Lancing the boil of #UMC bigotry

big·ot·rynoun – intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.

I must confess that I use the word bigotry with some reluctance. Too often people employ the word bigot to paint another as intolerant while remaining blissfully unaware of their own ideological bigotry. That is why I started this post with the definition so we might share a sense of what I mean as I use the word.

A bigot isn’t necessarily right or wrong; they are simply someone self-convinced that they hold an absolute truth. In this sense, it is perfectly accurate from any perspective to describe the United Methodist Book of Discipline as bigoted when it comes to the question of full inclusion of LGBTQIA folks in the life of the church. It leaves no room for those who have come, through discernment of Scripture and faithful study, to believe that sexual orientation ought not be a barrier to full inclusion of individuals in the life of the church.

I happen to be friends with a lot of people who are celebrating the consecration of the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as a United Methodist bishop; a part of me is celebrating along with them, truth be told. But I’m intentional about trying to keep voices who are seeing this same action as troubling, confusing, and unfaithful on my radar as well. With the simple definition of bigotry in mind, I know at least as many progressives one might define as bigoted as conservatives or traditionalists. In our United Methodist circumstance, the prevailing difference is who holds the power.

Our affirmation of connectional bigotry

The Rev. Mike Slaughter (front) and the Rev. Adam Hamilton speak in favor of legislation that would have acknowledged that United Methodists disagree on issues of sexuality during the denomination's 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The Rev. Mike Slaughter (front) and the Rev. Adam Hamilton speak in favor of legislation that would have acknowledged that United Methodists disagree on issues of sexuality during the denomination’s 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

If you were at, or followed along with, the 2012 General Conference you may remember  a moment of some significance where two well respected large church pastors, the Revs. Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter, brought a largely aspirational substitutionary motion to the floor. The petition, which intentionally honored the majority, traditional view, had the audacity to call upon the church to recognize “that many faithful United Methodists disagree with this view.” How dare they ask us to be so open minded?

When the General Conference rejected this motion 368 to 572, one which aspired to set a low bar of recognizing the fidelity of those who disagree with the majority, it affirmed a bigoted position on human sexuality. Technically speaking, our official position as a church is bigoted not due to the specific content of said position but because of the way we continue to hold it. In a sense, this vote was a direct rejection of the “open minds” refrain of our United Methodist marketing. Put another way, in this one area we have voted that all faithful minds are unified and fixed upon a single position; this is textbook bigotry, folks.

None of the legislative work in the 2016 General Conference succeeded in addressing, or significantly discussing, our bigoted position. It is hard to interpret the intentions of the thin majority that asked the bishops for a path forward; some certainly wanted to address this wound, others may have voted out of episcopal respect, still others to avoid conflict. In the subsequent months, it has grown clear that any hope for a moratorium on church trials and the persecution of those who are minorities in terms of sexual orientation and/or theological action, was fanciful thinking.

The response to the election and consecration of Bishop Karen Oliveto was both rapid and fierce from those in opposition. The South Central Jurisdiction passed a request for a declaratory ruling challenging the election almost before it even occurred. In addition to the critique that her election violated church law, it was also quickly framed as disrespectful of a proposed bishops’ commission. The Rev. Ed Tomlinson summed up this sentiment when interviewed by United Methodist News Service, “It seems they [the Western Jurisdiction] rushed to judgment without really caring whether all voices are heard or not.”

Is it ironic that one would defend a bigoted position by proclaiming a need to “hear all voices” or is that simply disingenuous? I’ve never been able to understand irony correctly since Alanis Morrisette.

Lancing a boil

On his website, The Survival Doctor, James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H., offers advice on how to care for a boil in the event that one cannot reach a doctor. A boil is an infection under the skin. Filled with pus, “it can be the size of a pea or golf ball.” He offers advice on several treatments to get the infection to go away on its own or to come to a head. I was surprised to learn that you should avoid squeezing a boil as that will spread the infection.

If time and care don’t ease things, or if the boil is painful, causing weakness or high fever, the advised treatment is to lance it, to open the wound and drain the infection. Hubbard takes time to explain the process emphasizing the importance of hygiene throughout. While lancing may ease the severity of the pain and be a positive step toward healing, without deliberate ongoing care and attention to the wound, the infection can easily return.

'The Sky is Falling' by Flickr user Lauri Väin, CC BY 2.0., source image.
‘The Sky is Falling’ by Flickr user Lauri Väin, CC BY 2.0., source image.

While some are prone to proclaim that the sky is falling, I would suggest we are better served in seeing Bishop Oliveto’s election as an opportunity. Her consecration as a bishop of The United Methodist Church is a lancing of the infection in our church which has resisted 40+ years of attempted treatments and, at times, ill-advised squeezes which have caused the infection to spread and weaken us significantly. Contrary to the position of some that wish to identify LGBTQIA folks as the problem, the infection within our church for some time now has been an enshrined bigotry in our Book of Discipline which leaves inadequate space for a faithful opposition.

Is there no balm in Gilead?

If, as I assert, an enshrined bigotry is the true infection plaguing The United Methodist Church, we might expect that the election of Bishop Oliveto would be painful to the church as the lancing of any inflamed tissue would be. Any who can’t feel that pain in some way should question whether they truly remain in the body. I was encouraged to find many of the leaders in the Western Jurisdiction working quickly to acknowledge this reality and to name the need to listen deeply even as they were caught up in a moment of celebration. Bishop Oliveto’s first letter after her consecration explicitly names this need to “[stand] before those who are angry, anxious, or fearful and be a witness to all they are feeling.”

Over a certain time, we should see the pressure and pain ease as people recognize that the sky isn’t falling, ministry in the local church continues, that a leader’s ability to serve isn’t defined or much related to their sexual orientation, and that God still has much for us to do to serve and transform the communities we are called to.

Still, I’m concerned by Hubbard’s repeated reminders about sterilization and care for the wound. I worry because some of us have grown quite used to the pain; a few are already making plans for what they will do after the body is forced to acknowledge that our wounds as untreatable.

And I fret that in celebrating the lancing of this particular boil we’ll forget how easy it is to get another infection. In our vulnerable state, will we simply replace one bigoted position with another leaving little room in our minds and hearts again for those who see their faith differently? Complex questions of identity face us which will require the Spirit-driven conversations we often talk about but too infrequently practice.

Mister Rogers, photo by Gene J. Puskar
Mister Rogers, photo by Gene J. Puskar

Our situation reminds me of a popular quote from the affable Mister (Fred) Rogers.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

As we head into these next few months, we’ll see numerous statements, inevitable news releases of complaints and charges, and continuing threats of schism from those who have been seeking a reason to leave for some time now. But in these moments, where uncertainty undeniably lies, look for the helpers. Look for the people who are applying ointment to the wound, promoting healing as the infection of bigotry oozes out, and seeking to bind it together with prayer and deep listening across the divisions that we share. These are the church’s true leaders.

But they can’t do this work alone. May we all be anointed as healers in this moment, even as we acknowledge our sin in not loving our sisters and brothers as much as Jesus would ask. Let us be diligent in our task of applying balm to the wounds in our body, and aware of the different measures of power we may wield, so that we might find renewed vitality together in love for the work God has for us.

May we be ever vigilant and committed to open hearts, minds, and doors as we are all quite capable of closing each.

I’m tired of pretending (and of conferencing) – #WJUMC

I’m not a big fan of pretending.

We all do it of course. We pretend to be happy when we aren’t. We pretend to like dinner when we didn’t. We have dedicated entire genres to the art of pretending; some of our favorite things are born in these worlds of science fiction and fantasy.

Pretending has an undeniable value. Pretending plays an important role in child development fostering social and cognitive skills and igniting creativity. Adults can use role-playing and other forms of pretending to spark their own creativity and to troubleshoot challenges they face.

But there is also a time when pretending ceases to be helpful.

There is a lot to love about our Methodist practice of conferencing. Together, Methodists have done good work together saving lives and committing resources to greater efficiency. I’ve seen relationships develop across divides, and there is most certainly value in knowing that we are not alone in this big world.

What I don’t appreciate about our practice of conferencing is all the misdirected pretending.

It has long been acknowledged that many churches struggle to create safe places for authenticity. Where we ought to be able to bring our struggles and troubles, instead, we often feel we need to dress them up with fine clothes and fake smiles. Building real Christian community is hard, time consuming, work.

Some churches have found that small groups help because they allow folks to more easily get beyond pretense to intimacy. Trust is hard earned in these days of political polarization, quick judgment and superficiality. Where a hard truth might easily be discarded as a harsh judgment coming from an acquaintance or even from the pulpit, in relationship the same words might take root leading toward transformation – or they may never be spoken because relationships help us all to understand context and appreciate nuance.

Still we come together at our annual, jurisdictional, and general conferences and spend a lot of time (and money) pretending that the Spirit is with us absent the love, grace, and trust we may once have had for each other. We imagine good preaching and excellence in music can erase ugly words and cynical politicking. We pretend that we are looking to our bishops for leadership but really we just want them to take our side.

Perhaps Jesus never intended for us to build such ziggurats of institutionalized religiosity. Maybe they just don’t work as well today as they did in the past.

Perhaps uniformity fit better when missional context was just a rough edge to sand away. Maybe things were easier when we didn’t have the Internet around to expose how love often allowed for divine deviation.

I mentioned earlier that pretending can actually serve a positive purpose. Perhaps we are just pretending in the wrong direction.

Imagine for a moment that you are a little boy playing with his Star Wars figures. You have a choice of playmates this afternoon and your mother wants to know which friend you wish to visit.

Your first friend is a delight to play with. Together you dream up new worlds to save from the evil clutches of the Galactic empire. You aren’t thoroughly convinced that her Care Bears are “the same as Ewoks” but you roll with it anyway. Your mother always seems to pick you up too early.

Your second friend is a little different. Whenever your Luke Skywalker figure determines the best path to victory, this friend quickly presents a reason why Luke can’t do what you need him to do. And before you know it, his Darth Vader is force choking your doll. End of story.

If you are looking at these options as a reasonable adult, it’s very likely that you would choose to play with the first friend. If you really got into role-playing as a little boy, you may have made a different, poorer, choice. How little kids develop gender-bias is a conversation for another day.

What I would put before you, as I end this post, is the choice we never seem to make as a larger church. When we come together for our Connectional playdates, we most often choose the second friend’s form of pretending, that is pretending in the negative. We spend hours defining what we can’t do, obsessively limiting the possibilities of our Methodist sisters and brothers, and thus, potentially quenching the Spirit that moves is ways we can’t predict (John 3:8).

Instead, we could choose to pretend together as this little boy does when he visits his first friend. This positive pretending would allow us to dream together about what God is calling us to. We might have to overlook the fact that our playmate has brought Care Bears to a Star Wars battle, but the energy lost obsessing over those details, trying to deliver what we may believe to be a hard truth, is more than we frankly have.

So as we head into this final conference of the quadrennium, I am tired of pretending and looking forward to a day where we might dream up new possibilities together again. I hope I am not alone in this.

Image Credit: Composite image from source files by Flickr user JD Hancock.

What the Hell are we doing on Sunday Mornings?

Guest Post by the Rev. Kathy Neary

Christianity is bracing for the Big One.  We are waiting with anxious hearts to see what cataclysmic change is bearing down on us from history. Phyllis Tickle popularized the theory that every 500 years a great, mind-blowing transformation occurs within Christianity, and we are due. The last major shift in the way we theologized and practiced Christianity occurred during the Protestant Reformation, marked by Martin Luther posting his debate invitation on the Wittenberg Church doors in 1517.

A depiction of Martin Luther’s legendary nailing of his 95 Theses to the doors of the Wittenberg Castle church.

We’re due.  We may be past due.

I think the next major shift involves the end of Christian worship. I’m not referring to the style of benedictions, which is what I found when I Googled “the end of Christian worship.” I’m saying that Christians will no longer gather on a weekly basis to worship God. Of course, that type of practice will continue in small pockets of Christian communities, but it will not be the central identifying mark of Christian life. This change in Christian practice has been coming for some time now, but we just haven’t recognized the seismic shifts sending tremors up through our souls. Now it’s time to face this possibility.


Our Connectional Game of Thrones

A couple of weeks before United Methodists gather in Portland, Oregon for their General Conference, the highly anticipated sixth season of Game of Thrones will debut on HBO. This will be the first season to leapfrog its source material, A Song of Ice and Fire, the popular fantasy series by George R. R. Martin. The second promotional trailer for this season, released just a week ago, already has 14 million views.

Game of Thrones logoWhile Game of Thrones is a cultural phenomenon, it is also very clearly intended for a mature audience. Even though the show’s fandom assuredly includes some Methodists, there have been moments throughout that have rightly given viewers, religious or not, pause.

Of course, the same might be said of the quadrennial meeting United Methodists call General Conference. Billed as a “global church gathering” accompanied with celebratory displays of worship and recognition of Connectional work, this meeting of the denomination’s “top legislative body” can also be a babelesque confusion of cultures, values, and theology. The $10.5 million price tag for this church gathering, given the elusiveness of substantive results, also gives many pause.

Mission Accomplished and a Savior that Knows Better

Does the image accompanying this post disturb you a little? I hope it does. The juxtaposition of this dubious image of American power with the work of Christ is intentional. Despite the misguided efforts of much of the modern Church, these things are like oil and water.

Holy Week provides us an opportunity to repent and cleanse a Church that has been unfaithful in its presentation of the Gospel and in its acclimation to a culture obsessed with celebrity, success, and power.

The Church has a Jessica Alba-sized Problem

Jessica Alba’s Honest Company has a problem. It’s a problem many churches can relate to.

Founded by Alba and Christopher Gavigan, Honest Co. has built its brand on the promise of delivering environmentally-friendly personal care items for the home. It has also effectively capitalized upon America’s fixation and trust in its celebrities and our tendency to believe that we can do social good by spending money on ourselves. In a few short years, this young company has minted a “$1.7 billion private evaluation” off of their promises and artful sales of simple products at a premium.

The Honest Co. has built a strong brand around doing what is right and being, for lack of a better word, honest. And that is why The Wall Street Journal’s expose revealing the use of sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) in their laundry detergent product is so damning.  This chemical, commonly found in the products of their reviled (by them) competitors, is defined by Honest Co. as a “known irritant,” and is clearly marked as a chemical their products are “Honestly Made Without.”

Independent studies commissioned by the WSJ to verify The Honesty Co. truthiness found SLS in their laundry detergent (the one product they tested) in amounts comparable to Tide.

So much for honesty…

Jesus or Trump. Who will you follow?

Donald Trump or Jesus Christ. Who should we follow?

  • One promises to make America great again; the other rejected the Satanic temptation to rule.
  • One promises a wall and false security; the other demands hospitality for the refugee and tells us to “fear not.”
  • One dismisses his competitors calling them “Losers”; the other calls us to love and respect our enemies.

And this list could go on and on.

No politician is perfect. And a vote for one is rarely an act of devotion. Our salvation is never to be found in a Democrat or a Republican.

Still, if a religious life is to have meaning, if faith is to have some purpose, it ought to drive us toward our better angels. Discipleship calls us to discern; it begs us to choose.

  • Where the evil one tempts us with “winning,” we are called to care for those who are losing.
  • In moments where fear rises, we follow faithfully in seeking hope.
  • When empire offers its faith promises, we resist knowing that our Kin(g)dom is not of this Earth.

Jesus or Trump. Who will you follow?