Tag Archive | Cynthia Astle

Unhealthy Discourse

I think we need collectively to figure out how to have ongoing conversations with people with whom we disagree. None of us has the whole picture independently, but together we can make up the whole picture. – Cynthia Astle, “Disengaging From The Conversation”, United Methodist Insight, September 18, 2015

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UM Insight Screencap

UM Insight Screencap

UM Insight Screencap

UM Insight Screencap

There is little doubt the United Methodist Church is in trouble. As has been the case through our national history, we have taken on the poisonous politics of the surrounding society, leading to hostility, anger, and at times a pettiness that should embarrass us all. Like our secular politics, however, there seems to be no solution. Instead, we must traverse this particular valley of the shadow of death with faith that our LORD is with us. What lies on the other side will be something new, and as the Psalm sings, the LORD will prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies – whoever we think they might be.

Two long-time friends of this blog, Cynthia Astle of United Methodist Insight and Joel Watts of Unsettled Christianity have come to a parting of the ways in a very public, shocking (to me at any rate; I’ve dealt with both for years and can’t fathom what’s happened in its specifics) way. A combination of miscommunication resulting in a bit of vitriol leaves me sad and puzzled. Astle has solicited “help” from people on how better to use this medium to continue the necessary on-going conversation among little-heard voices within our denomination. The problem, at least from my perspective, isn’t the medium. It is rather the larger context in which we try to engage others with whom we disagree. The Internet offers great opportunities for people to engage one another in honest, sometimes heated, discussion. That the anonymity and distance of the Internet also provides some people the freedom to say things they would never say in a face-to-face argument has long been a subject of criticism. All the same, that same distance allows a level of honesty and clarity that a face-to-face encounter could never provide. Too concerned over rules of etiquette and propriety, face-to-face encounters might produce discomfort should the argument get as heated as it does online. There are benefits to face-to-face meetings that no less personal encounter can match. Which leaves me, again, thinking it isn’t the medium. Rather, it’s the expectations we bring to Internet discussions and the ease of miscommunication always at play in written as opposed to spoken discourse that create part of our problem.

But only part. Another part of what prevents us from dealing with one another is the decision, as Astle names it, to disengage.

David F. Watson asked that his previous material be removed entirely from our database after we published an article by Geoffrey Kruse-Safford criticizing his work.

This part of Astle’s linked article shocked me. I had not seen Watson’s work in UMI. To learn that I was the reason for his refusal to participate any longer in their forum, however, was more than a little surprising. Academic Dean at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, I have certainly been critical of things he’s written. I would go further and say that those disagreements have been substantial, presented forcefully. To think that something I wrote made Watson wish no longer to engage, however, is more than a little embarrassing. After some checking, I found the article that might have been the reason Watson discontinued his association with UMI and I have to admit more than a little confusion. Ironically, that article concerned Watson’s scolding some people for how they conduct themselves in online forums; I pointed out to him that, by the standards of the larger Internet, while certainly heated United Methodists have by-and-large conducted our discussions with a great deal of civility and respect.

And now we have yet another voice, citing both “unWesleyan doctrine” – I’m honestly not sure what that means; are all United Methodists supposed to adhere to a narrow Wesleyan theology? – as well as “slanderous personal attacks” – for which I can find no evidence at all; one thing I admire about Cynthia is she does not countenance such things; I’ve been reminded of that several times by her when she read something of mine she took to be an ad hominem attack. It has made me far more conscious of how to present what I write, being clear issues and not personalities are front and center. Joel’s use of the word “threat” is more than a little odd. Cynthia “threatened” nothing; she informed Joel their Twitter discussion would be featured in a longer article explaining why his article had been removed.

Our poisonous politics, sacred and secular, make all of us edgy and ready to strike out when a perceived affront, insult, or just general disagreement arises. Rather than push through the frustration and anger, we all too often resort to ceasing any further dialogue. Breaking communion – in its original meaning – seems preferable to some than staking a claim to one’s position without closing one’s ears to others. Of course, the latter is difficult. The thing is, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. More than anyone’s feelings, or any group’s theological preferences, the stakes in our current illness are high. I have made my positions clear enough; I have also always made clear that neither I nor anyone else has some access to “truth” denied others; further, I know that the United Methodist Church has been and will be far stronger if all our voices – discordant as they may be now – join together. How facile, paltry, and even erroneous would we be if only like-minded persons gathered, heard sermons that made them feel good about themselves, rather than being challenged by the Word? How much less would our mission and ministry be if we only associated with people like us?

There are many steps toward healing that need to be taken. One of those steps is being willing to continue to talk with each other despite our differences. Whatever happens next spring will happen; the larger body of United Methodists, hierarchy, lay, academic, owe it to one another to keep talking. No matter how difficult that might be. We are all in this together. If we don’t remember that and carry on our discussions in the grace we preach and try to practice, then perhaps we need to be gone as a denomination. I would far prefer this not be so. Yet, as I see it, unless we are willing to take that small step, we just aren’t moving forward.

What Have I Become?

[A]s difficult as it can be for some to read the harsh words we sometimes fling around at one another, it is also necessary and even, I would add, given Scriptural mandate.  This is not about any particular individual’s feelings.  This is about our beloved United Methodist Church, its integrity, and its ministry and mission.  Being held to an arbitrary standard set in place by individuals or groups, a standard, by the way, that those advocating exclusion, schism, and bigotry have never applied to themselves, allows the terms of discussion to be set always in favor of those in power.  Ignoring those rules, recognizing them for what they are and calling them by name; calling out by name those who continue to browbeat others with doctrine, with Scripture, and through the power of office is also necessary. – Me

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The Monster Inside Me by TheKimmeh at deviantart.com.

The Monster Inside Me by TheKimmeh at deviantart.com.

Our first duty, as Christians, is always to search ourselves first for whatever sin and brokenness lies within our hearts. Having done so, we confess it, to God and one another. Twelve-step programs offer an additional point along the way: We not only confess to those we’ve hurt, but we actively seek to make amends to them, as much as is humanly possible. This post is confession, written with a broken heart at my own words, and hoping I can be forgiven not only by God, but by those who have been hurt by my words. I certainly do not demand forgiveness. I just ask, meekly, that this request be given consideration.

Over the past few days, I have been following – and partially participating – in long threads on FB in a private group calling itself “United Methodists For Truth”. I wrote a bit about it just the other day. I was preparing to do more such writing today. Then I went and looked at a couple older posts of mine, including the one linked above as epigraph. Rather than finding additional tools with which to engage in something akin to verbal warfare, I found myself confronted by my own words, and I did not like what I saw.

Writing is more than mere self-expression. For me it has been therapy. An outlet for things I think but don’t seem real until I see them on a computer screen (and I write more than anyone will ever see). Most of all, it offers me an opportunity to meet, engage, and develop actual, real friendships with people I have not, and may not, ever meet. To write even moderately well is a gift. It is never easy, particularly for an introvert, because it requires  exposing parts of oneself to the world that we would far prefer remain hidden. Not to write, however, feels like death. To risk exposure, embarrassment, even error is farrigt better than dying. So, I write.

Writing is also a mirror. It offers not only the world a glimpse of oneself; given time and inclination, it offers us the chance to see ourselves as others see us. There have been many times I have gone back and read something I wrote and thought, “Gee, that was pretty insightful!”.

Today was not one of those days.

Today, preparing yet again to mount the ramparts in our ongoing verbal warfare in the United Methodist Church, I had an opportunity to read several things I’ve written, compare them with the words of those I describe as “opponents” and realize, with something like disgust, that I am indistinguishable from them. My self-righteousness, my conviction of my own correctness even as I plead my own error-proneness, setting myself upon a moral peak from which I can see the errors of others – all this and more has been a part of my writing.  It is with sorrow that I am not, at all, a heroic teller of truths. I am not, at all, in any way morally, intellectually, or in any other way superior to those with whom I have engaged, often far too dismissively, in discussions. I am, and have been, resting far too securely in my own distorted sense of my own righteousness to see that I am no different, substantively, from those I far too glibly dismiss as in error.

This is more than distressing. It led me, fairly recently, to protest my superiority in words and phrases that are indistinguishable from those used by those who are equally certain of their own surety, their own righteousness, their own Biblical and theological positions, and their own desire to see our church remain faithful to our one Lord. Rather than thoughtfully and prayerfully consider some words directed in general at the intemperance of so much of our internet interactions, I lashed out at an individual I respect, who has supported my writing and become, in the process, an actual friend.

When I look on and see the bitter, vitriolic words; the bitterness, rage, and even hate seething just below the text on the screen; when I see all this and it isn’t in some “other’s” writings but in my own, it is long past time for me to stop and consider how the things I have written have hurt people. It is especially distressing when I know I have repeated these same words, over and over, for years. When I attack someone who insists there is a better way for us to do this whole Internet dialogue thing, if I have any reflective bone in my body (and I do! I swear!) I have to hang my head in shame. And I do.

I wrote recently, offering my support of the Commission on General Conference’s suggestions for alternative categories through which that body will consider legislation regarding human sexuality. I also offered something additional: That we do so as the worshiping Body of Christ, where we come together, as St. Paul wrote, with our human differences and distinctions erased. This positive contribution to our ongoing discussions was as rare as it was an early indication that I, too, needed to change how I contributed to the Babel that is the United Methodist Church’s discussions regarding human sexuality. That should have clued me in that I was not doing what I should do, viz., rather than directing hate-filled words at alleged “opponents” I should be constructive in my offerings.

So, I confess that I have only contributed to the divisiveness that I abhor. I have alienated and hurt people who might otherwise be willing to offer a sympathetic ear. I have not given prayerful consideration to honest – and truthful – criticisms and reflections, but reacted with dismissal, defensiveness, and even more hurtful words filled with self-righteousness and disdain for those with whom I disagree. For this I can only apologize and offer the weak tea that in the future I will search myself, be prayerful and thoughtful before committing myself to the computer screen.

The LORD Abhors The Deceitful: A Further Response To Cynthia Astle

For there is no truth in their mouths;
their hearts are destruction;
their throats are open graves;
they flatter with their tongues.
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of their many transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you. – Psalm 5:9-10

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Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, ‘I am in the light’, while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness. – 1 John 2:8-11

So this is what the Psalmist says the mouths of those who would deceive us resemble.

So this is what the Psalmist says the mouths of those who would deceive us resemble.

Most of all, I am becoming traumatized by the incessant war of words when I read successive blogs in which the writers tear one another to pieces over something another person has said or done. These are not the reasoned debates of thoughtful disciples earnestly seeking to discern God’s truth; they are attacks intended to tear down a person’s credibility, even to discredit the sacred worth of another human being. Like Diogenes with his lantern seeking one honest man, I look for messages that will traverse the chasms we’ve carved with our chisels of words, and I find them so rarely. – Cynthia Astle, “When Words Fail, United Methodist Insight, March 20, 2015

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I have nothing but respect for Cynthia Astle.  Even though she and I have never met, I actually consider her a very real friend.  Which is why I felt the need to respond to an editorial she wrote, quoted and linked above. I was going to let the whole matter drop, moving on as it were to bigger, better things when, lacking anything popping in to my head, I turned to the Daily Leciontary and discovered in the readings, parts of which are quoted above, a Biblical precedent to clear speaking about others when the circumstances demand it.  When the Psalmist says that the mouths of those who would lie to the people (perhaps national leaders? Priests or false prophets?) are like open graves, I do not believe the author was concerned whether or not the integrity of others, or the principles of reasoned, civil discourse were upheld.  On the contrary, speaking plain, which sometimes includes saying things in ways that others interpret as hurtful, is necessary when matters of etiquette and civility are used as a way to silence criticism those in power do not wish to hear.

It would be wonderful if we could assume the honesty and integrity of those with whom we disagree.  It would be marvelous to assume differences of opinion do not demonstrate a difference in the faithfulness or motivations of others.  When taking account of the bulk of the writings of some among us United Methodist blog-writers, however, I for one am driven again and again to the same conclusion: Driven by personal animus against sexual minorities, they create Biblical interpretations out of whole cloth, demand conformity to particular Creedal and doctrinal affirmations without any reason other than to control others, and demand conformity across our enormous denomination on matters of ministerial practice and policies regarding sexual minorities and root it in faulty Biblical interpretation, ridiculous theological speculation, and what I can only understand as a desire to wield power within the denomination, or to be recognized by those and power and rewarded for it.

As for the voices espousing schism, as they have been doing for decades, one can only conclude one thing about them: They are far more concerned with power, rather than kenosis; exclusion than the openness to all that has always been a theme of the Wesleyan tradition; and threatening and browbeating those with whom they disagree rather than engaging in dialogue, civil or otherwise.  They do not have anything to hear from others, because they exemplify Paul Tillich’s dictum that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, but rather certainty.  When disagreement is expressed, any and all attempts to silence it – such as happened at GC2012 – are taken, from insisting disagreement is error to demands the denomination put in place legal means to drive out of the church any and all who express disagreement.  To insist “Both Sides Do It” is to ignore history, the details of the disagreements, that views expressed by those in power (or who wish to be, or who cozy up to it) have not changed in decades; only the way they continue to shuffle the same deck of cards and play them.

Responding to years-long abuse, offered in terms that itself abuses Scripture, our traditions, and threatens the stability of our denomination; having to hear, for 40 years now, the lies and threats, and being told that those of us who disagree have some kind of moral duty to respond “in love” rather than in Truth, grows tiresome; realizing, thanks in no small part to today’s Daily Lectionary reading, that speaking the truth sometimes entails speaking what some may read or hear as insulting or demeaning, yet if spoken or written not so much with good intentions, but rather in faith, is not only liberating, but follows in our tradition and Scriptures.  All of these leads me to the conclusion that, as difficult as it can be for some to read the harsh words we sometimes fling around at one another, it is also necessary and even, I would add, given Scriptural mandate.  This is not about any particular individual’s feelings.  This is about our beloved United Methodist Church, its integrity, and its ministry and mission.  Being held to an arbitrary standard set in place by individuals or groups, a standard, by the way, that those advocating exclusion, schism, and bigotry have never applied to themselves, allows the terms of discussion to be set always in favor of those in power.  Ignoring those rules, recognizing them for what they are and calling them by name; calling out by name those who continue to browbeat others with doctrine, with Scripture, and through the power of office is also necessary.

Once exposed, ridicule rather than bluntness is necessary because while most folks can accept insults, there is nothing more infuriating to those in power (or seeking power, or cozying up to power) than to be dismissed through ridicule.  This, too, can be misinterpreted as personal attacks, rather than a rhetorical move to disempower those who would misuse power to serve their own ends.  This is why ridicule can come across as even more vicious, because it refuses to take seriously its object.

As to the insistence that no one can know the heart of another, I can only say this is irrelevant.  I am not the least interested in what is in the silent thoughts of others, only in what comes out of their mouths, and how that becomes real in policies, practices, attitudes, and actions toward others.  I, too, might be lying.  I could be an enormous anti-gay bigot.  In fact, I could be a 22-year-old woman named Mindy, rather than a middle-aged family man.  I might be Muslim, or an atheist just trying to stir up trouble.  All sorts of things might be possible.  This is the Internet, after all.  Which is why all I have at my disposal are the words, expressed intentions, and offered policy solutions of others.  As these are repeated ad infinitum, even ad nauseum, it takes no great leap to conclude that what these folks say and write springs from a combination of their innermost feelings, their beliefs, and their personal desires.  Their silent thoughts are of no concern to me, except to say that it seems what one expresses very often is an excellent clue about what one thinks.

So for all those who continue to demand conformity to particular modes of Scriptural interpretation, or to certain doctrinal declarations, or to insist the United Methodist Church is in crisis not because of their actions, but the desire for us to be a Church truly of Jesus Christ – open to all, just as they are, without question, without qualification, without barriers, or who prefer the perquisites of power, or to be close to those in power, all I can say is that you are known.  You are known by name.  You are known by your actions.  You are known by those of us who only want the United Methodist Church to be a people who do no harm (rather than drive people away from Church, and occasionally to suicide). I, for one, am neither afraid nor intimidated by power, prestige, office, or alleged scholarly reputation.  I am just me, one lone voice, a lay person in one tiny spot on the map, but I will not be silenced because some believe we have to speak and act in ways they determine I should, and are certainly never observed by those who, for far too long, have held the United Methodist Church in fear, in awe of their power, and would use as weapons what are gifts to us – our Scriptures, our traditions, our Holy Teaching, and our desire for a more open, more loving, more Christ-like life together.

These Are Not The Reasoned Debates: A Response To Cynthia Astle

Some people's view of ongoing discussions in the UMC

Some people’s view of ongoing discussions in the UMC

One-Two-Three-Go!

Geoffrey, you seem to appreciate the chance to give feedback on others’ writings. It’s a shame you don’t extend that same courtesy to your readers.

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When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that?

In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that. – 1 Corinthians 6:1-8

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When I started poking around the Internet, nine years ago, I thought it was a great opportunity to engage in serious conversations with all sorts of people on all sorts of topics.  I envisaged writing a high-minded blog that would stimulate long conversations and debates from which all would benefit.  I insisted that discussions follow rules little different than those were we face-to-face.  It took me a couple months to realize most people, most of the time, aren’t in the least bit interested in “debate” or “discussion” on the Internet.  It’s a contest, a game with no rules except winning – kind of like Butch Cassidy’s rules for a knife fight.  It became most apparent when, in a discussion forum on Huffington Post, someone whose name I can’t recall, carried on and on about “science” disproving “religion”, to which I responded, in a rather lengthy, pedantic way, that the post itself demonstrated this person didn’t know what he was talking about when using either word.  I went on to insist on definitions, to let readers know specifically what he was talking about, and so on.  To which I received in response . . . well, the Internet equivalent of a shouting down.  Incidentally, it was also around this time that I realized I needed to ditch anonymity and my nomme de Web.  I started a new blog, using my own name, making clear who I was, giving readers the opportunity to judge for themselves if I was qualified to say what I was saying.

I still allowed comments.  From 2006 through 2013, I wrote thousands of posts.  Some had no comments at all.  Others had interesting comments.  By the end, however, I was stuck with essentially two persons whose sole desire was to argue.  One of them was really quite ignorant and stupid.  I say this out of no pride in my own intelligence and learning; it’s just an objective fact.  The other person was far more intelligent and educated at an Ivy League School, with which he would beat others as a point of some pride.  That he carried a five pound bag with ten pounds of baggage around with him, well, it was obvious to any and all but him.  My favorite example was when I made an offhand comment that Freud invented the subconscious.  My Ivy League commenter insisted he “discovered” rather than invented.  So, I turned in my library to an article Freud wrote in which he basically says he invented the notion of the subconscious in much the same way Immanuel Kant invented the “thing-in-itself”, an empty concept that served an explanatory purpose without itself being anything real.  As such, the subconscious is whatever people wish it to be, much as dark matter and dark energy in physics are current place holders for actions we do not understand and do not fit conventional theories.  Even confronted by a rather lengthy series of quotations from Freud in which he freely admits making the whole thing up, this commenter insisted, over and over, that I was wrong.

I tired of both.  When I started this new site on a new platform, my very first resolution was simple: No comments.  Like so much of the Internet (exemplified by Twitter, to which I used to belong but have since left because it is a sewer, much as the comment sections of newspaper articles are pits of despair), my comment section, when populated at all, was little more than opportunities for people to try and pick fights and engage in argument.  Coming to realize, several years before, I had no interest in debate, the best way to avoid it is not to allow space for such.  This is my choice, rooted in experience, and I stand by it for a variety of reasons.

First of all, as a Christian, I’m not the least bit interested in arguing my faith.  With anyone.  I declare my faith, profess my adherence to the Living Word, confess my faith in the Triune God, and folks can take it or leave it.  I have neither the time nor inclination to explain to those who want to pick fights why I am who I am and live as I do.  It’s no skin off my nose they disagree with me; their lack of faith and fervent belief they have a mission to tell me how wrong I am means less than nothing to me.  They certainly have the right to create their own websites or blogs and praise their own greatness, and have others join the mighty chorus of self-righteous praise.

When I write my blog posts, I’m stating what I believe and how I live.  Simple as that.  It isn’t up for discussion.  If you agree with me, that’s great.  If you don’t, that’s great, too, because Lord knows I wouldn’t want a world filled with me’s.  If someone feels a serious need to take me to task, they can write a blog post, detailing my errors, to which I am welcome to respond in one way or another.  Indeed, by and large, that’s the approach I take.  With you, Rev. Drew McIntyre, with Dr. David Watson, even with Cynthia Astle over at United Methodist Insight.  That I decided to take to the comment section of Watson’s blog and engage in a discussion, well that’s not only my prerogative; it’s a privilege he extends by including a comment section, in which his praise chorus can come along and tell him how marvelous he is, while those who seriously disagree with him are treated as unworthy of serious consideration.  He even treats serious criticism as personal attack, refusing to engage at all.  He has a single rule for comments: Agree with me, and I’ll thank you; disagree with me, and I’ll either claim your disagreement has nothing to do with my writing, or it’s a personal attack and I won’t engage at all.  And it’s his spot, he’s free to do as he wishes with his site and his comments.  I am free, however, to point this out to any curious reader.  Which, except on this rare occasion, I do here, on my own site.

As for the implication either of hypocrisy or cowardice (neither of which are original or even interesting) or whatever you might have been hinting at with that somewhat snarky comment, I would merely repeat myself: My blog, my rules.  Like a knife fight, there really aren’t any rules, which allows each of us and all of us the freedom to act according to what feels best.  If you don’t like it, well, since I do not know you, I’m not sure why you would think I care.  I certainly don’t show up in your comments telling you how wrong you are for allowing comments, nor would I ever be so presumptuous.  That you see fit to do something similar to me says far more about you than it does about my policy of not allowing comments.

As I have spent far too much time repeating myself than I ever prefer, I shall just leave with this thought.  I do you, and those with whom I disagree, the honor of taking time to write a lengthy response on my blog, which offers me the opportunity to make my own position clear, which creates a far better contrast than showing up in your comment section and typing, “You’re wrong!” in as many ways as I can imagine.  I treat you, and others, with the respect and seriousness the subject matters, if not any of the people (most especially me) deserve.  Because, you see, my operating principle is simple enough.  I don’t matter a whit.  Nor do you.  Nor does anyone else.  The subjects about which we write, however, life-and-death, and deserve to be treated with all the seriousness that entails.  I have no interest in making myself a name, a mover-and-shaker, or impress those who are (or at least think they are).  My thoughts, while certainly rooted in all that comes before, is all mine.  I take full responsibility for it, especially for the weaknesses and flaws therein.  I would far prefer folks read what I have to say, and think about what I’ve written without caring about me one whit.

So that’s my response to your comment as to why I don’t offer others the same opportunities they make, especially comment sections.  I’m not interested in an argument.  I’m not interested in being right.  I’m not interested in impressing anyone.  I’m only interested in making my position clear, hopefully stimulating thought among others.  As for the rest, it’s a game that has no rules; those who understand that win because they don’t play.  Most especially when others insist on setting arbitrary rules that can neither be enforced nor exist anywhere except within their own heads.

And you’re welcome to respond with a blog post of your own, if you wish.  If not, well, OK.

 

This Is The Story So Far

Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. – 1 Peter 3:15b-16a

Geoffrey, I don’t know how you misconstrued any of our postings as a refusal or resisting prayer! Nothing could be further from the truth! Churches have been down this road so many times on exclusion of those they feel aren’t fit to be Christian and I, for one, am sick of it. I have a right to feel that way whether you agree with me or not. Here’s what gets me…these Bishops are supposedly our leaders, the ones with the wisdom and have a deep understanding of Jesus Christ. Really?? I don’t think so if they cannot grasp that the Lord said, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul AND Love your neighbor as you love yourself (PERIOD)…there is no “but,” “unless,” “however,” after yourself. And since when do men know better than God? Why are so many reluctant to practice what He asked of us? Why does the UMC insist on hurting people with their “rules” made by man? Say what they will, our wise Bishops and other leaders who think or believe those within the LGBTQ community are somehow not equal or as worthy as the rest of us, but it’s old, tiresome and complete BS. Stop judging, picking and choosing the worthy people and start loving ALL people! What is hard about this??? – Michele Smith Vasquez, from Facebook in response to a discussion after posting this

My preference would be to move on.  At the same time, that very first sentence floored me.  Was it possible Ms. Vasquez hadn’t read the things I quoted in the linked piece?  Did she not read a sampling from the piece I wrote yesterday?  Perhaps she should read some of the comments on Cynthia Astle’s commentary at United Methodist Insight.  The very idea that I was somehow imagining a dismissal of a call to prayer, when just above Ms. Vasquez’s comment comes the following:

prayerThat just blows my mind.

Part of the problem, perhaps, was focusing on one particular thing I wrote – and perhaps not even reading it thoroughly – and not taking in to account a history that goes back decades, literally, speaking out and fighting for justice in the United Methodist Church.  As I wrote yesterday, my first public statement against discrimination in ordination came in 1988.  I repeated here that I have been an advocate of direct action on the part of the clergy since around 1991 or so, the first time I suggested ending discrimination would entail the simple act of all LGBTQ clergy standing together during an Annual Session, outing themselves, and challenging the Bishop to remove them all at once.  When the Schaefer decision came down, I made it clear that, for all intents and purposes, the actions in Eastern Pennsylvania, the decision by the Judicial Council, and earlier Administrative actions in the New York Conference have rendered the language of the Book of Discipline toothless.  The precedents are many and varied, and there is no longer any reasonable expectation formal, legal action will be taken against any clergy who defy the ban on officiating at same-sex weddings.

Which says and does nothing about ordination, although far more clergy are living out without any action on the part of Bishops, Boards of Ordained Ministry, or judicial action.  As a matter of course, if not law, it seems to me that the matter has, in a sense, been decided.  For too many in the denomination, however, this is still controversial.  Consider Dr. David Watson of United Theological Seminary, for whom an end to clergy trials is “a non-starter”.  The demand from so many commenters for “action” and “leadership” ignores (a) the ways Bishops have all ready, in various way, taken a lead to dampen the fires by refusing to hold trials; and (b) led us forward to a time when, as I say, as a matter of fact if not of Church law, there is no longer any expectation for punishment for violating this particular clause of the BoD.  Our Bishop in Northern Illinois has made it clear – No More Trials.  In so doing, the ban on officiating at same-sex weddings is toothless.  While this may upset Dr. Watson, it is an Episcopal consensus de facto if not de jure.

My biggest pet peeve, perhaps, is one stated above: the demand for “action” on the part of the Council of Bishops, absent any clear consensus, or perhaps even plurality toward any specific action whatsoever.  As I asked yesterday, absent such plurality, who is going to lead?  To where?  Who will follow?  What will be the result of such rudderless “leadership” with a following that is no more coherent than a group on social media?  In many ways, this demand that someone, or perhaps some portion, of the Council “do something”, without any sense of what that might be, reminds me very much of demands from some people that our conversations on this topic be civil, decorous, and follow some set of rules.  I have made my feelings abundantly clear on this matter, calling such concern trolling “tone policing” and noting that, compared to so much discourse on the Internet, our debates and discussions about LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church has been heated but civil, never once approaching the depths that far too many such conversations reach.  Most of all, I have supported an intra-church political process that is indeed messy and rancorous, demonstrates to the world our divisions and need for prayerful guidance.  I have also made it clear that I believe that politics, rather than a test of faith, is (or at least should be) a practice of faith.  There is no way around the stormy seas of church politics on this matter, nor should there be.  Looking to the Council of Bishops mistakes authority for power, and ignores the myriad voices on the Internet, voices of those ready to do what it takes to change the language of the BoD.

As for that wording in the BoD, I took some time to look very carefully at it, repeating ad nauseum that it is not only rooted in an antiquated understanding of human sexuality, but is theologically dehumanizing, effectively declaring a portion of the human race outside the bounds of grace, no matter what precisely because of how they were created by God to live out their lives.  And speaking of lives, when the video concerning Ben Wood became public, I not only made clear my sadness and anger at the situation; I also made clear that all of us in the United Methodist Church share a measure of culpability in young Ben’s death just by creating space for a “youth leader” who would do something so cruel and hateful.  I also made clear my contempt for Bishop J. Michael Lowry for refusing to feel shame for the role the United Methodist Church played in young Ben’s decision to take his own life.  To suggest, even obliquely, that others have a greater feeling for the lives at stake in this discussion is not only insulting and ignorant; it demeans the very real struggle some of us have been waging a very long time against the language of the BoD.

Finally, I should note that this is not exactly a new issue, either for us or for me to comment upon.  I wrote something about the inability of the United Methodists to argue coherently and constructively in the run-up to the 2008 General Conference.  As I keep saying – this is a long slog.  “Leadership”, at least as some folks would like to see it enacted (“Just go out there and do something”), will come from us, lifting one another up.  Even those with whom we disagree.  We can pose as holier than all; we can insist that someone come forward to lead us all to the future light of justice.  Or, we can maybe, just maybe, accept this is a long process – one in which I’ve been engaged all my adult life – and rather than whine about a lack of leadership, or dismiss a call to prayer, we gird ourselves for what lies ahead, trusting in the God who calls us a people called Methodist that the end will be God’s end.  Not mine.  Not Ms. Vasquez’z.  Not the Council of Bishops.  Not Good News.  Because this is all about the Body of Christ known as The United Methodist Church, not me or him or him or her or any other individual or group.

With Respect, I Disagree

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. – Hebrews 10:19-25

Bishops Palmer, Barker, & Ward, Along With UM Publishing House Chair Neil Alexander At Yesterdays Panel Discussion on Human Sexuality

Bishops Palmer, Barker, & Ward, Along With UM Publishing House Chair Neil Alexander At Yesterdays Panel Discussion on Human Sexuality

Ben Wood, A Young Gay Man Told He Was Going To Hell By His UM Youth Pastor.  He Killed Himself At The Age Of 21

Ben Wood, A Young Gay Man Told He Was Going To Hell By His UM Youth Pastor. He Killed Himself At The Age Of 21

“Shame is not a tool or weapon to use against anyone.” – Bishop J. Michael Lowry, at yesterday’s panel discussion on human sexuality, held by the United Methodist Connectional Table.

To take up the cross of granting our adversaries their dignity and worth as children of God, no matter how badly they may have vilified us in the past for our attitudes and actions, even for our very identity. We all share the blame for the current state of disunity and threat of schism, but we can all share in the hope of new life as well. – Cynthia Astle, “Hopeful Signs Emerge From Sexuality Panel”, United Methodist Insight

I have nothing but respect, admiration, and even Christian love for my sister in Christ Cynthia Astle.  She has consistently published material I have submitted to United Methodist Insight on a variety of topics, including our current heated discussion over the future of our denomination’s relationship with sexual minorities.  Thus it pains me to disagree so strongly with the positions she lays out in the article from which the above quote is taken.  It would be nice if it were as easy as all of us accepting “blame” for our current state.  The facts, however, are otherwise.  From talk of schism, to demands and even threats that the “right” kind of delegates to the 2016 General Conference be elected or threaten the future of the denomination, to the actual dehumanizing language in the Book of Discipline, to the demands for a discourse both civil and umpired according to rules that would exclude any voices save those upholding the status quo, I would submit – as someone who has also followed this debate and discussion over sexual minorities in the church (including a long talk with a member of that 1989 panel who was a professor of mine in Seminary) – that it is now and has always been only one side of this discussion that threatens our unity, that demands the discriminatory and dehumanizing status quo remain as a reflection of True Faith, and offered as alternatives (“the local option”) “compromises” that not only threaten the integrity of our Connectional System, but seek to erase the reality that for more than a generation we have lived with an enunciated position that is not only discriminatory and dehumanizing, but unBiblicial, theologically untenable, and insulting to millions of United Methodists, clergy and lay.  We are not all responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves.  If this discussion were held with any integrity at all, these facts would begin any such discussion, and those who support them in some manner, fashion, or form would be forced to admit not only their truth, but their role in continuing the United Methodist Church’s on-going discriminatory practices and policies, practices and policies that have caused some to leave the denomination and, yes, some even to die.

We cannot move this discussion forward unless these points are clear and accepted.  That some people may object (“Shame is not a tool or weapon to use against anyone.”) or get their feelings hurt, or refuse to acknowledge these facts as facts is neither here nor there.  We cannot evade reality because it is uncomfortable or others object.  “Unity”, as Ms. Astle describes it above, is not a function of the Spirit or the Risen Christ but of Church Law to which all will give assent, and in which all can find space to live.  Currently, millions of us are not so much asked as commanded to live with a unity that demeans the lives of friends, of family, of loved ones, of people with great gifts and imagination and even true callings by God to a life in ministry.  Any threat to that “unity”, we are told, is a threat to the entire denomination, its connectional integrity, and the future mission and ministry of the church.  It is not “both sides” or “all” who do this.  As someone who has argued for nearly a quarter century publicly and unapologetically for direct action to remove the force of the Discipline language, and who has discerned in recent developments precisely that, I am not now nor have I ever been an advocate for disunity, for schism, threatened the integrity of our connectional system, or suggested that persons, congregations, or even Conferences withhold monies or ministries because of our current discriminatory position.  Nor have any other people I’ve known who wish to change the current language in the Book of Discipline.

Also on a personal note, I have been invited by a former UMC pastor who now serves in the UCC, to switch my denominational affiliation.  That would be impractical, married as I am to a United Methodist pastor in her 21st year of ministry, currently serving as a District Superintendent.  More importantly, I was baptized, educated, confirmed, and married in a United Methodist church. I was educated at a United Methodist-related seminary.  I was consoled at the suicide of a childhood friend by a local United Methodist pastor.  I have had the privilege of coming to know many faithful, loving, grace-filled United Methodist congregations in many parts of the country.  The teachings of Wesley, and of our current denominational formation, I find not only reflect the acts of God for the world, but the best approach to mission and ministry for the world.  I cannot abandon the denomination because it is imperfect; I can only do my admittedly small part to change it for the better.  Covenant and connectionalism, faith and history, Scripture and experience all call me to take my stand with the United Methodist Church, even as we struggle to come to terms with changing social and cultural and legal contexts, and live out faithfully new understandings of God’s grace moving in our denomination and in our world.  No one will make me leave this church that has sheltered me, loved me, ministered to me, and upheld me just because it discriminates against a part of the people beloved by God.

As to the matter of the “zero-sum” nature of the legal language involved, I can only respond to Ms. Astle by noting that the whole history of the Christian faith is in no small part a struggle to reject legalism as dictating what makes us Christians, in this case a people called Methodist.  As the Hebrews passage quoted above says, it is through our High Priest, the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, that we have true faith, true hope, and true unity.  The current language in the Book of Discipline is as much a zero-sum game as would be its removal; I am thankful that we United Methodists are not “United” because of words on a page, but through the Spirit of the Living God, whose Son Jesus Christ is both priest and sacrifice, opening salvation to all through faith.  There is no via media, no local option, no “Third Way” that avoids politics, will not leave many hurt, and cause disruption among United Methodists across the country and world.  That is the case now.  Breaching our disagreements, healing the pain caused by our discriminatory practices, as well as the words flung back and forth will not be found in and through some legal compromise that cannot be accomplished.  The removal of the current Discipline language on homosexuality will only be the beginning.  We as a church will have to trust in the God who calls us, who saves us, who brings us together in congregations, in Districts, in Conferences Annual and General to bring the healing, to bridge the gaps among us all, and to hold us together even as anger, hurt, and even feelings of betrayal would move some to abandon the United Methodist Church.  As I have made clear, politics is a practice of faith, one in which we must trust the Spirit moves, the Word is heard, and through which the grace that calls us, saves us, and perfects us will lead us to a future in which we United Methodists no longer need be ashamed because we insist that some persons, because of who and how they love, are incompatible with Christian teaching.

I appreciate the Spirit that moves you, Ms. Astle, to find a way around the thicket of anger, of hurt, the sometimes vehement and even noisy discussion we United Methodists find ourselves currently engaged.  We must gird ourselves, however, and move through it rather than around it, always in prayer for all, with the faith and hope and love that same Spirit will move all of us to the other side.  There is no other course, as unsatisfying as it might be.