Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Lord Comforts

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort."                                                           (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)


I was talking with a friend of mine who over the course of the last month or so has had to deal with a host of health and personal issues. He was openly lamenting how life is filled with heartbreak and pain. Filled with problems that have no easy solutions. People and situations you'd like to fix, but you just can't. 

"I don't know why life has to be so hard", he told me. "Why it has to have so much heartbreak. I wish it were different."

I agree. I wholeheartedly agree. More than you know, I stand with my friend on these sentiments. I wish life wasn't so hard, so full of heartbreak. But it is, and the only thing we can do is use our own painful experiences to learn some hard lessons, trust more deeply in the Lord, allow ourselves to be tended to by others, and ultimately bring some comfort to someone else.

This is the pathway through pain toward comfort we find in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. The Lord is the Lord of comfort. In this is our hope. And whether that healing come through the power of the Holy Spirit, the simple passage of time, or through the words and actions of good friends, the promise we hold onto is that there is always a daybreak at the end of a long-dark night. 

As a pastor for twenty-five years I believe once of the the most important parts of my job has been to bring comfort to others. Those moments are the moments I've felt the most useful in terms of the work the Lord was trying to do, and the most memorable of my career.

One of the best friends I ever had in all my years of ministry was Stan Weller. Some of you may remember Stan. He retired many years ago as the principle at Cridersville and was a long time member of this church. Even though there was about a 40 year age gap between us, Stan and I enjoyed hanging out with each other. Frequently he would call me and let me know he'd just made a pot of a chili, and if I hurried to his house to lunch there might be a bowl left before his wife Betty ate it all.

After getting a chili call one day, I moseyed my way over to Lorain Drive, and made my way up the front steps for lunch. Immediately though when Stan let me inside I could see he was stressed out. Stan was a man's man, but he was on the verge of tears. When I asked him what was wrong, he just waved his hand to have me take a look at his living room. And there, everywhere on the walls, pictures, and furniture were little homemade signs on copy paper. I walked around and started to read...

"No your mom isn't coming today. She's been dead many years."

"We are not going to school. We've graduated."

"I can't go get your sisters to come and play jumprope. They don't live near us anymore."

"You father isn't coming home after work. He passed away."

All over the room these little signs spelled out some other detail of his wife's life that her dementia had robbed, that she asked about again and again and again and again. I gave Stan a big hug and just let him unload all his frustration and sorrow as he grieved the slow loss of Betty to this terrible disease, and struggled with keeping the patience he needed to be her caregiver.

Stan just needed a little comfort, and that's what I believe the Lord longed to provide to him that day. I don't know about you, but I am gratified when God uses me for this kind of work.

But sometimes comfort isn't something we give. Sometimes we need to receive it. To allow the Lord to fill our cup when it's empty. I'm not comfortable with receiving comfort. I'd rather be showing compassion that receiving it. It's humbling, and sometimes embarrassing to admit we need to be comforted. And it's painful. We need comfort when we are in pain, or have failed, or been hurt, or come to the terrible realization we have failed someone else. I think to be on the receiving end of the comfort of the Lord and others, and just learning to humbly receive the gift is grace is one of most important steps we can take on our spiritual journey.  


The Apostle Paul makes it clear that he is one who is used by God to provide comfort to others, but he's also grateful to receive that comfort also. To grow in Christ's likeness is to seek both bring and receive comfort to others. Sometimes that's easy, and other times it's not.



This morning I come to you as someone who, while normally seeks as best he can to bring comfort to others, as a man broken, seeking comfort and solace in a very difficult time. After a particularly difficult season in our twenty-six year long marriage, Aimee and I are separating. This has been an incredibly painful decision with terrible consequences to so many people we love, particularly our children. However, we must now admit that the issues between us not properly resolved, the pressures of living in the "fishbowl" of ministry, and all the ways life wears all of us down have eroded the commitment we've made to one another. For different reasons individually, we simply do not have the needed resources to seek reconciliation. It is unfortunate, but we agree new boundaries are necessary to keep our relationship respectful and fruitful for our children, others we are called to serve.  

We've loved each other since we were kids. I've loved her since she was fifteen years old. We just don't want to hurt each other anymore.

We both have a hand in this failure. From my perspective I have not practiced what I preached and tended to the garden that is my wife's love. Too many times I've asked her to "shake it off", "gut it out", and "toughen up", when rather I should have listened, embraced, and comforted. Plenty of times I've talked about the importance of the fruits of the spirit from this pulpit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control - and yet I've played my part in allowing the weeds of indifference, the urgent, and obligations which too, too often rendered her second, to choke out those fruits in our own marriage. 

While I want to make it clear that I have nothing to violate the vows I took at my ordination, and am still in good standing as an Elder in the United Methodist Church, I am sorry I have failed both her, my children, and you, the congregation I serve. I am simply a man with feet of clay, who has failed miserably by loving imperfectly. 

I must also admit today that the visibility and pressure of ministry has played a major part in my marriage now coming to a close. As we make this change in our lives, I cannot ask Aimee or our sons to go through this trial on a public stage. Now is a time we need privacy. We need to assure our children of our love and commitment to them, and help find a new "normal" which will nurture them. I need to provide space to Aimee to find healing and comfort in the wake of this storm. 

So beginning at the close of this service, with the blessing of our Pastor Parish Relations Committee and Bishop Palmer of the West Ohio Conference, I will begin a three month leave. This will allow our family to step out of the spotlight, and make all the necessary arrangements to close this chapter, and begin a new one. The plan is that I, after a review of PPRC and our District Superintendent, will return to the pulpit here at Shawnee UMC in January. That review could determine that another course of action, or different timeline for my return be established, but at this juncture the goal will be a return after the new year. During this season two interim pastors, our friend David MacDonald, and an old friend of mine, Loran Miracle, will serve this congregation. I encourage you to welcome and support them warmly.

Please pray for Aimee. The journey of a United Methodist pastor's wife - of just being my wife - has not been an easy one for her. While I'm sure she would say she's made mistakes along the way, for as long and well as she could she carried these burdens with mercy and grace. Pray for her healing and restoration as she makes this journey, which I know for her will be both painful and hopeful as she seeks to become who God created her to be. 

Please lift me in your prayers. I simply have little to offer others right now, and our kids need me more than ever. It's a terrible feeling to want to fix something terribly broken that you know now could still be intact if just little timely fixes of tiny fragments had been repaired along the way. This is has created within a substantial amount of shame, anger, hurt and disappointment. Someday I hope to turn the difficulty of these moments into words of hope for someone else... 

but that day is not today. It's just going to take time. Thank you for giving some to me.

But most importantly, please pray for Max, Xavier, Elijah, and Toby. We love our kids and hate to see them hurting like they are right now. It is the comfort of the Lord and the peace which passes all understanding for our sons that I know is Aimee and I's most fervent prayer. Please just love on our kids.  

Today we take communion. It's the sacrament that reminds us that the price of abundant life is brokenness. We celebrate this together, corporately, because life is hard and full of heartbreak. And the difference between finding joy out of despair, goodness out of evil, and light in the darkness is whether or not we'll let the Lord carry us, and carry each other. To offer each other the bread of life, and the cup of salvation with each prayer, embrace, listening ear, and willingness to just be present. Or to accept that quiet presence of someone else.

So as we close this service let us remember that our God is a God of comfort. This  is the promise we cling to in Jesus Christ. Let us trust in this promise, while we love one another, and love our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Amen.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Bridge Is Out

We had a professor at Miami University named B.H. Smith who started every class he taught with the same question: "Why do we study history?" Of course us students knew the answer, and every hand rose to make a good first impression: "So that we don't make the same mistakes made in the past." Smith would look at us, pause for dramatic effect, and with great emphasis reply, "Most of us will never be important enough to make the mistakes made in the past. For us history is about two things - dates and dead people."

It would get a big laugh, but there was an air of truth to the man's words. Most everyone reading this will never be in the position of making a bad treaty with some nation or propose some economic program that led to hyper-inflation. But if you are a United Methodist know that this last week, you were all a small or large part of a repeat of our denomination's history. One-hundred and seventy-two years after we split into the M.E. North and M.E. South over the election of a bishop, we're on the verge of doing it again.

I have no idea exactly how it will all go down but I am certain that some progressives won't go forward without an openly gay or lesbian bishop, and some traditionalists won't go forward with one. We've reached a dead end, and the bridge so many of us prayed would get built, spanning our divide to allow us to go forward together, isn't even in the design stage.

As a centrist it would be easy to point my finger at the traditionalists or progressives for this position were in right now. The traditionalists in my opinion, never came to the table in good faith to discuss some sort of compromise. In fact, compromise that resulted in any change in our Discipline as it relates to human sexuality to many traditionalists has always been non-negotiable. So whether it was accomplished by taking a majority in General Conference or via a schism, the end game for traditionalists always seemed like total victory without compromise. But all that said, what other arena of work on the face of the planet are you considered the "bad guys" because you follow the rules?

I can't blame traditionalists for this place we've arrived.

I could wag my finger at the progressives. Years of both peaceful protest and civil disobedience to finally get a substantive conversation on the place and role of LGBT persons in the denomination, and just as we are on the cusp of this happening they give half-a-peace-sign to both traditionalists and the growing number of centrists who worked to make this possible. Seven non-compliant conferences and one elected bishop later, the hopes for the special commission aren't dead, but like in the movie "The Princess Bride", you could call them "mostly dead". Short of "Miracle Max" coming up with an eleventh-hour magic chocolate pill (go back and watch the movie), the prospects for maintaining unity where traditionalists, centrists, and progressives could make peace AND reach out to all as their conscience allowed and the Spirit led....  are thin.

But all that being said, with no door or window to open, why should any of us be surprised that the question of inclusion was forced through a new hole in the roof? These are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and friends who the progressives see themselves standing up for. I can't lay my dismay this at their feet either.

In the end centrists have nobody to blame but themselves. We kept turning a blind eye to the ills that bedevil us. Not just a blind eye to the ever-growing divide as more prohibitive language was added to the BoD, parallel mission societies were formed, thirteen bishops wrote a letter, a challis was shattered, Elders were getting drummed out, time was wasted in Tampa, and the letters "LGBTQ" couldn't even be uttered on the floor in Portland. We turned a blind eye to more than forty years of decline and increasing irrelevance by largely just settling for the status quo.

We turned a blind eye to forty years of cultural, demographic, racial and geographic shifts. We turned a blind eye to a growing group of increasingly ineffective Elders and underprepared Local Pastors. We turned a blind eye to the local church which was hemorrhaging even as we forced her to give more blood to a bureaucracy that's only grown more bloated and ineffective. We turned a blind eye to the "death tsunami", the corrosive influence of partisan politics via the IRD, and generations of Americans who thought it better to be "nones" than "United Methodists". We turned a blind eye to the escalating cost of seminary and a growing distaste for itineracy among younger clergy even as locationalism has made it less viable.

We turned a blind eye to changing attitudes toward LGBTQ persons, and refused to use our influence to heed the wisdom of Gamaliel to open up pathways of inclusion so see if this was a movement of the Spirit. We turned a blind eye to the frustration of our conservative colleagues and congregations who felt increasingly like they were the "villains" even though they largely just upholding the Discipline.

I blame us.

And while there have been successes, pockets of spiritual growth across the connection, for every one of these great stories I can point out ten examples of congregations we've managed into obsolescence. The writing was on the wall. We just decided it was better to keep the prophet locked up in prison and pretend the writing was for somebody else.

We've been reactive. We asserted our influence to keep the boat from rocking. We didn't take seriously Bishop Schnase's assessment that the church needs to engage in "risk taking mission" to be considered healthy and growing. Instead of organizing and forcing hard discussions between bitterly divided parties so that a clear vision could emerge, we just let the ship sail until it absolutely had to turn... and now it's listing near the rocks.

So at this late hour, my prayer is that the bishops to act quickly. Please don't wait to nominate the special commission but please have them in place by Labor Day, their work completed by next year, and the special session of General Conference meeting in 2018. The denomination cannot withstand four more years of resolutions, counter-resolutions, pronouncements, and acts of defiance. Further, if the failure of the "Connectional Table Plan" has taught us anything, it's that under-representing folks in the connection will most likely result in a solution that in real terms, has no chance passing General Conference. So please consider proportionally representing the global connection on the commission as they're represented at General Conference.

Centrists, as we think about being proactive, given the reality of our current situation, as the special session of General Conference nears, let's keep everything on the table. We can introduce restructuring plans which would essentially create multiple apartments under one roof. But we also need not avoid planning for a possible future where "live and let live" cannot be abided by a significant number of clergy and congregations. Since the "trust clause" and the sustainability of the pension system are poor reasons for us to stay together, let's not be afraid to explore a potential pathway where money on litigation isn't wasted on lawyers, and a mutual respect for those who served before us can still be honored, even if our unity cannot.

In closing, in this season of uncertainty we all need clarity to effectively plan for future ministry. It's not reasonable to allocate funding for new church starts or recruitment of new clergy when funding streams could be upended abruptly. It's not sensible to keep working the itinerant system as if all things will likely remain same, when great upheaval in our local churches is now more than just speculation. It's not ethical to keep promising retirees that we will live up to our obligations when so many things are in the air.

And it's no longer acceptable for those of us in the center to keep expecting things to just work out. You can't a build a bridge people don't want, to keep the illusion of familiarity and "sameness". Hard choices will need to be made about what may have to be dug up and pruned so a new season of planting can begin.

In our prayer and devotional lives, local church ministries, communities, conferences, nation, and denomination it is time to heed the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14; to humble ourselves, pray, seek the Lord's face, and turn from the wickedness of worshipping the idol of "not rocking the boat because we're so close to retirement and it might reduce revenue". Then and only then, if we're truly earnest and faithful, we will be forgiven our sin of turning a blind eye, and through us God will heal our church, and our land.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Three Thoughts And One Plea To My Traditionalist Friends In the United Methodist Church

A couple of weeks ago, Talbot Davis on the "Ministry Matters" blog made a post entitled "A Plea To My Centrist Friends in the United Methodist Church". As one of founders of what we call the United Methodist Centrist Movement, he seemed to be reaching out to all my colleagues who proudly will serve GC 2016 under the centrist moniker. I pondered his thoughts, and decided that it might be a good idea to respond back. So before General Conference begins in a month or so, here are three thoughts and one plea as a Centrist I'd like our Traditionalist friends to ponder. 

First, traditionalist friends you don't have to panic about GC 2016, or any future GC because math is on your side. The ever-growing African delegation assures a traditionalist majority at GC perpetually. So when it comes to human sexuality there are really only two likely outcomes at GC 2016. The most likely outcome is that the current language (and all the legal wrangling that goes with it) in the Book of Discipline will be maintained. Maybe this doesn't bring you much comfort given the all the upheaval the past four years, but at least in principle your desire for the BOD language to remain the same is secure.

The other less likely - but still possible - outcome is that the current BOD language will be replaced with a proposal written by four of our colleagues entitled the "C.U.P. Plan". I say this is "less likely, but possible" because you have a simple majority this year, but you'll need a few of us centrists to lean your way for the "CUP Plan" to see the light of day.

In case you don't know what the Cup Plan is, here's a summary. It will...


  
  • strengthen the current BOD language around the prohibition of same-sex marriage and same-sex ordination 
  • end our current practice in the United States of maintaining order in our respective conferences usurping the authority of our respective conference Board of Ministry, order of clergy, cabinet, and bishop on matters of human sexuality
  • mandate suspensions and expulsions without what we in western civilization would recognize as "due process" for those who conduct same-sex ceremonies, essentially creating an entirely new class of offense above and beyond all others
  • allow those churches and clergy who have had enough of the United Methodist Church to leave with property and pension in tact after a "discernment period" of sixty days (remember this one... we'll talk about it more later)
So at least from an institutionalized perspective, traditionalists have nothing to worry about. And given the long-term prognosis both for membership growth in Africa and membership decline in the United States, you will always have this advantage. You only need centrists to vote for a more punitive form of discipline. 

But that's isn't likely. Let me explain why. Here's my second thought.

Three out of the four authors of the CUP Plan are ordained Elders here in my conference. Despite the fact they were all running, and heavily endorsed by the traditionalist caucus which for 20 years had dominated our elections, none of them were elected as full delegates to GC 2016. Want to know why? 

The CUP Plan. Or to be more specific it's less punitive predecessor, the A&W Plan. 

The A&W was recognized by centrists as a fraudulent call for "unity" masking a demand for "uniformity". Unity implies we stand together despite our differences. Uniformity is tossing anyone out who can't pass a very narrow, focused, unnecessary litmus test.  For traditionalists to not, under any circumstances, entertain the possibility that the passion of so many United Methodists regarding inclusion was anything more than just individualism run amok was disappointing and disrespectful to a lot of people we admire and respect. The A&W Plan just hammered that disappointment home.

Centrists don't like trials. They don't like kicking people out. They believe unity can be achieved on matters of vital importance while differences exist on the rest. They seek compromise. They don't want mandatory minimums. They have no respect for those who continually threaten to leave or try to force their way by refusing to pay their apportionment unless they get what they want. As Wesleyans who learned the Quadrilateral in seminary our love for free will extends to our desire to be in a denomination that encourages free thought, discussion, reason, pragmatism, and putting aside our differences to do the important things: make disciples of Jesus Christ, and together serve others as He would will it.

If it makes you feel any better we aren't interested in the didactic demands of the Love Prevails crowd either. After all Paul said it best.... love doesn't demand it's own way. Good News, the IRD, Love Prevails, the Reconciling Movement and MFSA in our opinion major in the minors. It's just that the most radical traditionalist voices in that choir actually have the power to put the rest of us under their thumb. Heck, it's their dream. And to that vision we will not bow.

That's why in West Ohio, at least, we rejected this vision for the future of our denomination while we still can.

Third, not speaking for any other centrist but myself, when I read Davis' article I couldn't help but be troubled. Of course I was troubled by an Elder who was single boasting about her active sex life and the unmarried-but-engaged ordinand candidates boasting the same. Know that us centrists believe in the Book of Discipline. We follow it. In fact we probably follow it better than you traditionalists do. On the whole we generally practice infant baptism, both sprinkle and dunk, pay all our apportionment as best we can (even when we don't agree with our bureaucracy), seek inclusivity in our leadership circles, and have no issue with the institutional empowerment of females. 

Your crowd's record in those areas, you have to admit, is a little spotty.

But I was equally as troubled by something else Davis wrote: "I want you to know your vote is not simply about homosexuality and it’s not about justice. It is instead about dismantling the entire sexual ethic that has helped define the Christian faith for two millennia."

The church has been wrong about a lot of things, some of which were taught for hundreds and hundreds of years (and in some corners are still being taught). I was reminded of this just this morning when I read an article in the New York Times about the effort Georgetown University - a Jesuit school - is making to find descendants of 242 persons who the school sold into slavery to pay their debts in the 1850's. The church taught slavery was a defendable institution for over 1800 years.

I was reminded of this again when I stumbled on a quote by our first female bishop, Leontine Kelly:

"[On ordination of women:] We must recognize the kind of culture in which Jesus and his disciples lived. It was a very male-dominated culture. However, Jesus did violate the customs of the culture in that he talked with women, shared with women. Women were part of the entourage of Jesus Christ. God calls whomever God would call."

The church taught for over 1900 years that women had no place in the institutional leadership of the Christian movement that involved having any authority over men.

And I was reminded of this again when I thought of Copernicus and I looked at a globe.

What seems to define us as centrists is the Holy Spirit moving amongst us in the form of pragmatism and practicality bending to what Dr. King called an "arc toward justice". LGBT persons and their families are active in our churches. Many of these good folks have exhibited the kinds of spiritual fruit that are helping create vitality in our congregations. They are highly ethical and committed to the cause of Jesus. They have witnessed the destruction sexual immorality has wrought within both  the straight and LGBT communities and are rejecting that kind of practice for something committed and stable. As they raise children and get certified as foster parents, they are looking to us. They are helping us work with LGBT teens who are suicidal to give them hope for the future. They believe in monogamous, life-long commitments between two consenting adults, and are just as appalled at the destruction "sleeping around" creates. They challenged us to treat them like regular old people - regular old sinners - just like the rest of us.  

And we as pastors are serving many, many traditionalists who are becoming "former traditionalists" or "modified traditionalists". They've been challenged by the people they've met, the studies they've read, and reflection in which they have engaged. They searched the scriptures and prayed for direction. And while maybe they (and many of us centrists) aren't really sure what to do with all of this, they know that growing more punitive right now makes little sense. They're ready for a new season.

We can work with this! Let us. We'll leave you alone as we do so. We promise.

Which leads me to my plea..... traditionalists, if you are delegates to GC 2016, or can lobby someone who is, know that the least you can do is reject the CUP Plan, while the most you can do is work with us and willing progressives to find a "third way" for our denomination. 

I know you have the Rob Renfroes and Maxie Dunnams of the world warning you that a change in BOD language to allow a "third way" will result in churches leaving and endless litigation just like it did in the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian denominations. But same-sex marriage wasn't legal when those folks made those choices, and the attitude of the nation - particularly young adults - has shifted significantly in that same time period. I venture a guess that vast majority of you reading this who call themselves a traditionalist don't harbor any ill-will toward to the LGBT community, and maybe over the last decade or so yourself have had your heart slightly soften on the matter of inclusion.

We can do this differently, but traditionalists only if YOU choose to do so. Come to the table. Tell the hardcore traditionalists and progressives to chill out and give your own willing traditionalist, progressive and centrist brothers and sisters a way to stay together and maintain their own convictions. We won't find a perfect solution, but we will find a workable one. Give it a chance.  

And one last thing... about that CUP Plan. Know that we centrists are rule-followers. Progressives will most likely stick around and fight til the bitter end of the denomination or you kick them all out (which ever comes first). But as for us centrists, well we'll just follow the rules. 

A few of my centrist friends and I were sitting around one evening drinking cold beverages and talking about what a post-CUP Plan UMC might look like for us. None of us were all that encouraged. 

I mean the status quo isn't exactly paradise. Everything already seems to take more energy and stamina than it did when we first started in ministry. And as for our denominational leadership, there appears to be great resistance to the kinds of radical change that's necessary to make sure the local church has what it needs to do good work in the current climate while not getting dragged down by a status quo that's not working. 

Now factor into this discussion the CUP Plan, which none of us as centrists are in favor of. The denomination will come apart at the seams. Progressive conferences will ignore it. Traditionalists will use the leverage of the BOD to enforce it. The rancor will only grow, and we'll do all we can to shelter our congregations from the mess. 

And yet the CUP Plan DOES allow for pastors and churches to leave with property and pension in hand after a sixty day period of reflection. This got us wondering, what if the opportunity, legally, came along to form a new denomination? It could be...
  • One built on the doctrine of the Wesleyan movement, but leaves behind the deaf-to-change bureaucracy who only really seemed to care about us in terms of "nickels and noses" and the preservation of their own position/power. 
  • One that assigns the decisions of marriage and ordination to each of it's local churches and pastors to work out as best for their context.
  • One that only seeks pastors strong in character and committed to creating healthy local churches where they can be effective in partnership with laity in all different types and kinds of settings 
  • One that asks for, say, 3% of General Operating Expense as the only apportionment. 
  • One that, without layers upon layers of denominational staffing and an impossible decision making process, can focus it's available resources on new church starts and church revitalization toward the end of what is the heart of any denomination - strong local churches 
  • A denomination without bishops or a method for assigning church leadership that was perfect for an era when the horse and walking were the main modes of transportation 
  • One that would insure you wouldn't need a boatload of debt to become a pastor
We could call it the American Methodist Church. We've even got an idea for a logo for it. We think the hipsters will love it!


(you have to be kinda old to get the joke... not "Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show old", but still, Millennials you'll need to go ask your parents)

Traditionalists, we don't want to do this. We're the ones killing ourselves trying to keep this thing together. But if you change the rules you give us the ability to put that energy to work in more constructive endeavors. Again, it's not what we want, but traditionalists, we've been asking for a compromise and you won't listen. You won't take us seriously. You want to use us to your own ends, but besides us doing a lion-share of the work and paying the bills, you don't seem to want us around.

We could arrange that. It's your choice. Choose wisely at GC 2016.


Monday, March 21, 2016

It's Late. It's Late. But not too late... for kindness?

Was listening to internet radio when unexpectedly this song came on...


It's not exactly one of Queen's bigger songs. I only know it because it's on "News of the World", which was the first "album" I ever bought with my own money, album being in parenthesis because I actually bought an 8-track tape (millennials, ask your parents). I'm sure as a kid I made the purchase solely for "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" but 8-Tracks didn't rewind or fast forward (at least mine didn't), so I'd just listen to the rest of the album passively til it came back around to those two songs.

Now let me say this... I really liked those two songs, so I heard the rest of that album plenty. Songs like "Sheer Heart Attack",  "Get Down, Make Love", and "All Dead. All Dead (a very sad song written by Brian May about the death of his cat) are imprinted on my brain.



(And yes, my parents let me listen to a song like "Get Down. Make Love". It was the seventies, baby! But I digress....)

Despite the hundreds of times I'd heard "It's Late" I never paid much attention to the lyrics, so I looked them up. They were written by Brian May supposedly with the idea that it's a three-act scene or something (I don't know... Wikipedia did it's best to explain) with two different women, one whom the protagonist is in a long-term relationship with, and another who he takes consolation in when the long-term relationship seems to be on the rocks.

(Once again, it was the seventies)

But putting that all aside, this is a tune about a couple who are having trouble holding a relationship together.

The way you love me
Is the sweetest love around
But after all this time
The more I'm trying
The more I seem to let you down, yes
Now you tell me you're leaving
And I just can't believe it's true
Oh, you know that I can love you
Though I know I can't be true
Oh, you made me love you
Don't tell me that we're through

It's late - mmm, and it's driving me so mad
It's late - yes I know, but don't try and tell me that it's
Too late - save our love you can't turn out the light
So late - I've been wrong but I'll learn to be right
It's late - It's late - It's late
But not too late

Pretty sad lyrics. Anybody who has had trouble in their relationship or marriage can relate. These lyrics paint an accurate picture of everything going on in the moment when two people are on the verge of wondering whether or not their love is going to survive. There's a lot of questioning the intentions of each other. A lot of begging and pleading to keep the relationship going, while simultaneously wondering if the investment needed to be made will save the relationship (or even worth making). A lot of guilt and anger at yourself, or your partner, or both for not having made better choices. And there's sadness. Sadness that can only come when something that at one time was so alive, so good, is now in real trouble... or even done.

Years ago I came across an article about a study The Gottman Institute did seeking to define the key factor in marital success. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that couples who initially respond positively toward one another were more likely to pick up on cues that enabled them to relate better over the long term, than those couples who tended toward a "fight or flight" response geared to manipulate control in the relationship. As the article states simply....

"People who give their partner the cold shoulder — deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally — damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner's ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships." 

In short, the most important trait in a healthy marriage according to Gottman is kindness. Marriage partners who seek to be kind to one another tend to fair better than those who aren't. What's more Gottman goes further in stating that the key to kindness is the way you think about it. 

"You can think about (kindness) as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. (Those who navigate marriage successfully) tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work."

The most successful marriages are ones where those involved seek to not just show kindness, but actively work to become increasingly more kind. I think that's good news for any couple who find themselves in a difficult marriage, or in a good one they seek to improve. The way out and up from where you both are is to begin exercising "kindness muscles". Gottman gives a number of examples of practical ways to do this:
  • Offer small acts of generosity 
  • Be generous in regards to your spouse's intentions
  • Seek every opportunity to share and celebrate your partner's joy
While I see the direct application of Gottman's work in marriages, I have hope that if those of us who are United Methodists took his advice, we might be able to fare better in the future than we are now in terms of the fortunes of our local church, and the future of the denomination.

At the local church level, if a church in decline is looking to turn it's fortunes around, or a church doing pretty good is looking to do better, figuring out ways to begin exercising "kindness muscles" is the way to go.  I'd gather, for example, that at the heart of "Missional Christianity" (which are buzzwords denominational leaders have become so fond of and yet unable to really define) is the intentional collective exercising of "kindness muscles". To become so attuned to being kind toward others that it becomes instinctual and automatic. Kindness not defined by who is or isn't or might become "a member" of the church, but rather the church being kind to one all whom they encounter. That seems to be heart of the "missional movement". Given that Jesus called us to love each other, as an expression of our love for the Lord, this makes sense.

To think about this further, in the life of the denomination beyond the local church, I wonder if the vitriol we've spewed against one another has been so great for so long that we've forgotten how to be kind to one another? Kindness, it seems, has taken a backseat as the caucuses representing the polar ends of the denomination seek to destroy each other.

Progressives, as an example, hear evangelicals talk about "loving the sinner and hating the sin" and just roll their eyes. There have been far too many examples of "love" which resulted in rejection and expulsion on the part of evangelicals particularly toward LGBTQ persons for progressives to take that rhetoric seriously.

I had one of these experiences at an event recently sponsored by our conference where there were two presentations by two opposing speakers regarding scripture and homosexuality. The evangelical presenter laid out what was essentially a hard-core-take-no-prisoners perspective that left little, if any, hope both for inclusion now in local church and in the "great hereafter" for LGBTQ persons. Even though he did end his presentation with a "but we're all sinners" and "no sin is greater than another" grace statement, by the time he reached his conclusion the air was out of the room. Those seeking inclusion and those who stand with them were "all out of listen". They had heard it before. The attempt to "soften the blow" seemed to have the opposite effect. It came off as condescending and dishonest. 

On the flip side, I know evangelicals hear progressives talk about following Jesus' lead by welcoming all and wonder what chaos will be introduced into the community if everybody gets to play by their own rules, or at least new rules as a whole we don't all understand. Why, they wonder, if someone points out that we need to have some basic ground rules so we can live peacefully together, and those ground rules have been well-established for centuries, do they get painted as bigots and haters when they attempt to live them out? Since when did trying to be faithful to scripture and what the denomination has determined to be her Discipline warrant being painted as "evil"?

I know that at the same presentation, when the progressive speaker gave her more nuanced argument it seemed to the committed evangelicals in attendance that the "black and white" presentation of the evangelical was a lot easier to understand. The clarity offered by the evangelical is really the trump card when many UM's are presented with the progressive justification for full inclusion. How do you explain these changes in light of the traditional understanding of scripture? How do you explain these new ethics to your children and grandchildren? How do you stand before a congregation that's always more or less unilaterally agreed that the old ways are the right ways, and tell them that they've been wrong and make a change?

Leaning on history and tradition is much easier and understandable than a new reality where behaviors that had never been condoned, now would be. Accusations of "watering down" the Gospel, "trampling on scripture", and an unwillingness to adhere to our mutually agreed upon Discipline create specters of demonizing the "other" and making it impossible for little more than superficial conversation to take place among people who disagree with each other. 

In the end so much time and energy has been invested in the two camps beating on one another it has made their "relationship" so toxic nothing short of Maxie Dunnam and Amy DeLong washing one another's feet at General Conference could begin to move them toward some resolution to even "agree to disagree". Kindness could pave a way forward for all us United Methodists, and begin breaking this stalemate, but I'm pretty sure the polarized caucuses won't let that happen.

It will take those of us who believe unity isn't uniformity, but rather meeting the demands of sacrificial love toward all, to stand up, speak out, and work toward keeping our denomination together.

Just to go ahead and show my hand, I believe that the only role those of us who are sympathetic toward full inclusion, but also realize that there is wisdom in moving deliberately and wisely so as to not too quickly throw out church tradition is to advocate following the advise of Gamaliel. Create a pathway where folks willing to prop the door wide open can do so, and wait and see what the Lord does, or doesn't do, with their work at least for a season. We also need to simultaneously stand for the committed traditionalist and allow them to live out the Discipline as it's been understood historically until such a time where we can see if in this new arrangement we can continue to live together, or seek a peaceful separation.

In any event, we have to keep encouraging those diametrically opposed to show a little grace to one another, even if they vehemently disagree. Evangelicals need to love the LGBTQ much more sincerely than many of them have been willing to do so historically. Progressives, while not moving off of their sincere commitment to include all, need to concede that you can't legislate into existence something that generally takes personal relationships and loving conversations to change.

We need to stand for unity, and not as some critics state just for unity's sake. But rather unity seeking in love to call all standing at every point of the theological spectrum to raise their own bar of personal holiness, so we might have great capacity for both grace and justice. Unity rooted not in uniform understanding of a few particular points of church tradition, or a disdain for those who have been "oppressors", but unity which seeks to live out the Great Commandment, the Great Commission, and Great Requirement - to love justice, offer mercy, and walk in humility in the presence of the Lord - with the intent that al of us begin acting more like servant leaders in the footsteps of Jesus Christ in all of our unique, yet necessary, expressions.

Unity which makes us a true light of the world. Not a taillight burning dimly as an afterthought, or a flashlight used for interrogation, but a beacon of hope for all people. People who know that in the storm, there is a port, and that port is the United Methodist Church.

In any event let's figure out simple ways we can begin exercising those kindness muscles in our personal relationships, local churches, and across the United Methodist connection as we keep making the journey of following Jesus. Cause love is a long road, and we need to be in better shape than we are now if we hope to make a journey that ends with the words "well done, good and faithful servant".   


All the while, please join me in praying that's while it's late... maybe VERY late, it's not too late for a new season of vitality for the people we call Methodists.