Is Only Unborn Life Sacred?

This week Alabama enacted a law against all abortions. Other state legislatures have enacted strict restrictions with the goal of criminalizing all abortions. My home state of  Tennessee is among them.

Thursday evening Alabama and Tennessee intentionally, with premeditation, strapped two men to a gurney, injected poison into their restrained bodies and watched them die.

Michael Samra’s last words were a prayer to Jesus and Don Johnson sang a hymn as he drew his final breath.

Both men had been convicted of murder. They had cruelly taken the lives of others and inflected terrible grief on their loved ones.

Advocates for the criminalization of abortions defend “the sacredness of the unborn” and the “sanctity of life.”

State-sanctioned killings (‘capital punishment’ is a convenient euphemism) are done in the name of “justice” and compassion for victims.

Protecting and affirming the sacredness and sanctity of life and practicing justice and compassion are core values in civil society and the Christian faith.

But much of the rhetoric and action around abortion and the death penalty exposes a deep, deadly hypocrisy and inconsistency.

Some argue that anti-abortion is protecting “innocent lives” while state executions is justice delivered to the guilty and that comparing the two is a false equivalency.

But are only unborn lives “sacred”? Does birth end human sacredness? Does guilt, even of murder, nullify the sanctity of human life!

According to my understanding of God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer and the universality of God’s prevenient  grace, ALL life is sacred!

Although the image of God is distorted in ALL  of us, God continues to claim us as beloved sons and daughters, with inherent worth and dignity, unborn and born!

Furthermore, justice from a biblical perspective is assuring that ALL have access to God’s abundance and to the resources necessary to flourish as God’s beloved children.

Therefore, I hope the state and national political leaders will be diligent in assuring that those who have been born will have access to medical care, adequate housing, quality education, and loving community.

And, I pray that we will not create more victims of violence by killing those who have killed and calling it “justice” and “compassion.”

Having been present with families of sons who were executed by the state, I know that grief is only compounded and injustice multiplied.

Let’s cease the hypocrisy by practicing justice and compassion for ALL, the unborn and already born!

And let us demand that our politicians stop reducing “sanctity of life” and “justice for victims” to campaign slogans while enacting policies that wound and kill the most vulnerable among us — those the Scriptures call “the orphans, widows, and strangers (immigrants)” and “the least of these”!

 

The Gospel and People Can’t be Captured by Labels!

I find it deeply disturbing that The United Methodist Church is considering forming new denominations defined by such ambiguous secular ideological labels as “Progressive,” “Traditional,” and “Centrist.”

The Christian gospel will not fit neatly into any label, any more than God can be fully captured in any creed.

And, people are more complex than can be categorized on the basis of single issues. Identifying people in accordance with ideological labels reduces them to a category less than a child of God who bears the divine image.

When we think we have boxed God within the confines of our thoughts and experiences, we may be sure we have the wrong god! And, when mystery has been removed from any Christian doctrine,  “good news” has become bad news.

Forming a denomination designated explicitly for  “progressives,” “traditionalists,” “centrists,” “conservatives,” or “liberals” is to intensify and broaden practices of exclusion, evasion, and division.

Structural changes are needed and new forms of Methodism will emerge. But ambiguous secular political ideological labels fall sinfully short of the firm foundation on which the church is built!

 

Where Do We Go from Here?

Bood CoverThe United Methodist Church as we have known it is being dismantled before our eyes. Analysts are sifting through the rubble of the disastrous called session of General Conference (more info) for clues as to what went wrong and potential insights for what needs to be done.

The analysis is painful but necessary and merits thoughtful and prayerful reflection from across the denomination.

I’ve been privileged to assist in the gathering of initial reflections by a diverse group of authors. Where Do We Go from Here, (preorder here) assembled and published by Kevin Slimp of Market Square Books, represents an initial effort to advance the analysis and lay the groundwork for continuing conversation.

Here is an excerpt from my chapter in the collection:

There can be no faithful move forward without consciously and intentionally examining currently misplaced loyalties and priorities. Without such candid, ongoing, and painful self-examination, we will build new structures and practices on fatally flawed foundations  where the termites continue their destruction. Without repentance, the organizational and programmatic changes made will be but improved means to unimproved ends.

Let’s continue the search for the way forward that most faithfully bears witness to God’s present and coming reign in Jesus Christ!

 

Excluded, Included

Of all that I have read in response to the actions of the recent General Conference, this one moves me most deeply. It is written by a young college student who was baptized, confirmed, and formed in a local United Methodist Church. The denomination has a future only if it listens to such voices as this one.

Excessive Ramblings

I should be studying. But I’ve been thinking so much this
week that I can’t think. I just saw a quote from Reverend Eston Williams: “At
the end of the day, I’d rather be excluded for who I include than included for
who I excluded.”

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

For those of you not wrapped up in church news—specifically,
United Methodist Church news—the church’s legislative body, the General
Conference, voted this week to strengthen our Book of Discipline’s language excluding
non-celibate LGBTQ individuals from the clergy and punishing clergy who violate
these rules or perform same-sex marriages. The decision faces judicial review,
but the decision was made nonetheless.

“Open Hearts, Open Doors,” we say. Perhaps not for all.

I am hurt. I am confused. And, in the words of Reverend
Williams, I really would “rather be excluded for who I include than included
for who I excluded.” If we take some…

View original post 671 more words

God Bats Last!

I am deeply grieved, frustrated, and embarrassed by the actions of the United Methodist General Conference.

We not only did harm to our LGBTQAI+ beloved sisters and brothers; we publicly bore false witness to the Christian gospel and severely undermined the church’s witness in this broken world.

Lord, have mercy! Christ, have mercy!

May our lament energize us for living our baptismal vows and “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sins.”

May our resistance be in the form of radical agape/love expressed in justice, compassion, and hospitality.

I’m holding onto the conviction that God has already won the decisive victory in Jesus Christ.

God always bats last! I pray that the church to which I’ve given my adult life will be on base in the final inning!

Will We Bear Witness to the Gospel or to Our Brokenness?

The nation is perilously divided along political, racial, economic, gender,  and cultural lines. Hatred, disrespect, and cruelty toward “the other” have become acceptable public behavior and a normalized political strategy.

Tribalism and ideological warfare threaten any sense of commonality and mock the ideal of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Where is the church, particularly the denomination which has shaped my life–The United Methodist Church?

At the general church level, we are mirroring the divisions within the nation! Groups are quarreling over human sexuality and the interpretation of Scripture.

Local congregations and individual members are being pushed into ideological corners with secularly devised labels of “traditionalists” and “progressives.”

This isn’t the first time Methodists have mirrored national divisions. We divided over slavery and, thereby, the church became complicit in the violence of the Civil War.

Current arguments and rationalizations echo those advanced by preachers in 19th century. Once again the Bible is being used as a weapon of ideological warfare rather than as the authentic witness to God’s mighty acts of salvation, supremely in Jesus Christ.

Just at the time the nation and world need a model of unity amid differences, United Methodist leaders seek ways to separate; thereby,  countering our “oneness in Jesus Christ” and weakening our witness to the Christian gospel.

Whatever rationalizations we may use to convince ourselves that we are defending truth and upholding morality,  to the world a division will bear witness to our brokenness and hypocrisy.

Let us, instead, bear witness to the core gospel truth that God has already acted decisively in Jesus Christ to reconcile all things (Colossians 1:20). God has called the church to be instruments of reconciliation.

 “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19 NRSV).

Unity in Christ

This isn’t about unity for unity’s sake!  It’s unity as embodiment of witness to the gospel! God in Christ has already made us one! He has already broken down the dividing walls of hostility! That’s the gospel truth!

Failure to embody that good news in our life together as a denomination will mock the central message of the Christian Gospel: In Jesus Christ, God has broken down all dividing walls of hostility and claimed ALL as beloved sons and daughters!

The issue of homosexuality will not be resolved by legislation or denominational restructuring as proposed by any of the plans to be presented at the forthcoming called session of General Conference.

Resolution lies in living the oneness already existing in Jesus Christ by humbly struggling together to fully grasp God’s vision for the world and the church. “Traditionalists” and “progressives” need one another! A first step may be to do away with such simplistic labels and commit ourselves to God’s reign of compassion, justice, and hospitality.

It seems to me that the One Church Plan being proposed to the General Conference has the best chance of enabling United Methodists to pursue and live God’s vision for humanity expressed in Jesus’s prayer that “they might be one.”

Make no mistake about it: the world is watching! May our leaders bear witness to a unity that transcends uniformity, a unity God has already wrought in Jesus Christ.

Prayer after the Election

 



praying-hands_1027_1024x768Sovereign God of justice and compassion, who judges all peoples, nations, institutions, and political parties: We pray for your mercy and guidance in the midst of our nation’s political turmoil and division.

Reconciling God, heal the painful wounds inflicted by our sharply partisan politics which elevates winning elections above honesty, respect, and the common good. Free us from narrow self-interest, insensitivity, and arrogance so that we can be agents of reconciliation in our families,  neighborhoods, and congregations.

Compassionate God, replace our hearts of stone with hearts beating with your life-giving mercy and kindness. Open our eyes to the hurts of others, clear our ears to hear the anguished cries of those who suffer,  transform our clinched fists into hands of generosity, and widen our arms to embrace all whom you love and for whom Christ died.

Righteous and holy God, whose righteousness is unyielding justice and whose holiness is unblemished love, empower us to defend “the orphans, widows, and immigrants” and purify our love of the blemishes of exclusion, superiority, and privilege.

Resurrecting and triumphant God, who in Jesus Christ conquered the powers of sin and death and is ever bringing order from chaos, liberation from bondage, reconciliation out of brokenness, strength from weakness, hope from despair, life from death: Grant us a renewed vision of your present and coming reign and a deepened commitment to seek first your kingdom and your righteousness.

To you, O Christ, belongs our final loyalty and through the power of the Holy Spirit, enable us to love you more dearly, serve you more faithfully, and praise you more joyfully. Amen

 

Gleanings from Responses to “Why I Changed My Mind about Homosexuality and the Church”

Dad headshot

 

Much to my astonishment, more than 60,000 people have read the blog entitled, “Why I Changed My Mind about Homosexuality and the Church.” (here)

The shear numbers speak volumes about the feelings associated with the topic. People want to discuss the issue in a common desire to discern a faithful way forward.

This is a teaching moment and many people are listening and eager to share. The church must be a compassionate participant in the conversation.

Another surprise: Less than 2% of the 60,000 expressed explicit disagreement with my position of full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life and ministry of the church. That says to me that people are more open and accepting than we often assume.

With few exceptions, those disagreeing have been respectful and civil in their opposition. Less than a dozen were mean-spirited, which suggests that we can have a civil conversation while disagreeing!

The most poignant revelation in the responses is the extensive pain and deep hurt people are carrying. The stories of rejection, cruelty, ostracism, and struggle are heart-wrenching.  Some contacted me personally to share wounds they are afraid to expose publicly.

While there are those who say that the language currently in The Book of Discipline (here) is compassionate, thousands of people are hearing and experiencing rejection, hatred and exclusion.  Regrettably and sadly, the language is being used as justification for bullying, demeaning, and ostracizing God’s beloved and faithful people.

Tragically, the hurtful message is coming from the institution that exists to bear witness to God’s boundless love and radical hospitality!

I’m even more convinced that the current official language violates two of three United Methodist General Rules:  “Do no harm” and “Do all the good you can.”  Our pronouncements are inflicting terrible suffering on individuals and families; and we are denying the church of the witness and leadership of many gifted persons whom God has called into ministry.

We must get inside the pain within ourselves and those most affected by our pronouncements and policies; otherwise, we will continue to inflict wounds rather than contribute to reconciliation and healing.

An additional gleaning from the responses:  Considerable confusion exists as to the meaning of “authority of Scripture” and the role of the Bible in Christian formation and living.

I grew up in fundamentalism. Taking the Bible seriously is indelibly etched into my heart and soul. I challenge anyone who concludes that I fail to take the Bible seriously or reject its authority. It’s because I take Scripture seriously and authoritatively that I can’t take it literally.

Getting into the world and transformative authority of the Bible is arduous work, requiring that we

  • struggle with its original contexts and languages,
  • locate ourselves in the stories and let them read and transform us,
  • wrestle with its deepest questions and probing ambiguities,
  • listen attentively for God’s divine Word within the human words,
  • read each specific passage in the context of the whole narrative of God’s revelation from Creation to God’s supreme revelation in Jesus Christ,
  • strive mightily to embody and live its core message of love for God and neighbor.

It is through that struggle along with the engagement of our tradition, reason, and experience that I have come to believe that the exclusionary language in the Book of Discipline should be removed. Removing the language, in my opinion, is an act of faithfulness to Scripture.

I accept that others who take the Bible with equal seriousness differ from my perspective and conclusion. I claim no infallibility or superiority in understanding. We all read Scripture within our own personal and cultural context and experience, which limits our understanding.

Scripture, therefore,  is to be read and interpreted in community. We need one another to challenge, question, and expand our finite perceptions, but always with respect, humility, and mutual longing to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

The responses to the blog post also confirm my conviction that legislation will not resolve the issues or silence the conversations.  Legislation results from a coercive exercise of political power by a small minority representation of the whole, operating within a strict time frame and emotionally charged environment.

Regrettably, open conversations are only beginning in many local congregations. From my experience, local churches are much better able to deal with the issue of human sexuality than is a legislative body.

In our local congregations,  the issues are personal, not abstractions; and with appropriate encouragement and assistance, congregations can deal with volatile issues with civility, compassion, and humility. I’ve witnessed it, as recently as last Sunday!

Many of the responses to my reflections have come from members of the LGBTQ+ community. They clearly exhibit the fruits of the Spirit–“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (Galatians 5:22). The whole church needs their presence, leadership, and witness!

Finally, I have been confronted again with my own need for repentance for my blindness, silence, and complicity in the church’s discrimination against LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. I voted for the exclusionary language in 1984 and 1988 and I have been publicly silent too long.

My prayer is that God will forgive and empower me to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, and that the church will fully embody the reconciliation and hospitality entrusted to it by the Triune God.

 

 

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A Plea for Honesty

honesty

The normalization of dishonesty and deception threatens our common life. Lying has become an accepted political strategy and an applause line at public events. Whether done by Democrats or Republicans, it is just plain wrong!

Dishonesty destroys trust, rips apart the social fabric, and infects society with the deadly diseases of cynicism, corruption,  fear, and animosity.  Like an open infectious wound, lying contaminates the environment and threatens the health of others.

Honesty is an indispensable quality of character, and character does matter! Albert Einstein stated it succinctly: “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”

Jesus said it long before Einstein: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Luke 16:10 NRSV).

We have a right to demand that our leaders tell the truth! Lying for political gain is dangerously corrosive to more than politics. It threatens the survival of civil society and diminishes our basic humanity.

Restoring truthfulness and integrity to our life together begins within our own hearts and relationships.

My prayer today is that God will deliver me from my own temptation to put personal gain above honesty and free me from complicity with the normalization of dishonesty.

 

 

Why I Changed My Mind about Homosexuality and the Church

As a delegate to the United Methodist General Conferences in 1984 and 1988, I voted to reaffirm and expand the restrictive language regarding homosexuality. I did so out of sincere conviction as the right thing to do, even though the issue was an abstraction to me. I knew no one who was admittedly gay, and the notion of same-sex attraction was foreign to my experience.

I now deeply regret those votes! Over the intervening thirty years, I have changed my mind and now support the removal of all restrictive language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline here. The following are the factors that contribute to my change of mind.

First, I got to know people who fall into the category of “homosexual.” I came to realize that many of them had long been in my circle of relationships but were afraid to share this important component of their identity. Some are beloved members of my own family!

Many are faithful, devoted, life-long church members who can’t be open within the body of Christ for fear of rejection and condemnation. Some are parents of LGBTQ children who shared stories of bullying and abuse of their kids.

A few were colleagues on the staff of congregations I served, and their ministries reflected the qualifications identified by John Wesley—grace, gifts, and fruits. Many were exceptionally gifted, devoted seminary students whose call to ordained ministry seemed evident to me.

Some are people in same-sex marriages who are committed Christians and faithful to the church, faithful to one another, and faithful to Christ, and who possess “the gifts of the Spirit.”

Hearing the painful stories of these beloved children of God cut me to the quick. The issue of sexual orientation was no longer a theological or ethical abstraction. It became embodied in people I loved, from whom I learned, in whom I experienced God’s grace-filled presence!

Secondly, the evidence is overwhelming that sexual orientation is not a choice. I have yet to meet a heterosexual who can tell me when he/she decided to be attracted to the opposite sex; nor have I met a gay person who decided to be attracted to persons of the same sex.

Sexual identity and desire are complex realities with biological, social, environmental, and psychological components. While the Discipline labels “the practice” of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” the implication is that a person’s being is contrary to the Christian gospel. That is incompatible with our doctrine of creation.

Thirdly, by the 1992 General Conference I had not only begun to change my mind about the language of incompatibility and exclusion, I had become convinced that legislation is the wrong way to deal with the issue.

The pivotal decision was made in 1972 when the language of incompatibility was added to  Social Principles Study Commission Report, by an amendment from the floor with limited debate.

The consequence of that political parliamentary action has disproportionately dominated subsequent General Conference agendas and expanded legislative restrictions. It now threatens to split the denomination.

We have legislated ourselves into a box, maybe into a regrettable schism. Whatever our position on this issue, legislative action will not resolve it!

Fourthly, I came to realize more fully the meaning of Martin Luther King’s words in his letter from the Birmingham jail:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

During my first eight years as a member of the Council of Bishops, I was deeply immersed in the Initiative on Children and Poverty. I felt that the persistent discussion of homosexuality within the Council and other denominational circles was distracting us from fully addressing economic injustice.

I shared my concern with a friend, a theological consultant to the Initiative. His response lodged my conscience: “But, Ken, you can’t portion God’s justice for one group and ignore it for another.”

I realize that some injustices are beyond our ability to remedy immediately, but to ignore those that are within our immediate sphere of influence cannot be excused. By removing the discriminatory language, we can take an immediate step toward correcting an injustice inflicted on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

Fifthly, I’m convinced that the discrimination against LGBTQ people is being justified by inadequate biblical interpretation. I’ve read arguments from the Bible used by southern preachers to justify slavery, and I see a similar hermeneutic operating in support exclusion of gay persons.

Using the Bible to support misguided causes is a long-standing scandal in the church. Scripture has been used to justify such evils as the Crusades, genocide, slavery, the subordination of women, persecution of scientists, and burning of “heretics.”

I firmly, unapologetically believe in the primacy and authority of Scripture! What we mean by “the authority of Scripture” determines how we use it.

Here is my understanding: The authority of Scripture lies in its authentic witness to God’s mighty acts of salvation supremely in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in its power through the Holy Spirit within community to transform individuals, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos into the likeness of Christ.

The test of commitment to the authority of Scripture is this: Is it shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ and enabling us to love as Christ loves and to witness to his present and coming reign of compassion, justice, generosity, hospitality, and joy?

The influence of the Gospel over the centuries has enabled us to see Scripture through the lens of the Word-Made-Flesh, Jesus Christ. Such a lens enables us to avoid misusing  some troubling passages in the Bible.

Three glaring examples: massacring of religious opponents as did Elijah with the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18:40); slavery which was taken for granted in many Old and New Testament narratives; women keeping silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34).

Finally, my understanding and experience of what it means to love as Christ loves has deepened and widened over the years. People whom society relegates to the margins have taught me about the nature, depth, and expanse of God’s love. I have experienced profound faith among the incarcerated, the homeless, the frail elderly, orphans, immigrants, the poor, and LGBTQ persons.

I have met the Crucified and Risen Christ in my relationships with those whom society treats as “outcasts.” I know from experiences with them that Christ has broken down ALL dividing walls between us. Paul makes it clear:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

ALL includes gays and straights, LGBTQ and heterosexuals, “progressives” and “traditionalists.” Christ died for ALL, includes ALL, and invites ALL to “love one another as I have loved you.”

It is the quality of our love and its imitation of Christ’s love that is definitive, not gender or sexual orientation. As committed couples, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters should be able to love each other in ways mutually fulfilling to them, as surely as we who are heterosexual.

I’m still growing in my understanding and my ability to love as Christ loves. God grant me the humility to keep learning and growing toward the fullness of God’s perfect love!