I’m losing my faith in unicorns… #UMC #NoSuchLaw

All the news about Bishop Karen Oliveto and the United Methodist Judicial Council yesterday surfaced some internet trolls, no surprise there. I was shocked however by the amount of Scripture proof-texting I encountered challenging women in leadership.

Example: “Read I Tim. 2:12 and Eph. 5:22–33.”

For those of you who aren’t members of The United Methodist Church, women have had full clergy rights since 1956 – Nineteen Fifty-Freakin’ Six! Some were ordained even before that time and Methodist women were causing all sorts of Holy ruckus much earlier than that.

The church’s position on full inclusion of LGBTQI folks troubles me though I’ve long been hesitant to paint everyone opposed as homophobic. That said, the persistence of sexism, its alignment with those opposing change, and the general ugliness of the “conversation,” particularly by those who have submitted to the yoke of Elder, makes me wonder.

Is the thoughtful, generous, conservative a unicorn, a fantasy I’ve allowed to stay for too long in my considerations? I’d like to believe that they exist but on days like these I find myself like doubting Thomas, in need of a little proof.

  • Where are the conservative blogs earnestly wrestling with the tension between their beliefs about human sexuality and the gifts Bishop Oliveto has evidenced? If they exist, I’d love to see them.
  • Where is the clear renunciation of sexism particularly against women who have experienced God’s call? How is it that 60 years later we still find “proud United Methodists” believing that this is okay? Why are organizations like COSROW maligned as unnecessary in some circles despite the statistical evidence of lingering bias?
  • Finally, where is the conservative outreach to the LGBTQI community that is Christ-like in its approach? I can appreciate that some can’t “endorse a lifestyle” but in what ways are you sharing God’s love with a community that has experienced prolonged discrimination? Where exactly in Scripture does Jesus respond to pain with more judgment?

Everyone loves unicorns. Okay, maybe I just believe that because my three children are girls. But even if we love them, at some point we have to accept that they don’t exist.

It is very true that the loud and angry voices on the internet are rarely an accurate reflection of any population. I know how I feel when a Tweet formed in pain or immaturity shows up as indicative of all liberals. Still, I long for more voices from the conservative world who are regularly respectful, earnest in their engagement of these important conversations, and eager to police the hateful rhetoric that bubbles up. I didn’t see that yesterday, perhaps I just missed it.

I will keep looking for unicorns for a while because I despise the bubbles we all find ourselves in. I believe in diversity of thought because it is a fantastic way to test beliefs and to grow beyond the biases we inherit from the cultures we grow up in. And as someone who spent formative years in the conservative world, I know that evangelicals have gifts to offer the Church. But I also understand how others, who aren’t white, straight and male, can no longer humor a possibility when it causes them much pain.

I need to see some more proof that this fantasy is worth clinging to, maybe even a glimpse of a horn running by will do. I fear that without their existence, and partnership in navigating change, in sixty years we’ll still have people questioning women in leadership and most certainly the full participation of LGBTQI folks in the life of the church.

When Jesus refuses to be crucified

I grew up in a conservative part of the country where women preachers weren’t a thing. People exited the Lutheran church our family belonged to because the denomination was discussing women in leadership (beyond Sunday School). While no change was actually made, some members left to form a new church in an even more conservative synod assumedly to avoid such conversations again.

Eventually I went east for seminary and most of my classmates were women, many around my mother’s age, experiencing a new freedom at the time to pursue a call to ministry. While I grew more comfortable with women in leadership positions because of this, deep seated prejudice still lingered. When my wife started to express and pursue her own call to ministry a few years later, I supported her but peppered her with well-intentioned, to my mind at the time, questions about the ability of women to lead in a culture that didn’t want them to.

I’m thankful that my slow acclimation to change didn’t hold her back.

As rooted as my reservations were in my own prejudice, they weren’t completely fictional either. While the ordination of women is, more or less, a settled issue in the denomination I belong to, female clergy are still caught at times between justice and the residual sexism that lingers in many congregations and in our society at large. The first female pastor at a church is still required to carry an extra burden beyond her pastoral duties. If she is excellent in all ways the church might welcome the next female pastor to come their way, but if she is like most people, imperfect, those faults can reinforce a narrative bubbling just below the surface.

Over the past forty or so years, much maligned mainline denominations like The United Methodist Church have taken official positions aligning themselves with minority groups, and those without power, because thoughtful leaders believed that it was the right thing to do. Despite the narrative of the conservative right, that these churches were simply accommodating themselves to culture, churches stepped up at a time where there was no clear benefit for doing so. If mainline denominations should be accused of anything, it might be their failure to publicly, and repeatedly, acknowledge that death (or a certain lack of popularity) is a likely cost of following Jesus.

For example, in the Pacific Northwest I can think of several progressive churches that affirmed and supported equal rights for gays and lesbians in cities like Seattle before it was culturally acceptable, and long before marriage equality was a real possibility. They did so because they were in the community, they knew the people, could see the pain, and were moved in love to respond. These faith communities often suffered distain (and worse) from other Christians for doing so despite the hard work they did to pioneer new understandings and applications of an old, old story. And as public opinion has shifted toward inclusion, these same churches are now accused of simply following culture despite a clear history that is in conflict with that narrative.

There have always been followers of Jesus, like myself, who have allowed caution, or prevailing wisdom, to get in the way of their calling to pick up the cross and do what it right. Most of Jesus’ disciples, with the exception of a few brave women, were among that number on the day Jesus was crucified. Eventually we get there but we need the prophetic foresight of those who walk ahead.

But there is a more problematic sort of disciple that confuses numerical success with God’s blessing. Jesus had some of these disciples around him too, urging him to assert himself and lead the people in violent revolution. Jesus had the apparent sense to know how short lasting that sort of revolution would have been; unfortunately we don’t always embody that wisdom.

During Holy Week it’s worth remembering that our calling, as followers of Jesus, is to the cross. We may have the promise of resurrection to anticipate, but that is distinct from our calling. Resurrection is God’s work, not ours.

Discerning why some churches grow while others die is a complicated thing, made even more so when we fail to acknowledge the diversity of congregational expressions held within labels like mainline, non-denominational, evangelical, etc. No one factor accounts for everything and shrewd leaders, and sincere disciples, aren’t all cut from one cloth. Sometimes failure is the result of poor leadership, ineptitude, or societal shifts (like where people live) beyond the control of any single congregation.

But when we look at something like the growth trajectories of mainline denominations and non-denominational churches, and fail to acknowledge that there is a cost to being faithful to the Gospel’s demands to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly, we neglect to acknowledge our calling to the cross. We also, unintentionally perhaps, present to the world a Jesus who refuses to be crucified, a cautious Christ that prefers the crowds to the cross.

Societal change doesn’t happen overnight, and institutions (which can, despite my GenX cynicism, be capable of much good) do require leaders who can manage the proverbial temperature. Their work can provide sacred and necessary space for conversation and transformation.

But we must always keep in mind Jesus’ paradoxical calling to us, that we might die to ourselves so that we might truly live.

Any honest interpretation of Good Friday begs us to consider again, in what ways might we die so that others might have life?

Postscript: While some of the preceding may read like a full-throated endorsement of progressive Christianity, it is not intended as such. The failure to collectively embrace discipleship as a serious task, to adopt innovative ways to communicate, teach and worship, and a reluctance in many places to trust the people of the church with modern biblical and theological conversations are all areas of concern. Well-intentioned or not, this can leave the laity in such places politically opinionated but strangely disempowered from the rich theological thought that undergirds some of the positions they have adopted.


Lost New Testament manuscript illuminates Jesus’ teaching on immigration

By Patrick Scriven
February 1, 2017

Nazareth, Israel An ancient manuscript scholars believe to be the earliest extant version of the Christian gospel ascribed to Matthew has been found in a bedouin cave in the high desert near the city of Nazareth. The city, famously associated with Jesus and his followers in the 1st century CE, was known to be a stronghold for the earliest believers.

Extraordinarily Clear #muslimban

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Just to be extraordinarily clear, a country has the sovereign right to close its borders to people it deems undesirable or dangerous. It can build large, magnificent walls and secure its airports and other ports of entry.

An organization, or any gathering of people, can define for themselves who belongs and who doesn’t. They can decide that certain people believe the wrongs things or live the wrong way and shun those who don’t fit.

As individuals, we all have free will and we can choose to empower our fears in the form of a demagogue or some set of exclusionary practices. We can even select alternative words for this like ‘Security,’ ‘faith’ and ‘freedom’ if that makes us feel better about it.

What a country, organization, or individual can’t do is think themselves a Christian nation, the capital ‘C’ Church, or profess themselves to be a follower of Christ while they chose something other than love.

The Bible isn’t extraordinarily clear on as much as I might like it to be, but in this area, it is very hard to read around some inconvenient themes:

“Be not afraid.”

“You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

The themes of resisting fear and offering hospitality don’t just appear in a few scattered texts here or there; they are woven throughout the Bible in such a way that were one to remove these threads they would unravel the very image of God there contained.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

The immigrant we turn out from our communities, the refugees that we stop and send back to danger, the person who doesn’t look, act or think like us; they all might be devils bent on our destruction. Living in fear, that is who they remain.

But for the follower of Jesus, the possibility, the promise, that they might be something more – an angel or even Jesus himself – is the starting point of our engagement. We are people “whose citizenship is in heaven” called to live fearlessly so that we might love freely.

We can choose to live in fear or we can be free to love. The choice for Christians may not be easy but it is extraordinarily clear.

The swamp and the businessman

A parable:

A real estate developer promises to drain an oversaturated property to increase its value. Absent scruples, this businessman fails to make the substantive changes that would allow the land to remain habitable for more than a season, for those changes might cut into his profits.

After a short season of dry weather, the land begins to flood as the rains return bringing despair to those swindled into investing and building upon false promises.

Let those with ears hear. The foundations we build upon matter.


Church: We Are Donald Trump

By Benjamin Yosua-Davis

I’ve been wondering about the utter impotence of the church in the face of the spiritual phenomenon of Donald Trump. Evangelicals flocked to him in droves. Progressive mainliners failed to move the needle politically, with denominational leaders dusting off their standard platitudes and appearing utterly confused on how to prophetically respond to ugly racist incidents at their own gatherings.

Why is this? I think it’s because we fundamentally operate on the same set of principles that Donald Trump does.

Let me hold up a mirror for a second:

Obsession with buildings, power, and wealth

According to Donald Trump, why is he “the very definition of an American success story?” Because he’s rich, because he’s very important, and because he’s developed a lot of real estate.

How do we measure whether a church is successful or not? In my denomination, there are three statistics: the number of people who come to worship, the size of our budget, and how much money we pay back to the denomination.

Every single time I’ve heard someone describe a church as successful, it’s always described in these terms. It’s because their worship attendance is growing, because they put up a new building, or because they can now hire more staff.

Every time I’ve heard a pastor described as successful, it’s because they were able to get a church to do one of these three things.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

The problem with Facebook is that it is a big mirror; a mirror with a financial incentive to tell us that we are beautiful.

In this mirror we see the things we want to see. Our politics are the right politics; our beliefs highly reasonable. Our pets, vacations, children, and food are always like-able.

And when we see an imperfection, Facebook gives us the tools to deal with it post haste. When someone advocates a position we don’t like, we can ignore it, or delete them altogether. If only middle school acne was so compliant.

Facebook is a problem because we are a problem. Our behavior draws the circle around us ever closer and closer. The echo chamber we have created tells us that we are wise. Our selfie-obsessed culture offers little critique or alternative.