Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Three times delegates tonight sought to tighten rules limiting any witness action that brings non-delegates into the bar of conference. This has only happened in previous General Conferences when the delegates have voted to retain anti-glbt language. Once the vote—which has always been close, revealing that the church is not of one mind regarding this issue, even though some might think we are in agreement because of the resulting lines in the Book of Discipline, those who are most impacted by the anti-glbt vote gather to grieve. Walking into the room is like walking into a triage center. There are wounded souls, broken hearts, and crushed spirits.  Straight people and glbt people ache in mourning for a church that has decided to amputate a part of the body of Christ.
The view of the plenary floor
In the midst of the weeping and praying, the dry, brittle bones begin to reattach in profound ways. We are reminded that crucifixion is never the end of our journey, but the Easter promise of resurrection is always available to us. And it is out of this resurrection spirit that a plan for witness arises. 

After denying a whole group of people a place at the table, the least the delegates could do is sit through a witness that seeks to restore relationship.  Yet, many delegates do not want to be “forced” to sit through such a witness. After causing pain, they do not want to have to see that pain on the faces of those they have just voted on.
Really, church? Is that what Jesus would ask of us?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Thoughts on the Journey to General Conference

As I fly to Tampa for General Conference of The United Methodist Church, I go praying and hoping that at this General Conference the church will remove a line in The Book of Discipline that has caused 40 years of pain and debate: “We consider homosexual practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

In 1972, when this line was added from the plenary floor to a paragraph that was neither condoning nor condemning of homosexuality, there was no discussion on what constitutes “practice” nor what “Christian teaching” this was based on. But with its inclusion, the UMC moved from a pastoral response to one of judgment. It is on this one sentence that the UMC has become increasingly anti-glbt in its own practices and ministries. Gay and lesbian persons who have been baptized and raised in the church are not acceptable as ministry candidates or ordained pastors, regardless of whether they are called by God to serve in the UMC or possess the gifts and graces for ministry.  Gay and lesbian members are welcomed to join a church, but are sent to the back of the bus (or to the back pew) when it comes to receiving the full rites of the church: Gay or lesbian couples may not have their relationships blessed within the church or by their pastor.  Funding restrictions at the General and Annual Conference levels limit the ability for faithful UMs to even discuss this issue fully and prayerfully, as there is a ban on the use of funds for programs that “promote” homosexuality.

So help me out, Church. Particularly those of you who want the UMC to retain these prohibitions because “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  On what basis do you rest your convictions?

I’ve heard many people say that this is what the scriptures tell us. Really? Out of all the verses in the Bible, from the handful of times that homosexuality may be mentioned, you are going to make a whole group of people second-class citizens in the body of Christ?  Do you hold as strong convictions on other parts of scripture: the Bible is very clear about what we should do with menstruating women and divorce. Where are our restrictions around these issues?  The Bible advocates the stoning of children who swear at their parents and an economics that borders on socialism (check out Jesus, and the early church in Acts)—are we going to advocate for these? There are also prohibitions about eating shellfish, but I don’t see any petitions calling for a boycott of Red Lobster.
So my hunch is that the Bible really isn’t at the heart of this conversation. After all, the church has managed to move from an acceptance of slavery to seeing it as an abomination, and while scriptures say that women ought to be silent, woman preachers are now acceptable (although I know some of you still think this was a mistake). Why can’t our understanding of those few verses also be evolving, being reformed by the Holy Spirit as other verses have?

You often say this will break with church tradition. The church has broken with its own traditions over and over again as it seeks to be faithful to God in the challenges and opportunities of a new age. The Reformation and the ordination of women are but two examples of the church “changing its mind”.  We do not require celibacy for our pastors, yet this is a break from Christian tradition. Tradition is always evolving as it encounters the realities of a new age. We all have seen Christian traditions reshaped over the generations, so this isn’t a strong argument, either.

You also say that accepting gay men and lesbians will make us out of step with mainstream Christianity. In the US, we are the ones out of step! As our Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, and United Church of Christ brethren have discovered, God is still speaking and informing us on this issue. They have confessed their sin of exclusion and have reformed Christian teaching and tradition as they accept gay men and lesbians fully as members of the body of Christ.  The United Methodist Church is increasingly seen as oppressive and bigoted as it rejects its glbt members and their families. Is oppression and bigotry what it means to be in step with mainstream Christianity?

You also say that accepting gay men and lesbians into the ministry of the Church will hamper and perhaps even damage its witness and effectiveness in countries around the world. Really? Help me understand this: welcoming faithful men and women into the life and ministry of the church can hurt the Church’s reputation (Hmm, I wonder what Jesus would say about this)?  What I think is more deplorable is that in countries where gay men and lesbians are regularly beaten, tortured, raped and murdered, the Church is being a complicit partner in the violence and genocide. In countries which are criminalizing gay men and lesbians, the Church is deafeningly silent. 

Homosexuality is found in every culture, regardless of whether it is “tolerated” or not. This is a fact. No matter what a country’s cultural understanding might be, there are gay and lesbian people who exist in spite of the culture’s repression. In whatever culture it finds itself, the Church ought to be a place where every child of God is welcomed and invited to grow into the fully person God created him or her to be.
So, help me out, what is really at the heart of your commitment to keeping the UMC’s stance on homosexuality?

Perhaps you feel this way because homosexuality is so different from your own orientation and experience. It is the “other” and hard to understand. Ask a gay man or lesbian (or bisexual or transgender person) about their life, how they came to understand their sexual orientation (and gender identity). Listen to how God has moved in their life, about their faith journey. Learn why the Church is important to them and how they live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Don’t tell me you don’t know any gay or lesbian people. They can be found among your sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, co-workers and neighbors. Get to know them. Once you have heard their story, once you have seen their commitment to Christ, can you still look them in the eye and say they are not acceptable in the body of Christ?

The truth is, glbt persons have been serving faithfully in the church for generations: Sunday School teachers, choir directors, youth workers, UMW members, trustees, organists, pastors, and yes, even bishops. This isn’t going to stop any time soon just because of prohibitions in the Book of Discipline. God keeps calling glbt persons to serve in the UMC. The UMC has enjoyed the fruits of their labors, and will continue to do so. Can we at least agree on this truth?

As you debate the homosexual “issue” for these next two weeks, remember that you are not talking about some abstract thing, you are talking about your brothers and sisters, many of whom will be in the same room with you. The words you choose will carry weight and can either do harm or can build up. Choose your words carefully.

I am praying for you and with you, for all of us who dearly love this Church. Part of my prayer includes the words of this song of faith by Hezekiah Walker:

I won’t harm you with words from my mouth, I love you. I need you to survive.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday 2012

You sat in the chair, but every muscle was tensed, ready to flee. You kept pulling your hair over your face, yet you watched every move we made. You were scared. Your hands, your whole body shuddered in fear.

You had come in seeking shelter, a sanctuary. Your story came out in the breath of a whisper. We had to lean close to hear, yet every time we leaned close, you pulled back, shrinking from our compassion. A drug-addicted mom who saw you, her daughter, as a way to afford her drug habit. Ten years old. Prostituted by your own mother.

That was seven years ago. Seven years of being used and abused. Your mother's addiction led her to an early grave, but you were not free. Instead, you became the property of a pimp.

He was cruel. Somehow, you escaped and found your way to us. There was blood on your face., yet we knew you had more wounds and scars than we could see.

We asked someone into the room to help us help you. But who did he remind you of? When you saw him, you looked like a trapped animal, and we saw your mind run through your options: fight or flight?

You kept sucking a lollipop and then, in the other hand, lit up a cigarette. As we watched you, we had to keep turning our faces away from you, so you wouldn't see our tears. How, in God's name, could adults have mistreated you in ways you only hinted at? Would you let us in enough to help you?

So many adults had not only let you down, but had been the source of abuse and pain. We wanted you to be safe, but you couldn't even trust us. Before we could get you the help you needed, you left us. I stood outside and watched you run down the street, running to what I could not even imagine. Your feet, hitting the pavement and lifting, as if they could lift you higher and higher, to a place where there is no pain, no fear, no abuse.

I could only say a prayer: May it be so.