United Methodist

My Struggle with God and Gender Inclusive Language

Seven years ago I went through a an interview with the the Board of Ordained Ministry pictogram-884043_960_720for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Though it was a cakewalk compared to ordination or commissioning interviews (this was for licensure), it was the hardest interview of my life. I walked away uncertain as ever as to what was happening, and the church to which the Bishop intended to appoint me as Associate Pastor depended on a positive outcome. About a week later my District Superintendent Called me to let me know that I had been approved and all was well to move forward with the appointment. Except for one important note. He said that it would be important for me to make an aggressive and intentional effort at using “Inclusive Language”.

There was one problem: I didn’t know what exactly that meant. I thought it meant not preaching “turn or burn in eternal hell-fire”  kinds of theology, so I thought I was good. I asked if he could clarify for me, and he said, “Well, you speak and write about God as a male exclusively. You’ll want to learn to be more inclusive with your language.”

“Ohhhhh. Well, that makes more sense.”

Side note: There are a whole host of people entering into ministry who have never even heard the phrase “inclusive language”. There are many well intended people getting dinged in board of ordained ministry and district committee interviews for not being inclusive, while they are simply have never had anyone even introduce the idea. Often they need to be taught, not shamed. But that’s not what I want to get to here.

What I want to get to is the wild, spinning, uncertain, clunky, hard, wonderful, and beautiful journey I entered as I began to embrace this. You see, though my language did indeed describe God as exclusively male (104 male pronouns for God in a three page paper- yeah, I went back and counted), in no way did I actually believe that God is exclusively male. But you wouldn’t know it from my language. So I began this journey of having to learn a new language. It was difficult. Physically difficult. I had to restructure the way I formed sentences, I found myself using the passive voice a lot (which I didn’t like), and public speaking (something which had always been easy for me) became much more labored.

But something beautiful also happened. God got bigger. A lot bigger. Now that I was intentional about my language, I was also growing intentional about my imagination. I began to imagine God not only as Father, but also as Mother. I had no idea what I had been missing. God and the world began to break wide open for me, as did gender. I grew more intentional about finding women and girls to lead in various contexts, my views of sexuality both broadened and sharpened, my views on maleness and male privilege birthed, and even the scriptures began to become more alive for me. Within about a year (maybe less) I became not only a practitioner, but an advocate of inclusive language.

Except there’s one problem. Seven years later I find myself in a deep internal struggle with how inclusive language has been practiced (both by me and many in my context) and pushed. I believe what we call “gender inclusive language” is not we practice. What we’ve actually been practicing is gender exclusive language. We are not actually including gender when talking about God, but we are stripping gender from away God. The common theological sentiment is that “God has no gender”. While there is a way in which this is true, there is also a way in which this is false, and what I’ve come to realize is that the ramifications of this stripping away of gender are not merely theological and academic; they are also spiritual. I’ve begun to lose something deeply important in my spirituality- in the way I relate to God.

I had a minor crises of faith over the last week realizing that I’ve lost a sense of intimacy with God over the last seven years. A huge part of that has little to nothing to do with “inclusive language”, but there is also a big part of it that is directly connected to adopting what I will from here on out call “gender exclusive language”. God has indeed gotten bigger for me, and that is a good and beautiful thing, but as God has gotten bigger, God has also gotten unsmaller (yeah, spellcheck doesn’t like that one but I do). God has become distant, amorphous, intangible, even to a certain degree scary- not scary like “Imma squash you like a bug” scary, but scary like “first day of college with an intimidating prof” scary. There is a real sense of intimacy I’ve lost in my relationship with God.

Before I continue, let me clear about two things: When God was functionally and linguistically exclusively male for me, though I did have a certain intimacy, there was an deeper intimacy I was missing, by never imagining the feminine face of God. In no way do I want to go back to that. Not at all. Also, let me also recognize this: As a man who has never had any real physical, sexual, or emotional issues with a man- specifically a father- I hear why male imagery, and especially the father image, are ones to which some simply cannot move. I want to be sensitive to those cases, and confess that it’s something about which I simply know little to nothing.

But I do think we need to find a way to be truly gender inclusive. First of all, for those of us who have been actually practicing gender exclusive language, I think we need to think more seriously about releasing the gender-less God, and begin embracing what I once heard a pastor describe as a gender-full God. And this is a pretty simple theological move, really. Genesis 1:27 tells us that the very image of God is male and female: “God created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God [God] created them; male and female [God] created them.” The first and direct description that we get in the Bible of the image of God- of God’s likeness- is gendered. And for many this has been easy for centuries: “God has gender, so God’s a dude.” No. It says “male and female” not “male or female” (more on this in a minute). So let’s embrace the gender-full God.

Next we need to begin to get more active and bold about recognizing and naming the feminine face of God. This can’t be merely theological. It needs to be practical. Long before there is ever an image of God as father in the Scriptures there is one of a mother. I would argue that this image comes as early as in the Bible’s second verse: “…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). It is out of the waters of God’s womb
 that the universe is birthed. Later in the Scriptures (much later) Jesus is talking with a religious leader called Nicodemus and talks about the need for us to be “born from above” (or “born again”, if you like) and “born of the Spirit”. Beloved, God gives birth to things. I think it’s okay for us to call her our Mother. Let’s do this. Let’s do it a lot. God our Mother is far too buried in the depths of our linguistic practices. Let’s get her out.

So… for those of you who, like me, have had God as “he” and “father” engrained into you and in it you find great intimacy and connection to God (I get that, I really do), stop freaking out when we paraphrase Genesis 1 with things like “Male and female she created them” (more on this in a minute… wait for it.). And stop freaking out if I decide to shift the doxology to “Praise God from whom all blessings flow/ Praise God all creatures here below/ Praise God above ye heavenly host/ Praise Mother, Son and Holy Ghost”. Open up your mind, open up your heart, and open up your ears to a God who is not like a mother, but God is our Mother. She gave birth to the universe, in her you were born from above, and it is from her breast that we are nursed to life and strength and vitality and a whole lot more.

But here’s the thing. Though we need to be sensitive to the ways in which intimacy with a male is a justifiably terrifying image for many, we need to find a way to also embrace the maleness of God. This is where it gets less theological and more personal for me, and where this all ties in to my minor crisis this week. There were a lot problems with my initial conversion to Christianity, but there was also a lot of beauty in it, not the least of which is that it was real and it stuck. Something real happened to me that I’ve tried throwing away and I can’t. A big part of my initial intimacy with this crazy God in whom I believe and have given my life and livelihood is the image of God as “Father”.

At my church we’re working through the Sermon on the Mount, and this week we started chapter six. This is the part where three times in an 18 verse span Jesus says “your father who sees in secret” (Mathew 6:4, 6 & 18). These verses haunted me this week. There is a lot at work here, but part of it is that these verses took me back to my early Christian days when God’s presence in my life was as close, as intimate, and as clear as the air I breathe. Maybe some of it was having a literal father who lived 1,000+ away most of life, but my birthing years as a Christian (though very motherly in that sense and many more) were also of me spending deeply intimate moment with the Father.

Oh sure, it’s all very “Field of Dreams”, but there’s a reason so many of us cry at that movie. Since I’ve practiced gender exclusive language I feel today like I walked away from my Father. I didn’t realize it until this week, but as these verses from the wanna-have-a-catch1Sermon on the Mount haunted me, I realized that part of the lack of intimacy with God in my life these days (can a pastor say that?) is due to stepping away from the image of God as Father. And, quite honestly, more than anything right now, I just wanna have a catch. I miss it. While there is a part of me that has grown in beautiful ways in my relationship with God since become more aware of the ways I gender God, there is also a vital piece of my spirituality that is dying because of the practice that has come out of this awareness.

In all of this I realized that while we need to be careful and sensitive with gendered images for God, we also need to be careful not to abandon them all together, and, perhaps more importantly, not demand that others do. God is, in a very real way, gendered, and when we strip God of gender, I think we take something essential from God. There is a way in which God surpasses gender- that God is something wholly other- but there is also a way in which God is right here giving us birth, nurturing us, feeding us, and having a catch with us. And in this God functions with us in whatever tangible, intimate, and human ways give each of us life. To lose this is to lose a necessary intimacy with God that gives our faith a certain and essential honesty.

The problem I find we run into is this issue with those darn pronouns, isn’t it? Our English pronouns are limited to be either specifically gendered or gender neutral. So the tendency to be inclusive is to go neutral (which we can only do in the plural), but this brings us right back to functionally (if not intentionally) stripping us of a gender-full God.

I want to offer two solutions. One, why can’t we just mix up the pronouns? Let’s not go maniacal and start doing word counts on our sermon manuscripts to make sure there’s perfect equity, but let’s mix it up. I’ll be honest, after sever years of avoiding pronouns, I’m starving for one; not just because it offers more linguistic opportunity, but I find pronouns (though admittedly limiting) are more intimate than saying “God” 18 million times and using terms I’ve never been able to embrace like “Godself” (I know it works for some, but I’ve tried it on and it just doesn’t fit for me). But we have to actually mix it up. We must embrace a gender-full, and not a gender-specific nor genderless God.

My other solution I’ve only come to since my views on sexuality and gender identity have broadened. God is gender-full, and I am beginning to wonder if God is in this sense  genderqueer. “Female and male” God created us to reflect the likeness and image of God. God is not exclusively male, nor is God exclusively female. God is gender-full perhaps in the most full and beautiful way possible. We are born out her womb and also nestle up into his breast (John 1:18). What if we embraced a genderqueer God? That is, a God who is not genderless but truly full of gender? This is, after all, a bigger and broader God than one entirely stripped of Gender.

And what if the pronoun is, as many genderqueer people prefer, “they”. What does Genesis even say but “let US make humankind in OUR image”. Why, then didn’t the writers of Genesis follow this with “So God created humankind in their image, in the image of God they created them; male and female they created them.” Yes, it may sound polytheistic, but it does so no more than “let us make humankind in our image” and I haven’t seen anyone challenge that. “They” is admittedly gender neutral in some senses, but in a genderqueer context, it seems to me that it is more gender-full than neutral.

All of this is to say this: Let’s not rob ourselves of a certain kind of intimacy with God by stripping Them of gender. Let’s also be graceful and generous with one another in our language about God, but also let’s allow ourselves to push each other by broadening and stretching, not restricting, our language about, to, and with God. Let’s break the mold wide open and give this wild, crazy, beautiful God the kind of intimate moments that we have with one another: Moments of laughter, and tears, and anger, and fear, and comfort, and struggle, and love, and peace, and home.

I love God my Father. And I love God my Mother. And I want them both. I need them both. As someone who grew up in a home where mom and dad did not get along and could no longer stay together, I guess maybe I need a God where male and female are inseparably held together in a beautifully queer and life-giving way.

Help me out with this one. I think we need to talk about it more. I think we all need some pushing and stretching in this. Let’s not lock ourselves in. Let’s ride the crazy ride of exploring this endless, beautiful God.

Peace, friends.

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.

Has Confirmation Lost Its Way?

Schoolchildren bored in a classroom, during lesson.

Confirmation is a beautiful and right idea, but I wonder if it has lost its way in the United Methodist Church. At its very root it is about confirming one’s baptism. When you’re a baby, your parents put white clothes on you (probably), and bring you to a church where you stand awkwardly before some pastor who asks you a series of very odd (almost Harry Potter like) questions. Then they hand you to the pastor who holds you near what one child in my congregation affectionally referred to as a “baptism bucket”, and proceeds to pour, drip or drizzle water on you and says something to the effect of “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Then people dote on you for a little while and you go and have brunch. That’s it. Done. Whether you like it or not, at this moment you become a connected to the community of faith and the community of faith becomes connected to you by committing to raise you as a disciple of Jesus. You have no choice in this matter what so ever. And it’s beautiful. It says, among other things, “God is working in you, and you belong here” before you even realize that you do. You have no say in the matter.

That is, until some point in your early adolescent days. You’re trying to figure out who you are, who your friends are, and what this world is all about, and suddenly this thing called “confirmation” pops up. Depending on the church it’s a 1, 2, or 3 year program designed to help you “confirm” your baptism. That is, it is now time for you to have some choice in the matter. Do you want to be a member of this community of faith? More often than not, the answer is yes.
So at some time in the Spring (and these days more and more in the Fall), upon finishing the confirmation class, however long it is, you head back to church, all dressed up. This time without your parents you stand independently before a pastor (sometimes even the same 2944861-hogwartspastor), and that pastor asks you the same Hogwartsian questions your parents were asked when they dragged you in there in that white outfit you wore only that one time in your life: “Do you, Harry Potter, renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness in this world…” and so on and so forth. You say “I do” and “I will” and such and such, and then the pastor and some other folk (depends on the church) put their hands on you, say some words, and, boom, you’re confirmed. Check! Then you never go to church again.

I’ve been leading and co-leading confirmation programs for 19 years. I’ve done it in a variety of forms, and in every one, for various reasons, there’s something missing. Something really important. Something, perhaps, more important than anything else. And something with which I’ve been wrestling for 19 years. This will be my 20th confirmation/baptism class and it’s time for me to rethink this whole thing.

Confirmation, remember, is about confirming your baptism- confirming what was said for you on your behalf when you could not speak or choose for yourself (which is why it is logically absurd to baptize a student and then immediately confirm them. A student who chooses to be baptized does not need to be confirmed, and it sends a bad theological and liturgical IMG_5945message when we do. Phew- got that off my chest- feel better now). So if confirmation is about confirming your baptism, it follows, then, that confirmation is about baptism. It is about the same thing baptism is about. And in the United Methodist Church (as I understand it, anyway- I’m no UMC theology and polity expert) one of the, if not the, primary components to baptism is the joining and committing to the community of faith. The baptismal candidate commits to being a full participant in the community of faith’s method (there’s a reason we’re “methodists”) of discipleship, and the community of faith commits to growing and nurturing that candidate in her discipleship. This is why we UMC pastors are discouraged from doing private baptisms. It’s about participation in the community. The community needs to be there!

Because baptism is about being a full participant in the community of faith, so is confirmation. And here’s where our problem is. What do we do?

We set up a wholly separate program for a specific age group wherein they rarely participate in the life of the community because all they have time for in their busy schedule is the wholly separate program that we set up. And the reason we do that is that there is so much we need to teach our students about the faith so that they can participate in it. Now let’s think about for a minute:

First, why would we expect our students to be full participants in the community of faith, when the very program we’ve designed to help them do that mostly separates them from the community of the faith and has an end date? We may have expectations that they participate in worship, and we may have a mentor of some kind for them, but those are generally secondary to being a part of that class we set up. Why are we surprised when our confirmands “disappear” after confirmation? We separated them from the community in the very program that’s supposed to teach them about being a part of the community!

Second, just think on this again: We set up a 1-3 year program to teach our students what it means to be a participant in the community of faith. Just let that in: We need to set up a separate program to teach our students what it means to be a disciple in a denomination whose very mission statement is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. What has happened to the church that we are not already doing this? We shouldn’t need to teach our students this. They should already be doing it!

Our confirmation programs usually consist of things like teaching our students about the Bible, what it is, what is not, how it’s structured, etc. We teach them about the Trinity. We teach them about Jesus more in depth (short changing the Holy Spirit, per usual). We teach them about the early church, we teach them about God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and God’s grace.

What are we doing that we’re not doing this in our ministry to children and youth to the extent that we need to set up a separate program from our regular ministries for our teenagers to do it? And we do so by holding a certificate hostage that their parents desperately want/need on their students’ graduation open house table. At risk of hurting some feelings (I just think we need to name the problem), I believe that the fact that we need a separate class to teach our young people what it means to be a disciple is an indictment on the church’s abject failure to live out its mission with young people. We shouldn’t need a separate class from their regular large and small gathered communities to teach young people about being a disciple. We should just make disciples. We need to do a better of job calling our people of all ages to a life of prayer, searching the scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and acts of service all in the context of the large gathered community and (no “or”) small gathered communities.

What this means for our teenagers is that our youth groups and our worship contexts should be enough to teach them what it means to be a full participant in the community of faith. And those programs (and, yes, worship is a program too) should be enough because they should be disciple forming programs. What our confirmation “programs” should be is the calling of a deep commitment to these methods of discipleship that are centered on prayer, searching the scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and acts of service in large and small gathered communities. It should be a 1,2 or 3 year commitment to discipleship in the community of faith, but not its own program that ends after 1, 2 or 3 years. We should be calling them to a commitment to our respective ongoing discipleship processes.

And hear this: This is not on our youth ministers, children’s ministers, and Sunday school teachers. This is on pastors like me. It is our job to set up methods of discipleship that enable the entire community- including our students- to become full participants in AAEAAQAAAAAAAATPAAAAJDNlMDIwMTg0LThjODgtNGMyNi04YWZlLWZkMDMyMjE5NzVhMwthe community. But when our worship services are done in a language that alienates them, and when we don’t make room for them in leadership, and when we demand that our youth pastor “grow the program” through mere fun and games and glitz and glamour, we fail to implement adequate discipleship methods for our young people. We need “entry points”, but we fail to disciple our young people when their weekly core gathering lacks discipleship methods. I would rather my youth group be small and make disciples, than be the hot spot in town for teenagers to play foosball (that being said, there’s nothing wrong with foosball in a youth room!). Furthermore, the reason we need “entry points” into youth ministry is that we as pastors too often fall short of discipling their parents that we hang our hopes on our children’s and youth ministers to draw and reach new families. The entry point to the church should not be children and youth ministry. It should be parents bringing their kids with them because a friend, neighbor or family member has come so alive in their own spirituality through the ministry of the church that they can’t shut up about it and invite them.

So that’s what we’re thinking about at Aldersgate UMC this year. Our namesake makes a claim for us that we want to be a place where hearts are strangely warmed. That is, we want to be a place of spiritual vitality, and as Methodists, we believe there is a method to spiritual vitality. So for confirmation, we are going to call our young people to our discipleship process. We are going to call them to commit to their youth group, which will be a place of prayer, searching the scriptures, and acts of service. And we call them to participate in and lead worship, which will be a place of prayer, searching the scriptures and the Lord’s supper. And as they approach confirmation Sunday, we will call them away for one weekend retreat to tie it all together and call them to reflect on whether this life is a life they want to commit to for the rest of their lives. And then when confirmation Sunday comes, those who so choose and have been baptized before will kneel, we will lay hands on them, and we will celebrate their commitment to being a disciple of Jesus as set forth for them by their parents having them baptized. And those who have not been baptized, will kneel and will likewise simply be baptized (and not confirmed because their baptism will be their confirmation!).

There’s risk in it. What if they don’t choose to be confirmed? Well, that should be the caseunspecified
in any confirmation system. And what if there are too many distractions on Wednesday to adequately teach them the core tenets of the faith? Well, when Jesus told us to go and make disciples he didn’t say “teach them everything I’ve commanded”, but he said “teach them to obey everything I’ve commanded.”Jesus didn’t teach students in a classroom. He apprenticed disciples in the world. I don’t know if it will work, but if I’m honest, I don’t think what we’ve been doing has been working.

And so I wonder… I wonder if those students who stick with the commitment to engage in the community of faith, just might stick around after confirmation Sunday. Because “confirmation” will not have ended, because discipleship will not have ended. I don’t know if it will work. But it might. So let’s stop isolating confirmation. And let’s do our busy families a favor but setting up simple but meaningful methods of discipleship for all age groups, and in so doing, let’s get back to being who we say we are: Methodists. Define the method, then call everyone to it, and celebrate those who find renewed vitality through it. There is no need for anything else.

 

#ItsTime (To Do Away With “I Think So”)

aircraft-537963_960_720It’s been a whirlwind of a month for the United Methodist Church. Our General Conference convened and adjourned and nothing changed in regards to our position on matters of human sexuality. Our position remains as one that excludes the LGBTQ community from full inclusion in our denomination, but this leaves many of our churches in a curious position.

From my experience at least in our conference, most of our local churches do not have clarity on where they stand on matters of human sexuality. They know that the denomination has been debating it for decades, and they know that the culture in which they exist is seeing significant shifts, and the combination of the two has created a lack of clarity for many local churches. From my experience we have largely avoided talking about and coming to any clarity on matters of human sexuality because doing so may “blow up the church”. But what if the church is already crashing?

As the future of the UMC is uncertain, I, an appointed clergy person charged with shepherding a local congregation am left asking, “but what about my church?” As I was watching General Conference proceedings a couple weeks ago my 13 year old son asked me what I was watching. I told what it was and what they were debating and his response was “they’re arguing about that? That’s dumb.” He then asked me if his gay friends were welcome and safe in our church. The best answer I could give him, “I think so.”

In the span of 40 years of debate, another 2-4 isn’t much, but to a 13 year old, it’s an entire season of life. Today’s teenagers are living in a world where a certain degree of inclusion is assumed in most institutions, and I think our local churches owe the LGBTQ community the truth about where we stand. Sure, the denomination is in some limbo, but the local church doesn’t have to be. Local churches have been in a holding pattern, waiting for the denomination to tell us where to land, and our planes are running out of gas, or perhaps already have and we’re coasting on fumes. We’ve got to land somewhere soon.

I believe a lack of clarity on matters of human sexuality is symptomatic of a lack of theological, missiological, and ecclesial identity in the local church, and that lack of clarity impacts our ability to grow in spiritual vitality and reach new people. We cannot wait 2-4 years to gain clarity on which new people we will reach and how we will reach them. These matters of human sexuality are not an isolated issue. Our view of Scripture, our ecclesiology, and our entire ways of being the gathered and scattered community are wrapped up in them, and because of that, we simply cannot wait to start to have the crucial conversations about where we’re at as local congregations.

How we do that? I’m not an entirely sure, and I know I need wisdom in how to do so, but what I am certain about is that I believe in the power of the local church above all else. Our conferences and our denomination are only as strong as the local church that makes them up, and the local church is getting lost in the debate. So we can debate General Conference proceedings, and we can argue in our Annual Conferences about all kinds of global and national issues all day long, but until the local church gains clarity about who it is, it will not rise to renewed vitality and the trajectory the denomination as a whole has been on for decades will not change.

Yes, the denomination will still have limits placed on us as clergy in what we can and cannot do, but I believe we must step into what can do. It’s scary waters for me. I don’t want to blow up my church! I love my church! I really do. I’m one lucky guy to be appointed where I am. But I’m tired of circling, and I’m not sure how much longer we can do it. I am beginning to believe that we as pastors of local churches need to step into those scary waters. Let’s take the lead in bringing some of our own clarity. Is it possible that this what our bishops appointed us to do anyway? What are we waiting for? We may not be able to get all the answers, but we can get more than we have now.

The time for clarity at the local church level is now. “I think so” is no longer an acceptable response. I do not want to advocate for polarizing us further, but I do believe that churches that have clarity on matters of human sexuality (like our Reconciling congregations) are a step ahead of the rest of us. They know who they are. There’s no question about who is called to be a participant in God’s mission. And the same goes for our more conservative congregations. They know who they are, and if my 13 year old son asks them if his gay friends are welcome and safe there, he will get a much more clear answer than “I think so.”

My Journey to No (4 Years Later)

brick-wall1In 2012 I wrote the following post leading up to the marriage amendment vote in the Minnesota election. What I didn’t know when I wrote this was that about 18 months after writing it, I would be co-officiating the marriage ceremony for the couple referenced in this post- one of my most powerful moments as a pastor. I will never forget the moment when the couple signed that license, and the Episcopalian priest with whom I shared the ceremony held up that license in the same way that Michael Jordan pumped his fist after a clutch jumper in game one of 1997 NBA Finals.

Well here we are, four years later and my denomination still opposes such a marriage. Today the General Conference will convene in Portland, Oregon, and, among other things, there will debate about the United Method Church’s stance policies regarding LGBTQI marriage, ordination and other matters. I am hopeful, but not anticipating, that something will change, for, as I said to the couple referred to in the following post when Minnesota eventually did legalize gay marriage, “we made it legal; now we gotta make it holy.” Well, it already is holy; we just haven’t realized it yet. Come, Holy Spirit, come.

With that, some of it is maybe not how I would say it today (we’re all on a journey), but here’s what I wrote in 2012:

Let me begin by saying that this is a story about my journey. It reflects my journey, my thoughts, and who I am. It is not a reflection of, nor do I claim to speak for, my denomination, my annual conference or  the local community to which I am appointed. This is where I am. My purpose in writing this is mostly for me. There is an aching inside of me to say something in order to, one, get it down “on paper” for my own good, but I do also feel compelled share my thoughts. I am not trying to persuade anyone, as much as I feel a need to “come clean” with my thoughts, which differ from earlier thinking about which I was public in my past. Out of fear of losing theological respect for some whom I love dearly, I have merely hinted at my thoughts lately but have yet to come right out to say them. To my current congregation, let me also just say that it is okay to disagree with me. Your views, voice, and opinions are no less valid than mine. Let’s look at this, talk about it, and maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. That being said, here is “My Journey to No”.

I was brought up to be a good agnostic, and I mean that in the best sense of the term. I was brought up to be very careful not to subscribe to any dogma of any degree; to question everything, think critically, and be comfortable with the idea that when it comes to things spiritual in particular, none of us really “know”. We are all, to some degree, agnostics. This does not mean, however, that I was brought up in a context void of values, morals and even truths. Prejudice of any kind was not allowed in my home. Respect for “neighbor” in the most literal and most broad senses of the term, no matter who they happened to be or what they happened to believe, was an expectation. And an adherence to the rules and laws of my context was expected. That is, I was to go to school and do my best, obey the law to fullest extent, and honor and respect the rules of the home (curfew, chores, etc.). Beyond that, I was largely free to think for myself. I appreciated this upbringing.

Because of this upbringing and the predominate thinking in South Minneapolis, I grew up very open to any form of law abiding religion, sexuality, and lifestyle. While I indeed held these beliefs, as a teenager I cared more about sports and movies than I did about who was elected and what might be on a ballot. But then something happened. Somehow, what I believe now to be, the Spirit of God got a hold of me, and I became enamored with the Bible and with the person of Jesus Christ. After much resistance, I found myself at 17 years old literally on my knees choosing to live my life in the character and nature of Christ. But not even knowing my way around a Bible, I needed guidance. And I found guidance in a community of faith that loved me well, but also had a certain dogma about it that left little room for varying opinions and perspectives; a stark contrast to my upbringing. This forced me to begin thinking through social, political and religious issues more. I remember, as though it happened yesterday, driving near Park Ave UMC in South Minneapolis with my youth pastor asking him the tough questions about why homosexuality was a sin. The crux of the answer I received then, and which I received from most of my Christian leaders was this: “The Bible is pretty clear, whether we like it or not”.

The more I grew in my faith and the more I studied the Bible in this context, the more it appeared to be true. This was something I was just going to have to learn to accept. Overtime, I wrestled greatly internally while becoming cognitively convinced that homosexuality is indeed a sin and a lifestyle which is “incompatible with Christian teaching” (as the United Methodist Book of discipline states). It was also clear, however, that as Christians, we are called to love. So the old adage, “hate the sin, love the sinner” became the crux of my belief, although I always hated the trite, condescending phrase.

Since then I have shifted, and today I, like you, am faced with a question on our ballot asking for a “yes” or “no” vote on whether our state’s constitution should embrace a biblically rooted definition of what marriage is. Even though the Minnesota ballot will be specific to a constitutional amendment defining marriage, at its roots, this is a biblical issue. The frustrating thing for many people in our culture is that they don’t care what the Bible says, and, quite honestly, why should they? It would be grossly unconstitutional to tell them they have to care, so I hear and feel they’re frustration with this whole thing. But for many people in our culture today, the words of the Bible are still very important, myself included. What’s tricky about this is that while the Bible should not be banned from the marketplace of ideas that inform legislation, the Bible should not be the litmus test for legislation either. “The Bible tells me so” is good thinking when we are talking about church politics and legislation, but by itself it is dangerous thinking when talking about matters of the state. The rationale behind a constitutional definition of marriage (or any matter of the state) must go beyond “the Bible tells me so”. When talking about matters of the state, I believe the Bible (as well as sacred texts from any number of other faiths) should have a seat at the table, but none of them at the head. What makes America great, is that all sources of ideas are welcome, but none takes ultimate authority.

That being said, this amendment is forcing Christians throughout the state to wrestle with their biblical definitions of marriage. And those definitions should factor into your vote. YOUR vote. But I would challenge Christians to think for a minute about what you are doing when the only rationale for a constitutional amendment is The Bible. This is okay in church world. But our state is not church world. You have to accept that for those who don’t subscribe to the Bible’s ideas as we do, its definition of marriage (whatever it may be) means nothing to them. I have heard people say that without this amendment one judge could have the power to impose gay marriage on me. This makes no sense. One judge could have the power to determine whether gay marriage is legal or not, but no one will ever force you to enter into a gay marriage, nor can any one force you to officiate one. As clergy, we already reserve the right not to marry a couple if we don’t want to. And our polities already have limits on marriage that the state does not. My denomination requires premarital counseling. The state does not. So no one is taking anything from you nor forcing anything upon you. On the flip side, however, something is already denied GLBT persons, and this amendment would only make that denial stronger. The only people who have anything to lose here are those in the GLBT community. If this amendment does not pass, the GLBT community still loses, they just lose less. The only imposition that can come out of this is a biblical interpretation being imposed upon those who don’t subscribe to it [cue Thomas Jefferson rolling over in his grave]. Even if I agree with this as a biblical definition of marriage (more on that later), I still would vote “no” on this amendment, because I believe it to be unconstitutional to impose a biblical idea on some one who does not believe that the Bible is nothing more than ink on paper. I am not saying that biblical ideology has no seat at the table. It does, but it must be balanced with all the other seats at the table as well. Were there a rationale for voting “yes” beyond one specific biblical ideology, I might listen to it, but I have yet to hear one, nor do I believe a viable one exists.

While I shifted on the legal and civic aspects of this amendment, the truth is, I have shifted biblically as well. And this was the hardest shift of all for me, but also the most important and formational one. I fear that with what I am about to say, I will lose credibility with many people I hold dear, but I have come to a point where it must be said. While one can biblically defend not just banning gay marriage but believing homosexuality to be a lifestyle “incompatible with Christian teaching”, I have come see that there is also biblical support on the contrary. I am not a theologian or a scholar, but I am a man deeply influenced by The Bible and the power of the Holy Spirit within it. And like I said, this is my journey, not THE journey. So I am going to forgo a well argued biblical treatise on this. There are plenty of books and sermons out there that would do, and have done, a much a better job of that than I. What I want to do is explain how I look at this biblically in the context of what I believe to be the work of the Spirit of God in my life.

It comes down to the deep dark secret that many Christians are afraid to admit, but cannot be denied: The Bible is messy. More specifically, it is messy because we treat it as a “manual for life” or as “basic instructions before leaving earth”. If we read it this way, we are in deep trouble because it will contradict itself. The Bible is not “a manual for life”. Manuals get thrown in a drawer and are only taken out when there is a problem. The Bible is the story of God and God’s people, and it is a messy story. A really good, complicated, beautiful, messy story, that stays not in a drawer, but on a shelf and, like any good story, is read over and over and over. This does not mean that the Bible is fictional and therefore meaningless, but it means that we must be very careful how we use it. It is in its messiness that I have come to see that it can be used to defend either end of just about any debate. So what I have found myself doing over the last 5-7 years is stepping back and asking myself, “what’s the big story here?” And I have come to see that, as a Christian, the heart of the big story is in the Gospels. And when I look at the life of Jesus, I see a man whose work and ministry was centered around breaking the Kingdom of God wide open. He is constantly bringing those who are on the outside to the inside, and cunningly forcing those who are on the inside to self select to the outside. At the story’s peak, Jesus breaks the concept of outside and inside down completely, as he dies and the curtain around the Holy of Holies tears in two. The walls have come down. This does not mean that any and all behavior is now acceptable. But it does mean that the Spirit of God is now boldly accessible to all, and therefore all are invited into a life immersed in (that is baptized in) the Spirit of God.

In the big story, Jesus then ascends to heaven and soon leaves us, as he promised, the power of the Holy Spirit, which comes upon the disciples in two different stories (John 20 and Acts 2). As I understand it, the mark of a Christian, then, is evidenced by those who appear to be living “by the spirit”. So what does that mean? To live “by the spirit” means that the fruit of your life will be the fruit of the Spirit, which we know to be “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity (or goodness in some translations), faithfulness, gentleness and self control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Therefore it follows that when you see those attributes in a person naturally flow out of who that person is, from a Christian perspective, you are seeing the work of the Spirit in that person’s life. For a long time I believed that a gay person could not fully be a Christian. They might claim it, but I believed there was something at the core of their identity keeping them from the fullness of the Spirit in their lives. This, of course, then begged the question, “so what happens if you see the fruit of the spirit in a gay person or any person deemed an outsider?” When we step back from Levitical law and look at Gospel fruit, we begin to see the work of the spirit in places we never thought it existed. And that’s what I saw.

This is not a “and then I met a gay person” story. I’ve known, interacted with and been friends with gay people for as long as I can remember, and I have counseled students who were gay as well. So it’s not as though it took meeting a gay person to form me in this way. But it was through a gay couple in my life, among a whole host of other things, that the Spirit of God formed me. An old friend came out many years ago, and while this did not necessarily surprise me, it did force me to think more deeply about how I would respond. I remember telling him that I loved him, but that I just disagreed with this lifestyle choice. I did not see then just how hurtful and impossible those words likely were as I do now. How this person and his partner stayed friends with me, I will never know. Furthermore, how they continued to love me, I will never know. As the years rolled on, what I began to see pouring out of this couple, not just toward me, but in every facet of their lives was a deep and authentic faith that produced the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. They are all there. Yet in me I saw judgement, anxiety, and fear. They returned my hate and judgement with love and acceptance, the most Christ-like thing a person could do. It was not a well crafted treatise, article or sermon that changed me (although they did play roles), but the authentic, fearless and undeserving love of a friend. We cannot ignore the significance of the fruit of the spirit in those we place on the spiritual margins of our faith.

The Bible says a lot of things, and is a messy book, but its big story is a beautiful one. It is a God doing what it takes to be reconciled to God’s creation. All of it. And this reconciliation is not a mental ascent to a doctrine. Jesus said, “you will know them by their fruit”, not by what they say, how they do church, what they do or don’t do on Saturday night, or whom they love. It’s time to tear down the walls and embrace a welcoming God. It’s been God’s agenda from the very beginning. And so on november 6th, I will be voting “no”, because I want my Christ-like friends to one day be able to enjoy the same benefits and rights as a married person that I do, and even more so, I want them to enjoy the same beauty and holiness in a Christian ceremony that I enjoyed 15 years ago. Many of you will, no doubt, come to me with compelling biblical arguments opposing my views, and that’s ok. I get it. I’m sure my hermeneutic is flawed, my exegesis is lacking, my eschatology is incomplete, and my Christology is low, but this is what’s in me. Me, a Bible-loving, Christ-seeking, hopefully Kingdom-expanding man, trying to do his best to authentically embody the character and nature of Christ in the way he lives. So, yes, I will be voting “no”, and what I have said above is why.

In closing, as we go to the polls on November 6th, let’s all, especially those people called “methodists” remember these great words, above all else:

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, one, to vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy; Two, to speak no evil of the person they voted against; and three, to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side” -John Wesley, October 6, 1774