Year of Mercy: More Than Respect

(21)  The mercy/justice combination is so important that Pope Francis devotes another segment to it.  This time he notes that one problem with the lead-with-justice approach is that the most justice can exact from us is respect.

And when justice is conveyed through legalism, it doesn’t even get that much from us; it gets our rejection with a not surprising “thanks, but no thanks” response.  This is something the legalists never acknowledge, allowing them to heap further judgment upon those who do not “obey the law.” This enables them to artificially shift the blame from themselves to those they have victimized.

The whole lead-with-justice system fails, even in its best efforts.  God certainly does not want our rejection, and even our respect is not enough.  God wants our love.

Only mercy begets love.  If God did not begin with mercy, God would not be God–Whose nature is love, love from which amazing grace flows to “the sinner” who is any and all of us.  Pope Francis illustrates this in the story of Hosea.  Mercy does not deny justice, it only precedes and then goes beyond it–as the hymn writer puts it, “grace that is greater than all our sins.”

The ultimate sign that mercy supercedes justice is the Cross.  In eternal paradox (which is ultimately indescribable), God “absorbs” the justice and “extends” the mercy–both in Christ.  We must do likewise.

But too often we reverse it by asking the sinner to “absorb” justice as a pre-requisite to the extending of mercy.  This is simply not the way of God.  Instead, in Christ we see the primacy of mercy, offered to us all in ways that derives justice in the process.

[Note: the numbers at the beginning of each meditation correspond to the section of the Pope’s document on which it is based]

Posted in Year of Mercy | 1 Comment

UMC: A New Way

On the heels of General Conference 2016, there are many, various, and legitimate concerns and hopes regarding the Bishops’ establishment of a commission to study human sexuality in ways that take us beyond the current impasse, while at the same time preserving the unity of the denomination.  I write today as one grateful for the leadership of our bishops and the process they have set in motion. But the question that connects all of us is this:  what will it take to make this process a genuinely new way?

In the days following General Conference there will be numerous suggestions made about this, both within the Council of Bishops itself and outside it.  I offer today some of my own thoughts about the question, looking at it from two vantage points.

First, there is a crucial non-negotiable:  no one must sit on the commission whose past or current behavior says, “I can tell you right now how I am going to vote, no matter what I see or hear during the process.”  I do not mean that the commission should be comprised of those who lack conviction, but I do mean it must not be made up of those who hold what today are called opinionated convictions. Partisanship will poison the well before any water is drawn from it.  Just as people are not placed on juries who have already made up their minds about the guilt or innocence of a person, no one must sit on the commission who is closed to the very things the process is designed to bring forth.

Second, the commission must include LGBTQIA members and new-generation United Methodists.  I mean ongoing membership, not just consultation or involvement through listening sessions, etc.  LGBTQIA persons must be members because the process is focused on the paragraphs in the Book of Discipline which directly affect them.  And new-generation United Methodists (those under 40–who were not even alive when all this got started) must be members because they live in a world that is different than it was in 1972 (both in terms of knowledge and experience), and this generation is the one that must live with whatever decision the commission reaches and the General Conference enacts.

Although there are many factors embedded in these two points, my overall conviction is this:  the commission must not be made up of people who have demonstrated over the course of 40+ years that they are either unable or unwilling to lead us beyond the current institutional impasse. It must not be put back into the hands (that is, control) of the very people who have had plenty of time to address the challenge, and whose failure to do so is what has given rise to the need for a commission in the first place.

It must be made up of people whose bedrock conviction is this, “By God’s grace, we can discern and enact a better way.”  If that spirit characterizes the members of the commission, it has real potential to become what the Bishops envisioned in calling for it, and what the General Conference hoped for in approving it–a new way for the denomination.

I hope this blog puts me in the role of “Captain Obvious,” and merely states what is clear to everyone.  But clear or not, I offer these two points for consideration and out of the conviction that new wine must be poured into new wineskins.

At the core, the proposal is a fresh call to prayer in these days immediately following General Conference, not only for those who will be members of the commission, but a call to prayer for the rest of us who support them in their efforts.

Posted in UMC | 9 Comments

UMC: A Good Decision

The General Conference’s approval of a plan put forward by the Council of Bishops is already being variously criticized and affirmed–nothing new for us UM’s.  For some time now, I have believed (and have previously written and spoken) that the matter of human sexuality needed more and different attention than would be possible in ten days in Portland where decisions are made via petitions, committees ,and floor debate.

The bishops’ plan affords us a fresh opportunity to dig into the issues which so often only get superficial attention in our established political processes.  And even though the plan itself must be given further detail, here are some reasons why I believe it is a good decision…

(1) It represents the call of the General Conference itself for greater leadership by our bishops.  We are an episcopal church, and within legitimate boundaries we look to our bishops for leadership, and all the more so when the future of the denomination is (to a large extent) related to the subject of human sexuality.  It would be odd for the bishops not to lead us in such a time.  It would have been even stranger for the Conference to ask for leadership from the bishops one day and then reject it the next.  The bishops heard the plea, and they responded with a plan, and regardless of what individuals and groups may think about it, it is a step in a good direction offered to us by the very group which should set the journey in motion and guide us in it.

(2) The wording of the proposal is not “kicking the can down the road,” but is rather a call for a needed new exploration of factors which have developed since the human sexuality debate began in 1972.  In a previous Oboedire blog, I wrote that one aspect of my concern was that a major decision would be made without the latest information contributing to it.  The plan will enable us to consider factors that were unknown to us 44 years ago.

(3) The plan removes the charge by some that the issue is being driven by emotion rather than by the Holy Spirit–leaving the work of the Holy Spirit artificially deemed to be with one group more than others. Doubtless members of the commission will advocate their positions with passion and conviction, but they will do so in a structure far less likely to skew the process as floor debates (and related activities) are prone to do.  We have seen this already in Portland. The bishop’s plan provides for a better setting to engage in sustained and substantive conversation, including talking with each other rather than about each other.

(4) The plan creates a global-church forum, something that the process of limited pro/con debate in Roberts Rules of Order cannot provide.  Our commitment to being a global church will be reflected in the makeup of the commission.

I have other reasons for thinking that the plan is a good one, but these are sufficient to illustrate my belief.

But wrapped around all of this is something that I believe is even most critical if we are to see the commission function as the plan expects:  it must be comprised of members with broken and contrite hearts–hearts pulverized (meaning of the Hebrew) down to a powder, so that the Breath of God can blow us in divine directions.

In my humble opinion, the absence of this broken and contrite spirit has characterized too much of our dialog for too long.  Warfare language sets things in victor/vanquished language, which then ignites our egos to “never give up until we (our side) wins.”  The potential for stalemate and harm is created when soul-deep sadness that we have allowed our differences to bring us to this place is missing.

Signs of our lack of contrition have already been seen in plenary sessions when people applaud, shout remarks, or laugh outloud when decisions are made that please some and sadden others.  Creating winners and losers is not a good theology of what it means to be fellow members in the Body of Christ.

This means that members of the commission, while representing all points of view, must not be those who have kept the vitriol flowing, no matter the perspective.  The plan puts us in a time of Gospel paradox, when the greatest of all must be servant of all–and that means beginning with Romans 3:23 at the center of the relationships between and among commission members–the “poverty of spirit” that launched Jesus’ sermon on the mount and is the hallmark of our theology of love.  It means meeting with the conviction and that every member is a genuine Christian, seeking to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and wanting the best for the denomination. It means respecting everyone by being quick to listen and slow to speak.

It means that spiritual formation principles (that is, what characterizes people of maturity and wisdom–most notably the fruit of the Spirit) will ultimately shape the work and outcome of the commission.  It means that at this moment, the key call is the call to prayer–our beseeching God to give every commission member (and those of us who wait and watch) broken and contrite hearts.  This is our greatest internal need, and the main ingredient of our witness to the world in the coming years.  It is the only spirit that can create a denomination which truly makes disciples for the transformation of the world.

Posted in UMC | 3 Comments

Year of Mercy: Mercy and Justice

(20) Pope Francis rightly notes the connection between mercy and justice.  It takes both to order life as we know it.  But the ordering of the two is crucial.

If we lead with justice, we run the risk of never getting to mercy because our initial relations with people are based on how others “obey the law.”  Those who obey “correctly” (that is, as the holders of the law deem correctness) are accepted; those who disobey are not–at least until they do something to show they are sorry for their disobedience and promise to amend their ways.

What gets lost in the lead-with-justice approach is that neither Jesus nor Paul used it.  Moreover, it assumes some kind of “in” group, when the Bible says we are all sinners (Romans 3:23)  The lead-with-justice approach is devoid of grace, and in that vacuum, pride and judgmentalism can characterize those who are “in,” while discouragement and stigmatization characterize those who are “out.”

But, as Pope Francis shows, when we lead with mercy, “insider/outsider” thinking is banished, putting our relations with others on the basis of our mutual humanity–a humanity universally in need of grace, and having been given grace by God.  In that realization we cannot withhold what God has already given.

When mercy leads and defines our relationships, all of us are in a position to allow the Holy Spirit to do whatever changing needs to take place in us.  This does not happen when a lead-with-justice approach, simply because the “other” is never welcomed into an environment where change can occur.

So, as Pope Francis emphasizes, we are called to lead with mercy, precisely because that is how God led with us.  It is in the context of mercy that justice can then be done.

[Note: the numbers at the beginning of each meditation correspond to the section of the Pope’s document on which it is based]

Posted in Year of Mercy | 1 Comment

UMC: A New Question

I have waited to write a blog post at the mid-point of General Conference until more was known about what came out of the first week.  I find myself deeply saddened, with words in short supply.

For the past several years, I have wondered what General Conference would do with respect to our three institutional identifiers: United, Methodist, and Church.  Each of these has been under scrutiny in one way or another in the years leading up to GC 2016.

But now, with recommendations forthcoming which are devoid of even the milk of human kindness, I am now wondering what General Conference will do with the word ‘Christian.’ 

Lord, have mercy!  Christ, have mercy!

Posted in UMC | 10 Comments

UMC: Gender Identity

In anticipation of human-sexuality debates at the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, and in the wake of laws providing for increased exclusivity against LGBTQ people (despite other laws advocating inclusivity), I offer the following reflection….

In recent days, conservatives have come up with new language to attempt to reverse newfound freedoms for LGBTQ people.  One new term is “birth gender”–a phrase now used by conservatives to attempt to define sexual identity.  We are, they tell us, required to use “birth gender” to establish a person’s true sexuality–thus implying that any deviation from our initial anatomy is wrong.

This new language has made it into legal documents, most notably “religious freedom” legislation, appeals by some Christian schools to be exempt from Title IX, and other pronouncements which relegate LGBTQ persons to some kind of lesser status in society and the Christian community.

The problem with this new attempt is that it ignores and treats as of no consequence one of the foundational factors which even conservatives have previously included in their views of human sexuality –namely, the activity and effect of hormones.  To look at a newborn infant and say, “God made a boy” or “God made a girl” assumes that gender identity is based on one thing, when even traditional views of sexual identity have included multiple factors.  An infant’s anatomy may suffice to put a label on a birth certificate, but it is not sufficient for establishing our gender identity.

Even biologically speaking, we know that there are further phases of identity development.  We call one of them puberty–the time when our initial physical makeup is given further development and maturation, and when we say that boys and girls are beginning to “like” each other.  The time when this next phase kicks in varies from person to person.  But everyone goes through it sooner or later.  It is fundamental to human development in more ways than sexuality.

But sticking with biology, we know that 90-95% of this hormonal activity produces a heterosexual orientation.  We also know that in 5-10% of people, hormones appear to produce effects that we broadly characterize as homosexual.  And just as the person had no say in their presenting physical makeup at birth, they also have no say in the effect of hormones upon them during puberty.

The fact is, God creates our gender identity in stages over time, with biological factors coming into play along the way.  On the biological level alone, the conservative attempt to make  “birth gender” definitive of sexual identity collapses because of its own incompleteness, an incompleteness which narrows and simplifies even what the Bible teaches, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

To connect anatomy with morality is a fundamental error, an error which keeps the much larger notion of Covenant from having its rightful place in a theology of human sexuality.  Anatomy has never been the sole factor for gender identity or sexual morality, but rather the Covenant, which calls for and expects sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency–behaviors which everyone can live. By excluding Covenant, no adequate theology of human sexuality is possible, and by limiting a definition of gender identity to physical appearance at birth skews the picture at the outset.

We have every reason to expect that conservatives will continue to use the new “birth gender” definition, but we are under no obligation to accept the definition when it so clearly fails to take even the biological aspects of gender identity development into account.

As important as the biological dimension is in establishing a proper theology of human sexuality, the matter is even more critical, because left to stand, a “birth gender” definition provides a place for conservatives to stand in attempting to justify their underlying discriminatory and damaging behaviors toward LGBTQ persons in both the society and the church.  It is this derogatory spirit, expressed in whatever venue, which must ultimately be challenged and called out for the un-Christlike mindset it represents.  It is not a mindset upon which either a society or a church can construct a foundation that will represent life together in the Kingdom of God.

[Note: for more on this, read Michael Regele, ‘Science, Scripture, and Same-Sex Love’–a good book in its own right, but filled with even more substantive references)

Posted in UMC | 8 Comments

Year of Mercy: Flee Corruption

(19) With courageous specificity, Pope Francis calls on those who knowingly practice corruption to change their ways and be transformed by the grace of God into those who knowingly show mercy.  Included in his call are those in criminal organizations (and any others, for that matter) who prey on others and exist due to rampant greed.

Mercenary activity of any kind creates merciless living, depriving others of their dignity, property, feelings–and in some cases, even their lives.  The Pope leaves no doubt about it–any person, group or organization that is rooted in making money as an end in itself works against mercy, because accumulation replaces altruism.

This is a hard-hitting segment of the Pope’s writing–what might be called the “prophetic” side of the mercy message–the side which confronts every egoic individual or system that blocks the flow of God’s mercy.

Pope Francis puts it this way: “To stick to the way of evil will leave one deluded and sad.  The way of life is something entirely different.”  But the Pope does not leave his exhortation there–which would be to withhold the very mercy he is commending. 

He goes on, ending this segment ends with an invitation to those who are engaged in corruption to abandon it and choose life,  so that they too might become receivers of God’s mercy–and, in turn, be agents of mercy to others.

[Note: the numbers at the beginning of each meditation correspond to the section of the Pope’s document on which it is based]

Posted in Year of Mercy