Monday, November 28, 2005

A Lover's Quarrel

When I was growing up, there would be times I'd get in trouble.

I'm sure that's hard to believe.

The thing about me that differentiated my "career as an child and adolescent" from my siblings was not that I didn't do the many things they did.

Oh, I did.

The difference was, I knew how not to get caught.

They, on the other hand, didn't give a damn who knew and usually bragged about it.

The times I got in trouble, especially as a kid, it was usually my mother who took me to task. Many were the times of hearing her say to me, as discipline was being meted out -

"Son, believe me, this hurts me more than it hurts you."

My retort was usually of the sort in which I questioned whether my mother loved me at all.

I've never forgotten her response (and, in a "circle of life" kinda way, I've used it myself more than once) - "If I didn't love you, I wouldn't care what you did."

And then she'd tell me that she knows who I am and what I could be, and that I have to reminded of that when I do something boneheaded. I've learned that character of "love" is real, and often, the most profound way of expressing it.Somewhere along the way, I think we've forgotten that love does not equal compliance or blind assent. Love doesn't even equal "like," necessarily.

Love equals the willingness to wrestle and not let go.

Seems like there's a story in the Hebrew Bible about that somewhere..hmm.

Anyway, the recent affairs of the world, of politics, of the church have given rise for a re-visitation of what love is.

One of the joys of my current appointment was the opportunity to visit with William Sloane Coffin. The story of Bill's life reads like a novel, and there's much already in print for any who would want to know about him. In my encounter with him, there was one thing that stood out as a lesson I'm striving not to learn, but to master -

Dissent does not mean disloyal. In fact, it could well be the most effective expression of love as the situation demands.

Way back in another time and place, Bill's voice was one of the first and loudest crying out about the policies perpetuating a war in Vietnam. He later stood as an architect building a network of faith and political leaders to fight the poliferation of nuclear weapons. He has been vocal on matters of social conscience for many years.

When he speaks of his disdain for policies that further divide a nation, or of plans that ran up to a war in Iraq - he could easily be labeled as one of those "bleeding hearts," who had no backbone.

But to the contrary, he loves his country. In fact, he says that he's having "a lover's quarrel" with it.

Bill Coffin loves his country. He is a patriot. But more than that, he's a prophet.He's one who, like Nathan, will stand before King, and with the righteous anger of the Lord, and not his own, proclaim, "You are the man."
Somehow my mom's words come back - "If I didn't love you, I wouldn't care what you did."

It takes a might more courage to stand up to one you love and challenge some of the assumptions your lover has about life, your relationship, the world, the faith.

It's far too easy to go alone to get along and to think that silence is golden.

From a therapeutic perspective, it's co-dependency and enabling dis-eased behavior, and it sure ain't love.

Many more voices once silent about Iraq are starting to find theirs. That's usually how things go. God knows how all this is going to come out over there.

But that we are having now the debate we should have had then about this conflict, after 2,000+ of our men and women have been killed, 15,000 wounded, and untold Iraqi citizens killed and wounded, it shows one thing more than anything else -

We love our political power more than we love each other.

And that goes for both major political parties.

Democrats, don't show up two years into the game and question why we're there. Except for Howard Dean, everybody was on board.

It's cheap.

It's tacky.

And it's too damned late.

Republicans, don't you dare act like the White House didn't have a bloodlust for war even before 9/11.

Was the intelligence faulty? You think?

Was it "spun" take make a case for war?

And does the power machine of the White House seek to discredit anyone who disagrees? You think?

In the polarization of the seat of power - the question of what you love more applies.

It also applies to the church.

My Church.

I'm United Methodist.

I believe, by God's grace, that's what I'm called to be, and it is the conduit through which I'm called to serve.

I love my church.

And I'm quarreling with it. We are too much a part of our consumerist society, and it is one of our gravest sins.

We have shown, more times than once, that we will cave into culture rather than stand beside it as an example of what community could be.

Historically, we equivocated on the issue of slavery. The blight of that sin stains the church I love still.

We, like our political counterparts, love our power positions more than we love each other. We love our theological platforms more than we love Jesus of Nazareth.

And there is no better proof of this point than the issues the currently preoccupy the Church - the war in Iraq and homosexuality.

Does God love those who are gay any differently than God loves those who are straight? Our bishops have called homosexuality "no barrier" to church membership.

Does the Church have a right to exclude anyone? Sure. It has a right to do just about anything it wants. It has a right, if not, obligation, to insure that those who represent it have met criteria of examination to suggest that they are fit to fill whatever role the church is asking such people.

But choices of who to include and who to exclude, and on what basis, bespeaks the church as a system, and do not necessarily give witness to the One in whose name it is audacious enough to claim as it's reason for being.

Our Church has said many things on a host of issues.

But so what?

How, then, do we get to a place of consensus? Do we love one another, and the Christ in us, more than we love our position?

I'm not afraid to wrestle. I used to be. Being a middle child, I just wanted us all to get along.

But I've grown out of that.

There's too much go along to get along in the world as it is.

And one of the reasons the UMC has such turmoil right now, is that the issues that preoccupy it are not those living in the abstract. They are not the issues that reside within the halls of a denominational bureaucracy.

The Council of Bishops are being criticized for bringing these conversations to the fore. I'm not among them. I applaud them, and I believe they are taking the role of leader and teacher seriously.

But that's not the real reason they're being criticized. It has a whole lot more to do with the reality that these questions must be dealt with inside the protected little micro-kingdoms we call our local churches, where most of these things seem to get shielded from the common lay man or woman.

And who ususally does the "shielding?"

The clergy.


Because we don't want to deal with it.

But these issues cannot be avoided any longer.

They live right where we are.

We all know someone who is gay.

We might even love them.

We might even call them friend.

They may even be members of our family.

We might be called to serve as their pastor.

Could it be that someone who is gay has been my pastor?

On the war - We all know someone who has been deployed to Iraq.

And too many of us know someone who didn't come home, or, if they did, they left a whole lot of themselves there.

The Church cannot ignore the reality of these issues anymore.

As is usually the case, we come at it way too late.

But the time of ferment is now.

It is here, and here we are.

What shall we do?

Are we willing to quarrel with each other as lovers trusting that if we didn't love each other, we wouldn't care, and because we love...we wrestle, and by God, we're not letting go?

I hope so.

I pray so.

But sometimes I wonder if we'll go the way we usually do rather than wrestle.

We split as lovers who will not work it out.

But that's a conscious choice.

What we can do and what we will do are not the same.

We wrestle because we love...and because we know what we can still be.

Let it be, O God.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Epilogue - Anatomy of a Conversion - Or, Kill Duke Tonight!

Duke 70
Memphis 67

Oh, it hurts so good.

Anatomy of a Conversion - Or, Kill Duke Tonight!

I'm a Tiger fan. Memphis, that is.

I wasn't always that way. As a child of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, I know a bit about UK basketball, and I'll always have an appreciation for that. And, we hold a common nemesis - Louisville.

Part of my early adolescence was spent in West Tennessee, and that meant I was exposed to UT football - even went to a couple of games in Knoxville, even had an orange (God forgive me) jacket. But when I remember those days, I harken back to the Apostle Paul, who said,

"When I was a child, I thought and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put away those childish ways for good."

But then, in 1981, when a senior in high school, I went to a Memphis State basketball game with some of my buddies. There I was introduced to the Mid-South Coliseum, and there I watched the Tigers hot new freshman, Keith Lee. The Tigers were playing Florida State, then a Metro Conference foe. We were sitting behind the Tigers' basket on the top level of the Coliseum.

Nationally televised game...bright lights gave the court a transfiguring glow.

And this is how my conversion happened.

Otis Jackson, point guard, bounced passed to the wing, where Phillip "Doom" Haynes took the pass looking to take his famous bank shot (guy had the best bank shot I've ever seen), but, alas, the defense wouldn't allow it.

So, he passed back to OJ (back when a guy would count that nickname as a compliment).

Bounce pass to Bobby Parks (great player who could dribble drive to the hole), but nothing doing.

So, back to OJ, at the top of the key, who faked another pass and then squared up for a long jumper.

The shot was a little too hard, so it hit the heel of the rim and bounced back high off the rim.

Out of nowhere, I see the arm. The man's elbow was at the rim. This hand grabbed the ball in mid-air and slammed it back through the hoop.

It was this tall, skinny kid from West Memphis.

Keith Lee.

But on this day - he was issuing an altar call to be a follower of the Tigers as clear as any evangelist could.

And I answered.

In the words of Dick Enberg - "Oh My!"

It's strange how some moments are so clear in memory, and others fade away, but this one is burned in me.

I had to stay in Memphis.

I had planned on attending Lambuth - you know, get out of town and do what college kids do in a small liberal arts school with a 4 to 1 female to male ratio.

But Memphis had a couple of things going in its favor . . .

. . . my first girlfriend,


the Tigers - the team with a small, but loyal following. Too often derided as "Tiger High," a wannabe when spoken of by UT or Ole Miss...MSU was for me - if, for no other reason, there would come a time when we'd get them, and maybe only once - and a lifetime of losses wouldn't hurt nearly as bad as one victory would hurt them.

"Tiger High" doesn't hurt those of us who bleed blue and gray, it motivates us to want to kick your butts!

That's me. I'm weird that way.

There's been a lot of disappointments and "wait until next year"s in my vocabulary. It's perpetual if you're a Tiger fan.

The heartbrakes are too many to name. Too many times where we've snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory, and when that happens against UT or Ole Miss, or Louisville or Cincinnati, it's just a bit much to take. The varied scandals across the years, the disappointments, the tragedies

- if Rex Dockery had not died in an plane crash in the mid-80's, the Tigers football program would be on a par with Florida State (and, no, I'm not joking when I say that). It took 20 years for us to recover.

Watching our local hero, Larry Finch, be put in an untenable position leading to his firing, sad.

Yep, too many "what ifs."

But the victories are sweet when they come.

In football -
Beating Ole Miss in Oxford - I was there.
Beating UT - I was there
Going to our first bowl in 30 years and winning it - I was there.
Watching DeAngelo run - I was there

In basketball
Keith Lee
Andre Turner
Beating Louisville in Freedom Hall while we were on probation and keeping them from going to the NCAA's - I was there.
Going to NCAA's
Watching Penny Hardaway play ball
Beating UCLA

And maybe tonight...we play Duke.

Duke, #1, storied program, Coach K. Multiple titles. Perennial contender.

A great program. No doubt. And one I often pull for in other contexts.

But I want them. I want them because of the "Duke" attitude.

In my world, I encounter a number of graduates from Duke Divinity School. And here's one thing about Duke grads, you'll never have to guess where they went to school, they'll tell you first - as if to say "I went to Duke, so, therefore, where you went to school is irrelevant.

Man, I hate that.

So boys (Tigers, that is) you're up against it tonight.

New York City.

Madison Square Garden.

Against #1.

One time, time.

Let's go.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Reign of Christ - House Rules

As hard as it is to believe, this Sunday is the last Sunday of the Christian year.

And what is the last word of the Christian year?

What is the last thing to be pronounced before we begin the story again ?

Simply this . .

The Reign of Christ is at hand. It is not a matter of what we want, prefer, or how we even think it should be.

It is.

And this Reign operates under an economy that constantly judges us...Especially those of us who fancy ourselves the faithful ones, with these words:

Matthew 25.31-46

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

The rules of the house - hospitality for the very ones you think shouldn't belong - or at the very least, those whose presence in your life breaches your comfort zones.

For in such as these - you meet Christ.

Failure to do so, you shun the very One whose name you claim.

This apocalyptic drama is often referred to in Biblical studies as "the last judgement." It carries words no doubt familiar to any of us gathered today. The simplicity of faithfulness to God is measured not in what creed we utter, our defense of the church from those we believe should have no place in it - the issue is not what you say believe, but what you are doing or not doing.

The least of these - those you think you're better than, politically, culturally, economically - or, those who you thank God you're not. If "there but for the grace of God, go I," is a part of any thought you have about someone else - it might well be the lead indicator that if you're going to meet Christ, you're going to find him in such as these.

The reality of this passage is not that judgment is lying in wait for us somewhere out there in the future...the Reign of Christ is right now, and ours is the opportunity,obligation, responsibility or judgement today in serving those pushed aside, ignored, forgotten, shunned, rejected, passed by, relegated to labels, counted as deserving their plight.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Defining Moment II - Reformation Time Again

A good rule of thumb when trying to determine if a decision on matters of faith is a good one.

If you can hear Jesus telling you, "well done, thou good and faithful servant," it's probably a good indicator of faithfulness.

If you can' might need to rethink.

So, do you hear Jesus saying "well done" to:
  • barring someone from membership because they are gay
  • refusing someone called into ministry because of their sexual identity
  • perpetuating a consumerist theology that further marginalizes the poor
  • seeking to create nation state's in our own image
  • sending our sons and daughters to die in a war seemingly framed on faulty, if not manipulated intelligence
  • torture other children of God and justify it because we're at war

When the Church protects it's polity at the expense of the Gospel, you either change the polity or the Church dies because it no longer mirrors the One they claim as their Head.

So, it's time to change our polity?


Who's with me?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Illegitimate Has No Power Over Grace

Greetings from Nashvegas...

As you might imagine, our work this week has had, as an added agenda, conversation around the recent Judicial Council ruling.

As I'm having opportunity to borrow a computer and check email (and offer this post), I'm seeing the circulation of a "closed hearts, minds and doors" email that's making the rounds. For those who feel so convicted, I have no problem with anyone being a signatory.

But I want to place some of this in context. And, having had the benefit of conversation with my own bishop, I believe I understand a bit more of what is going on.

The long and the short of it is this - the ruling is a bad ruling, in part, because of a due process issue.

Bishop Kammerer, who filed the original complaint, is seeking a review of the decision. I'm betting on a different outcome.

Having said that, I want you to know this - the Church is conflicted on this issue. No doubt about it. And yes, there will come a day of repentance necessary for our church on the issue of discrimination of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers.

But that's not the only issue we need to repent on.

Despite what you've read in the newspaper, the Church is "open," at least on another paper, to receive all who will come and seek to be disciples of Jesus. That paper is the Book of Discipline, and the mandates of the Gospel to practice radical hospitality

I believe that, I will defend that...heck, our Church Consititution all but says it.

The Judicial Council makes rulings based not on theology, but on procedure. That's what they do. The bishops of the church, however, "teach" the church even as they shepherd it. The shepherd's crook is the symbol of the episcopacy, and for good reason.

Sometimes the Church needs to be guided.

Other times, prodded.

And other times, still, rapped about the head to get it's attention.

That's the role of bishops.

And they have spoken, without equivocation, on this matter. Their statement gives me hope.

The ruling last week only has the power you give it.

The witness you make by "living the gospel" over turns that which is illegitimate.

In the the church. Open your hearts, doors and minds. And if there are churches that will not accept others for any reason, you know where to tell them to find sanctuary. Oh, and by the way, and I don't think he'll mind me saying so, if there are clergy refusing membership in the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences, I know a bishop who will suspend and file charges in the blink of an eye. And if you've come to know anything about Dick Wills, you can believe that.

Because I doubt you've had access to read it, I've copied the response of the Council of Bishops on this matter and inserted it below.

Read it. Read it well. It tells who we are. Not yet perfect, to be sure. Needing to respond in grace and not fear on some issues (or at least insecurity), but genuinely open, I believe to the Spirit's leading.

Not all in the Church are open. But they never have been. And sad as that is, frankly, it's o.k. I have no trouble warning folks not to let the door hit them in the backside on the way out, because failure to be open is a hardness of heart, which means there's no room for love.

Faithfulness to our task may yet be the most effective converting ordinance for the church. Don't confuse that with silence, complicity and lack of advocacy. At Saint John's, our life together is shouting the goodness of the God of grace and the Kingdom coming into being.

Stay tuned.

This is the statement approved by the Council of Bishops on Nov. 2.

A Pastoral Letter to the People of The United Methodist Church From the Council of Bishops

By grace you have been saved through faith. Ephesians 2:8

Grace to you from Jesus Christ who calls his church to welcome all people into the community of faith as it proclaims the Gospel.

The Judicial Council, our denomination's highest judicial authority, recently issued a decision regarding a pastor's refusing a gay man's request for membership in the church. In the case, this man was invited to join the choir at the United Methodist Church in the community. As he became more active in the choir and the church, he asked to transfer his membership from another denomination to The United Methodist Church. Because he is a practicing homosexual, the pastor refused to receive him into church membership. The Judicial Council upheld the pastor's refusal of membership.

While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier. With the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church we affirm: "that God's grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons." (Para. 161g, 2004 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church)

We also affirm our Wesleyan practice that pastors are accountable to the bishop, superintendent, and the clergy on matters of ministry and membership.

The United Methodist Church is committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ with all people. We, the bishops of the Church, uphold and affirm that the General Conference has clearly spoken through the denomination's Constitution on inclusiveness and justice for all as it relates to church membership: "The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking the vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection." (Article IV, Constitution of The United Methodist Church)

We believe the ministry of the local church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is to help people accept and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. We call upon all United Methodist pastors and laity to make every congregation a community of hospitality.

Nov. 2, 2005 Lake Junaluska, N.C.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Defining Moment

"Either you define the moment, or the moment defines you."

I have received emails by the boatload today wondering whether or not I'm ashamed to be United Methodist, based on the ruling of the Judicial Council reinstating a pastor who refused membership to a man because he was gay.

I'm ashamed of that ruling, but I'm not ashamed to be United Methodist, and let me tell you why.

Because the Realm of God coming into being is going to come whether there's a United Methodist Church or not. I believe there is a Divine call for the mission and ministry of the UMC. I also believe the UMC needs reform, because way too much of our energies is trapped in moralistic or self-sustaining interests, and not embodying the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Neither are we taking seriously the "method" of our faith practice as envisioned by John Wesley.

I'm not ashamed to be United Methodist, because I know what God has done and is doing through the Church.

And, because I know that those who love the Church and dream of what it can be, will not

let this "decision" define them..

will rise up and show another way...

will live out the Gospel with more zeal than ever before...

will stand with our sisters and brothers too long excised from the Body, and will welcome them in .

This is not the time to fold up shop.

The reaction to this ruling is a moment of definition. And it defines those of us who find it repulsive as much as those who think it's an answer to prayer.

Do not go quietly into that good night, my friends.

This is the moment to take up the mantle of the Gospel and show what radical, extravagant love looks like.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Lessons from Scarritt

I took United Methodist Polity in the Spring of 1988.

It was the last set of courses being offered at Scarritt College, in Nashville, in cooperation with the Divinity School at Vanderbilt.

As an institution dedicated to the teaching arts of Christian Education, it was a jewel for the Church. Money, of all things, or lack thereof, brought on, in part, by the changing climate of where the Church was moving in the field, meant that Scarritt would no longer be viable as it was. There was talk that some Japanese company was going to buy the campus and do something with it (the sentiment was that whatever it was, it wasn't going to be good - but that was based on the fear of change more than reality - plus, what are "they" going to do with "our" beautiful campus?). Thanks to the United Methodist Women, another way emerged.

Monday, I'll spend 5 days at Scarritt-Bennett Center, what used to be Scarritt College, dealing with the retrospective and evaluative component of the end of The Office of Pastoral Formation.
The OPF, a dream of Bishop Ken Carder, and directed by David Lowes Watson, sought to instill a sense of mission and purpose for the Church's clergy that pastoral leadership is expressed not through the exercise of power, but the willingness for the pastor to understand that above all else, he or she is first a disciple of Jesus Christ with a call that has been sanctioned by the Church.

I share all the back story to say this -

Only today was I reminded of that polity class. That's one of the classes a ministerial candidate must take. It talks about how the church works, what the Discipline of the church is, how to run a church, stuff like that.

For me, it was pretty boring. I figured, I knew all that anyway. But I'll never forget one thing the teacher said on the day we were talking about church membership. We were dealing with how to fill out the church roll, and you have to keep a record of who joined and when, and whether it was a Profession of Faith or a Transfer. We talked about if someone seeks to be discontinued and how to record it if someone dies. It was all just so much systemic maintenance for me.

"Oh, yeah," I thought. "Gotta keep the Man informed."

Blah, blah, blah.

But then it happened, something said I didn't know, and something I've never had need to recall, until today.

Somebody in the class asked,

"Can the preacher take anybody off the church roll?"

An interesting question. To think that one person could singularly determine who could be removed from the roll of the church.

The answer from the professor was, "No." "The minister cannot, on their own, remove anyone from the roll of the church." "But the minister can restore anyone who seeks to renew or reactivate their membership."

To be sure, our Church government provides a means by which a member may be removed from the Church. Church rolls are revised by this means.

Somebody's on the roll.

Nobody's heard from them for years.

A process is started that lasts up to three years. Their names are read at the Charge Conference...efforts are made to contact them.

If no contact is made, the names are read the next year. And then, at the third year, if no one can establish their whereabouts, they are removed.

But all it takes is one person to say, I know where they are, or I know what's going on with them, and they are restored.

Yes, there are also "chargeable offenses" that could technically get someone removed from the church. But even the provisions for that are blanketed in grace.

It always seeks restoration.

Seems like clergy ought to be focused more on restoration, wholeness and renewal, than, say, making judgments on who should be allowed to join in the first place...

Don't ya think?