"The lines we draw are invitations to cross over and that crossing over, as any nomadic subject knows, constitutes who we are." (Judith Butler)

It’s Complicated

29 December 2013
Matthew 2:13–23
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa

This past October I completed a significant step in my doctoral work. I had come to the moment when I needed to prove that I know generally what I should know about the New Testament and Early Christianity. This process came in the form of four exams, called general exams at Harvard and referred to at some schools as comprehensive exams. The point is that I needed to showcase a satisfactory level of general or, dare I say, comprehensive knowledge. I’ll spare you the details, but that all went well, and I felt pretty smart for a while—wicked smart, to use the technical Bostonian term. And then I got lazy because it’s somewhat acceptable just to watch lots of TV for a while after exams and before gearing up for the dissertation, so you don’t need to be too impressed.

Even as I’ve been officially certified as generally knowledgeable about the early days of the movement in Christ, still one of my favorite things to say when asked questions about the Bible is, “Well… we don’t really know much about ancient Christianity.” My point is to say that you might think I have a lot of answers, but there’s a lot that I don’t know. And it’s not just because I forgot everything when I refilled the space previously made available in my brain for general exams with episodes from the latest season of Parks and Recreation. It’s because there are many gaps in the historical record, and even where we do have evidence, we are faced with the challenges of making sense of a world so different from our own, with its own sets of questions and concerns that do not necessarily translate clearly today.

The point in saying that we don’t know much isn’t actually to claim that nothing is or can be known about the earliest period of Christianity. It’s a provocative way of resisting easy answers and insisting instead upon asking questions with an attitude of openness to the unexpected and to the unknown. We often want religion to provide clear solutions and so turn to the Bible for such guidance. Truth be told, there was a time I’d flip open the Bible hoping that God would address an issue weighing on my heart by guiding me to the right page. Sure, such a method can bring about creative readings that might even have some sort of value. But if I open the Bible and point to Mark 14:51-52 and read that “a certain young man was following [Jesus], wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked,” what deep meaning am I supposed to get from that?! Even still, in seriousness, we certainly can approach the Bible with questions about living faithfully in this world and be encouraged, edified, and even challenged by the wisdom it contains.

But the reason I often start my answers to questions about the Bible and the Christian tradition by acknowledging that there are gaps in our knowledge is because I think there is great value in having the first response to our searching to be, “It’s complicated.” Discovering and making sense of ancient history is complicated. Translating the past for the present is complicated. Answering the biggest and even smallest questions of existence is complicated. Because life is complicated. And the Bible, if it is indeed the Living Word, is complicated too. And so I start with the answer that “it’s complicated” because I believe that this is crucial for affirming and addressing our own complex circumstances.

In today’s reading from Matthew, we are startled by a narrative that complicates our celebration of Christmas. Or at least it should. Perhaps it’s become so familiar as part of the Christmas story that we don’t think too much of it, or we simply gloss over it. I’ll admit that I can sort of forget about it. I happened to be preaching here three years ago when today’s texts last came up in the lectionary (the three-year cycle of readings we follow), and I remember being so focused on the passage from Hebrews, which we heard again this morning, that I was rather surprised and bothered to read aloud the Gospel text.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

“The slaughter of the innocents” this is often called.  Innocent children murdered because Herod was upset. His pride was wounded, and he feared the loss of his power. This is one of our important Christmas stories. Here in this joyous season we call to mind evil, unchecked power that deploys violence as a mechanism of control. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Freedom of Faith

30 June 2013
Galatians 5:1–25
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa

You may have noticed that the Galatians reading this morning was more than what was printed in the bulletin. That was a mistake on my part, and though it was longer than it was supposed to be, I’m glad it happened because we had the chance to hear what surely sounds weird to our modern sensibilities. If you’ll bear with me and embrace confusion for a while, it’s my hope that there might be something gained by diving headfirst into the weird. The language the apostle Paul uses from the start is familiar enough to us: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Freedom—check. That’s a word that resonates in the context of our revolutionary, democratic history. But then Paul starts talking about circumcision, and what to us is quite an odd discussion takes off: “Listen! [Paul knew that people would be falling asleep in the pews.] Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.”

You know how people say that you should never bring up religion or politics in conversation? Well maybe we should add genitalia to that list because circumcision seems a strange, uncomfortable topic for polite company. And yet, this was an important and serious issue for the earliest communities in Christ. From the time of Abraham, circumcision was taken as a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people. For the Jewish followers of Jesus, this would have been standard practice. But here Paul is addressing people from the Roman province of Galatia in Asia Minor, which is in modern-day Turkey. For non-Jews in the audience, perhaps the majority, the males would not typically have been circumcised and the idea of being required to do so might have been a deal breaker.

It sounds funny, but when we get nervous about having to stand up in front of the church and speak or make cookies or join a committee or whatever it is that a “good member” should do, we might remember our Galatian friends who were understandably nervous about whether a surgical procedure would be required to join the community. Some insisted upon the circumcision of all male believers (yes, this is one of those male-only issues, but in this case, that might not be such a bad thing for women!). “It’s in the rules,” such people surely argued. Others didn’t think circumcision should be a barrier to inclusion in the community of faith. That’s the assertion Paul makes, and his retort is especially awesome. Yes, Paul shares some profound insights, but we know he’s really serious when he declares, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Well okay then! Talk about a flare for dramatics!

I’m giving you this lighthearted history lesson for a few reasons. At the most basic level, it’s helpful to understand the historical context more fully in order to grasp what kind of teaching is being put forward. But more than that, I want us to allow ourselves to be surprised by the bible, to be confused, amused, annoyed, astounded, inspired—whatever arises when we really pay attention. It’s not all stuffy and impenetrable. The bible offers us glimpses of real-world issues with which people of faith have wrestled over the centuries. And, as we can find within the pages of our sacred texts themselves, the questions and concerns shift over time. Circumcision was one of the major topics of debate for the earliest followers of Christ. But if someone were to raise the same issue at a United Methodist conference today, I imagine there would be many dumbfounded, even irritated looks. We have our own sets of concerns about bodies and practices of faith that arise out of the multifarious ways people experience God and the world today.

If there is to be value in finding ourselves strangers to these ancient debates, it’s in learning from the processes by which earnest people of faith have been wrangling with vexing questions—sometimes the same, sometimes changing—for millennia. What wisdom might we glean from voices across the ages? Paul offers an elegant response that is at once clear and challenging: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision—[we might insert a contemporary issue]—counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” The only thing that counts is faith working through love.

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Beyond Marriage…

*Originally written for the Methodist Federation for Social Action blog and posted here

One of the biggest fights friends in my master of divinity program ever had erupted over same-sex marriage. The question was not if it should happen—all were fierce advocates for equality—but how and when. On one side were strategic minds worried that a case brought before the Supreme Court too soon could set equality back. On the other were persons from less friendly parts of the country where the lack of equality for all would continue to mean equality for none.

It’s challenging to be radically progressive and pragmatically strategic. We in the United Methodist Church know this well.

But here we are, just a short time away from finding out how this Supreme Court will deal with the questions of marriage equality before it. And beyond what my friends or I could have imagined just a few years ago, there are social and political indicators to suggest the U.S. is “ready” for a sweeping ruling (whether or not these justices will be so bold is another matter).

Even still, while I celebrate the progress and the potential in this moment, I also warily wonder what and, more importantly, who it is “victory” on marriage would represent. While an ostensibly effective strategy for allaying fears and winning popular approval of marriage equality might be to present same-sex couples as “just like us” (notice the continued privileging of the heteronormative position), it is important that we consider who is in view, who is not, and what is given up to appear “acceptable.”

Being strategic toward very particular change isn’t necessarily being radically progressive toward thoroughgoing justice.

We would do well to pay attention to the subjects put forward as acceptable, as not too threatening to the status quo: to notice their social-economic status, gender, race, ethnicity, abilities, etc. And if we are concerned for justice, we ought to pay attention to the persons and issues not addressed or served all that well (or at all) by marriage equality as it has been conceived, who are in fact obscured and left behind by relatively elite and conservative interests in perpetuating a nominally expanded institution of marriage.

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God Will Delight…

Last Sunday morning, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women celebrated its 40th anniversary in worship. The service was uplifting and inspiring as witnesses gave thanks for the work faithful United Methodists have been carrying out toward the empowerment of women in the church and world, at the same time that they raised challenges and urged the church to press onward still toward the vision of gender justice.

I led the reading of the day’s psalm and so was up on the platform throughout the service. From there, I watched as the gathered community streamed through the lines to receive communion. My eyes welled up as I watched friends and fellow sojourners pass through, some of whom I have gotten to know through our work together on the board of GCSRW these past four years, some new friends, and some old. I gave thanks that we journey together, sharing gifts and offering grace as we learn in connection what it means to be the fullness of the Body of Christ.

I cannot quite explain the tears, for they fell with more than gratitude. I am not sure what it means yet to say this, but I felt also that this was a sort of good-bye. After 40 years, it appeared the General Conference was poised to close down GCSRW, combining it with the General Commission on Religion and Race and reducing its status to that of a committee (which indeed came to pass on Wednesday, May 2).

But also, I felt some sense of farewell with respect to the whole church. I do not mean that I intend personally to leave. Rather, The United Methodist Church I have known is no more.

This General Conference has been marked by a fear of the future, by fear that there will be no future without changing course. Imagining a new path forward has largely centered around institutional restructuring and the development of new practices aimed at equipping local churches for vital ministry to transform the world.

There is another shift, however, that may very well change the culture of The United Methodist Church. We have known deep divisions on many issues throughout our Methodist tradition, and perhaps the defining debate at this moment is around sexuality. This is not new. But what has begun clearly to develop is the opportunity for those opposed to any change of the status quo to consolidate power as the number of African delegates, who tend to be socially conservative, increases with the growth of The UMC in Africa.

At this General Conference, efforts not just to maintain present policies but to make them even more restrictive have been finding success. Quite surely there are those who believe that this will allow the church to be more faithful biblically and theologically. And for such persons, this General Conference may seem good news, perhaps even a building block to growing the church once again.

But there are many faithful United Methodists who know God’s love and grace in and through the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. We know from scripture that the work of true disciples will bear good fruit, and so we recognize as holy the goodness that is evidenced through the lives and ministry of LGBT Christians.

Though the General Conference has once again refused officially to acknowledge our division on this issue, the disagreement is undeniable. Thus, seeking greater constraints of the full and equal participation of LGBT persons in The United Methodist Church seems an effort to wield the power of majority votes in order to dominate others and silence dissent.

In this way, I sense the spiritual death of the church, not just because people do not agree with me but because our differences are effaced. If we are organized not so as to live in the richness of our diversity but in order to enforce “unanimity,” if we seek further to alienate our LGBT neighbors and friends, if we cannot commit significant resources to the work of gender and racial justice, if we cannot engage one another theologically but talk past each other with the knowledge that we do or do not “have the votes,” then we have failed to be the Body of Christ. And we have ceased to live biblically insofar as we find modeled in the bible the holding together of disparate ideas and practices.

This feeling emerged most palpably for me during one of the communion hymns at the GCSRW worship service: “For Everyone Born, a Place at the Table.” The refrain declares with unshakable hope, “God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion, and peace. Yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy.”

I could not sing through the sobs that these words brought. Gathered in that place were so many who have struggled and continue to strive to bring justice and joy into the world. However, in this context, at a conference marked by the consolidation of power and domination, I wonder if The UMC can be a church doing work in which God will delight. I wonder if The UMC will have room at the table that I might sit with those who read this and are not of one mind with me, who are satisfied with the actions of this General Conference. I do not wish for a place in which our differences would be erased but in which they would be honored and through which we might know more fully the vibrant, dynamic diversity of creation.

And so I mourn for a church that feels to me like it has lost its soul…

Yet still, as Christians we believe in a God who brings new life out of death. If the death of The UMC is what we fear, perhaps it is time to expect resurrection.

At the end of the day, Church happens in community. Real life happens, not in a political conference, but in the interactions of neighbors, in the ways we find both joy and pain, encouragement and struggle, hope and despair as we work out what it means to live in relationship with God and with one another.

The policies enacted by the General Conference will have formative and constraining effects on the lives of individuals, churches, and organizations, and this matters greatly. But as always, what matters will be the ways we engage one another in our daily lives when it is not winning a vote that is at stake but coexistence. It will be away from General Conference where we will or will not make choices to form bonds of mutuality, care, and understanding.

The real soul of the movement of people called Methodists will always be known in and through justice and joy when they are made manifest. And in these moments, God will surely delight.

Coming into the 2012 General Conference, delegates had before themselves various plans to restructure the institutional church so as to most “effectively” create and sustain “vital congregations.” (I use quotes because I begin to lose the sense that such words have any meaning as they become cliché. Nevertheless, the issue of restructuring to meet the needs of the 21st-century church is truly important work.)

The legislative committee charged with making a recommendation rejected every single plan (some in the last fifteen minutes before the enforced conclusion of committee work). They rejected compromise proposals. So this week, around 1,000 delegates will start at nearly the same place the smaller committee began.

If I seem to be lacking faith in the process, my sentiments are being read correctly. The fact of the matter is that now back-room deals have been made to come up with compromises that delegates might approve.

But who is at the table? And who is being compromised? I will wait to see the names associated with the proposal, but the answer as to who has been engaged in this process will probably not satisfy those who are committed to inclusion and justice.

The compromise proposal that was submitted this afternoon so that delegates can read the petition tomorrow and vote on Wednesday combines the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the General Commission on Religion and Race and essentially strips all of their functions except monitoring. That is, this new “Committee on Inclusivity.”

But there are compelling, significant reasons not to compromise GCSRW and its work.

First of all, reducing GCSRW to a “committee” undercuts its ability actually to monitor the church effectively. A small office, lodged under a larger Center, cannot speak truth to power at the highest levels of the church and hold the churchwide structures accountable (especially not the Center overseeing it).

Secondly, the compromise proposal fails to deal adequately with the need for the church to enact comprehensive sexual ethics policies and practices in order to prevent and address the problem of sexual misconduct. GCSRW has been facilitating this work now for years and has become a trusted partner of bishops, district superintendents, local churches, and, importantly, victim-survivors. No other agency of the church is equipped to seek fair process for both victim-survivors and the accused since other entities are primarily invested in protecting the clergy or church assets. When people feel that they have been treated fairly, they are less likely to sue the church. And with a current budget of less than $1 million per year, if only one lawsuit is prevented, GCSRW has paid for itself. Reducing GCSRW will save the church little and could cost it significantly.

Third, GCSRW was formed 40 years ago because the UMC committed itself to the idea that gender justice is not just women’s work but the work of the whole church. Addressing gender discrimination and institutional sexism is not nearly complete, especially as the UMC grows in places of the world where women are not always permitted to participate as full and equal members. If we are to be a global church, we have a responsibility to continue and even expand efforts to empower women worldwide.

When considering this structural compromise, the UMC ought to be prepared to answer, “Who is being compromised?” and then to respond out of a Gospel commitment to be in ministry with and for all, especially the most vulnerable.

Rest assured that the staff of GCSRW is working hard with delegates to maintain the Commission as a free-standing, independent monitoring and advocacy agency.

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After finally adopting rules of order to govern the proceedings of General Conference (as they were proposed by the rules committee), committee work began this afternoon. I will be serving as a resource person from the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women for the Independent Commissions committee. This committee deals with petitions and resolutions related to the UMC’s commissions (GCSRW, Religion and Race, Archives and History, Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, Communications, and UM Men), as well as ecumenical concerns.

Today’s business involved electing officers. Once it got underway, the process went relatively smoothly. However, it was abundantly evident at the start that how we function as a global church is still a growing edge.

It’s hard enough to keep up with parliamentary procedures for English speakers. It must be extraordinarily difficult for those who follow translations transmitted through headsets, especially when people speak quickly and move swiftly from one action to another.

I don’t think there was any willful exclusion, but the bishop presiding over the elections nearly pressed on despite the fact that headsets were not working for delegates who needed translation. Of course, when you ask, “Does everyone who needs translation have translation?” those who would answer the question have not actually understood it. It also took time to recognize that some delegates could not complete their first ballot because they didn’t know how to spell in English the name of the person for whom they wanted to vote; the names had been written on a sheet of paper in the front of the room, too small to see from the back. Again, the bishop nearly closed the first ballot despite the fact that more time had been requested to address this issue.

I’m not sharing this to indict the presiding bishop. Who it was doesn’t matter. I describe the scene because we in the United States must be reminded that the United Methodist Church is a worldwide connection. We are used to conducting business in English among English speakers. But when we gather together with our sisters and brothers from around the world, patience and sensitivity must be exercised to the extreme.

I also share because I was moved by the efforts of a woman who is a board member of GCSRW and Women’s Division, along with a few volunteers from the Common Witness Coalition, who called attention to the needs of the African delegates. My fellow GCSRW board member said to me, “I know we’re not supposed to say anything from the gallery, but somebody has to make sure these delegates can participate!” By getting the attention of the pages and other voting delegates, eventually the issues were raised and the proceedings paused until the challenges could be addressed and all votes counted.

As the elections proceeded, it occurred to me what a beautiful thing it was that no one who spoke up for fair process hesitated to think about how those delegates might vote, to think about whether or not they’re “on our side.” The only issue that mattered was that all people be brought fully into the conversation and all voices be heard. Making room at the table was the first and only priority!

As Methodists, we are part of a tradition rooted in the idea that the right methods practiced over and over again, perfected through mutual accountability, will cultivate right attitudes and relationships. Being a global church is incredibly hard work! Therefore, may we practice inclusion again and again until our table is properly set and inviting for all.

After yesterday’s joint orientation and women’s briefing, at least one delegate raised her voice to answer a question that had been asked throughout the morning: whose stories are not being told? In review of the presentations and conversations, this woman expressed that as a lesbian she felt invisible.

And this is a problem. Current policies that call homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching” (Book of Discipline ¶ 161.F) and prohibit any groups that “promote the acceptance of homosexuality” from receiving United Methodist funds (BoD ¶ 806.9) have created a culture of fear and both intentional and unintended exclusion within the institutional church. Yet, the UMC also says, “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” (BoD ¶ 162.F).

These tensions produce an environment in which conversations on intersectionality might freely include discussion of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and other markers of identity, but adding sexual orientation immediately raises suspicion and confrontation. Is it “promoting acceptance of homosexuality” to acknowledge the very real pain that church policies and politics have caused? But how can we commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons without creating an inviting, open, and safe space that does not begin in condemnation but with faithful listening?

Last night, as delegates began to vote on the rules of order that will govern this General Conference, an amendment was proposed that would prohibit presiding officers from calling for a recess for the purpose of allowing any kind of demonstration or protest. This comes in response to an authorized witness in 2008 by advocates for the full and equal inclusion of LGBTQ persons (parts of which can be seen here and here). (The amendment will be voted on after a recommendation from the rules committee.)

I’m sure such moments of witness are uncomfortable for delegates who vote to maintain the current policies. For many, their votes are based on faithfully held convictions. But exclusion is more than uncomfortable, and that hurt likewise arises out of the conflict of knowing God’s love in a way that is rejected by the church.

A proposal to bar all demonstrations is a refusal to hear particular voices. It is a refusal to recognize the deep distress brought by church actions.

It is one thing to disagree in good faith. It is another to silence those who make us uncomfortable.

After all, the Bible itself holds contradictions in creative tension. Scriptural Christianity, then, is not characterized by unanimity but by diverse opinions and experiences of God.

Whose voices are heard? Whose are not? And how might we listen for and hold one another’s stories in loving care?

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