Christmas Ruins Advent

Waiting is a dirty word, at least to the ears of most Christians (in America). After all, we are a people of action. We are not comfortable to sit idly by while something could be taken care of. In the world of United Methodism, this is inherently part of our DNA as John Wesley is the one who first said, “Never leave anything till tomorrow, which you can do today. And do it as well as possible.”

It is therefore strange and uncomfortable to arrive at church during the Advent season to hear all about the virtues of waiting.

BFFF9D60-A4DA-46D2-A1A7-3DF022255F83

In many ways we blindly stagger toward the word of waiting with connections to waiting to open what is under the tree more than waiting on Jesus. It functions as a trite and helpful little analogy that resonates with parents and children alike. And so long as we’re all patient, we’ll get that for which we hope on Christmas morning.

But, if we’re honest with ourselves, none of us want to wait around for anything, let alone presents, the birth of the Savior, or his promised return.

Or, to put it another way, if God isn’t going to bring us the kingdom, we’ll bring it ourselves. That’s the American way.

In his sermon “Waiting” from Minding the Web Stanley Hauerwas laments our inability to wait during a season all about waiting:

“Advent is a time, and time is at the heart of what it means for us to be a people who have learned to wait. Therefore at Advent, we think it important to at least act as if we are waiting… we play at being Jews for a few weeks, but we do so as if we are in a drama with designated roles for us to play. However, once the play is over, we have no reason to play the roles associated with waiting.”

There’s a reason that many in the mainline church avoid the early Pauline corpus in worship – it’s too apocalyptic. All that talk of Jesus returning again sounds like what people in crazy churches talk about. We are far more sensible. We are helping people become better people. We are taking care of business. 

And we do so because we have been habituated this way. Our bodies and our minds are shaped by practices and rituals that start to form us such that we no longer know how we wound up this way. Pay attention the next time you’re in church, notice how many times you hear the words “should” and “ought” and “must.” The church today has taken upon itself the burden of responsibility and habituates it into the people through the words and practices of worship that leave us feeling like we have to do something no matter what that something might be.

Consider how we treat the presents under the tree as children (and to some degree as adults). We were once encouraged to ask for particular things from Santa, or from friends and family, all under the auspices of possibly receiving those very gifts so long as we behaved accordingly. This is all the more relevant today with the meteoric popularity of the “Elf on the Shelf.” We are always making new ledgers to keep others in line.

But part of the message of the Gospel is that God has thrown out the ledger books forever! As Paul wrote, “And when you were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2)

The songs we sing (He’s making a list, checking it twice) and the traditions we practice (Elves hiding on shelves) form us into people who are afraid that our behavior will remove blessings (presents) from our lives. And for as much as we’d like to consider ourselves beyond these silly theological ramblings as adults – habits formed in childhood are very hard to break.

Which leaves us far more comfortable with waiting for a baby in a manger who appears innocuous and unable to judge us, than waiting for the Son of Man who comes to judge both the living and the dead. For, we know in our heart of hearts, we’ve done things for which we should rightly be judged.

We no longer know how to wait. We want to skip to Easter Sunday without having to confront Good Friday and we want Christmas without Advent. And yet all of them, both the comfortable and the uncomfortable, point us to something beyond ourselves: The judged judged has come to be judged in our place. Jesus’ crucifixion, made possible by his incarnation, has accomplished that for which it was purposed. 

Hauerwas puts it this way: “Jesus’ crucifixion rattled the very constitution of the universe because death could not hold him. Three days later he is raised. He walks with two former followers on the road to Emmaus, teaching them how to read Scripture. Such instruction was required, because they found it difficult to understand how the one to liberate Israel could end up on a cross.” 

Today, it seems we are a people who find it difficult to believe that God would choose to die for us. We’d rather hear about all the things we can do to earn God’s favor than to believe that God favors us regardless of our behavior. 

We are not particularly good at waiting because we want to take matters into our own hands. And yet part of the message of Advent is that if it were all up to us, we would fail. We need a savior who can come and do for us what we could not do for ourselves. In the end the only thing we have to do is wait, because the rest is up to God. 

Liturgy of Thanksgiving

Devotional:

John 6.35

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Weekly Devotional Image

The older I become the more complicated Thanksgiving feels.

When I was a kid Thanksgiving was marked by plates upon plates of food, eavesdropping on grownup conversations, and running around in the cold until a responsible adult beckoned us back inside.

But as an adult, Thanksgiving often feels more like a powder keg of political positioning where everyone waits for the one person to say that one thing that will set everyone off. 

Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables (if they ever really existed). Now we wear our red hats, or mention a recent debate sound bite, in order to make sure everyone at the table knows what side we are on.

Which is remarkably strange when we consider the fact that Jesus came to destroy the divisions that we so eagerly want to demonstrate around our tables.

Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ table makes what we usually do at our tables unintelligible.

thanks-be-to-god

Therefore, this year, I’ve put together a brief Liturgy of Thanksgiving to be used by anyone in order to redeem the Thanksgiving table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of theological clarity to what our tables are supposed to feel like…

Prayer:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Scripture:

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Meditation:

We cannot live by bread alone – so Jesus reminds the Devil and all of us during the temptations in the wilderness. But we do have to eat to live; it’s just that ordinary bread isn’t enough. When we sit around the table with friends, family, and even strangers, we are participating in a moment that is bigger and more important than just the sharing of food. It is through our conversations and our prayers that Jesus’ presence is made manifest among us. The table at Thanksgiving is an extension of the Lord’s table on Sundays and when we come to it we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. This is the work of God, and we are all witnesses.

Prayer: 

Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table such as ours around which we can gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all you’ve done, are doing, and will do. As we eat and feast together, let the breaking of bread be a foretaste of the promised resurrection made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

The (Christian) Problem with The Death Penalty or: Why “An Eye For An Eye” Leaves Everyone Blind

For the first time in nearly two decades, the federal government will resume executions and, effectively, reinstate the federal death penalty. The announcement was made by Attorney General William Barr last week while indicating that five men convicted of murdering children will, themselves, be put to death in December of this year. Additional executions will be scheduled at a later time.

While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.

Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.

Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though not recently for Federal crimes. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence other away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered. 

There are roughly 2,600 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.

And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the loan term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death. 

And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell. 

And even among these statistic and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

69659

Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.

And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep rape his wife.

We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.

One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.

The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system. 

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when the recent announcement was made by the Attorney General it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.

But we are murdering people for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”

Violence only begets violence.

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. 

God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.

God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.

And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. 

Grace Is For Losers

It started out innocently enough – the Tamed Cynic posted a meme with a quote from someone named Robert Farrar Capon: “God’s grace in Jesus Christ isn’t cheap. It’s not even expensive. It’s free.” I thought it was good and witty, but forgot about it with my continued scrolling through the strange wonders of the interwebs.

IMG-p14RobertFarrarCapon_cropped-44-247-150-2-5

But then I came across his name again, this time being quoted by my friend Joshua Retterer for an episode of Strangely Warmed. I was content to leave Capon among the great list of “Theologians I Know But Don’t Read” but Josh had the nerve to send me not just one of Capon’s book in the mail, but three.

And when I reluctantly opened to the introduction to “The Romance of the Word” I couldn’t put it down.

Fast-forward through the last six months and I’ve read nearly everything Capon published and it has completely ruined my ministry. His absolute insistence on the unwavering commitment to God’s unending and irrevocable grace has sunk deep into the marrow of my belief and I can’t kick it. Try as I might to end my sermons now with a “how to put this belief into practice moment” I can’t get out of my mind Capon’s fundamental claim that “good preachers ought to be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal all their bottles of religion and morality pills, and flush them down the toilet.” Why? Because God’s grace is bigger than all of our preachments, and is never contingent on our ability to do much of anything. In fact, it is precisely our inability to do much of anything that makes grace necessary in the first place.

And so my preaching has changed, and it has ruined my ministry. It is ruined because all of the cheap moves I made to get people more involved (or worse: feeling guilty about lack of involvement), can no longer stand up to the unwavering claim of the cross.

I’ve been navigating these new waters for the last few months, and I thought I owed it to Jason and Josh to both thank them and castigate them for introducing me to Robert Farrar Capon. And I decided to record the conversation for an episode of the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast. If you would like to listen to the episode you can do so here: Grace Is For Losers

And, if you don’t want to listen to the three of us talk about Capon, you can just listen to the first part of the episode and hear the man himself preaching at Duke Chapel in 1988.

Live Pubcast Announcement – Incompatible

59422718_2226671284328152_1698007391963971584_o

The Crackers & Grape Juice Team will be hosting our 4th Annual Pub Theology Live Podcast to kick off the beginning of the UMC Virginia Annual Conference. The Pubcast will take place at Ballast Point Brewery in Daleville, VA on June 19th from 6:30pm – 8pm. The topic for the evening is “Incompatible” and we will be joined by friends of the pod Jeff Mullinix and Steve Shamblin-Mullinix.

Jeff is the pastor of Maynard Avenue UMC in Columbus Ohio and his husband, Steve, is a teacher. On the other side of the denomination’s recent General Conference, their relationship and ministries have come into focus and they have agreed to come and share what it’s like to work and worship in a Church that has forgotten that we’re all incompatible with Christian teaching – that’s Christian teaching.

If you want to hear more about the event, and why we think it’s a worthy conversation, you can listen to the bonus podcast episode we made about the event here: Live Pubcast

Otherwise, we look forward to connecting with fans of the pod at Ballast Point on June 19th.

The (Christian) Addiction To War

peace_war__wallpaper__by_jackth31-d55t58i

The airfield was remarkably dark in the middle of the night so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were so many people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. Though he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated. 70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing.

But then Emperor Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why. 

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

This is our command.

And it is also our dilemma. 

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to Syria to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies. 

To follow Jesus, to be disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War, it is the way.

And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is very easy for me to write about the virtues of pacifism. No one is dropping bombs on my life or my community. I am not at risk for an invasion from a foreign oppressor. 

It is easy to be a pacifist in America.

christianity-military-750x400

And we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled, otherwise people in the military who return from conflict will return as those from Vietnam – to a country that did not understand.

War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness manifest in machine guns and atomic weapons. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil. 

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

Another Way Forward or: Why Ordination Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

I was kneeling before the entire Annual Conference when the Bishop placed his hands on my head and ordained me in full connection. The moment was overwhelming – the culmination of 15 years aimed toward one particular goal. And when the stole was placed around my shoulders I felt the full weight of the responsibility.

I’ve known no life outside the United Methodist Church. I was baptized in a UMC when I was 19 days old, and spent nearly every Sunday of my life in that particular sanctuary. I was confirmed in that church, played drums for a worship service in that church, felt my call to ministry in that church, and even preached my first sermon in that church. Later I was married in that church and had my son baptized a few feet away from where I had been baptized in that church. 

When I first felt called I felt specifically called to serve the United Methodist Church. Partly because it was the only church I really knew, but also because I was entirely persuaded by our theological conviction of prevenient grace. The God I discovered in worship and in scripture and in community was absolutely the God who offers grace freely to all without any work on our part. I was so moved as a young person by the totality of grace preached in my local church and  that God works through Christ regardless of our morality, or our beliefs, or even our doubts.

It was more refreshing than I can describe particularly when I used to talk with friends at other churches in which everything was whittled down to whether they were doing enough for their faith.

And then when I was 15 years old, I felt pulled to my knees in prayer one night, and when I stood up I knew that I could do nothing else with my life but serve the UMC. I immediately told the pastors at my church and they handed me a snap shot of what the next decade of my life would look like: A Bachelors degree in religion, a Masters degree in divinity, and then at least three years of provisional membership before I could be ordained in full connection. So I finished high school, went to college, went to seminary, got approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry, started serving my first church, and then was fully ordained. 

I am grateful for the journey, as so many of my clergy peers intoned as their mantra during the journey of ordination. And yet, I believe that a lot of the problems facing the UMC today are in large part due to the ways we ordain individuals for ministry.

During the recent Special General Conference I was able to sit down with Bishop Will Willimon and he put it this way: 

“The real trouble started when the General Conference started requiring Mdivs for Elders. It was around 1958. It’s been downhill ever since. As someone who produces Mdivs for a living now, this is a difficult thing. We started adding all these requirements for ministry, and ask any UMC what they’re looking for in a clergy person and, first of all they never mention anything about coitus, and secondly they don’t really care where or whether someone went to seminary.”

000

Our ordination process (and it is a process) has become a bloated and institutional mess. It puts so much emphasis (and power) on the institution itself to make pastors rather than the local church.

When I told my pastors that I felt called their first response was, “Would you like to preach in six weeks?” They made sure I had every opportunity to discover what ordained ministry really looked like, they continuously checked in with me while I was in college and seminary, and my home church was constantly praying for me.

I now know that I was an exception to the rule.

In most churches, if someone expresses a call to ministry, they are given a book about ministry/calling and soon they are paired with a clergy mentor (from another church) and begin working with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. And, of course, the local church still has to recommend the individual to continue on the journey, but ultimately the individual is handed on to another group of people who now become responsible for the calling of the individual. 

I fully recognize the complicated nature of discerning a call, and the community’s responsibility for helping identify the call. Additionally, I completely agree with the work of discovering whether someone is theologically prepared for the difficult task of serving a local church. But passing someone along to another group (or to a school or seminary) continues to perpetuate the condition that we currently find ourselves in.

It denies the fundamental role of the local church and instead places even more emphasis on the structure instead of the Spirit.

I could elaborate on how the professionalization of clergy (and the requirement of a Masters degree) has stratified the ordained from the laity, and how the resentment between those two groups has grown and grown and grown. But I can’t argue against theological education – pastors do need to be theological informed, they need to have their thoughts, ideas, and convictions sharpened in order to serve the local church.

My bigger concern is not theological education itself, but the theology in which clergy are being educated. 

5C553998-FC30-4437-906A-FB2F71FB0AA5

At the real heart of the matter is the way in which the structures of the church whittle candidates for ministry down to a mosaic of arbitrary conditions.

Today, those who go before the board of ordained ministry have to demonstrate that they are prepared for ministry (at the beginning) or they are effective in ministry (after the provisional process). These are important frameworks for the work of ministry, but they also include interludes into whether or not individuals maintain certain moralities that largely deny the point of needing Jesus’ grace.

Which, to be clear, might be the most important theological claim we have to make at all.

And, for what its worth, this is no new thing. My CPE supervisor once told me that when he was attempting to get ordained (decades ago) he had to record himself preaching a sermon on a tape cassette, but was unable to do so in an actual church service so he recorded it while pacing back and forth in his basement. However, he grew anxious during the recording so he started smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves. He sent the tape off to the conference and their only reply was that they could hear him smoking while preaching, and he would need to quit if he wanted to be approved for ordination. 

No comments about the substance of his sermon.

No questions about any of his theological claims.

Just a moral absolute about pastors not being able to smoke.

Fast forward to today and the Special General Conference just approved a new measure that would allow (and in fact require) boards of ordained ministry to look through an individual’s social media accounts to discern whether or not the person is part of the LGBTQIA community. (To be clear, the Judicial Council has yet to rule whether or not this will be constitutionally viable)

homosexuality-and-church-main_article_image

We are now in a place where the process for ordination is far more focused on the model in which it takes place, and our flawed mission statement, than on the work of Jesus. Ordination, and the ways we preclude someone from it, denies the central proclamation of Word which is at the core of who we are supposed to be. 

I have met far too many people who were held back from ordained ministry for things like their obesity, or their divorce, or their timidity, which fundamentally ignores the God who calls people regardless of their circumstances. 

In light of GC2019, I appreciate Will Willimon’s comment that “God is going to continue calling gay people to ordained ministry whether we like it or not.”

In the UMC we are obsessed with making more disciples (as an end) and it has made it necessary to have clergy who resemble Jesus, rather than having clergy who can proclaim the passion with passion because they understand the truth of grace. All of our talk of perfection (for our sakes) prevents us from admitting that no one is good but God alone. 

Or, as Robert Farrar Capon so eloquently wrote: 

“Alas, in the present panic over faddish clerical derelictions, the church can’t see [grace] for beans. Bad enough that its preachers think their sins make them unfit to preach forgiveness. Worse yet by far that the church itself chases offending preachers unceremoniously (and with precious little due process) off the farm… If a sinner can’t proclaim forgiveness, who’s left to preach? Who, for that matter, could preach better, or with more passion? Of all the deaths that are available to us before we’re stone-cold dead, our death in sin is the most embarrassingly convincing share in the Passion most of us will ever have. The church is not in the world to teach sinners how to straighten up and fly right. That’s the world’s business; and on the whole it does a fairly competent – even a gleefully aggressive – job of it. The church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business. Its job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit  that they’re sinners and mean it. It’s supposed to take sheep who can be nothing but lost – children who can accept their failure as children, crooked tax collectors who can stare at their shoes and say they’re worthless human beings – and stand them up to proclaim that lostness, deadness, uselessness, and nothingness are God’s cup of tea.” (The Foolishness of Preaching)

Our current ordination process is incompatible with Christian teaching because it expects clergy to be the Jesus in their congregations rather than being the sinners in need of grace who can preach the passion with passion.

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019 – 

Change the ordination process in the United Methodist Church. Place more power on the local church to not only equip individuals for ministry, but also to empower them to express their call in theologically substantive ways. 

Or, at the very least, stop using subjective moral claims as a way to preclude individuals from serving God as an ordained pastor. If the earliest disciples are any indication (Peter perjured and Paul murdered), immorality should be an expectation for ministry, not something that bars someone from it. 

Such a revision or our ordination process would retain the Spirit-driven and prevenient grace-filled faith that is part of our Wesleyan heritage and it would stop expecting pastors to stand on pedestals that always crumble.

The giant wheel of the UMC spins and spins because we have a process not unlike a factory model in which we expect that if we a bunch of different people in through the beginning, they will all come out the same on the other end. 

I suggest we consider the opposite – we take all these people who feel called to ministry and demonstrate to them that God will use their greatest weaknesses and all of their brokenness to express the kind of reckless grace that’s at the heart of the Gospel. We give people the freedom to see and believe that God calls whomever God wants regardless of our subjectivity. And that to deny someone the call that God has placed on their life because of whatever we might deem as incompatible only goes to show that the process has become incompatible with Christian teaching. 

A New Way Forward or: Why Our Mission Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

It’s a sentence that every UMC pastor, and most lay people, should be able to quote from memory. Found in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, the mission of the church is defined by making disciples and transforming the world.

Which, ostensibly, makes sense because disciple making is one of the last charges Jesus leaves with the disciples (Matthew 28). But making disciples, and more importantly world transformation, have hindered the United Methodist Church from its primary mission; namely, being itself – the body of Christ.

Today, disciple making gets confused with the metrics of worship attendance, professions of faith, and even financial giving. It has resulted in the nearly universal push to get more people sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings while neglecting to interact and connect with the people already in the pews on Sunday mornings. This profound focus is part of our obsessions with a 1950’s General Electric model of denominationalism that cares far more about numbers than it does about faith.

And then we get this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission or Jesus’ mission? Does the church exist to change the people and the community around us? Are we supposed to be making the world a better place?

The church is (supposed to be) defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world. 

5C553998-FC30-4437-906A-FB2F71FB0AA5

Today we are deeply steeped in a world filled with the allure of large institutions and we believe that so long as we structure the church like other organizations of growth that we will necessarily grow and grow. We look to the mighty and the powerful so that we can learn how to change the world around us. But what makes the church the church? Jesus. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through a baby born in a manger, through tax collectors and fishermen, through a poor rabbi murdered by the powerful!

The church is already the better place God has made in the world.

But it’s hard for us to believe that.

It’s hard for us to believe that the church is already the better place because many of us worship other institutions or ideas or even ethical and moral claims the way we once worshipped the Lord. The many ways in which people reacted to the votes at the recent Special General Conference of the UMC (and in particular that some of the highest priority items to be discussed were pensions and disaffiliation plans) goes to show how we have traded in the Lordship of Christ for the institution of the church. Similarly, we follow this never-ending reactive news-cycle of what’s happening to the church to such a degree that we are are more concerned with reading articles about LGBTQIA people instead of meeting them where they are and learning about their faith. 

And worst, we read and repost articles about what can save the church as if those things/organizations are going to bring us the salvation we claim, through the Creed, that Jesus has already brought!

2dd04d97c664a4970b539f317ea19633--jesus-painting-prophetic-art

We have been playing this game of world transformation since the time of Constantine and we are now at a point where we can almost no longer differentiate between the institution and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, then it’s not worth our time and attention.

In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.

In the last few weeks there’s been a fair amount of anxiety among the pastors I serve with and within the church I serve. Many are unsure about what the future holds for the UMC. There’s rumor of schism, though many are afraid of what that will do to our pension system and our international mission work. 

I appreciate those concerns. I am currently contributing to my own pension and have been on mission trips all over the world. But for all of the talk of world transformation, we neglect the second sentence of our mission: “Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.” 

It’s right there for anyone to read in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, and yet what about the state of the UMC today would lead anyone to believe we believe the local church is the primary expression of Methodism? 

Ask people outside the UMC what the UMC is or looks like, and if you hear anything at all you’ll likely hear something about the recent Special General Conference, or a Cross and Flames, or itinerancy. But if those are the primary expressions of our faith, then what kind of faith is that?

One of the problems with our current mission statement is that it’s transactional – it presumes a sort of Constantinian desire to change the world with a measurable system of growth that leaves little room for the gospel. I don’t want the church I serve to be responsible for fixing all of the problems in the world, not just because I know that it can’t but also because it’s not our responsibility. There are a great number of organizations out there that can make the world better, whatever that means, but the church isn’t here to fix the world. 

It is already the better place God has made in the world.

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019 – 

Rewrite the mission statement of the United Methodist Church, or better yet, get rid of it altogether. 

Such a revision, or omission, would retain the kind of Spirit-driven and incarnational faith that it’s part of our Wesleyan Heritage, but it will also remove the exhausting expectation that “it’s all up to us.”

We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper behavior, and world-transformation, and lots of ethical and moral claims in something like a denominational institution, are the keys to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do – instead it is about what God did for us precisely because we could not do it for ourselves.

Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that is either ABG (always be growing) or ABT (always be transforming) or both. 

We have expectations set in place about church growth that persuade churches to abandon the gospel in order to attract as many people as possible.

We have over-programed our churches because we feel ultimately responsible for making the world a better place which has led to burnout among faithful lay people and clergy. 

Here on the other side of GC2019, our mission statement is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To have one at all is to admit how drunk we are with power and a vision of the church that looks more like Sears than it does the community of faith. 

What To Talk About When We No Longer Know What We’re Talking About

I bring you greetings from the final day of the Special General Conference in St. Louis on the subject of human sexuality. I know that many in the church are anxious to find out what’s been happening here and, more importantly, what all this means for the United Methodist church. I have seen articles about the conference in a variety of places from local new papers to the New York Times and I wanted to share where we are as of right now.

IMG_4213.JPG

I’ve been fortunate to meet with an interview a lot of people in St. Louis including a retired Bishop, a gay pastor and his partner, a lobbyist involved with the Traditional Plan, and more. You can find those interviews and articles at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com 

There are a lot of perspectives and a lot of things going around, but perhaps the best synopsis came from Bishop Will Willimon while we were talking together: 

“Maybe one good thing that will come out of all this is the realization that General Conference can’t do, decide, or help with anything. I have more faith in your congregations that I have in anything going on here.”

The UMC is very clearly divided on the subject of human sexuality, but we are also divided on the ways in which we understand how we are part of a connectional structure. At the heart of the matter is a question of how certain changes can/should be implemented in the US and abroad.

We are not of one mind on anything, and we’ve been here since Saturday.

Today the General Conference is tasked with finishing all of its work by 6:30pm CT (when dirt has to be dumped on the floor in preparation for a Monster Truck Rally that is happening later; I’m not joking.)

After revisions and debates and arguments (and a few prayers) the Traditional Plan (which maintains the status quo and defines swifter punishments for violations) will be brought to the floor today for a binding vote. The One Church Plan (which advocates for contextual reflection on whether to be LGBTQIA inclusive or not) will still be brought to the floor, but it only received a minority vote of support yesterday which makes it unlikely to pass. 

Of course, other motions and final bits of politicking can still take place, so as of the writing of this letter, nothing has been officially sanctioned.

There have been some very challenging moments over the last few days and people on all sides of the discussion have been hurt. This is a difficult time for the United Methodist Church and what happens today, for better or worse, will determine the course of the church going forward.

Personally, it has been devastating to see and hear people refer to those from the LGBTQIA community as “issues.” It is akin to the way some doctors view their patients not as patients but as problems to be solved. When we begin talking about our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of their sexual orientation, as objects to be fixed, we no longer know what we’re talking about.

It has been a trying experience, and I’ve been struggling to find hope.

I think that most people here would say the same thing regardless of what plan they hope to see adopted.

So I leave you with the hope I’m currently clinging to:

Regardless of the votes and decision, God’s church will still gather for worship on Sunday.

Regardless of the reactions and disagreements, the tomb is still empty.

Regardless of the uncertainty that today holds, we can be certain that God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And The Plan Shall Set You Free

I am in St. Louis with the team from the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast to provide reporting on the UMC’s Special General Conference on Human Sexuality. The denomination has come to an impasse and we are trying to carve a new path forward. And, because we are a global denomination, we are doing so through parliamentary procedures and democratic voting. As it stands currently, the UMC believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are prohibited from becoming ordained clergy, and clergy are prohibited from presiding over same-sex unions.

Here are some of the plans being presented:

The Traditional Plan

This plan will maintain the current prohibitions against self-avowed practicing gay clergy and same-gender weddings. It also broadens the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include person living in same-sex marriage or civil union or persons who publicly state they are homosexuals. It will mandate penalties for disobedience to the Book of Discipline with a suspension of one year without pay for the first violation and a relinquishing of clergy credentials for the second violation. 

The Simple Plan

This plan will remove the incompatibility clause and eliminates all prohibitions that limit the role of homosexual people in the church. It will allow, but not require, same-gender weddings in churches across the denomination.

The Connectional Conference Plan

This plan will replace the current geographic jurisdictions with three new connectional conferences based on perspectives with regard to sexuality: Progressive, Traditional, and Unity. Every single individual church across the connection will have to decide with which new connection to identify, and clergy will have to do the same. Eventually a great re-shuffling will occur so that like-minded churches will be paired with like-minded clergy. 

The One Church Plan

This plan will remove “incompatible with Christian teaching” from paragraphs in the Book of discipline, and removes prohibitions against same-gender weddings and ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. It also adds protections so that no clergy person, nor bishop, will be forced to preside over a wedding, or ordain someone, if they theologically disagree with the change in the Book of Discipline. Bishops would take into consideration the theological positions of clergy and churches when making new appointments. 

And there are more that will be considered at the General Conference.

Rather than going through all the plans one by one to address their theological strengths and weaknesses, it is worth considering the strange task at hand beyond the actual ideological divide: we think we know how to save ourselves.

Or, perhaps even worse, we think we can save ourselves. 

To borrow a line of thought from Robert Farrar Capon, I think one of the reasons we are struggling to find a way forward together, is that we are addicted to the religion of our own creation. Religion, here, defined as the belief that so long as we follow a certain sets of rules, practices, and doctrines that life will properly, and perfectly, fall into order. Religion, here, is evidenced by the church’s constant and unwavering work of attempting to have control over itself. Religion, here, is seen in the never-ending requirements we assume exist in order to be saved.

Religion, as largely practiced in the UMC, is a denial of one of the greatest verses in the entirety of the Bible (and ironically a phrase from the communion liturgy in the United Methodist Hymnal!): While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

domain117

Instead we practice and preach a faith that acts as if God in Christ only meets us after our sins, rather than in them. Or, to put it another way, God only arrives for us when we’ve gotten ourselves figured out. Or, still yet another way to put it, God will only bless our church if we make sure we’ve got all the right rules established.

We love making plans. And I think we love making plans because it convinces us that we are somehow in control of our lives (or our church) when the plain and simple truth is that we are not in control. That’s kind of the whole message of the Bible: God is God, and we are not.

The longer the Book of Discipline becomes for the United Methodist Church, the more we draw lines in the sand about what constitutes incompatibility or not, the more we play into the sin that surrounds us all the time. It creates a version of the church where we will have only proclaimed salvation for a select few who are able to kid themselves into believing they can meet a bunch of requirements that simply aren’t there.

Before we attempt to pave a new way forward for the church, I think it would do us some good to admit, at least, the addiction we have to our own religion. 

Because Jesus was frighteningly honest with his opinion of religion (as defined above) during his life. He ate and drank with sinners, broke the rules of sabbath observance, and was murdered under capital punishment for blasphemy. And he had the gall to break forth from the tomb three days later with a declaration that whatever religion had been attempting to do, was now done once and for all in him, in his life and death and resurrection. 

We cannot save ourselves. And, to be perfectly frank, we cannot save our church.

Only God can do that.

Why else would we call it Good News?