In Loving Tension (of Ogletree, McLee, and the UMC)

dicipline ipadI get headline notifications on my smartphone from both NBC news and the AP. This means that I can have Olympic results spoiled, know who won a country music award for music I dislike, and be in the know about the deaths of celebrities I’ve never heard of, all in nearly real time (which is about 2 hours behind Twitter). Huge, huge news happened this week, but I noticed something curious.

My smartphone was silent about it.

I didn’t receive a single update about the three states voting on marriage equality this week. I can’t help but think that giving equal rights to all people has become something of a given. A less interesting headline than which animal won the Kentucky Derby (I hear it was a horse of some kind).

Sadly, not in all places.

Also in the news this week, the United Methodist Church is charging a clergy person with violating the Book of Discipline by officiating the wedding for his son and his now son-in-law. Stop me if you’ve heard this one (or read about it on Hacking Christianity, or the New York Times).

The matter surrounding Rev. Dr. Ogletree yet again highlights the division and discrimination lurking at the heart of the denomination I love. But this case has hit me in a different way than previous instances, stirring up a multitude of emotions and reflections that I will flesh out in the next few blog posts.

dreamumc-one-year1. As ever, questions of trial and dissent call to the forefront discussion of schism within the United Methodist Church. This will be the subject of Monday’s blog post, which is itself part of a larger synchblog (many bloggers discussing the same topic on the same day), and a DreamUMC twitter chat that night.

2. I’m fascinated by the focus on the fact that Rev. Dr. Ogletree officiated the wedding for his son, as if this makes the action more pastoral and beautiful and blameless. I want to explore this.

3. Like my friend and colleague Vicki Flippin (see below), I too have a story about saying no– or at least not saying yes. It is time to confess and seek further healing.

4. I have various and sundry thoughts about what is and is not prohibited by the institution, and how impossible it is to uphold this unjust law, even if we wanted to.

5. I love people.

I’m going to start with #5.

The New York Times article referenced above names some elders in addition to Rev. Dr. Ogletree. In particular, it focuses on the response from Ogletree’s Bishop, Bishop Martin McLee, whose response has drawn heavy criticism from progressives. Additionally, the article cites Rev. Vicki Flippin, who offers her own love letter in response, as one of two clergy in the New York Annual Conference openly stating that they have officiated at same sex/same gender weddings.

Both Bishop McLee and Rev. Flippin are friends of mine. In fact, It sounds ridiculously silly to me to not use their first names.

Both Martin and Vicki are friends of mine.

Vicki and I met this past year as we were both Fellows is a young clergy leadership development program through the Lewis Center. Our group met three times over the past nine months, and have stayed in contact on facebook in between meetings. Vicki is compassionate and intelligent, with a quick and friendly smile and a deeply loving heart. After our first meeting, we each drew a name from a hat and prayed for that person until the next meeting. I was happy to learn that Vicki drew mine. She’s also a passionate voice for justice and inclusion, and I cannot wait to hear her preach at Reconciling Ministries Network’s Convocation in August. I’m proud to know her and so proud of her words and actions this past week especially.

Martin was a District Superintendent in my annual conference, and we served together on our conference’s delegation to General Conference last year. An alternate delegate, Martin was frequently my go-to person when I needed to step away from the floor (like right after this happened), and on at least one occasion– when the body refused to even discuss security of appointment, but summarily dismissed the concerns of women and persons of color– was the set of broad shoulders upon which I unabashedly cried. Long before the Northeast Jurisdiction got a chance to meet him as a candidate, our delegation interviewed Martin and heard his vision and passion for the future of the United Methodist movement. I was proud when our conference nominated him, and proud to support him as a candidate for Bishop. I told people of his passion for justice and inclusion, and I stand by that conviction still. I wept when he was elected, and consecrated, and then again, later and alone, when I realized this meant he wouldn’t be part of our Conference any more.

As I said above, I’ve said “not yes” to marriage equality, and it broke my heart. Knowing and loving Martin, I can only imagine how much this breaks his (I preached about this a little here).

I’m not excusing or condoning the way his response has played out thus far.

I’m also not saying that I feel betrayed and abandoned by him, either.

First and foremost, when I see this case, and I see Rev. Dr. Ogletree whom I don’t know but imagine I would like and respect, and I see Vicki whom I am so proud to call colleague and friend, and I see Martin whom I love as well, I can only stand with an open and hurting heart. No speculation, no elation or anger, no judgement or excitement, only compassion and complexity. This is the connection. This is the Church. These are the people called Methodist. Bound, in ways we can only begin to grasp, to a structure, to a movement, to the Divine.

And to one another.

A Year Ago…

Lifting the bread and cup. Photo from UMNS
Lifting the bread and cup. Photo from UMNS

A year ago, I broke a loaf of bread.

A year ago, grace again was shortchanged, voices again were silenced, division again went unnamed.

A year ago, hearts broken and sealed and scarred over were broken again in places familiar and new.

A year ago, the Body of Christ was broken.

And so I broke a loaf of bread.

I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t my action.

It was the action of a body, a community, a family, a Christ. Wounded and hopeful, hurting and despairing, fragmented and one.

A year ago, as we always are, we were broken.

And we broke bread together.

And I was broken open.

Somehow, some way, this breaking of bread– something I do at least once a month, something I  participated in thousands of times– somehow this changed me.

I found, in the breaking and sharing of bread, in the reflection on the chaos and frustration and agony and fragile hope of General Conference, a deeper sense of my calling.

A year ago, I was broken open. A year ago, I was called anew.

I set my feet on another path. A path running parallel, or nearly so. A path to someplace deeper.

I found a depth of passion I didn’t know I had. I renewed a sense of vision and purpose that had dried up and hardened, like our scarred-over yet fragile hearts.

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

From that place of brokenness, or broke-open-ness, life could never be, entirely, the same.

Seeping up from the cracks was a need to advocate for deeper justice, to live with deeper conviction, to delve more fully into faith an ministry and compassion and peace.

I spoke out when injustice happened. In my denomination. In my church. In my home.

I spoke my true heart. I said the hard things. I let myself feel what I was feeling.

A year ago, Someone broke down my defenses, demolished my protections and stumbling blocks (and made it harder to tell which were which).

And in the past year I have watched a new movement grow. I have witnessed the elation of church doing it right and the crushing betrayal of getting it so wrong. I have relived the pain of the past and envisioned hope and purpose for tomorrow. I have been a better pastor, and Methodist, and person of faith. I have struggled more deeply and trusted more fully, or really, really tried to.

In the past year, I have found my truer self, uncovered pain and vulnerability I didn’t know I had and tapped a depth of strength I didn’t know existed. I have seen my children grieve, and let them surprise me with their resilience. I have mourned the loss of love. I have celebrated it in new and beautiful places. I have seen cruelty in ways I never imagined, and received compassion from unexpected sources. I’ve made friends who changed my life. I’ve lost friends who had touched it deeply. I have shattered all my understandings, and learned from life what grows out of that rubble.

All because of a loaf of bread.

A year ago, Christ’s Body was broken.

And when we take hold of that reality, it takes hold of us. When we lift up the pieces of the bread, the body, the world, broken and wounded, we are lifting up parts of ourselves. When we live into the broken places, we find ourselves in them, seeking transformation and new birth and needed healing.

A year ago, I broke a loaf of bread.

A year ago, I didn’t know how broken I was, or how broken open I could be.

A year ago, I broke the Body of Christ. And Christ broke me open too.

But Have Not Love

silenced

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

‘Tis the season to celebrate love, it seems. Last week was Valentine’s Day, and today’s RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-a-Day reflection word is love.

Love is central to my theological and spiritual understanding of the world. I’m not talking about hearts and cupids, schmoopy puppy love here. I’m talking soul-shaking, boundary-shattering, grace-soaked, all-infusing love that is synonymous with the name of the Holy. That stuff. The reason for living. Love between God and creature, between an individual and the world, between two people: lovers, parents, children, siblings, friends, lived out in a myriad of ways as unique as snowflakes. Love. Love Divine. Love that makes us human and whole.

But when we talk about love, when we use and over-use the word, when we say it so often it starts to sound small and fathomable and domestic– like a word rather than like The Word— I’ve found a painful dissonance. Lately, I’ve felt excluded from conversations about love. Felt excluded when it comes to the most inclusive thing in the world. Felt silenced when it comes to the most powerful force I know.

And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling excluded in conversations about love, nor is divorce the only instance where reflecting on love can be painful. What does it mean to speak of love if love has been removed, has withered or faded, was never there? How does a child learn love if one’s parents were not loving? How does a friend trust in love if one’s trust has been violated? How does someone risk loving if love has been a place of pain and loss? How does one claim and celebrate love if that love is silenced or shamed?

What if we have not love?

Our love is our human way of living in love with God, the world, and one another. As such, it is an imperfect reflection of Love Itself. I can accept that there are times and places where we glimpse the Holy, and there are times and places where the word love comes with brokenness and pain and fragile, fearful hope for healing. For people walking that latter road, just starting the conversation– or knowing it’s not a conversation in which they want to participate at this time– can be painful enough.

So today, here’s to love that is wrapped in pain. Here’s to love that has been silenced and closeted. Here’s to love that stretches tender shoots out of the bitter destruction of broken hearts and lives and relationships. Here’s to love that is re-framed following abuse and neglect and betrayal. Here’s to love that is flawed and incomplete and imperfect. Here’s to love we aren’t ready to talk about. Here’s to love that’s too complex to grasp or name. Here’s to love that’s so big we can’t get our hearts, let alone our words, around it. Here’s to love that is a tiny portion of God’s own self.

Even if it hurts, even if we’re afraid, even if we have to whisper when we’d rather shout– or rather be safe and silent: Here’s to Love.

Lenten Photo-a-Day Challenge, week 1

I’m participating in RethinkChurch’s Lenten Photo-a-Day Challenge as a way to build some personal introspection (see, I’m engaging the season, albeit reluctantly!) and connect with others who are thinking about church outside the box. Each day there is a word-prompt (and a devotional, if you sign up for the email), with an invitation to post a picture.

[ week 1 – week 2 – week 3 – week 4 – week 5 – week 6 – week 7 ]

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< Wednesday: who am I                                    Thursday: return (@pastorbecca is back!) ^

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Saturday: injustice  v

 

537133_10200704529037154_962217726_nFriday: see  ^
(change your perspective)

Check out the Rethink Pinterest boards to see what others have posted as well.

Resisting the wilderness

bones desertI think I’m back.

Huge life and family transitions sucked months and months of my life away; adding the Advent, Christmas, and New Year seasons on top practically turned me into a hermit. I feel like I woke up a few weeks ago, blinking my eyes into the sudden brightness, and marveled that there was a world around me.

Hi.

When I celebrated my 33rd birthday last May, a few of my friends jokingly warned me that in *his* 33rd year, Jesus died and was reborn, and so to watch out. I kind of want to find those people and wag my fingers at them for their unintended prophetic words. Sorrow, grief, pain, anger, shame, challenge, and tentative hope have marked my days these last few months. It’s felt like death, and waiting for new birth. I’ve done a lot of personal work and growth, processing all that. I really really want to be ready for rebirth.

And so maybe that’s why I found myself entering Lent kicking and screaming. What do you mean it’s time to spend time in the wilderness? I’ve just come from there! You want me to pause and reflect, draw closer to God and to my center? Empty myself and die a little to be reborn? Ponder being and having nothing? Been there. If they made t-shirts for that, I’d be selling them. I’m done, right? I get a pass this year, yes?

ash wedIt seems I don’t.

Instead, I find myself reflecting on ashes, how they represent complete death, nothing left, scattered and blow away. Only then, only then, can God create anew. Without total death, there is no resurrection.

I’m impatient. I want to be done. My Advent felt like Lent– a time of death and darkness and sorrow– I want to await with hope and expectation. But it seems the calendar is telling me not yet. Linger longer here. Push deeper into the desert sands of wilderness. Plumb the depths of your own brokenness and need for rebirth. Take this time, not to wallow, but to deeply experience, the complete death, complete surrender, complete journey into the darkness and wilderness. And then see, see what new life might emerge and arise from the ashes.

Resetting an Open Holiday Table

thanksgiving dinneras posted on the Reconciling Ministries Network blog

Family legend tells that the year after my parents separated, my mom faced the prospect of her first Thanksgiving alone. She accepted an invitation to the home of a friend, and my family and I have been spending alternating Thanksgiving holidays with them ever since, adding spouses and children and new traditions along the way, changing the location but keeping the love and laughter that I have always associated with my favorite holiday.

My nuclear family system is undergoing tremendous and unanticipated change. Change of the sadness and separation variety. With my two children spending the holiday break with their father, Thanksgiving represented for me my first long stretch away from my kids since the new visitation rotation started, my first holiday separated from the joys of my life, and my first Thanksgiving without a delightful, warm, amply-set table, packed to capacity with mismatched flatware and ringing with the noise of little people’s laughter.

Your basic hell.

Invitations to each of my parents’ houses did little to ease that pain; the thought of being surrounded by family—but not the family I missed—stung deeply. When I imagined myself with the rest of the guest list, as literally every other person who would be at each gathering spent the holiday with at least one of their children, there was no way I could imagine keeping turkey and stuffing in my belly.

Sometimes, family isn’t the place we can be. Or should be. Or is healthy or safe for us to be.

Sometimes, when family feels broken, what is really happening is a breaking open.

Fortunately, I know and love a lot of people who have a much more expansive concept of family. I’m part of this crazy connection of Methodists, and reconciling ones at that. I called a friend, who called a friend, and I ended up with a much more inclusive, broadly defined family celebration than the typical Thanksgiving crowd: four reconciling United Methodists, some good cooking (duck, not turkey), some shared laughter and song (okay only two of us sang), and a supportive space for tears, joy, and rejuvenation.

If that sort of feast isn’t a foretaste of the inbreaking of the kin-dom, I don’t know what is.

My expectation of the holiday stretch from Thanksgiving through the New Year isn’t born out of magazines and Martha Stewart, and doesn’t need to be picture-perfect. It does, however, include a strong focus on connection and love and family, and I’m experiencing what so many already know: that family is defined by who we love and cherish, the people with whom we set (and clear) the table, the ones who welcome our grief and our celebration.

In the Thanksgiving episode of the NBC show “The New Normal,” the main characters define for themselves a difference between relatives and family. While the former might represent obligation and dysfunction, places of pain or alienation, the latter are the ones with whom we choose to surround ourselves, the people who make a holiday special and sacred. I found mine, and it’s a vast and diverse family, some of whom are even related to me.

This season, may your places of brokenness be places of breaking open, and may your gatherings be filled with love and laughter and the deep joy of chosen family.

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.

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.

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.

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.