Monday, June 23, 2014

Leading Jesus' Church

I have heard a refrain from members of the United Methodist Council of Bishops over the last several years. It is heard whenever discussions ensue regarding the issue of sex & people's chosen behaviors. I have heard it or read it multiple times over the last several months, as the actions of a few unfaithful pastors & bishops have driven the denomination to the brink of schism.

The refrain is heard when leaders refuse to take a side in the debate & goes something like this:

"I am called to lead ALL of God's people, the entire Church, both sides of the issue of sexual behavior."

It sounds like a fair, mediative statement. The issue of a person's chosen sexual behavior is, after all, a very heated one in today's Church. Bishops & pastors alike desire to lead the Church through these times of trial into whatever future the Spirit leads us.

But the more I hear it or read it, the more I find it problematic. When you analyze what the statement is really saying, it isn't a statement of leadership; it's an example of "anti-leadership", an abdication of leadership, a blatant refusal to lead.

To lead, after all, means (according to Merriam-Webster), "...to guide on a way especially by going in advance...to direct on a course or in a direction...to serve as a channel for...to direct the operations, activity, or performance of...to bring to some conclusion or condition."

Leadership, then, means seeing a chosen destination in the future & saying, "Follow me." Imagine great leaders of the past. Had they said, "I will not take a side or choose a path. I am called to lead EVERYONE," how might history be different?

Imagine if Churchill had said, "I'm called to lead ALL of the British people; I won't take a side in the issue of German aggressiveness."

Imagine if Reagan had said, "I'm called to lead ALL of the American people; I won't take a side in the issue of Soviet moral integrity."

Imagine if Jesus had said, "I'm called to lead ALL people to salvation; I won't take a side in the issue of sin & death."

In The United Methodist Church, our clergy leaders - especially our bishops - are called to live into our covenant. Our covenant is determined by our exegesis of Scripture through the lens of Church tradition, reason, and our experience of the doctrine of assurance of salvation, all of which is detailed in our Book of Discipline.

Our covenant teaches that while, "We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God", "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Lots of persons disagree with the Church on lots of issues, but this is our covenant. It's relatively clear. Leaders will live into this & lead others into it as well. It is a position informed by centuries of exegesis, compassion & grace. It is our position because we love all persons & desire to see them know the liberating mercy of a great God, not because we are mean or desire harm. Persons who understand our theology will understand this. It is unworthy of the clergy office to ignore or apologize for Church teaching which is founded on centuries of faithful exegesis & theological development. It is also arrogant.

If a United Methodist pastor or bishop cannot with integrity live into our covenant or lead others to do so, there is no shame in simply separating from the Church. That can happen in a gracious manner. But live into it we must, or our integrity & character must be called into question.

If United Methodist bishops cannot live into, teach & lead persons into our covenant, why are they bishops? Surely the Church deserves better than leaders who refuse to lead. Unity begins with faithfulness to our covenant. If our bishops truly desire unity, they will live into it.

Conversely, if a bishop cannot with integrity live into our covenant without violating his or her conscience, there is no shame in stepping away from the episcopacy. The role of bishop is reserved for those who are called by the Spirit to lead persons into our covenant, not for well-meaning folks who simply lack the courage or the desire to lead.

I'm reminded of a brief speech in the 1995 movie Braveheart, in which William Wallace says to Robert the Bruce, "Tell me, what does it mean to be noble? Your title gives you claim to the throne of our country, but men don't follow titles; they follow courage. Now, our people know you, noble and common they respect you. And if you would just lead them to freedom, they'd follow you. And so would I."

Friday, May 23, 2014

Incomplete Ponderings of the Possibility of Schism

In the past year or so, the level of confusion in The United Methodist Church regarding sexual behavior, secular politics & ecclesial accountability has risen to new heights. In that time, we have seen relations between the evangelical side & the progressive side of the Church sink to new lows.

There have been several steps along this journey. The Church teaches, in union with the Church Universal over the centuries, that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." (par 304.3)

The Church also teaches, "We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God." Even if someone chooses to engage in behavior which the Church deems sinful, they are loved by God & Christ's Holy Church. We cannot condone sin, obviously, but we love all people & offer grace to all. This is hardly news.

Many progressives hope to see the Church change its stance. I welcome the conversation, which can be a healthy one if facilitated properly. As the progressive regions (such as the Western & Northeast Jurisdictions) continue to decline, however, and evangelical areas (such as the Southeast Jurisdiction & Africa) continue to grow, the likelihood of change seems remote, barring a radical restructuring of the denomination (which failed miserably in 2012).

A few progressive schismatics have chosen disobedience to the Church in an effort to, presumably, force change. They have violated our covenant & our sacred ordination vows which call us "to proclaim the faith of the church and no other." Some pastors have been put on trial; some have lost their clergy credentials, others received what amounted to slaps on the wrist. Some bishops have refused to hold pastors accountable who violate church law. Almost every week, there seems another bold move by progressive activists eager to break covenant for the sake of their agenda.

These acts of canonically criminal conduct (to borrow a phrase from a friend) have led some evangelical leaders in the Church to the conclusion that schism has already taken place & to ponder whether a formal separation would serve both sides better. This sad conclusion is being decried by many United Methodists as premature or even mean-spirited.

Two Biblical allusions come to mind. One, shared via Twitter by Pastor Drew McIntyre of the Western NC Conference, is the story of the prophet Hosea. Hosea was called by God to "take a wife of whoredom" to illustrate God's grace toward Israel even in the midst of their unfaithfulness. Though Hosea might have been justified in divorcing his promiscuous wife, he remained with her, in part to demonstrate God's abundant mercy. In Drew's allusion, the progressive schismatics are a whoring wife married to Hosea (the orthodox faction of the Church, or at least those faithful to our covenant). If Hosea did not dismiss his wife, neither should the orthodox dismiss the unfaithful progressives. (I apologize to Drew if I've pushed the analogy too far; I've sought to use it biblically.)

There are many (including many bishops) who urge the Church to remain united (almost) no matter what, stating that unity is greater than almost any differences.

The other biblical allusion that I've been pondering was shared with me by a pastor in my Conference (who has not publicly shared the idea, so whose name I will not share). In Genesis 11, the people were united...but not in a way pleasing to God. John Wesley viewed this story as a tale of disobedience; many today view it as an example of human arrogance. The united people were building a grand tower "to make a name for [them]selves". In other words, though they were united, they were acting in an unholy manner. They were bound by mutual unfaithfulness, not mission, submission or holiness.

God reacts by breaking their unity, scattering them across the world. Wesley's notes teach that, "...if they continue as one...these children of men will swallow up the little remnant of God's children, therefore it is decreed they must not be one."  To the Lord, unity in sin seems abhorrent. Apparently, God would rather see disunity than solidarity if disobedience is necessary to achieve that state.

I am not advocating formal schism. My utmost prayer is that the progressives who have engaged in & who plan further schismatic behavior repent & endeavor to live in faithfulness to our covenant. But I am advocating that those who believe that nothing could possibly be worse than schism rethink that line of thought. There are worse things than splitting, as heartbreaking as that might be.

Though the example of Hosea is an inspiring one, and perhaps does have much to teach us in these days of great impatience, it may well be that unity is even more dishonorable. The stakes are high: the salvation of the world. I believe wholeheartedly that the Methodist movement is better equipped to be the hands of God in the world than any other branch of the Christian family tree & that Wesleyan theology is by far the most biblical option in the Church Universal. I believe that perhaps the finest days of Methodism are in our future, not our past. But it's possible that God may be on the cusp of bringing division in order to once again save a remnant, that the mission to make disciples of Jesus might continue on in faithfulness, holiness & true justice.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

April 2014 newsletter article

"Jesus cried out,
‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’…
…and with a scream, he yielded up his spirit.
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two…”
- Matthew 27:46-51

We are surrounded by busy-ness. We rush to get here and there, to accomplish this and that, to meet the obligations of contemporary life. The busy nature of 21st century life is the narrative offered by this broken world, into which we live. But the world’s narrative, fueled by the corruptions of sin and alienation, holds no atonement for us or for our families. It only serves itself.

Lent is a rebellion against the narrative of the world. Lent is a reminder to us that the narrative that REALLY matters, the narrative that REALLY defines us as disciples of Jesus, is the Grand Story of Israel – of a loving God who chooses a people through whom he will save his creation, of prophets through the ages calling people to faithfulness, of a God so desperate to be with us that he came into the world in Jesus and ultimately suffered a horrific death that we might have the opportunity to know his everlasting peace.

Lent teaches us that our own desires and opinions pale next to the Story of Jesus on the day he died. 

Worship…ministry…work…life…these are not about you or me or our wants. They never were. They are all about Jesus and, in this season of the year, the great suffering he endured for us. Lent is a corrective to our own self-centeredness and our focus on the wrong things. This is what Word and Sacrament are all about.

I encourage us all during the final, brutal weeks of Lent to pray that God’s Spirit does a mighty work in us and among us, that the Story of Jesus becomes paramount in all that we think, say and do…that the glories of Easter morning might truly become transformative and redemptive.

God loves you more than you know,
Keith

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Prayer for Peace in Syria

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the way of peace.
Come into the brokenness of our lives & our land with your healing love.
Help us to be willing to bow before you in true repentance
& to bow to one another in real forgiveness.
By the fire of your Holy Spirit,
melt our hard hearts
& consume the pride and prejudice which separate us.
Bring peace to the people of Syria,
we humbly pray,
that those who have their minds bent to seek war
would instead this day find you
& fall deeply in love with you & your Kingdom,
where true peace is known.
Grant President Obama & the US Congress wisdom
& the courage to follow your ways
rather than any earthly political course or compromise.
Comfort those who are suffering
& show your Church how we might best serve them.
In all things, may your Father's will be done.
Fill us, O Lord, with your perfect love,
which casts out our fear
& bind us together in that unity
which you share with the Father & the Holy Spirit.
Amen.
-adapated from "The United Methodist Book of Worship"

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Election Day Communion

"I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you…
For it has been reported to me that there is division among you…
What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Barack’ or ‘I belong to Mitt’...
Is Christ divided?
Was Obama crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Romney?...
therefore, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast of the Lord.’”
- adapted from 1 Corinthians 1


On November 6, voters across our nation will select a President. It is an important day for America and for the world, and we should not take our responsibilities as voters lightly. The Presidency is an extremely important job, and all Christians should be in prayer for both major candidates and their families during this time.

Sadly, during election seasons, Jesus' disciples are often not at their best. While there are important matters of justice and freedom which are at stake in this and every election, we should never allow our political opinions to give us permission to mistreat or belittle others. After all, the most intensely political statement a Christian can ever utter is "Jesus Is Lord", and if that statement is believed, then we need to find ways to offer redemptive love even to those with whom we disagree.

At Slippery Rock UM Church on Election Day, we will share an opportunity to experience the unity of the Holy Spirit in the midst of chaos and division and proclaim to the world that our bond in Jesus is far, far more important than any political disagreements we may have.

At 12 PM – the middle of the voting day - we will celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion along with sisters and brothers around the country who have made similar pledges. The Election Day Communion movement is one which the Church needs at this time in its history, to clarify who we are and, frankly, who we are not. We pray that Jesus will be made known in the breaking of the bread.

You are invited to join us at noon to thank God, hear the word, pray, and celebrate the sacrament. We will be joined by the Rev BT Gilligan of Harrisville UM Church, who will co-preside at our celebration. Hope to see you on Election Day!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Prayer after Violence in Libya & Egypt

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
- from The Book of Common Prayer

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

NFL Picks 2012

AFC:

Division winners: Patriots, Steelers, Texans, Broncos
Wildcards: Ravens, Chiefs
Championship: Broncos vs Patriots

NFC:

Division winners: Giants, Packers, Saints, 49ers
Wildcards: Falcons, Lions
Championship: Saints vs Packers

SUPER BOWL:

Packers over Patriots
Game MVP: Aaron Rodgers


I also think that Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger may actually win the NFL MVP with the new offense in place.