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.

Choosing to Believe: My Archway Into Life Beyond General Conference

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In the aftermath of the recent United Methodist General Conference, I choose to believe some important things today as an evangelical centrist, a heartbroken unifier, and an embracer of gracious and justice-minded orthodoxy within the United Methodist Church.

I choose to believe what is best about people in the midst of our serious divisions. Some would call this either naïve or morally irresponsible—or both. But I see it as my only way to breathe healthy air at this point in the journey, especially as a District Superintendent in the church.

I choose to believe, for example, that my conservative friends are not driven by hatred, bigotry, or a crippling homophobia in their support of the United Methodist Church’s current restrictions related to homosexuality. Rather, the conservatives with whom I relate are driven by the conviction that souls, eternity, and Biblical truth are at stake, and that to love homosexual people authentically means something far more unpopular and complex than affirming their choices. (I desperately hope, of course, that my conservative friends will have a profound sensitivity to the fact that their stance, irrespective of its motive, lands as something oppressive, abusive, and contemptuous upon the hearts of LGBTQ+ people, their family members, and their advocates. Such a sensitivity will help my conservative friends to approach the current negative responses to General Conference with a more durable patience and a more nuanced understanding.)

I choose to believe that my progressive friends are not driven by an irreverence toward Scripture or an eagerness to dismiss Biblical teaching in order to accommodate societal trends. Rather, the progressives with whom I relate are driven by an unwavering passion for a history-altering liberation to which they believe the ministry of Jesus points, somewhere way beyond what they interpret as the incomplete and culturally-conditioned Biblical condemnations. (I desperately hope, of course, that my progressive friends will have a profound sensitivity to the fact that many conservative United Methodists are just as heartbroken concerning our bitter divisions, even though they occupy the majority side of a winless debate. Such a sensitivity will help my progressive friends to approach the current conversation with righteous and well-stewarded anger instead of abusive insults and bitter vituperation.)

I choose to believe that my centrist friends are driven neither by a cowardly refusal to choose a side nor an idolatrous fixation on preserving the institution. Rather, the centrists with whom I relate are driven by the belief that the saving grace of Jesus Christ makes possible a wide and durable unity in which divergent viewpoints can live and breathe together, and that none of those divergent viewpoints necessitate a severing of our connection in the mission to which all of us are called. (I desperately hope, of course, that my centrist friends have a profound sensitivity to the anguish that is taking place to their left and right and an awareness of the fact that their position may sound like an abdication of leadership to some on both sides. Such a sensitivity will help my centrist friends to nurture deeper relationships across the spectrum.)

I choose to believe that my Christ-following LGBTQ+ friends are not driven by a desire to diminish the the church’s emphasis on sexual holiness. Rather, the LGBTQ+ friends with whom I relate are driven both by their understanding that their orientation 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, all the while longing for relational covenants and spiritual wholeness like all the rest of us. (I desperately hope that my LGBTQ+ friends will know the love of God in tangible ways in these hard days through the ministry of caring people, so that they might not be further crushed by a debate that is often dehumanizing for them.)

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.

Therefore, I choose to remain in this broken, imperfect part of the Body of Christ called the United Methodist Church. I choose this messy, heartbreaking, and important journey with progressive, traditionalist, and centrist Christ-followers, many of whom have forgotten more about discipleship than I will ever know. I choose to embrace the struggle of it all, not with cynicism, but a strong conviction that the struggle is worth it (as it so often is in the life of God’s church).

What I have written here will strike many as being woefully inadequate, a theological or moral cop-out during a time that demands a clearer sense of certainty; or a deeper commitment to Biblical faithfulness; or a more passionate pursuit of justice and radical hospitality. If that is your take on what I have written, then perhaps you are right.

Then again, perhaps God is utilizing United Methodism as a sacred instrument by which to announce to a politically, racially, culturally, and philosophically fractured world that there really is a better way forward—that there really is a countercultural and rugged unity that is as gracious as it is urgent.

United Methodist General Conference 2019–Day 4 (Final Day)

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(Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service)

Just before morning worship today, the Western Pennsylvania Delegation to General Conference received heartbreaking news. Faith Geer, a member of the delegation, had breathed her last breath after a lengthy journey with cancer. Faith, a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Allison Park, desperately wanted to to be here in St. Louis but was unable to make the trip because of her failing health. Her death ushered all of us into the depths of instantaneous grief.

I met faith back in 1990 and have long been grateful for her leadership, her vision, her organizational acumen, and her sacrificial service to the United Methodist Church at every level.

As Bishop Cynthia came to pray with the delegation, I heard an encouraging whisper in the depths of my soul, reminding me that, in Jesus Christ, struggle and death are never given the final word to speak. Faith Geer knows that now, better than all of us. I am convinced that she is more alive than she has ever been.

So, thank you, Faith, for the the graceful stewardship you practiced over your well-lived life and for allowing your journey to bless so many others, including mine.

As the General Conference gathered in plenary session to take action on Monday’s legislative recommendations, most of the morning was devoted to a debate of a “minority report” which called for a re-visiting of the One Church Plan (which is the plan that removes the current restrictive language about homosexuality from the Book of Discipline and allows pastors, congregations, and Boards of Ministry to come to their own contextual discernment about how best to care for marriage and ordination). Yesterday, while working as a legislative committee, the delegates opposed the One Church Plan (53% to 47%). This morning, if the plenary session had approved the minority report, the One Church Plan would have replaced the Traditional Plan as the point of focus for the delegates.

The minority report was not supported by the plenary. The percentage of the vote was the same as yesterday—roughly 53% of the delegates voted not to support the minority report, while roughly 47% voted support. The rejection of the minority report brought the delegates back to the Traditional Plan, which is the plan that maintains the current language about the “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching and the current ban on both same sex weddings and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” The Traditional Plan also institutes a more rigid accountability in this regard for clergy and bishops.

On Monday, the General Conference requested a declaratory decision from the United Methodist Judicial Council, whose job it is to rule on the constitutionality of United Methodism’s actions, practices, decisions, and policies. More specifically, the General Conference asked for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan (vis-à-vis the United Methodist Church’s Constitution as contained in the Book of Discipline).

Today, delegates received a report from the Judicial Council, declaring that ten petitions related to the Traditional Plan are either unconstitutional or in violation of the church’s established polity.

As a result, the rest of the afternoon today was devoted to the tedious but important work of debating and amending the petitions in order to make them both practically workable and ecclesiastically constitutional.

Here’s the long and short of it all.

This afternoon, in an urgent moment that I experienced with breathless trembling, the General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan as the Way Forward for the denomination.

A little bit later on, delegates approved a petition on disaffiliation, which, in time, will provide a means by which a United Methodist Churches can leave the denomination with their property.

I will refrain from trying to describe all the details of our remaining hours together following the adoption of the Traditional Plan. Never has the phrase “you had to have been there” been more applicable.

Many delegates wept, deeply and uncontrollably, anguished by what they believe to be the church’s sanctioning of a dehumanizing mistreatment of sexual minorities.

Many delegates sat in quiet gratitude, believing that an orthodox understanding of Biblical sexual ethics had been rightly and decisively honored.

Many delegates were outraged, initiating disruptive protests and actions of dissent.

Many delegates were caught somewhere in the middle—weary, vulnerable, stunned by the intensity of all that was happening around them.

Emotions ran high this afternoon, and intensified emotions tend to generate amplified responses. We saw plenty of those: Legislative stall tactics designed to prevent the plenary from getting to all of the Traditional Plan’s petitions; shouts of protest designed to remind the church that it has caused deep pain; debate undergirded by palpable outrage.

It would be easy to approach such dynamics with a spirit of harsh judgment. But I would encourage you to pray your way out of such a spirit. After all, many delegates saw this vote as a matter of life and death for the church’s ministry. Their hearts were broken by the vote. Their vision for the future had taken a huge hit. Their anguish poured out as heightened remonstration. I would like to think that the church I love is durable enough to cover such behavior with countercultural patience and gracious understanding. After all, this is family, and family members love one another even in their most raw and vulnerable moments—especially in those moments, in fact.

How did I vote personally? Normally I don’t answer such questions publicly. It leads too easily to labeling, categorizing, and distorted perceptions. But this is a unique moment in the church’s history. I feel that I owe you at least the offering of transparency. So, here goes.

I did not vote for the Traditional Plan at any point. I was part of the 47% that voted for the One Church Plan (and the Connectional Conference Plan before that). I was in the queue to speak in favor of the One Church Plan this morning, but was not called upon.

My vote will disappoint some of you. It will encourage others. (Please, I beg of you—honor my transparency by resisting the temptation either to chastise my vote or to celebrate it.) I have great love and admiration in my heart for people all across the spectrum—those who voted my way and those who didn’t. But, here’s the deal: I am an evangelical follower of Jesus Christ who believes the Bible is God’s inspired Word but who also believes that the saving grace of Jesus creates sufficient space for divergent conclusions about how Biblical teachings are to be understood, interpreted, prioritized, and applied.

What drew me to the Connectional Conference Plan and the One Church Plan is that I found in both of them at least three convictions that spoke profoundly to my heart:

  • First, the conviction that our most durable unity is found in the person and work of Jesus, not in the uniformity of our theology of sexuality
  • Second, the conviction that the church’s current stance on homosexuality is doing far more harm than good in the human community
  • And, third, the conviction that United Methodist Christians can have a far greater impact for the cause of Christ if they remain connected, in spite of their theological differences

But all of that is moot at this point. The Traditional Plan is the officially adopted way forward for our part of the Body of Christ. (I will lay aside the constitutionality issues for now, since I believe there are enough constitutional portions in the Traditional Plan to make it workable.)

So, what now?

Most of that we will have to figure out together over the course of the next year. Some people (and I am one of them) are greatly unsettled by some of the implications of the Traditional Plan’s petitions. But tonight is not the time to navigate all of the particulars. There will be plenty of opportunities for that in the days ahead. For now, allow me simply to offer a few priorities that are emerging from the weary but still-hopeful heart of this humble pastor.

  1. Open your heart to the fact that many souls are devastated by the church’s decision to adopt the Traditional Plan. Over the last two days, I have received over thirty e-mails and Facebook messages from people in my network of relationships who have begun to question their relationship with the United Methodist Church. Some have already made the decision to leave. I am asking you to be sensitively and prayerfully aware of pain that is probably not very far away from you.
  2. If you are a traditionalist, I greatly respect the sense of gratitude that you most likely have for an outcome that supports your heartfelt theological convictions. But, please, do not rejoice in this, as though the vote were a victory in a battle. Instead, allow the pain that others are experiencing to soften your heart and remind you that, if one part of the Body of Christ is suffering, the entire Body of Christ is suffering.
  3. Reach out to those in your family and church family who are broken over this. Help them to know that they are seen, heard, and valued. If you are a progressive, reach out to the traditionalists who have been wounded by the dynamics of our divided church. If you are a traditionalist, reach out to progressives who are now living in a denominational plan that feels painfully disenfranchising to them. If you are a centrist, reach out to the people on either side of you.
  4. Be intentional about building respectful and attentive relationships with the LGBTQ souls whose lives intersect with yours. If they have heard anything at all about what has transpired within the denomination, they most likely feel particularly vulnerable or marginalized at present. Your willingness to love them and to be loved by them may be some of your most urgent discipleship in the days ahead.
  5. Commit to making your church a place of radical hospitality for all people, irrespective of your stance on homosexuality. Start conversations in your church about what it means to communicate to every person who walks through your church’s doors that, no matter who they are, they are in a place where they will be honored, protected, and loved.
  6. Whatever your theological persuasion, resist the temptation to become so absolutely certain of your own rightness that you lose the capacity to engage with the hearts and minds of those on the other side of a variety of issues. We are a diverse church, after all, where Jesus is busy sanctifying conservatives and progressives, gay people and straight people, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. We cannot afford to waste time bowing at the altar of self-certainty.
  7. Finally, breathe in and out the Gospel Truth—that Jesus Christ is still Lord; that he loves us with a love that will not let us go; and that nothing has transpired that has taken us beyond the scope of what God will beautifully redeem.

No matter your theological perspective, friends, I am alongside you in this. My deepest desire is for the authentic connection of our hearts as we learn from one another, nurture one another, and follow Jesus together.

Thank you for journeying with me through this General Conference. Thank you for being the church with me. Thank you for your prayerful encouragement. Thank you for reminding me of why the church is worth the struggle and pain.

United Methodist General Conference 2019—Day 3

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(photo by J.B. Forbes)

It was a very painful day. Some of us agreed that it felt like there was a spirit of death in the place, no matter where people stood in their convictions. And I felt complicit in it.

The day started with worship, during which we prayed words together that ushered me into a deeper conceptualization of the faith by which I long to walk:

Faith can be cloistered, an in-house debate
An object to study, a reason to hate
Faith can be closets with things put away
A good bit of talking with nothing to say

But when faith is a lifetime instead of a day
A constant rebirth, not a token to pay
If faith is the worldview beyond the decree
Then nothing’s outside what the faithful can see
No, nothing’s outside what the faithful can see

As we offered those words in unison, it was a moment of personal repentance for me, an opportunity to carry to the cross my tendency to reduce discipleship to a matter of debate—a fresh chance to lay at Jesus’ feet my “good bit of talking with nothing to say.” I quietly prayed that this Christ-follower (and Christ’s church) would become more passionate about seeing faith as a lifetime journey instead of an episodic paying of a spiritual token.

The General Conference spent the entire day engaging in its work as a LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEE. This requires just a moment of procedural explanation. In the work of a more typical General Conference, the delegates are divided into several smaller legislative committees. Each one of these smaller committees is assigned a variety of petitions categorized under a particular ministry area (Church and Society; Higher Education; Faith and Order; Discipleship; Financial Administration; Global Ministries; General Administration; Local Church; Superintendency; etc.) The purpose of each legislative committee in a typical General Conference is to review and refine the legislation assigned to it and then to make a recommendation to the entire General Conference which would then take final action on the legislation.

In this special called session of the General Conference, since all of the legislation is somehow related to deliberation about the denomination’s Way Forward, the decision was made to have just one legislative committee to which all of the delegates would be assigned. In other words, the plan was for the entire General Conference to become a legislative committee for a designated period of time, so that all of the delegates could work on refining the legislation and then vote on what legislative recommendations to carry into the plenary session.

Today, the General Conference engaged in its work as a legislative committee, addressing all of the legislation entrusted to its care. The deliberation and debate were frequently difficult and, at times, excruciatingly painful. The delegates, some with extraordinary vulnerability, all with passionate conviction, shared their stories, their hopes, their fears, and their perspectives, all for the purpose of determining legislative recommendations that will demand final action at tomorrow’s plenary session.

Here is where it gets painful.

As a legislative committee, delegates ultimately took the following actions:

  • Supported the Traditional Plan—meaning that the Traditional Plan (which both maintains and intensifies the denomination’s current ban on same sex weddings and ordination) will come to tomorrow’s plenary session for final vote
  • Opposed the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Simple Plan, all of which would have removed the Discipline’s current language related to homosexuality and created safe space for a wide variety of convictions within the denomination  (There is a chance that the One Church Plan might find its way into tomorrow’s plenary session, but this will require the approval of a minority report, which is an uphill battle in this case.)
  • Supported two disaffiliation proposals which would institute a process by which United Methodist churches could leave the denomination with their property
  • Requested a ruling from United Methodism’s Judicial Council on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan (about which delegates should receive information tomorrow)

What am I able to say about all of this by way of personal reflection? Not much at this point. I am weary and burdened—even broken—tonight.

Many traditionalist United Methodists view today’s legislative actions as a necessary preservation of what they believe to be a timeless Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality. (I am praying, however, that their hearts will not permit them to rejoice, given the devastation that others in the denomination are experiencing.)

I also realize that many people in the United Methodist portion of the body of Christ are weeping tonight. Weeping because they no longer know what their place is in the church. Weeping because they feel isolated, excluded, abandoned, even demonized. Weeping because they believe that Jesus is walking with them but that his church isn’t.

All evening long, I have been reaching out to people in my life who most likely experienced today’s legislative actions as something hurtful. I encourage you to be attentive to those same people in your life. They are there, after all, probably somewhere nearby, hurting and uncertain, wondering if you see them—really see them—and wondering if you really care.

I am not inviting debate with this post (since there has been enough of that already). I guess more than anything else, I am inviting your desperate prayer for the United Methodist tribe. Irrespective of your theological stance, allow yourself to be heartsick, tearful, and undone by the anguish of a church that is fractured but hopeful; broken but beautiful; sinful but messily and awkwardly sanctified.