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.

We Don’t Need Another Sermon Series

The latest Study Guide from the United Methodist Church.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I argued that what we United Methodists need isn’t yet another fruitless debate and discussion of the question of the language regarding “homosexual practice”. Rather, it would be far better were we to have a discussion about the nature of our churches, their mission and ministry. All the same, I’m hardly surprised to find our General Board of Higher Education and Ministry has offered yet another study guide focused on the question of human sexuality. The subtitle, “Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness,” assumes both that there is some vague, as-yet defined “faithful witness” specific to United Methodism that we currently aren’t doing and that our churches don’t know how to include matters of human sexuality in their faithful witness. First of all, to take the two matters in reverse orders, our local churches tend to be wary of delving too much into matters of human sexuality not only because we Americans are embarrassed to talk about sex; they are also, by and large, adults who view matters of human sexuality as highly personal, and not matters about which the church should exercise itself overmuch. As for “faithful witness”, I would argue that our churches by and large are being faithful witnesses to the Gospel by keeping the doors of their churches open to pretty much anyone who walks in. They are being faithful witnesses by their local outreach, whether its local mission projects, Vacation Bible School in the summer, or what have you. Our churches know what they’re about, and to presume they need some kind of guidance from seminary professors on what it means to be a faithful witness both in general and in regards to matters of human sexuality in particular is precisely our problem.

Simply put, I think we’re supersaturated with study guides, books written by successful pastors on everything under the sun, and yet another class meeting some weeknight led by the pastor. Most churches liturgy is overflowing with sermon series’, sometimes based upon Scripture, sometimes on a, yes indeed, study guide. In an effort to coordinate everything from adult Christian education to liturgy to missional focus, ours is a denomination flooded with far too much top-down guidance through select issues.

In the United States, we are a church of thousands of congregations with around 8 million members. Among those members are successful business people, doctors, lawyers, counselors, teachers, non-profit workers and executives, academics, scientists, retired clergy, and based upon our demographics among the best-educated people in America. These are the people who make up our committees, our United Methodist Women groups, our Sunday School teachers, our small group leaders, and our faithful givers, tithers, and members. Rather than tap this ocean of expertise, we turn yet again to the same authors who ask the same questions and offer the same answers time and time again.

How many of our local church members are even aware that General Conference last year was a cock-up of epic proportions? How many know there will be a special called session of General Conference in February, 2019 to address not questions of human sexuality but primarily matters of the larger church’s organization? How many people know there’s an organization of clergy, some in their own conference, who are part of a group actively encouraging schism? How many of our local churches understand now is the time to speak up and act, to demand we focus our attention on our core mission of discipleship formation for the transformation of our world?

Why are we afraid of being open and honest about what’s going to happen over the next 18 months or so? Why are we ignoring the wealth of experience, of understanding, of specialized knowledge, of all the gifts and grace of our local churches, turning yet again to a study guide written by a committee, rather than coming to a consensus among the members of each local church after ad hoc conversations among themselves? Why is faithful witness something that is not assumed? Why? WHY? WHY???

We are facing grace matters yet there is little effort to harness the people called Methodists to shape and inform the discussions. We are looking to our usual ways of working with our usual problems: a study guide, taught in a class, usually by clergy. Not that there’s anything wrong per se with the current study guide; rather, it’s the lack of imagination that seeks to tell our local churches rather than listen to them.

Rather than talk about what others insist we must talk about, wouldn’t it be great for once if we listened to what our local churches had to say on matters of faithfulness, of in what each local church’s witness consists, its mission experience and goals? Wouldn’t it be nice if matters of human sexuality could be set within the context not of a 45 year old undefined formula (“practice of homosexuality”) that is really quite meaningless, considering what we know about human sexuality, and instead talked about the fact that sexuality might well be of little to no concern when it comes to the actual goings-on in our local churches? Wouldn’t it be nice if our delegations to the special General Conference went carrying not just the endorsements of their fellow Annual Conference members, but carrying the messages from our local churches regarding matters of church mission and ministry, the place and role of human sexuality, and what this should mean for our church structure?

In her latest column at Patheos.com, the Rev. Christy Thomas highlights what she sees as one of our major structural weaknesses inhibiting our growth:

[O]ur bureaucratic structure is just about to kill us. We are incapable of making quick decisions. There are times when it appears that every single detail of every single proposal has to be debated by every single delegate at outrageously expensive conferences.

Rather than a weakness, I for one see this as one of our great strengths. While not always perfect, and with some voices silenced either by cacophony or official proclamation, we are a denomination that insists that all voices are of value, all persons should be heard. I cannot imagine a church as large and diverse as ours operating in a way that limited discussions or sought to make quick decisions based upon matters of financial expense. This is who we are, and we should be proud of the occasional near-anarchy of our large meetings. Democracy is the least efficient way to do anything; we should seek faithfulness through consensus over efficiency every time.

By all means, we should be using the above study guide (and all those that are sure to follow). They should never replace the need we have to allow our congregations to speak for themselves, to tell their stories of faithful witness and mission. Let them tell their stories of their sense of place within the larger church. Let them talk about their understanding of the place of human sexuality within the life and mission of the church, an understanding that comes from years of faithful work  at the heart of all church work – the local congregation. Not everyone is going to come out in the same place, and that’s OK. At least our church might actually be heard from, rather than told afterward what’s happening.

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.

What Purpose Does It Serve?

Screen shot of Joe Abrahamson’s FB that still has the infamous fake photo on it.

I saw the image last night (the person has since taken it down). A quick check at snopes.com told me what I suspected – the image is fake.

Yet, it remains, as do all things on the internet. No doubt it will be resurrected at some point in the future when Ms. Grande, known for courting controversy, says or does something that upsets someone somewhere. That it’s an obvious Photoshop will always be beside the point. Like all the nonsense spewed on the internet, this fake picture – which libels Ms. Grande in a most crude fashion – will follow Cokie’s Law:

Cokie’s Law, in which she proved that truth and facts are rarely the issue when it comes to arcane Clinton scandals:

“At this point,it doesn’t much matter whether she said it or not because it’s become part of the culture. I was at the beauty parlor yesterday and this was all anyone was talking about.”

Far deeper than this obvious problem, however, is the matter of why someone, anyone, would do such a despicable thing. What, precisely, would be the point of this? Because Ms. Grande (falsely) wiped her ass on an American flag, the dead and injured do not deserve our sympathy? That she somehow was in cahoots with a murderous suicide bomber, and she shares responsibility for the pain and suffering and loss? That fact that, according to the Snopes.com article, this image was shared over 40,000 times seems to mean there are tens of thousands of people willing to believe that a pop star is somehow complicit in a horrible act of murderous terrorism.

There is something wrong, something deep and ugly and hateful, with some people. Not only the person who created this image, but those who shared it and refuse to take it down (I’m sure Joe Abrahamson isn’t the only one). The image itself and its implicit message are ugly and hateful, do nothing but spread suspicion, division, and fear. As far as I know, the most offensive thing Ms. Grande has ever done is include obscenities and sexual references in some of her songs, neither of which is really that offensive. Why debase her in this way? Because she’s a woman? Because you don’t like her music?

I should note that I was chastised by several people last week because I was, ahem, disrespectful of Roger Ailes upon news of his death. One person even called the veracity of my faith into question. I made clear at the time that I had good reasons to speak ill of the recently dead, and while he might disagree with me, I wasn’t lying or doing so out of personal spite. So these same folks might think I’m being more than a little hypocritical when I sit and wonder why people do horrible things.

As with all things, the specific circumstances matter. In the case of me saying that Roger Ailes had started rotting years before he actually died, I wanted to remind people that Ailes’ life was not one people should celebrate because his professional life was dedicated to undermining American democracy. I feel no need to pretend otherwise.

Which leads me back to this image and its propagation. What the hell was Joe Abrahamson, and all those who shared his post, trying to achieve? The attack certainly wasn’t aimed directly at Arianna Grande. She certainly had no part in it. Even were she disrespectful of the American flag would hardly mean she would celebrate mass death and destruction. The dead and wounded, their friends and families, the larger British public, none of these are honored, helped, or comforted by spreading this image and its message. It’s gratuitous hate and violence, the very thing that created the conditions for someone to strap a bomb to himself and kill and wound dozens at a concert.

Sadly, there seems little to do to stop it. Which hurts my heart.