Religion

Pep Rally or Game Plan?

IMG_8391Last week was the Annual Conference of the Minnesota United Methodist Church. It’s our big gathering. Our clergy and lay members gather in St. Cloud, MN to reflect on where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re headed. It’s a fun and fruitful time, but also an exhausting and exasperating time (at least for me). What I fear, however, is that what our Annual Conference has become (or is becoming) is a mere pep rally when it should be a locker room talk.

It’s like this: My daughter’s fast pitch softball team really struggles, and that’s okay. What I find amusing, however, is often we’re in a game and losing by as much as a dozen or more, and they chime in with one of these cheers that seem to be what the bench does in softball. It’s a call and repeat cheer that goes something like this: “Janey is her number (repeat). 7 is her name (repeat). Even though we’re mixed up (repeat). We’re gonna win this game (repeat).” Then everyone goes on in unison chanting, “Hey don’t be a fool. Somebody said we were number two, but we’re number one having fun in the sun…”. A few of us parents chuckle every time, because while calling out this cheer, they are down by double digits and have won one game all season. They’re not gonna win this game. And they’re far from number one.

As our Bishop mentioned this year, the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is the fastest declining conference in the nation two years running, yet sometimes I felt like we’re cheering within that truth, “…somebody said we were number two, but we’re number one…”. While we need encouragement, and need some atta-girls and atta-boys, I felt very strongly this year that we were getting a game plan in the locker room, but we were treating it like a pep rally in the gym.

Our key note speaker was Rev. Junius Dotson who is the Secretary of Discipleship Ministries, and his talk reminded us of what this is all about- of in fact what being a United Methodist is all about. It’s about discipleship. He said that if we can’t connect to our “why”, then what we do will have little to no effect. He was talking a lot about our personal “why” (that is, our personal purpose in this world) but he was also talking about our communal “why”. As we look at our Conference and the churches that make it up, we must ask “why do we exist?” Well, if we’re United Methodists (which we claim to be), then no matter what your church’s mission/vision/values are, the answer to that question is easy: We are here- that is my church and your church exist- to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That’s it. That’s our collective, communal “why”.

The trick is that there’s another why beyond that. Everybody wants to have a positive impact on transforming this world. The way I like to phrase it is restoring shalom to the world or working for wholeness in the world. The “why” within this is, “why do we need to be disciples of Jesus Christ in order to transform the world?” To put it another way “to what degree do we believe that being a disciple of Jesus Christ actually does that?” Do we believe it at all? As Junius Dotson indicates in his short video at seeallthepeople.org, are we merely trying to “fix” our churches? Or are we working to partner with the Holy Spirit in transforming the world?

 

 

If we are going to be who we say we are- which is United Methodists- then we must trust that being a disciple of Jesus Christ can actually transform the world. And I don’t mean this some God-awful imperial way with sword and spear. I mean this in an actual Jesus way with basin and towel. This does not make us the saviors of the world, but it does mean that we believe that when we give our lives to the ways and rhythms of Jesus, that we believe that our own personal worlds (that is, our hearts, souls, minds, and even bodies) can be transformed; that our local worlds (that is, our homes, neighborhoods, cities and communities) can be transformed; and that (as redundant as it sounds) our global world can be transformed.

The “why” of the Church for United Methodists is the transformation of the world by being disciples of Jesus who go a make disciples of Jesus. But as one of the “TED Talk” speakers at Annual Conference said, “making disciples is hard work”. There is no quick fix to this. That’s why Jesus said in his most thorough and exhausting teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, “The Gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14, NRSV). [Side note: If there “few who find it” what might this say about churches that draw and woo the masses?] Being a disciple requires being disciplined in an intentional way of being or rule of life.

To put it another way, being a disciple of Jesus requires a method. It’s time we in Minnesota put the “method” back in Methodist. We don’t need anything new. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, or even come up with a whole new mode of transportation. The method has already been laid out for us, but you might have to crack open that 2016 edition, or even dig up an old dusty edition of the Book of Discipline (which perhaps we should rename the “Book of Discipleship”).

Go ahead do it: Listen the binding crack and smell those fresh thin pages. It’s not just there only to tell you about restrictions on property sales and how many people should be on Trustees. It’s actually got the whole game plan of discipleship outlined for us in paragraph 256.1, which also refers us back to the General Rules (we keep using that word- I do not think it means what we think it means) in paragraph 104. And when you’re done with that, give paragraphs 216-221 a good reading as well. This is our game plan, folks.

We don’t need to ask, “what’s your/our discipleship method?” We should be asking, “how are you structuring the discipleship method?” We already have the method! That’s why we’re Methodists! It’s laid out for us in the Book of Discipline, but beyond that there is Disciples-Making-Disciplesmore help in doing this. Go grab the “Developing an Intentional Discipleship System: A Guide for Congregations” at seeallthepeople.org, and perhaps work through this with your leadership team and staff. Also consider ordering the three part series of books recently released, the first of which is written by Minnesota’s own Rev. Steve Manskar called Disciples Making Disciples. The others in this hat-trick of resources help us in fanning this out to our children and youth (perhaps our biggest failure so far as conference), and are called Growing Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship With Children and Everyday Disciples: Covenant Discipleship With Youth.

I challenge all of us Minnesota United Methodists (clergy and Lay Leaders and Lay Members to the Annual Conference) to read these books over the next year, and then maybe the planners of our 2018 Annual Conference could find some space for us to talk about what we’re learning from them, and, more importantly, what we’re doing about them. This is our game plan. We’re not number one, nor are we even number two. And the point, of course, isn’t winning (by no means), but that statistic should give us great pause. It should cause us to look at our game plan pretty closely. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of pep rallies. I want to get back into the playbook and make sure I understand and begin to run the game plan.

We have work to do, friends- hard work. Let’s be honest about that. This is hard work. It’s not sexy. It doesn’t Tweet well (I’ve tried). It’s not a quick fix. It takes immense focus and discipline. But it’s beautiful work. It has the power to change lives, change our communities, and change our world, and even enliven our very own souls as we lead our congregations in it.

It is in fact why we have a “people called methodists” at all. Let’s put the method back in Methodist.

Evangelicalism at Iliff School of Theology (Wait… What?)

IMG_8059The journey has been long, at times painful, and mostly liberating. In 2012 I wrote a piece I called My Journey to No, which was my way of not only publicly opposing the Minnesota marriage amendment to ban same sex marriage, but it was also my way of publicly announcing my theological shift in regards to the humans I had previously whittled down to the “issue” of homosexuality. That is, I had moved from someone who bought and taught conservative evangelical theology on “matters of human sexuality” to someone who believes in a more generous Gospel of Christ, and believes that not only should LGBTQ people be accepted fully into the fold of Christianity and humanity, but also should be called to be our leaders, teachers, and mentors in and of the faith. It is statements like this that I know often upset my evangelical sisters and brothers, but the truth is we cannot hold a generous Gospel in one hand, while holding a charge against Bishop Oliveto in the other.

Nearly five years after writing My Journey to No, last Wednesday I found myself in the Iliff School of Theology chapel in a near full-on heave cry as I was led in one of the most powerful worship experiences of my life. Bishop Karen Oliveto was scheduled to preach, even though she had just returned home from hearings in New Jersey regarding whether her election to the Episcopacy last year was valid simply because she is a publicly professing lesbian. I can’t imagine the painful words she had to endure in those hearings…

…Oh wait, yes I can imagine those words, because for the first 15-20 years of my Christianity I believed those words, I said those words, and (and here is where I really cringe) I taught those words to teenagers. You see, I was an evangelical. That meant that I had a responsibility to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, which when it came to LGBTQ people meant “you’re an abomination, but I can help you.” We can spin it all we want, but that essentially was our “good news”.

As soon as I saw Bishop Oliveto walk in I felt tears well up. The worship experience was beautifully crafted and led mostly by Iliff’s LGBTQ community and included great music, including a powerful acoustic rendition of “Blessed Assurance”, as well as some other beautiful choruses and original pieces. But in all the beauty, something wasn’t right in me. I couldn’t figure out what. My soul was aching as though it was waiting to crack open and unleash something. What was this about? I’ve been through this. I’ve come to terms with my evangelical past and have since worked to be an ally (not always well, but I’m learning). What was happening? Why was my soul so unsettled.

The coup de gras for my aching soul came when a fellow Iliff classmate read a poem they wrote for this occasion. It cannot be described, nor can it be merely read. This was true poetry: It needs to be experienced. Take six minutes and give it a listen/viewing (yes it’s a six minute poem, and it needs to be, and it’s beautiful):

As the recitation went on, I found myself beginning to mildly convulse as I tried to hold back the tears that were beginning to pour out from my soul like a spring of abundant life. I didn’t want the drama of my soul to distract from the beauty being breathed into the Iiliff Chapel air.

The poem finished and I was torn open in all the good ways. This unveiling of my soul felt like what I imagine the tearing open of the veil of the Holy of Holies to be. Something was exposed. Then it hit me. How many students have I silenced? How many teenagers sat in my youth rooms desperately needing a safe space to be, express, and live into who they are, and I silenced them? I know there’s grace, and I know I’ve changed, and I even know that in those days, my motives, though misguided, were not to cause harm. But I did. My intentions do not change the fact that I silenced. As students gathered for confirmations and baptisms, I put white robes on them to homogenize them when perhaps all they wanted or even needed was to live into their unique, colorful, fully alive, and not always normative selves.

My soul laid bare, I collected myself, as Bishop Oliveto began to preach. I can’t tell you what an honor it was to be in that space with her and other dear friends, most relatively new but one I’ve known for well over half my life- one whose story is intimately and inseparably tied to mine. In Bishop Oliveto you could see that the pain was real and deep, but more so, it was not the final word. Resurrection will have the final word. Resurrection will precede the final punctuation mark of her story. And mine. And yours. Hope began to swirl in the air with the grace of gentle but felt summer breeze. The kind that messes up your neat and tidy picnic table.

And then another classmate of mine for whom I have great admiration sang a song he wrote for Bishop Oliveto. The poem broke open my aching soul, and this song became a healing balm for it, not closing it back up, but leaving it laid bare and vulnerable and free: “I’m made in the image love…” poured into the air like an aspirated baptism drowning me in grace and healing with every breath. Listen to it. All of it:

I walked out of this worship experience with an undeniably felt experience of the very Spirit of God. She swam through that room with a kind of power and beauty that takes your breath away. In a time of such bad news in the life of LGBTQ United Methodists, hope, grace, and healing echoed off the walls of the Iliff Chapel that morning.

Bad news came later in the week. On Friday the UMC Judicial Council ruled by a 6-3 vote that Bishop Oliveto’s election to the episcopacy did violate church law. It was another crushing blow in the hope for inclusion in the United Methodist Church. But I did not leave hopeless. Still wet from the drenching of the Spirit in chapel on Wednesday, my soul rose in protest against this ruling. And isn’t that what worship is? A protest? Isn’t this thing we call worship- that is, the gathering of the community- intended to be a protest against the current condition of the world? A protest against bad news?

As the world spits out more bad news of hate, exclusion, destruction, and fear, the gathered community is intended to stand in opposition as a anthem of good news. The Greek word in the New Testament that translates to “good news” is εὐαγγέλιον (euaggelion). It’s where we get our word “evangelical”. In this sense, at its most raw, evangelicalism is a protest against the bad news of the world. Because of this, the only word I can use to describe my experience in the Iliff Chapel on Wednesday is “evangelical”.

The journey has been long, at times painful, and mostly liberating. It’s becoming a more common story, that of people leaving evangelicalism. But leaving that worship experience on Wednesday, I’m not so certain I left evangelicalism eight years ago. I may have just finally found it.