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Why I Stand with T.C. Morrow

Tara “T.C.” Morrow is a Certified Candidate for Deacon in the United Methodist Church, and for the last two annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, our clergy session has considered her candidacy. In 2016, T.C. did not receive the required vote majority of our clergy session to be elected into provisional membership as a Provisional Deacon. This year, our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry did not forward her candidacy to our clergy session for consideration. Still, her candidacy was a central topic of discussion, even with no formal vote taken.

Why all the fuss? What’s so terribly wrong with T.C. Morrow?

In the past, I served on our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry, and in that time I considered many candidates for ministry. T.C. stands out as a uniquely qualified, exemplary candidate for Deacon. She has demonstrated outstanding Christian character. She is deeply committed to Jesus Christ and his church. T. C. is already a model of what Deacon ministry is all about while serving as a leader in her local church and working for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in Washington, D.C. T.C. graduated from seminary and passed through the rigorous District and Conference candidacy process with flying colors. As a Deacon, she would continue in the call God has already given her.

Ordinarily, T.C. Morrow would be a person any Annual Conference would enthusiastically commission and ordain into ministry.

But there’s just one thing…

T.C. is a woman married to another woman. And in our Book of Discipline, recently clarified by Judicial Council decisions, this one thing disqualifies her from candidacy, commissioning, or ordination as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. This one thing. If we were to put aside T.C.’s sexual orientation for just a moment, I would be writing about the Rev. T.C. Morrow. Yet church law has made this impossible. To quote the former Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman, it’s “bad church law.”

Our inability and unwillingness to commission and ordain someone like T.C. Morrow is a glaring example of an entrenched injustice propped up by poor biblical theology.

Now before I go on to explain my claim, let me say that I have traditionally stood right of center on the issues surrounding gay and lesbian people. This is for no other reason than the fact that I take the Bible– the whole Bible– seriously. I do not dismiss scriptures that make me uneasy or challenge my assumptions. It’s all God’s inspired Word to be read, believed, and lived out. That said, the few times that the Bible does mention homosexuality, it’s always a condemnation. Meanwhile, the Bible consistently lifts up heterosexuality as the established norm.

I have spent countless hours reading and rereading the Bible to understand what it has to say about homosexuality. I have spent many hours in dialogue with others whose views are different from my own. I have spent time getting to know people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians. The overwhelming conclusion I come to is that the kind of sexual deviancy the Bible describes and at times calls homosexuality does not reflect the character and life of people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians.

Case in point: let’s take another look at one of the strongest biblical condemnations of homosexual sex in the Bible.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Romans‬ ‭1:18-32‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Writing to the church in Rome, Paul was describing the full impact of turning away from God to engage in idol worship. God’s wrath against idolaters is to “give them over” to the worst aspects of human depravity. Among the worst examples of human depravity was men and women, inflamed with lust, who exchanged natural sexual relations with one another to engage in “shameful acts” of orgiastic sex with people of the same gender. Most likely, Paul was referencing Greek and Roman temple prostitution in which it was not uncommon for visitors to engage in cultic sexual acts. It was another form of leisurely entertainment.

Then Paul lists off a whole litany of acts resulting from a depraved mind void of “the knowledge of God.”

I fully agree with Paul’s assessment. Any people or society who abandons God and God’s ways devolves into the worst of sexual and moral depravity. They are allowed to ruin themselves, and we see clear examples of that all around us.

Back to T.C. Morrow and other lesbian and gay Christians. Only the worst of biblical hermeneutics would suggest that somehow they fit the mold of human depravity Paul was describing in Romans 1. T.C. is a worshipper and servant of God, a baptized member of the United Methodist Church and a disciple of Jesus Christ whose life emulates the best of Christ-like character. In terms of her sexual orientation, she is legally married. She and her wife foster children who otherwise would not have a home. In the midst of the controversy surrounding her candidacy, T.C. has carried herself with a gracious courage embodying the very character of Jesus when he faced opposition and persecution.

Still, let’s say that the Bible does not outright condemn T.C.’s marriage, does it make room for gay and lesbian marriages, especially since the commended, normative form of human sexuality is heterosexual? My short answer is yes. First, there are many things we do and believe that the Bible does not specifically commend. Most Christians hold to creeds and traditions that are not commended in Scripture. For example, the Bible does not mention Lent, and yet most Christians adhere to that tradition. The Bible never mentions or spells out the Trinity, and yet where would our theology be today without the classic Christian doctrine of the Triune God?

Yet the Bible does commend faithfulness, loyalty, purity, and covenant- qualities which so many married gay and lesbian Christians uphold and model.

Furthermore, the overall trajectory of the Bible is towards an inclusive community, a community in which those who were previously denounced as unclean or unworthy are brought into the community of God’s people as valued equals. Jesus shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. The Apostle Paul asks his friend Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). In a beautiful passage from Isaiah,

Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

‭Isaiah‬ ‭56:3-7‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

For someone like T.C., a woman in a married relationship with another woman, a disciple of Jesus who exudes Christ-like qualities, gifts, and graces, how could God not embrace her as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s church? Whether we acknowledge it or not, God already has.

And if God has accepted T.C. as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s body, then let’s be done with bad church law and commission her as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Until that day, I stand with T.C. Morrow and others like her who are being unjustly barred from God’s call to a life of ordained ministry in Christ’s church.

 

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Unity Can’t Be Manufactured

Unity! We are one! We are brothers and sisters! We are connected in covenant! We are connected in Christ! One God- one people!

These are some of the phrases from this year’s annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our theme this year is “We Are One: Connected in Covenant.” We have a great logo emblazoned on all of our Annual Conference stuff. Our worship has lifted up unity, at times more than God. Every speaker has dutifully used the unity tag-line in their presentations.

It’s usually an accurate assumption that when something is overemphasized to the fevered pitch of of cult-like refrains, that same something is glaringly absent. On the one hand, I get it. Our United Methodist Church’s near schism over the issue of human sexuality is something we must address. Most of us want to move through our impasse on whether or not to fully include LGBTQI+ persons while holding our church together. So let’s do all we can to lift up our desire for unity. But on the other hand, it all sounds so contrived. It’s manufactured unity. It has sounded and felt forced.

I’m saddened by the fact that we sing the songs of unity but so far have not adequately demonstrated that we know how to unify ourselves. We caucus ourselves based on ideology. We clothe ourselves based on ideology, i.e. wearing a rainbow-colored stole or not, and what it may mean if we wear one or refuse. In our huddles, we talk about “them” and what “they” are doing to the church. We have a hard time fully respecting those whose views are different from our own. Many are afraid to openly express their views for fear of social and even professional repercussions. Just in what I’ve observed over the last couple of days, I see and hear so many examples of folks writing off others, making snide remarks, or making disparaging comments about a speaker.

If unity is going be a reality beyond a spiffy conference logo and lovey dovey liturgy, we need to change our behavior. I’d like to passionately suggest to my brothers and sisters of the Baltimore-Washington Conference that unity could look like this:

  • Respect one another. I know many people on either side of the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people. They are deeply committed to Jesus. They champion his gospel. They are people of high integrity and deep theological, biblical understanding. They are worthy of my respect and the respect of those who differ with them. That said, if we truly respect them and at the same time desire unity, we must make room for these folks to be who they are in Christ and to be in ministry in the ways in which the Holy Spirit leads them.
  • Listen to one another. Listening springs from a desire to understand. A desire to understand comes from a place of humble love. And that leads to a third thing needed for unity…
  • Hold a humble love for all. When we choose to love in humility, we recognize that our side of the story is not the only side. We’re teachable and moldable. We’re flexible and practical, even when we stand on core principles. We desire to be servants, not victors in an ideological struggle. Even when we strive for justice and righteousness, we can do that with a desire to embrace our sisters and brothers whose vision of justice and righteousness is different from our own.

As I read what I just wrote, I’m struck by how unoriginal these ideas are. In fact, they sound like variations of lessons I learned in kindergarten. Treat others with respect. Be a good listener. Be a good learner. Learn how to get along with everyone. Don’t be a bully.

Yet somehow our adult big ideas and firm principles have mingled with unresolved fear and have overridden our childlike abilities to respect, listen, and humbly love.

So… what if we put aside our fears, took on Jesus’ heart, and build true, short bridges between one another? Then, we might have a unity worth celebrating and not just fabricating.

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Why Bother with Churches Full of Hypocrites?

(The following is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday January 22, 2017.)

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

‭Matthew‬ ‭23:1-13, 15, 23-28‬

As I thought about today’s topic- the claim made by many non-religious skeptics that the church is filled with hypocrites- I could not avoid this passage of scripture. It’s harsh. It’s very difficult to read, and believe me, it’s even more difficult to teach and preach. And yet, the jarring parts of the Bible which perplex and disturb us are most likely the things we need to hear the most.

The more I read today’s passage, the more I’m convinced that this body of Jesus’ teaching was preserved very intentionally to admonish the whole church. Jesus allows us no room to sit in idle condemnation of other people, whether it’s the Pharisees of yesterday or today. This passage stands as a mirror to the Pharisee ensconced in each of us. It’s a warning, a gut check, a spiritual reality check.

img_1185Even then, Jesus was not condemning or writing off these fellow Jews. Of the major Jewish sects in his time, Jesus was most at home with the Pharisees. Jesus shared the Pharisees’ commitment to faithfully live out Torah in the world. Jesus shared their theology, especially the Jewish belief in the resurrection and the kingdom to come. So Jesus was not addressing the Pharisees as an outsider rebel rouser railing against an evil establishment, but as a likeminded Jew. This was very much an in-house confrontation.

As Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, I don’t hear stern anger or harsh pulpit pounding. I hear despair and deep disappointment. I do see anger in Jesus’ words, too, but it was anger from a broken heart rather than righteous indignation.

Hypocrisy…  In essence, hypocrisy is claiming to be something I’m not. It’s a deception, a living lie. I become a hypocrite when I insist on a virtue I do not possess while hiding behind a plastic mask of righteousness.

Hypocrisy is driven by one thing: fear. It’s the fear of confronting my  whole self- both the good and bad, my angels and my demons, my purity and my impurity. It’s the fear of others seeing and confronting the real me. It’s the fear of being unloved, under-valued, and under-appreciated.

And when it comes to the world of spirituality and religion, hypocrisy is particularly ugly and all too easy to find. It’s our most costly liability. We people of faith hold up very high standards of values, virtue, and righteousness. At times we prophetically challenge evil and unrighteousness in our world. So when we act in contradiction to the life of faith and righteousness we profess, especially when our duplicity wounds other people, our hypocrisy becomes terribly egregious.

When Jesus called out the egregious hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he pulled no punches. He accused the Pharisees of showboating their religious practices and adornments to impress the masses. He chastised their scrupulous interpretations of religious law while flatly ignoring more pressing issues of justice and mercy.  Jesus called out their painstaking efforts to fulfill every public religious obligation while blinding themselves to their inner corruption.

Look at that list. Little has changed!  Today’s people of faith can be just as showy and pompous with their religious practices while typifying that old adage of being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” People of faith often excel in outward appearances of religious dedication while relegating the brokenness within them to the back closets of denial.

ghosts handWorse still, most people rarely own up to their hypocrisy. That’s because an honest confession of hypocrisy is an admission to living a lie. The illusion has been delusion. Feigned substance has been a wispy shadow. That’s why the typical reaction to a charge of hypocrisy is to lob the accusation right back at the accuser with an incensed retort of  “Who do you think you are to judge me?”

Other than a denial-infused response, how can we disciples of Jesus Christ best respond to the skeptics’ charge of hypocrisy? It’s very simple, actually: own it.

It’s been my experience that the harshest critics of the church, those who readily point out our hypocrisies, have been significantly wounded and deeply disappointed by the church. For many of them, I’m sure it’s cathartic. It’s also a way to mobilize a resistance against our malevolence.That said, we make matters worse when we respond to our critics by saying things like:

“That doesn’t describe me or my church.”

“That happened a long time ago.  It’s time to move on and get over it!”

“You are talking about those other Christians who give a bad name to good Christians like us.”

Those kinds of statements are simply other shades of denial.

Non-Christian skeptics keenly see something about us that we sometimes fail to see about ourselves. They know that Christians everywhere and from every era are bound together as the church. And they’re right. We would also say that each of us are a part of the living body of Christ, a body that encompasses everyone who has been baptized into the faith of Jesus. That would include saints and villains like St. Francis of Assisi and an American South slaveholder, Dorothy Day and Fred Phelps, Sojourner Truth and Pope Urban II (who called for the First Crusade), the many Christians who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop who risked his life housing hundreds of Jews escaping Nazi persecution. All of these Christians and all the rest of us share in one church, sharing both our great good and our terrible actions and inactions.

We must therefore listen to those who hold grievances against the church, acknowledge them, ask their forgiveness and God’s forgiveness, and commit ourselves even more fervently to be like Jesus.

In his book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Donald Miller writes about his experience of being a Christian campus minister at Reed College in Oregon, a liberal, humanist college whose faculty and student body by and large regard organized religion with a high degree of disdain.

Every year Reed College holds a weekend of unbridled revelry called Renn Fayre. On the last night, they lock out any authorities to spend the entire night partying, getting drunk and high with the option painting their naked bodies blue while running around campus.

Donald Miller and his friends decided to be there for that final night and set up a booth with a sign that said “Confess Your Sins”. There was a catch, however. If any students approached the booth, the participants inside the booth would spend time confessing their sins and the sins of the church to these students. A student named Jake gave into his curiosity and visited the booth. Donald Miller shared with him who they were and why they were there. Once Jake expressed an interest, Miller confessed his sins to Jake:

“There’s a lot. I will keep it short… Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more.”

“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all that.”

“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it.

“Thanks,” I told him. (Miller, Blue Like Jazz, 123-4)

Miller recalled that most of these confessionals ended in tearful embraces. Indeed, God melted hearts, most especially those belonging to Donald Miller and his friends. That night was a major turning point in their lives.

img_1177This kind of humility and authenticity is the perfect antidote to the poison of hypocrisy. It is strikingly unusual. It’s an uncanny abasement of ego and arrogance that defies reason. But this is indeed the kind of selfless love- the only kind of love- that has the power to change hearts, beginning with our own.

It’s my prayer that we who claim the name of Jesus would be a people of his cross-shaped grace, that in the face of criticism, we would offer an attentive ear and an open mind. I want us to be a people who utterly reject pretentiousness and defensiveness to claim an honest heart that remains open and ready to offer God’s love and grace to anyone. I want us to be disciples of Jesus who, instead of merely wearing a cross, choose to bear his cross, thereby being transformed into a new creation of humble servants who love and bless all people with God’s uniquely selfless, self-giving love.

We see that love most perfectly in Jesus Christ. May others perfectly see him in us.

Amen.

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What if Caitlyn Jenner Came to My Church?

Most all of us did a major double take at the cover of the latest Vanity Fair featuring Bruce Jenner- now asking to be called Caitlyn Jenner. I know I did. For months and months I had seen pictures of a noticeably different and sometimes distressed looking Bruce Jenner. To go from that to a senior citizen-aged bombshell… It leaves room for pause, doesn’t it?

Caitlyn JennerCaitlyn Jenner is the most visible face of a growing movement to accept and include transgender people into the mainstream of society. Multiple states are debating transgender rights laws, both in the workplace and in the community. There is increased awareness towards children who seem to be struggling with gender identity and intense conversations on how to care for them, i.e. do we allow for them to assume their preferred gender identity, including using the bathroom and locker room of their assumed gender? How would we guide their social interactions and confront bullying? And now with the full public emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, these topics will only get more airtime.

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what to make of transgenderism. As a Christian, my primary lens to look at this or any other reality is Scripture aided by tradition, reason, and experience. But what in the Bible or Christian tradition addresses someone like Caitlyn Jenner?

When I search the Bible, I find occasional passages like Deuteronomy 22:5: “Women must not wear men’s clothes, and men must not wear women’s clothes. Everyone who does such things is detestable to the Lord your God” (CEB). Interestingly enough, this passage is not found among later passages in the same chapter about sexual immortality. It’s included in a set of laws which address doing right to your neighbor and not mixing things of unlike kind, like different kinds of fiber in the same cloth, different kinds of seeds in the same crop, or different animals tethered to the same plow.

Even still, the issue of cross dressing in this passage is contextually unclear. Were folks sometimes wearing other gendered clothes out of convenience or necessity? Was there some native pagan cultic practice requiring cross dressing? Since it’s not included in the list of laws addressing sexual deviances, it doesn’t appear to be sexual in nature. It stands out on its own.

Other Christian thinkers have turned to Genesis 1:27 in which God creates humanity as male and female. So, they argue, if we’re born a male or a female, that is what we are. To change that would violate what God has lovingly, sovereingly created us to be as a part of God’s very good creation.

In the face of that, we hear the voice of transgender people saying, “Yes, I was born with a female body. Genetically and physiologically I am a female. But my whole inner being tells me I’m a male.” What’s going on, psychologically, physiologically and spiritually?

I honestly have no idea. And there’s precious little in Scripture or Christian tradition that speaks to the experience of someone like Caitlyn Jenner and transgender people like her. If I or anyone else tries to speak definitively to the moral and spiritual implications of transgenderism, we’re speaking too loudly into a dark vacuum of the unknown. And even if I did know for absolute sure what was going on, so what? What does it really change in the grand scheme of things? If I was convinced that transgenderism is sinful, would I then urge a transgender person to change their clothes and get back into the operating room? (I wouldn’t put it past some prominent Christian voices to say that, sadly enough.) Would I condemn someone who is already struggling through the guilt and shame of a mismatched gender identity?

What do we do?

Well, a few years ago I got to find out first hand. One Sunday a couple visited a congregation I was serving. It was two women, and I think most people assumed they were lesbians. But when they asked to speak to me, they revealed that one of them is transgender. She began as a man and over time transitioned to a woman. They were married before the transition happened, and amazingly enough, stayed married.

I heard their story, especially the pained story of the man who transitioned to a woman. I heard her tell me how painful it was growing up and being an adult, looking in the mirror and seeing something she wasn’t. Any chance she got, she would wear women’s clothes just to feel more like herself. Meanwhile she hid in the shame of keeping it all a secret, for fear of misunderstanding and rejection. It was a terrible secret to hide. Then, with the help and support of her wife, the man slowly began to become the woman she knew herself to be. That’s what they told me.

They wanted to tell me their story to help me understand who I was dealing with. I appreciated that. But the larger question on their minds was whether or not the congregation and I would welcome and accept them. As a test run, they wanted to know what I thought of them.

Believe it or not, preachers can find themselves speechless! That was one of those rare occasions. After thinking a moment, still stunned at their revelation, I told them this:

“I really don’t know what to think. There’s virtually nothing in my knowledge of the Bible and theology that speaks to who and where you are. But I do want you to know that I am committing to loving you and including you into my life and into our church for as long as you like. I will be your pastor. You are children of God, too. We’ll learn and grow and figure all this stuff out together, as much as we can. And I will not tolerate anyone pushing you out or in any way making you feel unwelcomed or un-incuded. I got your back.”

We prayed together, and indeed they came around for a while until health and employment issues kept them away and forced them to move. Even then, I hope the lesson God was trying to teach wasn’t lost on us. So far, it’s stuck with me.

Issues of transgender aren’t going away, and the church is once again called to respond to a social reality that ultimately involves people- people made in the image of God and loved by God. Maybe one day we’ll have a better psychological and spiritual understanding of what’s happening within the heart, mind, and soul of a transgender person. Meanwhile, I’m committed to leading a church who will love and as much as possible include people like Caitlyn Jenner and the many who are like her. I don’t know how that will all unfold. I don’t really have to know. I just do my best to love and embrace people as God’s special creation, helping them to find their true identity as disciples of Jesus, called by God to usher in God’s kingdom.

Isn’t that what Jesus would do?

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A Scriptural Way through the LGBT Debate

Joining HandsMy Annual Conference will once again be discussing and voting on resolutions that seek to fully include LGBT 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 42 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 LGBT 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 LGBT 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 LGBT debate. There are some eery 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 LGBT neighbors. It is simply wrong to assume that all conservative Christians hate gay people or 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 LGBT neighbors. They love them, even if they cannot affirm the ways they live out their sexuality. 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 LGBT 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 the LGBT issue 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 few months ago I wrote a fictional account of the Apostle Paul addressing the 2016 General Conference of the UMC , hermeneutically applying this passage to the LGBT 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 2014, dealing with the LGBT 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 LGBT 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 LGBT 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 LGBT 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)

 

 

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50 Years Later: What Martin Luther King’s Dream Means to Me

Martin Luther KingOn the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech”, so many people are pontificating over the speech’s ongoing legacy, what it means today, what Dr. King would say and advocate for in our time, etc., etc. I don’t feel I’m creative or steeped enough in the issues of race and racial politics to add much to the discussion.

But I can share what King’s speech means to me and how his legacy inspires me forward, especially as a middle-class white male whose roots hail from the south and the midwest. (Yes, I  grew up surrounded by overt and subtle racist attitudes in my family.)

Martin Luther King, Jr. died six years before I was born. By the time I became aware of him, King had already been “exalted to sainthood” as the great civil rights leader whose work, speeches, and writing forever changed the shape of racial equality and race relations in America.  It took a long time for me to step through that misty shroud of sainthood surrounding King’s legacy to look carefully at his leadership, vision, and most especially his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”

What I’ve found is an endearing vision for all of America, black and white, that is still struggling to be actualized today. That vision is a call to action. It’s not enough to simply proclaim liberty, equal humanity, and equality of opportunity for all Americans. We must all work to secure that liberty and equality for all people. That’s justice. Justice is something we do, not just preach.

King’s speech also lifted up  a vision for basic harmony and fellowship between white people and people of color. That part has impacted me the most. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t think I’m superior or claim a greater seat of privilege than people of color. I can say I’m not a racist in that I don’t hold hatred or bitterness towards people of color. I can say I’m not a racist because I don’t purposely avoid or try to keep myself away from people of color.

But as I let King’s “I Have a Dream” speech sink in more deeply, I can see an area of racism that still exists within me and many others that creates a barrier to full harmony and fellowship. This racism manifests itself as fear and ignorance. It’s mistrust and presumption, formed from a lack of intentional relationships and experience.

We saw this form of racism on full display with the George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin tragedy, trial, and fall-out. Blacks and whites clearly misunderstand, falsely characterize, and at times demonize each other in ugly ways. Meanwhile, no one in the midst of the conflict would claim to be a racist! However, if we’re all honest, our failure to truly understand and trust each other is a layer of racism we have yet to overcome. It cost Trayvon Martin his life. And George Zimmerman? I can’t imagine him ever living a normal, everyday life ever again.

Martin Luther King’s work has challenged me to combat this form of racism by intentionally getting to know, love, and work with people of color. Of all the diversity of friends I have, I’m blessed to have several African American friends with whom I can talk about anything. And when a question of race comes up, we can talk about it point-blank without anxiously couching our words so as not to offend each other. I trust them. They trust me, and that has allowed me to learn so much about how a person of color sees the world and issues of race and justice. In fact, I’m always humbled by what I don’t yet know or appreciate within people of color. It’s not a question of agreeing or disagreeing. It’s all about understanding, which builds basic empathy and solidarity, which in turn builds trust and intimacy.

In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in order for America to fully overcome the effects of slavery, three prejudices must be conquered: the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of race, and the prejudice of color. He couldn’t be more correct. De Tocqeville succinctly identified the three attitudes behind American racism. I restate them this way: the prejudice of superiority/inferiority, the prejudice of  segregation, and the prejudice of fear and suspicion of the other. To date, we have come a long way in overcoming the first two. And I think we still have a long way to go with the third prejudice of fear and suspicion before we can ever say that we are a post-racial America who no longer feels the effects of one race having forcibly enslaved the other. O Lord, within me, remove any trace of suspicion, fears, mistrust, and ignorance that would keep me from fully loving, receiving, and living in absolute harmony with people of color. Only then can I say I am no longer bound to the evils of racism. Amen.

Even so, I’m passionately convinced that King’s dream is not a mere pipe dream. It can find its fulfillment in us. In some ways it’s already happening. And in time, his dream of a post-racial America will be a fully incarnate reality. In the mean time, I want to do my part by naming and casting out any racism within myself. I want to work to assure liberty and equality for all people. And I hope you’ll join me!

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My Personal Journey Through John’s Gospel- An Online Journal

Since confession is good for the soul, I do have a confession to make. Perhaps the public nature of this confession will work even more medicine within me. I confess that over most of this past year, I have been spiritually very dry and near empty. That’s not an uncommon phenomenon for anyone, but believe it or not, I think running on empty is a more treacherously wide pitfall for spiritual leaders, those who are supposed to be shining examples of gushing fountains of spiritual fervor and depth. After all, don’t we have hours upon hours of idle time to prayer and searching the Scriptures at the center of our vocation? If only…

Coming out of last year’s bad personal depression left me emotionally and physically in a much better place, and I’m greatly thankful for that. But I don’t think I truly recovered the major spiritual losses from that dark time. In other words, God and I are not where we need to be on our personal one-to-one basis. In my ministry and as a husband, father, and friend, I pour out so much to others, but in the end, there is little left over for me– only a few faint embers of God’s love, truth, presence at this altar of my heart. It’s not that I expect a constant raging fire of God to consume me; no one can endure that.

But on most days, one should expect to find a steady, low-burning bed of strangely warm, glowing embers of Christ’s transforming, redemptive presence within the heart, stoked by God’s Word, fanned to flame by the Holy Spirit, fueled by a steady diet of prayer, Scripture, the Sacraments, and mutual holy conversation. All that is truly enough. I don’t ask for a whole lot in my life. At least I don’t think I do. But to have God this way, this intimately, and to be continually renewed by God’s Spirit to encounter the world, other people around me, and myself with a life uniquely my own and authentically inhabited by Jesus… That would be more than enough.

ImageSo… part of this re-invigoration of my heart will be a reading through the Gospel of John with you, if you care to keep reading and talking with me. Whenever I’ve gone dry, turning to a gospel, getting back in touch with the words, action, and person of Jesus, is my necessary beginning. This will not be in-depth biblical exegesis. I’ve done that already, and that will not do this time. This will not be writing to teach and inspire others. I do that already, and it won’t do this time, either. These posts will not attempt to stir up the pot or to push cutting-edge ideas through the blogosphere. I’ve done that and will continue to, but that will not meet the need this time. In fact, most of the world will probably find these posts exceedingly overly-personal and tame– not the stuff of trending blogs or bloggers at all!

None of that really matters. This is an attempt at an exercise intended to stir up my heart. Anything else is a purely unintended bonus. Even if only one other person reads what I write and offers a bit of reflection in a comment, the purpose has been served. Even if no one does that, I know that God has listened, and that his “comments” will show up somewhere much deeper within me.

Most days, I will center on a full chapter from John’s Gospel. I’ll provide a link to the passage en lieu of taking up precious space with a long Scripture passage. My writing will reflect on this passage’s inroads with me. What does God want me to see? What are the implications on my own life at this moment? How does this passage puzzle or trouble me? How is Jesus encouraging me to become more like him?

More later…

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