{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Some Things Haven’t Changed: Revisiting The Idea of Splitting the UMC over Sexuality

umc18 months ago, I wrote this article with Jeremy Smith on why we believe The United Methodist Church should not split over the issue of human sexuality. In recent weeks I’ve been reminded that some things never change (or at least take a long time to change) because it seems article after article is being written on why, for some ungodly reason, it makes sense for those of us in The United Methodist Church to pack up our toys, go our separate ways, and play only in the camps where we feel comfortable and everyone agrees with us.

In reading these articles and listening to the recent commentary on this issue and where the Church should go from here, I’m still moved by one of our opening sentences from 18 months ago:

“And we both want a better UMC for our daughters than the one we inherited.”

As young clergy who will have 40 years of ordained ministry ahead of us (although the rising retirement age may be at 86 years old by the time we get there!), we do not find a valid reason for schism. We both hold that the church should resist this and redouble efforts to find unity in diversity.

Most writings on the subject of separation seem to model the church as a funnel, whereby all resources and formation go toward a common mission. Anything that distracts from that mission is dangerous, and thus the talk of schism is attractive and every conflict becomes an opportunity to dream of escape while the idea of covenant becomes an expendable virtue.

So where do we stand on this debate in the United Methodist Church? It seems progressives who want to split forget that the church they leave will continue to have gay children. And it seems traditionalists (not “orthodox” as some claim because orthodoxy is defined by creedal beliefs and NOT social stances) who want separation naively think separation will finally rid the church of the homosexual debate, as though gay persons will no longer inhabit our spaces of worship, formation and service.

Clearly, schism will not end the conversation before us.

If conflict ultimately destroys any hopes of a homogeneous church, what’s a more faithful model? I see the Eucharist as the sacramental and formative model for how we are to be the Church. In the Eucharist, as the worldwide church gathers around the table, unity in diversity is at the heart of what it means to be the Body of Christ. This is why we can say with confidence and hope that the church’s unity is grounded in a reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another. The Church as Eucharist is a guiding model for our inclusiveness and for a demanding call for transformation—it’s what unifies us all as sinners in the need of God’s redeeming grace. The Church as Eucharist means we are continually called out of and sent back into the world as redeemed people.

Stanley Hauerwas writes:

“The church, therefore, has rightly thought confession of sin, penance, and reconciliation necessary for the reception of the Eucharist. How could we dare come to the feast of reconciliation not in unity with our brothers and sisters? The name given to that unity is ‘love.’ The gifts of bread and wine must be brought by those at peace with God and one another. If we are unreconciled, we best not receive; we dare not dishonor the holiness of the gifts of God.”

By having the Eucharist as the central metaphor for the church, it serves as the corrective for both sides on this debate. It means we’re both radically inclusive and that we put the Body of Christ ahead of any individual, caucus or political camp. And it means that through our worship, our service, our lives, and yes, even through our conferencing together, unity is at the heart of it all. We may worship in diverse ways across our connection, and there may come a point where our polity is diverse as well (as it currently is in our worldwide church), and such diversity is not disconcerting in a Church with the Eucharist as its guide.

Quite simply, by seeing the church as the Eucharist, we become the means of grace to a broken world. In a world of polarizing politics, widening chasms between the “haves” and “have-nots,” demonization of the “other side,” what better means of grace could the Church offer than how to hold together unity in diversity, to welcome the varieties of the United Methodist experience around the Communion Table?

Through our liturgy, every time we gather around the Table we declare that we long to be made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” Are we serious about this longing for oneness, or do we simply give lip service to the idea of unity? If we’re serious, then members of both the progressive and traditionalist camps will have to come out of their respective camps and join together—maybe at the Communion Table—and decide whether our identity as the people called Methodist is more important than any issue that could divide us. It won’t be easy, but no one ever said being the church was supposed to be easy.

And this unity is grounded in holiness marked by our common love for God and one another — something sadly lacking in the way(s) we talk and write about those we disagree with.

I was encouraged by a Facebook post Rev. Adam Hamilton wrote last week talking about a meeting he had with someone he disagreed with but who shared a common interest in trying to love and listen to him:

“I flew to Memphis on Thursday to spend time with Maxie Dunnam, an elder statesmen in the UMC and its most influential conservative. I love, value and respect Maxie. He’s done a great deal in his lifetime of ministry to help people know Christ, to grow in their faith, and to prepare leaders for the church. We don’t agree on everything, though we agree on far more than we disagree on. We both love Christ, we are passionate about evangelism and church renewal, and we care deeply about the United Methodist Church.

Over Memphis barbecue, long walks, and glasses of iced tea we discussed what we share in common, our hopes for the church, our differences and if there is a way forward for the UMC that avoids dividing over the issue of homosexuality. I’m not sure that is possible, but I hope and believe it is. It won’t come from name calling and demonizing those with whom we disagree. If there is a way forward, I believe it will come out of conversations like these that begin with mutual respect and a focus not only on our differences, but on what we share in common. I also believe it will only happen with the Holy Spirit’s work in and through us.”

We want our generation to be the last that has been broken by the homosexuality debate. And we know more conversations like this need to happen. You can’t rush unity, but you sure can take the baby steps necessary to attain it — especially when those baby steps mean checking your own self-interests at the door in the process.

Jeremy and I don’t know our daughters’ sexual orientations yet, and we want a church committed to relentlessly loving them regardless. They both have, however, been baptized which means they will be named “Christian” by less than perfect churches who are a part of a less than perfect connection of churches. So our greatest hope and most fervent prayer is that it’s a connection that will seek unity—not because it’s expedient but because it’s difficult and ultimately faithful.

We want more for our daughters. We want more for your sons and daughters. And we still hold out hope that God is not yet done with the United Methodist Church.

We believe that the United Methodist Church, united in common mission, but not uniform in its expression of that mission, will serve a polarized world better than two Wesleyan traditions who took their toys and bitterly retreated to their respective camps.

On Being Deferred in the Ordination Process

manprayingSpring is the time of year when new things come to life and we’re reminded that our hope for warmth and restoration can, in fact, be a reality even after a cold winter.

However this is also the time of year when Conference Boards of Ministry all over our connection are meeting to evaluate candidates in the ordination process. And all of this talk about spring and new life and hope doesn’t carry much weight if you’ve just received the hard news that you have been deferred in the ordination process.

For some, these first days of spring are tough because you’re now learning to live with the sting of rejection. You feel like one who has failed in your calling to ministry. Your emotions range on a scale from anywhere between frustrated and devastated. You’re trying to pick up the pieces of your shattered ego in order to find some way to faithfully serve and pastor during the rest of this Lenten season and into the glory of Easter . . . and that’s a lot harder than it sounds.

I know exactly how you feel. Last year I was deferred in the ordination process. I know how much the news stings. I remember how I felt when all at once my heart started pounding and my stomach started sinking. If you were told the news in person or on the phone, it was hard to even put words together in response. If you found out by way of a written notice, you probably stared at the page and read it over and over just to make sure it was real and not some sort of trick your eyes were playing on you. As one who was where you are just a year ago, I can tell you that I know just how much this hurts.

But I’m writing not just to affirm your feelings and remind you that you’re not the only one who’s ever felt the brunt of this devastating news. I’m also writing to let you know that new life is, in fact, possible even when you’re deferred in the ordination process.

As I prepared for my interview a few weeks ago (where I would come back and face the same committee that deferred me the year before) I realized that even though I did not want to sign up for another year in the wilderness of deferral, I would not trade the previous year for anything in the world. As I’ve thought on it, I realized that I learned several lessons during my year of deferral.

First, I learned the value of what it meant for pastors to be pastored by others. In the immediate aftermath of our board’s decision, the members of the church I’m serving rallied around me to express their care and even their frustration over the news. Their warm words served as a balm for my wounded soul. If I knew nothing else, I knew the next year of growth would be spent with people who loved me and believed in my calling to ministry no matter what.

Secondly, I now know that seasons in the wilderness can actually be the grounds for new life to spring forth. God just has a way of speaking life into the most barren of circumstances. So I use the term “wilderness” on purpose – being deferred places you in a position to question and  grow in ways you may not have imagined before. While I worked on the specific areas for my ordination work, I also experienced the grace of growing personally as I turned especially to the spiritual writings of people like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. I look back and see this past year not only as a year of growth professionally or vocationally, but also as a year of personal growth. And for that gift of grace, I’m very grateful.

Finally, I learned that while being deferred by the board of ministry can be devastating, life beyond deferral is possible. And by life I don’t mean pretending as though this never happened or that you’re perfectly okay with being deferred in your process. I mean it’s possible to find new life in light of this setback. There is hope in a Risen Lord who carried scars with him. Life and ministry have a way of helping us learn to live with scars, and sometimes we even find those scars are beneficial to our sense of compassion and love for others. So please know that life after deferral is not only possible, it is at the heart of what it means to be called into ministry by a crucified and risen Savior.

As you spend the coming days and weeks healing and growing remember a few things: First, let people love you and pastor you. Merton reminds us, “We do not find the meaning of life alone – we find it with others.” Let others help you heal and grow. Second, as you address the shortcomings of your ordination work, be open to the work of God in your personal life. The work of transformation in your life is even more important than your ordination work that you’ll turn in next year. Let yourself be open to personal growth through grace. And third, live into the mystery of this growth knowing that you will come out on the other side a new person. Listen for those who have gone through this before you. And know that you’ll be able to help those who will come after you.

Oh and one more thing…know that you’re not alone. God is with you and is still calling you as part of your baptismal identity. And the Church is longing for your presence and willingness to serve even (and especially) when setbacks happen.  For that mysterious hope all we can say is, “Thanks be to God.”


The Real Questions of Lent

lentIt is the season of Lent in the Christian church. This means Christians all over Middle Georgia and around the world have begun a season of self-examination and penitence — sometimes noted as we deprive ourselves of certain pleasures in order to center our lives on God more.

Some give up the pleasures of sweets or caffeine and others go as far as giving up the pleasure of gossiping or laziness in their prayer life. Somehow, these small habits are intended to make us more Christian by the end of the Lenten season on Easter Sunday.

I don’t know about you, but it might take a little more than giving up chocolate to make me a more faithful Christian.

What if instead of concentrating on small habits of depravation, we worried more about the ways we live our lives every day — the words we speak, the actions (or inactions) that consume our days, and the attitudes we carry with us?

For example, one might be led to believe that being a Christian means taking a hard stand on certain issues. One might even believe that being angry and drawing lines in the sand are the difference makers in their faith. If we could only get our stances and beliefs right, then we might be Christian.

But what if our anger, our stances and our rightness don’t make us more Christian? What if, in fact, they do the very opposite?

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche Communities, writes, “Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”

What if learning the art of tenderness has more hope of making us more Christian than any of our stances and anger ever did? What if the way we go about being Christian were just as important (if not more) than what we said we believed in?

The Apostle Paul writes that we can have all the gifts of prophecy and understand all the mysteries and truths of the universe, we can have faith that moved mountains and we can even be right and win all of the arguments on social issues of the day, but if we don’t know how to love, then we are nothing at all.

And love is hard because it’s patient and kind; it’s not arrogant and it doesn’t seek to always be right. Love is characterized by the tenderness and humility we show when we live our daily lives as witnesses to the hope of our faith.

How do we talk about the events of our day or other people with a greater sense of love? How do we interact with others — especially those with whom we do not agree — with a greater sense of love? How do we see others and ourselves through the eyes of a loving God who relentlessly calls us to be new and better versions of ourselves?

I hope these are the questions we struggle with as we go without our desserts and coffee during the coming weeks. These are tough questions that demand deep answers. These are the true questions of Lent.

[The column originally ran in The Macon Telegraph on Sat. March 15, 2014]


In Case Your Lent Wasn’t Already Uncomfortable…

lentWell we’re a little over two weeks into the season of Lent. How many of you have snuck a cup of coffee or a piece of pie yet? Maybe you’ve already fallen away from your commitment to read more devotional material or more of your bible — it’s tough to keep up a new practice. Maybe you’ve found yourself gossiping to having a glass of wine even though on Ash Wednesday you were fully convinced 40 days of depravity were no sweat.

A friend recently pointed me to John Wesley’s rules for his holy club. After reading these rules, I’m convinced my Lenten disciplines are pretty much child’s play. Wesley didn’t institute these rules for a 40-day season. He thought we ought to live up to them every day of the year. More than your politics or your social stances, these rules as guideposts for the Christian life.

When I read them, I realize that much of what he expected and spelled out is the essence of what it means to live every minute of every day as a follower of Jesus. It’s hard by design. So I hope maybe you’ll be as convicted by these rules as I am. And I’m pretty sure there’s still time to add a couple of these to your Lenten discipline…

1.   Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am?  In other words, am I a hypocrite?

2.  Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?

3.  Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?

4.  Can I be trusted?

5.  Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?

6.  Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?

7.  Did the Bible live in me today?

8.  Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?

9.  Am I enjoying prayer?

10. When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?

11. Do I pray about the money I spend?

12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?

13. Do I disobey God in anything?

14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?

15.    Am I defeated in any part of my life?

16.    Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?

17.    How do I spend my spare time?

18.    Am I proud?

19.    Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?

20.    Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?

21.    Do I grumble or complain constantly?

22.    Is Christ real to me?

Here’s to living a holy Lent together…

Merton on Hope #MertonThroughLent


“My Lord, I have no hope but in your cross. You, by your humility, and sufferings and death, have delivered me from all vain hope. You have killed the vanity of the present life in yourself, and have given me all that is eternal in rising from the dead…

Why should I want to be rich, when you were poor? Why should I desire to be famous and powerful in the eyes of men, when the sons of those who exalted the faults profits and stoned the true rejected you and nail due to the cross?…

My hope is and what the high has never seen. Therefore, let me not trust in visible rewards…
Let my trust the in your mercy, not in myself. Let my hope the in your love, not in health, for strength, or ability or human resources.

— Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude,” p. 38-39

What’s So Special About Lent?

Ash-WednesdaylentWednesday marks another observance of Ash Wednesday and begins the season of the church year known as Lent – 40 days of denying ourselves fun things like chocolate and gossiping. It’s a bit of a drag, but it’s a predictable drag.

We’ll begin, ready for the test of endurance. We’ll hear the story of Jesus, alone in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan, and we’ll say to ourselves, “If Jesus can resist temptation for 40 days on an empty stomach, surely I can forego a cup of coffee here and there.” But by the time Easter arrives we’re counting down the days until we can again indulge in whatever enjoyable item or practice we’ve gone without for what then seems more like a year than a mere 40 days.

Lent comes and goes from our lives with little, if any, evidence that it ever came at all.

Lent is fun to dabble in. We feel superior to our non-Christian friends who think denying dessert in the name of faith for 40 days isn’t worth the hassle. But the truth is, we secretly agree with them, and that’s why on Easter Sunday we find ourselves, year after year, eating extra dessert and another piece of chocolate, drinking an extra cup of coffee, and calling our nosiest friends to hear the juicy gossip we’ve missed.

What’s so special about Lent anyway? Why should we even bother ourselves with a season of self-denial, especially if very little has changed by Easter Sunday?

The historical root of observing Lent is complicated. We know the practice of observing Lent began in the early church. The meaning, practice, and length of the season, however, shifted through the generations.

Irenaeus of Lyons wrote of a season of self-denial that lasted a few days in the second century. The Council of Nicea (325 CE) discussed a season of fasting observed by the church that lasted 40 days. It’s unclear whether this practice was just for converts preparing for baptism on Easter Sunday or if it was for the church as a whole. Needless to say it soon became a part of the entire church’s annual movement through the seasons of the church year. By the sixth century, Gregory the Great established Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the Lenten season in order to secure the 40-day time span for the season (i.e. Ash Wednesday is exactly 40 days before Easter if you don’t count the Sundays).

As United Methodists, we’ve seen a revival of this observance during the past 50 or 60 years. Ash Wednesday is observed by more and more congregations and is a very meaningful reminder of our mortality and need for God’s transforming love.

But the fact that the season of Lent has an interesting history doesn’t necessarily make it special. So what is the meaning(s) behind the observance of the season?

For starters, just as Lent was a season that prepared early converts for baptism, we are offered the chance to spend a season remembering our baptism and growing more and more aware of the ways in which we need to grow more and more into the likeness of Christ. Lent is not merely a season where we watch and admire the journey Jesus makes to the cross. It’s not a season where we simply remember what Jesus did for us on the cross. Lent is a season that demands we move from the place of onlooker or admirer to the place where we share in Jesus’ journey for ourselves. Lent is the annual remembrance of what it means to share in Jesus’ death so that we might share in his resurrection.

So when you opt to give something up for Lent, why don’t you add something in its place that helps you grow in your faith? Below are a few ideas of ways you can observe this Lenten season in meaningful and (hopefully) transformative ways:

  • If you choose to fast from a particular meal during the week, use that time to pray or read scripture.
  • If you choose to give up gossiping, set aside time each day to write someone a quick note so that they know how much they are loved.
  • If you choose to give up coffee, set aside the money you would spend at the grocery store or Starbucks and find a local mission to support.
  • Set aside your normal devotional materials and find a book that will help you dig a little deeper in a particular area; maybe read a book on prayer or Sabbath.
  • If don’t already, start a prayer journal and list people by name to pray for. And don’t just pray from a distance – call, visit, or email them to check on them. Tell them how they are in your prayers.
  • Find a regular time during your day to stop, meditate, and focus on God. Set aside 15 minutes each day to stop everything and be aware of how much God loves you for who you are and not just for all of the work you’re able to accomplish.
  • Get a book of poetry or find some time to spend outside in solitude. Learn to be aware of and appreciate the beauty of God all around you.

Thomas Merton reminds us that growing in holiness is essentially growing more and more human. God became flesh and lived the human experience. And as we grow in our humanness, we become more and more aware of those around us who are hurting, who are in need, and who need to know the love of God that knows no boundaries. So we become more holy as we become more human because we learn how to be embraced by and share God’s love with others.

Lent is the perfect training season for such a journey toward holiness. So I hope you will spend the next 40 days aware of your own mortality and God’s redemptive grace in your life. I hope you’ll find moments and set aside time to be aware of God’s presence in your life. And I hope you’ll truly commit yourself to live a holy Lent.



When Lent Comes a Couple Days Early


I’m writing this column in the early evening on a Saturday on a day in which you would have sworn Spring had started to spring forth in Middle Georgia. It was about 62 degrees today and very sunny. So my wife, 2 year old daughter, and I decided to spend the afternoon enjoying the glory of creation at the park. Little did I know this day would serve to offer a profound lesson on the subtle ways sin is always present in our lives and just how much we’re in need of God’s grace.

It all started when the three of us arrived at the park and made the long walk from the parking lot to the playground. We brought along a rubber ball that is just smaller than a basketball in case my daughter grew bored with the playground and, in typical 2 year old fashion, wanted to move on to another task. We hadn’t been at the park more than 5 minutes or so when a young, African-American boy — probably around 9 years old — came up to us and asked if he could play with our ball. I thought this was a bit bold on his part since we didn’t know him and he didn’t know us. But there he stood dressed in shabby clothes, with shoes untied, and the remnants of his snack still on his face wanting me to hand over my daughter’s ball. When I said she wasn’t very good at sharing, he quickly offered to play with her. I laughed, made up some excuse about why that wouldn’t work, and went to return the ball to our car before he pled his case any further.

Most any parent would probably react that way. You don’t want to test a territorial toddler. You don’t want bigger kids playing with your toddler because they might get hurt. You don’t want strange kids coming up offering to join your private family play date. But walking away from the scene I knew that wasn’t the real reason I didn’t hand over the ball or my daughter to play — the real reason was that I had sized that boy up as a wild, little hooligan who would probably steal or destroy my daughter’s toy. And if I’m really being honest, the color of his skin and his shabby clothes didn’t help his case.

The boy was attending a birthday party in the park and there were probably 10-15 other kids running around playing — much of it was a little rough for a 2 year old to be caught in the middle of. But my wife and kept a close watch on my daughter and never let her outside of an arm’s length from where we were on the playground — even if it meant climbing on the equipment with her.

A little while later we climbed the big piece of playground equipment to the very top where one of its five different stations of slides were. As we reached the top, the same boy was sitting at the top of the slide as another boy he was playing with quickly went down the slide ahead of him. I smiled but my stomach tightened up a little. Would the little boy be wild and rough? Should I worry about my daughter’s safety? Would he get the hint that a toddler was anxiously waiting to go down the slide after him so this wasn’t a good time to linger for too long? You can imagine my reaction when the boy looked at my daughter and asked her if she wanted to go down with him. I tried to politely tell him that it was okay and she could wait her turn. Before I could get the words out of my mouth he reached for her and she climbed into his lap and the two of them were off out of my reach.

My wife was waiting at the bottom and was a little surprised to see my daughter making the turns of the slide in the arms of a strange kid who all we knew about was that he had no shame in asking to play with another kid’s toy. At the bottom, he carefully got off the slide and helped my daughter off. Before he ran off he reached into his pocket and gave her a toy ring that was a party favor all the kids received. She was thrilled while her parents sheepishly smiled and thanked this oddly generous little boy.

And then it hit me — my daughter knows nothing about things like race and poverty and separate but equal divisions in our culture. All she knows is that kids are meant to be played with. Things like labels on clothing or skin colors really don’t matter too much if the shared desire to play is there.

But before you think this is just an overly sentimental column on the innocence of children, there’s more.

It also occurred to me that one day she would learn about things like race, poverty, brand labels, and cultural division — and much of that learning will come from watching and listening to me. Here I can’t even trust an enormously kind and generous kid because the color of his skin and the clothing he’s wearing lead me to believe he may not be the most deserving person of my trust.

Sadly we live in a world where things like race and poverty are seen more often as political ammunition instead of the very real signs of human brokenness that they are. Fifty years or so of progress can’t erase and very real and present sin that continues to plague us — namely, that we are to fear and judge those who don’t look like us. So we pretend like we don’t hear the words that follow statements like, “I’m not racist but…” And we act as though we don’t notice when we clutch our wallets or purses just a little tighter when someone who “looks suspect” walks by. And we pretend like it’s no big deal that our blood pressure goes up a little when we hear music with loud bass or that we do a double-take when we see an interracial couple out to dinner together.

I thank God that Ash Wednesday is this week. I need to remember my own mortality because there are moments when I think I’m superior. I need to confess my sins and spend some time looking inward at the ways in which sin is still present in my life — even if it’s small, quiet, and easily justifiable ways. I need to bring out of the darkness and shed light on the ways in which I am formed by the culture to fear those who look different from me so that I might have the eyes of a two year old who only sees people for who they are — beautiful creatures made in the image of God for the purposes of sharing life and play together.

Needless to say Lent may start on Wednesday, but I’m already well into the spirit of the season.

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