#UMCGC – Sweeping it Under the Rug

20 05 2016

So far the final two days of General Conference have been rather tame. Some legislation has been passed that matters to many (ethical investing, removal of UMC participation in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and more), but all in all, the energy has been ratcheted down about five levels now that all debate about human sexuality has been deferred in order to be worked on by a special Commission appointed by the Council of Bishops. The demonstrations have stopped. There is a (superficial?) atmosphere of calm. People are so at ease, many are even getting sleepy! This is what happens when we avoid those things that we passionately disagree about.

On the one hand, it feels much more peaceful here in Portland. Delegates are less on edge. I am certainly more relaxed! It makes me wonder if this is what it might feel like to really be unified. But then I think about my loving marriage.

I’m not sure if this is every married person’s experience. I’ve only experienced two marriages (in depth) during my lifetime. My parents and my own. With all loving respect to may parents, their marriage reminds me of our General Conference session. There were periods of major disagreement and explosion, and then long periods of what I might call “false peace” – an unspoken agreement to avoid the problems in order to get along enough to function day to day. We call it “sweeping the problems under the rug.” At least a couple things happen when we approach conflict this way. 1) Problems are not resolved – just avoided, and 2) Intimacy is sacrificed on the altar of false unity.

Given my upbringing, I came into my marriage with a VERY large broom! However, I learned (slowly and by God’s grace) that if I wanted to experience intimacy and unity (not necessarily uniformity) with my wife, that I have to put my broom away. In fact, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I’ve burned it up and taken out all the rugs in the house  – metaphorically speaking of course. Now let me be real for a moment. I hate dealing with the problems. It’s painful. I get defensive. I sometimes say things I regret. Sin still dwells deep inside me. But I’ve also learned from experience that my marriage will not thrive if I run away from the conflict. I love my wife, and when we’ve worked through the problems, even if it takes weeks or months or years, in the end the result is intimacy.

It is painfully clear to me that my denomination, as evidenced by this General Conference, lacks intimacy. We have clung to a false unity for years and years – sweeping our disagreements about human sexuality under the rug. At times we have experienced a sense of peace and mission together when we set aside our differences. But that can happen for only so long. We are being pressured from inside and out to change our historically Christian understanding that homosexual practice is sin. As best I can tell, somewhere between 33-40% of our 864 delegates would like to change that position of the United Methodist Church. The other 60-66% do not. Even though I disagree with a portion of the church, I love them and out of love, I don’t want to avoid our differences in order to have a false unity. We’ve wrestled with each of the pieces of legislation in smaller groups in our legislative committees. Some of those conversations have been painful, but many have led to deeper intimacy even in an absence of agreement. And yet, for the second consecutive General Conference we as a full body have avoided voting on the vast majority of legislation about human sexuality that our committees have worked on! The ONE and ONLY body that can officially speak for the United Methodist Church (the General Conference) has once again swept it under the rug!

In a marriage, when major problems continually get swept under the rug and go unresolved, a couple things tend to happen. Either the spouses learn to co-exist with each other in an unhappy marriage that lacks intimacy, OR they end up getting divorced. Until we burn our brooms and toss out our rugs, the United Methodist Church will continue heading in that same unfortunate direction.

I have hope that the Counsel of Bishops’ special commission will be fair and objective and creates a way for both segments of the church to minister with integrity without forcing either to compromise their base convictions regarding human sexuality. If that is possible, we might find a way to move toward intimate unity. If the commission doesn’t do that, at best we will have a false unity – at worst, we will find ourselves looking at schism in 2020. Please pray with me that this special commission comes up with a suitable way for us all to move forward and that we as a denomination STOP sweeping our differences under the rug.

#UMCGC -Wednesday’s “Blank Check”

18 05 2016

Wednesday at General Conference was something, let me tell you. We began with a powerful sermon from Bishop James Swanson Jr. Then we received the following “way forward” from the Council of Bishops. This was a non-binding recommendation that the General Conference body could act on or not. Here is the content of that recommended “way forward.”

Some highlights:

  • The Bishops believe unity is possible even with our differing views on human sexuality.
  • This plan would be bathed in prayer.
  • It calls for a special General Conference in 2-3 years to deal with a “way forward” “Should they complete their work in time.”
  • We would defer all conversation and votes on human sexuality for this session of General Conference.
  • The bishops would pull together a Commission “to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.”
  • Members of this Commission would come from every region and represent differing theological perspectives on the debate.
  • The bishops “will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another – including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.”

After receiving this, we took a break. Upon returning from the break, Adam Hamilton (a large church pastor and proponent of “a third way” – refer to my definitions in a previous post) proposed legislation that would act on the bishop’s recommendations. After much debate and attempted amendments, AND a lunch break, the body voted it down by about 40 votes. In between our presiding chair was accused of undermining the entire process and was overwhelmingly supported by his colleagues and the body. It was an act of tremendous disrespect.

So, the Hamilton motion was defeated. After some moments of awkward silence and pleas (but no motion) from a two African delegates to move on with the business of the general conference, another delegate asked us to receive the bishop’s recommendations and act on them (essentially the same as the Hamilton proposal). After some debate, this vote passed by about 30 votes.

If we finish General Conference without reconsidering this motion, I am concerned that it essentially gives the bishops and their appointed special commission a “blank check.” If you read the bishop’s recommendation closely, you see that it has very few specifics and therefore opens the Commission to bring forward whatever it pleases. I’m concerned about this because I expect the Commission to bring something very similar to what the General Agencies and Adam Hamilton have already brought to THIS General Conference to be dealt with. Those petitions were defeated in committee and would likely have been defeated by the body if they would be discussed. As it is we kicked the can down the road, will likely spend alot of money to meet again in 2-3 years, and have to do it all again then. On the positive note, we don’t have to do the painful deliberating about human sexuality at this General Conference even though we were elected to do so. And yet my hope is not in the bishops or this commission, but in Jesus, and his Holy Spirit can do anything. Thus, I have peace.

Not to be shortchanged, at the end our our day the United Methodist Church acknowledged the horrific acts and pain caused by former members at the Sandy Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864 and repented of our institutional sin that followed.

#UMCGC – What is the Way Forward?

17 05 2016

Although we accomplished more legislatively today than we did in all of 2012, it is my sense that most people are primarily concerned with the future state of the United Methodist Church. Here is part two of my opinion piece. Part one provided an informed guess about all the events that led to this morning’s chaos. Now I’ll offer some of the possible ways forward for our denomination. I’ll offer the wide spectrum with brief explanation why they could or could not work.

Emphasis on current Disciplinary language with deeper accountability – This position is what the Good News and African contingent is angling for. It would keep the current “incompatibility” language with regards to homosexual practice and strengthen the accountability for bishops or clergy who choose to break their covenant vows to adhere to the Discipline. This would mean the “right” wins and the “left” loses resulting in further pain and a resolve for louder and more radical acts of defiance. The possibility of this position being played out may have led to the leaking of rumors of schism last night.

Keep everything the same – This would be the default if we can’t agree on anything. This would likely lead to more disunity under the false guise of unity as more clergy and bishops defy the Discipline without a structure of recourse. We would continue to fight the rhetorical battles and it would get uglier.

Adopt some version of a “third way” – This would effectively make what is currently happening “legal” acknowledging that we as a denomination can’t agree. Some things about this plan are desirable – fewer trials and bad press, etc. However, it wouldn’t satisfy anyone. Those on the “right” wouldn’t stand for it, and those on the “left” would continue to fight to mandate every church/conference be fully inclusive. We would continue to fight the battle every four years.

Become a fully LGBTQ inclusive church – The language here can be misleading. All people are loved and welcomed in the UMC regardless of anything really. However, the LGBTQ community feels less than included because of the prohibition of 1) clergy conducting same sex weddings and 2) ordination of openly practicing LGBTQ clergy. Obviously, the “right” would never move in this direction, and it is unlikely this kind of legislation would pass in any form. However, this is what progressives have been working toward for 44 years.

If schism occurs, we could find ourselves with two or more factions representing any or all of these positions. But most of the UMC isn’t keen on schism. That could blow up so much we’ve worked for including many of our churches who would have to fight this battle on the local level. We don’t want that. So what other options are there?

The “Love Alike” plan or something similar – The best bet we have to remain united is to help the “right” and the “left” both win. I believe this can only happen if we essentially have two churches with two sets of rules regarding human sexuality operating under the same United Methodist umbrella. The “Love Alike” plan works toward that end effectively allowing those who can’t, with integrity, abide by the current discipline to align themselves together even if that isn’t perfectly regionally based. I won’t get into all the details, but this type of plan seems like the most logical way forward considering neither side will change their minds about whether homosexual practice is sinful or not.

Whether it happens tomorrow, before the end of General Conference, or at some point in the coming years, I anticipate the Counsel of Bishops to bring forward some plan that involves amicable schism or some form of two churches under one umbrella. It seems the only way forward that will end the rancorous arguing over positions on human sexuality.

Please continue praying for our bishops, our churches, all of our delegates, and most importantly the world that we are called to go into to make disciples.

#UMCGC -Doing Biblical Justice

17 05 2016

Doing Biblical Justice is 1) Meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and 2) Righting wrongs done to the most vulnerable. Biblical justice is always directed toward the poor and oppressed. This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. (Zechariah 7:9-10) You never read about God fighting for justice and being a “defender of” the rich or the strong. Now this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about justice for ALL people. It just means that as a default, justice usually happens for the strong, rich, powerful and privileged. They have the status and means to defend themselves. So injustice happens less frequently to the strong, rich, powerful and privileged.

But people with less including the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, and the poor as well as migrant workers, some single moms and elderly and minorities – these groups are more vulnerable to injustice particularly because they oftentimes do not have the means or the generational support or the social status or class or level of influence or power to defend themselves. They are more oftentimes victims of crime or violence or corruption and being taken advantage of because they are overlooked or easier prey. So, because they cannot easily defend themselves, God has a special place in his heart for them. That is why God is described as a “defender of the poor” and one who “takes up the cause of the orphan and the widow.” God stands up for the vulnerable because no one else will.

That’s why I’m so proud that today, in one of our General Conference sessions, we voted to add a section to our constitution right after Article IV. Inclusiveness of the Church (which acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth and all people regardless of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition can participate in the life of the church) and Article V. Racial Justice (recognizing the sin of racism and vowing to confront it in all its forms) providing biblical justice for women! Here’s how the new paragraph will read:

As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten women’s and girls’ equality and well being.

The United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations have historically been doers of biblical justice whether through the abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage or civil rights. United Methodists care for the vulnerable.

After lunch today, there was a protest on the plenary floor. It began as what looked like a march for #blacklivesmatter (which seems to fit all the categories and descriptions of what biblical justice is all about). But it quickly turned into a demonstration for full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. Full inclusion of LGBTQ means openness to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals and freedom to perform same-sex weddings. But are these two “issues” the same? Is the LGBTQ church fight a matter of biblical justice? At least according to Bishop Scott Jones, it is not. He says:

“Some violators of our church’s laws will argue they are justified by allegiance to higher principles such as their view of justice…When people justify their actions as “civil disobedience,” they are misusing language. It is not disobedience against the government. It is ecclesial disobedience. They are violating the rules of a church they have freely joined when other, similar churches offer acceptable ways of pursuing their calling.” (See his entire article here.)

Of course the disagreement about full inclusion of LGBTQs and whether or not this is truly a matter of justice may very well blow up the United Methodist Church. More demonstrations are coming in the following days. Chances are they will become more disruptive. One lady was arrested outside the Oregon Convention Center today because she had a bag full of urine she intended to throw on delegates. It’s getting uglier here. There is even rumor of a potential plan to dissolve the United Methodist Church as we know it at a special session of General Conference to be held in 2018.

I don’t have control over everything that happens to the UMC. But I’m committed to biblical justice and being a part of a Church that protects the most vulnerable.

#UMCGC – Behind the Rumors of Schism

17 05 2016

I think we accomplished more legislatively today than we did in all of 2012, but it is my sense that most people are primarily concerned with the future state of the United Methodist Church. Thus, I want to offer a two part opinion piece that 1) provides an informed guess about all the events that led to this morning’s chaos, and 2) some of the possible ways forward for our denomination.

So, what happened to get the rumor mill buzzing and created a feeling of panic across denomination? The following is my best piecing together of what generally happened along with my own interpretive lens:

Pre GC through May 15th – Apparently at least one bishop (and possibly more) had been in conversation with some of the caucus group leaders representing the differing stances on human sexuality within the church including Good News (proponents of keeping our current Disciplinary language), Love Your Neighbor (in favor of “full inclusion” of LGBTQ community – meaning they affirm clergy performing same-sex marriages and ordination of openly practicing homosexuals) and some large church pastors who have proposed what they call a “third way” (allowing pastors and churches to individually choose their stance without a mandate either way). It seems this group had been in conversations about possible ways forward including the possibility of schism.

Monday, May 16th – As the votes came in for elections to the Judicial Council, University Senate and Commission on General Conference, it became fairly evident that the majority of those elected were favored by Good News. This signaled the “writing on the wall” for Love Your Neighbor and there was amplified talk of further General Conference disruption and even a more aggressive move toward schism. Thus, Monday evening, the fact that there had been behind closed door meetings discussing ways forward, INCLUDING ways for the church to split up, was leaked and that sparked a firestorm of panic. Whether or not it was intentional, this certainly “disrupted” General Conference.

Tuesday, May 17th – Recognizing the outright chaos and fear of the conference and wider denomination, the Counsel of Bishops found themselves in a mess, one that they helped to create with their involvement in “behind closed door” conversations. [To be clear, I don’t think ill of their motivation, but the lack of transparency does not inspire trust!]. Caught with their hand in the cookie jar, the COB called a time out on themselves. President of the COB, Bishop Bruce Ough addressed the General Conference declaring that the bishops were as divided as the rest of the church, and would not be bringing forward or supporting any plans of schism. They would preside, but not lead during the way forward. Soon afterwards, proponents of this “middle way” urgently requested that the bishops “do what they were elected to do” and lead the way forward. In a very mixed vote (passed by roughly 100 votes), the body requested that the bishop’s come back with suggestions tomorrow morning.

In part two, I will offer some of the possible ways forward for our denomination that is deeply divided around human sexuality.

#UMCGC -When you are weary

14 05 2016

We’re almost to the half-way point of General Conference. Committee work for some will continue until 9:30pm Pacific Time. As you can imagine, by this time in the week, many delegates are getting a little tired. Almost everyone is away from family, many are out of their own country, and all have been rung through the emotional ringer. We have had people getting ill and several struggling from dehydration. I’ve been feeling physically great all week only to come down with a migraine headache this afternoon! As I look around my committee room right now, there is a palpable weariness.

You and I both know that people at General Conference aren’t the only tired and weary among us. I have a sense that my wife feels exactly the same way right now. (I am so thankful for you, dear!) You may be exhausted as you read this. Let me encourage you. God has made provision for your weariness. It’s called Sabbath rest.

This will not be my most profound blog entry during the week of General Conference, but I hope it is the most read and acted upon. If at all possible, when you wake up on Sunday morning, go to worship with your faith community, enjoy your family or friends and ENJOY God’s gift of Sabbath rest in Christ. I may or may not write about my rest tomorrow. If I decide not to, its because I’m napping! Either way, we will catch up on Monday.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. – Jesus in Matthew 11:28

#UMCGC -When your blood starts boiling

14 05 2016

I’m not a General Conference rookie. After my first go-round in Tampa in 2012, I have been fully prepared to experience frustration, stress and yes, even anger here in Portland. As part of my daily heart preparation, I’ve been centering myself on admonitions in God’s Word to love and be a peacemaker and to do good to others. My verse this morning was James 1:19: Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. I shared it on Facebook and received encouraging words of prayer from far away friends. Boy, I needed them today!

In two of my pre-conference posts (#UMCGC May we not be of one heart? Part 1 and Part 2), I held up a vision for civil dialog and respectful disagreement on some of the controversial human sexuality issues facing our United Methodist denomination. I held up this vision with the clear understanding that they can only happen when a mutual covenant of trust and grace is established. My colleague, Sara Isbell, and I were able to enter loving, respectful dialog despite our disagreements because of such a covenant. But what do you do when such a covenant doesn’t exist or worse, is broken? How, as a peace-making follower of Jesus (is there any other type?), should you respond when someone says they want dialog, but only uses it as an opportunity to attack you while your guard is down? Typically when that happens to me, my blood starts to boil.

I was faced with this situation in Friday’s General Conference. Someone who knew better made judgments about me and used trite, overly simplistic, irrational and totally unfair generalizations about me. I was misrepresented with no invitation to express myself, explain my thoughts, or even to ask clarifying questions to this person who has regularly spoken about the need for “across the aisle” conversation. I was so thankful I had been praying all morning to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry!

When this kind of thing happens, instead of building bridges of trust and respect, it creates easy opportunities for entrenchment. It takes people who might be able to find some mutual ground and polarizes them so much they can’t see any good in the other – they can’t have compassion for the other – they can’t see the other as a human being created in the image of God. And it happens all the time.

This afternoon I had a conversation with a fella I’ll call Larry. I only met Larry today, but he opened up to share how he had been so hurt over the way his concerns for the Church he’s served for 3 decades have been dismissed. He’s felt attacked by those who he disagrees with about human sexuality. And he essentially asked me, how do you deal with it? What do you do when your blood start’s boiling?

I shared with him some of my convictions. That by God’s grace, I choose to see those I disagree with not as my enemies, but people who love God and are trying to do the right thing. I choose to see those who are angry and bitter as those who have been hurt. Hurt people hurt people, right? I try to remain in touch with my own brokenness whenever I come too closely to judging someone else’s brokenness. And I try to live with compassion for those I disagree with. Well, after sharing a couple of examples, I looked at Larry and his head was hunched over and I noticed he was weeping. This man I just met confessed to me that he become a pharisee. Larry’s heart had reached a boiling point so often and he became so deeply entrenched over the years that he unknowingly turned into a legalistic and hard hearted pharisee. And for whatever reason, God chose that moment to break him.

By the grace of God, I pray that I will never become a pharisee – that my heart will not grow hard and that I will not build walls when attacked unfairly. When my blood starts boiling , by God’s grace, I pray that I will be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. By God’s grace, I pray that I will continue to have genuine compassion for those I disagree with even if they do not exhibit the same toward me. If you find your blood boiling, or you find your heart growing hard toward those on the other side of the aisle, confess to God your pharisaical nature and ask for his forgiveness. Pray for a softer heart. Don’t settle for entrenchment. Follow Jesus and choose the way of the cross. And please pray for me to do the same!