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Monday, May 30, 2016

Leavin' Behind the 'Love It or Leave It' United Methodist Church

In any relationship when two people vehemently disagree about something for a long period of time ultimately entrenchment happens and the argument is no longer about the issue they disagreed about in the beginning, it’s just an open wound; a highly sensitive and often tread-upon point of contention where battles are fought incessantly. For the United Methodist Church this battle has been the issue of sexuality. As one among many United Methodists, I am tired of the battles simply because of the futility. Neither side is really influenced by the arguments of the other anymore and as the battles are fought, an obscene amount of money and resources is wasted, and all the while we are distracted from what we should be about. Most importantly to me, as we fight these battles, the hurt among LGBTQ people is only magnified. Hurting people and keeping an ineffective, top-heavy hierarchy in place is hardly worth all of the endless fighting. So, let's just stop it. 

It should come as no surprise then that I favor splitting the United Methodist Church. I suggest we follow the example of Paul and Barnabas, genuinely bless one another, and go our separate ways. I think for everyone, splitting will be tough but necessary. As someone with dear friends on both sides, I have to know not only what I opting for in this separation, but also what I am leaving behind and why.

I have heard from many conservatives – again, many of whom I dearly love – that as long as the Book of Discipline defines homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” then we either must abide by it or leave the church to find another denomination where LGBTQ people are more accepted and welcomed into leadership. I am willing to say that these words are said by most conservatives (definitely not all) with sincerity and good intentions. Well-intentioned or not, it sounds to me a lot like “Love it or leave it.”

Again, I would say most conservatives in the United Methodist Church would not hold to the harshness of this tone, but it comes down to the sentiment, “You are either in or you’re out. Yes, we have some nice parting gifts for you on your way out, but if you stay, abide by our rules. If you don’t like the rules, feel free to leave.”

It reminds me of something I learned in seminary (yes, Asbury Seminary no less!) and have used in countless trainings I led for the past ten years in my work to advocate for just and humane immigration reform. This idea originated with Paul Hiebert, but also has been used by Michael Frost, Alan Hirsch, and Darrell Guder in their books on the missional church movement. It is the concept of the boxed set versus the centered set. For me, this helps define not only what I am opting for – an inclusive, Christ-centered Body passionately pursuing Jesus – but also what I am leaving behind.

The image for the boxed set is a rectangle. The focus of the boxed set approach to evangelism, to issues like immigration, or to ordering church life are the sides. They are the boundaries within which we live and share life together. They define who we are for those who are both inside those lines and those who are outside. It is relatively easy to decipher (at least most of the time) who is in the box and who is out. There are agreed upon truths that must be agreed and adhered to in order to enter into the boxed set, but they are usually fairly evident. Boxed sets are popular because they are easily articulated and do not present a lot of nuance. This is why boxed set people are a little mystified and even frustrated when those of us do not abide by the “you’re in or you’re out” approach. It just makes sense to them.

I have tried to describe this approach without harsh judgment though I clearly disagree with it. I again truly believe that most boxed set folks are good folks passionately pursuing their faith with the deepest sincerity. The problem is the focus – it’s on the sides. This devolves easily – and sadly, quite often – into legalism. Around immigration, it devolves often into blatant racism and a harsh enforcement-only approach that separates families and creates tremendous fear and terror in immigrant communities.

Now, boxed set folks are not necessarily boxed set on all issues. I know many conservatives who approach the issues of evangelism and church order with a boxed set approach while addressing issues like immigration with more of a centered set approach. I want to suggest that very few of us are entirely boxed set people or entirely centered set people. But I do believe that centered set is certainly a more faithful way to live out the gospel. Here’s why.

The centered set has no lines but rather, has a dot in the middle representing Christ with other dots scattered across the page, like the stars in the sky, representing all of humankind. The goal is not to see which star is closest to the center. The goal is to see how the stars in the sky are orbiting around the center. Are we moving closer or farther away? As ambassadors of Christ, our mission is to come alongside those stars and love them, nurture them, and walk with them as we, in community, seek to come closer to the center who is Jesus.

It’s a beautiful picture isn’t it? Its chaos and disorder to many boxed set folks, but they do raise a good question – how do we define life together? Who exactly is “in?” I would suggest that the underlying need to “define life” or to “set boundaries” is the wrong focus to have. This most often emanates from trying to revive a dying, irrelevant institution desperately in need of staying in business than in helping move people closer to Jesus. But to answer their question directly, I would say that the thing that defines us is that the center remains the center. The one absolute; perhaps the only absolute is that Jesus is Lord.

Now, I know full well that there will be some in the centered set who do not want to hold to even that. That’s fine by me. I feel no need to kick them out or file a complaint or hold a damn trial for the world to see (which is utterly shameful) in order for them to be forced to accept my absolute. It is not up to me to define for them how they view, comprehend or implement in their daily walk the lordship of Jesus. If they are moving towards the center, what is it to me what theological or doctrinal views they have? I frankly, my dear, don’t give a damn. There are simply too many people who are yearning for someone to walk alongside them and love and nurture them as they desire for something more meaningful for me to waste time on forcing someone else to abide by what I believe.

So, to my fellow somewhat disorderly, sometimes confused, but crazy-in-love-with-Jesus progressive friends, let’s celebrate our centered-setness. Let’s stop feeling like we are less than a fully devoted follower of Jesus just because we don’t lift 6 verses in the Bible on sexuality above the rest of the canon. That simply does not define our faithfulness and those who claim it does are frankly foolish. Just because the words of the Book of Discipline aren’t written on our hearts, or tattooed on our lower backs (gross, I know), doesn’t mean we are not serious about discipleship.

Better yet, when our boxed set friends tell us how that they are proven right because the fastest growing churches in the United Methodist Church are conservative and hence, take a boxed set approach to matters of sexuality, please feel more than free to tell ‘em, “Hey dude, congrats on being popular! I know that feels good, and perhaps you even feel justified in believing that defining who is in and who is not in is the way to grow. A lot of movements are built that way in the early stages. But I just prefer to be serious about loving people where they are and then moving together towards Jesus than in being popular.” Bless ‘em and move on. God knows it is time to move on.

The truth is the boxed set approach is popular. Nuance, context, and a long-slow arc of discipleship just isn’t popular. Fellow progressives, let’s quit trying to be what we are not. We are meant to be small bands of Jesus followers coming alongside people, particularly people experiencing injustice, and then following after Jesus together. The long, slow arc of the universe bends, but it bends towards justice and love. And that is what we are on. We were meant to be small bands of sold-out freedom fighters, loving the poor and marginalized incarnationally, and organizing and advocating for change. Somewhere along the way we got sold that we should have a big shiny institution with all of the titles and positions that reflect the pride of the world. But it is the institution – not conservatives – that is keeping us from being effective change agents. Let’s rid ourselves of the captivity of institutional relevance and move on.

You see, I believe Jesus himself was a centered set guy. Yes, he said he did not come to replace the law, but to fulfill it. And in doing so he repeatedly taught (“you have heard it said…but I say to you”) and he practiced (“where are those who condemn you? Then neither do I condemn you”). In fulfilling the law Jesus set aside the power of the law to condemn and he freed us to accept that love and then do all we can to share it. Jesus clearly did not focus on the sides of the box. He focused on God and on people. And he drove the boxed set people of his time nuts. Our focus should be the same. The only thing that matters is loving Jesus and loving people. That is our mission. Man, literally nothing else matters. So, let’s quit apologizing for who we are. Bless the boxed set folks and move on.

It is indeed time for new dreams, new connections, and new leaders. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Professionalization of Progressivism

Having twice attended and graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary, and having spent the better part of my life deeply involved in various evangelical Christian circles I can attest to the simple fact that there is tremendous amounts of resources and money that has been spent – is being spent – on the raising up of new evangelical leaders within the church, particularly the United Methodist Church. I remember as a new MDiv student at Asbury Seminary back in 1994 how small and intimate the campus was. There was a small town feel not only because Asbury is in a small town, Wilmore, KY, but also because it was a small campus.

In just a few years, due to the fund-raising and visionary leadership by the former president, David McKenna, and the new president who began the same year as I did, Maxie Dunnam, Asbury was transformed. The campus dramatically expanded as they built new programs which were housed in new buildings and hired new staff to lead those new programs. An entirely new campus in Orlando, FL was added, extension learning became a regular part of the education for most students, and the seminary started a new program for a select group of Doctor of Ministry students who had their entire education paid for with a stipend for their families to come and live in Wilmore for a year. The overall number of students at Asbury sky-rocketed as Asbury alumni became a powerhouse in Annual Conferences and in the United Methodist Church overall.

Along with all of the money that has been poured into Asbury Seminary there are a staggering number of programs and training experiences for evangelical leaders beyond the seminary experience. New networks have been birthed connecting people with similar passions (youth ministry, worship, campus ministry, church planters, missions, etc.). Opportunities for new experiences and training are happening so often it is impossible for folks to take advantage of everything. Trips to Israel, South Korea and to some of the larger evangelical churches are regularly taken so that students can learn and be trained directly from the “experts” in their fields. I don’t know how coordinated all of this is, but there is so much emphasis on training and raising up leaders it is no wonder that the greatest number of young leaders in the United Methodist Church are evangelical.

So, here is my question and yes, I already suspect what the answer is, but who knows, I could be surprised. Where are all of the trainings and organic networks and money and resources for raising up progressive leaders in the church? I have heard of some training experiences in such things as peacemaking (which is definitely needed!), but it seems to me – and I know this is a fairly broad statement to make – that there is somewhat of a dearth of available resources, and even more important to me, there is a lack of innovative utilization of resources for the creation of organic networks for progressives. Beyond defending the rights of excluded groups (which is vital and necessary), I am not sure I catch much of a vision for what we as progressives are building.

If this is at all true, either in full or even in part, I cannot help but believe that this is because of the professionalization of progressivism. When progressivism is institutionalized and professionalized, we cease really needing to create new visions and innovative ideas.

Let me use an analogy to show what I mean. Christine Pohl (who teaches at Asbury Seminary) has written about the history of hospitality in the church. Of course, the ministry of hospitality predates Christianity as God’s people were told to treat the sojourners in their land as they themselves would want to be treated. But from the birth of the church in the early part of the New Testament on into the 2nd and 3rd centuries the ministry of hospitality characterizes much of the life of the community of believers, even when they are experiencing persecution and marginalization.

Interestingly, just as Christianity became more socially acceptable, and especially once it became the established religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine in 313, the work of hospitality became more institutionalized. Whereas the location of the ministry of hospitality was once in peoples’ homes, as Christianity became recognized and institutionalized the ministry of hospitality became located more in centers of public service that increasingly became called hospitals. (See Making Room, Chapter 3) This is how hospitality became largely characterized as a service by professionals or by the public sector (and now increasingly by the private for-profit sector), rather than centered in peoples’ homes and communities.

The point is that institutionalism is the kiss of death for movements. Energy is not found in assigning titles or positions in a hierarchy. Passion is absent when the greatest intrigue is found in the political games to see which constituency groups one person can amass in order to be called Bishop. If progressives want to recover the growth, the effectiveness and most important of all, the passion, that was so evident in the New Testament, then my suggestion is we ditch entirely the structure and institution that has made so many of us so comfortable (and wealthy). I suggest we start over completely – no titles, no job security, no health or retirement plans, and we become a movement again.

Evangelicals have not had to run an institution so they have been free to focus all of their time, energy, and considerable sums of money into training new leaders. Progressives, on the other hand, have become too dependent on institutional control. We do have many young leaders – thanks be to God, but imagine how powerful our movement could be if we were not weighted down with an enormous, top-heavy, irrelevant institution tied to our ankles.

Watching General Conference from afar and seeing not only the United Methodist Church continue its’ decades-long practice of discrimination against our LGBTQ leaders in the church, but also seeing things like support for women’s rights be drastically eroded, the complete refusal to hold Israel accountable for its treatment of Palestinians, and a long list of other decisions that take us backwards, it seems apparent that the United Methodist Church has taken some hard right turns theologically and politically. In doing so, we also see that sitting in the seats of structural and institutional control does little or nothing to stop this increasingly common trend. The momentum is clearly with the conservatives and I believe it is primarily because they have had the freedom to pour energy and resources into the building of a grassroots and organic movement, focused especially on raising up new leaders.

Now, I need to be frank. I personally do not give a damn about control of the United Methodist institution. If conservatives want it, they can have it for all I care. I am ready to join with others whose hearts are afire with the belief that Jesus is calling us to live out the Kingdom among the poor and marginalized and build the Body so that we are open to ALL people in whatever way God has called them to serve. Period.

But we are far from that reality. So, I am most concerned about a lack of energy among progressives and what appears to be a lack of creative use of our tremendous resources in building up new leaders. I think we lack a vision of what we are building and what we are changing. We need to stop depending on denominational leaders and instead, build new networks to leverage our considerable resources to build progressive movements for justice and inclusion; for an entirely new church. This is indeed a matter of institutional control and the very problem for progressives might just be that we actually have control and we would better off if let that control go entirely.

It is indeed time for new dreams, new connections and new leaders.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Liberation Delayed: A Vision for the Progressive Methodist Church

This week as the United Methodist Church stood on the precipice of an enormous cliff on the verge of falling off of it and into a dark abyss below, we, at the last moment, stepped back from the edge and back on to safe ground. As we did you could hear the sighs of relief from everyone there and even among those viewing the live-stream. In opting for a commission to study the issue of sexuality for at least the next two years (and they were given wide latitude by General Conference to study it as long as they feel they need to), the United Methodist Church will remain “united” for at least two more years.

I, for one, had hoped that as we stood on the edge of the precipice, staring out into the unknown vista of sky before us with the earth far below, that we had jumped headlong into the unknown. I felt we were supposed to jump as much as I am sure Peter was certain that Jesus called him out of the safety of the boat onto the windy, rainy, stormy seas to walk on water. It would have been madness to jump just as it was madness to walk on water! I mean, compared to the safe ground we now stand on it is always a fearless and sometimes even reckless act to follow Jesus into the great unknown and unforeseeable, but that is exactly why I think we should have jumped.

I believe it was an enormous mistake to step back and take the safe and easy path back to the same comfortable house we know well, even though everyone who lives in the old house is deeply unhappy. We are unhappy in the house where we reside because, we suppose, we don’t much like our housemates. But the house is pretty much all most of us have known. And since we are back in familiar, though unhappy, surroundings we decided to address what we think is making us unhappy in much the same way we have numerous times before: we will establish yet another commission to study the issue of sexuality and then report the findings to the larger special session of General Conference where whatever findings are offered will likely be voted down.

The divorce between liberals and conservatives seems inevitable and as a child watching my parents on both sides of the divide continuously argue, I can honestly say, I look forward to the breakup. There is a complete lack of trust and even respect. Forty years of fighting will do that. Moreover, you simply cannot find compromise when one side demands that before you ever come to the table you must cease being who you are and conform to their biblical and biological understanding of God’s design for your life. The left side says the right is free to believe what they want while the right side says the left is free to stop being who they are.

We are irretrievably stuck.

Thus, I believe it is time to follow the worthy example of Paul and Barnabas and to bless one another, separate, and follow God as passionately as we know how. It is far past time. I am not quite sure we will bless one another with any kind of sincerity, but I truly pray that will happen. I can’t pray for unity anymore with any authenticity. Regardless, it is time to leave behind the rancor and the denial of humanization that has happened for the past 40+ years of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers and to pursue what is next. What does God want us to do next? I kept wondering why if other progressives were asking this question. Where does God want us to jump?

You see, I actually do not believe that we should separate simply because liberals and conservatives can’t stand each other and have entirely lost the ability to speak to each other. If we split for that reason alone – and I honestly fear that we might – then we will certainly be more open and progressive (which is good!), but we will also be the same clunky, top-heavy, slow, overly bureaucratic institution that has been as irrelevant and ineffective as we have been for decades. Just smaller. Let’s dream bigger than this!

We have got to know what truly is holding us captive us if we are to experience and walk into liberation or even more, be ambassadors of liberation to the world. God wants to set us and all of Creation free!

Conservative ideological and theological restrictions are annoying, but they are not what bind us. The precipice we are to jump from is the precipice of institutionalism and structured, mandated, outdated, irrelevant connectionalism. This is what we have a unique opportunity to experience liberation from. Moreover, what we have a chance to experience liberation to is a 21st Century model of the New Testament Church.

Picture this.

The scene is set in a low income neighborhood in a medium-sized city in the Midwest (though this picture is found throughout the United States and increasingly more in other parts of the world). The city has high unemployment, rising crime, common occurrences of police brutality, and past incidents of racism continue to scar existing relationships between the residents and city and police and between residents themselves. This is where a band of Progressive Methodists has settled to form community.

The families that make up this band are multi-cultural and intergenerational. They are gay, straight, trans, queer, coming from all kinds of theological and political backgrounds. They just hunger for the same thing: an authentic expression of being the Body of Christ, in love with Jesus, with one another, and with the people they share life with in their neighborhood. They read and study the Scriptures, they just don't worship it - they worship Jesus who brought them together, saved them, and who sustains them. This band of Progressive Methodists lives incarnationally among the poor in this city and they work with existing social services and faith communities (even the newly formed suburban-based Good News Evangelical Methodist Church of the Tightly Wound!). 

They help care for the felt needs of the community, though they are also actively engaged in organizing the people so that their voices can be heard by decision-makers on the city, state and even federal level. They just helped the city pass a minimum wage increase to 12$ in their city, less than what their know folks need, but higher than what folks have. And when they win justice for their neighbors, or when they add to their number (which happens frequently – I mean, who doesn’t want to be a part of this!), they do what they do best – they celebrate!

Weekly they work with the people in their neighborhood and weekly they meet. They meet to eat together, dream together, plan together, strategize together and pray and sing together. They share life.

Every couple of months or so the leaders of this band (which includes leaders indigenous to the neighborhood) gather with other bands of Progressive Methodists from around the state who also are incarnationally located in hurting communities. When they get together the joy and passion and love that is felt at their weekly meeting is multiplied as the various bands are hungry for fellowship and to share ideas on what they are doing and how they can be more effective. Their times together are filled with laughter and joy and tears at the struggles they face.

And they talk excitedly about the next time that the General Gathering will commence; that time once every few years when bands from all over the US and increasingly in other parts of the world, come together and do what was done at the state gatherings – to celebrate, share, eat (Lord they can eat!), sing, pray, give praise, cry and laugh. In fact, the Progressive Methodists laugh even now when they remember at the last General Gathering when someone brought up an idea to write down some rules and regulations and to better systematize the tremendous growth of Progressive Methodism. There were even “motions” to set up a hierarchy with central offices and numerous paid staff.

Upon hearing the “motion” at the General Gathering there was at first a stunned silence. It wasn’t that long ago when Progressive Methodists remembered how bound they were to such rules and regulations and they feared returning to that kind of captivity. Suddenly, someone broke out in song and the measure was forgotten and they went back to what they knew best: liberating laughter, love and a celebration of justice. No one had time to make rules and set up a hierarchy that benefits so few and costs so much. They had real work to do and everyone was focused on that and on loving and lifting one another up.

Can you picture this? Man, I can. This is what I saw when we stood on the edge of the precipice. I wanted to jump so bad it feels in many ways that I already did and I am not sure I can go back to the safe ground anymore.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Dreaming Aloud: Living into Post-Empire Faithfulness

At long last, the United Methodist Church now finally seems to be speeding towards a hard turn to the theological and political right and/or a fracture that cannot be healed. I hurt for my friends and all people who truly love the United Methodist Church and who have spent their lives investing in it locally and especially through the institutional structures. We can say what we want about the status of the church (and Lord knows we do!), but the United Methodist Church has brought many a person to the loving embrace of Christ and set many of us loose into the mission of the Kingdom, working towards the realization of the beloved community. For that I will always be grateful for the United Methodist Church that I have known.

But new wine cannot be kept in old wineskins or else the wineskins will burst. I see the bursting forth now and I believe – I have believed for quite a while in fact – that new wineskins are needed and that is only a good thing for the Body and for God’s mission. I know the inevitable split within the United Methodist Church will be hurtful for some and I am sad for that. I also know that it will be costly and a constant distraction for likely years to come, but can anyone say what we have been dealing with for at least the last ten years or longer has been anything but one long continued costly distraction?

My fear for the United Methodist Church is that the separation will not be amicable and that years of court battles over assets will ensue, ensuring more resources thrown down the drain. Lord, let this not happen. My prayer is we bless one another and then passionately pursue the Kingdom cheering on one another from afar. But this may be a prayer unfulfilled.

What we can be sure of is that the two sides not only theologically and politically disagree, there seems to be some real animosity brewing. I hate what I see and I hate even more what the world is having to watch, especially when interest in Christianity is at an all-time low in the United States.

So, it might seem an odd time to be dreaming, but I honestly can’t help it. I actually cannot help but feeling excited in anticipation for what is to come. I believe dreaming is the best thing to do when the empire is crumbling down around us. It is the best time to dream when all that has been built up is falling over from its own unsustainable weight. I am excited because we really do have new wine that needs new wineskins. Creating new wineskins makes me dream for the potential of what can be.

While the institution and those who run it will continue to be preoccupied with its struggle to maintain its existence – no institution will ever voluntarily commit institutional suicide as too many benefit from its existence – I find myself thinking and literally dreaming of what can be built from the rubble of a fallen empire. As one who feels shaped by a (mostly) Wesleyan understanding of God and the Body of Christ, this is what I hope for for those of us ready to begin journeying into the next reality of God’s gracious expression of missional community, commissioned to love and transform the world.

I want to be a part of a Body that is focused on mission, loving a world that is broken, lost and enduring unbelievable injustice every day.

I want to be a part of a Body that emphasizes incarnational relationships among the poor, oppressed and marginalized and that refuses to spend foolishly on facilities or events that have as their only benefit the members of the Body alone.

I want to be a part of a Body that utilizes our access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access have been restricted or denied for this is the essence of biblical advocacy.

I want to be a part of a Body who is connected with one another across cities, states, nations and continents, but whose connections are not forced and institutional, but natural and organic, and for the sole purpose of loving people more radically and advocating for justice more effectively.

I want to be a part of a Body that is fully inclusive of all people realizing that all people are children of God and are dearly loved. No fights, no protests, everyone is in and everyone can and does lead. Period.

I want to be a part of a Body that is shaped by, loves, and seeks live to according to Scripture.

I want to be a part of a Body that is creedal knowing that what has been passed down and what connects us with the larger Body is what can keep us connected theologically with one another.

I want to be a part of a Body that truly believes in the priesthood of all believers, without special statuses or titles that feed the pride of some and demean us all.

I want to be a part of a Body that loves people. No gimmicks, no tricks, no PR campaigns, no catchy slogans. Just Love.

Man, just writing this gets my heartbeat going. I want to be a part of building this – like today.

And do you know why I am most excited writing this? Because I know I do not have to wait while “leaders” figure this out. While others might take years to sift through the ruins of a decaying institution, the Church lives on – and that means us. We, all of us, have gifts that God wants to use NOW to reach a dying world; a world that isn’t waiting for a two year study or for endless board meetings or for two or three more General Conferences before an amicable solution is reached. People are dying NOW. People are suffering from injustice NOW. Let’s get on with it already. We have resources and connections NOW and we should be ready to journey into God’s loving missional invitation to transform the world NOW.

I am ready, I am fired up and I am ready to go.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

An Invitation to Join #WhiteOutMonday at General Conference

On Monday, May 16 I want to invite my white United Methodist brothers and sisters to stop tweeting for an entire day, to participate in a #WhiteOutMonday. As with so many large gatherings, the dominant culture tends to dominate conversations and we (speaking as a member of that dominant culture) tend to miss out on hearing the thoughts and reflections of minority cultures, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. I have seen this happen at previous gatherings as well as at this year’s General Conference. Moreover, I have helped make this happen.

This is just a suggestion. No, this isn’t enforceable. I don’t want to enforce it. My God, we are so worried about enforcing too much in the United Methodist Church already. I just want to invite white folks to try it. Let’s spend an entire day abstaining from tweeting listening and learning from the tremendous wisdom of our sisters and brothers of color. Maybe even white folks in Portland will join with us. I believe we have much to learn.

I have been in many meetings, especially having worked in advocating and organizing for immigration reform for ten years, and in some of those meetings English was not always used. I can speak a little Spanish and I can understand a little more, but what I notice in those meetings when English gets rarely used is that I listen much and I learned even more. Most importantly, it was those times when I am not leading. I am hearing from others who rarely get to speak when the dominant language is English and much of what I assumed to be true was changed. As a result, my work in mobilizing United Methodists to defend and support the rights of immigrants was tremendously shaped and formed more when I listened than when I spoke. My work was better for listening than it was from speaking.

I hope white folks, especially those of us who have tweeted so much (and so much of the Tweeting has been beneficial!), will stop on Monday. I pray we will not check out from the happenings of General Conference, but that our privilege of always having to be heard and recognized will be checked. As I shared with others, this is not about silencing a group of people. This is about checking our white privilege and stepping into God’s amazing grace which is found through listening and learning from those whose voices are so often get drowned out by the dominant white culture.

No, not every white person will participate. That’s ok. I won’t judge or castigate those who do not participate in #WhiteOutMonday and I hope others will not do so either. Nothing wastes the work of God’s grace in our lives like judging others for not being where we think they should be. God will teach all of us in due time. I want to learn this for myself and I just hope others will join me.

One more note. All (white people) are free to participate in #WhiteOutMonday, but I want to openly urge my sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ community to not participate. There has been far too much at this this year’s General Conference (and at previous ones as well) that silences your voices. Let’s make this Monday a hetero #WhiteOutMonday. I hope you will tweet it out (until Monday!), share it on Facebook, and prayerfully participate. Then, on Tuesday, let’s share what we learned, what was hard about it and how can our engagement be changed as we move forward.

There is so much God wants to do in and through us and I look forward to listening and learning from my sisters and brothers of color can teach me on Monday and beyond. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

There's More: A Note of Encouragement to United Methodists in Portland

I was challenged by a friend of mine to write something encouraging, especially in light of how critical I have been of late of the United Methodist Church structure. Challenge accepted. This is for all the people gathered in Portland who are serving passionately and I hope faithfully this week and next at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference.

As one who survived (barely) two General Conferences, the one thing that kept sane and (mostly) faithful was to think beyond the moment, look beyond the present situation, and remember that whether you “win” or “lose” the current fight you are in – and let’s face it, there are a lot of fights at General Conference – there is so much more beyond what we can see, feel, or even comprehend in the current moment.

There’s more to the person who is saying things you absolutely disagree with and perhaps even find offensive or hurtful. I remember having a conversation with someone who told me that, politically speaking, he made Rush Limbaugh look liberal. I was more than a little taken aback by that, but we kept talking and as we did it turned out that we actually agreed on the issue of immigration – that undocumented people needed to be given citizenship and the hatred and vitriol directed towards them should be stopped. He was close friends with immigrants and they had changed his entire worldview on the issue. I am glad I kept talking with him (though he drove me a little crazy on some other important issues!). People can actually surprise you sometimes.

There’s more to the mission of the Church than just words in a resolution. I took comfort in knowing that when a legislative subcommittee, whole committee, or even the entire General Conference agreed on language that I felt was less than perfect or just flat out wrong on an issue I cared about, I recalled that United Methodists and other people of faith were being faithful to the mission of loving people and did not need perfect resolution language to propel them into mission in the first place. Remember that resolutions can help teach or provide insightful reflection, but rarely do they initiate missional engagement on their own. It’s important to get them right, but resolution or not, the mission of God lives on and God will always be using the Body to live that mission out on earth. Moreover, missional engagement most often comes through the Spirit working through primarily incarnational relationships in local churches, rather than pronouncements made through institutional gatherings.

Perhaps most importantly for me to remember is that there’s more to the Kingdom of God than just the United Methodist Church. As a lifelong United Methodist I know schism is hard to think about and the deep disagreements between liberals and conservatives eats away at the resources of the church, but I kept (and continue to keep) my mind and heart at peace when I prayerfully reflect that God is at work in the world whether the United Methodist Church remains the United Methodist Church or not. I do not want to trivialize the issues the church is facing right now at all. It’s not that God doesn’t care about these issues. It’s that the work of the Kingdom will continue regardless of the decisions (or lack of decisions) reached during General Conference. God’s continued mission does not palliate the hurt that some will feel whatever happens at General Conference, but I do hope and pray we will keep pursuing God and God’s love for a just world regardless what happens. I think and hope there is freedom in that.

So, my friends in Portland, be faithful where you are. Feel the strength of God’s Spirit when you feel tired and are tempted to respond in anger to being hurt. Remember and bask in God’s love for you – it is immense! And remember periodically that there is so much more to God’s hope for this world than we can ever possibly imagine. There are more than opportunities to join with God’s desire for justice and restoration than we will ever be able to take advantage of. And there is more grace for us to receive and share with others than we will ever know. There is always more.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The United Methodist Machinery of Colonization

The online/Facebook discussions on the United Methodist Church (finally) recognizing the right of LGBTQ folks to marry and be ordained are heating up so that can only mean one thing – General Conference is just around the corner! I have seen lots of these discussions lately and I have tried hard to abstain from engaging mainly because I have yet to read anything that is truly new and/or illuminating. Most of the time the arguments break down into scraps between individuals who are fighting little battles as tune-ups for the larger war.

But in looking at the struggle for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers to finally be recognized in the church for having the same basic civil and human rights as everyone else, one thing I see that tends to be lost in the never-ending battle of competing biblical exegesis is the dynamic of power. Just this past week, when I was watching the latest sex and Bible brouhaha break out on Facebook, I thought of a point Joerg Rieger made in his excellent book, Globalization and Theology. In describing two ways in which power is used, Rieger names one way as “soft power.” Soft power is that power which controls and manipulates but not through force (which would be “hard power”). He interestingly names as an example of “soft power” a hero of many church historians, Bartolome de Las Casas. Las Casas was a 16th Century historian, explorer and ultimately, social reformer who challenged the brutal mistreatment of indigenous people in South America by Spanish colonizers. He fought valiantly against the vicious system of slavery for close to 50 years.

But Rieger rightly calls out Las Casas because for all of his advocacy and opposition to the way the slaves were treated he actually never opposed the system of colonization itself; the very system which was built through their enslavement. He simply wanted a more humane form of colonization. Rieger puts it best, “Las Casas never fully deconstructed the power differentials on which Spanish top-down globalization rested – in fact, he continued to presuppose the power differentials in his own alternative approach to globalization.” (2010:35) Rieger’s point here, which I believe is dead on, has often made me wonder when if Las Casas ever truly listened to the indigenous people for whom he advocated or did he simply presume to know what was best for them, continuing to live out of the same colonialist mindset disregarding the thoughts and ideas – the creative imagination of the indigenous people, because as a resident of the Spanish Empire he knew what was best for them even more than they did. His form of colonization was certainly nicer and gentler than the slave owners, but it remained colonization nonetheless.

While comparing social injustices is challenging enough, to do so from such vastly different time periods is fraught with difficulty. Still, I only want to make one analogic point here between Las Casas and the struggle for recognizing the basic civil and human rights of the LGBTQ community within the life of the church, while openly admitting that denying recognition of the rights of the LGBTQ community by the United Methodist institution is not equivalent to the vicious practice of slavery.

But to apply Rieger’s critique of Las Casas to the current struggle in the United Methodist Church, perhaps the deeper challenge before us is not the fact that the United Methodist Church does not recognize the rights of the LGBTQ community in its fellowship, but rather, the deeper challenge before us is the fact that we have given the United Methodist Church the power to recognize, or even bestow might be the better word, such rights to begin with. Maybe we are dealing with more than an ecclesial matter here. Maybe the challenge for those committed to seeing that everyone in the Church (notice the big “C”) is not just allowed, but urged, encouraged, and thoroughly supported to live into the fullness that God intends for all of God’s people. And perhaps the fight at General Conference will have nothing to do with urging, encouraging, and thoroughly supporting all people to live into God’s fullness. Perhaps, the fight at General Conference actually boils down to a choice between what kind of colonizer the United Methodist Church will be. Will we be a brutal colonizer or a nice colonizer like Las Casas?

The brutal colonizer is intemperate, rigid, and demanding that others fit themselves and their needs, their hopes, and their gifts into the tight and tidy framework that makes the machinery of the colonizer work more efficiently. In fact, one of the highest values of this kind of colonizer is efficiency. The machine of brutal colonization is far more important than the welfare of any one individual. The machine must work smoothly, efficiently; just a dull, slow hum in the background.

Thus, ordination is not really about recognizing the gifts for ministry in each individual and how they can best serve and edify the Body of Christ to serve the world. I mean, those words are often used to describe the current process, but let’s be serious. Ordination is about taking relatively capable leaders who, more than anything, will obediently go where they are told and then fit them in where they are placed so that the necessary slots are filled, the salary structure remains hierarchical, and the machinery slowly grinds on. (Can you hear the dull humming?) One United Methodist leader, when recently asked when the rights of the LGBTQ folks would be recognized and they would gain full inclusion into the church, responded with, “when we are all united in Christ Jesus!” So, like never? Tell me one time when even one local church was entirely united over something as mundane as the color of the new carpet, much less recognizing the basic civil and human rights of an entire group of people who have been forever marginalized. This kind of political quote sounds nice but is really the sound of large doors slamming forever shut. And the slow, dull hum drones on in the background for the machine grinds on.

On the other hand, we have a much nicer, softer, gentler colonizer. This kind of colonizer will empathize with those who have been mistreated, calling out the mistreatment even, but yet, will never attempt to break the power of the system of colonization. These are the folks – much like I was until a couple of years ago really – who honestly feel badly for those whose rights are not respected by the rest of the official church, but who urge caution. They use words like “wisdom” and “good strategy” and “the need to proceed slowly” but they know those words mean never. These are the colonizers who push gently, but not too hard lest the entire boat were to begin to topple over. Because, you see, the most important thing is that the boat stay afloat. The boat is far more important than urging, encouraging and thoroughly supporting all people to live into the fullness of God’s love and hope for the world. Just make sure the boat doesn’t tip. You see, gentle colonizers have too much luggage in the boat. They have too much riding on the sustenance of the machine so they would prefer a kinder, gentler form of machinery; maybe a quieter, dull, humming sound. But good heavens, we don’t need a new machine! Maybe just a few different folks powering the oars.

When the machine excludes your friends and loved ones, but also provides you with full medical and dental coverage and a not-so-shabby 401K, you can hate the machinery. But you can’t live without the machinery.

This is why I think the choice between a brutal colonizer and a nice, gentle colonizer is a false choice. Whatever choice we end up with as United Methodists, we are still left with the machinery of colonization. I would suggest we imagine life without the machinery altogether. What if we simply choose to no longer pay into the machinery of repression and colonization and we allow our God-given imaginations to flow wildly and we imagine a new church where all people – no seriously, ALL people – are urged, encouraged and thoroughly supported to be exactly who God has called them to be and to serve exactly how God has called them to serve. It’s not like we don’t have some current or historical examples to help us with roadmaps. Ever hear of the New Testament Church in the beginning of Acts? Not a bad place to start.

So, yeah, I don’t see General Conference “solving” much of anything in May (or ever). I think it far more realistic if we turn the machinery off altogether. The machine feeds on money and people so the machine will starve if we give them neither. Utilize our existing resources, (God, we have so many resources!) and the networks of like-minded and like-missional folks to start anew, to dream new dreams, envision new realities, imagine new futures. It ain’t Lent but maybe it’s time we all give up our dependence on the machine. I doubt those who benefit from the machine will miss us. They probably won’t even know we are gone. But we will be free; free from the slow, dull, humming that puts so many people to sleep.