Towers, schism, and the confusion of The United Methodist Church

As a child I was fascinated with the Biblical story about the Tower of Babel. Take a minute and read it. It’s short; I’ll wait right here.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.

And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they all have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

– Genesis 11:4-9, New Revised Standard Version

We like to build things. It is part of who we are.

Music, sculpture, cinema, dance, architecture, and language. This creative drive so present in our culture is a reflection of the one who shaped us. Working together, there is indeed very little that seems impossible. Some of our creations are amazing in both form and utility; most have an expiration date the second they spring forth from our imaginations. We forget this.

The story of Babel’s tower is still as striking to me today as it was when I was a child. Then, I used to imagine an immense skyscraper nearing the heavens in such literal ways. Today, I find such a curious metaphor for human ambition and divine limitations upon the same.

This old, old story of Babel’s tower still has some wisdom to impart. While it proposes to explain the origins of our many languages, it also establishes a certain confusion as our baseline reality. It’s not hard to imagine that we continue to live in the world it describes, one where assumptions about the ‘other’ replace deep understanding. Despite our best efforts, we can never quite close the space between.

For the most part, we have learned to adapt to this baseline of confusion by creating things that make sense within the limited context of their construction. When these things are threatened, we build walls. This is how a piece of art can be deeply experienced by some, even as revelatory, yet repulsive to another. And it is why a system designed to connect and direct people toward a common purpose might be experienced as empowering by some, and felt as restrictive and harmful by others.

On the day of Pentecost, as recorded in The Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit visited the early Church and for a moment She broke through our baseline of confusion in a literal way. Each disciple was given the gift to speak in other languages, bewildering those who gathered, each hearing their native tongues being spoken. This reversal of God’s own action at Babel is instructive in helping us to understand how God builds the Church.

In a way, the Church is God’s answer to our towers. With the simple gifts of the Spirit, the most important being love, Christians have and continue to experience this church whenever they break bread together, allow grace to permeate their relationships, and the Spirit to cultivate empathy and curiosity about one another. Where we are tempted to build up first, God builds out, networking us together to provide a firm foundation for the work we are called to do.

But we are still attracted to our towers. Quite often with the best of intentions, we look to understand, define, and order the experiences that we have had believing that these laws, the patterns we recognized at one moment in time and space, will work the same for all others in perpetuity. And the higher our towers get, the easier it becomes to put our faith in these structures as the foundation is now so very far below.

Over the 15 or so years that I’ve been a United Methodist, I’ve experienced a church that is both deeply divided and very united. I’ve met conservative and progressive Methodists willing to connect to, and hold generous relationships with, those across the proverbial aisle. And I’ve met liberals and traditionalists whose rancorous nature made it impossible for respectful dialogue or much common practice.

Understanding that our human constructs have limits is essential to recognizing the problems The United Methodist Church faces today. At moments of deep division, we should ask ourselves:

  • Did we reach too high? Are we attempting to build something without the Spirit?
  • Is our polity unintentionally supplanting the work of Christ, our firm foundation?
  • Do we hold healthy distinctions between denominational identity, theological affinity, and unity in Christ?

Unity isn’t something any denominational commission or task force can create or take away. No association or caucus who mistakes the fuzzy elation of hive mind for God’s heart will get us any closer either. At their best, such groups might help us to look more generously upon each other and alleviate the labors of the Spirit upon our hardened hearts.

The good news is that the Church unity we should seek first is simple, if costly, and always available to us. What truly unites the Church is not doctrinal consensus or perfect piety. The love we are given, the grace we receive and extend to others, is what binds Christ’s Church. When we can see Christ in the other, no matter our disagreement, we are united. When we can no longer see Christ in them, no matter our fidelity to our towers of rules and regulations, we have left our foundational network behind.

By this measure of Church, where one stands is less important than how one stands. People who really care about Church unity will invest in relationships, not rules. They will double down on love, not law. They realize that unity is in the foundation and that there is a risk in building too high.

It’s a shame that our ability to create is not always matched by an ability to order the same with grace. The structures we build may have their limits but they can be so very useful in helping us to meet the needs of a hurting world.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

-1 Corinthians 13:2, NRSV

 

The reasons matter…

When your new focus on discipleship is really just another strategy to grow your church, well, as Scripture says, “Jesus wept.”

It isn’t that churches shouldn’t care about discipleship. They should.

It isn’t that churches shouldn’t invest time and energy toward intentional formation. Again, they should.

It is no exaggeration that many churches suffer from a lack of focus and prioritization toward this most central task of calling and equipping change agents, ambassadors of love, for the world. Fixing broken systems is not a bad thing.

But, IMHO, you have to do it for the right reasons.

Getting serious about discipleship because you are worried about the future of the church. Not a good reason.

Getting serious about discipleship because you are worried about the future of the world. Now that is getting closer…

#endrant

Real Christians should be thanking Donald Trump

When Khizr Khan spoke last week at the Democratic National Convention it was powerful. In a short and pointed speech, Khan poked a large hole in all the vitriol and bluster that is the Donald Trump campaign, exposing him as an ignorant xenophobe whose self-portrait as public servant is plainly fraudulent. If you haven’t watched it yet, you should take a few minutes to do so.

Of course, Khan’s speech wouldn’t have been so effective if we didn’t already know these truths to be self-evident, as they say. As we hit the weekend we saw Trump, once again, display his habitual inability to respond with any grace or empathy for another, in this case for the Muslim parents of a son who had given his life for this country and his fellow soldiers. Rebukes from veteran’s groups and many others followed.

It is hardly hyperbolic to suggest that we may never see a major party candidate for the highest office in the land that is as clearly bigoted and anti-Christian as Donald Trump. Throughout the campaign Trump has regularly bullied his political opponents, acted with remarkably little self-discipline, and made numerous statements in clear conflict with any plain reading of the teachings of Jesus.

So why should real Christians thank Donald Trump?

We should thank Donald Trump because he is doing a fantastic job of exposing the metaphorical wolves amongst the sheep in Christianity. We have had a problem for years with so-called Christian leaders who made political deals to advance their own interests and brands (upon which they can more effectively sheer the sheep). Perhaps not all of these leaders had bad intentions but in meddling in politics with so little grace, they have all been contributors to the divisiveness we see in this country and the increasingly negative views that emerging generations have of the church as a whole.

The church has struggled to rebuke many of these so-called leaders despite the great damage they have done. The diversity within Protestantism, and to a lesser degree Catholicism, makes it difficult to discern the boundaries of what is faithful and what isn’t. But with his clear and public disregard for the broad spectrum of Christian virtues, Trump makes himself difficult for an informed follower of Jesus to stomach (of course, many good people are relatively uninformed) and impossible for faithful Christian leaders to endorse (as an endorsement suggests that the endorsee is informed).

Any pastor or evangelist who is publicly promoting this candidate is either delusional or motivated by an ideology in conflict with the Gospel (party loyalty, fear, hate, power, etc.). It’s the only way to explain how a “Christian leader” like James Dobson could argue that Trump “appears to be tender to things of the Spirit.” In fairness, Dobson doesn’t define what Spirit and is joined by other partisan evangelical leaders in lining up behind Trump (and notably not joined by others).

If you are watching such an evangelist or pastor on television, do yourself a favor and change the channel. If you are attending their church, explain your concerns and if they go unheeded, find a new community. Your soul will thank you, and so will your country.

Now politics are a messy thing; this is a truth as old as Scripture. No political party is perfectly aligned with the Christian faith, even in the abstract. There are politicians in each of the major politcal parties capable of making the baby Jesus cry. Still, faith that is worth having, has real world implications. It should inform the decisions we make, including who we might vote for.

In this election, there really is one choice that is simply unconscionable; his name is Donald J. Trump. Let us thank him for providing a moment of clarity and work zealously to call out the wolves who have, for years now, been preying upon the sheep who they should have been praying with.


Credit: Photo of Donald Trump by Flickr user Michael Vadon, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Lancing the boil of #UMC bigotry

big·ot·rynoun – intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.

I must confess that I use the word bigotry with some reluctance. Too often people employ the word bigot to paint another as intolerant while remaining blissfully unaware of their own ideological bigotry. That is why I started this post with the definition so we might share a sense of what I mean as I use the word.

A bigot isn’t necessarily right or wrong; they are simply someone self-convinced that they hold an absolute truth. In this sense, it is perfectly accurate from any perspective to describe the United Methodist Book of Discipline as bigoted when it comes to the question of full inclusion of LGBTQIA folks in the life of the church. It leaves no room for those who have come, through discernment of Scripture and faithful study, to believe that sexual orientation ought not be a barrier to full inclusion of individuals in the life of the church.

I happen to be friends with a lot of people who are celebrating the consecration of the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as a United Methodist bishop; a part of me is celebrating along with them, truth be told. But I’m intentional about trying to keep voices who are seeing this same action as troubling, confusing, and unfaithful on my radar as well. With the simple definition of bigotry in mind, I know at least as many progressives one might define as bigoted as conservatives or traditionalists. In our United Methodist circumstance, the prevailing difference is who holds the power.

Our affirmation of connectional bigotry

The Rev. Mike Slaughter (front) and the Rev. Adam Hamilton speak in favor of legislation that would have acknowledged that United Methodists disagree on issues of sexuality during the denomination's 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The Rev. Mike Slaughter (front) and the Rev. Adam Hamilton speak in favor of legislation that would have acknowledged that United Methodists disagree on issues of sexuality during the denomination’s 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

If you were at, or followed along with, the 2012 General Conference you may remember  a moment of some significance where two well respected large church pastors, the Revs. Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter, brought a largely aspirational substitutionary motion to the floor. The petition, which intentionally honored the majority, traditional view, had the audacity to call upon the church to recognize “that many faithful United Methodists disagree with this view.” How dare they ask us to be so open minded?

When the General Conference rejected this motion 368 to 572, one which aspired to set a low bar of recognizing the fidelity of those who disagree with the majority, it affirmed a bigoted position on human sexuality. Technically speaking, our official position as a church is bigoted not due to the specific content of said position but because of the way we continue to hold it. In a sense, this vote was a direct rejection of the “open minds” refrain of our United Methodist marketing. Put another way, in this one area we have voted that all faithful minds are unified and fixed upon a single position; this is textbook bigotry, folks.

None of the legislative work in the 2016 General Conference succeeded in addressing, or significantly discussing, our bigoted position. It is hard to interpret the intentions of the thin majority that asked the bishops for a path forward; some certainly wanted to address this wound, others may have voted out of episcopal respect, still others to avoid conflict. In the subsequent months, it has grown clear that any hope for a moratorium on church trials and the persecution of those who are minorities in terms of sexual orientation and/or theological action, was fanciful thinking.

The response to the election and consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto was both rapid and fierce from those in opposition. The South Central Jurisdiction passed a request for a declaratory ruling challenging the election almost before it even occurred. In addition to the critique that her election violated church law, it was also quickly framed as disrespectful of a proposed bishops’ commission. The Rev. Ed Tomlinson summed up this sentiment when interviewed by United Methodist News Service, “It seems they [the Western Jurisdiction] rushed to judgment without really caring whether all voices are heard or not.”

Is it ironic that one would defend a bigoted position by proclaiming a need to “hear all voices” or is that simply disingenuous? I’ve never been able to understand irony correctly since Alanis Morrisette.

Lancing a boil

On his website, The Survival Doctor, James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H., offers advice on how to care for a boil in the event that one cannot reach a doctor. A boil is an infection under the skin. Filled with pus, “it can be the size of a pea or golf ball.” He offers advice on several treatments to get the infection to go away on its own or to come to a head. I was surprised to learn that you should avoid squeezing a boil as that will spread the infection.

If time and care don’t ease things, or if the boil is painful, causing weakness or high fever, the advised treatment is to lance it, to open the wound and drain the infection. Hubbard takes time to explain the process emphasizing the importance of hygiene throughout. While lancing may ease the severity of the pain and be a positive step toward healing, without deliberate ongoing care and attention to the wound, the infection can easily return.

'The Sky is Falling' by Flickr user Lauri Väin, CC BY 2.0., source image.
‘The Sky is Falling’ by Flickr user Lauri Väin, CC BY 2.0., source image.

While some are prone to proclaim that the sky is falling, I would suggest we are better served in seeing Bishop Oliveto’s election as an opportunity. Her consecration as a bishop of The United Methodist Church is a lancing of the infection in our church which has resisted 40+ years of attempted treatments and, at times, ill-advised squeezes which have caused the infection to spread and weaken us significantly. Contrary to the position of some that wish to identify LGBTQIA folks as the problem, the infection within our church for some time now has been an enshrined bigotry in our Book of Discipline which leaves inadequate space for a faithful opposition.

Is there no balm in Gilead?

If, as I assert, an enshrined bigotry is the true infection plaguing The United Methodist Church, we might expect that the election of Bishop Oliveto would be painful to the church as the lancing of any inflamed tissue would be. Any who can’t feel that pain in some way should question whether they truly remain in the body. I was encouraged to find many of the leaders in the Western Jurisdiction working quickly to acknowledge this reality and to name the need to listen deeply even as they were caught up in a moment of celebration. Bishop Oliveto’s first letter after her consecration explicitly names this need to “[stand] before those who are angry, anxious, or fearful and be a witness to all they are feeling.”

Over a certain time, we should see the pressure and pain ease as people recognize that the sky isn’t falling, ministry in the local church continues, that a leader’s ability to serve isn’t defined or much related to their sexual orientation, and that God still has much for us to do to serve and transform the communities we are called to.

Still, I’m concerned by Hubbard’s repeated reminders about sterilization and care for the wound. I worry because some of us have grown quite used to the pain; a few are already making plans for what they will do after the body is forced to acknowledge that our wounds as untreatable.

And I fret that in celebrating the lancing of this particular boil we’ll forget how easy it is to get another infection. In our vulnerable state, will we simply replace one bigoted position with another leaving little room in our minds and hearts again for those who see their faith differently? Complex questions of identity face us which will require the Spirit-driven conversations we often talk about but too infrequently practice.

Mister Rogers, photo by Gene J. Puskar
Mister Rogers, photo by Gene J. Puskar

Our situation reminds me of a popular quote from the affable Mister (Fred) Rogers.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

As we head into these next few months, we’ll see numerous statements, inevitable news releases of complaints and charges, and continuing threats of schism from those who have been seeking a reason to leave for some time now. But in these moments, where uncertainty undeniably lies, look for the helpers. Look for the people who are applying ointment to the wound, promoting healing as the infection of bigotry oozes out, and seeking to bind it together with prayer and deep listening across the divisions that we share. These are the church’s true leaders.

But they can’t do this work alone. May we all be anointed as healers in this moment, even as we acknowledge our sin in not loving our sisters and brothers as much as Jesus would ask. Let us be diligent in our task of applying balm to the wounds in our body, and aware of the different measures of power we may wield, so that we might find renewed vitality together in love for the work God has for us.

May we be ever vigilant and committed to open hearts, minds, and doors as we are all quite capable of closing each.

I’m tired of pretending (and of conferencing) – #WJUMC

I’m not a big fan of pretending.

We all do it of course. We pretend to be happy when we aren’t. We pretend to like dinner when we didn’t. We have dedicated entire genres to the art of pretending; some of our favorite things are born in these worlds of science fiction and fantasy.

Pretending has an undeniable value. Pretending plays an important role in child development fostering social and cognitive skills and igniting creativity. Adults can use role-playing and other forms of pretending to spark their own creativity and to troubleshoot challenges they face.

But there is also a time when pretending ceases to be helpful.

There is a lot to love about our Methodist practice of conferencing. Together, Methodists have done good work together saving lives and committing resources to greater efficiency. I’ve seen relationships develop across divides, and there is most certainly value in knowing that we are not alone in this big world.

What I don’t appreciate about our practice of conferencing is all the misdirected pretending.

It has long been acknowledged that many churches struggle to create safe places for authenticity. Where we ought to be able to bring our struggles and troubles, instead, we often feel we need to dress them up with fine clothes and fake smiles. Building real Christian community is hard, time consuming, work.

Some churches have found that small groups help because they allow folks to more easily get beyond pretense to intimacy. Trust is hard earned in these days of political polarization, quick judgment and superficiality. Where a hard truth might easily be discarded as a harsh judgment coming from an acquaintance or even from the pulpit, in relationship the same words might take root leading toward transformation – or they may never be spoken because relationships help us all to understand context and appreciate nuance.

Still we come together at our annual, jurisdictional, and general conferences and spend a lot of time (and money) pretending that the Spirit is with us absent the love, grace, and trust we may once have had for each other. We imagine good preaching and excellence in music can erase ugly words and cynical politicking. We pretend that we are looking to our bishops for leadership but really we just want them to take our side.

Perhaps Jesus never intended for us to build such ziggurats of institutionalized religiosity. Maybe they just don’t work as well today as they did in the past.

Perhaps uniformity fit better when missional context was just a rough edge to sand away. Maybe things were easier when we didn’t have the Internet around to expose how love often allowed for divine deviation.

I mentioned earlier that pretending can actually serve a positive purpose. Perhaps we are just pretending in the wrong direction.

Imagine for a moment that you are a little boy playing with his Star Wars figures. You have a choice of playmates this afternoon and your mother wants to know which friend you wish to visit.

Your first friend is a delight to play with. Together you dream up new worlds to save from the evil clutches of the Galactic empire. You aren’t thoroughly convinced that her Care Bears are “the same as Ewoks” but you roll with it anyway. Your mother always seems to pick you up too early.

Your second friend is a little different. Whenever your Luke Skywalker figure determines the best path to victory, this friend quickly presents a reason why Luke can’t do what you need him to do. And before you know it, his Darth Vader is force choking your doll. End of story.

If you are looking at these options as a reasonable adult, it’s very likely that you would choose to play with the first friend. If you really got into role-playing as a little boy, you may have made a different, poorer, choice. How little kids develop gender-bias is a conversation for another day.

What I would put before you, as I end this post, is the choice we never seem to make as a larger church. When we come together for our Connectional playdates, we most often choose the second friend’s form of pretending, that is pretending in the negative. We spend hours defining what we can’t do, obsessively limiting the possibilities of our Methodist sisters and brothers, and thus, potentially quenching the Spirit that moves is ways we can’t predict (John 3:8).

Instead, we could choose to pretend together as this little boy does when he visits his first friend. This positive pretending would allow us to dream together about what God is calling us to. We might have to overlook the fact that our playmate has brought Care Bears to a Star Wars battle, but the energy lost obsessing over those details, trying to deliver what we may believe to be a hard truth, is more than we frankly have.

So as we head into this final conference of the quadrennium, I am tired of pretending and looking forward to a day where we might dream up new possibilities together again. I hope I am not alone in this.


Image Credit: Composite image from source files by Flickr user JD Hancock.

What the Hell are we doing on Sunday Mornings?

Guest Post by the Rev. Kathy Neary

Christianity is bracing for the Big One.  We are waiting with anxious hearts to see what cataclysmic change is bearing down on us from history. Phyllis Tickle popularized the theory that every 500 years a great, mind-blowing transformation occurs within Christianity, and we are due. The last major shift in the way we theologized and practiced Christianity occurred during the Protestant Reformation, marked by Martin Luther posting his debate invitation on the Wittenberg Church doors in 1517.

martin-luther
A depiction of Martin Luther’s legendary nailing of his 95 Theses to the doors of the Wittenberg Castle church.

We’re due.  We may be past due.

I think the next major shift involves the end of Christian worship. I’m not referring to the style of benedictions, which is what I found when I Googled “the end of Christian worship.” I’m saying that Christians will no longer gather on a weekly basis to worship God. Of course, that type of practice will continue in small pockets of Christian communities, but it will not be the central identifying mark of Christian life. This change in Christian practice has been coming for some time now, but we just haven’t recognized the seismic shifts sending tremors up through our souls. Now it’s time to face this possibility.

#UMCGC

Our Connectional Game of Thrones

A couple of weeks before United Methodists gather in Portland, Oregon for their General Conference, the highly anticipated sixth season of Game of Thrones will debut on HBO. This will be the first season to leapfrog its source material, A Song of Ice and Fire, the popular fantasy series by George R. R. Martin. The second promotional trailer for this season, released just a week ago, already has 14 million views.

Game of Thrones logoWhile Game of Thrones is a cultural phenomenon, it is also very clearly intended for a mature audience. Even though the show’s fandom assuredly includes some Methodists, there have been moments throughout that have rightly given viewers, religious or not, pause.

Of course, the same might be said of the quadrennial meeting United Methodists call General Conference. Billed as a “global church gathering” accompanied with celebratory displays of worship and recognitions of Connectional work, this meeting of the denomination’s “top legislative body” can also be a babelesque confusion of cultures, values, and theology. The $10.5 million price tag for this church gathering, given the elusiveness of substantive results, also gives many pause.