Unity?

Devotional:

Romans 5.6

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 

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About a year ago I was sitting in the upstairs area of Wegman’s, sipping on a cup of coffee, while my computer, Bible, and United Methodist Hymnal were out on the table in front of me. I was there in the hopes of stringing together a worship service and a sermon, but I was distracted. My distraction stemmed from the, at the time, recent Special General Conference in which the UMC doubled down on its language regarding the so-called incompatibility of homosexual Christians.

Every time I lifted my hands to get something down in writing, I was at a loss of what to say.

So I sat there and I sipped on my coffee and I rested in my distractions. Until a man walked over from the other side of the space and asked if he could sit with me. I noted that there were plenty of other empty seats available, but motioned for him to sit down. He paused for a moment, and then asked, “Are you a pastor in the UMC?”

“Did the hymnal give it away?”

“That, and the glum disposition. I read about the big church meeting in the newspaper the other day. You know, I used to be a United Methodist once upon a time.”

“Oh really. But you’re not anymore?”

“Nope. I can remember when the church really was together on everything, as if we were all on the same page. But then it got so divisive that I just decided to call it quits.”

“That’s too bad. Well, what kind of a church do you go to now?”

“Oh. Um, I haven’t been to a church in years to be honest… Anyway, I’m not really sure why I came over but, good luck with the church. I think you’re gonna need it.” 

I’ve had a lot of interactions like that one over the last year, some with total strangers and some with people I’ve known my whole life. People who have approached me because of the United Methodist Church’s position on human sexuality, their struggling to come to any sort of conclusion about it, and their admission that church really isn’t for them anyway.

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I’ve found each and every one of those conversations to be remarkably enlightening. For one thing, they demonstrated that the church does remain in the cultural consciousness for those outside the church, though they tend to only think about it one-dimensionally. Secondly, people are hungry for conversations about things they do not understand, even if they can’t articulate it. And thirdly, a whole lot of people inside and outside the church believe the church can only be the church if the people in the church are unified.

Spoiler warning: The church has never been unified.

If it ever felt unified, whether it was last year or 1,000 years ago, it was because particular voices were being stifled or kicked out altogether. We, in the church, have often confused unity with uniformity, and uniformity is only achieved through suppression.

The church is a strange and wondrous thing. I have noted on many occasions that the church is the last surviving place where people willfully gather with people who are different from themselves – to be clear, not every church is like this, but there are some where the people in the pews on Sunday share one thing, and only one thing, in common: Jesus.

The church is at its best when we are all busy changing each other and being changed by one another. The church is not some static institution that was the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is a living and transforming thing that is guided by the voice of the Lord that continues to speak even into the wilderness of our sin. 

Or, to put it another way, the church gathers again and again to remember that while we were weak, Christ died for the ungodly. And, though it pains us to admit, we (all of us) are the ungodly for whom Christ died. 

If there is any unity in the church, let it be that. 

Words Are Important

In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Called Special General Conference on Human Sexuality, I am leading a Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. We met for our first of three classes on Sunday and my plan was to give a brief overview of some important words and then jump into the few passages in scripture that deal with homosexuality. However, when I started detailing what the UMC’s Book of Discipline says and then defining the different parts of the LGBTQIA acronym, it became abundantly clear that we wouldn’t have time to even open our bibles.

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It grieves me deeply that we (the church) often talks about great swaths of people with the most over-generalized terms, understandings, and words. I had wrongly assumed that I wouldn’t need to spend time defining anything when in fact the overwhelming majority of our time on Sunday was focused solely on definitions.

Problematically, for the UMC, when we talk about homosexuality we use that word as a catch-all for anyone who is part of the LGBTQIA community. And so, when the Book of Discipline says, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” (Paragraph 161F) many churches take it a step further to declare the incompatibility of anyone within the LGBTQIA community.

And yet, the experience of a lesbian is inherently different than someone who is transgender or intersex or asexual.

Considering the amount of time that was necessary to unpack the language on Sunday, I wanted to make some of what I taught available to a wider audience. Below you can find the paragraphs in the Book of Discipline that address human sexuality (though mostly just homosexuality), in addition to the standard definition for all the the parts of LGBTQIA.

  1. The UMC’s current positions on human sexuality:
    1. “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all person are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage…” (Paragraph 161F)
    2. “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and church not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay member and friends. We commit ourselves in be in ministry for and with all persons. (Paragraph 161F)
    3. “Fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” (clergy expectations) (Paragraph 304)
    4. “A bishop, clergy member, or a local pastor may be tried when charged with the following offense: practices declared by the UMC to be incompatible with Christian teaching, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.” (Paragraph 2702)
  1. LGBTQIA
    1. What’s the difference between Gender and Sex?
      1. Gender is a SOCIAL CONSTRUCT used to classify a person as a man, woman, or some other identity. 
      2. Sex is a MEDICALLY CONSTRUCTED categorization. Sex is often assigned based on the appearance of the genitalia either in ultrasound images or at birth.
    2. L – Lesbian
      1. A woman whose primary sexual and effectual orientation is toward people of the same gender.
    3. G – Gay
      1. A sexual and affectional orientation toward people of the same gender.
    4. B – Bisexual
      1. A person whose primary sexual and affectional orientation is toward people of the same and other genders, or towards people regardless of their gender.
    5. T – Transgender
      1. Adjective used most often as an umbrella term, and frequently abbreviated as “trans.” It describes a wide range of identities and experiences of people whose gender identity and/or expression differs from conventional expectations based on their assigned sex at birth. Not all trans people undergo medical transition. This term is also used for those who express a gender outside of the man/woman binary and/or having no gender or multiple genders. 
    6. Q – Queer OR Questioning
      1. Historically queer has been used as a slur against people whose gender, expression, or sexuality do not conform to dominate expectations. However some have reclaimed the word and identify as such.
      2. Questioning refers to the process of exploring one’s own gender identity, gender expression, and/or sexual orientation. 
    7. I – Intersex
      1. Adjective used to describe the experience of NATURALLY developing primary or secondary sex characteristics that do not fit neatly into society’s definition of male or female. It is an umbrella term that covers a lot of people. Many visibly intersex people are mutilated in infancy and early childhood by doctors to make the individual’s sex characteristics conform to what society’s idea of what normal bodies are supposed to look like. Intersex people are relatively common. Hermaphrodite is an outdated and inaccurate term used to described intersex people.
    8. A – Asexual
      1. A sexual orientation generally characterized by not feeling sexual attraction or a desire for partnered sexuality. It is different from celibacy in that celibacy is an abstention from sex, whereas asexual can and do have sex they just do not feel sexual desires.

Devotional – Psalm 107.1

Devotional:

Psalm 107.1

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever. 

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“I’m post-racial” he said. “I am color blind to racial differences and I have no prejudices.” At the time we were discussing racial inequality in Durham, North Carolina (a still very pertinent topic) and the man claimed that if more people could see the world the way he did, everything would be fixed. He proudly claimed his lack of prejudice for anyone with ears to hear but I had a hard time taking him seriously. I did not know him well enough to begin arguing against his so called “prejudice free lifestyle” so I decided to let him him wax lyrical about himself. However, while he continued to go on and on, a friend muttered next to me under his breath, “Show me someone without prejudice, and I’ll show you a liar.”

One of the hardest tasks of following Jesus Christ is to try to live without prejudices precisely because many of us aren’t aware of how deeply rooted our prejudices are. We may think that we are “color blind” or that we relate to people who are different from us in religion, sexual orientation, or political persuasions, but in many circumstances our involuntary thoughts, uncensored words, and knee-jerk reactions often demonstrate that our prejudices are still there.

If we’re driving in our cars and we see two women holding hands walking down the side-walk, what are our first thoughts? If we are at a restaurant and we witness a black woman and a white man kissing one another across the table, how do we immediately respond? If we’re flipping through news channels and come across a political campaign of a different perspective, how do we initially react?

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Strangers, anyone who is unlike us, stir up fear and discomfort. They break down our sense of security and well being by simply being “different.” We can puff ourselves up all we want with claims of living with a post-whatever lifestyle, but most of us, if we’re honest, are prejudice in ways big and small, seen and unseen.

As Christians, we give thanks to the Lord for he is good. Only when we learn to fully believe that God loves each of us unconditionally and see others as equally loved can we begin to behave according to God’s goodness. The great variety in the world is a sign of God’s immense wonder and beauty. Living with a non-judgmental frame of mind is exceptionally difficult, but it is worth working toward.

This week, while we continue to journey through the season of Lent, let us admit our own prejudices. When we have those knee-jerk reactions toward those who are different from us, let us immediately go to the Lord in prayer and ask for Him to create in us clean hearts so that we might become people of love rather than prejudice.