There’s a movement within United Methodism called “Biblical Obedience” whose name itself is offensive to many Methodists because it advocates full inclusivity for LGBT people. I’ve already written about my understanding of what the Bible actually teaches on this issue, but what I really want to contemplate today is the question of obedience itself, setting aside the LGBT issue for a moment. The most radical example of Biblical obedience I can think of (other than Jesus’ journey to the cross) is when God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. This story raises difficult questions. Is obedience always a good thing? How do we know whether we’re obeying God or conforming to the world, particularly if our world happens to be saturated in church culture? How does Abraham’s radical example translate into our day? Does it look more like Huck Finn’s quest to free his friend Jim from slavery in rebellion against his cultural values or Adolf Eichmann’s willingness to follow orders and carry out the genocide of the Jewish people? Continue Reading
So I went to the Facebook United Methodist Clergy page yesterday with the question of whether “total depravity” is really a Methodist doctrine, and the response was pretty fierce. The phrase “total depravity” means different things to different people. Some take it to mean that humanity is utterly wicked, while others take it to mean that every aspect of our humanity is corrupted by sin, which are different claims. To me, the most important thing to understand is that we can do nothing without God’s grace. We would be helpless without it, which is a moot point because it’s all around us; we are depraved when we don’t acknowledge and seek it. In any case, based on the discussion with other Methodist clergy, I wanted to make the following five hypotheses concerning the topic of original sin and total depravity. Continue Reading
The past several years of my life have been building up to a three and a half hour stretch of time this morning from 8:30 am to 12:00 pm: my interviews for full ordination as a United Methodist elder. I have anticipated this moment with dread, paranoid about getting torpedoed by someone with a chip on their shoulders over one of my blog posts. What actually happened was I sat in a room with human beings who love God, who pray, who have made mistakes and learned from them, and who genuinely seemed to want the best for me and for our church. They not only took seriously their duty to evaluate my effectiveness in ministry but also acted the way that pastors are supposed to act in making me feel loved and safe in their presence. I don’t want to diminish the legitimately troubling experiences that other pastors have had in the ordination process. Neither do I want to minimize the injustices in our church. But experiencing the peace of the Holy Spirit when I expected to face a firing squad, God put it on my heart to say to my fellow Methodists that I think we’re going to be okay.
The Institute of Religion and Democracy just published a letter from a retired professor Walter Benjamin to a sitting bishop whose identity wasn’t named. Though portions of this letter got me churned up, I thought it would be a helpful test of my New Year’s resolutions to see if I could engage it in a loving and truthful way. Dr. Benjamin’s letter reflects the fact that he grew up in a very different time than I did. I disagree with many things about his perspective, but I’m going to try to do so in a way that is respectful and charitable. Continue Reading
I had a good discussion yesterday with my pastor covenant group about our discernment process as a church in the wake of the Frank Schaefer trial and controversy. I know that I got a little hot-headed in the debate online so I wanted to offer more circumspect reflections. I believe that each disciple of Jesus Christ not only has the right but actually the duty to contribute to the ongoing living interpretive tradition of our faith. Some Christians think that the Bible doesn’t require any interpretation, but I contend that the way we interpret it is by living it and sharing our testimony with each other. Continue Reading
This week, the United Methodist Church put a pastor on trial named Frank Schaefer for officiating at the wedding of his gay son. The judge, retired bishop Al Gwinn, ruled out as inadmissible any defense arguments based on scripture or other sections of the Book of Discipline, reasoning that only “the facts” of what Schaefer did were relevant to determining the verdict. While I understand the rationale and practical limitations that necessitate this approach to justice, I do not think it does justice to justice. The promise that we receive in scripture is that God judges according to the heart. Hebrews 4:12-13 says: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Continue Reading
Thomas Frank, the guy who wrote our textbook on United Methodist polity, has made a plea for UMC bishops not to put pastors on trial who conduct same-sex marriages (like the 50 who did so last weekend). I had been trying to lay low on this issue for a while. My position has been to honor what the Discipline says for me to do while being obediently prophetic regarding God’s truth as I have encountered it. I was actually going to write a post stating that if pastors engage in civil disobedience, then the consequences are part of the witness. However, I realized as I read Frank’s plea that the paradigm I was applying to our gay wedding crisis is to presume that United Methodism is appropriately analogous to our broken secular democracy: a two party majoritarian system with lobbyists, caucuses, and hyperventilating pundits.
In the American justice system, all defendants are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable shadow of doubt. Defense attorneys do not have to prove their client’s innocence; they just have to find enough holes in the prosecution’s argument to establish that they have not been proven guilty. But in the debate over Biblical interpretation on homosexuality, the burden of proof falls entirely on the defendants to prove their innocence. What if my fellow Methodists who are anti-gay had to provide not only isolated proof-texts and speculative translations of obscure Greek words but a coherent Biblical ethical explanation of why chaste monogamous homosexual partnerships are “incompatible with Christian teaching”? I think that would be a much more just and legitimate burden of proof. Continue Reading
I learned a hard lesson today. Some of you saw my post where I had developed a contemporary version of our United Methodist communion liturgy Word and Table and recorded it on my iPhone. A friend informed me that there was a copyright issue with doing that, so I wrote the United Methodist Publishing House and was promptly ordered to take down the video and the blog post. I’m not meaning to be snarky, but wow, communion liturgy is intellectual property? Continue Reading
There were three resolutions for the Virginia annual conference of the United Methodist Church this year. One was never discussed or considered: a proposal for a church-wide living wage campaign. Our youth Bible study took a look at this resolution a couple of weeks ago. Our main critique of it was that it seemed to focus almost exclusively on a legislative approach to the issue, while we felt that a more viable option would be to start with the church and the small businesses of church members as a voluntary witness of economic justice. Continue Reading