I’m not ready to *not* make nice…

Howdy, y’all, from down here in Nashville! I’m attending the United Methodist Association of Communicators’ Annual Meeting (about which I will say more later), where this blog, that’s right, this very one, has been awarded Best in Class for non-fiction in the local church category.

No pressure there.

BishopSpong2So, on to being relevant. Today, my inbox was overrun by emails and celebrations about Bishop John Shelby Spong’s Manifesto (linked at the Reconciling Ministries Network). In it, he lifts celebration that “the time has come” to move on from the battle about homosexuality. Bishop Spong writes that he believes the battle is won, and that he will waste no further time in debate on the matter:

I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is “an abomination to God,” about how homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle,” or about how through prayer and “spiritual counseling” homosexual persons can be “cured.” Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy.

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, I feel this way a lot. As I wrote earlier, I wrestled greatly with how to respond to extreme positions like those of the Westboro Baptist Church, and I decided in the end that ignoring violent language and hate speech was not something with which I could live. Still, I resonate with the idea that some arguments are not worth the waste of breath, or the anger and bitterness they generate in me. When I find that I am becoming more negative and bitter as a result of a conversation or debate, it’s time to walk away. Actually, it’s past the time to walk away. I frequently give myself sanity breaks from such debates on the umcommunities website for that precise reason. It’s not worth the breath. It’s not worth the poison that seeps into me in the course of the debate. It’s not worth it–never worth it– when I feel more distant from God as a result of a conversation.

In this matter, I do think the handwriting is largely on the wall, and that Bishop Spong is right when he says that we as church are only making ourselves more irrelevant by our continued focus on sexuality rather than on ministry:

The world has moved on, leaving these elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance. They no longer talk to anyone but themselves. I will no longer seek to slow down the witness to inclusiveness by pretending that there is some middle ground between prejudice and oppression. There isn’t. Justice postponed is justice denied.

He is right, and as a church we certainly do great harm to ourselves, not to mention to the witness of Christ, by fixating on sexuality and sexual orientation.

But I push back on two points:

First, while the tide may have turned, that doesn’t mean a battle is over. In this instance, I’m not yet prepared to walk away and dismiss anyone’s words as outdated or irrelevant or as the death throes of a position. They are still hurtful words and positions that I think must be countered. If the battle is over, there is many a GLBT person in my pews who doesn’t know it yet, and until they can let words roll off their back like water, I’m not prepared to ignore them– the words or the ones wounded by them– either. While I applaud Bishop Spong’s optimism, I don’t want to (totally mixing metaphors here!) declare ‘mission accomplished’ and pull out, leaving troops still in the trenches to be wounded and maimed.

Second, I maintain that there are many people out there, even a majority of people out there, whose positions about homosexuality in the church differ from mine, who are faithful Christians to the best of their ability and to the best of their understanding. I resent it when my opponents in a debate disregard me as “unchristian” or “liberal whacko” or whatever, rather than have to live together in difference with me. I can’t in good conscience do the same, disregarding not only their positions, but their theological frameworks, their gifts to the ministry of the church, and their human struggle to understand and serve Christ as best they can. To do so is in a way to deny the Christ in them, however hard it may be at times to see it, just as I’m sure it is sometimes hard to see the Christ in me.

Debate is, I’ll admit, fun and challenging, and often helps clarify one’s own point, but it can also be a forum for relationship growth and reaching out across differences. Wrestling together with our differences, even and especially such stark and emotionally charged ones, can in fact be a huge opportunity to grow and change. And while I’m not naive (or, I hope, arrogant) enough to assume that I can change the hearts and minds of the world, I do kind of have persuasive rhetorical speech as part of my job description, and I do therefore harbor a hope that some positive change might come from conversations I have with others. Like Jacob, wrestling with an angel in the night, we grapple with each other in the dark, each a wanderer, each an angel, and I for one don’t want to let you go until we both receive blessing.

There are some things about which I cannot compromise, and some places where I am not open to changing my mind. I cannot abide violence. I will not compromise with hate speech. I can’t imagine conceding that anything made and beloved by God is abhorrent. I reserve the right and the need to walk away from poison and mutually assured destruction in argument. I also want to declare the joy of living in the already-not-yet promise of God’s kin-dom of radical love. It’s here, in part and in glimpses! The snippets of grace and glimpses of living together in the tension of our differences, when they shine through, are enough to keep me hopeful and focused on the joy.

And yet, I still wade into the battle, to the wrestling match, because the ones with whom I wrestle are often sisters and brothers, are sometimes angels, can teach and transform me even as I hope to teach and transform them. I’m not ready to give up on them just yet.

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8 Responses

  1. Thank you for your commentary on the manifesto. You are able to communicate with clarity and the best choice of words things that I think and feel. I’ve followed your blog ever since I encountered your article in the Troy paper. That is wonderful that you won the award. Congrats! I enjoy reading about your processes and appreciate this ministry that you provide. Thank you!
    I am also an ex-VT’er (one of the founding members of the Vt. Korean-American UMC in Essex Jct.) who moved to NY to attend seminary at Drew. I’m in the ordination process and currently serve as a local pastor. Our worlds are small indeed as I recently encountered you on a friend’s facebook page.
    Anyway, I, too completely empathize with Spong’s feelings. I do not however want to leave the space that I think we are still called to stand, what I understand as “standing in the gap” because although Spong and many others may have arrived where he feels he needed to go or arrive at, I have not found myself there yet. For me, at least in the realities of the local parish that I serve, within circles of families I’m engaged with, and within smaller communities that I participate in, we are still waiting for some of us to see the light of Christ that would blind us to let go more of our fears and hold on to ways of trusting. I think we are called to still “wait”, not in any passive sense but actively wait for the reign of God that is here and still yet coming. A reign in which all of God’s people can feast and continue to have conversations at the table together. When I read the manifesto, I personally thought of Wesley’s message in terms of “catholic spirit” and what he tried to convey.
    Your thoughts are always very rounded and honest. And most important I appreciate your willingness to engage in the conversations authentically. I love your easy writing style, what a gift. Peace and blessings, Wongee Joh

    • Thank you for reading and commenting! I appreciate the way you describe waiting, not in a passive sense, but in an active, hopeful anticipation of the reign of God.
      Blessings to you in your ministry and as you journey through seminary.

      Peace to you,
      Becca

  2. Becca – I am shocked that you are a preacher for the UMC and that they allow you to say this stuff. This must be part of the reason for the savetheumc.org site. Of course Bishop Spong would refuse to debate homosexuality. It is his belief and not biblically based. Very typical od a left wing person. If you have quite a few LGBT in your congregation, I hope you are letting them know their lifestyle is unacceptable. As recently as 22 NOV, there was a study published showing over 90% of lesbianism can be traced to the environment the female was raised in. The bible is straight forward on these things. The harm done to our church is by being wishy washy and by not adhereing to the bible. Case in point: Mega churches are growing while most others are steady or loosing memebers. Mega churches have a hard set of values and beliefs that are biblically based. A great example is the Saddleback Church. Then again, while I don’t thinkk so, maybe I am wrong. maybe we can pick and choose what we want to believe and follow. Other churches have done it. Then we can split and move on from there. After we ordain queer clergy, we can ordain pedaphiles and that is only a half sarcastic comment but it makes a point. It becomes a very slippery slope.

    • Hello Allen,

      Hopefully you’re not shocked that the UMC “allows” their ordained elders to say that they want to continue engaging in dialogue with people with whom they disagree or that they remain unwilling to look for the Christ in others. I presume your shock comes from finding a UM pastor who supports the ordination and full inclusion of persons who are homosexual in the life of the church. This also should not be surprising. The UMC, like many denominations, wrestles with this question, and we remain deeply divided as a denomination, and yet are committed to remaining United as we move forward together.

      There are indeed several people in my congregation who are gay and lesbian, and I most certainly do not teach them that being gay is “a lifestyle,” nor do I teach that who they are, created in God’s image, is incompatible with the God who made them. I preach to all my congregants (including the convicts, the addicts, the miserly, the doubting, the nonchristian and antichristian, the stubborn and the weak-willed) that we are all made in God’s image, and beloved by our creator. Even so, we are all broken and separated from that same creator, in need of God’s loving grace. This grace is poured out to all of us, not by our own merit, but through God’s great love for us and God’s love in Christ.

      We’re no Saddleback Church or even Glide Memorial, but I find this message draws people closer to God and our church is growing in number and more importantly in ministry to the world. The gospel of God’s love for all the world is deeply needed in our day, and I give thanks that it is preached from many perspectives and in many contexts, so that many ears may hear.

      Shalom,
      Becca

      • (should be “they remain *willing* to look for Christ in others” or “are unwilling to give up on looking for Christ in others.” I changed the sentence from the latter, because I thought it was confusing, and made it worse!)

    • Allen-How diverse we United Methodist are. Since this issue is important enough for you to post a comment here, I thought you might be interested in a sermon given at a United Methodist mega church called Church of the Resurrection. The pastor’s name is Adam Hamilton and this is his sermon called “In dealing with homosexuals”. I didn’t like the title of the sermon but maybe you might like it and maybe that was his purpose in naming it that way, even though I didn’t think of it that way before. This sermon is part of his “When Christians get it wrong” series. Thought it may be of interest to you and may speak to you where you are standing now. The link is below:

      http://adamhamilton.cor.org/2009/02/03/in-dealing-with-homosexuals/

      Also, if you are interested in some commentary about the sermon, you can read the post below too. In case the link above doesn’t work, the link to the sermon at the mega church is also in the post below.

      http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=54310766019

      Peace to you from one United Methodist to another.

      • Thanks for the reply and the links. I’ve heard Adam Hamilton talk about that sermon before, but never actually had a chance to read or hear it. I’ll have to check it out!

        Blessings,
        Becca

  3. Becca-
    I’ve listened to this sermon twice. I think it is important for people to stay in dialogue and create spaces in which the Spirit can lead us all towards greater wholeness as the people of God. In his particular context I think Rev. Hamilton speaks authentically as the pastor to this church towards that end. I do hope that he will continue to preach more on this issue and at some point speak more directly about how homosexuality is not a sin. He could offer an exploratative bible study to his congregants who are ready to hear. I hope these links would connect Allen to teh Spirit’s leading towards more openness towards practicing hospitality as well as understanding that biblical text out of context is abusive for all of God’s people and specifically for him as it limits even his own embracing of God’s unconditional love for him and graces that leads him to becoming more Christ like more and more. I hope that if Allen is truly seeking to love that the Spirit will speak to where he is at and lead to more creative and transforming ways….peace to us all.

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