Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thoughts on the United Methodist General Conference...

The United Methodist quadrennial General Conference met in Portland, Oregon for 10 days in May, and rushed through hundreds of pieces of legislation, celebrated dozens of worship services, and experienced several demonstrations from groups protesting this denomination's current disciplinary stand, that states: "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2012, para. 304.3) Almost 100 piece of legislation seeking to modify, strike, or strengthen this stand were submitted to the General Conference, including a piece written by me and perfected by the Northeast Jurisdictional Committee on Ministry, of which I am a part. Our goal was to have the prohibitive statement removed from the Discipline, along with penalties related to it in order to allow those pastors who felt called to minister inclusively to LGBTQI persons to do so without fear of jeopardizing her or his career. Our legislation would have left this decision up to the consciences of pastors, local churches, and conferences. In the end, none of the "human sexuality" legislation was addressed.

The reason was that, when asked to provide leadership on this highly volatile issue, our Council of Bishops put forth a proposal to declare a kind of moratorium for prayer, the formation of a study commission, and possibly a "mid-quadrennial" special session of the General Conference to deal specifically with this issue. Their suggestion was passed by the narrowest of margins, meaning that no legislation on sexuality would be enacted at this year's conference. Those with a conservative view celebrated that we didn't officially change our prohibitive position, and left all current penalties in place; those advocating the change were "comforted" by a statement in the bishops' proposal that, basically, stated they would try to find a way to proceed during this "ceasefire" without levying additional charges. So, that is where we are.

The prohibitive statement about the "practice of homosexuality" was added, as I understand it, at a very late hour in the 1972 General Conference, when this issue was being debated, and it appeared no cogent theological or doctrinal statement could be cobbled together in such short time. Bishop Jack Tuell, its author, expected that the church would deal with it with integrity at the 1976 General Conference, and when, instead, it was amplified, penalties added, and became the defect position of American Methodism, he was mortified.

Today, in a different era, when science, psychology, and human experience has enlightened us to understand that "homosexuality" (same-sex attraction) is just one element of a much more complicated "spectrum" of human sexual identity which we now know as LGBTQ, the language of our Discipline needs to be changed, at the very least. Because of what we now know about the realities of human sexuality, a growing number of scholars, pastors, and laity would like to see our position on this issue changed to include LGBTQ persons fully in the church, ministry, and even in covenantal unions (marriage). Others do not. Can both groups find a home under the "big tent" of Methodism? It remains to be seen.

"But, the Bible says..." is the argument most often used by those advocating for our continued prohibition of "the practice of homosexuality." However, throughout its history, the church has understood that biblical interpretation is far from an exact science. Even those who claim to take the Bible "literally," don't, otherwise there would be stonings happening all around us, and people would be put to death for adultery. People would be locked up for wearing blended fabrics. And those who are divorced? Not allowed to be church members or ministers. Even the "literalists" pick and choose what they will interpret literally and what they do not. What guides them? Feelings? Traditions? Prejudices? Fears? There others of us whose understanding of biblical interpretation fully respects the "authority" of scripture by interpreting it with the best tools of historical-critical scholarship, societal context, and under the illumination of human experience. This is our way to let the text "live" and speak to each generation. This allows us to partition the ancient Hebrew law codes and say they were for days-gone-by. We understand that, while a sad occurrence, divorce is not something that negates one's faith or ability to worship and serve God. When it comes to "homosexuality," we believe we need to go beyond the "clobber" passages to see what the larger witness of scripture says. Jennifer Wright Knust, in her book, Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, makes a stirring attempt at this.

I believe this is a justice issue, frankly. I agree with modern knowledge that "homosexuality" is not a "practice" or a "behavior," but is part of that LGBTQ spectrum of sexual identity that is inherent to the human condition. We are all on that "spectrum," but between 2 and 3 percent of humans (last I read, anyway) find that their biological "identity" is in some way at odds with the heart and soul of how they see themselves. They aren't "practicing" anything, it is just who they are. And it is not a choice, unless they are forbidden to act on their sexuality, at which point it becomes a choice--someone else's.

This is where I--and many other "grassroots theologians" stand. However, at this point, I am not interested in being "right" about this, just to have my view respected and accepted, as I am willing to do for my colleagues and friends who disagree. At present, however, if I act on my position by performing a same-sex marriage or approving someone as a candidate for ministry, I can be charged. I hope that The United Methodist Church can find a way forward that moves this issue under the "big tent" that has housed our differing styles of worship, practices of biblical interpretation, and tastes in religious music since the birth of Methodism under John Wesley.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Questions V - May 12, 2016

As we continue answering some of the questions posed by members of our St. Paul's congregation during an "Ask the Pastors" Sunday a few weeks back, today we look at:

How do we use our faith in God to stay positive in the face of negative people?

This is a great question in times like these. In politics today, no matter where you turn, you will hear that people are angry. As our United Methodist denomination is holding its every-four-years General Conference, the news is that people are angry. If you have to wait in line in a store, at the pharmacy, or at the Post Office, you will observe that people seem to quickly get angry. Pessimism seems to have found its day. In fact, if one displays a cheery disposition, people may look at you like you have lost your mind, or they just assume you are on some kind of medication. Can our faith really help us deal with the negativity that seems to surround us?

First of all, let's note that not all negativity (or even anger) is symptomatic. We all have our personality quirks, and there are just some folk who tend toward being impatient, or so highly organized that they are quickly ticked-off by those who aren't. Also, some personalities just see the proverbial "glass" as "half empty." And some of these folk are people of deep, abiding faith. If you read the Gospel texts, you will see that Jesus often dealt with "glass is half empty" people--some of them in his own band of disciples--and he didn't tell them they needed to "sunny up" their disposition. Indeed, in the "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew 5, he calls folk who do certain things, "blessed." Blessed is different than cheery. Even somber folk can be blessed.

People who perceive that life has dealt them an unfair blow can become negative, clinically. Adopting a working faith can help these persons develop an alternate view of their circumstances, and help them see that God is with them, can comfort them, and guide them in such a way that, in Paul's words in Romans 8, "...all things can work together for good..." through this transforming relationship with God. But if they are one of those born "the glass is half empty" types, even a strong faith will not make them cheery. It can give them a truer, less paranoid view of what their life is about, but they still may not win Ms. Congeniality accolades.

The original question asked how WE can stay positive in the face of negative people. This questioner appears, therefore, to be normally a "the glass is half full" person, but is finding it tough to face negative souls. I guess I see our faith as being helpful in a couple of ways. First, when we trust in God and the values we get from our faith, we are not so quickly affected by negativism. We know that we have a grace-giving God working on us, and this freely-available grace can overshadow lots of "downer dust." Secondly, the Spirit of God may give us insight into what is causing the other to be so negative, and we can be a compassionate listener. Sometimes, persons become negative because they feel no one understands them or listens to them. People of faith can become good listeners, and if we follow Jesus' example, we will not be judgmental in our listening, and especially in any insights or guidance we may offer the other. Finally, we can pray for persons we see as overly negative. Who knows, maybe they will secretly pray for us whom they see as too optimistic!

Oh, and as one who can be cynical as a way of coping with negative circumstances, and using this cynicism in an intended humorous way to "disassociate" myself from them, always remember to give the other the benefit of the doubt!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...