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A Hard Word For The People

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon. 
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. – Amos 5:21-24

Willow Creek Church in the Chicago suburbs

Probably the earliest, and most difficult, theological truth I was taught while in Seminary was this: Our God takes sides. Yes, God loves us all (John 3:16-17; 1 John). That love, however, is expressed in different ways depending upon one’s social status. I was no different than quite a few middle-class white folks. I didn’t want to hear this; still holding tight to the ridiculous idea that God doesn’t play favorites, I didn’t want to know that, in fact, God does indeed have preferences. The simple reason I resisted this message should be clear enough: I understood in my gut that I was definitely part of that group God did not prefer. Oh, God’s love for me and others like me – middle class, white, wearing my privilege like a comfortable shirt I didn’t even know was there – was and is always available. It is a love that never gives up, either; that’s true from the Scriptures. All the same, it’s a love that demands our lives. Sometimes, that demand is literal. At the very least, at any rate, it means surrendering all the comforting thoughts and assumptions that once guided how we made our way in the world. Belief in the God of Jesus Christ either means everything – the surrender of everything – or it means nothing at all. Hearing this stark demand, especially when it seems to contradict everything I thought I knew and was taught, can be enough to catch anyone up short.

It is, however, the heart of the Gospel. It is the heart of the Hebrew prophets. It is the heart of St. Paul’s letters. It is the heart of apocalyptic. God loves us all, but it is not an easy love, nor is it cheap. We either respond to that love as if it means everything, or we comfort ourselves in bland, anti-Christian lies that middle-class peace and quiet is the same thing Jesus was offering the outcast of Roman Judea and Galilee so nothing will disturb our equanimity.

Thus we think sin is the same thing as personal moral failing. Sin is sexual immorality. Sin is saying bad words. It’s a character flaw that can be remedied by a therapeutic false gospel that reassures us that “we” who behave ourselves are not sinners like “those others” who smoke and drink and swear and screw. We draw clear lines around the saved and the damned and rest comfortably that our lack of reflection on our own social circumstances is part and parcel of the good Christian life.

There isn’t really much Scriptural warrant for this view. It certainly isn’t part of what Jesus taught. Yes, St. Paul insisted on sexual propriety among Christians, but that was hardly part of the Gospel St. Paul preached, the Gospel he received not from the Apostles but from Christ himself. One searches in vain through the Old Testament for a prophetic word against middle class immorality.

We in the United States are at a hard historical moment. For years, decades even, many could pretend not to hear the apostasy preached as truth, resting easily in a combination of our Biblical illiteracy and the bland reassurances of preachers who offered us solace that success and a happy home are what it means to be a good Christian. Now, however, as the last thin sheet is ripped away from America’s ugly underbelly, we see and hear in no uncertain terms the truth: Our churches are complicit in our current hate-filled divisions. Not wishing to upset anyone, we’ve offered the solace of grace without the demands of discipleship. We’ve reassured people that what God really cares about is whether Aunt Ethel recovers from her hand surgery, instead of the fact that Aunt Ethel spent a lifetime hating and fearing people of color. We refuse to call out those in our midst who dirty our congregations with their disgust at human difference, whether racial, sexual, or even religious.

When the Word came to Amos the shepherd, it was first a Word to Judah and Israel’s neighbors, a bold proclamation in and of itself. All the same, the harshest words and most stern judgments were reserved for the now-divided Kingdoms. Israel, in the north, had never accepted the centralization of religious and political power in Jerusalem, preferring to worship on holy hills as their ancestors had before King David moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Some in the northern kingdom had come to practice the religions of their neighbors, committing apostasy by leaving offerings for these foreign idols upon once sacred places. In the southern Kingdom off Judah, oppression and the apostasy of non-belief had rendered the cultic practices of sacrifice and incense worse than meaningless. The LORD no longer wanted anything to do with the worship of those whose lives did not reflect the history of salvation and the demands of the Law offered to the people as a sign of their covenant with the God of creation.

God took sides. It was the heavy hands of greed in the form of taxing the poor, traffic in slavery, ignoring the “widow and orphan”, traditional Hebrew-speak for those cast out both of society and the religious assembly; these were the sins that enraged God, making God hate their empty, meaningless worship.

Leaving aside the many prophets who have been saying these things all along, those whose words we did not want to hear, we can no longer pretend we face our apostasy full-on. The ugliness of American race-hatred, religious hatred, hatred of sexual minorities – hatred with endorsements from the highest secular office in the land, no less – is out in the open. We cannot pretend these are problems for “other people”. These are our problems, and they are rooted in our church’s terror of offending, of hurting people’s feelings. We preach grace without law and salvation without conversion, allowing people to believe it’s OK to sing God’s praises on Sunday mornings and live out fear and hatred of others the rest of the week. Our churches offer reassurance instead of discipleship, with its demands for sacrifice.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve stopped attending worship over the past few months. I’ll be honest: The last time I attended worship, one of the clergy told the congregation that the United Methodist Church does not teach original sin (it does). I was so enraged, I wasn’t sure what to do. This, however, is just a symptom of the far larger matter of our churches no longer preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, with its demands for personal conversion and the practice of personal and social holiness. We want people to know they’ll make it back home in time for the Bear’s game; we want to reassure parents their teens’ Youth Group meetings won’t interfere with all the other things middle class families think are necessary for a happy life. We want our large donors and givers to know they don’t have to sell all they have and give it to the poor then follow Christ. We want people to know that they are good people, people without sin so deeply ingrained in their persons that nothing they can do can remove it. We offer cheap grace and non-sacrificial love in order to keep those attendance numbers up and make sure we reach our budget goals.

The prophet Amos, however, tells us that God doesn’t want our worship if we aren’t living as if our faith didn’t mean everything. God doesn’t demand we don’t say “fuck” or don’t have sex (especially with people of the same gender). God demands we practice justice, in our personal and social lives. That’s the heart of the Gospel, the heart of the Scriptural witness. It is who we are supposed to be.

We need hellfire and brimstone preaching right now, the kind that reminds us of the demands of love and the sacrifice necessary for faith to grow. I’m just not hearing or seeing it. We live in a moment, Paul Tillich called it “kairos”, when we need to make a decision. No one, however, seems to be forcing us to choose. We can have it all, our preachers tell us.

I don’t want it all. I want life and that more abundantly.

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God Always Does New Things

When we lose our awe and humility toward the impenetrable mystery “surrounding all existence,” and our concomitant sense of the failure of ideas and words to articulate divinity, the qualitative gap between human language and divine ineffability collapses. God then erroneously “becomes father, mother, lover, friend.” – Heidi Epstein, Melting the Venusberg: A Feminist Theology of Music, p.13

This broken and decaying angel statue in a cemetery in Cape Town, SA reminds us that all things pass away. Even our hopeful, comforting memorials for the beloved dead.

In the summer of 1986, long before I had any inclination to attend Seminary, an old friend of mine who was in the midst of her own Seminary training told me that the first year of Seminary is like a wrecking ball: People’s confidence in their own understanding of the faith is destroyed, with the rest of the time being one of the faculty offering tools not so much to reconstruct a new faith structure but to move forward confidently without such a structure. I don’t know if I’ve told the story before – I’ve been writing blog posts for 11 years; it’s nearly impossible for me to keep track of everything I’ve ever written – but after about four weeks of her first semester in Seminary, my wife experienced a kind of acute crisis of faith that many people experience around the same point in their studies. No matter how open one is to learning about the faith, understanding new ways of reading the Bible, thinking about the Christ-event in our personal and communal lives, the impact of a great deal of new information in a relatively short period of time can shake even the strongest of faith-foundations. I saw a few folks walk away at this point; they were far too uncomfortable having their sureties challenged this way*. Most, however, ended up like Lisa, sitting and crying from a combination of mourning and fear. They were mourning the loss of what felt like anything solid upon which to stand. They were terrified that, having lost that solid rock of understanding there would never be anything to take its place.

One of the things at least my own Seminary professors kind of pounded into our heads was the reality that God’s revelation is not a “once-for-all” event; even should one adhere to some kind of strict Christocentrism a la Barth, denying the efficacy of other avenues of revelation, we human beings do not and cannot ever have the whole of divine revelation. Revelation includes not only a revealing but always a simultaneous concealing; there is always mystery, always more to see and hear. Were it not so, what the hell are we doing, anyway?

Over the past few days, I faced a true crisis of faith. It’s something that’s been building for a while, to be honest. The crisis within the United Methodist Church, the dishonesty and exclusivism of those who oppose opening our denomination to sexual minorities, and the narrow, stingy orthodoxy of those self-appointed arbiters of orthodoxy within our church have left me confused and angry. Matters regarding my current home church are also a problem, ones that leave me unsure of how to address them. Finally, reading a book about music and death over the weekend pushed to the forefront of my own mind the reality that our deaths, whatever else they  might mean, certainly mean the annihilation of our personhood. In an instant what was will disappear, never to be again. Essentially, I spent part of the weekend wondering, “What the hell does anything matter?”

Yesterday, however, it occurred to me that this crisis was precisely the kind of thing that should happen periodically to all believers: We must face new information, new situations and contexts, new ways of thinking about the Christ-event and its meaning in our lives. When we do so, we should find ourselves unable, at least initially, to integrate all this into how we understand the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We should wonder what the hell any of it means. Having spent my adult life studying and thinking about the faith that informs my life, if I hadn’t experienced something new, then I was believing in the wrong God.

No matter how faithful we are; no matter how sure we have a handle on this whole faith-thing and God-thing, we should never be so arrogant as to assume we always have it all (something I tell other people all the time). One of the central meanings of the Christ-event is something theologian Jurgen Moltmann pointed out over and over again in his work: Our God is the God of New Things: New Life, New Creation, New Community constantly refreshed by the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Refusing settle for that which the Church Universal has already said regarding the content and meaning of the Christ-event is a necessary way for the church and its members to remain healthy, open to all the possibilities yet to discover about who our God is and what God is doing.

As for my personal “crisis”, I’ll just say that it was a good reminder that I cannot rest confidently upon all that I have already learned. Our doctrines, our theologies, they are always and ever prolegomenna to that new thing that is yet coming from God. When we forget that, when we insist upon aged formulas in dead languages and thought, we keep Jesus buried in tombs we construct in our arrogance and lack of faith. Unless we’re willing to allow past be prologue, our doctrines to be the beginning of our theological exploration rather than the end, and allow for the possibilities that, as the Bible says repeatedly in both Testaments, that God is doing a New Thing, we shall wither and die on the vine.

God is never what we wish. It is always the case that we are told who God is. We must always remember that the canon is not closed, revelation is not exhausted, and God really does do new things all the time, whether that’s in our denominations, our local churches, or in our individual lives.

*During my first year, on the very first day of classes during a class on the Hebrew Scriptures, when the professor reminded the class there were two conflicting and contradictory stories of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis, two people got up and left the room, never to return.

Now What?

I saw this at PostSecret today.

For those not “in the know”, PostSecret is this amazing website where people from all over the world anonymously send in their secrets to share with the world. There are PostSecret events, too, where people are invited to put their secrets in a box to be shared – again, anonymously – with the audience. There are books. There are people who are alive today because of PostSecret. PostSecret helped raise money to keep a suicide prevention hotline open. Some of the secrets are funny. Some are heartbreaking. A lot revolve around sex. Today, however, this secret appeared.

I wish I could talk to this person. I’d deal with the easiest question first: “What do I do with this information?” Whatever you want. You can forget about it. You can spend your life secretly puzzling over its meaning. You can deny the event ever took place. You can make a macrame of whatever it was God said and hang it on your wall. Because of that whole free-will thing, you can do or not as you see fit, and the truth is, it doesn’t matter.

We might as well go in reverse order: “Why ME and not a really religious person.” If you pick up your Bible, there is a little book in the Old Testament, an old old story called Jonah. It’s about a very religious man who had the same experience: God told Jonah to do something. And this very righteous, religious man did the exact opposite, ending up tied up and tossed overboard, eaten by a fish to be vomited on a beach where he ended up doing what God wanted him to do anyway (although in hardly a good humor; if you read to the end, after following God’s instructions to a “t”, he sits on a mountain above the city and waits for God to smite the Ninevites. When it doesn’t, he actually pouts! So much for your “really religious person” getting a message from God. God tends to use nonreligious people because they don’t have a whole lot of crap cluttering up their brains telling them what the best way to understand such a call might be.

The only question that really matters, then, is “Now what?” Because this is the first question you asked, you recognize, even if only subconsciously, that the moment was real, an event that happened in your life about which you have to do . . . something. I often wonder how many people hear such messages and ignore them. Or perhaps explain them away in one way or another. Then there are those to whom such moments occur for whom they are just too much. I wonder how many of our mental health facilities have people inside for whom the fact God spoke to them – regardless of content – is just too much to handle. Doesn’t seem quite fair, right? Shouldn’t God know whether or not people are or are not strong enough to deal with such things? Finally, there might be people who accept it as a rel event in their life, a real thing. Then they go on with their lives as if it doesn’t matter in the least.

You, however, asked the most important question first: “Now what?” I could have you running off to one institutional church or another, and I will confess I believe that most ordained clergy in most mainline, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches would be able to help you; they might even enjoy helping someone who is wise enough to ask, “Now what?” All the same, I think you need to turn to people you trust. It doesn’t matter if they’re religious, atheists, choir members, or whatever. Shoot, they don’t have to share the same religious beliefs you do at all! They should, however, be people in whom you place tremendous trust and faith. Talk with them.

The thing is, what comes next is up to you. It’s totally, completely, utterly, and irrevocably your decision. Just as the message is completely yours, so how you choose to integrate this particular event into your life is your choice. God doesn’t demand. God doesn’t give orders. In fact, God just speaks to particular people at particular times and those particular people are then free to do as they wish.

One word of caution, however. God doesn’t usually stop with just one such event. I’m not saying you’re going to hear God’s voice for the rest of your life. That doesn’t mean you won’t feel that little tug, the occasional nudge. It’s never a bludgeon. It is also never a demand. It is what it is. There’s something God wants done and God wants you to do it.  You can run away, like Jonah; just remember what happened to him. My recommendation – and that’s all it is – is that, now, you find one or two people you can trust and talk about it. Hear what they have to say.

Or you could choose to find some official from some organized body and have them help you work through it. That’s certainly an option, and one as I said such clergy might welcome (despite what the popular media might say, the fact is most clergy accept the reality of such moments, if for no other reason than they have usually experienced the same kind of thing in their own lives.

The important thing, however, is that you’ve asked that question, “Now what?” first. You want not only to know how to move forward with this event a part of your life; you’re going to move forward with this event  a part of your life. All the other stuff, the “Why me?” question, the question of the practical usefulness of such a moment, that’s the stuff other people tell us we should ask. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t important questions; it just means they aren’t as important as that first question: “Now what?”

Everything else hinges on how you choose to answer that question. But just know, God knows you, sees you, and most of all God wants you to do something. Perhaps it’s a small thing. Perhaps it will change the world. Whatever it is, it’s yours.

Now what? I suggest you figure out how to get to Nineveh, pack enough supplies, and head on out. The rest, well, it’ll take care of itself.

Harm

It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced – The General Rules Of The Methodist Church


Then there is what gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people face–especially in their relationships with their parents and their fellow believers (when they’re believers). Depending on the family and its unique fixations, it can be far worse than declaring oneself an atheist (or seen as not as bad since at least one still believes). In either case it’s bad enough often enough that any reasonable inference must put at least some significant blame at the feet of Christian parents for the epidemic of LGBT teens who wind up on the street, dead, or on suicide watch.  While homophobia is not a phenomenon unique to conservative Christianity and while school bullying plays its own serious role in this crisis,  in contemporary America, the war of demonization of homosexuality is carried out endlessly by conservative Christians, be they evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, or some other sort. Were these groups of people to flip their ideological stance overnight, full gay legal equality would be guaranteed within a year. – Daniel Fincke, “The Gay Enemy Threat In The Christian Home”, Patheos.com, May 21, 2014


Implications: S[exual]M[inority]Y[outh] who mature in religious contexts, which facilitate identity conflict, are at higher odds for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempt compared to other SMY. Internalized homophobia accounts for portions of this conflict, but does not explain the whole of this phenomenon. Although leaving one’s religion due to conflict may appear to suggest an adaptive response to intolerance for SMY, it is also associated with higher odds of suicide. Not only do clinicians have the extra responsibility to assess for suicide in this population, but they also need to consider the implications of a client leaving his or her religion. Because of the increased risk for suicide, these finding suggest that clinical best practices do not involve encouraging SMY to leave their intolerant religion of origin. Further research is needed to investigate this complex relationship. – from the Abstract for Jeremy Gibbs, MSW, PhD Student, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA and Jeremy Goldbach, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, “Growing Up Queer and Religious: A Quantitative Study Analyzing the Relationship Between Religious Identity Conflict and Suicide in Sexual Minority Youth”, presented at the 2014 Conference of The Society of Social Work and Research, January 18, 2014

Marriage and Sexuality

We believe marriage and sexual intimacy are good gifts from God. In keeping with Christian teaching through the ages and throughout the Church universal, we believe that marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union. We believe that God intends faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness.

Human Dignity

We believe that every person must be afforded compassion, love, kindness, respect, and dignity. Hateful and harassing behavior or attitudes directed toward any individual or group are to be repudiated and are not in accord with Scripture nor the doctrines of the WCA. – Wesley Covenant Association, “Statement of Beliefs”

By obsessing over sexuality, our churches continue to contribute to high suicide rates among sexual minority youth, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, and non-gender conforming youth.

I know I’ve probably made this point before, but with Annual Conference Season just around the corner (it begins Sunday here in the Northern Illinois Conference) it bears repeating: The ongoing anathematizing of the peronhood of sexual minorities contributes to the ongoing crisis of suicide among gay, lesbian, bi, trans and queer youth. As long our official bodies declare “the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching”, we automatically excommunicate hundred and thousands of young people, undermine any claim to moral authority the church might have on other issues, and make a lie of our insistence that we have Good News to preach to the world. We find ourselves in the peculiar position of aiding and abetting both the psychological and physical destruction of already-vulnerable young people and demonstrating to a world increasingly uninterested in religion just how irrelevant we are.

Take a look at the statement of beliefs regarding marriage, sexuality, and human sexuality from the Wesley Covenant Association. By making the specious claim they are in tune with some ongoing historic doctrine regarding human sexuality that denies the full humanity of sexual minorities, they then go on to claim the full human worth of all persons. The blatant falsehood of this latter claim lays bare the harsh truth their basic reason for existing, denying full participation in the life and ministry of the church to sexual minorities due to some never-quite-made-clear “doctrine” regarding “homosexuality”.

The Three General Rules of the Methodist Societies, first set out by John Wesley in 1738 in response to a request from a small group of earnest followers are summed up quite nicely by their titles: Do No Harm; Do Good; Attend Upon All The Ordinances Of God. Because Wesley was always one who preferred clarity and thoroughness, however, he sets out examples of each and in none of them are matters of human sexuality mentioned. Except in “Do No Harm,” where Wesley writes, “Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.” When we tell people that, because of who they are, they are inherently and irrevocably separated from God; that their lives are incompatible with Christian teaching; and then somehow claim we affirm the full dignity of all persons – you deny the humanity of these very same people. To me, that smacks of harm. Worse, it smells like evil.

Suicide rates among sexual minority youth, particularly among youth who identify as trans or nongender conforming is appalling, a scandal that hovers just over the horizon of our consciousness. We in the churches, especially we United Methodists with our dedication to mission, discipleship, and the transformation of the world, should be at the forefront of efforts to help vulnerable youth feel welcome and loved. Instead, we are engaged in a decades-long argument, the terms of which have ceased to have any meaning, all the while making our claims to moral authority more and more ridiculous and the general discourse of welcome, hospitality, of love and generosity and new blessed community meaningless and irrelevant to more and more people. Having spent far too much time, energy, and money arguing about human sexuality, we have made ourselves a laughingstock. As an institution, we in the United Methodist Church just don’t matter to more and more people precisely because we bicker and quarrel, claim to honor human dignity while dehumanizing sexual minority youth.

As we begin our march toward St. Louis in 2019, perhaps we should ask ourselves a very simple question: Do we uphold a statement regarding human sexuality that is doing very real harm to very real people for the sake of some never-named principle? Or do we look at the faces of our vulnerable young people and say their lives matter more than our fear and bigotry? Let’s not fiddle while Rome burns, shall we? Let’s not walk past the person beaten and forgotten on the side of the road because we believe they represent some threat to our holiness? Let us, perhaps, rededicate ourselves to doing no harm, to declare all persons, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, not only worthy of full human dignity but worthy participants with us in our Kingdom-building project.

Some Things For The Commission On The Way Forward To Remember

LGBTQ and Allies protest the silencing of their voices at last year’s United Methodist General Conference. Photo courtesy of United Methodist New Service.

There’s been a flurry of activity among prominent spokespersons (all white men) from the Wesley Covenant Association (WCA) as the Commission on the Way Forward begins its work. With Annual Conferences scheduled to begin around the United States in a week or two, the pressure on delegates to act certainly seems to be rising.

There are several things I think all Annual Conference members, Bishops, members of the Commission on the Way Forward, and the average lay person in the pew should consider as the politicking becomes more intense and the rhetoric ramps up.

First, we need to be very clear what the WCA is and is not. It is a gathering of largely older, white, male clergy and academics whose goal is one thing alone:

“I think that the way ahead lies with an exit plan for those who cannot accept the canonical teaching and practice of the church rather than a plan for division,” Abraham announced, coining the term “Mexit” for this Methodist departure.

Abraham suggested “those who disagree with the teachings and practices of the church should follow through on their own convictions and recognize the moral obligation of exiting The United Methodist Church.” – Mark Tooley, “‘Mexit’ For United Methodist Sexual/Theological Dissenters”, Juicyecumenism.com, March 29, 2017

There’s nothing Wesleyan or Covenantal about their organization. Indeed, I think it’s more than fair to say that, rather than the spokesmen for some silent majority, the WCA represents an ever-shrinking minority. Recent polling of the denomination, according to the linked Christianity Today article, has been consistent with a plurality favoring the removal of the discriminatory language from the Book of Discipline. The vast majority (90%!) want nothing to do with schism, split, or kicking anyone out over matters of sexuality, insisting the constant attention is diverting the larger church from its mission. So when Chris Ritter claims, “The majority of United Methodists believe what the Book of Discipline teaches about human sexuality whether they are vocal about this or not.” he is not only making an impossible, self-contradictory claim (how is it possible for anyone to know what the vast majority of any group believes if they also insist they are silent about it?), the claim is contradicted by actual surveys that show the UMC in America would far prefer we set aside the discriminatory language and lay the issue to rest to get back to being the Church.

As Daniel Gangler writes in his response to Ritter:

From my own experience of more than four decades, I would venture to say the majority of United Methodists don’t even know there is a Book of Discipline or if they do know, only know it is a book of law for the denomination. I also observe that most United Methodists don’t live their lives on a denominational level but on a congregational level where they learn about and exercise their Christian faith far from any Book of Discipline.

This is a fair picture of my own experience as well. Which is not to say that church members consider matters of church law irrelevant. As they should be, and as surveys show, members of our United Methodists congregations around the country are far more focused on the mission of their local churches and how that fits into the mission of the United Methodist Church. Matters of human sexuality not only aren’t a priority; they’re a distraction.

The WCA claims to be the guardians of something one of their spokesmen calls “the Wesleyan/Evangelical/Orthodox tradition”. Yet none of the statements of the WCA regarding their beliefs – other than endorsing other statements of faith – has any theological content at all. Indeed, as I noted the other day in a piece linked at the top of this paragraph, what few statements I have seen are deliberately designed to be void of content while presenting to those outside the group a particular image: guardians of a tradition that is as old as the Church itself. For all they carry along a few big name United Methodist academics, there is nothing theological about their statements, about their attitude toward the larger denomination, and their insistence that either people who don’t accept the current Book of Discipline must leave or they will. They misrepresent who they are, who they represent, and how they should be perceived.

As we move into the always contentious Annual Conference season; as some observe from afar the working of the Commission on the Way Forward; as we all pray for discernment and peace; we need to bear in mind the WCA is the exact opposite of what it claims (as has its previous incarnations as Good News and The Confessing Movement): an aging conglomerate of the same older white men who have held far too much power far too long who deliberately mislead people regarding their intentions, often offering easily disproven claims as fact to bolster arguments that wind up being internally incoherent. They only have any power and authority because some people choose to grant it to them.

Their membership is relatively small, but there are members across the United States. We should love and honor these people who may have become members for any number of reasons all the while making clear they do not now and will not in the future represent some hidden silent majority of members of the United Methodist Church. They exist solely for the purpose of enforcing discrimination against sexual minorities, and will do anything to achieve their ends.

The easiest way to strip them of any power  is not to grant them any; to speak plainly and honestly about who they are, how they operate, and that they just aren’t representative of even a large plurality of church members. Their goal, schism over questions regarding human sexuality, is rejected by the vast majority of the persons for whom they claim to speak. As they aren’t trustworthy conversation partners on a way forward for all of us, they should be rejected as part of that larger conversation.

The Wesley Covenant Association And The Debasement Of Language

The Rev. Jeff Greenway discusses the need for church reform April 28 at the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s “We Believe in the Church!” event, hosted by Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Greenway, a leader of the association, is senior pastor of Reynoldsburg (Ohio) United Methodist Church. Photo by Tim Tanton, UMNS.

But somehow in the last 40 years our modern culture has decided that God’s Word and His Will for us in no longer the truth. It’s now a truth. Our personal experience is often the sole determiner of truth for many in our culture and, sadly, in the Church. The new norm is if a person wants a thing, having that thing becomes their right. A person just needs to claim a thing, and it becomes their truth. It’s true for them. Truth is what they make it. And that individual truth according to out culture is equal to, or even better than the truth of Scripture and it supersedes the Will and Wisdom of the Creator of the Universe. For the better part of 200 years, the Wesleyan-Evangelical-Orthodox tradition has stood firm on the principle that all Scripture is God-breathed. Not some. All. That Scripture is the primary lens through which we frame our faith and practice, followed by 2000 years of Christian tradition, reason, and personal experience. But for the last 40 years, there are some in our church who want to claim that Scripture’s authority is no longer primary and can be shaped or over-ridden by personal experience. Some believe that those Scriptures that no longer conform to the norms of modern society are obsolete and without meaning. In essence, they want the church to proclaim to the world that in some places in Scripture, God got it wrong. – Rev. Jeff Greenaway, “The Bible Is True,” video transcription by me

I saw that United Methodist Insight had reprinted a response to Rev. Greenaway’s statement regarding Scripture. Written by Hebrew Scripture scholar Rev. Dr. Steven Tuell, it clearly and decisively demonstrates the nonsense that is the Wesley Covenant Association’s (WCA) position regarding Scripture. As a focused critique of the mess that is Greenaway’s statement, it serves well demonstrating what many have been saying for decades – whether they called themselves Good News or The Confessing Movement or the Wesley Covenant Association, in their declarations regarding both Scripture and doctrine these supposed “Orthodox” Christians are about as unorthodox as can be imagined.

I want to take this critique back a couple steps, however, and focus on the fact that the jumble of words that is Greenaway’s, and presumably the WCA’s, position regarding the place of Scripture in the life of the Church and believer is a carefully crafted jumble. The use of undefined words, whether Truth, Orthodox, Evangelical, society, culture, or what have you, allow the listener to define them for him- or herself. The use of the weasel words “Some people”, without once saying who they are, to describe those who offer a different view of Scripture, a view that is claimed to be the view of “some people”, again without reference to any individuals or groups within the Church, writings or speeches by such people, allows not only the creation of a straw argument, but for the listener to have a clearly-defined adversary, one whose position regarding the Bible, Truth, God’s Will are not Wesleyan, Evangelical, or Orthodox.

I sadly sold off a small book by the Thomist Josef Pieper, Entitled Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, the work addresses modernity’s assault on the the meaningfulness of language through its manipulation by those in power. While we are all familiar enough with it in our secular politics – “fake news” anyone? – its place in our sectarian political life, posing as a legitimate way of understanding the place of Scripture in the history and life of the Church is a sad demonstration of the depths to which those in the WCA will sink to manipulate the conversation regarding the place of sexual minorities in the life and mission of the Church.

In the United Methodist Church, persons are ordained into the ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order. That first one, Word, has many layers and meanings, not the least of them being preaching the Word to the faithful. This isn’t just some part of the life of a pastoral minister; it is among the most solemn, sacred duties, a blessing and gift from God to be the person through whom the message of grace and salvation is to be offered. This message can come in many forms, but because of the place of the Divine Logos in the history and life of the Church, our words should be among the most precious tools we have. Through them clergy should be seeking as clear a communication as possible, a simplicity and elegance of presentation that offers faith, hope, and love to the people gathered to worship God.

The Rev. Jeff Greenaway uses words carefully, to be sure. Rather than for the sake of simplicity and clarity, however, his “statement” is a carefully crafted piece meant to strip words of meaning and manipulate people toward ends that have nothing to do with the Gospel. It is not only the debasement of language. It is the denial of the purpose of the preaching office of the Church. I and many others have maintained through the years that the whole self-proclaimed orthodox/evangelical wing of the United Methodist Church is neither; in their latest guise as the Wesley Covenant Association, they demonstrate that both thoroughly and consistently. They are now, sadly, demonstrating their willingness to abuse language in service of a narrow, clearly theologically and Biblically false ideology. This should give us all pause as we move forward: The willingness to debase language so casually and so clearly in service of raw power demonstrates a willingness to do pretty much anything in order to achieve ends that have nothing to do with the life and mission of the United Methodist Church.

A Different Conversation

Bishop Sally Dyck of the Northern Illinois Conference of the UMC preaching at last year’s General Conference.

So the Council of Bishops have called for a special session of General Conference for 2019. The reason for the session will be to receive the report of the Committee On The Way Forward and act on its recommendations. Of course, we all know the matter of the future of the United Methodist Church as a coherent denomination will hang in the balance. All over the matter of human sexuality. Precisely because we as a people called Methodist have no idea how even to begin doing a theology of human sexuality, we have been trapped for 45 years discussing a couple sentences in our Book of Discipline, which manage to reduce human sexuality to acts of sexual contact, rejecting some while implicitly accepting others. That these sentences contradict the assertion of human sexuality as a good gift from a good God should be clear enough; absent any clear understanding of what, precisely, human sexuality is, what it entails, and how it fits in the larger order of salvation, we have gone around and around this particular dog track so many times and for so long the runners have disappeared into the deep hole we have all helped dig.

It’s no secret what I stand on this matter. So I found myself in the uncomfortable position last year, watching proceedings on the floor of General Conference via live stream, agreeing in principle with those most vocal in their insistence that the language be removed, some sort of apology offered to those effected by the language, and we move forward affirming all persons and their place in the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, however, I was also quite tired of their speech-making, their constant demands to be heard, their attempts to bully whoever might be the presiding Bishop, and their smug assurance that their own righteousness and the correctness of their position (with which I wholeheartedly agree!) would be enough to sway people voting on legislation. It was clear, however, from the very start this relatively small yet loud group had not done the one thing necessary in a political climate: they had organized no groups to side with them. In politics it is never about being right. It is always about power. In this case, what were these folks bringing to the table other than their sense of moral correctness?

They didn’t bring anything at all.

Meanwhile, the far right of the denomination was well-organized, working with delegations from African Conferences and others to block any attempt not only to change the language of the Discipline, but to alter the procedural method by which the Conference could arrive at some kind of consensus. Many people (including me) found it far too close to overstepping certain ethical boundaries, that Good News should not have been hosting these delegates, offering only a singular perspective on these important matters. All the same, it showed that while Good News, the Confessing Movement, and other such groups affiliated with our Church might well be bad at theology, they are most excellent at organizing. Looking at the final vote tallies regarding matters surrounding the removal of the questionable language from the Discipline, had General Conference only been an American affair, the language would have been removed.  By wooing the delegates from the African Conferences, however, Good News managed to block any such change.

So, perhaps, rather than ask the same question – Should the language regarding the incompatibility of “the practice of homosexuality” and Christian teaching be removed from the Discipline? – perhaps because we know what the answer’s going to be, we should be asking a completely different question. That question should center on the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church; on the Biblical and Wesleyan mandate to preach, to baptize, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and to work for the transformation of the world. Since we have never settled on the matter of what, exactly, constitutes “homosexual practice”, how it does or does not violate Christian teaching, or anything else pertaining to the place of human sexuality in the life of the disciple, we perhaps should be asking about how we move forward together, differing in our opinions regarding matters of human sexuality, yet unified in our mission to transform the world through making disciples. Perhaps we should accept the reality that we shall never, indeed, be of one mind regarding questions of human sexuality, and that as such they should be set to one side while we focus on moving forward together.

My experience as a United Methodist, particularly as a clergy spouse, is the matter is far less urgent among our church members. By and large matters of human sexuality in general and matters surrounding sexual minorities in particular are difficult ones about which to speak. I have heard from more than one lay person in more than one area of the country voice the opinion they would far rather the issues just go away. They don’t see it directly impacting their faith lives or the mission and ministry of their local church. Now many would put this down to a preference to avoid difficult matters for those about which discussion and consensus are far easier; that such a preference is passive-aggressive, avoiding tough matters.

Perhaps, however, we should listen to these voices. People want to talk about how their church is fulfilling its mission, both locally and within the connection. People want to share their stories, not talk in the abstract about what other people do largely within the privacy of their lives outside the work of the church. Even when the question is less abstract, such as a congregation member answering a call to ministry, seeking the endorsement of the local church through the charge conference, and matters of sexuality suddenly intrude themselves into the process (as it now seems the Judicial Council demands we do), I believe most churches would insist that regardless of their feelings on the matter, the question of suitability, of the reality of the presence of a real call, their support of this or that individual would not rest upon matters of the person’s sexuality. Certainly if the person before the charge conference was otherwise morally reprobate, perhaps including abusing the gift of sexuality in ways that have nothing to do with whether than person is straight, gay or bisexual, these are matters that need to be addressed with seriousness. If, however, a persons seeks endorsement as a candidate for ordained ministry, their life and actions demonstrate the presence of the Holy Spirit, whether than person were or were not straight might well carry very little weight in the eyes of the local charge conference.

Which is why, I believe, it is important to change the conversation. There are those voices that are insistent, demanding, uncompromising, going around and around the language of the Discipline without regard to anything else the Church is supposed to be about. They shall always be with us. Which is precisely why we need to listen to other voices, ask other questions, and perhaps move forward together in one heart if not one mind. Our conversation long ago ceased to have any meaning, to exclude all but those most firmly committed to one extreme or another. That is why I think we might yet have the opportunity to salvage something from our current wreckage, becoming again the people called Methodist, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.