesday morning. We were just 7 months apart in age. We graduated from high school together. We sang and acted together. We shared a wild and crazy senior beach week together. (Tales untold!) We spent many hours on the phone together in recent years. He left behind two beautiful daughters. As I mentioned in a tribute I wrote, he was a beautiful, creative soul, even with all his troubles and demons.

As many times as I’ve gone through grief like this- I’ve lost several good friends to death including a fiancée almost 20 years ago- I’m always awed at how one person deeply affects the world around them. My tribute for Justin went viral in a matter of hours by hundreds and hundreds of people who were grieving Justin’s death. On top of my own grief, I felt both honored and inundated by the number of people who reached out to me in the last couple of days. But the sheer magnitude of the response to Justin’s death was something I had not anticipated. It has affirmed how many people loved Justin, how many people he loved, and the ways he sincerely impacted us all with his presence and his gifts.

I only wish Justin knew how valuable his life was and how people would respond to his untimely death. That’s the value and power of one life. Just one.

During times like these, it’s only natural and necessary to mourn our loss. It is a horribly painful thing to lose a person like Justin Kurlychek. Many have said that he is finally at peace. That may be so, but I mourn the fact that he knew so little of it while he was alive. I mourn the terrible time Justin had valuing himself for the beautiful gift he was. And I mourn the unfulfilled wish of having spent more time with him in the last few years of his life.

But if there is a gift to pick up from the ashes of our grief and regrets, it’s the reaffirmation that each of our lives is a sacred gift to be lived, treasured, and shared. Since that is true, what will we do in the aftermath of Justin’s memorials and tributes? Will we return to life as usual? Or will we make more of a concerted effort to value each life in our network, love them, spend time with them, and at the same time, give away the best of what God has made us to be as a blessing to them?

How many times have we said, “Yeah, we need to get together and hang out!” only to find that months later, nothing has happened? Or how many times have we held back from giving our very best to the ones we love out of fear, pride, misplaced priorities, or even shame? For me, Justin’s death has brought those questions into a much brighter spotlight.

I think that it’s a wonderfully divine irony that the shadow of death can invite us into the endless treasure of life. I hope you and I can discover and claim this treasure for ourselves.

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My Tribute to Justin: a Beautiful, Troubled Life

Justin Kurlychek (10/15/74-8/23/16)

When I was in high school, there was this guy, Justin, who always seemed larger than life to me. He was incredibly creative, offbeat, funny, musical, dramatic. He was not a part of the super “in” crowd, but nevertheless, everyone- and I mean everyone!-  liked and appreciated Justin. And I’ll never forget the moment I realized that Justin liked me, too, and considered me a friend. I was very humbled by that, and I still am today.

I met Justin Kurlychek in South River High School’s drama club. For two years I played in the spring musical pit band, supporting people like Justin up on the stage, but then encouraged on by some friends I auditioned and got parts in the fall play and spring musical right alongside Justin. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He could act, sing, and dance. And no matter what he did, he knew how to own an audience’s attention. Justin took the stage and kept it. All eyes were on him.

Justin also played in bands and was a natural front man singer and guitarist. He wrote and performed his own music. After high school, I participated in a local battle of the bands. The band I was in lost to his band by a landslide. I wouldn’t say they were more talented than we were, but Justin was the magic ingredient. He could gather and keep a crowd on their feet. That alone won the day.

In our senior year of high school, I began to get to know Justin better. I began to see that underneath all of his wacky charisma and charm were troubled waters. I never knew how troubled or the causes of his turmoil, but something always haunted him and never stopped. This darker part of Justin gave him the capacity to love anyone, to be compassionate, and to remain completely non-judgmental. I had just hoped that somehow he would extend this troubled beauty to himself, but I don’t think he ever did.

After high school, decades went by and I had always wondered what happened to Justin. No one seemed to know. And then Facebook came along. A few years after that, there was Justin on Facebook. Precious little about him had changed. He was still the same Justin I knew in high school. Life, however, had taken its toll on him.

Justin became a father, married, divorced, and also suffered a few strokes that debilitated him. Even with all of that, his same humor, passion, love, and crazy creative talent were still there. And so were his demons. I spent hours talking to Justin, especially during his times of crisis. My heart would break at the depth of his pain and his inability to forgive himself, love himself and to think that God could do anything else than torture him.

Eventually though, through time, the love of others, and yes, the love of God who loved him more than Justin would ever know, he was able to get his strength back, get back to playing music, and have meaningful relationships. Things were always tipsy turvy for Justin, but I could see that he was getting better, and above all, becoming more happy with himself.

And then this morning, I heard the devastating news that Justin had died from a heroin overdose. I had no idea that Justin had a drug problem. If he had, he seemed to be getting stronger. It was the end of a beautiful, tumultuous life that ended much too soon leaving wonderful memories and tragedy in its wake.

It’s far too easy to look at Justin Kurlychek’s life and make our judgments. “If only he had done [this], he would be happy and alive.” “If he had not done [that], he could have had a better life. What a screw up.”

When I reflect on my friend Justin’s life, I’m reminded again that life is hard. Life is hard for everyone. For reasons I don’t understand, some people have it a lot harder than others and suffer through a lot more. Whether that’s due to things that have happened beyond a person’s control, decisions a person has made, or both, I’ve come to see that it doesn’t really matter as much as we think it does. What matters is doing the most good and being the greatest blessing to others with the gifts and opportunities we’ve been given. In that respect, each of us are both accomplished and guilty, productive and wasteful.

So who are we to be the ultimate arbiters of another person’s life? Each of us has our own to life to live with our share of victories, defeats, broken relationships, bridges burned, moments of grace, gifts of magnificence and decisions for good or ill that will determine how each of us will die one day. Ultimately we will all stand before God our creator and redeemer, and he will make the final evaluation. And God has far more capacity for mercy, justice, and truth than you or I have.

My friend Justin blessed my life with his love, his respect, and his loyalty. I’m a better person and a happier person for having loved and been loved by Justin. Many of us could say the same. I am devastated that this blessing has died far too soon. But I cherish the times I did have with Justin, and I pray for God’s peace and healing to embrace Justin’s loved ones, his children, his family and each of us.

Justin used to say to me, “Owens, I love you buddy.” So I say to my friend and brother, “Kurlychek, I love you back and always.”

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An Open Letter from a LGBTQ Candidate for Ministry

imageAt this past Annual Conference of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, we had a very emotional debate about approving a woman married to another woman as a Provisional Deacon. (For my non-United Methodist friends, a Deacon in the UMC is a service-oriented kind of ordained ministry. Deacons are pastors who teach and preach with the church while dedicating their lives to a specific, specialized kind of service. Provisional status is the last step towards being fully ordained.) T.C. Morrow had passed through all the steps towards being commissioned, but failed to get the required two-thirds majority of our clergy.

Ms. Morrow was not commissioned. A long process including seminary and a rigorous ordination process has been halted for now.

As you can imagine, the reactions to T.C.’s denial of commissioning as a Provisional Deacon were quite emotional. Some rested assured that our denomination’s standards on human sexuality, specifically our ban on self-avowed practicing homosexuals from ordination, were upheld. Some saw this is a grave injustice, even an act of spiritual violence. Others were disheartened by the reminder that we are bitterly divided over how we understand and include people who are LGBTQ.

In the aftermath of all this, I received an unusual request. This past Thursday on the day after the vote was taken, I was given an anonymous letter to read to the entire Conference. The letter is from an LGBTQ candidate for ministry reacting to the news about T.C. Morrow. I was specifically asked to read it.

Keep in mind that I am not an active advocate for either side of the LGBTQ debate. My role has been to bring people together for dialogue and discernment about how we as the whole church can move forward together without suffering a devastating split over human sexuality matters. I have my own views, yes, which don’t fit neatly into either camp. I enjoy solid relationships and endure suspicious glances from both sides of the debate.

Unfortunately, I was not able to share this person’s letter due to time constraints. However, I am sharing it here on my blog. (I have all the time and space I want right here, and I can’t be ruled out of order.)

This is not necessarily a plea on this person’s behalf. However, I do believe that in a debate of this intensity, all voices must be heard and respected. I believe it an act of of grace and humility when we strive to understand and empathize with every voice, most especially when it’s a voice with which we do not agree. The later is truly Christ-like.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

I am writing you today as one of your own. I am a pastor who is doing my best to faithfully serve the church and this conference and to live out the calling that God has placed on my life. It is our church that raised me in the faith from my birth to my baptism to my confirmation to the day I felt my heart warmed for the first time and I knew God in my life. I am writing you today because I love you church and I love in particular this the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference. I can remember the first time I attended annual conference and feeling like I had finally found my home, a place where I belonged, a place where I could bring all of me, a place where the spirit moved me to answer my call to ministry.

Sadly, I have begun to question whether I can continue to serve among you because, as a gay person, I am wondering whether the welcome I originally felt was intended for me. I am wondering because we seem to have mostly ignored that an injustice occurred right here on the floor of conference. We have denied a candidate approved by the BOOM her rightful place as a clergy member of this conference. We denied her because she happens to be married to another woman. In doing this, we have failed to recognize one of the most gifted persons for ministry I have ever met and we are lesser for it.

To be clear, however, I am not writing just about this one candidate. I am writing as one of you who is hurting because we did this terrible thing and then moved right along like nothing had happened. We have continued on with our business as if what we have done is ok. It is not. We have sinned and we need to seek forgiveness for the harm we have done, for the message we are sending to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers who are watching and who are gathered right in this room. The message that says you are a not really welcome here unless you are seated and quiet about who you are and who you love. We can do better. We must do better.

Signed,

Your gay sibling in Christ

Thank you for taking the time to read and truly listen to another voice. If you did, you have just made our church a little bit better, even if you don’t agree.

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I Volunteer to Serve on the Council of Bishops’ Special Commission on Human Sexuality

HandsBy this act of presumption, I have probably just disqualified myself from consideration. Bishops generally frown upon clergy who attempt to appoint themselves to things- and for good reason. But since we find ourselves in unprecedented times, why not try an unorthodox approach and see what happens, especially as the fate of my beloved United Methodist Church hangs in the balance? Believe me, I will offer myself to anything that keeps us united and focused on our mission.

Yesterday, the General Conference voted to follow our Council of Bishops’ recommendation to select a special commission to review all of the language in our Book of Discipline dealing with human sexuality, and if necessary rewrite it all. The results of this commission’s work will come before a special gathering of General Conference for their vote in 2 to 3 years’ time.

Bishops, just in case you’re still reading, and aren’t totally put off by my effort to volunteer myself, let me tell you why someone like yours truly would be a good choice for such a commission.

For far too long, we have done the same thing over and over again, only to find ourselves in a worse predicament. Yesterday, Rev. Jeremy Smith reminded us that this would the the sixth attempt at a special commission or study on human sexuality. So while I applaud your leadership and the General Conference’s trust in your leadership, how would this latest go around finally do the trick?

Some have attempted to argue that this time, things are different. In America at least, we’re at a different ideological place than we were before. Same-sex marriage is the law of the land. Therefore, the circumstances for us are much more dire now. The stakes are higher. And this would be the most hands-on that our Bishops have ever been with a commission like this.

A whole new ball game? I’m not entirely convinced.

Undeniable fact: no matter what this commission comes up with, it will still have to survive an entrenched, bitterly divided General Conference who are not of one mind about even staying together!

The only variable that could make a difference- perhaps, and a long shot at that- would be the kinds of people the bishops select to be on this new commission. And that’s where someone like me comes in.

I’m new blood. I’m not a General Conference delegate. I have been spending 10 years attempting to mediate a solution that would include everyone at the same table of grace- no matter their views on what the Bible says or doesn’t say on human sexuality. I haven’t been elected as a delegate, but I certainly do all I can to voice my vision.

I have my own understandings, yes, but I’m not so entrenched that I can’t stretch to embrace a creative view or approach that could bridge a divide. I’m not in this thing to make sure my stance on human sexuality becomes the prevailing one. I’m in it to keep our church unified around Jesus Christ and his mission to advance the kingdom of God in the world.

So, Bishops of the United Methodist Church, if you’ve hung in here this long, but you’re still not accepting my offer to serve on your commission, let me offer some ideas on who would be the most ideal kinds of people to serve:

  • I fully trust that you’ll make the commission diverse. So there’s no need to say more on that.
  • Pick some new blood. If all you do is selected General Conference delegates, there is much higher risk of merely getting the same kinds of results. After all, we seem to be electing the same people or the same kinds of people to General Conference each quadenium. Shake things up. Get some fresh energy, creativity, and perspective in the mix.
  • Pick some younger people and give them leadership roles. Our LGBTQI members and our young people are the ones hurting the most from this debate. Young people see things differently than prior generations, so it is their kind of outlook and leadership we need to trust now if we expect to have a future with fruit and relevance.
  • Pick people who are moderate in their approach. I’m not saying that participants need to be moderate in their viewpoints. They can be passionately progressive or conservative. But one can also be moderate in how they live and advance their views. Moderate folks are open to listen, flexible, and don’t have to have everything their way or else. They are passionate, but not rigid.
  • Pick people who like to think and act in unorthodox ways. Alongside people who uphold and play by the rules, select a few mavericks. These are people who aren’t always bound to follow and uphold every rule. They like to push the envelope and chart new waters. They are entrepreneurs. They are apostles. They are the John Wesleys, Richard Strawbridges and Sojourner Truths of our time. Where would we be without faithful people like these?

Again, my offer is still there to serve, and I would do it gladly and faithfully. But just in case our bishops are not inclined to pick me, I have one request:

Please, for the sake of Christ and his church, fastidiously avoid any concession to make status quo choices.

Dare to be bold!

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General Conference, Blessed Are the Peacemakers

He climbed to the top of a mountain and sat down. His disciples took their usual places around him. If they had wanted to be alone, no one would ever know because right after they arrived, the crowds of people who had been following them around Galilee made their way up the mountain to listen, too. Then Jesus began to teach.

Surely the significance of this scene wasn’t lost on those gathered there. Burned into their collective memory is the story of Israel assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. God’s voice thundered the commandments. And now, Israel was gathered once more to hear the Word of God speaking in a new age.

Jesus began to teach with blessing. Who are blessed? The blessed ones Jesus lifts up are the people who are most often cursed. They’re forgotten, pushed aside, and stomped on. Blessed are the poor in spirit and those who mourn. Blessed are the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful and pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness and because of Christ.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

Hands around seedlingUntil I attempted it, I never knew how painfully difficult peacemaking can be. While people applaud the efforts of peacemakers, it’s a lonely business. It’s almost always a misunderstood business.

In 2005, I began my journey of being a peacemaker in the midst of the LGBTQI debate in the United Methodist Church. Instead of taking and advocating for a firm stance- either affirming the Discipline‘s language or advocating to reverse it- I chose to be in the process of bringing people together from very disparate points of view to build and rebuild new community. Hopefully… prayerfully… efforts like this would keep our church from splitting apart. I have always had my own views and still do, but I’ve chosen to keep them in the background, working instead to be a reconciler.

It sounds like glamorous work, but it’s not. It’s not sexy. I have a lot of cheerleaders but very few helpers.

Meanwhile, I am often unfairly labeled by the very same people I’m trying to rally. I’ve been called a fundamentalist. (I’m not). I’ve been labeled a liberal. (Heck no.) People have accused me of abandoning the Bible. (I strive to live my life harmoniously with the inspired Word of God, thank you very much.)

And the worst label of all- a moderate. (These days that’s code for wishy-washy, weak, and ideologically confused. A sell out.)

Aside from being misunderstood, there are two major challenges to peacemaking: getting people to the table, and helping people to see how similar they really are. Especially in today’s debate over LGBTQI, people are well beyond talking. For conservatives, it’s a settled issue; sin is sin and has no place in the church. Period. For progressives, the time is now to once and for all put exclusion and bigotry behind us and to fully include, marry, and ordain people who are gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, queer, and intrasex.

Both sides know what they want, are bent on it, and will tolerate an exodus or a split in the church if that’s what it comes down to.

Then there are people like me in the midst of the storm trying to advocate for different options to keep us all together as one Body of Christ. I do recognize that our different viewpoints are simply incompatible. However I also recognize that if we split or exit, we’ll all be weaker for it. United Methodism is a connectional church, relying on all of us together to fulfill the Great Commission and advance the kingdom of God. Apart from one another, we will each walk away with much less than we have now, greatly truncating our collective effort to fulfill the Great Commission and build the kingdom of God. Still not convinced of that? See 1 Corinthians 12.

Reading all this, you might conclude that I’m playing the martyr:

O woe is me, that my all-too-righteous efforts go unappreciated by the stiff-necked masses bent on their own destruction!

Well… I confess to complaining a little. (But Hey, Jeremiah complained a lot more than I am! He even accused God of being a deceptive brook run dry.)

More importantly, I’m inviting you into the blessedness of peacemaking. It’s hard work, but it is blessed work. Jesus says it is. There’s a price to pay for it, but the gift from God is a powerful vision of the peaceable kingdom to come, which all of God’s children will inherit. We all know that at present we live in a bitterly polarized time which unfortunately our church reflects. However, we peacemakers have the audacity to believe that it doesn’t have to be that way- that it won’t be that way for too much longer.

General Conferences will come and go. Sometimes even denominations come and go. Still, if the peacemakers rise up and dare to fill the gap, we can bring more people together into a community which is a foretaste of much better things to come. Thanks be to God for that blessing!

 

 

 

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Live Report: St. Paul Delivers a Speech at General Conference Addressing the LGBTQI Debate

Paul of TarsusFrom the back corner door in a tense, crowded convention hall, a short, modestly dressed middle-aged man appears. He wears a beige shirt and pants with street-worn brown shoes. His face bears jagged, careworn lines from an arduous life of work and great sacrifice, and yet there is an otherworldly serenity about the way he carries himself. His eyes have a sharp intensity to them- critical, sad, and yet longing. He has olive-colored skin, a balding head with sparsely greying dark hair, and a thin beard. He doesn’t have a Conference delegate badge, and yet he confidently walks into the room as if he had always been there. Hardly anyone notices his arrival at first, but in a matter of moments, all of that is about to change.

It is late-afternoon on May 18, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The delegates of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church are once again embroiled in an emotionally passionate debate that has eventually taken center stage of every General Conference since 1972. It’s the debate over Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people. What should the church think about them? Is the practice of homosexuality and transgender people compatible or incompatible with Christian teaching? Is it right or wrong to host and celebrate their marriages? Can LGBT persons be ordained as clergy?

One can glance around the room at the delegates and feel the immense weight of everything they must consider and vote into church law. Whatever they decide could determine the fate of the United Methodist Church as we know it.

Emerging from a back corner of the convention hall, the visitor slowly makes his way up an aisle and to the desk of the presiding bishop. With a hand cupping the microphone, she quizzically engages this stranger. At first the bishop seems annoyed but then suddenly freezes as the color drains from her face. She gazes up at the stranger for a few moments longer and then slowly stands. Her eyes never leave him.

Speaking into the microphone, the visibly shaken bishop says, “Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, our General Conference has voted on parliamentary rules which I am required as your Presiding Bishop to uphold, but I am making an extraordinary decision. I am unilaterally suspending these rules in light of the person I am about to introduce. Brothers and sisters, I yield the floor to none other… than the Apostle Paul of Tarsus.”

Stunned silence overtakes the room followed by a rash of whispering. “Is she crazy?” “Who orchestrated this?” “She doesn’t have the authority to do that!” “Who did she say he is?”

Amidst the clamor, Paul begins to talk in a clear, calm voice. He adds no hint of polish or flourish to his words, and yet he speaks with a methodical, earnest passion:

“My dear brothers and sisters, yes, it is I, your brother Paul of Tarsus, an apostle sent not from any person but rather from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have watched your proceedings with great interest over these last 44 years, and at the bidding of Christ Jesus, I have come to bring you a word from the Lord. May the Holy Spirit enlighten the eyes of your heart to my gospel, which I faithfully preached throughout the world. I now proclaim this same gospel to you.

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to embrace any form of legal marriage, but another embraces only heterosexual marriage. The one who embraces both same-sex and heterosexual marriage equally must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not embrace same-sex marriage must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

“One person considers one form of marriage more sacred than another; another considers both same-sex and heterosexual marriages alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards only one form of marriage as sanctified does so to the Lord. Whoever regards same-sex marriage equally sanctified with heterosexual marriage does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever does not, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

‘”As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.'”

“So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that all monogamous, covenanted marriages are right and holy. But if anyone regards something as not holy, then for that person it is not holy. If your brother or sister is distressed because of your convictions, you are no longer acting in love. Do not let your advocacy for what you deem to be just and holy destroy someone for whom Christ died. Do not let what you know is good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of sex and marriage, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of sex and marriage. All legal marriages are good, but it is wrong for a person to advocate for what they deem to be just and holy in a way that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to self-righteously or angrily advocate for your beliefs and convictions or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

“So whatever you believe about these things, keep yourselves humble and open, as if this matter was between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they force themselves to go along with something they believe to be wrong, because their acquiescence is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

At that, Paul bowed his head, backed away from the microphone and quietly exited the hall.

Everyone was subdued into stunned silence. No one shouted “amen.” No one protested. No one flinched. Then after a few minutes, an elderly statesman of the church stood up from his seat and said, “Bishop, for the sake of our whole church, conservative and progressive, gay and straight, of any gender, and of any conviction thereof, I rise to offer this motion…”

(The main body of Paul’s speech is a hermeneutical application of Romans 14:1-15:7. This is an edit of a previous post.)

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A Scriptural Way through the LGBTQI Debate

Joining HandsOnce again, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church will be discussing and voting on resolutions that seek to fully include LGBTQI people into the life of our church, accept and normalize same-sex marriage, and to stop trials for those clergy who violate our Book of Discipline by conducting same-sex marriages. It’s yet another chapter of a debate that’s been raging in my United Methodist Church since the subject of homosexuality first came up in 1972. Yes, we’ve been debating this subject for 44 years, longer than I’ve been alive.

Most everyone would agree that we are locked in an irreconcilable debate between two disparate points of view. To state these views concisely:

Our Reconciling (progressive) friends say that fully including LGBTQI people into the life of our church– into membership, leadership as lay people, marriage, and ordination– is a matter of biblical love and justice. God does not exclude anyone from the gospel and the body of Jesus Christ. God also shows us how the Holy Spirit is at work in and through our LGBTQI members as disciples of Jesus Christ who serve and lead the church just as powerfully as anyone else.

Our Transforming (conservative) friends say that this is all a matter of two things: the authority of Scripture, especially the Scriptures’ teaching on human sexuality, homosexuality especially; and the preservation of marriage and family, as established by Scripture. The bottom line: the practice of homosexuality is a sin and therefore outside of Christian teaching established by Scripture and 2,000 years of church tradition.
Here’s the problem with this debate in a nutshell. They are talking past each other. These two “sides” are speaking two different languages- the language of inclusive love vs. the language of biblical authority.

Yet there’s an irony to all of this. Both sides read the same Bible and hold to its authority as the inspired Word of God. And both sides believe in an inclusive, loving church!

Now– let me stop right here because I can sense that both my conservative and progressive colleagues are already chaffing against what I just said. Friends, I’ve made these observations after having spent hours upon hours talking to people on both sides of the LGBTQI debate. There are some eerie similarities between both sides. Here are two striking commonalities:

First, both conservatives and progressives read the same Bible and they take it seriously as the authoritative, inspired Word of God. Or, if we want Wesleyan common ground to stand on, we all can affirm that, “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation…” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, ¶104). By and large, progressives do not simply toss out passages of Scripture they don’t like. They wrestle with them through the lenses of careful biblical study, criticism and experience- something that everyone from any ideology does. Our ideological differences stem from how we interpret biblical teachings on human sexuality and hermeneutically apply them to our present-day circumstances.

Second, both conservatives and progressives strive for an inclusive, loving church, and in this case with our LGBTQI neighbors. It is simply wrong to assume that all conservative Christians hate gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer and intrasex people and don’t want them in their churches. We all want and strive for an inclusive church. Where we differ is in the nature of inclusivity. What are we including? Many of our conservative colleagues advocate for and practice radical hospitality to their LGBTQI neighbors. They love them, even if they cannot affirm the ways they live out their sexuality or gender. This is not hate or exclusion, at least in their eyes and hearts.

However, I want to say here that this does not at all diminish the real painful histories that LGBTQI people have experienced being ostracized, hated, and excluded from their families, friends, and church. This still goes on. That said, conservatives (and everyone else) have come a long way in getting rid of bigotry and homophobia. Much more needs to be done. Yet we can confidently say that a large and growing number of my conservative colleagues are weeding out hate and homophobia, extending love and grace to all, while at the same time upholding what they believe the Bible teaches about human sexuality.

To sum up what I’ve just said: by and large, both progressives and conservatives read the same Bible and advocate for a loving, inclusive church. Albeit, there are noisy, visible exceptions who always show up to steal the limelight. Put them aside, and we still find these striking similarities between a vast majority progressives and conservatives.

If it is true– and I firmly believe it is!– that progressives and conservatives on LGBTQI issues affirm biblical authority and an inclusive church, then I believe there is a scriptural way forward for all of us. Call it a third way apart from either extreme, and yet it can be a place for all of us to stand together.

That Scriptural way forward is Romans 14:1-15:7. A while back I wrote a fictional account of the Apostle Paul addressing the 2016 General Conference of the UMC , hermeneutically applying this passage to the LGBTQI debate. I invite you to give it a read.

Basically, in this passage Paul addresses a dispute between Christians of the ancient Roman church over eating meat that could have been offered to an idol. There were those who believed, based on firm Scriptural premises, that eating this meat was taking part in idolatry and so for the most part, they lived as vegetarians. Others in the community had the faith to believe that idols and idol worship is false anyway, and had no qualms with eating this meat. Then there were those who believed that the Sabbath (and other Jewish holy days) are sacred and must be strictly kept. Meanwhile, others saw everyday as holy.

The Apostle Paul framed this debate by calling it “disputable matters.” In other words, these Roman Christians were not differing over basic Christian dogma or doctrine. None of these things were in question. They were debating disputable matters of ethics, matters that do not inform essential Christian dogma and doctrine.

Paul’s solution was both simple and genius: accept each other at the same table of grace. Don’t force your beliefs onto the other as a stumbling block to them. Respect each other’s convictions as holy convictions, unto the Lord. Give each other space and room to live as they believe the Holy Spirit has led them to live. Strive for the things that build each other up, not tear each other down. Be patient with each other. And above all, be like Jesus, who humbled himself to be crucified for all of us. Welcome each other in the spirit of our crucified and risen Lord.

What would this look like in practice here in 2016, dealing with the LGBTQI debate? We would accept each other within the same church. We would make room for each other to live and practice ministry as the Holy Spirit has directed us. We would remember that our unity does not need to be based on our agreement over disputable matters like human sexuality; rather, our unity is based on our unified embrace of the dogma and doctrine of our church, our shared Wesleyan heritage as United Methodists.

This is more than merely “agreeing to disagree”. I can agree to disagree with someone without having to maintain a relationship with them. But, if I say that I accept someone whose views on disputable matters are different from mine, then we agree to stay in a covenanted relationship as siblings in Christ within his body. We need not part ways or remain locked in a debate that paralyzes and polarizes our church into winners and losers.

Having said this, let me address some possible objections:

1) “So you’re saying that we should just accept sin and let it remain. I cannot be in a church that passively accepts sin.” The fact is, we the church have always debated what is within and outside of God’s will. Take the issue of remarriage after divorce. In many places the Bible condemns remarriage for divorced persons. And yet, for pastoral reasons, we’ve made room for these persons while allowing our differences over this matter to remain. (I am a divorced and remarried person, ordained as an Elder. No one has ever held that against me, even though one could condemn my remarriage on biblical grounds.) Also, there are a number of other sins we passively overlook– greed, gluttony, gossip, etc. How well are we doing actively pointing out and condemning each and every instance of these sins? The point is this: we are all growing disciples of Christ, always discerning what is sinful and what is not, while growing in holiness. We can still accept each other, even in our differences over what is sinful and what is not.

2) “So you’re saying that we must live in a church which tolerates exclusionary attitudes towards LGBTQI persons? Where is the justice in that?” I think we all need to drastically lower the volume of our individual convictions on human sexuality. I’ve found that it is very possible to work side-by-side with someone whose convictions are very different from my own on LGBTQI  or any other range of issues. How do we get along? We simply don’t go there. We value the wonderful things we have in common, and we value each other as people. On the matters we dispute, we simply give each other space.

This third way of biblical acceptance will require the progressive and conservative sides of the LGBTQI debate to change tactics. We can no longer afford to impose our will and views regarding human sexuality on the whole denomination, no matter how biblically correct we feel our view to be. It is a disputable matter.

However, the third way of biblical acceptance will give us all tremendous freedom while keeping our church united around the essential things which already unite us. We can all freely hold and live our convictions on human sexuality while keeping our church from further fractions and schisms.

Then the prayer of Jesus will be more fully realized in our time:

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20b-21)

(This is an edited version of a previous blog post.)

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