Livability and Race Realities in the Steel City (and the Implications for Its Churches)

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Back in early September, my heart was pleasantly warmed by the news that my nearest city, Pittsburgh, was named the third “most livable” city in the United States by a research group entitled the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Way to go Pittsburgh,” I thought to myself. I was grateful that my city, often maligned or undervalued by other portions of the country, received some national affirmation and recognition for its many merits.

As is so often revealed, however, beauty always resides in the eye of the beholder—or the privileged. To put it another way, the “livability” of a city will always be judged differently by those who benefit the most and the least from its services. A highly livable environment for the privileged might at the same time become a territory of toxicity for those who find themselves marginalized or disenfranchised.

Case in point: Just yesterday, a friend and colleague drew my attention to two articles, also written in September. One of the articles was written by Brentin Mock for the website “CityLab.” The article is entitled “Pittsburgh: A ‘Most Livable’ City, But Not For Black Women.

The second article, written by Sakena Jwan Washington for the Huffington Post, was a deeply personal reflection on the first article. Here is a link to the second article, entitled “My City Was Named the ‘Worst Place for Black Women to Live.’ Is That My Cue to Leave?

Mock’s article sheds important light on troubling Pittsburgh statistics, many of which point to a city in which black girls and black women suffer from birth defect rates and death rates (along with school arrest, poverty, and unemployment rates) that are significantly higher than those of white Pittsburgh residents. These rates are also significantly higher than those of black people in the majority of other comparable cities.

To put this into perspective, consider these words from University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Junia Howell (whom Mock quotes in his article):

What this means is that if Black residents got up today and left [Pittsburgh] and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S. … their life expectancy would go up, their income would go up, their educational opportunities for their children would go up, as well as their employment.

As I pondered the statistic that 18 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for black women end in fetal death in Pittsburgh (as compared to 9 out of every 1,000 pregnancies for white women), I found myself undone by the enormity of what those numbers represent. In a city known for its teaching hospitals and medical technology, we have nurtured an environment in which fetal death is twice as likely among black infants than it is among white infants. At the very beginning of a life’s journey in Pittsburgh, there is a stark inequity that cannot be ignored or minimized.

In her reflection on Mock’s article (which is as poignant as it is eloquent), Sakena Jwan Washington, a professional “Black woman from Pittsburgh who also happens to be the mother of a Black girl,” gives voice to her own experience of Pittsburgh and its dynamics:

I wonder if I’m living in the dark. I’m surely not ignorant to the fact that most of my friends and colleagues are white. Or that finding a Black hair salon sometimes feels like going on a scavenger hunt, or that the Shadow Lounge ― a Black-owned lounge I once frequented monthly ― closed after gentrification shuttered its doors, or that my favorite jazz lounge closed for the same reason. It’s not lost on me that when an independent film like Toni Morrison’s biopic ‘The Pieces I Am’ comes to town, it plays in one theater in the entire city. I’m aware and I grumble about my observations every day. And yet, I’m still here.

I hear in Washington’s words the echoes of a marginalization that I will never be able fully to understand as a white male Pittsburgher but that I dare not minimize. The echoes compel me to wonder about the long-term impact of an institutionalized segregation that is so thoroughly embedded in a city’s ethos and daily patterns that it is routinely accepted as normative. “I might be able to operate in this sort of segregated atmosphere,” Washington writes, “but can my daughter? Will there be educational options in Pittsburgh that are both diverse and receive the same level of resources I had access to in my predominantly white private schools?”

These are questions that hang in the philosophical air, demanding the attentiveness of any Pittsburgher who longs for a city that is committed to justice and equity for all of its citizens and families.

I traffic in the rhythms of western Pennsylvania church life (United Methodist church life, more specifically). As a clergy person in a conference that has named “Dismantling Racism” as one of its areas of focus, it is one of my responsibilities to nurture the kind of spaces (and churches) in which racism in all of its forms (personal and systemic) is recognized, named, rejected, and actively dismantled. In recent days, I have seen deeply encouraging glimpses of my tribe’s commitment to this work.

A few weeks back, for example, during a time of anti-racism training, another white pastor spoke to me about one of his newly-energized priorities: “I have spent too many years giving lip-service to dismantling racism in the churches that I have served,” he said. “I am making it a priority in 2020 to help my [predominantly white] congregation and community to experience the kinds of resources, relationships, and conversations that will deepen their understanding of racism, privilege…and the sin of complicity.” His words inspired me to reflect on my own priorities in this regard—along with my own complicity.

At the same time, resistance to the work of dismantling racism finds expression in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I suggested to a ministry team recently that we read an article together entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (written by Peggy McIntosh), simply because I believed that the dynamics of white privilege were pertinent to the matters we were discussing. The body language in the room (which I have gotten fairly good at reading over the years) communicated a collective lack of hospitality to my suggestion. My interpretation of the body language was later confirmed by one of the team members, whose perspective I share with permission: “I know that racism still exists,” she said, “but when we keep fixating on it, all that we do is create resentment and enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I found the imagery of her words painfully ironic: “enslave ourselves to the problem.”

I wonder how that kind of imagery would fall upon the heart of an Asian-American or African-American pastor in Western Pennsylvania who is daily confronted by the reality of being the only person of color in the room (and in the sanctuary); or a person of color who regularly experiences both implicit and explicit racial biases that reinforce isolating and even dehumanizing presuppositions; or the black female Pittsburgher navigating the injustices and inequities illuminated by recent statistics. How can dismantling racism remain a focus when resistance to conversations about racism and a burgeoning sense of white fragility have begun to govern portions of the collective consciousness?

I suppose the dynamics that I am describing only serve to elucidate the complexity of the situation related to race. Racism is as real as it ever was, but far too many white people are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. The statistics related to black women in Pittsburgh are what they are, but we comfort ourselves with the manufactured belief that we have been completely delivered from our racist history.

If the United Methodist Church in western Pennsylvania is to succeed in keeping the dismantling of racism as an authentic point of focus, there are some governing convictions that white United Methodists in this region will have to embrace and guard. One of those convictions is that participating consistently in strategic conversations and training related to racism and privilege does not “enslave us to the problem” but rather generates a necessary spirit of galvanizing solidarity between the church and those for whom the problem truly is enslaving.  A second conviction would be that a condemnation of racism runs the risk of becoming anemic if it is not accompanied by a risky commitment from the privileged to utilize their voices in the fostering of expanded agency for the disenfranchised, disruptive truth-telling, and energized advocacy.

As a white male, my privilege often blinds me. I am painfully aware of that blindness, even as I type these words. It makes me all the more grateful for those souls in my journey (including my clergy colleagues) who love me enough to bring me into difficult but important conversations about race and who value me enough to hold me accountable for my ongoing participation in the relentlessly urgent work of dismantling the machinery of racism—a machinery that exists in both the hallways of our churches and the chambers of my own heart.

Sakena Jwan Washington concludes her article about Pittsburgh in this fashion:

The hard question for me is will my daughter struggle with connectedness the way I once did, and will a move to a city with a more robust Black middle class lessen her struggle? Is this a game-time decision, or must I act now?  Will I stay and be a pioneer for change, or will I leave to occupy spaces where I know, without question, my family will feel like they belong?

I hope and pray that she stays, but I know that my hopes and prayers are not enough. They must be accompanied by my commitment to the nurturing of spaces in which the kind of connectedness and belonging that Washington envisions can be pursued and experienced with integrity and hope. Only then will the “pioneers of change” get the strong sense that they are not alone in their pioneering.

Don’t GO Home, But BE at Home: A Reflection On Women In Ministry

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(Artwork: “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well”—from Japan, unknown artist)

It was a significant moment and not in a good way.

On October 18, as part of a panel discussion at a “Truth Matters Conference” in Sun Valley, California, author and pastor John MacArthur was asked to share (in just a couple of words) his thoughts about author and preacher Beth Moore. MacArthur’s response was as stark as it was revelatory.

“Go home,” he said.

“Go home!”

MacArthur went on to clarify his response: “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. End of discussion.”

“Go home!”

In his words from that Sun Valley platform, MacArthur successfully encapsulated what countless women who are called by God to ministry have heard from many within the Body of Christ:

No! Not you! You have obviously misheard God’s voice and misunderstood God’s call on your life. The Bible is clear: Women are not to have authority over men, and we refuse to believe that Jesus and the Holy Spirit have inaugurated a new worldview in which gender-based hierarchy no longer makes sense. Turn away from this unauthorized sense of call. This ministry is not for you. Go home!

Having watched the video of MacArthur’s comments, even more troubling to me than the comments themselves is the response of the audience. It was a response of laughter, loud and energized—a dehumanizing “amen” that felt less like church and more like a shared derision pointed toward Beth Moore, a sister in Christ who was not even present at the conference.

MacArthur’s words and the audience’s response to them immediately brought to my mind the faces of many women whose leadership, preaching, and teaching has shaped and nurtured me throughout my pilgrimage. If the women preachers have to go home, then so do I, since I would not be who and what I am without those female clergypersons whose ministry has been instrumental in making me more authentically human and more holistically Christian.

My female colleagues in ministry certainly do not need my defense, nor do they need my expressions of righteous anger (especially since, as a white male, my “righteous anger” can sometimes sound like little more than patronizing rhetoric or perhaps even a superficial assuagement of a highly privileged guilt). Still, I long to speak to the hearts of my sisters and to the heart of the church.

But what might I say?

Perhaps I will simply reframe MacArthur’s language so that the vocabulary of “home” might find its proper redemption. Here goes:

Sisters in ministry, please, for the sake of the Gospel we love, do not even think about going home. Instead, in the rhythms of our fallen church’s broken ministry, BE at home!

Yes. Maybe that is what I feel most led to say. Sisters in ministry…

…BE at home!

Be at home in a church that has often been anything but hospitable to you but that desperately needs your leadership and vision.

Be at home in a deeper reading of Scripture that refuses to weaponize texts but instead interprets them through the hermeneutical lens of the Living Word.

Be at home in a post-Pentecost reality in which both sons and daughters are called and equipped to proclaim and lead.

Be at home amid your broken church’s ongoing repentance to which I add my voice and heart—a repentance in which I name my complicity (often manifested in my silence) in maintaining gender-based hierarchies and inequities.

Be at home in the renewed commitment being made by many of your male colleagues (including this one) to identify and stand against misogyny in all of its expressions.

Be at home in your divine calling that cannot be stifled and micromanaged by the machinery of patriarchy; be at home in a righteous anger that many of your brothers carry with you; be at home in a stubborn refusal to accommodate false stories and weaponized Scripture.

Male colleagues, be at home in utilizing your voice and agency in prophetic ways to dismantle patterns and practices that are unjust or distorted and to advocate for female voices that desperately need to be heard.

Female colleagues, be at home where you already are—in the heart of the church’s ministry.

Most of all, be at home in Jesus Christ, who is always a trustworthy dwelling place, even when the institutional church is not.

Be at home.

 

When Jesus Brings Division

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(Artwork: “The Word Brings Division” by Ian M. Welch)

I invite you to travel with me into a prayerful and contemplative struggle.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother; mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53)

From today’s Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary (Sunday, August 18, 2019), these are words of Jesus that many teachers and preachers of Scripture would prefer to ignore. It is far easer to focus on the Jesus who speaks of loving our neighbors and enemies, welcoming the children, embracing the “least of these,” and turning the other cheek. What do we do with a Jesus who says that his presence brings division and family fracture, especially in a world where families, friends, and churches are already bitterly divided over politics, decisions about human sexuality and race, and a variety of important social issues that have become polarizing?

Is Jesus suggesting that such division is what he desires?

I believe that coming to this conclusion would be a dangerous misreading of the Scripture. Jesus is not promoting broken relationships when he tells us that his presence brings division, nor is he communicating a desire for fractured families. Rather, he is illuminating what we have already come to understand from experience—that advocating for the priorities that Jesus champions and walking in the Way that he incarnated will often inspire even our friends and family members to stand against us. Jesus is neither celebrating this reality nor glorifying it. He is simply warning us that aligning ourselves with him and with his worldview might inspire opposition and even rejection from those for whom such an alignment represents foolishness or betrayal, or both.

But here is where things become really tricky. Do people oppose us for the right reasons as Christ-followers these days? Are we opposed for standing against hypocrisy (Luke 12:1) and resisting the manipulations of religious and political leaders (Luke 12:2-3)? Are we stood against because of our steadfast devotion to Jesus and his commitment to valuing the marginalized and the lost (Luke 12:8-12)? Are we noticed and questioned for refusing to hoard our riches and possessions (Luke 12:13-21), for laying aside a spirit of crippling fear (or fear mongering) and worry (Luke 12:22-31), and for daring to live with a relentless spiritual attentiveness and moral watchfulness (Luke 12:35-40)? Are we criticized because of our passion for cultivating a God-honoring stewardship over the matters that have been entrusted to our care (Luke 12:41-48)?

These are the issues that occupy Jesus’ mind in the verses leading up to his teaching about his presence in the world causing division, which leads me to back to this question: Are Christ-followers in 2019 being opposed for the right reasons? Are we being opposed because of our refusal to align ourselves with the hypocrisy, the manipulation, the greed, the fear, and the spiritual and moral inattentiveness against which Jesus himself speaks out?

Or, do we too often participate in (and thereby perpetuate) less consequential divisions and fractures that consume our best energies, diminish our deeper unity, and compromise our shared witness concerning the things that matter most?

If I am making that sound like a rhetorical question, please forgive me. I do not mean it to be rhetorical. I am voicing an authentic struggle that emerges from a heart that desperately wants to get it right. If Jesus’ coming brings division, then I long for the division to be over the right things and not over the misplaced and overemphasized battle lines crafted by an alternative narrative that is sometimes confused with the Way of Jesus.

A Tweet That Cannot Be Minimized

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I do not feel driven to comment on every happening in our culture, nor am I burdened with a sense of self-importance that compels me to believe that my opinion is absolutely necessary, or even moderately significant.

Case in point, I have been particularly cautious about offering commentary related to our current President, since I know that we are living in a time when passionate convictions about his leadership (one way or the other) are deeply held and often aggressively (and dismissively) articulated.

Although I am not without personal convictions concerning the current political landscape, I have not vilified President Trump in my little corner of social media, nor have I lauded him. In fact, more than anything, I have prayed for him, that he would become the best version of himself as our President and that his heart would become ever more attentive both to the ideals that have always made our country great and the impulses that might make our country even better.

With all of that as a cognitive backdrop, allow me ask you to lay aside some significant things for just a moment:

First, briefly lay aside your personal feelings about Donald Trump’s presidency (since those personal feelings are often blinding).

Second, lay aside the current penchant for moral equivalence that often reduces accountability to the playground-politics of “Yeah, but HE or SHE started it!”

Third, lay aside the personalities and temperaments of all the individuals involved in the scandal that I am about to address (since those personalities and temperaments generate reactions within all of us that can distort our perception and discernment).

If you are able to engage in that work of laying things aside, then perhaps you can ponder this question with an analytical spirit:

Is it ever appropriate or acceptable for any President, irrespective of party, platform, or existing political conflicts, to speak these words to political opponents in any communicational mechanism (let alone something as dauntingly immediate as Twitter):

Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it’s done. These places need your help badly. You can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!

Here is my answer to my own question:

No. It is never appropriate or acceptable. Not ever.

Some of my friends will be quick to present a series of what they perceive to be urgent “buts.”

“But what about the horrible things the some of the congresswomen have said about the President?!”

“But he’s only defending himself from Democrats and the ‘liberal media!'”

“But why aren’t you criticizing all of the hateful words that other people spew about the President?!”

I do not dismiss those “buts.” They fade, however, into the territory of irrelevance in light of what have become, for me, core convictions about the Office of President of the United States, a few of which are these:

  • That it is the moral responsibility of the President to elevate, not diminish, conversations, and that the proverbial “buck” related to this accountability must stop at the Office of the President;
  • That, insofar as it depends upon the President, s/he must cultivate a spirit of civility that honors even the voices of his/her harshest and most unfair critics in order to model the kind of leadership that rejects the demonization of opponents and seeks to engage the wide diversity of thought that has long characterized our country;
  • That a President, as Commander (and, I would add, Communicator) in Chief, must embrace the difficult but urgent responsibility of resisting defensiveness, vindictiveness, and dismissiveness in order to be able to cast a compelling vision that can be both supported and opposed with integrity and freedom.

I am speaking up about this most recent controversy because I believe the President’s recent tweet (and his continued emphasis of its message) to be reflective of a uniquely dangerous dynamic. While there is much disagreement about whether the tweet was overtly racist, I do not believe it can be debated that the phrase “go back…to the places from which you came,” no matter the context, communicates an irresponsible insensitivity to both the ugly history of such language and its profound impact upon people of color. The documented fact that various white supremacist and white nationalist groups have publicly celebrated the President’s tweet is an exclamation point on its dangerous overtones and undertones.

I am not attacking President Trump in these paragraphs, nor am I demonizing his supporters. I am, however, articulating my heartfelt concern about what I believe to be a sitting President’s harmful tweet, his subsequent defensiveness about it, and his refusal to acknowledge its inappropriateness and its harm. Yesterday, I probably would not have been inclined to publish this post, believing that perhaps the national energy around the tweet had already begun to dissipate. This morning, though, after watching heartbreaking videos of last night’s Trump-rally crowds shouting “Send her back!” in unison, I am led to believe that the impact of the tweet cannot be ignored, at least not by a nation that cares about its integrity.

At a time in our nation when conversations about controversial issues (including race) are as urgent and difficult as they ever have been, I expect my President to find ways to articulate hope (instead of exacerbating division); to energize the collective pursuit of justice (instead of corrupting discourse through a haphazard employment of social media); and to generate opportunities for connection (instead of attacking the patriotism of political opponents and encouraging them to leave the country).

I would want this kind of leadership from all who occupy an elected office in the government (including the congresswomen in question). It is the President, however, who must be held to a governing standard as the occupant of our nation’s highest office and the image-bearer of our country’s identity as a grand republic.

Three Days in the Grove: Reflections on Annual Conference and Related Matters

 

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There were beautiful parts of this year’s session of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, held on the campus of Grove City College. These beautiful parts to which I refer practically brought me to my knees in grateful prayer:

The sound of over a thousand voices singing grand songs of praise during worship;

The ordination and commissioning of precious souls who are as gifted as they are called;

A Retiree Celebration that provided a heartwarming honoring of retirees, all of whom have served the church with faithfulness, creativity, and integrity for a long, long time;

A Memorial Service that celebrated the lives of our conference’s honored dead, who breathed their last breath during this last year (but who, at present, are more alive than they have ever been);

Preaching that elevated my spirit and illuminated the goodness of Jesus;

Testimonies that reminded me of the transformational impact of the Gospel;

Youth whose vibrancy regularly inspired a sense of abundant life;

The setting of pastoral appointments for another year of ministry;

The leadership of a Bishop who teaches me something every time she leads;

Moments of prayer and tender conversation with amazing people, many of whom I only get to see once a year;

Friends (like Joel Garrett and Erica Rushing) going out of their way to minister compassionately to my spirit.

In the aftermath of Annual Conference, some participants make it a sport to denigrate the entire experience, which always feels to me like both the mistreatment of a portion of sacred ground and a dishonoring of many people who sacrificed a great deal of time and energy to put the experience together. Our collective heart would probably beat in healthier fashion if we began with gratitude rather than cynicism.

I will certainly acknowledge, however, that I experienced great pain at Annual Conference this year—perhaps a deeper and more unsettling pain than I had ever experienced in that context. I know that I am not alone in that. Progressives experienced the pain. So did Traditionalists. So did the LGBTQ+ community and its advocates. Many things led to the pain, not the least of which was a burgeoning sense of a division among people related to the denomination’s official position on homosexuality—that homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching,” which has led the denomination to continue its prohibition of the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and the hosting of same sex weddings in United Methodist sanctuaries.

Traditionalists maintain that this position represents a necessary honoring of orthodoxy and the Biblical understanding of marriage. Progressives assert that it represents an institutionalized bigotry and a marginalization of people based on an irresponsible adherence to biblical legalism. This spirit of division manifested itself dramatically this last week at Annual Conference, particularly around the work of electing our delegates to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. At those 2020 Conferences, the issues of human sexuality and denominational structure will once again figure prominently.

The following are my personal reflections on what transpired this last week. There is nothing official or sacrosanct about these reflections. Nor am I insisting on my own rightness. (There is already way too much of that going on.) I offer these reflections simply to broaden the conversation, deepen our shared sense of accountability, and hopefully clarify my own heart on some of the matters at hand.

Here are my reflections.

We elected a remarkably gifted and extraordinarily faithful delegation to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. The clergy and laity on the delegation bring strong convictions, abundant giftedness, and a wealth of experience. They will serve the church faithfully, prayerfully, and with a comprehensive devotion. I am honored to be alongside them in the work of the delegation, and I will learn much from them. They are my friends, and many of us have stood together in important places over the years. I have been praying for them since the moment they were elected. I am particularly grateful that Rev. Alyce Weaver Dunn is the chair of the delegation. Her stellar leadership will be a profound blessing to all of us. In fact, it already has been.

We elected a delegation that does not reflect (or represent) the complexity and theological diversity of Western Pennsylvania. This is where the pain begins. In a time when people feel a sense of urgency about clarifying boundaries and battle lines, tension is heightened and processes become distorted, or at least exaggerated. This year, the exaggeration at hand is a delegation that is disproportionately Traditionalist. This fact takes nothing away from the gifted delegates we elected. It simply generates a marginalizing and disenfranchising sense of voicelessness on the part of many in Western Pennsylvania who feel that their convictions will not be valued or honored fully, particularly at General Conference. The delegation will need to be attentive to this.

The 16 people from the delegation who will travel to the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis (12 delegates and 4 alternates) include one Asian American and no African Americans—meaning that, in the election process, we were not as attentive to racial diversity as we have been in the past. I do not believe that this reflects intentional racism on anyone’s part. Please hear that. But there is such a thing as institutional racism—a systemic devaluing of racial minorities that finds expression when processes and systems bend toward a particular strategy that ultimately excludes or marginalizes people of color (such as when an election process becomes fixated on a particular theological perspective at the expense of fair and necessary representation). A posture of privilege might inspire some to dismiss this point as irrelevant. My sense, however, based upon several personal conversations, is that many African American United Methodists in Western Pennsylvania experienced a deep sense of institutional harm at Annual Conference. We dare not allow ourselves to become dismissive or cynical about that.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association of Western PA, a strategic Traditionalist group in the Conference, mobilized effectively and had a significant impact on the elections of delegates. In fact, the six clergy and six laity elected to General Conference were precisely the twelve people that appeared on the WCA’s list of endorsed possible candidates. In Western Pennsylvania, many women and men whom I greatly admire and whose leadership I value have become members of the WCA because their deeply held convictions and prayerful discernment have led them in that direction. Which is to say, it is not my intention to demonize the WCA or its leadership. But I will express this heartfelt concern: There is always the potential for great relational and spiritual harm whenever any group, irrespective of its theological persuasion, begins to have a disproportionately weighty influence on the decisions of a community. In such cases, the group often becomes a self-appointed arbiter of discernment, which can only result in a truncated collection of priorities. While I respect the WCA’s convictions, I hope that we as an Annual Conference will recognize the urgency of making certain that we avoid the kind of one-dimensionalism that ignores the reality of who we are.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association of Western PA, in one of its recent letters, singled out five leaders in Western Pennsylvania for whom NOT to vote in the elections for General and Jurisdictional Conferences: Sharon Gregory (our Conference’s faithful Lay Leader); Diane Miller (a longtime overseer and supporter of Missions in the Conference); Amy Wagner (our Conference’s multi-gifted Director of Congregational Development and Revitalization); William Meekins (former District Superintendent and Assistant to the Bishop, current pastor, and one of the most courageous voices for Christ-centered justice that this Annual Conference has ever known); and, finally, yours truly (a humble District Superintendent who is simply trying to keep it real). We were put on the list of “objectionables” because, at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, we stood in support of what the WCA describes as the “progressive” (an adjective that I find inaccurate) One Church Plan—a plan for which I did indeed vote. Of all the plans that remained, I saw the One Church Plan as the best option to ensure the existence of a denomination that could make space for a diversity of perspectives on matters that, in my opinion, do not strike at the root of Christianity. I also saw the One Church Plan as an opportunity to remove language from the Book of Discipline that, irrespective of the righteousness of our intentions, has become weaponized against a segment of humanity that has already been marginalized and excluded.

Because of the way we voted, five of us made the WCA block-list. This was not a hatchet job on the part of the WCA. They did not disparage our character and made clear in the letter that we are loved (which I appreciated). But it was indeed a calculated political maneuver rendered for the purpose of keeping out of the General Conference voting the voices of leaders whose convictions on human sexuality might not be in alignment with the WCA’s corporate understanding of orthodoxy. I suspect that members of the WCA would defend themselves by saying that, since their goal was to preserve what they understand to be orthodoxy by influencing who gets elected, the end justifies the means. But there is a destructive consequence when a group moves intentionally from “please consider voting for these people” to “please DO NOT vote for THOSE people.” Such a tactic corrupts community, undermines both the integrity and the potential of colleagues, and elevates hegemony over orthodoxy.

I hope that the members of the WCA, no matter how justified they feel in their actions, understand that their block-list was wounding to the people named. It felt like a punitive response to our commitment to do exactly what we were entrusted by the Annual Conference to do as delegates in 2019—specifically, to vote our prayerful conscience with the most attentive discernment that we could bring to the table. As a member of the larger delegation for 2020, my challenge now is to open my heart to some wonderful people on the delegation whom I dearly love but who may be connected to a WCA that publicly advocated for my not being elected to the very delegation of which I am now a part. I pray that my friends on the delegation (and my friends in the WCA) will hear my heart and join me in the vulnerability of navigating this complex territory.

Finally, I will share with you once again some words that I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Special Called Session of the General Conference in February. They are words about what I am choosing to believe at present:

I choose to believe that my Traditionalist friends are driven, not by hatred, homophobia, or bigotry, but by their conviction that souls, eternity, and biblical truth are at stake.

I choose to believe that my Progressive friends are driven, not by irreverence toward Scripture or by an eagerness to accommodate cultural trends, but by an unwavering passion for a history-altering liberation and justice to which they believe the ministry of Jesus absolutely points.

I choose to believe that my Centrist friends (and, yes, I believe that there is a Center place in all of this) are driven, not by a refusal to “choose a side,” but by the belief that the saving grace of Jesus Christ makes possible a wide and durable unity in which divergent viewpoints can breathe the same healthy air.

I choose to believe that my LGBTQ+ friends are driven, not by a desire to diminish the church’s emphasis on sexual holiness, but by their recognition of the fact that their sexual identity is an integral part of their personhood and by their desire to be seen, not as an “issue” or as a group of “incompatibles,” but as souls within the Body of Christ who are called, gifted, and equipped and who long for relational covenants and spiritual wholeness like all the rest of us.

Most importantly, I choose to believe that Jesus is still Lord, and that God cares about the ministry and mission of the United Methodist Church even more than we do—FAR more than we do, in fact. Furthermore, I choose to believe that our current struggle has not taken us beyond the boundaries of what God can redeem, reshape, reconfigure, and restore.

 

 

Loving Beyond the Words

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I recently re-watched an interesting film entitled The Last Kiss. The film, released in 2006, creates a rather unsettling and multi-layered cinematic portrait of young men and women attempting to come to grips with issues of commitment, betrayal, parenthood, and covenant. Although I cannot describe the film as exceptional, it does create some memorable moments.

One of those moments revolves around the following words, spoken by an older and wiser patriarch to a younger man who has recently betrayed his girlfriend with another woman. This younger man begins to talk about how much he loves his girlfriend. The patriarch interrupts him with an observation that is as significant as it is stark:

Stop talking about love. Every idiot in the world says he loves somebody. It means nothing. What you FEEL only matters to you.  It’s what you DO to the people you say you love. That’s what matters. It’s the only thing that counts.

It was a moment that compelled me to reflect upon how frequently I over-romanticize love, allowing it to become little more than a self-gratifying inner warmth and a euphoric means to emotional self-aggrandizement. Sometimes, I throw around the word “love” with an almost devil-may-care nonchalance. I say that I love my wife. I say that I love my family. I say that I love Jesus. But I also SAY that I love homemade vanilla ice cream, and comic books, and vacations to far away places, and the food at my favorite restaurants. When it comes to love, in other words, my talk can become extremely cheap. I can say that I love just about anything or anyone and then pat myself on the back for my emotional tenderness.

Maybe the patriarch in The Last Kiss is right. Maybe “every idiot in the world says that he loves somebody,” or something.

In the parable of the great judgment, Jesus tells us that, whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner, we are, in actuality, doing those things for Jesus himself:  “Truly I tell you, just as you did these things to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did them to me” (Matthew 25:40). In that moment of Scripture, Jesus offers a teaching that we dare not ignore—a teaching that brings him into alignment with the patriarch in The Last Kiss:  “Stop simply talking about love,” Jesus seems to be saying in Matthew 25:40.  “After all, every idiot in the world says that he loves somebody. The words, in that case, mean very little until they are validated by tangibility.”

By calling to mind real acts of ministry like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, Jesus relocates love from the inner realm of the felt to the outer realm of the enacted.  “It’s what you DO to the people you say you love,” Jesus essentially says.  “That’s what matters. What really counts is whether or not you dared to see my countenance in the faces of the people around you and then enacted something real for the purpose of ministering to their deepest needs.”

Perhaps Jesus is telling us that the most authentic love is love incarnated; love in motion and action; love demonstrated and offered in the form of tangible acts of mercy and compassion.

In Zimbabwe, it is customary before a communal meal for two people to stand outside the door of the room where the meal is to be served. One of these persons holds a pitcher of warm, soapy water, the other person holds a basin. Their purpose is to wash the hands of all who are about to eat—a routine expression of servanthood and hospitality in a culture where such things are still treasured.

Once during a trip to Zimbabwe, as my hands were being washed before a meal, I expressed my gratitude to the two young boys who were doing the washing. One of the boys responded in this fashion:  “It is we who are grateful, sir. You are helping us to love you by allowing us to serve you.”

That boy’s words were a powerful reminder to me that the love of Jesus Christ finds its most profound expression, not in the words that we speak (essential as those words may be), but in the tangible ministry and risky servanthood that we offer.

My prayer for the church is that its people will be so inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit that the words of the familiar song will finally become fully applicable: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love”—a love, not only spoken in our words, but, even more importantly, incarnated in our decisions, our priorities, and our frequent moments of serving, risking, and caregiving.

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Bent Toward Lent

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(Artwork: “Path to the Cross” by Kate Robertson)

Those who live by the church’s way of measuring time now find themselves in the six-week season known as Lent.

The word “Lent” is a derivative of an old Anglo-Saxon word (“lencten”) which simply means “springtime.” There is nothing automatically holy about the season of Lent. When Christ-followers approach it attentively and prayerfully, however, Lent can become a spiritual journey alongside Jesus into a more intimate engagement with the Divine Heart.

Some people “give up” something for Lent in order to practice the kind of sacrifice that might inspire a fresh attentiveness to deeper things. Other people “take up” something for Lent—a new spiritual discipline or a particular act of ministry—in order to intensify their spiritual focus.

For me, Lent has always been, among other things, a time to receive more deeply the Holy Spirit’s gracious invitation to become more fully who God created me to be. The church calls this the work of repentance.

Truth be told, it saddens me when I think about how frequently I reduce repentance to drudgery—a joyless rhythm of “try and fail” that generates more dread than hope, more shame than freedom. Jesus had to have something better than that in mind when he invited us to “repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).

Maybe Jesus is asking us to see that repentance, when understood as God’s accomplishment rather than ours, can become a beautiful rehearsal of the kind of life in which Jesus creatively reconfigures the way we relate to our various distortions.

Maybe Jesus is asking us to believe that, in the walk of repentance, he actually comes alongside us as an advocate in our places of struggle, so that he might patiently and mercifully guide us away from our self-righteous or self-indulgent fixations and toward the things he values and offers.

Such repentance is not an event but a way of life—not a solitary prayer but a liberating pilgrimage of joyful deliverance.

Lent…

…giving something up…

…taking something up…

…repenting…

…walking more watchfully alongside Jesus and being undone by his scandalous grace.

My prayer is that those of you who observe Lent will experience the next several weeks as an energizing realignment—a vibrant reawakening to the vitality of a Christwardly-surrendered life.

May it be so.