Saturday, June 15, 2019

God Moments at Annual Conference 2019

This was my first year at Annual Conference to vote for General Conference delegates. It also was an intense one, as it followed General Conference 2019. I was proud to be part of the Room for All Coalition and be a part of something bigger than myself. But just as it always does, it wasn’t just in the meetings that God was at work. This is about the God moments that happened in the halls and the breaks and the hotel. The moments when God took me by surprise this Annual Conference(AC). 

My journey as a Methodist has been relatively short. My first trip to AC was in 2009. That seems a lot longer to my daughter who has been going her whole life. Since I am new, I have worked hard to connect with the clergy close to me geographically in every single area I have been appointed. Being connected with colleagues is one of reasons I choose to be in a denomination. Most of these pastors I haven’t had deep discussions about my positions with regarding General Conference 2019. It’s easy to not wear that on your sleeve. 

Until your daughter turns 11, that is. This year, Lydia adorned herself in rainbows fully aware that many of the decisions this AC were about our reaction as an AC to the exclusion and punitive measures of GC 2019. She insisted that I do the same. When your daughter tells you to wear a rainbow, you wear it. Because how would I tell her no? Then Lydia sat in the Clergy Spouse booth, creating artwork heavy with rainbows. Nick couldn’t hide either. Lydia was going to make sure AC knew her parents were progressive Christians. 

It was late one night as I shared with the family the good news that the people I was voting for were going to be our delegates, that Zeke shared that he too was on the side of the rainbow. Then he asked the question, “How could someone not be?” Behind that question was the core of our theology as the UMC. Both my kids have been taught in UMC Sunday school classes, VBS, and after school programs the heart of our theology: Gods love you before you love him. God loves you. And you are to love others like God loves them. This is what I heard in this question. How can you keep people from being in a covenant relationship of love and call that Christian? How can you keep people from following God’s call on their lives and and not keep them from loving God by following their call?

But their question was not a rhetorical one like those above. It was one that expected an answer. So I did my best. I said what I know to be true, “For a long time pastors taught people that it was wrong  for boys to love boys and girls to love girls.” Pause. “Your dad and I grew up in churches that taught that.” Pause. “But you know what, we studied and learned and we decide that was wrong.” Pause. “God can change people.”  

When I served my first church in the UMC back in 2009, one of the geographically close people I met was Pastor Meg. Pastor Meg was a great pastor doing good work in her local church and even beyond at the district and conference levels. I ran into her this Annual Conference. She looked at my rainbow button, and said, “It’s good to know where you stand.” And introduced me to her wife. 

God can change people. Meg still feels called to be a pastor, and I pray that God changes us people so that she can. I pray that people don’t have to choose between a spouse and their call. I pray that we can make room for people to love others and love God at the same time. God can change people. Come, Holy Spirit, Come. 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Wesley's Quadrilateral: My view of LGBT rights by way of Reason

This Epiphany season I am preaching a series of sermons on “How We Know God” using Wesley’s Quadrilateral as a template. Each Sunday in worship I will be talking about one of the 4 sources we use to know God: Scripture, Experience, Tradition, and Reason. Here, in anticipation of the General Conference on A Way Forward coming up in February, I will be writing about how these 4 sources of knowing God have informed my current opinions on the involvement of LGBTQ people in the United Methodist Church. May these reflections spark you to reflect on your own opinions and how God has been present in shaping and changing your beliefs. 

Reason is the smallest side of Wesley’s quadrilateral because throughout history we have often used scripture to justify injustice. During the era of legal slavery, slaveholders and their churches justified their treatment of people as property by proof texting and twisting the scriptures. And yet at the same time, abolitionists used scripture to condemn slavery. Reason can be a dangerous tool when used without the other 3 sides. With that said, let us tread lightly.

2 Greatest Commandments
For me, reason makes us examine the world through the two greatest commandments. Love the Lord with all your being. Love others as you love yourself.  It’s easy for us to say we love, but the other side of that question is just as important: Do others experience what we are doing as love? I can abuse someone and say it is because I love them. However, those harmed or even those outside of the abuse may see those actions as unloving. They may say, “That is not what love looks like.” 

The acts against LGBT people have often looked unloving. Keeping them from caring for each other in sickness and health looks unloving. Keeping them from using their gifts and abilities because of who they cherish looks unloving. Keeping them from expanding their homes to love children looks unloving. Telling them they have no place in God’s family looks unloving. Forcing them to choose between romantic love and agape love looks unloving. Even worse, encouraging families to disown LGBT family members looks unloving. Jesus reminded us to be concerned more about judging ourselves rather than those around us. Let us first love correctly ourselves before we argue about the appropriateness of others' love.

3 Simple Rules
John Wesley used three simple rules to help him reason. Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God. 

Do no harm. When we look at LGBTs in marriage relationships, are they harming others? No, their marriage harms no one. By not allowing marriage, are we doing harm? Yes, we are keeping committed adults from making decisions for their loved ones in hospitals and allowing only one parent to have legal guardianship of children. Denying marriage has implications that hurt families.

Do good. Are LGBT people keeping us from doing good? No. By excluding them, are we keeping them from doing good? Yes. The church is often the place where we band together to transform our communities and by excluding LGBT folks from leadership, we are getting in the way of them do as much good for the world as they can. 

Stay in love with God. Is the inclusion of LGBT people in our congregations keeping us from growing closer in love with God? No. Are our policies keeping LGBT people from nurturing their own faith development through the church? Yes. We are keeping people from following God’s call on their lives. Our exclusion of LGBT folks tears them a way from the church. When it comes to ordination, we have alienated younger generation who recognize this is not a loving position. If you believe as I do that the church is God’s community to provide support and accountability and administer his grace, than forcing people out of the church is not good for their love for God. 

It seems reasonable to me that God would invite people into all parts of the church and into committed relationships. It seems reasonable to me that scripture, experience, and tradition all support this as well. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Wesley's Quadrilateral: My view of LGBT rights by way of Scripture

This Epiphany season I am preaching a series of sermons on “How We Know God” using Wesley’s Quadrilateral as a template. Each Sunday in worship I will be talking about one of the 4 sources we use to know God: Scripture, Experience, Tradition, and Reason. Here, in anticipation of the General Conference on A Way Forward coming up in February, I will be writing about how these 4 sources of knowing God have informed my current opinions on the involvement of LGBT people in the United Methodist Church. May these reflections spark you to reflect on your own opinions and how God has been present in shaping and changing your beliefs. 

Is homosexuality a sin?
There are 7 passages in scripture that are about homosexual acts. None of them deal with the concept of being a homosexual and personhood, because that was not an idea present in the cultures in which the scripture was written. 

There is little argument among Methodist pastors that these passages condemn homosexual acts as a sin when taking them on their own. The problem comes when you take them in context of the whole Bible. There are a lot of sins clearly stated in the Bible that we no  longer recognize as sins. This has been going on since before the Bible was canonized. Jesus himself was known for breaking Old Testament laws he felt by their very practice were breaking the heart of the law. One example is his willingness to work on the Sabbath when it meant healing someone. Jesus also very clearly stated that the most important laws were to love God and love others. So if by our laws, we keep others from loving God, Jesus says its better for us to drowned. If by our laws we are not loving others as we would want to be loved, we are breaking the most important law. I would even argue that if by the practice of that law we are sewing seeds of hate in our communities, we are in trouble. 

Jesus insisted on practicing the spirit of the Law rather than the letter, and we don’t know the spirit behind many of the laws around homosexuality. We do know many rules around sex had to do with religious rituals in pagan religions where sex was treated as a form of worship. God wanted his people to trust him for their yields, not fertility gods. Also, scripture condemns sex being forced as a symbol of power to shame others. We clearly see this in the story of Sodom, as the men seek to rape the visitors to their city. 

In the early church of Acts, there were consistently laws broken as the Holy Spirit baptized lawbreakers: Gentiles who were not circumcised, ate unclean food, etc. Women were told by Paul to keep silent at the same time that he was putting women in positions of leadership. God seemed to be redefining what was sinful, and who was allowed full access to the Kingdom of God. 

What about marriage? One woman and One man?
Let’s starts by just saying the marriages in the Bible were not limited to one man and one wife. Bible heroes often had multiple wives and concubines. Women were treated as property and baby factories, not equals in marriage. Women were traded for political and economical reasons. Marriage was not entered into because of love. God disrupted the subjugation of women consistently in both the biblical text and the church. In every age, God has empowered women and treated them as equals in cultures that have not. But let us not for a minute forget the context in which scripture was written, and how the people in it often looked like the culture they were in. 
With that said, our liturgy for the wedding ceremony views marriage as a  covenantal relationship. In the Old Testament, these covenants were a common contract built around the relationship people had together. In our wedding vows, language is covenantal, not gender specific. We don’t require women to have children, nor require men to be owners of family property. Rather women and men make the same vows centered around honor, love, and faithfulness. In scripture, covenants are not limited to one man and one woman relationships. God cuts covenants with men. Men cut covenants with other men. Gender in no way limits covenantal arrangements. If we believe our liturgy that marriages are covenants, there are no limitations of gender by scripture. 

Calling in the Bible 
God calls people. The church confirms those calls. God has always called imperfect people, because lets be honest, that is all he has to choose from. But our differences as called people actually strengthen us. We are a stronger church because of our diversity in gender, race, geography,  etc. God has consistently gone against the norms of culture to call unlikely people forward to be his judges, kings, prophets, teachers, and apostles. If he didn’t want LGBT pastors, he wouldn’t call them into ministry. There are much more vital metrics for measuring God’s call into ministry than demographical identity. These are the things we already measure in our long candidacy process.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Wesley's Quadrilateral: My view of LGBT rights by way of Tradition

This Epiphany season I am preaching a series of sermons on “How We Know God” using Wesley’s Quadrilateral as a template. Each Sunday in worship I will be talking about one of the 4 sources we use to know God: Scripture, Experience, Tradition, and Reason. Here, in anticipation of the General Conference on A Way Forward coming up in February, I will be writing about how these 4 sources of knowing God have informed my current opinions on the involvement of LGBTQ people in the United Methodist Church. May these reflections spark you to reflect on your own opinions and how God has been present in shaping and changing your beliefs. 

Michael Coyner put together this video to share our historical votes on LGBT participation in the church: Finding our Way Forward: A History

Who is voting in the 2019 General Conference?
   We usually hold General Conferences (GC) every 4 years, the last one being in 2016, the next to be held in 2020. The year before GC, the lay person and clergy person we send to Annual Conference vote on  which 16 people we will send as our delegates to GC from the Indiana Conference.  Because this GC is special-called, it was decided that those delegates elected in 2016 would remain delegates for 2019. In 2015, Barb B. and Pastor Michael voted for these delegates. Our next regularly scheduled GC will occur in 2020, and so this summer at Annual Conference, Barb and Pastor Crystal will vote for delegates to attend 2020 General Conference. We send an equal amount of clergy and laity. There will be 1,000 delegates from the UMC all around the world. Bishops do not vote at General Conference.

Our History of Calling and Ordination
The Methodist Church began as a movement that moved so rapidly, laity were given higher positions of leadership than the Church of England from which it arose allowed. People new to the faith would join a class, then would lead a class, then those classes would become churches. Ordained Elders would visit a class/church once a month or every two months. Meanwhile a lay leader would do the everyday work of the pastor. Eventually, that led to licensed local pastors, who received more training but still stayed in one location to serve their local community. Because of this structure, the local community would often have leaders that were “unacceptable.” Women and people of color often rose to serve and preach in the local area because of their call to do so, even though white men were the only ones allowed to be ordained. From the beginning, Methodists have broken church rules to further God’s kingdom. 

Early on John Wesley had to make a choice if he would allow this to happen. He had heard one of his Methodist classes was allowing a woman to preach. The story goes that he complained to his mother, Suzanna about this outrage. Suzanna responded, “Maybe you should hear her preach before you decide she shouldn’t be preaching.” John took his mother’s advice, and was so impressed by the woman’s preaching he allowed women to preach from then on. Throughout the Methodist history, we find stories of people leading and following God’s call before it was accepted by the church. The church consistently played catch-up. 

Women have been preaching since John Wesley’s lifetime. They were stripped of credentials, and only after fighting for it, were they finally given credentials. The Methodist Church split over race.  Only later did we come back together as one church. When we have tried to include a new demographic in our leadership, it has happened with disagreement. And here we are again today. Like the minorities before them, LGBT people have felt the call and found ways to follow it, whether it is by leading on the lay level or finding another denomination to serve in. 

What does it mean for you to be United Methodist?
This question was asked of me at a UMC gathering recently in the midst of a larger conversation of whether one decided whether to leave the denomination or stay. The question can be a powerful one. 

I came to the United Methodist for pragmatic reasons. I started in the Church of the Brethren, where churches sat open, and the District Superintendent refused to share my resume as a pastor with those churches. I served a Wesleyan Church for a short time. I left them because churches refused to consider me as their pastor because I was a woman. It was only after combining my resume with my husband’s and putting his name first that I was able to serve. At that church, my husband was told he needed to keep me quiet. The UMC leadership looked at my calling, my gifts and graces, my leadership ability above and before my gender. They have consistently treated me as an equal among men.  

I love the history of the UMC. I love how important the community of church has been since the beginning. I love that they value reaching out and making new disciples. I love that they take seriously our task of social justice and transforming the world. I also love that they will give me a place to follow my call as a woman. I love that the pastors are tied together through a conference and that I don’t ever feel isolated or alone in my ministry. 

Many denominations have wrestled with these questions…other mainline denominations, evangelical denominations, the Roman Catholic Church. Some have become more progressive, some more conservative.  I appreciate the UMC’s choice to try and hear all voices in the process, to be thoughtful and prayerful. I appreciate our Bishop’s leadership and guidance in having conversations around this decision. 

I'm Staying
 There is a strong possibility that this GC will be "the last straw" for some people, and they will choose to leave the denomination and their local church. Many have said as much. One group, called Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) have already made public that they are planning to form a new denomination if their preferred plan does not pass. I am not a part of this group. I can't speak for others, but there is more that makes me Methodist than my position on these two issues. I plan to stay and trust that God will continue to move us as a denomination. I hope you will stay with me, and that regardless of outcomes, God could use GC2019 to push us to better know him and be faithful disciples together.

For more information, check out the Indiana Conference's page here. They have a great FAQ sheet as well. 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Wesley's Quadrilateral: My view of LGBT rights by way of Experience

This Epiphany season I am preaching a series of sermons on “How We Know God” using Wesley’s Quadrilateral as a template. Each Sunday in worship I will be talking about one of the 4 sources we use to know God: Scripture, Experience, Tradition, and Reason. Here, in anticipation of the General Conference on A Way Forward coming up in February, I will be writing about how these 4 sources of knowing God have informed my current opinions on the involvement of LGBTQ people in the United Methodist Church. May these reflections spark you to reflect on your own opinions and how God has been present in shaping and changing your beliefs. 

God is still alive and moving. Just as he opened the hearts of people in Acts, he still opens our hearts to learn and grow in our faith today. I grew up in a very conservative church and family. I avoided LGBT conversations as much as possible early in my ministry. I was called, I felt, to share the love of Jesus with the world, and the enormity of that task made it hard to worry about this issue within the church. But as much as I wanted to think this would not be part of my life as a heterosexual, I was wrong. Because LGBTQ folks don’t just live in big cities or on the coasts of the USA. They live down the street. They come to our churches. And we have to decide how to love them as our neighbors. 

I mistakenly thought I was safe from controversy here. Twenty people all over 70 married or widowed. They were tucked off the state highways not even within the city limits of the small town in their zip code. Finding them was a chore. But, alas, here we were. In a split second I had to make the decision. “Welcome!” I said. “Where are you from?” I asked innocently.
“My wife and I have a little vacation home around the lake,” she said. 
How would I respond? My whole life I had been told that these are the people outside of the church. They were living in sin. And yet, here we were. The only people for miles, the only ones around that large lake, who valued God and the church enough to go out searching for us. What should I say? Should I send them away, ignore them or…welcome them in? 
The still small voice beckoned, “treat them as you would treat any other visitor.”
And so I did. I welcomed them into our church. I asked about their lives. I encouraged them to come back as often as they could. 

“Well, you could go to a thrift store and get a couple pairs of pants.” She said.
Shaking, I responded, “You don’t understand. I don’t have money.” 
The room went silent. It was clear that the poverty our family faced was not normal for these second career seminary students with well filled savings accounts. They looked at me with new eyes as they realized I had worn the same outfit every class. 
The next week, she stopped me in the parking lot with a card from her and her wife. Inside was a $50 visa card…for new pants. In the midst of the sacrifices I made, she was Christ’s hands and feet, an answer to a fervent prayer.  She was the only one in that class who was moved to practice compassion, and help me in my hour of need. Was she really the only one in that class that God did not call into ministry? It was clear to me in that moment, that she was more ready than the rest of us to lead others to love their neighbors as a pastor.

He was tall and muscular, a man’s man. He came to me after volunteering his time to pray with kids after an altar call at a local youth gathering. 
“Pastor, I prayed with this boy…and I need to know….do you think you can ‘pray the gay away’?” 
I took a deep sigh. “No, I don’t. And even if you could, I’m not sure that is what God wants. I think what he may need is for you to love him, the gay him.”
Then the story came. This boy at the cusp of junior high and all that entails, had one of his very good friends out him. Not even willing to admit himself that he was gay, she had told his classmates he was. After school, the other boys found him in the parking lot and beat him. It only ended after the police arrived. 
   As I studied scripture and prayed, I thought about that boy. I had been taught by the church that same-sex tendencies were a sin. Hate the sin, love the sinner. But these boys had been taught by people just like I had. And they had chosen to beat the “sin” out of him. What other sin have we tried so hard to beat out of people? How could you hate a sin that was embedded in their very being, that a boy too young to have sex could somehow know and try to deny about himself? Those boys had been taught to hate those who were different. It wasn’t by society. Housing, state programs, employers all had statements declaring they would not discriminate based on sexual orientation. The organization that held out? The church. 

As I read the stories of God’s love, of Jonah and Jesus, I couldn’t help but see a God that broke norms, broke precedent, in order to love. In order to include the outsider. I realized that God welcomes us where we are and as who we are. God did not make a mistake when he made me female. He did not make a mistake when he called me, a woman, to pastoral ministry. Now, I could believe he didn’t make a mistake when he made LGBTQ people either. 
But these were my beliefs, I held them close to my chest. This was not my struggle.
Then I found myself standing in a classroom with this junior high girl. She was The Great Hope for the future here. And here she was, stuttering those words, “I am a lesbian.” I could see how nervous she was. How would her pastor react? As I calmly told her that was okay. She poured out how it wasn’t for most adults in her life. Her parents were upset. Her favorite teacher had told her she couldn’t know yet. I responded, “I knew I liked boys by your age. If you know, you know.” 
Over the next several years, I would help her grow as a disciple. I watched the church love and embrace her, worrying that they would abandon her if they knew. I baptized her as someone already faithful in fulfilling her vows as a member of the church. And yet what if this faithful young lady was called to pastoral ministry? She would be told it was not possible in her church. 
All of these moments happened in rural conservative areas, not the kind of places that would host pride parades. Places like the community I was raised in. Each time, I prayed for God to guide me, to show me his truth, to hear him over the competing voices around me. I heard him tell me to love my neighbor as myself. I heard him tell me to stop being a part of a system of hate. I heard him tell me to recognize the call on his LGBT child’s life. I heard him ask me to make a disciple of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 

I write this in response to God’s voice. Recently, I have been invited to be part of a group that openly condemns homosexuals. Through this invitation, I have realized that I have not been vocal enough in my beliefs. May God continue to guide me to do better and be better.    

Thursday, December 20, 2018

On Dark Days

It comes without fail every year. December 21…the shortest day of the year…or the longest period of continual darkness. It falls just a few days before “the most wonderful time of the year.”  I think we are often tempted to ignore the darkness, as if that will make it go away quicker.

But Christmas does not exist apart from darkness. It is placed very strategically in the darkest days. Not so that we can ignore the darkness. Not so we can busy ourselves with erasing the darkness. 

It is placed here so that we know. It reminds us that in the throes of depression…or grief, or pain…whatever darkness is yours…that you do not walk that lonesome valley alone. Christmas is for reminding us that when there was only despair, God came with hope. It is to remind us that when there was only violence and unrest, God came with peace. It is so we know that when we can’t find happiness, God comes with joy. It comes so that we know God loves us not when we love him, but when we need his love the most.

It is not by accident that in the midst of darkness, Christ comes. Christ comes precisely when we need him most. He comes to sit with the depressed. He comes to quiet the anxious. He comes to cry with the grieving. He comes to comfort the suffering. He comes not when we are at our best, but when we are at our most desperate. When darkness invades our days.

If you find yourself this day…this week…this month…consumed by the darkness, fear not. The light is coming into the world. Jesus, the light himself, has not forsaken you. He sits with you. He listens. He holds you. Allow his light to fill your darkness.

Don’t forget. December 21st is the darkest day, because tomorrow it will be brighter. And even now, Jesus is with you.

Monday, December 17, 2018

What Christmas is All About

In September we began a youth group for elementary kids. As it started, I expected four kids. My two, and two others. We just moved here this summer and my kids had no friends to invite. Those two others invited their friends though, and some of those friends because as consistent as the pastor’s kids. Then one of those kids invited one of their friends who started coming regularly. We were growing slowly but surely.

As we began to approach Christmas, a retired teacher saw the potential of the kids who came to worship. We began working on lines for a Christmas play. Our regulars to junior group committed to coming on Sunday morning to practice alongside some kids who came to worship every other Sunday.

Then, on our very last practice the mom of these little boys brought their friend who had started coming to junior group. Could he be part of the play? Yes! We found him a spot.

Yesterday was the day. I got up early and headed to church nervous for them. Guess who was the first family through that door? Yep, it was that little boy who had joined the cast at our last practice with his dad and two younger brothers. As the rest of the cast arrived, they went into the nursery to make sure these little brothers had someone to play with. Another dad joined them to make sure the dad was welcomed too. Then two wonderful women joined them to watch the boys until the play began.
Siblings, grandchildren and cousins all filled the pews to watch the good news shared by our kids. They did great as they shared what Christmas is all about. But before worship even started, they had already shared what Christmas is all about when they invited their friends and made sure new people belonged.

My husband, reflecting on this Sunday, shared the truth that for most of these kids, they wouldn’t have had this chance at a mega-church. Sure, some of them would. But for those who are not theater geeks, whose parents work on weekends, who didn’t become part of the cast until the last practice, this chance to welcome their parents into their church wouldn’t have happened. These kids needed a church flexible  enough to make space for them.

I am really proud of our church kids. Not because of their acting and singing skills (yes they were great!) but for the way they welcomed people into their church family and for their willingness to do scary things for God.  I think that if they keep on doing those two things, God will keep giving them new kids to welcome. I pray that us adults can do those two things too. I pray that we can help these kids’ parents belong at Tanner Valley UMC. I pray that we can do scary things for God. If we can do those two things, we may find we too have room to grow. We may discover what Christmas is all about.