Being One is Not Being the Borg

“Being one does not mean that we all think alike.”
Bishop James Swanson on “The Power That Makes Us One.”

Last week, Bishop Swanson – the resident bishop of the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church – was in my district where he met with the pastors followed by preaching at a district-wide laity rally in the evening. The theme of this rally was “The Power that Makes Us One,” referring to the power of the Holy Spirit that unites us as Christians. Bishop gave the above quote during his sermon and it made me think of some of the rhetoric I have witnessed as the United Methodist Church has continued to debate LGBTQ inclusion. My thoughts then turned to Star Trek.

If you’re a Trekkie, you know of The Borg. The Borg are a hive mind collective made up of cybernetic beings that are forcibly “assimilated” by injecting nanoprobes into the host and where their brains surgically altered. The point is to collect the knowledge of all alien species into a common brain with the goal of achieving a perfect linked society where all think as one.  Anyone within the collective who begins to exhibit signs of independent thought is terminated as quickly as possible. The Borg are famous for the phrase “resistance is futile,” as they believe that all lifeforms must and will submit to assimilation.

There seems to be a concerted effort by organizations on all ends of the political and theological spectrum trying to assimilate members of the UMC. The idea is that a church can’t be a church unless all of the members agree completely… or else. I believe such thinking is contrary to the reality of our humanity and denies that we are all independent creatures with our own ways of understanding the nuances of doctrine. One thing I have noticed from all of those involved is that they love Jesus, know that He loves them in spite of their flaws, and want others to know that love as well. And yet, because of disagreement on a piece of doctrine, so many of us are content to throw all of that away. For the life of me, I can’t reconcile that with, well, really much at all.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, stated: “If we can not think alike, can we not love alike?” I believe this is a profound statement that acknowledges the scriptures that teach us that we will be known as Christ’s disciples by our love (John 13:35) rather than our agreement on doctrine. While doctrine is important, it’s not the end-all, be-all. The main thing is to keep Christ the main thing as he is the main thing. Some argue that the disagreement is over the authority of scripture. I say the issue is interpretation rather than authority. There is a major difference between the two and we must stop conflating authority with interpretation.

We are a church made up of imperfect people from all walks of life, different places, different races, and different experiences. This is exactly what the church has always been. The first disciples were all people from different backgrounds, did not understand things all the same, and yet Jesus used them in mighty ways and even considered them his closest friends. They were not a hive mind and neither are we. The church was never intended to be The Borg. The only way in which the church can and ought to be one is through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ, and to the glory of God the father.

Thanks be to God.

#GC2019: God Don’t Like Ugly

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818The question that a lot of people have right now is, “How do we move on?” For people who support the traditional interpretation of scriptures related to human sexuality, the mood seems to be like that of a “win.” For our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, the level of sadness and hurt is palpable. Many who are gay or who support including LGBTQ persons in ordained ministry and allowing UM clergy to perform their weddings would consider General Conference 2019 to a “loss.”

I would make this submission: There were no winners, only losers.

With few exceptions, I watched almost every moment on the live stream. I felt that I should witness as much of this pivotal time in the church as possible. I was sorry that I made that decision for a lot of reasons but one of the biggest regrets I have is witnessing the amount of ugly from so many people. Where I come from, we have a saying: “God don’t like ugly.”

I highly doubt he liked the shenanigans that took place in Saint Louis.

Especially on the final day, much of what I witnessed made my skin crawl. One scene, in particular, was a lay delegate quoting scripture very much out of context. Ok, proof-texting is common so I was not too shocked that this was happening. But when she quoted Matthew 18:5-6, it was revealed that many took this as implying that LGBTQ persons should be drowned. Whether this was her intent or not – and I pray it wasn’t – this was ugly and poor use of scripture.

God don’t like ugly.

I’m afraid things only got worse from there. I saw traditionalists implying the worst about progressives and vice-versa. I saw accusations of unethical behavior happening on the floor. I saw tempers getting the best of people, Need I go on? It was all ugly.

God don’t like ugly.

I hope that, regardless of how we feel about the outcome, we can all agree that a lot of harm was done. One of the most significant bits of harm was done to our witness for Christ. Some will argue that God was honored with the adoption of the Traditional Plan. Some will argue that God was not honored. One thing I can tell you for certain is that God was not honored in how everyone treated one another.

As God’s people, we have to do better.

On Sunday, I preached out of Luke 6; the title of the sermon was “Love Your Enemies, Even the Ones You Don’t Agree With.” The title might be a bit of a misnomer, however, in that part of my argument was “is someone you disagree with really your enemy or do we just like to think they are?” I would say such a person is not.

Regardless of how you feel, you are entitled to grieve, lament, or celebrate as you are led. But, please, remember that every single person you ever lay eyes on, talk to, or encounter on Twitter is of infinite sacred worth, even if you disagree with that person about anything or lots of things. We are commanded by scripture to treat one another the way we want to be treated.

Let’s start doing it. That’s how we move forward, because “God don’t like ugly.”

General Conference is Here

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818The lead up to the specially called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has been fierce. I have recorded my thoughts here several times on the various plans, Judicial Council decisions, and the actions of organizations like the Wesleyan Covenant Association (and even gotten more than one “talking to” about it). But now, the time of speculation, commentary, and wish making has come and gone.

General Conference is here.

While I have been outspoken about a lot of this, I’m afraid that my ultimate hope has been misunderstood somewhat. Here’s what I want for the United Methodist Church: A fresh movement of the Holy Spirit to overpower all of us – the delegates, clergy, laity, and everyone – and cause us to once again bring about the kingdom here. Yes, I would love for us to find a way to continue in ministry together but I also realize that God’s kingdom is much bigger than the UMC. That’s the thing: We are supposed to be about kingdom work. We need to get back to the work of evangelism.

While some disagree, the biggest problem in the UMC is a lack of evangelistic zeal. We have been so distracted by debating about LGBTQ inclusion that I fear we have forgotten our first love. Regardless of what happens in Saint Louis, we have got to get back to our mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We – and I definitely include myself – have been distracted for far too long.

When the delegates have all gone home and we are calculating the fallout from Saint Louis, the “last, the least, and the lost” will still be there in the world. They are thirsty for redemption and for new life. No resolution, plan, or debate is going to save them; only Jesus Christ can do that. It’s up to us to reach out and show that love to them.

I have my convictions and I am prepared to stand by them. Support your chosen plan, make your voice heard (with the knowledge that it’s the delegates who will ultimately decide). But no matter what does or doesn’t happen, can we all agree that we have got to get back to work for Jesus? If nothing else, I hope we can agree on that.

I am praying for our delegates, the bishops who will preside, and for the church as a whole as General Conference begins. I hope you will too. Below are some ways to follow along in real time if you would like. Above all, pray… And then act.

Streaming link
Social Media Hashtags: #UMC, #GC2019, #UMCGC

Final Thoughts on #WCAMEMPHIS

17190692_1317897651589772_5539392738647395563_nFirst, an apology for my post taking so long. What can I say, life has happened (remember: I’m in seminary).

I have now had a few days to reflect on the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s conference in Memphis. You may remember in my previous post that I indicated that I did not hear anything outright calling for a split or other things that some people may have expected to be said or done. The second day of the conference was also very good, but there was also some words stated that could be perceived as calling for a separation.

I have to admit, this did somewhat concern me and put me off.

I understand that separation may happen and I also acknowledge that a split could ultimately be the best way forward for the Methodist movement in America. But I believe that this is something that should be considered in the future. I stand by my opinion that a separation should not be on the table as of this moment.

Perhaps I could have misunderstood or my perception was otherwise off but it felt as of some comments made by Dr. Andrew Thompson and Dr. Billy Abraham were calling for a separation of factions now rather than waiting for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward to be completed, and for the special called session of General Conference taking place in 2019 to vote on a proposal. Again, it’s possible that I read too much into their words but I could not help but feel that in their minds a separation soon was the way to go.

Aside from those concerns, I found their speeches to be thought-provoking and timely. I agree with Dr. Thompson that holiness is something that we have lost as Christians and as the church. Perhaps it’s more accurate to state that we spend more time debating about what holiness looks like rather than actually practicing it. Dr. Abraham’s message was mainly on Methodists getting back to being Methodist. Again, I feel this is something that we spend way too much time debating and not nearly enough practicing. It’s certainly right to figure out what these things look like but we should not spend all of our time talking.

It’s time to start doing.

Rev. Carolyn Moore spoke on the church regaining the vision that the apostles had for the church after Jesus ascended. As I have reflected on this, I have come to the same conclusion that I did on holiness and “being Methodist:” We talk a lot but do very little. I’ve been preaching for the last couple of weeks with a central theme of “waking up” to the reality of what being a Christian is instead of simply going through the motions. We need to wake up from our stupor and stop claiming to be the church. What we should do is to concentrate more on being the church.

Rev. Shane Stanford’s message during the closing service of holy communion was incredible. I actually used this story in my sermon on Sunday (I will post it here later) because it spoke so well to the meaning and significance of the sacrament.

As I have reflected, I have found that I continue to be concerned about having litmus tests for one’s faith. I feel that one of the things one really needs to decide is what truly are the essential beliefs of the Christian faith. Where is the line between legalism and ensuring that we have the right beliefs? This is something I continue to wrestle with.

#WCAMEMPHIS was not really what I expected. This is actually a good thing, as I was pleasantly surprised in several ways. The leadership of WCA claims that they are committed to the unity of the church at this time. I hope they truly are. As for me, I will continue to wait, pray, watch, and see how all of this plays out. Then and only then will I act.

My Thoughts on #WCAMEMPHIS (So Far)

17190692_1317897651589772_5539392738647395563_nIt’s been no secret that I have been skeptical of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Specifically, I have been skeptical of the true motives of the organization. My fear is that this group would exist in order to bring about the divorce of the United Methodist Church. In other words, that WCA would be the groundwork for a new denomination that splits off from the UMC. I have been in dialogue with some people involved with WCA and have expressed my concerns. They have all assured me that WCA is not in place to group together like-minded churches and individuals as a united front against anyone who disagrees with them. I remained – and still remain – skeptical.

But I’m starting to soften a little.

I decided to attend the WCA-sponsored “We Believe in the Church” Conference in Memphis, TN in order to gain some insight for myself rather than simply relying on the blogosphere to form my opinions for me. I know a good many people who I greatly respect that support or are directly involved in WCA so this has also been a good opportunity for me to reconnect with some of these friends of mine. Now, I will not rehash all of the negative things which have been said about WCA in the blog world and elsewhere. In all honesty, I was not sure what to expect. We are still on a dinner break, still have two more sessions to go, plus several sessions tomorrow before I head back to Kentucky. I’m still not sure what all I will hear in the remaining sessions but let me tell you about some things that I have not heard. 

I have not heard “We need to split.” Not once have I heard anyone call for a separation of factions in the church. What I have heard over and over again are words like “unity,” and “together.” No one has called for a split and I really am doubtful that I will hear such talk here.

I have not heard hateful remarks about homosexuals. Many have painted the WCA as an organization which is anti-gay and hateful toward homosexuals. The attitudes I have encountered so far have been anything but hateful. A particularly telling moment occurred during a Q&A. A woman who self-identified as a lesbian asked if it was felt that God was absent from her life. The response, more or less, was: “I think that homosexuality is against God’s vision for marriage and relationships. But, I will not say that God is not at work in your life. I know God is present in your life.”

Rev. Chris Ritter related an episode from an experience he had in ministry after he preached on homosexuality. A man wanted to talk to him and then told Rev. Ritter that he is gay. The man asked if he would be welcome in the church. Rev. Ritter responded that he is welcome and is loved. He also said this: “I told him, ‘and if anyone here ever tried to hurt you because of your sexuality, they will have to hurt me first.’”

Such sounds anything but hateful to me.

I have not heard – or witnessed – anything racist. Nothing. Some have accused WCA of being covertly racist due to the racial makeup of its membership. Admittedly, the vast majority of people here are caucasian. However, there are also a significant number of other races present here. So far it seems that painting the WCA as an organization for “whites only” is patently false.

These are just my thoughts so far. The dinner break is almost up so I am returning to the conference floor. I will share more thoughts at a later time.

Picking Back Up at the Hotel

I wrote the first portion of this post while I was still at Christ UMC but I could not connect to wifi. Now that I’m back at my hotel and have wifi, I can share some other thoughts.

As I mentioned above, I have had my suspicions about the true intent of WCA. I acknowledge that there could still be behind the scenes issues but I also have to acknowledge that I could be wrong about that. One thing I did not mention above was that Bishop James Swanson of my home annual conference (Mississippi, in case you didn’t know) brought the thunder this afternoon. Bishop Swanson preached again in the evening session and brought the lightning, the thunder, the hail, and the flood. In a nutshell, Bishop Swanson challenged us to consider that all of the fighting that is going on within the UMC is nothing more than a distraction from the primary mission that God has given us. I believe this is a very real possibility and I can see such tricks of the great deceiver at work throughout social media and blogs.

From such posts, I hear a lot about specific issues but very little about Jesus. I think that’s a major problem.

Jeff Greenway also spoke and questioned whether the church is indeed at a moment like what Paul and Barnabus experienced. He made very clear that he was not calling for, nor is he a proponent of, separation but also acknowledged that a split is a real possibility and may ultimately be what is best for the Methodist movement as a whole. I feel that this is a fair observation and question that we must wrestle with, but I remain dedicated to doing what I can to keep the United Methodist Church United until such time as we have run out of options. Having said that, I hope that day never comes.

One additional event of note: The lady mentioned previously who self-identified as a lesbian also revealed that she is affiliated with Reconciling Ministries (if you’re not familiar with Reconciling Ministries, this is a caucus within the UMC that promotes full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church including recognition of same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals into the ministry). WCA leadership announced from the stage that she was making herself available tomorrow after the conclusion of the conference for conversation.

Tomorrow we have more speakers and questions to wrestle with. I have been given much to pray on and think about. If nothing else, I have taken this away from my experience today: The WCA may not be the “big bad wolf” that many, to an extent myself included, have made it out to be. Time will tell. May we remain faithful and focused on the mission at hand: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.