A Vision of Unity from Africa

I have been in a lot of meetings over the past several years regarding the impasse in the United Methodist Church over human sexuality.  I have always believed in the unity of the church and fought for it.  I also realized that we were doing more harm by not figuring out some sort of space in the church over this issue…whether that be separation or even a split.  There are people on both sides of this debate who feel they cannot remain in the United Methodist Church.  The recent Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation would provide a framework for those who feel they cannot remain in the United Methodist Church over this issue by birthing new denominations of Methodism.  I lament the separation and the negative impact it will have on our mission, but we need to get to a place where we can focus on the central reason we exist as the church.

The Preamble of the United Methodist Church’s Constitution reads, “The church is a community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. It is the redeemed and redeeming fellowship in which the Word of God is preached by persons divinely called, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s own appointment. Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the church seeks to provide for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world. The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world, and its very dividedness is a hindrance to its mission in that world.”

Over the past year, I have been in conversation with some African Bishops in the United Methodist Church.  A few weeks ago, Bishop John Yambasu (Sierra Leone) sent me the following email, which he gave me permission to share:

“At this time in our long and confusing journey, I believe continued dialogue is a major step in attaining understanding and moving forward to a peaceful way of resolving our current unresolved debate on human sexuality. And I thank you so much for sharing your perspectives on the future of the UMC. For us in Africa and the Central Conferences, we believe the earlier we get this debate behind us the better for the work of mission that God has called us to. Each day, millions of people around the world are dying of hunger, lack of water and preventable and treatable diseases. It seems to me that our denomination has become insensitive to the needs of the world around us. Rather we have become too occupied with this debate on human sexuality and shamefully investing God’s resources into this debate. 

Fortunately, dissolution is no more the issue before us. We are talking about separation.  It seems to me that many of the critical issues cannot be resolved now until separation happens. For now, we can only guess that there will be two denominations that will emerge after the separation – The Renewal and Reformed Coalition and the Post Separation UMC. While I cannot say for sure what will happen in the New denomination that is being led by WCA, I can safely say that;

  1. General agencies, including Wespath, will now stay as part of the structure of the Post separation UMC. 
  2. Africa will remain in the post separation UMC and Traditional
  3. The Centrist/Progressive coalition in the US will remain in the post separation UMC, and;
  4. Some traditionalists in the US will remain in the post separation UMC.

How this will work out for the post separation US church with centrists, progressives and traditionalists remains to be figured out.  We need special prayers for God’s guidance to help us address this matter. What the Central Conferences and the Connectional Table are proposing is for each region – Africa, Europe, Philippines and the US to become a Regional Conference with each regional conference (hopefully) having its own book of discipline that will provide for dealing with contextual issues.”

In a recent session hosted by Stan Copeland at Lover’s Lane UMC in Dallas, Texas, Bishop Mande Muyombo (Northern Katanga, Tanzania) said this, “the challenge we have here in defining the word conservative, or more ‘traditionalist’ – we may have had here in the honeymoon talk that you heard – but the challenge that we have right now is that word is being interpreted for our people in the wrong way.  In as much as I disagree with my LGBTQ person, I have to recognize his or her dignity.  If I chase that individual out of the church, I’m wondering if I’m preaching the Gospel.  The Gospel of love that Professor Empeche alluded to.  And I think for the African church, that is the challenge we have.  We cannot be perceived as people who come to oppress other people because of what we legislate.  I think we have the challenge to reform ourselves and look into each other.  If we are going to chase away people from the church, I am wondering…if we are still the church.  So, again, I want to emphasize that point that the time has come for us to move into regional conferences, respect each other’s space, and give each other time to build relationships and talk to one another and be submissive and vulnerable to the work of the Holy Spirit.”

I hate to say this, but it’s been a while since a United Methodist Bishop has inspired me…and now I’m inspired by two!  These Bishops have really challenged me.  The African United Methodists are actually leading us forward.  They are casting a vision to remain together as one church while allowing for regional, contextual flexibility on issues that are “non-essential” as relates to salvation.  I didn’t think it was possible, but I am reminded that with God, all things are possible.  They are teaching and leading us toward a new unity even in the midst of our disagreement on the issues confronting our church.  They do not agree with same-sex marriage or LGBTQ ordination, but they can be a part of a church where that would occur in another context.  They can also recognize and humbly ask for forgiveness for the harm done through previous UMC legislation.  We may not all agree, but their words and actions may lead the United Methodist Church toward a powerful and transcendent understanding of unity taught by both Jesus and Paul.

I understand not everyone in Africa may agree with Bishops Yambasu and Muyombo, but I am grateful for two Bishops in our church that take the words from our Preamble seriously,”The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world, and its very dividedness is a hindrance to its mission in that world.”

“If We Are Going to Chase People Away From the Church, Are We Still The Church?”

Years ago, I had a young man come to me in tears.  He and his wife were divorcing after 10 years of marriage with 3 children together.  There was no affair or abuse: they “grew out of love”.  He told me, “no one is innocent in this…she just had the guts to walk away.”  It was a tragic situation.  But it grew worse.

He had been teaching a youth Sunday school class at their church.  He loved it.  They were a couple of strong faith even in the midst of their marriage falling apart.  The church he was attending was her family’s church.  Her parents had been there most of their lives. The preacher visited the young man.  Using the Bible, he told him, “you can’t teach our young people anymore since you are getting a divorce.”  The young man tried to explain to no avail.  He accepted the decision.  But then, at the end of the conversation, the pastor said, “you need to leave this church.  The Bible is clear: a man cannot divorce his wife.  We cannot allow you to remain unless you repent and reconcile.  And…her family was here first.”

The young man came to see me since we knew each other.  We prayed and shed tears.  It wasn’t long before he drifted out of church completely.  To this day, he still won’t attend church because of the harm done.  I share this not to point to the pastor, or the young man, or the wife, or her family…I share it simply to show that there are times we close the doors of the church to people.  When we do, are we still the church?

Last weekend, Bishop Mande Muyombo of the North Katanga Conference in the Democratic Republic of Congo (a conference with over 2,000 churches) humbled everyone at Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church last Saturday with a radical statement about what it means to be conservative and an amazing confession.  (I strongly encourage you to watch these two videos.)  Following his confession, the entire colloquy gathered together to ask for forgiveness for their actions as well.  He asked a question that has echoed in my heart all week: “If we are going to chase people away from the church, are we still the church?”

Bishop Muyombo is a traditionalist.  He does not agree with same-sex marriage.  But he is obviously wrestling with God’s Word – as many of us are – regarding exclusion of any of God’s children.  African, Filipino, and other international United Methodists want to keep the church unified even though they disagree with the practice of same sex marriage (there are some who want separate the church as well).  The same thing is occurring in our US United Methodist churches.  The difference is this: those on each side of this issue believe the other side is radical.  The choice seems binary: either leave the UMC to join a conservative Methodist Church that will exclude all LGBTQ folk; or stay in the UMC where the liberals will lead the church toward no truth, no beliefs, and no values.

This binary choice is false.

First, a new traditionalist Methodist Church does not feel they are “chasing away” LGBT folk.  They will welcome anyone and everyone, but they will stand firm that LGBT lifestyle is a sin and those practices cannot be lived out, blessed, or allowed in their church.  This will be a church of traditional non-compatiblists.  It won’t be a church for everyone, but it will be a church centered on Jesus and God’s Word.

Second, remaining in the United Methodist Church does not mean it will become a raging, liberal, socialist (please feel free to fill in any word here that may scare you if you are a traditionalist non-compatiblist) church.  On the contrary, as Bishops Muyombo and Yambasu (from Sierra Leone, who convened the recent Protocol separation plan) make clear, the UMC will remain a church with great diversity and contextual flexibility.  This will be a church of traditional compatiblists, centrists, moderates, and progressive compatiblists. It won’t be a church for everyone, but it will be a church centered on Jesus and God’s Word.

It is deeply distressing that our church feels it must split, but I for one am ready to return all my focus and energy on making disciples of Jesus Christ!  And I want to be part of a church that doesn’t chase anyone away.

Chapelwood and the Future of The United Methodist Church

On Friday January 3, major news outlets reported the press release from a broad group of United Methodist leaders who have agreed in principle to a separation over the issue of human sexuality.  The Washington PostNew York Times, Christianity TodayCNN, and many others reported on the details agreed upon in the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.  As with any news these days, some of the headlines and reporting may mischaracterize the proposed plan.  News outlets and Bishop’s statements also don’t reveal how the potential separation may impact our local churches.  I want to share a few clarifying statements and give clarity on how this potential separation could impact Chapelwood UMC.

First, let me give you the simple synopsis of what this agreement means. I encourage you to read the actual protocol in the link above and read some of my previous blog posts about the Indianapolis Plan to give you background on some of the rationale for decisions.

  • This plan is not a final decision.  It is a plan being submitted to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church for deliberation in May 2020.  There are some agreed upon principles within it, but keep in mind – only the General Conference can make decisions affecting the United Methodist Church.
  • This plan will allow the formation of a new traditionalist Methodist denomination that would disallow same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons.  That new denomination would be formed by the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and would follow their newly proposed Book of Doctrines and Discipline for a New Methodist Church.
  • This plan would allow for the continuation of the United Methodist Church.  The UMC would remain intact with our Book of Discipline.  The only difference is that the restrictive language disallowing same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons will be removed.  Each pastor, local church, and annual conference would decide whether they would do weddings or ordain clergy.
  • This plan allows churches, annual conferences, and central conferences to choose if they want to remain in the United Methodist Church or leave to join the new, traditionalist Methodist denomination.  All churches would keep their properties and assets.
  • Finally, the plan calls for an immediate moratorium on all charges/complaints addressing restrictions in the Book of Discipline related to self-avowed practicing homosexuals or same-sex weddings.  While someone could still file charges, the agreement calls to hold the complaints in abeyance until the agreed upon separation is finalized.  This will allow churches and pastors to begin living into ministry as they feel called.

How Does All This Affect Us at Chapelwood?

I love Chapelwood United Methodist Church.  We are a diverse community of faith that loves Jesus.  We impact the world for Christ in many different ways.  We are made up of multiple worship communities who each live out Christ’s love in contextually relevant ways.  Chapelwood, Mercy Street, The Center for Christian Spirituality, Fair Haven, Upper Room, Generaciones, and Oikon Chapelwood each seek to embody God’s grace as we receive it to all who need it!  Our pastors reflect ethnic and theological diversity.  At Chapelwood, we don’t agree on everything.  But we do agree on the essentials of the faith – the orthodox tenets of Christianity which we find in scripture, reflected in the Christian creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene), taught in John Wesley’s sermons and notes on the Old and New Testament, reflected in The General Rules of the Methodist Church and in our Articles of Religion.

If you have listened to me preach or speak at all over the past 6 years, you know that I believe the central focus of the Bible is this: God’s love seeks to renew humanity through Jesus Christ.  The life and ministry of Jesus Christ is the primary way we see God intersect with the world.  If you want to know what God would do in any given situation, look to Jesus.  In Matthew 9, Jesus says, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come not to call the righteous but sinners.”  The truth is we are ALL sinners.  We must all learn what Jesus means when he says he desires mercy over sacrifice.

The church must be open to all.  No one should be told they do not belong at the table with Jesus Christ.  The issues of same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons will continue to be debated in the United Methodist Church.  There will be a lot of theological diversity within the UMC going forward, as there has been in the past.  You can be a part of a family with different views.  I just completed a week with my family in town arguing religion and politics!  We don’t agree on everything, but we love each other and we would never break fellowship over our disagreements.

There are many resources that address the different views Christians have on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons. One that I have found enlightening is a one-hour video by two friends and fellow professors at Candler School of Theology at Emory University – the Rev. Dr. Kevin Watson and the Rev. Dr. Kendall Soulen.  There is also a 30-minute follow up Q&A where they list their biblical references again.  They are friends who offer differing perspectives of Biblical interpretation regarding marriage within Christian communities.  I love the fact that they are friends and co-workers who engage in intellectual dialogue with different perspectives of scripture.  They engage in this conversation with love and kindness.  I hope this will be a model for us at Chapelwood.

Final thoughts:

  • As senior pastor, I want it to be clear that I will be leading Chapelwood to remain in the United Methodist Church.  There are two primary reasons for this.  First, the new traditionalist Methodist denomination will be very different in structure, practices, and beliefs from the United Methodist Church that exists today.  I included a link above to the new Book of Doctrines and Discipline for this church.  The changes are far more than simply disallowing same-sex marriage.  Simply put, leaving the UMC would deeply change Chapelwood’s identity, structure, practices, and beliefs.  Second, remaining in the United Methodist Church fully embraces who we are and what we have always stood for as Chapelwood.  We believe in embodying God’s grace to everyone!  Everyone is welcome to join us at God’s table as we struggle peacefully to live out our lives of discipleship.  We won’t do it perfectly, but we will be the kind of family that welcomes everyone!  Our leadership is aware of our direction and is supportive.  I have stated to our leadership on many occasions that Chapelwood will not make a hard right or left turn theologically.
  • In 2020, there will by many opportunities – dialogues, classes, and small groups – to discuss the differing ways we read and understand scripture.  We need to engage in conversations about the differing ways we read the Bible.  We need to grow in our Biblical literacy on ALL issues.
  • I encourage you to meet with any of our pastors (and even retired pastors) to discuss this issue with them one on one.  Our pastors have differing views on homosexuality, but we are all supportive of Chapelwood and we are all supportive of remaining in the United Methodist Church.  We love living in a diverse community of faith.
  • Chapelwood will continue to be a church made up of people with differing beliefs on the issue of homosexuality.  Life in community can be messy.  I’m okay with that.  We are a church filled with differing political opinions as well.  But, we are also of one mind when it comes to God’s kingdom work and the impact we make for Christ Jesus.
  • Our missional focus will not change.  We will continue to make disciples, embody grace, and impact the world.

Please be in prayer for our church and all our members.  I am praying for peace, understanding, love, and kindness.  I am also praying for calm in the midst of storms.

Look for opportunities coming soon to engage in further discussions on the future of Chapelwood and the UMC.  I am really excited about The Impact of Generosity sermon series in January and know that God will bless us as we engage in our annual stewardship campaign.  I look forward embodying God’s grace with you.

The Indianapolis Plan: The Introductory Paragraphs

Last week, The Indianapolis Plan – Basic Provisions was released to the United Methodist Church.  It was designed by a group of United Methodists  – ‘traditionalist, centrist, and progressive’ (I will use these terms for shared understanding realizing some, including me, think they are easily misused and limited). The facilitators were Kent Millard, Darren Cushman-Wood, and Keith Boyette. I was invited to participate in this group as one of the centrists.  Over the coming days, I will share my thoughts on the Indy Plan, speak to some of the strengths of the plan, and point to some of its weaknesses.  I will also point to what I believe are the biggest obstacles.  I hope the comments you share on social media and on this blog will be helpful in not only refining the Indy Plan as we continue our work, but help all of United Methodism find a way forward.  My hope is that we won’t spend time arguing over human sexuality.  I think we all realize we don’t agree which is why we are discussing separation.  I think it would be more helpful for General Conference delegates if you share your thoughts related to what the future needs to look like for Wesleyan Methodism around the world.  I will be faithful to post all comments that are helpful and none that are harmful on this blog.

The two introductory paragraphs were written to frame our work.  Here they are with some reflections added:

“The 2019 special General Conference of The United Methodist Church highlighted the depth of the irreconcilable differences present in the UM Church.”

  • Everyone agrees that February 2019 was painful for everyone.  Once the Traditional Plan passed, the entire auditorium in St. Louis was filled with pain and anger.  GC19 was a battleground with little room for compromise.  In the days and months following, we realized we need to do something different.  Most people I know don’t want a repeat of GC19.  But we must be honest here…there are those on both sides that are more than willing to fight again if they feel they are not being treated fairly.  This is why we are attempting a larger conversation.

“We seek to envision a new future for the people of the UM Church, offer a different narrative, and avoid further harm to one another, to the UM Church and its members, to the church universal, and to those with whom we strive to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We desire to move away from the vitriol and caustic atmosphere that has too often marked conversation in the UM Church and move into a new season where for the sake of Christ we strive to bless one another, even as we send one another into our respective mission fields to multiply our witness to Christ.”

  • Two items here:
  • First, we are all seeking a new future, but we are stuck together as we work it out.  We don’t have a Pope and the only body that can work a solution is General Conference.  We have to get this right.  I believe a simpler solution with fewer petitions has the highest probability of success.  Harm has been done and is being done.  The disagreements are irreconcilable.  We agree we have to find some type of separation – whether they be new expressions, one group leaving, disaffiliations, or dissolution (we discussed all of these).  If we can bless one another in our parting, that would be a wonderful witness to the world…but that can only happen if we find some shared agreement on how to create sufficient separation.  If it becomes a fight with a win/lose mindset, I am concerned about the damage not only in the UMC but the damage of our witness to the world.  
  • Second, ‘respective mission fields’ makes sense if we are talking geography, but it doesn’t make sense theologically…at least not to me.  I would rather say we are sending one another out to be faithful in our witness to Christ and multiply the kingdom of God.  ‘Respective’ is defined as ‘belonging or relating separately to each of two or more things’.  For me, the mission fields we enter into are not separate to the new expressions.  We may reach and teach those we meet differently, but it’s all the same patch of ground.

“We envision the UM Church birthing new expressions that will share a common heritage from the roots of Methodism, unbound from the conflict that has decimated the UM Church.”

  • Decimated is harsh word.  For those of us who have been immersed in the conflict or harmed by one another, this may be accurate.  But there are many churches that are doing good ministry, sharing the Gospel, reaching people, loving people, engaging needs, and embodying grace.  The work of the church has continued and will continue.  There are a lot of churches in the US and around the globe that are vibrant.  There are churches on both sides of this disagreement that are doing well…and there are churches on both sides of this disagreement that are struggling.  
  • We must recognize there are many issues causing United Methodist decline – not just our disagreement on human sexuality.  We need separation but only so we can devote time and energy into the other limiting factors that keep us from reaching people for Christ.

“These new expressions, though separate, will continue the rich heritage of the Methodist movement as currently expressed in the UM Church while being freed to present the best of who they are and their respective witnesses for Christ unhindered by those with whom they have been in conflict. We will send one another to our respectively defined missions and multiply as each expression reaches its mission field. In doing so, we will love one another even in the midst of our sharp disagreements. We will release one another to joyful obedience to Christ’s call on our lives.”

  • I’ve already spoken to “respectively defined missions” and “its mission field”.  See above.  
  • As to new ‘expressions’…
  • In our Indy group, we are of one mind on the need for separation.  We are not of one mind on the best way to separate.  We each have different desires and goals as to what a separation will mean for those we attempt to represent.  
  • We discussed dissolution of the denomination.  I am not in favor of dissolution.  The Indy Plan is not dissolution but we had to work hard to get there.  I commend those who deeply desired dissolution and how they realized it was not a realistic path forward for us.  My concerns with dissolution are rooted in its complexity and unforeseen consequences.  If something doesn’t go right, we can’t come back and fix it.  Our UM polity forces us to make this as simple as we can.  The UMC may dissolve someday, but that needs to be an organic process…not legislated without significant time and study.  
  • Dissolution would be long and messy, fraught with legal battles.  We believe we need a plan that moves forward quickly and can be accomplished at GC2020.  Churches and members on all sides desire relief now.
  • Dissolution could not address the massive inertia in many of our local churches.  Many churches don’t want to vote, don’t want to leave, don’t want to change what they are doing, and don’t want to deal with this issue.  We can judge that however we want, but it is an organizational and cultural axiom that has more power than we realize.  One may call it institutionalism, inertia, fear, apathy, or laziness…but it is real.  Who will bring along the thousands of churches that won’t know how to move forward if the UMC is dissolved?  How would that happen?  Many could default into a camp that is not a good fit…then we have to go through this all again?
  • If the UMC stays intact, the General Conference, GCF&A, and other entities will have the authority to implement each part of separation including any allocation of assets. General Conference cannot begin a new denomination, but it can pass legislation that would allow annual conferences to choose to depart the UMC.  I will discuss more details on all this in upcoming posts since it is included in the provisions without a lot of detail.

Up Next: All Things New…Or Some Things?

I hope this will inspire you to share your thoughts, concerns, and questions not only for our group, but to assist all General Conference delegates as they prepare for their work in 2020.

The Indianapolis Plan – My Experience

This week, The Indianapolis Plan – Basic Provisions was released to the United Methodist Church.  It was designed by a group of UMs  – ‘traditionalist, centrist, and progressive’ (I will use these terms for shared understanding realizing some, including me, think they are easily misused and limited). The facilitators were Kent Millard, Darren Cushman-Wood, and Keith Boyette. I was invited to participate in this group as one of the centrists.    My simple definition of a centrist is a compatibilist – whether center-left or center-right – we had both as our part of the centrists on the Indy team.  I attempted to represent the many centrist pastors and churches I have known and currently know who have differing views on marriage and ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons, but long to remain unified as one church in the midst of our disagreements. My hope has always been that we could remain unified as a church – even in the midst of our differences on many issues.  I realize that is not possible for some in our denomination.  Therefore, I believe some type of separation is needed in order for us to focus on our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I have not blogged much the past two years or more because I have focused work in my local congregation.  I wanted to do my best to prepare Chapelwood UMC in Houston, Texas for the many possibilities in our future.  Chapelwood has always been a cutting edge, inclusive church in many ways. Chapelwood is very diverse with differing views on human sexuality, worshiping on multiple campuses, all while reaching multiple contexts and demographics.  Over the past couple of years, we peacefully struggled together regarding our understanding as a church on this issue, as well as other issues.  We do not all agree, but we do agree that we want to be a church where all are welcome and included in life and ministry.

Over the coming days, I will share my thoughts on the Indy Plan, speak to some of the strengths of the plan, and point to some of its weaknesses.  I will also point to what I believe are the biggest obstacles.  I hope the comments you share will be helpful in not only refining the Indy Plan as we continue our work, but help all of United Methodism to find a way forward.  My hope is that we won’t spend time arguing over human sexuality.  I think we all realize we don’t agree which is why we are discussing separation.  I think it would be more helpful for General Conference delegates if you share your thoughts related to what the future needs to look like for Wesleyan Methodism around the world.  I will be faithful to post all comments that are helpful and none that are harmful on this blog.

Before I discuss the actual plan (in the soon to follow posts), let me begin by sharing my experience of those who gathered for this work.

We all came in with our assumptions and positions.  We prayed.  We shared Holy Communion.  We advocated.  We laid down ‘non-negotiables’.  We tried to define our constituencies.  We listened.  We struggled.  We had to take time apart.  We shed some tears at the weight of the whole thing.  Whatever anyone says about someone (caucuses or individuals), you don’t really know their heart until you share a meal and a beer with them – I’m talking about me drinking beer…not anyone else.  I honestly believe that each person was open to the process.  I made friends with those I disagree with on these issues.  I don’t know where it all lands, but we strived to not operate by the toxic political structure of our world.  It is important to me that we embody God’s grace as we receive it to those who need it.  I felt God’s grace extended to me.  I hope I extended it to them.

Simply put, this has not been easy or fun.  But the people who gathered are seeking a way to live into the future that is faithful with their beliefs.  There are more voices needed around the table.  I will tell you there were other voices and other caucuses that spoke into this process.  I won’t share the extent…I will leave that to them.  I want every person in that room to be my brother and sister in the same church, but I realize that won’t happen in the same denomination.  For now, we struggle with a way forward that creates space for people to live faithfully.

Next Up:  The Introductory Paragraphs

Difficult Questions About Embodying Grace

“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. For

‘Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it.For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also sufferedfor sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring youto God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…”

– 1 Peter 3:8-18

At Chapelwood United Methodist in Houston, Texas, we strive to be defined by how we ‘embody grace’.  We say, “we embody grace as we receive it to those who need it…and everyone needs it!” We take this seriously because this is exactly what God did in Jesus Christ…God was embodied through the life and ministry and resurrection of Christ.  We believe we are now called to embody Christ in the world…to give substance to the grace offered for the salvation of the world.  This leads to some difficult questions for Christ-followers in the days in which we live:

How does a Christian live in the world?

What does it mean to have a heart that is distinctly formed by the Spirit of God?

What is the stance from which the follower of Christ is to live his/her discipleship?

And what does it mean to live from that stance when it seems as if the entire world is doing life from other stances and other values?

1 Peter raises some legitimate concerns given the values of the world in which the early Christians lived.  Their world, like ours, was hostile to the values and beliefs of the Christian faith.  The early leaders of the faith wanted to weave the values of Christ into their young congregations…especially in the midst of their persecution.  The concern then and now is…”How do I hold fast to the promise of God’s blessing and at the same time act appropriately (with the Spirit of Christ) toward those who seem hostile to the faith?”

These are questions we still wrestle with today.

The Misuse of Anger

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
– Frederick Buechner

Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, by Theodoor Rombouts

In Ephesians 4:26, Paul says, “be angry but do not sin”.  Paul seems to allow for an Anger that does not reach the level of sin.  In the Old Testament (notably in the Psalms), God is frequently depicted as angry.  In the New Testament, we find Jesus angry as he throws the money changers and merchants out of the Temple.  In the Bible, righteous indignation seems to be an appropriate response to offenses committed against God (Ps. 119:53; Mk. 3:5).  There is a place to respond in Anger, but this Anger is something distinctly less permanent than deeply-rooted wrath or hostility. We all struggle to distinguish between getting angry for injustice versus becoming an angry person.  Anger is needed in some situations of injustice. It is better than callous indifference.  So how do we determine if our anger is indeed righteous or sinful?  We should ask ourselves these questions:

  • Does our expression of Anger lead to love, wholeness (shalom), or healing?  Is it building up others and the body of Christ?  Are we helping to bring healing to someone or some group that has been oppressed or abused?  If the answers are “yes” – then perhaps your expression of Anger is righteous.
  • On the other hand, does my expression of Anger lead to division, destruction, animosity, alienation, or separation?  This kind of Anger would be hard pressed to be “righteous”.

Paul also writes in Ephesians 4:27, “do not make room for the devil”.  When Anger takes up residence within us, we become ‘angry people’. Angry people sow division, destruction, animosity, alienation, and separation.

It seems to me that good people in our society and churches are responding to injustice with Anger.  But they are allowing that Anger to consume them and others in destructive ways.  We are not always good at using Anger in beneficial ways.  Our goal should be to leverage our Anger into love, wholeness, healing, and building up the body of Christ.  We all need to stop and ask this question: Has injustice led me to righteous Anger?  If so, am I leveraging that Anger to build up the body of Christ?  Or, have I allowed that Anger to ‘make room for the devil’ in my life?  Good people, motivated by injustice, are right to get angry.  Too often, many of them lose control of the Anger.  It controls them. The good they want to do is followed by a wake of destruction and brokenness.  I pray we can find ways to harness the passion of righteous Anger to build the body of Christ.

Mercy is the quality that stands against Anger. All the Anger words – wrath, bitterness, resentment, vengeance, judgment, etc. – are devoid of mercy. The person who swims in the current of God’s mercy already has a leg up in dealing with Anger.  God’s love at work in the world is “mercy”…mercy extended toward friends and enemies, those like me and those unlike me, toward those of every race and tribe. Mercy is a distinctly “God-like” quality.

You may be angry for the right reasons; but be careful that your Anger does not consume you and lead to destruction.

The Terrible Temptation for the United Methodist Pastor

Last week, I preached on Sloth. Or, as the ancient Christians referred to it, Acedia.  I shared a personal testimony that of the Seven Deadening Sins, this one has affected me the most in recent days, weeks, and even years.  I believe it also affects many of my brothers and sisters who are in ministry in the United Methodist Church as we have been battling over the issue of human sexuality.

I have heard it said that many United Methodist pastors are going through the stages of grief.  Others are dealing with naturally occurring depression triggered by this difficult event.  But for me, Acedia/Sloth is my struggle.  Acedia was always thought to be linked to vocation and it was considered the monk’s (pastor’s) most dangerous temptation.  The vows we take to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples are foolishness to the world.  We have given our lives to this vocational calling.  We put all our chips in the UMC/Wesleyan basket.  We bet everything we have on this and we are uncertain of the future.  I truly believe that this “fight” in our denomination has led many pastors to lose focus, become listless, and find themselves spiritually sluggish.

We must do all we can to stay focused on the main thing.  However, that is easier said than done.

Kathleen Norris writes this about Sloth/Acedia: “At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care.  The person struggling with acedia refuses to care or is incapable of caring.  When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.” (from Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life)

Thomas Aquinas thought of Sloth as a “paralysis of the will to continue,” which begins with dissatisfaction and ends in desperation.  He went on to say that the slothful person loses sight of the goal of life.  Sloth is a fundamentally spiritual issue – a sadness in relation to belief and practice.  Aquinas thought that joy and charity were the opposites to Sloth. After all, we should find joy in following Christ and that joy should generate love!

John Cassian believed that the spiritual person’s Acedia/Sloth could be disguised as good deeds, or even fighting the good fight.  When we help others and fight for a cause, we can distract from the interior work we need to do.  Cassian said the religious person beset by the “foul mist of acedia decides that he/she should pay their respects to others and visit the sick.”  The hidden good work is of value here.

William May wrote, “The soul in the state of sloth is beyond sadness and melancholy.  It has removed itself from the rise and fall of feelings; the very root of its feelings in desire is dead.  That is why, for the medieval moralist, sloth was…the most terrifying of sins.  It is sin at its utter most limit.  To be human is to desire.  The good person desires God and other things in God.  The sinful person desires things in the place of God, but they are still recognizably human inasmuch as they have known desire.  The slothful person, however, is a dead person, an arid waste…their desire itself has dried up.” (from Sinning Like a Christian)

I shared these steps on Sunday that I am using to battle Acedia/Sloth, and I wanted to share them again:

  1. Make a firm intention to keep on keeping on.  Take the next right step.
  2. Bite off small spiritual disciplines and tackle humble activities.
  3. Care for others (this causes us to stop turning inward)
  4. Pay attention to your inner life.
  5. Make a vow of stability (the Benedictines make this vow so they are forced to deal with interior issues in the face of difficult situations/locations)
  6. Look for joy.  It is all around, but acedia/sloth blinds us.

 

Reflections on The United Methodist General Conference

I have always felt that as followers of Jesus we should be guided by the final words of Jesus in Acts 1:8 when he said to his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  A mentor of mine told me long ago that Jerusalem was the closest connections…our church, family, and local neighborhood; Judea was our broader regions…our country; Samaria was the “out of bounds place” – the place where “those we see as other than ourselves dwell…they live and move outside our safe walls”; then, the ends of the earth….well, that speaks for itself.  The key line to me has always been, “you will be my witnesses”.  In order to be a witness for Jesus, we must begin with our own identity…we must receive the Good News about ourselves before we can share the Good News in the world. We are salt and we are light because God, whose children we are, is committed to making the world something new. I truly believe the way we engage in disagreeing with each other is one of our most powerful witnesses.  As we articulate our differences…we must continually ask, “are we salt…are we light…are we bearing witness to the love of God, neighbor, and self.”  We begin with scripture.  Jesus calls his followers to be his witnesses.

On Tuesday, February 26, 2019, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted once again on the definition of marriage.  The Traditional Plan was adopted by a vote of 438-384 (53% – 47%: out of 870 delegates representing 12 million members).  The Traditional Plan maintains the current position of the United Methodist Church which defines marriage as between a man and woman.  The plan also added more punitive accountability measures against those who break church law for reasons of conscience. The Traditional Plan passing means clergy still cannot officiate same-sex marriages. Churches still cannot host same-sex weddings.  LGBTQ+ persons are still ineligible for ordination. And the statement, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” remains in place.

I have read many articles from United Methodist pastors telling their people “nothing has changed” and “everything remains the same”.  Honestly, we have to acknowledge that this General Conference in St. Louis changed a lot.  It changed the way people see and understand the United Methodist Church.  There are Methodists in our family who are glad to see this decision upholding traditional views. There are also many Methodists in our family who are deeply hurt and grieving.  Chapelwood has LGBTQ+ members and friends who feel as though their denomination has told them or their family members “you don’t belong…you are not loved…your life is not valued”.  The fact that some of our members feel this way breaks my heart beyond words.  I apologize for the hurt you are feeling by our denomination.  While neither Chapelwood nor I were involved in this decision, I want you to hear me say I am sorry for the pain you feel.  For those of you who are more traditional in your belief, please know I would say the same thing to you had the decision gone the other way.  I love each and every member of Chapelwood.

Chapelwood is a very special church.  It has changed me in more ways than I can articulate over the past five years.  I know this church.  Chapelwood has been and will continue to be a church that “embodies God’s grace as we receive it to those who need it…and everyone needs it”…including me.  For 70 years, we have strived to welcome and love those who felt unloved in our community.  Those who know Chapelwood, know this to be true.

Let me share just a few thoughts to guide us in our prayers and reflections:

  1. How will Chapelwood communicate our belief that God loves everyone in a way that our world knows we mean it?  Unfortunately, the Christian Church has a terrible history of segregating people with disastrous long-term consequences.  At Chapelwood, we have a high value of Scripture.  That high value of Scripture compels us to study the life of Jesus, obey the teachings he gave us, and live as Christ lived.  It compels us to radically open our doors to welcome everyone to God’s table.  It also sends us into the world where people live to share the Gospel of Christ with them. The creation of our many, differing worship communities points to this passion.  It feels that we will have to work harder than ever to let the world know that when we say everyone is 100% loved by God and by us…we mean it with all our heart.
  2. I also want to ask us all to prayerfully consider our words and actions around this decision and this topic.  Our General Rules state that we are to ‘do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God’.  I know harm has been done to people we love. I hope each one of us will measure our words with gentleness and kindness.  LGBTQ+ persons are some of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters right now.  They are constantly attacked, criticized, bullied, picked on, and excluded.  They need our love and their families need our love. I don’t want any of our words to do anything that would lead others to attack or harm them. 
  3. The vote was extremely close and divisive…53%-47% (50 votes separating the decision in a denomination of 12 million).  Just like our country, our denomination is deeply divided over this and many other issues. I point us back to Acts 1:8…how we will be a witness in the world in our disagreements?

A few other reflections:

  • This difficult conversation is not over with this vote.  This conversation is going to continue.  Much of the Traditional Plan is unconstitutional according to our Book of Discipline and other parts will most definitely be challenged.  There is currently no way for a local congregation to leave the denomination if they disagree with this decision.  Pastors who choose to break the church law will be charged and there will be church trials.  There will also be another General Conference in May 2020 to go through this all again. Delegates for that conference will be voted on at our Texas Annual Conference in May 2019.  I am praying about how to be more involved in this process going forward. Pray for me, please.
  • The United Methodist Church is a connectional church.  Chapelwood is a part of that connection.  I, and our pastors, will be faithful to the polity (rules) of our denomination, while at the same time doing everything we can to let everyone know they are 100% loved.
  • Chapelwood is a family. And as a family, we need to support and love each other.  I still believe in Jesus’ prayer for unity and Paul’s definition of the church as a body of Christ with many different members.  You can’t do away with a part of the body easily or painlessly.  Each and every member of Chapelwood is my family and member of the body of Christ.

This Sunday, March 3, 2019, I will host two information sessions about the General Conference in the Chapel at 9:45 and 11:10.  I invite you to join me for more details, to ask questions, and share a time of prayer.  I am also glad to meet with any members of our family to pray and talk together…you may also contact me or any of our Chapelwood pastors if you have questions.

Our mission has not changed, and our God has not changed.  God is the same yesterday, today, and forever!  Pray for Chapelwood, pray for our country, and pray for our denomination.

New Self, New World

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
    and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good newsof the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

– Matthew 4:1-11, 17, 23-25

One of the things that strikes me as I talk with people about life is how often we get “stuck” in the vicious loop of self-defeat.  A couple trying to repair a broken marriage keep running into the obstacles of their own self-image, broken trust, and lack of kindness.  Parents dealing with a child that can’t seem to find their way in life…they try everything they know to help and it seems like nothing works.    A young man who lost his wife to cancer and seems to continually find himself in wilderness after wilderness…he wonders is this what the rest of my life will be?

Jesus gives us new wine – the offer of new life, a new self in a new world.  The problem is we keep putting it in old wineskins.  Jesus warned us not to do that, but we can’t help ourselves.  Our biggest obstacle in life is we don’t know where to get new wineskins for the wine Jesus offers us.

Over the next two months, I want to explore the Sermon on the Mount in a way that helps us learn how to develop new wineskins and tackle life differently.  As Einstein once said, “You can’t solve the problems of the world using the same thinking that caused them.”  For many of us, we are trying to find freedom and liberation but we keep getting stuck…primarily because we are trying to solve the problems with the same thinking that caused the problems.  Old wineskins.  The new wine keeps bursting them and we can’t ever seem to move forward.

I hope you will join me in this journey.  One of the things that excites me the most is that studying the Sermon on the Mount has changed my life this summer.  And I pray it will change yours as well.

If you’d like to discover your next step of discipleship at Chapelwood, click here.