Oslo and the One Church Plan

It was 25 years ago last week that they signed the agreement.  And while no one expected the two sides to immediately settle all of their disputes, there was at least a hopeful spirit that the prospects for a peaceful resolution to a seemingly intractable problem might just be at hand.

To give some time to settle into it, however, imbedded in each element of the fabled Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine was the idea of “constructive ambiguity.” But ironically enough–at least as suggested by one former Israeli Knesset member, Einat Wilf, in The Atlantic–the very feature designed to ensure the success of the plan was the same one that eventually sank it.  For instead of building trust, that intentional ambiguity allowed each side to simply persist in the very behaviors which destroyed trust on the other side.

Israel, for instance, not only kept building settlements in the West Bank, but increased the population of those settlements almost four-fold.  And Palestinian leaders continued to push a “Right of Return” demanding Jews vacate everything east of the pre-1967 borders, while still often refusing to concede the right of Israel to even exist. A quarter century later, thus, the problem has now only worsened as that “constructive ambiguity” has become destructive instead.

And it strikes me that there may just be a lesson for The United Methodist Church in all of this, as well. For in trying to resolve our seemingly intractable sexuality questions, the One Church Plan would appear to employ the same strategy of creating “constructive ambiguity” over what we as a denomination actually teach and believe. It allows regions of the church to determine moral qualifications for ministry, for example, as well as individuals to define the church’s understanding of marriage.  In the end, however, that makes as much sense as G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays.”  Or in one state or country, but not in another one.

What’s more, the One Church Plan is plainly meant to be a transitional one.  For even those who find our current position morally wrong have acknowledged that though it does not go far enough, the OCP is a necessary “first step” towards the eventual goal of “full inclusion.”  To put it as one bishop has, it doesn’t change everything for everyone everywhere…yet… but it does set our whole denomination on a trajectory that is different than the one we have long followed.  Only as John Richard Neuhas has warned, “where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed,” or prohibited.

The words of that Knesset member Einat Wilf may therefore be worth noting by United Methodists in the days ahead.  For as he has written, “If we have learnt anything over the past twenty-five years, it is that being ambiguous… does no one any favors…the sooner both sides hear and internalize these simple, cold, hard truths, the sooner we will be able to speak of hope again.”

So could it be that therein lies the hope for the people called Methodists—in all of our varied expressions–as well?  To speak the truth…in love…no matter where it leads us?

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Seventeen Years Ago

It’s hard to believe that it’s been seventeen years since that day, for I suspect that everyone over the age of 25 can well remember where we were when the first reports began to crackle over the radio.  I had just dropped my wife off to teach for the day, in fact, and was headed back to my office when I heard the news of a terrible plane accident involving the World Trade Center in New York.

It sounded awful, to be sure, but when I got home and turned on the television it was even worse.  For it wasn’t an accident at all, but a deliberate attack, confirmed when a second plane crashed into the second of those twin towers.  Meanwhile, at her school near NASA, Julie noticed that Air Force fighter jets had been scrambled and were buzzing loudly overhead.  And as the hours wore on, the full enormity began to flow over all of us as well.  For September 11, 2001, was not just a day to remember, but a day that changed America forever.

Flying to Boston this past week, for instance, I was reminded of how much air travel morphed after that fateful day.  For even with TSA Pre-Check—and there was no TSA before 9/11—it’s still much tighter. So no matter where you are going—to a conference, on a vacation, to see your grandchildren, or to meet old friends—no matter how hopeful or excited you may—there’s still that slight tingle of anxiety when you go through the line, isn’t there, still that reminder that our security in this world is never quite completely guaranteed.  For indeed, we never really know when we too may be called to eternity, just as the people who got on those planes seventeen years ago this morning had no idea that it would be the last day of their lives on this earth either.

Likewise, that moment changed how we view good and evil, I think.  For on 9/11 whatever innocence about humankind that we might still have had, whatever fancied ideas about the world that we might have yet indulged, whatever comfort we might have felt in our denial of the power of bad things to affect us, we were inextricably reminded that there is something very wrong in the world. Indeed, evil once more reared its ugly head and stared us down, face to face.  For what 9/11 revealed is that evil not only exists–the “mystery of iniquity” as St. Paul called it in 1 Thessalonians 2.7—but that we live in conflict with spiritual forces of wickedness that are pledged to destroy us.

But what 9/11 also taught us was that even in the presence of pain and poignancy, of turmoil and tragedy, God is with us as well.  For in the words of 1 Corinthians 15, we have not believed in vain, our faith is not futile, and it is not only for this life that we have hope in Christ at all. Such is not to minimize the fact that almost 3000 people died in the 9/11 attacks, of course, and countless more had their lives forever altered by the loss of their loved ones.  But the hope we have is that God knew every one of them by name—just as He knows us– and eternal life did not end that day for any of them.  For centuries ago, the tragedy of the cross was followed by the triumph of the empty tomb. And the good news is, it still is.

On this day of remembrance, take a moment to reflect back on where you were that morning that changed America.  But just as importantly, ask yourself as well just where you are today when it comes to God. For if He isn’t your real security in life, the truth is, you haven’t got any at all.

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From Inside the Ark–Revisited

(The following post originally appeared on this blog on August 29, 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey which devastated the Houston area.  On the one-year anniversary of that event, in which Christ Church served as a shelter for more than one hundred of our friends and neighbors, it is being shared as a reminder of the faithfulness of God and the true calling of the church, no matter what kind of storm it may be facing.)

As morning dawns on Day Two the sanctuary has never been more holy. For scattered throughout its pews, as in classrooms and offices around the building, Christ Church truly is a refuge this day offering both safety and community to a host of evacuees from area floods who have found their way to our building.

That has not been easy in and of itself. For not only is the street on which we are located now flooded in both directions, our parking lot is also a running stream and our basement level has standing water as well, with the torrent held back only by a pair of glass doors and some sandbags.  Most of those who made it here came in the back of dump trucks as the city of Sugar Land began to pluck folks out of homes which are now in danger of flooding, or have already begun to do so.  A school bus likewise showed up with a group last night and as they stumbled in, the dazed look on their faces said it all.

Some had only a few moments notice, for instance, before being told they had to get out of their houses, and so the only possessions they brought were in a garbage sack or pillow case. Others walked here, slogging through the waters, and were quickly given youth or mission trip T-shirts to change into.  Two are in wheelchairs and there are at least a couple of babies as well.  And a number brought their family pets which slept with them in the classrooms we tried to give to families.

Reflective of our broader community–the most diverse county in the world, so we are told– the group is also incredibly varied, speaking several languages and representing numerous cultures and religious backgrounds. Still, we have become a little oecumenical ecclesia and most have tried to find some way to help, whether it is moving furniture, cooking pasta in our kitchen, or sharing what they do have with those around them.

There are some material blessings to give thanks for indeed. Though the power went off for a while yesterday afternoon it has been back on since and so lights, air conditioning and, of course, cell phone chargers have all been able to work.  We’ve kept our monitors on, tuned to a local TV station, allowing our guests to feel connected to what is happening outside of our instant island.  The staff and church volunteers who are here with us have absolutely been phenomenal.  And just now, we’ve learned that the staff at Berryhills, a local eatery, stayed up making 300 tamales which they somehow managed to get to us in the dark of night.  In turn, the city has promised to get us more food and bedding supplies, for it appears that more of our neighbors are on the way and that we are going to be here for some time to come.

In short, God has given us a lovely laboratory to live out the theme verse of our congregation in very tangible ways: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have sent you… for in its peace you shall find your own.”  (Jeremiah 29.7)

So far our water-logged community is finding how to make it work. And under the high wooden rafters of our sanctuary… even with a few leaks… we have discovered again why the church really is the Ark of Salvation.

 

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E Unam Pluribus

At the risk of being misunderstood, I’m pretty close to being done.  Not with Jesus, or even with His church, mind you.  And please don’t think that I’m either deeply depressed or unduly discouraged about the prospects of God’s Kingdom in this world, for in the words of Handel’s Messiah, I’m more than certain that “He shall reign forever and ever.”  What’s more, He will have His people, and I hope to be one of them still.

But after more than forty years of fussing and fuming about it—all of my time in ordained ministry— I do think that the possibilities for mending the United Methodist Church are growing somewhat dim at this point.  For not only do many on both sides of our current sexuality impasse desperately want to “capture the flag,” a large number of folks have bought into the “win at all costs” mentality, too.  So rather than model for others a better way of resolving disputes, we’ve instead simply mirrored back the chaos chasm that deeply divides not just our body politic but much of our culture as well.

To be sure, there’s a chance we’ll figure it all out at the special called General Conference in St. Louis in February, and I’ll be pulling and working for that as hard as I can. Candidly, however, I have little reason to believe that the disingenuously named “One Church Plan” can pass at all, nor am I inclined to think that it should.  For doing theology by geography, the local option, seems to be a bad idea on the face of it.  What’s more, I have a feeling that it may even be unconstitutional by our polity for an annual conference to decide minimum requirements for ordination, rather than follow those prescribed by the whole church instead.

Similarly, although the connectional conferences plan does have possibilities, in the end, it probably can’t pass either and even if it did, it still might not be enough for many folks anyway. In contrast, however, the traditionalist plan may indeed have enough support to be adopted. But I’m not convinced that it will actually resolve the problem either.  For there are unfortunately many who are more than willing to ignore and defy whatever the prayerful discernment and collective wisdom of the global church may be.

The better solution may therefore be simply a Methodist mitosis or division, as Bob Phillips has helpfully suggested, in which two expressions of Methodism go forth to flourish, each blessing the other, even while disagreeing on the key issues before us.  For as the great theologian Yogi Berra once suggested, “when you come to a fork in the road, you should take it.”  Only unlike other denominations that have been down this road before us, we need to find a way to divide without lawsuits, legal loopholes, property disputes, and endless acrimony.  Our guiding principle, in fact, should be simply John Wesley’s admonition that we “watch over each other in love.”

In short, to flip the motto found on American coins around, it may be time for us to adopt an “e unam pluribus” understanding, that is, “out of the one to many.”  To be sure, I’m trying to stay open to a Spirit-inspired solution that may yet be proposed.  But at this point, allowing all Methodists to follow their consciences to faithfully serve God is not simply common sense, but it’s a positive way forward that might actually present a whole new model to the world around us.

Assuming, of course, that what we really all want is not simply to win a culture war, or preserve an institution at all costs, but to see God’s Kingdom actually grow.

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Uh…Did I Miss Something?

I suppose we really shouldn’t be too surprised.   For after all, the Council of Bishops did say in their press release of May 4 that their promise to release all the plans of the Commission on the Way Forward “no later than July 8″ for the upcoming General Conference was simply “estimated.”

That particular date sort of stuck out, of course, because in the strangest of coincidences, July 8 was also the deadline for anyone else besides the bishops to submit their own proposals to that conference on how to keep the United Methodist Church from devouring itself over the sexuality issues that have long confronted us.

To be sure, it was a noble sentiment that drove the delay, for reflective of the wonderfully global nature of our denomination, the bishops did not want any one portion of the church to receive those plans before they could be translated for everyone else.  According to one of the bishops, however, as of July 8 the “translation process is not yet complete.”

That’s where it seems a little odd to me, though.  Two thousand words a day, for instance, is often used as a standard for estimating what the task of translation will actually take.  For a 200-page book, thus, that comes out to about 25 days at a commercial rate, though of course if you put the resources behind it, it can go much faster.  The newspaper in Houston, for instance, translates many of its articles into four different languages each and every day.

Nevertheless, I suppose we’ll simply have to wait a while longer to see the details of just what our episcopal leaders, emboldened by the massive 428-405 mandate they received back in 2016, believe can save the church.

In the meantime…would it be too much, however, to ask that those bishops who disagree with our current stance keep their vows and not continue to ordain and make superintendents out of individuals whose lifestyles are neither endorsed nor allowed for the clergy of our church?

If not, “it is estimated” that the next colossal collision in United Methodism will be “no later than” February 26-28, 2019, when we meet in St. Louis.  For ready or not, our denominational day of decision really is coming fast upon us.

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The Silent Sound of Freedom

It cracked on its very first test ring in 1751, causing the metalworkers to melt it down and cast a new one.  And after then putting it up in the State House, they rang it to round up lawmakers for their sessions, as well as to gather citizens to hear the news.  Benjamin Franklin, in fact, once wrote a friend saying, “Adieu, the Bell rings, and I must go among the Grave ones and talk Politicks.”  By the 1840’s, however, its regular use caused a narrow split to develop in the bell, leading repairmen to widen that crack to try to prevent its farther spread.

Unfortunately, that repair did not quite work as planned, and when another fissure developed, this one running up from the abbreviation for “Philadelphia” to the word “Liberty” itself, that pretty much silenced the bell forever. In fact, although thousands come to look at it each year, no one alive today has ever actually heard the famous bell peel at all.  You can still see the inscription from Leviticus 25.10, though, a reference to the Old Testament idea of a jubilee:  “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants Thereof.”

As we come to another Independence Day celebration this week, thus, it’s well worth remembering not just the origins of our country, but what many saw as God’s divine purpose for it.  For the real sound of independence always comes not from a clapper in a cast bell but from the chorus of grateful voices of those who have understood the cost of freedom and all who have paid that price over the years.

Even if the bell itself is not exactly all that it’s cracked up to be.

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Hold On a Minute, Brother Sessions

Dear Mr. Attorney-General,

First of all, let me just say thanks.  For thirty-seven years is a long time indeed to devote to public service, and I have a feeling that the last one and a half of those years have probably been the longest of them all.  I once had a bishop who was a bit like your boss, in fact–unpredictable and at times somewhat mercurial, so I feel for the position you are in.  (I often had the feeling that he wanted to fire me as well.)

But secondly, let me apologize too for what appears to have been a fairly bad level of theologizing on the part of the teachers and leaders whom you may have listened to over the years. For whoever taught you the Book of Romans appears to have done both you and the apostle Paul a great disservice. Your citation of the “clear and wise command” of St. Paul to justify the policy of separating detained children from their families when they are apprehended crossing the border illegally, for instance, was not simply flat-out wrong, but it was dangerously misguided as well.

To be sure, the first two verses of Romans 13 do teach us that everyone should be subject to the governing authorities, “for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Consequently, St. Paul goes on to tell us, “Whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

But read on a few more verses in that chapter and you’ll see that Paul reminds us of the continuing debt to love one another and that love “does no harm to a neighbor.”  And forgive me if I’m missing something here, but I’m having a hard time seeing how separating 1,500 children, including breastfeeding babies, from their parents and housing them in a converted Wal-Mart does anything but harm, particularly when their parents are told that their children are simply being taken for baths but then are never returned.

As legal as it may be, thus, there is something remarkably evil about this policy, and misusing the Bible to try to justify it makes it even worse.  Adolph Hitler, the democratically elected ruler of Germany from 1933 to 1945, used the same passage from Romans, for example, to command “unconditional subjugation” to himself, leading folks like Barth and Bonhoeffer to eventually opt out to form a confessing church.

St. Paul was pretty clear, however, that while we are indeed called to submit to rulers if they are just in their ways, rulers likewise have the responsibility to make just ordinances and to promote righteousness.  Even more to the point, we should notice that the same man who wrote Romans 13 was eventually executed by a crazy emperor when he wouldn’t conform to the immoral demands of that government but chose, in the words of his friend Peter, “to obey God rather than man.” (Acts 5.29).

I say all of this simply as a fellow Methodist, Mr. Attorney General, trying like you to follow John Wesley in our faith walk. But folks as far apart as the Catholic bishop in my neck of the woods, a great fellow named Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, and Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, have agreed, calling the separation policy “immoral” and “disgraceful” respectively.

Give Romans another read, thus, if you will.  It might even help you rethink about what to do with battered women and victims of domestic abuse or gang violence when they come calling for asylum too.  For as hard as it might be, who knows but that you, a little like Esther, may have come to your position “for such a time as this?”

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