Tribute to Ted Jennings

Jennings-TedA virtual memorial service was held Saturday, June 27, for one of Methodism’s most provocative, challenging, and committed theologians, Theodore (Ted) Jennings. I was asked by his devoted spouse, Ronna Case, to speak briefly of Ted’s contribution to the church.

I first met Ted at a Symposium on Theology and Evangelism held, February 1992, in Atlanta. Later that year, I was part of a working group with him at the Oxford Institute of Methodist Studies. The theme of the Institute emerged from Ted’s recently published book, Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics.

When the Council of Bishops adopted the Initiative on Children and Poverty, Ted became one of the theological consultants. As a member of the task force for the Initiative, I worked closely with Ted. We became good friends, and the friendship continued until his death in March of this year.

Ted’s contributions to the church are those of a prophet in the mode of an Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, or Amos, ever prodding and challenging the church to be a beloved community of liberation for ALL people. I briefly name four specific contributions.

One, Ted challenged the institutional church’s captivity to the consumerist, capitalist culture and institutional triumphalism. Ted’s vision and loyalty transcended preoccupation with institutional prominence, membership statistics, organizational structures, and marketing strategies. His was a vision of a reconciled and transformed world where justice prevails, and all have access to God’s table of abundance. And, as one of his former students said, “Ted made sure that we knew Jesus was with the crucified, not the crucifers; the oppressed, not the oppressors.”

Two, he called the church to presence among the marginalized, the outcasts, the poor, the vulnerable. In his work with the Episcopal Initiative on Children and Poverty, he regularly pushed the bishops toward the overarching goal of the Initiative: the transformation of the church in response to the God who is among “the least of these.” He persistently reminded us of God’s preferential option for the poor and most vulnerable, not as objects of charity but as friends and means of grace.

Three, Ted helped to reshape Methodism’s interpretation of Wesley, from a mere revivalist who focused on personal salvation to Wesley as a catalyst of a movement for holistic salvation that includes personal and social transformation. He challenged much conventional Wesleyan scholarship and spurred a new generation of scholars and pastors toward a more holistic vision of the Wesleyan heritage. He saw the tradition as something to be constructively built upon rather merely defended.

Four, Ted prodded the Church to confront its hypocrisy by courageously challenging us to embody radical love for God and neighbor, and to include ALL within the circle of God’s liberating love.  He had little tolerance for pious pretense and personal or professional posturing, whether by academics, bishops, or pastors. Indeed, he modeled leadership as derivative of authentic Christian discipleship. As a colleague scholar remarked, “Above all, Ted loved Jesus!”

Ted’s contributions will multiply in years to come, for he helped to form two generations of pastors and church leaders in the United States, Mexico, Korea, and beyond. Those leaders now form congregations as outposts of God’s present and coming reign of justice, generosity, and joy!

I give thanks to God for Ted Jennings’s devoted life, his faithful witness to Resurrection faith that liberates and transforms, and his enduring friendship.

 

“A Penetrating Word for United Methodists”

Tom Lee grew up in a congregation I was privileged to serve for ten years. My daughters were in youth choir and UMYF with him. His mother was one of my wife Linda’s friends. His father, mother, and sister contributed immeasurably to the life and mission of that congregation.

Tom puts the current talk of schism within The United Methodist Church in historic, political, and cultural context.  Everyone concerned about the future of the denomination will benefit from reading his prophetic, insightful analysis.

https://bittersoutherner.com/from-the-southern-perspective/two-signposts-opposite-directions-tom-lee

 

 

Hope’s “Beautiful Daughters”

I’m angry! Apparently, I’m not alone. Everywhere I turn I see and hear the anger.

There’s a lot that should make us angry:

  • Rampant corruption in the highest offices in our government
  • Immigrant children separated from their families and housed in cages
  • Paralyzing, self-serving political partisanship
  • Insulting disparities between rich and poor in ready access to life’s necessities
  • Sexual discrimination, exploitation, harassment, and violence
  • Gun violence and communities awash in instruments of death
  • Racial, religious, and ethnic hatred and bigotry
  • Environmental destruction and climate intensification
  • Weakened and divided faith communities
  • And . . . .

I’m scared by the level and pervasiveness of the anger. But there is another perspective. Maybe the anger is a source of hope.

St. Augustine (354 – 430 AD) wrote: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage; Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

Daughter Anger is everywhere. She’s not very beautiful when merely wringing her hands, clinching her fist, punching in the face, calling people demeaning names, or perpetuating violence.

Daughter Anger’s beauty shines when controlled by compassion, speaks the truth, works for justice, and extends hands of reconciliation.

But it takes daughter Courage for daughter Anger to be compassionate, just, and hospitable in these times.

When sisters  Anger and Courage join hands to build communities of compassion, justice, and peace, Mother Hope shows up. . .

  • in a sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist challenging the United Nations
  • in a small congregation protecting an immigrant family from deportation
  • in a whistle-blower who risks job and scorn to expose a dangerous threat
  • in a politician who puts country above party and works for the common good
  • in a church that risks decline but declares that ALL means ALL, including LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers
  • in a young United Methodist pastor not yet ordained instituting a gun buy-back program in a small South Carolina town
  • in a black first-grader holding the hand of a white special ed student being taunted by classmates
  • and supremely in a carpenter-turned-preacher challenging the principalities and powers of evil with death-defying acts of compassion, integrity, justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Hands Huddling-Perry Grone on Unsplash

God grant that our anger will give us courage to join hands and  participate fully in Christ’s present and coming reign of compassion, justice, generosity, hospitality, and peace!

 

 

 

 

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!

 

The Place to Begin: Repentance



General Conference  begins today with a season of worship and prayer. I can’t be present in St. Louis, but I am joining the delegates, bishops, and guests in this time of prayer. I begin my prayer with confession and repentance.

Here are some of the sins which I lift before God in repentance:

  • An over reliance on legislation to resolve theological, ethical, and ecclesial issues
  • Substituting uniformity of belief for the oneness already wrought in Jesus Christ
  • Prioritizing institutional preservation above faithfulness to God’s present and coming reign of compassion, justice, and hospitality
  • Trusting in the exercise of political power over the practice of agape/love
  • Confusing certainty of being right with humbly following Jesus
  •  Failure to love others as Christ loves us

I pray that throughout the General Conference session and beyond, we will “bring forth fruit worthy of repentance” and be the body of Christ in this broken, polarized, and suffering world.

I Won’t be Attending General Conference But . . . .

UM-General-Conference1920x485-1024x259I’m going to miss an important event in Methodist history–the called session of the General Conference in St. Louis, February 23-27.

A lot is at stake as delegates wrestle with ways to deal with the important matters of homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture. The decisions made will chart the denomination’s future for decades.

Missing the conference makes me sad! I feel some guilt for my absence.  Although as a retired bishop I have no official duties,  I do feel responsible to be present in support of colleagues and delegates.

I know from previous General Conferences that significant things happen apart from the formal sessions. Old friendships are renewed and new ones formed. The vast diversity of the denomination is on full display.

Great music! Outstanding preaching! Challenging speeches! Profound worship!

I’ll miss all of that!

I must forego the experience. But, I’ll be pursuing my current primary vocational calling, care-partner for my wife of 57 years.

What I will be doing seems small and insignificant when compared to the history-making decisions. Nothing I will be doing will get publicity or make the history books.

I’ll be doing little things–holding Linda’s hand, combing her hair, feeding her, brushing her teeth, assuring her she isn’t alone, just sitting quietly as she sleeps.

There are important connections between what I’ll be doing and what’s happening in St. Louis.

We both will be doing sacred work!  Both will involve strong emotions, including grief and disappointment. God will be present with us!

Both have to do with what it means to love! Who to love! How to love! What it means to love faithfully, as Christ loves us!

Love isn’t an abstraction for me. She’s lying in the bed nearby, with her hand in mine. Love, in the final analysis, is an embodied practice rather than a pontifical pronouncement.

I hope love isn’t an abstraction in St. Louis. May it be embodied in

  • ears that listen attentively,
  • tongues that speak tenderly and truthfully,
  • hands that clasp and serve joyfully,
  • arms that embrace hospitably,
  • hearts that beat compassionately,
  • minds that exhibit the mind that was in Christ Jesus,
  • actions that manifest the breadth of God’s love and justice.

I won’t be trying to convince Linda that she is wrong, or less than, or inadequate, or sinful, or outside the norm.

Instead, I will be trying to empathetically enter her world, see the world as she is seeing it, assure her that she is valued amid her confusion, and loved unconditionally by God and by me.

I genuinely pray that what happens in St. Louis will be akin to what will be happening in our home, and in the countless homes across our world as people seek to love one another as Christ loves us, regardless of

  • race,
  • ethnicity,
  • political affiliations,
  • theological perspectives,
  • sexual orientation, or
  • physical and intellectual capacities.

I won’t be physically present in St. Louis, but I’ll be watching and praying. . . . and continuing to love!

 

 

 

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.

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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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!