UMC

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.

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.

 

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