General Conference 1956

Today starts General Conference 2016. For months, years maybe, I have heard our church, my church, the church I love so much is broke. That we are weak and lost and maybe beyond repair. I have heard all the negative awful stories of decline, seen them with my own eyes, and felt it in my heart. In the days leading up to today, I have felt, like so many of my friends and colleagues, a tremendous pressure on my heart, a pressure we are laying very firmly on the shoulders of 864 delegates.

This morning however, I woke up praying. I hardly ever wake up praying as I am not a morning person and I do not have the peace of mind to talk to anyone in the morning, much less God. But this morning, before I even knew I was awake, I was forming words of prayer around General Conference. And I was lighter.

As I came in to the office, the thought struck me that perhaps, just perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps, the United Methodist Church is not worse off today than it ever has been. Perhaps we are not in as terrible a place as the ubiquitous “everyone” wants us to believe. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is our own panic and need to have things the way we want them that has made us forget how to hold in perspective where we are now with where we have been. I am not saying we don’t need to improve. I am not saying that there are not changes we as a church need to make. There are. But maybe we are making death inevitable by seeing only death instead of celebrating the death we have cheated to get to where we are today.

When I came into the office, I pulled out my 1956 copy of the Book of Discipline. (I was given this by a male colleague when I started in ministry who told me every clergy woman should own this BOD. I think there may soon be more UMC clergywomen then there are copies of the 1956 BOD. What a thing to celebrate!) Sometimes I like to just hold this book in my hands and remember how far we have come.

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In 1956, as General Conference prepared to meet, there was no United Methodist Church. There was a very divided Methodist Church. There was a Methodist Church. There was a United Church of the Brethren. There were African Americans who were segregated into the “Central Jurisdiction”, regardless of where their churches were located geographically. There were no clergy women in full connection. Sure, we had pastors who were going to new Methodists who move into the community and making sure they stayed Methodist. Sure, had a million committees that did a bazillion things that reported at a quarterly conference so everybody better look busy. There was way more accountability that, at least on paper, seems better. But we also has trials for church members who bought, sold or made liquor. Shaming people for their sins was the order of the day. Excluding people, lots of people, was accepted and expected, not just in the church but in the world.

In 1956, I don’t know what the delegates were feeling or thinking. I am not sure what pressure was on them. We don’t have blog posts or tweets or emails to tell us their every thought. What we do have is a forward thinking decision to include women as full members of the clergy. What we do have is a courageous decision to remove the Central Jurisdiction and allow African American Methodist churches to join the geographical jurisdictions to which they should belong.

Are we a better stronger church today? I believe so. When I can name more women clergy that I know than men, I say so. When I see the global reach of the United Methodist church, not as missionary outposts but as churches that are part of the communities where people live, I say so. When I listen to former church member tell me how much her Korean pastor has changed her life, I say so.

Do we have much work to be done? Yes.
Are there more people to be included? Yes.
Do I pray that the General Conference of 2016 will be as courageous and bold and visionary as the General Conference of 1956 was? Yes.

In all things God works. Whatever our delegates leave us with, our church, my church, will remain the church through which God worked and works in my life and in the lives of many people I know and love. We cannot let the work of Christ stop. It goes on, regardless. And I am convinced with God and with the people of God committed to doing kingdom work where they are at, the church will only be better each year than the one that has past.

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Where there is no rainbow filter…

There is a  meme that has been born in various manifestations in the last 24 hours.  It may not be entirely true on your facebook feed but I suspect it is at least half true. The skittles half. 

                                                      

If you happen to be my friend, you will notice my face is the same Irish pale it usually is. I invite you not to read too much into this. Or maybe read alot into this but read into it specifically.

Last week, when I returned home from Annual Conference I was joyful to learn that our last written ballot results were:  

 Results of voting on Petitions 2, 11 and 14
Petition 2 calls for “Additional Definition for Self-Avowal.” Petition 11 asks for a “Mandatory Penalty for Violation of Par. 2702.1(b).” Petition 14 states: Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church to delete the sentence found in ¶ 161F of the 2012 Book of Discipline that states, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The results are:
Petition 2 — 838 yes; 961 no; 96 abstentions. (1895 total)
Petition 11 — 811 yes; 994 no; 96 abstentions. (1901 total)
Petition 14 — 989 yes; 868 no; 40 abstentions; (1897 total)
Four ballots were ruled to be invalid.

I say I was joyful because Petition 2 made no sense to me. I did not see a need for it other than to cause more chaos and division. Both  of which are frankly not the work of Christ. Petition 11 asked for mandatory penalties to essentially force Bishops who are not currently punishing clergy to punish them. Clergy in conferences such as the Virginia conference who violate church law by marrying same gender couples are being punished. Two have been punished here in Virginia. Again, I see that this is merely going to cause more problems and I do not see those Bishops who are not currently enforcing church law being willing to enforce this anyway. More time, more money, more heartbreak for our church. Why would we do this. 

The last, petition 14 is where all the real debate lies. This is a sentence I long to see gone from our Book of Discipline. But before I tell you why I want to go back to the rainbow colored filter. Bear with me while I jump around.

When I was ordained, I realized something that I did not take so seriously in my ministry to that point. There was something about Bishop Kammerer asking the historical questions in front of a room full of clergy that included clergy that I both admire and am challeged by that made me stop and consider that I am no longer my own. I have thoughts and opinions. Those come out more than they should. But as much as I am able I need to be able to minister to all God’s people. In a public arena like facebook, we are asked to splash rainbow colors across our faces or share news articles of controversial subjects. And we can assume when someone does or does not do the same it is because they do or do not feel the same. 

Sometimes I do not “take a stand” because taking a stand means I do not know how I will be able to minister to those whom God has entrusted to my care who do not feel as I do. Because sometimes my personal opinion, all the time in this calling, my personal opinion must matter much much less than the ability to love as Christ loves. I have to set what I think aside, so that I can minister to those who see the world as I do and those who do not. My liberal friends have sometimes accused me of being too conservative on issues I am truly liberal at heart on and my conservative friends have accused me of being a liberal when I am truly much more conservative than I appear. The gospel at times calls us to stand with love, not law and love will lead us to some interesting places. 

I don’t think its just the calling of clergy to do this, but the calling of all Christians. But as a clergy person I certainly have to do a better job of modeling it. 

Which brings me back to petition 14. And why I so hope it is removed at General Conference. I am ashamed as a United Methodist it is in the Book of Disipline. These words “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” are beneath us. If we want to know the truth the whole of the human condition is incompatible with Christian teaching. There are so many parts of me that are incompatible with Christian teaching that I cannot begin to look at the speck in my neighbors eye. If this sentence were to say, gossip or not feeding the poor, or refusing the children, or neglecting the widow, or rejecting the outsider, all practices Jesus himself says are incompatible with Christian teaching we would not bat an eye at their removal. 

Apart from Jesus Christ and his saving grace, the whole of the human condition is incompatible with Christian teaching. There is nothing in us apart from God that desires love, or truth, or grace, or goodness. All that Christ teaches us that brings us to a new life in him, comes not because we are compatible but only because Jesus Christ offers it freely to all.

Remove the language. Removing the language does not open the flood gates to every church pastor performing same gender weddings, or ordaining openly gay clergy in married relationships. Those are debates we still have to have. Removing this language simply affirms that there is a place in the church and in God’s heart for all of his children. And if there is a facebook filter for that I would be all over it. 

At the Bedside of A Wounded Church

 

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Often time, when a church member is struggling with dying, hospice, the nurses or I as the pastor, will coach the family to offer love and forgiveness and give permission to their loved one. Many times I have sat at a bedside telling someone it is okay to no longer fight, to go quietly to the place that has been prepared for them. I have been at bedsides where the family cried and wept and wailed. Where they told their loved one that they cannot leave yet, that they will not be able to live without them, that surely God is not yet calling them home. I have been at other bedsides where the family lovingly and without prompting, tells the person they love that they will be okay without them, that they want them to be at peace.

I have seen very sick individuals who have fought against dying because they could not let go of the living. I have seen those who medically might have recovered go peacefully into death. Finally, I have seen those who are sure to die, recover and live on.

We cannot predict death. But as people of faith, we have to believe and live into resurrection.

We are a church in hospice with a self inflicted wound.

I am horrified as I watch what is happening to the United Methodist Church. Not because we are dying. Not because I am afraid that I am going to lose a church I love before I have had enough time with her. But because there are factions on both sides of the bed screaming, “YOU CAN’T LEAVE US!!! WE CAN’T SURVIVE WITHOUT YOU!”

I don’t understand how people on either side think we can possible divide something that is United. We are the UNITED Methodist Church. We are the church that took risks, having to send lay leaders because the gospel was spreading so fast that we didn’t have enough time to prepare and ordain preachers for all the communities who were hungry for God’s word. We are the church that very early on let women be among the group of those lay preachers (even though ordination for women was hard and rocky). We are the church that sends Korean and African American pastors to churches where racism was so entrenched that property deeds often stated that whites only could be members and if a member of another race was permitted the property would be returned to the gift giver.

We are United. More than anything, we are the denomination that found a way to bring together people. We brought together city and rural people with a shared vision of transforming the world. We are the denomination formed from other denominations.

I am standing at the death bed, whispering quietly to our church, “its okay. we will survive without you. we will thrive without you. you are not the gospel. you are not the salvation. you are not the hope of the world. if it is your time to go, go and know we will keep doing your work.”

I know and believe more than anything else death leads to resurrection. I am not sure the United Methodist Church will survive because we are so focused on one issue, one pain, one political stance that we are not living or proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ and there are no churches that can survive without the Living Word of God at their center. We have forgotten our name. We have abandoned our rich history of doing what others said could not and should not be done so Christ can be lifted up above all.

I find myself with tears of grief and lose and hurt streaming down my face, trying patiently to hold in the screams that are building in me. I want to say to those who are focused on division, go…go away and do what God is calling you to do but do not call it United Methodist because it is not. I want to scream, “let our church have peace so that it can die and be raised to new life or so it can regain its strength to rise up and do what United Methodists have always done so well, transform the world through making disciples of Jesus Christ.”

I want to throw both sides out into the waiting room so that the church I love can hear me whisper, “its okay. you can go to the place God has prepared for you. we will not stop living or loving or following Jesus if you do. you are loved and your work will not stop with your death.”

Oh, I how I grieve. I will not go to the right or the left but will stay here, beside the church that has shaped and formed my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. I do not think any good will come out of division and so I will stay United Methodist until that identity is no longer there to claim. Then I will turn, look to Christ, and follow Him from the death bed into the world, where His work is still waiting.

 

No Santa? Now what?

Navigating the month of December with children under the age of twelve in the culture of Santa-centered celebrations is a careful dance. Making the decision has had an impact on our December celebrations in ways I could never anticipated when we made this seemingly simple choice.

Everyone expects that your kids will be visited by Santa. This is especially hard when they are the preachers children and they have not just the usual folks but entire churches full of people asking them if they are ready for Santa to come.
I will never forget the first year Santa came up in our house. We calmly explained to our six, four and three year old that Santa was based on a man named Saint Nicholas who was a real person who gave lots of gifts to poor people. We read them a story about St. Nicholas and they were pretty comfortable with the idea that St. Nick was real but Santa is a way people honor what he did. On Christmas Eve at the end of the worship service one of my church members asked our very verbal three year old if she was ready for Santa to come. The response to this wonderful, elderly member of my church? “Don’t you know that Santa is dead?”
Yup. Santa is dead. That’s how our three year old translated all the justification we so logically laid out.

I’m not going to pretend it is easy. It is hard on a family and kids and on innocent bystanders who just assume that everyone celebrates like they always have.

We have found that some things help.

We don’t make an issue of it. When our girls ask, we tell them the truth but we try to be gentle and we try to be sensitive. They want to be the same as their classmates and its hard for them not to be. If they don’t talk about it, we don’t talk about it.

We let them pretend. Our now five year old very vocally announced a couple of years ago that she wants to pretend Santa is real. That is fine with us. She talks about Santa coming and she wants to see Santa and she is just like every other five year old you are likely to meet. But she doesn’t realize that Santa is supposed to bring her presents on Christmas morning so its funny that all the Santa stuff comes out in early December but is not mentioned at all on Christmas Day.

We talk to their teachers. This is the tough one. Every year towards the end of November I contact all the elementary teachers and tell them that we do not use Santa in our Christmas celebration. I explain our reasons (See the previous post) and ask that they not tell our girls that Santa is real or to have them write letters to Santa. I don’t care if the rest of the class does such a project but I am very, very adamant that Christmas is not about them asking for stuff they want. We have had several teachers give them alternate projects. When Santa comes to visit class I ask the teacher to let me know and I pick our children up for a special date. We do something fun and more exciting then Santa together. I have never had a teacher push back or be less than understanding. One very amazing teacher saw that our daughter was struggling and told her that she could come anytime during the day and talk to her about how hard it was. It helped to know that her teacher was her friend and was okay with her knowing Santa is not real.

Its really, really hard to have friends who believe. We have five sensitive, caring daughters. We try really hard in all things to not bully them into believing what we think is important. We figured out very quickly that making this choice meant that they easily felt like something was wrong with our family and by extension them. We have combated this in two ways.
First, we encourage them to talk about it and ask us questions. We read stories about Santa and we include him in small ways in our December preperations. There are all kinds of imaginary characters around them all year that are important to them (Rapunzel, Minions, their dolls, for example) so Santa just dove tails into that category. We just always figured that outlawing Santa completely would be too much for them to understand, especially when there is so much out in the world.

Second, we encourage them to be sensitive to their friends. We always tell them that different families celebrate Christmas in different ways. What Jesus wants is for all families to be happy together and to have lots and lots of love at this time of the year. For some families, Santa Claus helps them be really happy and show love. For other families, like ours we do other things. We have lots of traditions that have built up around celebrating Jesus’ birthday that are somewhat unique to our own celebrations. We tell them that they don’t want to take happiness away from their friends Christmas by telling them that they are wrong about Santa. Our children are sensitive enough to other kids feelings to understand this. Mostly I think they just go along with their friends, we don’t pressure them into any certain response.
For us, not including Santa is not about changing some deep seeded problem in society, its about worshiping and celebrating Jesus Christ as authentically as we can.

I have learned that most people are taken aback when it comes up. I have had churches that have Santa visit and while it makes me uncomfortable, I think that when we keep the gospel front and center we can find a place of letting it be just innocent fun. In all things, its important to have a relationship with your children where they can come to you when they are struggling or when things don’t make sense. We are honest with the older girls, we know its hard but they are learning about faith and life in ways that change them daily, not just in December. We have been able to have some really profound moments of faith development with our oldest two children as we make sense of what we believe and why.

I hope this helps some of you who may want to go in this direction and don’t know how. Soon I will do a post on some of our traditions that help fill in the Santa gap this time of year and that make the celebration in our house about Jesus.

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Divided and Broken

I have a confession to make. As I am reading my fellow United Methodists reactions to the trial and verdict of Reverend Frank Shaefer, I feel lost.

I sat at my desk today and cried because I don’t know what to feel. I read Reverend Becca Girell’s moving words on the Courage of Couples and wept for the many men and women and their families who are torn apart. I wept because we are a broken people and our brokeness has come down to hurting each other.

I have to confess that I am struggling. I have prayed, thought and read scripture as well as people on both sides of the issue trying to understand where I should stand. I do not know.

I do not know if a similarly-gendered couple came to me and asked me to marry them, if I would have the ability to say yes. I do not know if I would have the ability to say no.

I do not know if our church law changes, if I would be able to change with it. I do not know if I would stand up to my congregation and champion it.

I do not know if I would ever be able to give a sermon that included a definition of love as including marriage for everyone. I do not know if I would ever be able to give a sermon about marriage as being between one man and one woman alone.

I sincerely do not know.

Because I am basically a coward, I really just want to focus on taking care of the people in the Philippians and Illinois who are dealing with the devastation of natural disasters, or the kids in our town who need the support and care of adults who are healthy, or the families who will not have much of a Thanksgiving feast next week.

Because I am a coward and some of the people I love and respect most as colleagues and friends feel passionately about this, I am afraid in this church and in this time to say that I don’t know but I don’t. I cannot take sides. I cannot speak out one way or another. I want to be able to, but I am not convicted one way or another.

What I do know is that I made a commitment to this church and the people who call themselves United Methodist because this is where God has called me. There is so much I want to see changed in our church. There is so much that breaks my heart.

What I do know is that there seems to be very little love outpouring or grace being shown. We are divided without the ability to have conversation or to make changes. (Please, please, please among other things, the language of the Book of Discipline around homosexuality needs to be changed even if the position of the church on marriage does not.I am ashamed of it, even as I am uncertain of the issue.) People, people who God loves deeply, are being hurt.

Maybe there is no other way. Maybe the only way to make fruitful change is to actively go against church law as it stands and change it by force. After watching General Conference proceedings last April, I can see this as a valid argument. Certainly, we have at least one Bishop who feels like it is the only way. Maybe there is no way to change our broken church and giving up credentials to move on to new ministry outside of the church is the better way to live out God’s call.

It seems that there is no room for us doubters. (I can’t be the only one!)

It strikes me that the church should be about filling the world with love. We should be about promoting the things that bring love into the world. There is so much hate. There is so much division. There are so many people who feel rejected by what they believe or don’t believe, by who they are and who they are not.

When we cannot muster up enough love for each other in the church; when we are so busy being right that we cannot find a way to listen to each other and find a way forward, imperfect though it may be; when we are bogged down by a system that requires us to choose sides with no room for confusion or questioning or uncertainty; when we are causing our own people to weep, we are not able to witness to the love of Christ who came to point the way to a place where all our tears are wiped away.

One day, I am sure I will have no choice but to stand on one side or another. I will have to stop being a coward. Maybe it will be my child that stands in front of me asking me to chose love for them over the law of the church. I can only pray that the conviction of the Holy Spirit will help me to stand where I should. For now I am committed to speaking for loving one another to the best of our abilities. I am committed to loving my brothers and sisters who are hurting.  Sometimes love means pushing but sometimes it means respecting where boundaries are. Sometimes it means being committed to showing grace in words and actions to those whose life you could not or would not want to live.

John Wesley did not really think women should be ordained. He wrestled with women’s place in the leadership of the church. And yet, in 1761 he licensed Sarah Crosby to preach. I am not sure how he would feel about all the female clergy in our church today but I am so thankful that he was willing to open the doors. I am thankful that his witness was to God’s grace even when scripture and the prevailing wisdom of the world said it was better to keep women’s mouths shut in church. We are all better for the leadership of women in the church.

I suspect that anytime we err on the side of love, the church becomes stronger and fuller and the Gospel is heard more clearly. My heart hurts because it feels like some of us in our church believe that love is only genuine when it is presented the way we want it to be. It took many churches (and annual conferences) many years before they would allow women to truly live out their calling. In some places, women’s leadership is still not accepted. Changing what is is a hard and long and painful battle. Even though we know the attitude is still there today, no one in the church leadership would question a woman’s ability to be ordained simply because she is a women.

In the hardest things, we have to walk gently with love and care especially for those who passionately see differently than we do. We have to know that withholding our love and grace until the changes we want made, will only make the change harder and the brokeness deeper.

I do not know on which side to stand with regards to the church performing similar-gendered marriage services. My heart hurts because many I love and respect are feeling rejected and discouraged. I weep for a witness that is not of love and compassion. I can only pray that God will choose to step into the divide we have created and somehow bring us healing.  I am not yet ready to grieve for the church I love and have pledged to serve. I have hope that we can find ways to minister with and to people for whom love comes in different forms and ways. I have assurance that grace and love will make a way even where there does not seem to be a way.