Under (Re)Construction

caution tape 2The dust is still clearing…

In case you missed it, I did that most Methodist of things this summer, and itinerated (relocated at the discretion of the Bishop and the Cabinet, for the non-Methodist-types), starting in my new appointment, Lebanon United Methodist Church in Lebanon, New Hampshire, on July 1.

And so of course, my blogging and podcasting have fallen away temporarily. But have no fear! I have recordings of all the sermons from June and July, and I will be posting them, and I will be resuming sharing my thoughts and reflections here in this space.

God is always at work in all of us, creating and re-creating, and so I am excited to see what will unfold in this new place for me and my family, and this new season. May you be blessed and re-created too!

Let the penalty fix the “crime”

shame hands face coveredHere we go again…

A month after the Board of Ordained Ministry in Pennsylvania stripped Rev. Frank Schaefer of his ordination credentials for officiating at his son’s wedding and refusing to state he would follow the entirety of the Book of Discipline in the future, the United Methodist Church is back at it again.

The New York Annual Conference announced the date of March 10 as the beginning of the trial of Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree. Like Rev. Schaefer, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is an ordained United Methodist Elder. Like Schaefer, he has a son who is gay. Like Schaefer, he officiated at his son’s wedding. In addition, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is a former professor and Dean at a Divinity School in Connecticut, oh, right, Yale, and before that Drew. Where he taught such irrelevant courses as theological ethics and Christian social ethics. And literally wrote the book in the church’s witness to the world– Oh, just read about him here.

At least one friend has compared the coming trial to that time that the Ministry of Magic tried to interrogate Professor Dumbledore. Not a bad comparison.

I don’t want to get in to all that right now.

These trials have a sort of fatalistic nature to them. We all assume that the persons on trial will be found guilty. I’m not sure this should be the case– after all, the church says we can’t officiate at same-sex weddings, but does not take time to define sex, or explain how, in the absence of legal background checks, medical screenings and examinations, hormonal and chromosomal lab results and so on, a pastor is supposed to determine such. But I digress.

Let’s assume for a moment that Rev. Dr. Ogletree is found guilty of violating the unjust law as laid out in The United Methodist Book of Discipline. Where the real interest lies is in the sentencing.

Some clergy members who have been found guilty of such violations have their credentials revoked, as was the case with Rev. Schaefer (legal or not). But in 2011, the jury in the Wisconsin Annual Conference sentenced Rev. Amy DeLong (found not guilty of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” but guilty of officiating a same-sex wedding) with a twenty day suspension, and then charged her to research and write a paper addressing the nature of the clergy covenant, how it has been harmed and how it might be healed.

The old saying goes, let the punishment fit the crime. But DeLong’s “punishment” seemed more intended to fix or at least address the root problems in the alleged “crime.”

What if the jury in Rev. Dr. Ogletree’s trial took that approach? What if they used this opportunity not to punish Ogletree or scare others into compliance with laws they find unjust (how’s that working for ya?), but to address root problems in this issue?

Specifically, I would like to see the jury, should they find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty of a violation of unjust church law, instruct him to create or propose a system for dealing with charges that persons are self-avowed practicing homosexuals or have officiated at same-sex weddings, in ways other than trials. Church trials are a waste of time, money, human resources, and spiritual strength. They show the watching world that The United Methodist Church is divided and broken, and no better able to live together in difference and brokenness than middle schoolers on the playground. Yes, they highlight the injustices in the system and as such become a force for eventual change, but I fear there won’t be much of a church left by the time they’ve accomplished that work. If only we had a former Dean of a theological school, a professor of Christian ethics, an author who has researched the church’s witness to the world on social issues, and a pastor and parent with life experience to reflect with us on these things!

So that’s my modest proposal for the jury in the Ogletree trial: Find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty if you must (although try to see if you can get your terms and concepts around sex and sexuality and gender and gender identity somewhat consistent if you can). But then consider the injustice of the letter of the law. Consider the pain to the whole church and the whole world for as long as the world is still listening to anything remotely called “church.” Consider the resource and gift of the person in front of you.

Seek the Middle Way. Remain in connection. Work for justice and for healing.

Let the punishment at least try to start fixing the crime.

The courage of couples

wedding rings 1Tim Schaefer takes the stand today.

Tim’s father, Rev. Frank Schaefer, was found guilty yesterday in a United Methodist Church trial for officiating at Tim’s wedding to his similarly-gendered partner six years ago. An inactive member of Schaefer’s church, angry because his mother and Schaefer had a disagreement which led to her being fired from her position as organist by the church’s personnel committee (SPRC, for Methopeeps), hunted down the marriage license and filed a complaint against Pastor Frank, just after his mother’s termination and just before the statute of limitations ran out.

Today, the jury will hear testimony to decide a sentence for Rev. Schaefer, which could range from a reprimand to being stripped of his credentials as a United Methodist clergy person.

Much has been made about Pastor Frank’s love for his son, which motivated him to officiate at the wedding. While this is beautiful and true, I rather think that all clergy should be motivated by their love of other people’s children as well. Nevertheless, Pastor Frank’s action is rightly heralded as heroic, courageous, and loving.

But what about Tim and his partner? What about the couple dragged into the spotlight for doing what couples everywhere long to do when they are in love and want to spend their lives together?

The sad fact is that when a United Methodist clergy person officiates at a wedding for persons who are of similar genders, that clergy person takes a risk with her or his livelihood. But the couple getting married takes a risk as well. Their names get printed online and flashed across TV screens. Their pictures are plastered on newspaper articles and church websites. Their marriage, relationship, sexuality, and very personhood are dissected, debated, shamed, and stigmatized. The counsel for the church yesterday used his closing argument to rant, not about a violation of church policy, but about the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality.

It takes a special sort of couple to be willing to subject themselves to such a spectacle, centered around what should be a celebration of their love and commitment before God and their loved ones.

I think this is why we see so many trials and cases in mediation involving pastors officiating for their children: Frank Schaefer, Tom Ogletree, Steve Heiss. The couple married have to agree to journey with their officiant into the dark pit of church policy, hateful rhetoric, and punitive judgements. It takes a trust that perhaps these children share with their parents. It takes courage on the part of the couples, to become the faces of the pain inflicted by the church’s injustice.

I have talked with similarly-gendered couples contemplating getting married, and we have discussed together (something I’ve never had to discuss with a heterosexual couple!) whether or not they are willing to be part of this frenzy, whether they want to take and disclose an action that could make their wedding day a political hot topic. Across the board, they have said that they did not want to be subjected to such public scrutiny, and I affirm their choices to maintain privacy and sacredness for themselves. The outcomes of those conversations are not mine to disclose; they belong to the couples themselves.

And so today I give thanks and I pray for the courageous couples who are so willing, who allow their love for one another to also be a call for justice, who invite the world to come barging into their relationships, so that God’s justice might one day barge into our church.

Today I give thanks for Tim.

Jurisdictional Dreams

On July 23, DreamUMC hosted a Twitter Chat to reflect on the recent Jurisdictional Conferences of the United Methodist Church. In my opinion, this was one of our most exciting and fruitful conversations so far.

We began by asking people in Question 1 to name the highs and lows from their Jurisdictional gatherings, or from watching those gatherings from afar. Because I was moderating, I did not respond, but have written a separate blog post about what I saw as the highs and lows of the Northeast Jurisdictional Conference. Overall, I could summarize my hope for “more” in the words of one chat participant, who wrote, “I wanted to reflect that following jurisdictional conference via twitter and news outlets made it feel like a lot of regional navel gazing… I was hoping for jurisdictions to do something more missional rather than focus on the internal business of the UMC for itself.”

Despite this frustration with relative “stuck-ness” in the conferencing sessions, many participants celebrated moments of fun and joy in the midst of the conferences: singing, dancing and worship were lifted up, bishops elected and assigned, and several people rejoiced at prophetic legislation by the Western Jurisdiction (and a similarly-themed resolution in the Northeast Jurisdiction), calling for faithful ministry with persons who identify as GLBTQ, regardless of any prohibitions in the Book of Discipline.

Still, there were moments of pain and distrust, especially in the South Central Jurisdiction, where many grieved the situation surrounding the involuntary retirement of a sitting Bishop.

Some frustration revolved around a lack of diversity among nominees for both episcopal offices and for boards and agencies, and persons chosen/elected for those roles. One person reported that the Western Jurisdiction nominating report came back 80% white. Question 2 invited the twitter participants to engage the question: how did/does your Jurisdiction lift up gender/ethnic/age/sexuality/etc diversity (or have room to improve)? While many people celebrated the diversity of episcopal nominees across the country, and some historic elections, the deeper conversation pointed to a need for diversity beyond tokenism. One person tweeted, “diversity more than electing ‘firsts’. Must push ourselves to truly embrace diversity, not just check off a box.” Another reported that the Northeast Jurisdiction “filled retired bishop slots w/ same demographics of newly elected bishops (white female, white male, african american male).” Others raised observations about the wider church: “I am weary of diversity being an issue in elections of bishops. We should be looking at diversity in the LOCAL church,” and “diversity is also new people vs. folks who have served for years on boards, delegations. We should b more inclusive there 2.” One person reminded us that diversity and privilege can intersect but not necessarily cancel each other out: “White men can be the voice of diversity, too. It’s in their works and policies, not their skin color.” Preach.

For Question 3, we invited people to imagine the best ways to continue the conversation and where we might go from here, in the wake of the big-church gatherings. Many participants immediately spoke to the importance of focusing on the local level. “To the local churches and to the streets. Enough conferencing it’s time for action!” one person wrote. Authentic spirituality and deep faith at the local level are what matters, and from there, the movement builds from the grassroots up. Another participant pointed out, “we have to continue to raise concerns in church gatherings at the local level – starts with who we send to AC every year.”

Many, many voices spoke to the desire to continue the DreamUMC conversation, which we certainly intend, and to build upon it with local gatherings r networking/workshop type events. Using technology is essential to strengthen these efforts, including streaming events and gatherings, connecting across denominational lines, and building more comprehensive online interaction for people to engage beyond facebook and twitter.

Long range, participants hoped to keep up the good work. One wrote: “continue dreaming, include more people in the discussion, write legislation for #gc2016, mission.” Another person got others talking with the suggestion: “Continue by working to make #dreamumc an approved caucus for JC/episcopal endorsement purposes.” This generated conversation around what a DreamUMC caucus would look like and how to move beyond the perception of just being about one or two issues: “But we r so diverse that I worry this being labeled ‘what the younger people think’ #ifwewereacaucus.” A reply: “Feel u; 1 of my concerns all along re: #dreamumc Need for relevancy & structural change not just young thing #ifwewereacaucus” (my new favorite hashtag, by the way).

Finally, with Question 4, we focused on one way in which the conversation continues, forming work groups. Right now, we are still in the process of organizing people and the topics of interest they named, but the list of group is on facebook (which, I realize, doesn’t work for everyone– another aspect of what we are working on). We are looking into options for a website, google hangouts, and other technology fixes, while also hoping to have some face to face gatherings where those are possible.

Diary of a Delegate: Northeast Jurisdiction recap

I’ve been home from the Northeast Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church for a little over a week and a half, and I’m still mentally unpacking (although I actually did unpack my suitcase after almost a week).

As I wrote earlier, I did have some hopes and dreams for NEJ.

From my perspective, the highs of the NEJ gathering centered on one event: the election as bishop of my colleague, Rev. Martin McLee. Martin– ah, Bishop McLee– is a passionate and compassionate preacher-prophet, and his voice as leader of the New York Annual Conference and as a member of the Council of Bishops will benefit the church as a whole. Martin’s words following his election were prayerful and inspiring, and in the following break, Methodist music rock star Mark Miller took over the piano and the conference enjoyed an impromptu hymn sing. At the service of consecration for Bishops McLee, Webb, and Steiner-Ball, I wept copious and happy tears.

The lows of the conference for me had a lot to do with the lack of fulfillment of those dreams I had named. I did not find the worship and bible study time to be spiritually nourishing, and left the room nearly every time we sang, because the hymns were so loaded with noninclusive language and poor theology. I was jarred by the bible studies, particularly the one the last morning, which featured a couple of images that were triggers for me (pregnancy/child loss and weapons, not things that put me in a very worshipful mood).

More importantly, I failed to see us use our time for holy conferencing. While we passed one piece of legislation affirming ministry with GLBTQ persons and allies in the northeast, we did not have any fruitful conversation on that or any other topic, in my opinion. I had hoped in that earlier blog post that the discernment around episcopal nominees would allow us to “spend huge amounts of time asking ourselves: what are the needs of the United Methodist Church in our region as we seek to live out God’s calling for us, and what sort of leaders and leadership can help us get there?” I didn’t see or hear that conversation anywhere. I know we had a lot to do, with 19 candidates to interview all in one day. But the conference is made up of less than 300 delegates (277 to be precise, a number burned in my brain by our 30+ ballots…). There should be time over meals or in and around legislative sessions to be intentional about gathering outside of our annual conferences, to connect with others in our region, and dialogue about what we might be looking for in episcopal leaders or people to serve on boards and agencies (without campaigning!), or to discuss the particulars of being United Methodists in ministry in the northeast. I’d love to see us use our time very intentionally, to create connection that can break down barriers and ease some of the distrust that many people lifted up coming out of the conferencing session.

I’m not sure how Jurisdictional Conference sessions are put together, but I am interested in creating greater space for conversation and connection in 2016. Thoughts?

Faith and Fallacies

My Staff Parish Relations Committee and I worked on our evaluation form last night. We dutifully and fruitfully prayed about and discussed the sense of living into Jesus the vine, and then engaged the questions on the sheet. The first one gave us trouble. We felt like the wires were a little crossed.

… Not because our answer is zero, although that also gave us some pause. See if you can guess where we took issue.

Has anyone joined your church by “profession of faith” in the last twelve months?

  • YES (how many?)  What are you doing to make disciples?
  • NO (why not?) What could you do to make disciples?

So, let me see if I get this: If people have added their name to a church membership roster, who have never been part of  church membership roster before, that is making disciples. I find this confusing, since Jesus didn’t leave the disciples with any such rosters when he issued them the Great Commission. And if no one has been added to the roll in this way, clearly that congregation is not doing *anything* to make disciples.

Yes, in part, this is just a poorly-worded question. I don’t want to parse words.

I want to strike at the deeper logical fallacy I see here.

I find it a false assumption in two directions to assume that a “disciple” and a person who has recently joined a church by profession of faith are the same thing. And, because I’ve been appointed in a place where we have some shared understandings of discipleship, or because we’ve been having conversations about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus for four years now, the members of my SPRC do too.

On the one hand, that’s an arbitrary bar to set. Plenty of people grow in and deepen their relationship with God and with others, becoming formed and re-formed as disciples, but do not join a United Methodist Church. Are they less worthy of being termed disciples? Never.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people on membership rolls of various churches who may at one time have met the qualification of having joined by profession of faith, but are not growing or deepening their spiritual lives, and are seeking or in need of being formed and re-formed as disciples. Do we neglect this need for spiritual care and formation because the fruits of this effort will never appear on an evaluation form? Heaven forbid!

It was a member of the team who reminded us that we sow seeds and may never see them take root. It was a congregant who wondered aloud about a person they knew who, having been touched by our church’s ministry, decided to attend a different church, asking, “Does ‘make disciples’ mean make more members of the Methodist Church?” It was a layperson who told the powerful story about our community meal, and how we’ve begun offering a blessing before the meal is served for those who want to participate (many come in closer to the table to share the blessing, while those who don’t wish to participate remain in conversation around the room), and how a couple of weeks ago, when the servers began to serve before the blessing, one guest said, “Wait. Aren’t we gonna pray first?” “Isn’t that man a new disciple?” the team member asked. These are the people of the church, owning and naming their own ministry, recognizing the transformation Christ is bringing in our midst. So I also want to say– are not they new and renewed disciples?

I assure you, our team did not remain in the place of objecting to the framing of the question to the point of missing the deeper exercise. Looking for the question behind the words, we talked about whether we had any new members (yes) and from where they are coming (mostly transfers from other United Methodist Churches). We talked about places for potential new “professions of faith,” including our current confirmation class– an opportunity to receive members who have thought and prayed and reflected and asked questions for over a year by the time they are done, so that is very exciting. We talked about the opportunity to reach out to people who are not affiliated with any church (those potential “professions of faith” such as the ones we had named) and discussed how, if we truly believe that there are some who are on the journey of discipleship, we might invite them to find a spiritual home on that journey at Trinity UMC– not because this will give us something to report on the professions of faith line, but because we believe we have something to offer as a community of faith.

Any question can point to fruitful conversation, I believe, if we can pick at it and pry it apart and uncover the spirit underneath it (or despite it!). This was a tough place to begin, because the fallacy runs deep– in our fear as a denomination, we have long prized the measurable membership numbers over the insubstantial feelings of transformation and growth– but in the end, this small group of people engaged the faith and calling behind the words.

I’m pretty sure that makes us a vital church.

We All Have a Dream…

The DreamUMC conversation is more than two months old, and growing in some exciting ways. We are putting words and ideas to action, and finding new partners across denominational lines.

Background

Coming out of the 2012 General Conference, many delegates, volunteers, and folks who had followed the proceedings from afar looked for a way to continue a broad conversation about the United Methodist Church and the directions into which God is calling us. Using the social networking platform of Twitter, we created space for this communication through the account @DreamUMC and the corresponding hashtag #DreamUMC. The central goal is to have the communication and vision building be as open, grassroots, and participatory as possible. We fundamentally believe that there is something inherently Methodist about seeking out, listening for, and valuing every voice, rather than assuming direction comes from the top. Sometimes—often, even!—the Spirit speaks boldly through the people one might least expect.

Every two weeks, Monday nights at 9 Eastern, we have participated in moderated Twitter chats or “tweetups,” where people follow the same hashtag at the same time, and respond to discussion questions. Three separate people from two different Jurisdictions have moderated the chats, and participation has been strong, with the number of people tweeting declining, but the number of new tweets and secondary level questions increasing as the conversation goes deeper. The chats are archived on a Facebook page so that people who can’t tune in at that time can read the questions and responses later. Often, one or more person summarizes the conversation (here’s one of my early summaries) for people to read.

Challenges and Benefits

Certainly there are challenges and drawbacks to this method; not everyone is able to use Twitter and Facebook or comfortable in those platforms. Our conversations have been tipped toward United States based individuals (although we have several participants who sign in from Europe or Africa), and most popular in those under 40 (although there are again many active participants who are young at heart if not in years). Overcoming these limitations to being inclusive with respect to age, geographic, and socioeconomic status remains a top priority.

The benefits and advantages are stunning, however.

One might expect the conversation to be monolithic theologically, or to point to particular polity positions. This has not been the case. In the open conversation forum, participants have voiced widely diverging opinions, beliefs, and positions, and returned to engage with one another two weeks later. Sharing insights, the people tweeting have offered up a wide range of creative, forward-thinking ideas on a range of topics from the major lessons of General Conference to the need for theological and spiritual formation in local churches, from the essential qualities of an episcopal leader to spreading the message and model of DreamUMC’s open-source conversation.

Focusing the conversation

With people weighing in from around the United States and around the world, both during the chat and on their own time, the folks of DreamUMC have begun to identify key areas of focus for conversation and action moving forward, including building toward a United Methodist Church that is more connected to its Wesleyan heritage, has a stronger focus on discipleship and development, more inclusive, and more equitable globally. For weeks, we have discussed the need for education and formation in local churches, and for the development of lay and clergy leadership at all levels of the church. We have also heard frustration about the divisions, exclusions, and process-related technical details that keep us from being as effective as we can be in mission and service (like debating almost all critical topics using Robert’s Rule of Order rather than living into a more open and holy conferencing style).

These areas of interest are exciting to think about as the conversation continues. The plan is to invite participants to place themselves on one or more teams and work intentionally around these topics, while continuing the wider discussion about the United Methodist Church as a whole, and where the Spirit is leading us in the months and years ahead. For a full list of the topics we’ve lifted up, or to add a topic that should be included, please visit the DreamUMC Facebook poll.

Ecumenical dreams unfolding

One of the most exciting developments in the DreamUMC movement is not limited to the UMC. At the recent Presbyterian Church, USA General Assembly, a conversation began on Twitter that was very similar to the conversation that we had experienced at our General Conference. One United Methodist, following the PCUSA tweets, mentioned this similarity, inviting the participants there to peruse the conversations that we’d been having through DreamUMC, and suddenly @WeDreamPCUSA / #DreamPCUSA was born (you can read Rev. Andy Oliver’s perspective on the launch of this sister movement here).

Within days, new hashtags and user accounts popped up for other denominations, including the United Church of Christ (@DreamUCC and #dreamucc), the Episcopal Church (#Acts8), the Disciples of Christ (#dreamccdoc) and a broader ecumenical gathering, @MainlineDreams / #MainlineDreams. Together, we’ve begun to think of ourselves as a movement not unlike the “Arab Spring,” in the term Andy coined as the “Mainline Summer” (there’s a short summary of the known movements so far here by Rev. Emily Heath).

Dreams carry forward

My personal hope for this wider movement is well stated by Emily when she calls for a “new chapter in mainline Christian renewal.” That’s what we’re talking about here: reconnecting to the things that make us Christian, that give us power and purpose as the Body of Christ, and that inform and shape us in our various theological and historical foundations. In talking with a friend from another denomination this morning, we reflected that the ecumenical movement has historically focused on either mergers or, more typically, on sharing in mission. What if this time, we focused on a different kind of mission: to reclaim and reinvigorate mainline Christianity, to engage with a culture hungry for meaning and purpose and connection, and to offer what the church as a whole has found in Christ, trusting that individuals will flock to the particular and distinct denominations with which they best resonate?  Can we, this summer, this year, at this season in the church, open a conversation at all levels and in all places, hearing, discerning, and sharing where God is calling the Christian church into a new and more relevant, vital, connected future?

Now that’s a dream I want to live into.

Diary of a Delegate: Jurisdictional What?

Logo for the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference

Howdy folks!

After an early summer hiatus of laziness self care, I’m getting ready to head out next week to the 2012 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference.

The what?

Jurisdictional Conferences– those regional gatherings of delegates from several annual conferences– are like the poor, forgotten middle children in some weird family, who actually are the ones holding the whole system together and taking none of the credit. I think. We all love Annual Conference, with the blessing of seeing friends and colleagues from one’s close connectional ties once a year (okay I love it). And everyone gets the scope of General Conference, with delegates from all over the world gathered together once every four years to discuss and vote on The Big Issues that impact The Future Ministry of the Church.

But those little Jurisdictional Conferences? What are they good for? That’s where we set a couple of regional budgets, and elect bishops. Nothing exciting.

Except I’m really excited.

Because I think Jurisdictional Conferences could actually be kind of radical.

Following General Conference, I helped create and facilitate an opportunity for ongoing conversation about the United Methodist Church and the directions into which God is calling us, DreamUMC. Through that online conversation, we’ve been talking about ways to live into grassroots movement, deeper Wesleyan spiritual formation, more authentic and inclusive Christian Community, and more relevant action in the church and the world. I’ve become convinced that Jurisdictional Conferences offer an opportunity to do this.

  • Jurisdictional Conferences are smaller in number than the gatherings at either an Annual Conference or a General Conference session. There will be about 250 delegates at the Northeast JC. This seems like a perfect number of people to me– large enough to share a variety of ideas, but small enough to get a chance to talk to just about everyone, and form meaningful connections and create or strengthen the relationships that are at the heart of Christianity in the Wesleyan tradition.
  • This smaller size should allow JCs to function with greater agility and to tackle challenges more creatively. Yes, I know; we’re still the church and being agile isn’t exactly our strong suit. That’s why I said should. But the potential is there.
  • With geographic regions larger than an Annual Conference, but smaller than, you know, the whole world, Jurisdictional Conference sessions can be opportunities to think about and strategize for regionally contextual ministry, which is something the church desperately needs as we live into the future of mission and ministry wherever we are.
  • Jurisdictional Conferences do have the opportunity to pass legislation together, and should be able to give this legislation some careful thought (again, should). I know of a couple of pieces coming before our gathered body that I’m interested in, one dealing with the structural makeup of the church at its various levels (trying to address some of the problems of power imbalance we saw at GC2012), and one speaking to the need to be in more faithful ministry with and as GLBTQ persons in the Northeast.
  • Finally, yes, Jurisdictions elect and place both board members and bishops. That means we should spend huge amounts of time asking ourselves: what are the needs of the United Methodist Church in our region as we seek to live out God’s calling for us, and what sort of leaders and leadership can help us get there? I don’t know about you, but I find that to be an exciting question!

So as I prepare for the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, I’m looking forward to a time to connect as Methodists in relationship and vision, thinking and praying about ministry in a regional way, taking bold steps together, re-imagining leadership and direction, living into a bold, outside-the-box commitment to follow the Spirit’s movement wherever She is leading us, and selecting and equipping the lay and clergy leaders that the UMC needs for the mission and purpose ahead.

DreamUMC – a Pentecost Vision (sermon video)

“Dream UMC – a Pentecost Vision”

Sermon, now with 100% more video!

(May 27, 2012 – Pentecost Sunday) A movement is underway to help shape the future of the United Methodist Church by inviting and including as many voices a possible. Using the social media tool of Twitter (follow @DreamUMC and #dreamumc), anyone and everyone can share their hopes, visions, and strategies for the denomination, and listen to the dreams of others. Can we hear a worthwhile message in the midst of this “holy noise,” or will we write off the dreamers as drunkards and fools?

so, as is fitting for a Pentecost experience, I’ve never done it this way before…

Fragments for the Fragmented

Lifting the broken Body of Christ, tears in my eyes. Photo by UMNS

Late last week, I was contacted by fellow pastor and blogger Drew “Pastor Mack,” who was planning to write about the communion witness in which I participated at General Conference on May 3. He asked for my permission and to further pick my brain a bit, which I gladly granted, and I feel that his resulting post was a fair representation of what I said.

I subsequently posted his link on my facebook page, and followed the comments there and on his blog. Some common threads emerged, which I would like to engage a little bit further.  A central critique by both Drew and many commenters centers around whether the action (commonly called a protest– I’ll get to that later) was inclusive or exclusive, unifying or divisive, and potentially politicized (in a bad way). All of it centers on what we believe about communion.

So if you will, take a journey with me through some sacramental theology.

Who Can Serve Communion (and When)?

One early response on my facebook page suggested that because the General Conference schedule already offered communion once a day, consecrated by a bishop, that this communion witness on the floor was offensive or divisive. A commenter on Pastor Mack’s blog stated that she assumed in the context of General Conference that only a bishop would be eligible to preside over communion. Both of these statements run counter to how I understand the sacrament of communion. As a sacrament, Eucharist is a sign (and outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace, if I remember my sacramental theology definitions correctly). It is a visible, tangible way of us living out our belief. It is a gift from God to us. Celebrating Eucharist once a year, once a month, once a day, or one hundred times a day cannot diminish the significance or holiness of this act. Any diminished sacredness is in us, not in the sacrament. And any ordained elder is eligible to preside at the communion table. In fact, the effectiveness, so to speak, of the sacrament is not contingent upon the presider, because the one truly offering the Eucharist is God. No one can appropriate or steal communion. I can’t make “mine” what already belongs to God. Whenever two or three gather in Christ’s name, he has promised to be among us; whenever those two or three break bread and share a cup, they remember him. As a means of grace (Methodist church speak word), communion might be the place where those who do not yet know or experience Christ find a moment of grace, a beginning on the journey. As such, no celebration of communion trumps any other. We never know where and how grace might be made known.

Is the Table Open?

“This was communion for a fragment,” one person wrote.

My reply, “No. For the fragmented.”

Several people seemed to feel that this service of communion was a private one, only for the GLBTQ community and their allies. It’s sad to me that people would assume that, and I’m actually not sure why they did. We were a big honking clump of people (what I’ve learned my friend and colleague Elissa calls a “holy blob”) in the middle of a huge room, at a communion table. Once the elements were prayed over, wafers and cups were taken out from the table and offered to those around the room and outside the voting area “bar.” We were presumably all Methodists to some extent, and one of the most powerful and profound points of Methodist theology is the practice of the open table. All are welcome at the table. Always. That doesn’t mean all *feel* welcome at the table, and I can understand if one is not feeling in the spirit to take communion, or not feeling part of the body. Again, that is the spiritual place of the individual, not a reflection on the sacrament.

We did anticipate at some level that people might not feel invited to the table. Those of us who planned the witness wanted to issue an invitation, but didn’t want to “mic check” it, so we went with song. What we would have loved to sing was “Welcome” (all are welcome in this place/all of us are welcome here), but while we had the, ahem, magnificent songwriter Mark Miller in our midst, we had no piano, and it’s a harder tune to carry if not everyone knows it really well. We also ruled out “One Bread, One Body,” because the marked contrast between the preceding vote and the words of all of us being one with differences washed away was a bit too much. So we sang “Let us break bread together.” Together. Lord, have mercy on us.

Anyway, it is again counter to my very understanding of the sacrament of communion to ever presume that a table at a Methodist gathering is closed. Our communion table is always open– well, always open on one side, the receiving side. On the side of the presider, we have a closed communion table, but that’s the big question isn’t it?

Now, I have been on the other end of things, and been invited to a worship service where it would be rude not to attend, but where it was made clear I would not be welcome at the communion table. It was in the context of a Roman Catholic colleague renewing his vows to his order, and it was known that I was a former catholic now Methodist candidate for ministry. I had felt that this had been thrown in my face a few times recently, and was hurting, and in thinking about going to the service, realized that I wanted to go up to the altar with my hands outstretched and make the priest look me in the face and deny me the body and blood of Christ. Out of my own pain and anger. I chose not to attend the service, rather than either sit sullenly in the pew or come to the table of the Lord out of spite. This illustrates both the importance to me of the open table, and leads me to our next question.

In What Spirit Should We Preside Over & Take Communion?

This is not a protest. This is a sacrament. photo by UMNS

I hear the word protest a lot, associated with the action on the floor at General Conference on May 3.

There was a protest that same day. It happened just a little later, and I participated in that too, although less visibly and less stridently. When the people who were on the floor around the communion table refused to leave, when they prevented the business of the conference from resuming with their presence and their singing (“What does the Lord Require of You?”), that was an act of protest.

It followed on the heels of an act of witness. An observation of a sacrament. A moment of prayer and worship, offered publicly and in response to a public vote, but not as a way of swaying anyone or articulating any message apart from what is always articulated in communion: our brokenness and God’s grace.

Pastor Mack wrote, “no matter what our divisions, some things should remain sacred. This should be true, most of all, for the Lord’s Table.” Another commenter described the use of the elements of communion as “props” in a political scheme.

At the same time, many people who were present in Tampa and those who were watching from the live stream describe their experience of the moment as spiritual, powerful, prophetic, or pastoral. One person wrote: “You all stayed and performed an act of Christian faith that reached across the world through this picture. You hallowed our denomination by this holy act performed in the center of a broken place.”

Much of this seems to hinge on the spirit in which the communion was offered and received. Was it offered out of anger? Taken out of spite? Lifted up to drive home a point? Some saw it this way. I knew there was a danger of that.

But, as I wrote and as Drew quoted on his blog, those who decided to offer communion in that moment saw it as  “one standout example of what it means, theologically and spiritually, to live in the broken but believe in the whole and hope for the future we cannot see. Was there ever greater brokenness than the division, distrust, and ungodliness that led to Christ’s sacrifice? Is there any better example of how the broken becomes whole than the bread shared, the cup poured out to make us one?” Elsewhere, “what we decided was that the moment, no matter how the vote went, would be one of brokenness and deep pain for roughly half the room no matter what. And yet, in this brokenness and division, we are still one, and we still believe that God is able to bring healing, indeed salvation, out of the deepest pain and division.”

Even Drew acknowledges this in a comment, before restating that the “private” nature of the action (see above) was what he took issue with: “It is always a broken body that gathers at the table, and always one desperately in need of grace…”

Not everyone was in the same spirit that day. Are we ever when we celebrate the Eucharist? For me and for many, the act was one of deepest reverence, a witness and testimony to the belief in a God of justice and liberation, compassion and deep grace, in a world that has not always demonstrated those traits.

Can Communion Be (Over) Politicized?

This brings us to the most common critique I have heard following the May 3 witness: communion should never be political.

Now, I went to Boston University School of Theology, so all my theology has a strong social justice theme laced through it, for the better if you ask me, and all of my understandings are peppered with a preference for the radical, political, earth-shaking nature of Christ’s life and ministry. Jesus was a consummate political strategist. He was a master of metaphor, using story and parable, and reinterpreting ritual and pomp to articulate a new worldview, one we call the Reign of God. This is not a bad thing. I’m not saying Jesus was a politician in the way we think of our politicians today– sleazy, selfish, pick a disparaging adjective. Nor am I claiming that Jesus manipulated the people around him (although all speech, particularly rhetorical, prophetic speech, is manipulative in the best possible way). Rather, what I am saying is that Jesus was a savvy, brilliant man, who used the secular and religious rituals and symbols of his day to cast his vision, and who flipped and reframed the symbols around him into vessels for the Gospel he was preaching.

Consider the triumphant entry into Jerusalem (see Borg and Crossan, The Last Week), a dramatic and brilliant reimagining of the Roman governor’s show of might and worldly power the week of the Passover. Jesus flips this pomp and circumstance on its head, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a war horse, surrounded by children and peasants with palm branches rather than soldiers with spears. That’s not an accident. That’s brilliant political symbolism. Choose this day, his actions scream: who is your King? Under whose Reign will you live?

So when we come to the Last Supper, we also can’t ignore the religious symbolism Jesus is playing with here. It’s a Seder, a central focus of the Passover observance, a time of reflecting on suffering and bitterness, on God’s deliverance. Jesus layers on top of this ritual a new meaning– the present suffering and that which is about to strike the disciples, the tears and sweat that will be shed, the blood that will be spilled, not to mark a doorpost, but to seal a heart. He creates a new Body, a new people of God, and he enacts a new covenant, signed with his own sacrifice. Then he throws himself on the mercy– or lack thereof– of his enemies, refusing to meet their violence with violence, offering forever a different Way to live and serve and die, in service to the Holy, out of love for the broken.

That’s beautiful, human, pastoral, Divine, tender, daring, spiritual, theological… and it’s also political. And communion remains political to this day. In the moment of the Eucharist, we remember what Jesus did and who he was, we proclaim his victory in the face of the world’s violence and the crushing weight of sin, and we envision the Reign of God that is a completely different spiritual, social, and political system than anything the world knows. When we hold up the bread and cup, we also hold up another Way.

Communion sets a table in the misdt of the world’s power and proclaims a new kin-dom. Communion says all when the world says some. Communion says whole when the world says broken. What’s more political than proclaiming Christ’s reign in the midst of the world’s power? What’s more political than saying all are invited to the banquet when the world teaches the wealthy and powerful 1% get the feast, and the poor must beg for crumbs?

And so to the charge of allowing communion to speak its political message, a message of wholeness in the midst of the fragmented, of liberation for all the oppressed, of unity in a moment of deep division, of hope for those who have been trod under, of welcome and inclusion for all– most especially for those who were told yet again that their lives and loves are incompatible with the Gospel when nothing could be further from the truth, of peace and healing and love and tenderness from and through a body that has allowed violence and hatred to fester in its heart– to the charge of allowing communion to be political, I plead guilty. And may I be guilty of that for many years to come.

Reflections on Romero

A final comparison has frequently been made in this conversation: the links to Archbishop Oscar Romero, the visionary and prophetic martyr for justice, who was shot to death in his mission field in San Salvador the week after Easter, 1980, just as he turned to the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.

Now I am no Oscar Romero (nor, I must emphatically state, am I suggesting above that I’m Jesus of Nazareth), and much of the theological reflection surrounding Romero and communion comes from his Roman Catholic tradition. However, I too have Roman Catholic roots, and the sacramental theology of sacrifice and witness as linked to the Eucharist resonates strongly with me.

In this 2001 essay, “Dying for the Eucharist or Being Killed by It”,  William Cavanaugh explores the links between martyrdom (from Greek, “witness”) and communion. He cites Romero’s decision to hold one Mass in the entire archdiocese the week following the assassination of Rutilio Grande, effectively “forcing” the body to commune together. Cavanaugh writes: “Romero intended the one eucharist to be an anticipation of the kingdom, of the day when rich and poor would feast together, of the day when the body of Christ would not be wounded by divisions… Under these circumstances, the single mass also served to illumine and to judge the ongoing divisions between rich and poor. The single mass, just like the martyrs, did not create conflict, but rather shone a light on it and revealed the truth about it.”

Like Pastor Mack, Cavanaugh ties this conversation about the meaning of communion to Paul’s words in the first Letter to the Corinthians about “discerning the body” as an important criteria for receiving communion in the proper spirit. Cavanaugh writes, “Discerning the body must mean being able to identify truthfully where the body is not whole, where divisions exist.” You see, breaking bread in the midst of the broken is not a failure to discern the body, but a proper response to it. To break the bread and deny the brokenness in the body, that, Cavanaugh claims (and I agree), is a failure to discern the Body of Christ in all its messy complexity.

Cavanaugh continues:

Fortunately, our eucharistic communion gives us hope that this is not the final word. Besides shining a light on the divisions that exist, discerning the body includes an exercise in dissolving those divisions, blurring the lines between “them” and “us.” In the body of Christ, Paul continues to tell the Corinthians, people are distinguished from each other, not by class or race or nationality, but by charisms given them by the Holy Spirit. Each has a different role to play in the service of the whole, and the weakest members are the most indispensable, to be treated with the greatest honor. Therefore, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). The eucharist gives us hope by helping us to discern the deep reality that all people are members or potential members of the body of Christ. The body of Christ transgresses artificial national borders that separate the United States from El Salvador or Iraq.

That is the truth I hope I lifted up on May 3, in an act of worship, prayer, and witness. By naming the division and brokenness in the body and refusing to sweep it under the rug, but choosing instead to stand in the very heart of that brokenness, I hope I was part of God’s reminder to all people: no matter how much we tear at each other, no matter how divided, no matter how vile our treatment of our siblings in Christ who are GLBTQ is, this division is not an act of God. Violence, oppression, hatred, bigotry, ignorance, apathy, and holier-than-thou piety are not acts of God. Scheming and manipulation and infighting and vote counting are not acts of God. Weaving the broken and whole together, drawing the circle wider than human arms can reach, extending forgiveness and grace that are never warranted or earned, casting a vision of a more radical, more inclusive kin-dom than the world can possibly imagine, this is God’s work, and the work to which Christ’s Body is called.

May we remember. Not to simply call to our minds. To reflect– and by reflect I mean as a mirror– the life and witness of Christ. May we relive and retell and re-be the Body, broken and whole, the life poured out for the world. Every time we break the bread and share the cup, we proclaim a victory, we offer ourselves as a sacrifice alongside Christ, and we re-member his fragmented yet gloriously whole Body.

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