Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Inch by inch - a report from annual conference

It is annual conference season here in the birthplace of American Methodism. We are meeting in a fine hotel in Baltimore, the city where the first Methodist conference in America –ever– was held at Lovely Lane Methodist Church in 1784. The accommodations back then were, I’m sure, less luxurious.

My congregation presented a resolution to annual conference this year. (For the text of our resolution, see p. 41-2 of the pdf here.) A group of our members started working on the resolution last summer after General Conference had ended. People from other churches joined in the work. Folk put countless hours into preparing and refining the resolution, garnering support for it, and planning for its presentation.

Our resolution passed, so I suppose I should be happy.

Because someone called for a vote count, we even know that it passed by a vote of 587 to 327 (about 63 percent of those voting). Yet I find myself somewhat depleted.

I know we should be celebrating. A lot happened here today that should encourage those of us who dream of an inclusive church. A group of bright, accomplished men and women, who had plenty of other things they could have done with their time, cared enough about the United Methodist Church to prepare a resolution for annual conference. They wrote clear interpretative materials and handed out leaflets to conference delegates. They prepared themselves to speak on the floor of conference and then spoke articulately and movingly. Some made themselves vulnerable far beyond the call of reasonable expectation.

Our folk, and all those who supported this resolution, should feel a deep sense of satisfaction and achievement. I do not mean to diminish what happened today in any way. Our folk did exceptional work. This was a great advance in the movement toward reconciliation. The angels are cheering.

But, still, when the well-deserved hoorays and yippees are over, I am left with a touch of pain in my heart.

One reason for this is that 327 delegates voted against our resolution even though we made it as mild, moderate, open and non-confrontational as we could imagine. Our resolution was practically innocuous. It simply called for dialogue within our conference about issues concerning people with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender orientations.

This is something so mainstream that even the 2004 General Conference encouraged us to do it. General Conference passed the report of the Task Force on Homosexuality and the Unity of the Church which concluded: “Be it further resolved that the 2004 General Conference encourages further dialogue throughout The United Methodist Church designed with worship at the center to lead to greater understanding, love, and care for each other, and with the hope that our struggles with these concerns will take a more civil character to the benefit of all.”

Yet 327 delegates to our annual conference voted against “greater understanding, love and care for each other.”

Admittedly, we added a tad more specificity than the General Conference resolution had included, but nothing radical: Each district of our conference would hold dialogues; the first ones would be held in 2005; local churches would be provided with resources to enable dialogues; and LGBT people would be included in the dialogues so that United Methodists are talking with each other rather than about each other.

It was a tame, reasonable resolution. So how can it be that 327 delegates to our annual conference, almost 40 percent, voted against dialogue with other United Methodist Christians?

After listening to the discussion and seeing the vote, I have concluded that more than 300 members of our conference would have voted against any resolution whatsoever with the words “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender” in it. If our resolution had said: “Be it resolved that we smile at people with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender orientations,” 300 delegates would have voted against it.

In some ways it feels worse than 25 years ago. The hostility and coldness on the part of these 300 delegates seems harder and meaner than it used to be. Or maybe I was just expecting people to have become more understanding and accepting by now. I suspect, however, some people have just become more autocratically doctrinaire, less thoughtful and reasonable, determined to “hold the line.”

The other reason I am discouraged is because so many of the speeches against our resolution were insulting and mean. There were a lot of references to “the homosexual lifestyle.” What’s that? Oh, I know –we all know– what references to “the homosexual lifestyle” are meant to imply: that gay people are promiscuous and intemperate, sex machines. This is a stereotype. This is a straight people's fantasy.

Delegates speaking against our resolution seemed to have no difficulty painting all LGBT people with the same brush. They mouthed stereotypes as their justification for why they did not need to be in dialogue with real people, making it obvious why dialogue with real people is so important. But they themselves could not see this. It is hard not to think that the reason they were resisting dialogue and conversation is because they have made up their minds and want to make sure reality doesn’t intrude.

Even more distressing and hurtful were those delegates who bluntly called LGBT people sick or immoral. Several speeches against our resolution went something like this: If we are going to have dialogue with gays, then why don’t we have dialogue with pathological liars, addicts, alcoholics, murderers, and adulterers? Now, personally I would not be opposed to having dialogue with any of these folk. In fact, I am pretty sure some of the above were in the room today.

But to thoughtlessly group sister and brother United Methodists who are prayerfully seeking to discern what it means to be followers of Jesus in their LGBT bodies with pathological liars and murderers is crude, mean, and mindless. It is –to use an old term– pharisaical. Save us.

One pastor who spoke against our resolution was poignant. Her son is, as she put it, “a homosexual.” She said she loves her son, but she is afraid he will go to hell unless he repents of his sexual orientation. “I love my son, but can't tell him I agree with his lifestyle," she said. "If I am wrong, I've lost nothing. If he's wrong, he's lost everything."

I fear she has misread Scripture. If Matthew 25:31-46 is right, we will be judged precisely by the way we have treated others and by whether we have been compassionate. To cruelly tell someone that he or she is going to hell for loving authentically just because she or he is different from straight folk may well be spiritually risky. Her assumption that she can say anything she wants about gay people, including her own son, and justify it by interpreting the Bible anyway she wants, no matter how facile, and it would not matter, seems to me biblically questionable.

Well, I need to remember that this is a long struggle, and we took a step forward today. I also need to remember that when you lance an old festering wound, what comes out is not always pleasant. So let me not get bogged down in the negatives.

We did well today and the church has moved at least a tiny step closer to the love of Christ.


Methodists and Segregation -- two new books

Two new books about exactly the same topic fell into my hands without any effort on my part, so I thought I ought to pay attention. One of the books was given to me by its author who is a member of my congregation. The other was given to me because it was nominated for an award and a member of the organization making the award thought it would interest me.

Both books are about the the long and difficult battle to do away with the Central Jurisdiction in order to integrate the Methodist Church, at least at the regional and national levels. The Central Jurisdiction had been established in 1939 when northern and southern Methodism --split in 1844 over slavery-- were reunited. It was an organizational and structural device designed to keep the Methodist Church segregated, so that no white pastor would be under the authority of an African-American bishop and so that no white church would be assigned an African-American pastor. Once established, the Central Jurisdiction was almost impossible to do away with, even when the larger society was rapidly moving beyond Jim Crow. Each book is, in its own way, a fascinating read.

Peter C. Murray, author of Methodists and the Crucible of Race 1930-1975, is a professor at Methodist College in Fayetteville, NC. He writes as an objective historian, although his commitment to an integrated society and church is obvious. His interest in this topic comes, at least in part, from growing up in a Methodist parsonage in a town where the Methodist churches were segregated. "Two blocks from my father's church was another Methodist church," he writes. "It belonged to the same denomination, but it was in a different annual conference and had a different bishop. ... In spite of being in the same denomination, the two churches had no direct contact with one other. It was as though they were worshipping different gods." (p. ix)

W. Astor "Bill" Kirk, author of Desegregation of the Methodist Church Polity: Reform Movements That Ended Racial Segregation, writes as an activist and passionate participant in the struggle to end segregation within his beloved denomination. Bill served as secretary and then chair of the Central Jurisdiction's Committee of Five, the group that finally persuaded the denomination to reform its segregationist structure. His book is particularly powerful when he gives us a glimpse of the fierce resistance to integration within the denomination and the feelings of African-Americans like himself who experienced the sting of the church's rejection. One of the interesting byproducts of reading Bill Kirk's book is observing whom he and other African-Americans trusted, even when they disagreed, and how others totally lost the trust of African-American leaders.

The books complement each other and are best read one after another. Both of these books introduce us to a generation of largely unsung Methodist heroes --African-American and white-- who devoted themselves to the vision of an integrated church and who paid a price for their commitment and leadership. Of course, soberingly, the books also introduce us to a generation of Methodists who fought as hard as they could, sometime manipulatively, to keep Methodism segregated. These books make me wonder what historians will say about us 30 and 50 years from now.

A few lessons we might learn:

1. Change takes a long time within our denomination, and it takes persistence and diligence to make it happen. I wonder if many of us today are as loyal and committed to our denominational tradition as Bill Kirk and his contemporaries were? I wonder if we love our church as much? I wonder if we are as willing to pray, to organize, to negotiate, to present resolutions that get defeated, then wait four years to present other resolutions, and to argue cases before the Judicial Council? The process of desegregating the Methodist Church took 30 years, and would have taken longer had not Evangelical United Brethren Church leaders made ending the Central Jurisdiction a condition of the Methodist-EUB merger. African-American Methodists must have loved the Methodist Church profoundly to sacrifice this greatly and to suffer such rebuke in order to help heal us from the awful disease of racism.

2. We are not necessarily always a prophetic church. On the issue of integration, our denomination lagged pretty far behind the larger society. The primary reason for this was a commitment on the part of General Conference to voluntarism. The Methodist Church did not want to force anybody to integrate who did not want to. (Bill Kirk's oft stated observation was that segregation into the Central Jurisdiction was not voluntary, so the principle of voluntarism obviously cut just one way.) Peter Murray argues, interestingly enough, that southern Methodists, albeit slower to change than the north, were in some cases more prophetic and courageous than the northerners, even though southern successes were less recognized and celebrated. (p. 234) Murray also wonders whether the Methodism's sluggishness cost us the baby boomers. This generation (my generation) began leaving the denomination during the 1960s, he says. Previously Methodist student and youth groups were thriving. He wonders whether the church's slowness to integrate may have been one of the reasons baby boomers lost interest in the denomination in the 60s. (p. 238)

3. It seems to me from reading these books that the Methodist bishops took a more active leadership role in moving the church toward integration than they seem to take on any issue today. They did not just teach or opine, they made executive decisions. For example, at a critical point of the negotiations to end the Central Jurisdiction, they took the initiative to develop a plan for transition, including developing a formula to facilitate the merger of Central Jurisdiction conferences into the Southwest Jurisdiction. (Murray, p. 174-5) At one point the bishops called for a delay in Judicial Council deliberations. (Kirk, p. 158) These kinds of actions seem much more assertive than the bishops' actions lately. And it was interesting to read about the role of the Judicial Council in this process. For those who wonder about the role the Judicial Council plays these days, it will interesting for you to read Bill Kirk's description of his efforts to plead for movement toward integration before the council in 1965. (See Chapter 10)

4. It is easy to forget that issues are personal, not just a matter of politics or theological interpretation. In Pittsburgh in 1939 when General Conference approved the merger between the northern and southern churches, segregating African-American Methodists into the Central Jurisdiction as a compromise in order to achieve reunification, the delegates rose and cheerfully sang "We're Marching to Zion." Apparently they did not notice or else did not care that African-American delegates remain seated in their chairs, many of them weeping openly. (Murray, p. 41) And, then, there is a profound moment in Bill Kirk's account during which he describes the anger he felt when a denominational committee rudely challenged efforts to move the cause forward. "It has been forty years since I received that note ..." he writes. "But I still have vivid recollections of my emotional reaction ... Suddenly I became angry -- very, very angry!" (p. 115) We discuss issues regarding the humanity of God's children --brothers and sisters-- as though it were an impersonal discussion, but real flesh-and-blood human beings are wounded by our thoughts and actions.

Peter Murray has written an excellent history. His book is the best way to get an overview of this troubled era of Methodist history. Bill Kirk profoundly enriches the history by sharing his personal experience of being a pioneer for justice in the church, and giving us a first-hand look at the day-by-day strategy of the change agents. I consider it an act of providence that both books fell into my lap at the same time. They are well worth our study and deliberation. After all, as the old saw goes, those of us who forget history are doomed to repeat it.


Class of 2005, What Does the Lord Require of You? --a baccalaureate sermon

Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania
Sunday, May 22, 2005

Scripture: Micah 6: 6-8; Matthew 5: 38-48

It was 40 years ago this coming August that my father drove me here to this campus from our home in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania. He helped me carry my suitcases up to the second floor of Albright Court, gave me a $20 bill (which was more money then than it is now), and drove home without me.

It was a momentous day for me.

When I came here in 1965 I had a Pennsylvania Dutch accent so thick people sometimes had to ask me to repeat myself in order to understand what I was saying. My dutchified English was the butt of more than a few jokes.

"Outen the light," I would say, or "Plug out the radio," and my friends from Philadelphia would look at me strangely.

"The potatoes are all," I would say in the dining hall, and --after a pause-- someone would ask, "The potatoes are all what?"

And let me advise you not to try to tell a female classmate that she is looking particularly pretty by saying to her, "You look good in the face today."

Here at Albright, I was plunged into a world of new ideas, new experiences and new possibilities. I pray your time here at Albright has been even half as exciting and stretching and challenging as mine was 40 years ago.

It was here at Albright that I became a man. I remember the exact instant it happened.

The spring semester of my sophomore year I began to get restless. I felt unfulfilled by the rut I'd fallen into of studying hard all week and partying hard on weekends. I went to the chaplain's office and asked if there was somewhere in the community I might volunteer where I could make some kind of difference in the real world.

The chaplain's secretary arranged for me to volunteer Thursday mornings when I had no classes at a Head Start program in an old Baptist church in the section of Reading considered in those days to be the disadvantaged inner-city.

From the first day I walked into that Head Start classroom, a five-year-old boy named Tye attached himself to me. He was hungry for attention. He became my Thursday morning shadow. He followed me everywhere. He insisted I play with him and pay attention to him.

Mid-semester I missed a couple of Thursday mornings at the Head Start program because of spring break. The Thursday morning after spring break when I walked into the Baptist Church, Tye stood up and pointed and shouted at the top of his lungs, "The man's here! The man's here!"

I looked around to see who he was talking about. There was no one else there. Suddenly I realized Tye was pointing at me. Tye thought I was a man. I was shocked. I still thought of myself as a boy.

Tye helped me realize it was time for me to begin putting away childish things and to begin to act like the adult he thought I was. In many ways, it was the moment I grew up.

I am honored that the Albright trustees and administration have invited me back to share in this baccalaureate service, especially this baccalaureate service for the Class of 2005, graduating from Albright these 40 years after I became a student here.

I have one warning for you. Forty years go by like a snap of your fingers. So pay attention. Don't miss a moment of your own life. Forty years go by like a snap.

Be sure to learn everything you can as soon as you can from your grandparents, your parents, your aunts and uncles. Ask them everything you can think to ask and listen closely to their answers. They will not be here forever.

Savor your joys. Feel your disappointments and sadnesses as deeply as you can because they are part of life, too, and in their own way are blessings. Don't be afraid to live. Let nothing or no one steal your joy.

Forty years go by like a snap.

So, Class of 2005, here is the question of the morning: What does the Lord require of you?
Distinguished and Beloved Albright College Class of 2005, what does the Lord require of you?

No matter how much you and I might want to think of ourselves as individuals -- to say I am my own woman, I am my own man, not a part of the crowd, not a demographic-- like it or not, we are influenced and shaped by the culture of which we are part. The way we understand our world and our deepest assumptions about life can be greatly influenced by culturally shared experiences and events at critical ages and stages of our lives. Generations can have defining moments.

A defining moment for my parents' generation was Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the day the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. My parents lived their lives in anticipation of the possibility it would happen again. It was a defining moment for their generation.

My older brother Nevin, 19 years older than I am, tells me one of his generation's defining moments was May 8, 1945, VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, when Nazi Germany surrendered and everyone, it seemed, was proud to be an American.

Defining moments for my generation included November 22, 1963 the day President John F. Kennedy was shot, and April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. died. We were inspired by our heroes and shaken by their deaths.

Surely for you, Class of 2005, one of your defining moments must be September 11, 2001. It is a day none of us will ever forget, but especially you. Many of you were beginning your freshman year here at Albright when the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon was wounded. You will never forget. You will live, to some degree or another, the rest of your lives in the shadow of 9-11. We all will, but for you this will be especially true. How can 9-11 not influence your world view and your deepest assumptions about life?

So, Beloved Class of 2005, what does the Lord require of you?

In one sense, the Lord requires of you what the Lord requires of us all.

The prophet Micah said it this way: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

The Lord requires us to do justice. Justice means fairness, treating each other rightly, protecting each one's basic human freedoms and rights, insuring equal opportunity for all regardless of anything, and correcting for past injustices. The Lord requires us to do justice.

The Lord requires us to walk humbly with our God ... to know the limits of our own knowledge, to spiritually acknowledge our fallibility, our imperfections, our limitations, our proclivity toward selfishness, greed, and sin. To walk humbly with our God.

And the Lord requires us to love kindness. Loving kindness is what I want to say a word about to you this morning, because I wonder if it isn't harder to love kindness in the shadow of 9-11?

The Hebrew word is hesed. To love hesed. The word hesed appears frequently in Hebrew scriptures, about 250 times. There is no English word that adequately captures the meaning of hesed.

Sometimes hesed is translated "kindness." Sometimes it is translated 'loving kindness." Sometimes it is translated "mercy." Sometimes it is translated "blessing." Sometimes it is translated "love." It might be translated "grace."

Hesed means caring for others not because they deserve to be cared for, but because they need care. It means forgiving those who have hurt us. It means reconciling with those from whom we have been alienated. It means healing the wounds between us and others. It means risking vulnerability toward those who might reject us. It means treating others the way God treats us.

When I read the prophet Micah I am always amazed that, while he says the Lord requires us to do justice, he says the Lord requires us to love hesed.

It is apparently not enough that we choose to act kindly and mercifully. The Lord expects us to love kindness and mercy, to love forgiveness, to love being a blessing to others, to love being reconciled, to love healing the wounds between us. Not just to do it but to love it.

I worry that, as a nation and a people, we have found loving hesed more difficult since 9-11. We seem more ready to assume the worst about others, more fearful of the strangers among us, more wary of people who are different, more willing to put them in jail just in case. Our new golden rule seems to be not "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," but "Do unto others before they get a chance to do unto you."

I blog. I am a blogger. I think I am not the oldest blogger in the blogosphere. I hope not. But I know for sure I am not the youngest. One of the reasons I blog is to be in communication with people who are different from me in some ways -- people who think differently theologically and politically, people who are younger than myself.

One of the people whose blog I read is a young person named John. He is under 30. He is intelligent. He obviously has a great sense of humor. He is a person of sincere and deep faith. His blogs are often thoughtful and insightful.

Recently he has been writing about Islam. "Since 9/11," he writes, "Americans and others in the West have used a lot of couched language to hide what we really think: that Islam is not a Religion of Peace but a religion of war and that Islamic culture is fundamentally sick and barbaric. ... There have been enough planes crashing into skyscrapers (to the delight of Arabs literally dancing in the streets) and wild, senseless riots to make the Religion of Peace label seem ludicrous." (See here.)

John quotes others on the internet who write about the "bizarre mental disorder of the West which prevents it from understanding the threat of Islam and dealing with it appropriately." He adds: "Notice that I didn't say the 'threat of Islamic extremism' or the 'threat of Islamofascism.' I said and meant the threat of Islam. Let's stop pretending that we're not in a clash of civilizations. It's a struggle that will end in one of two ways: 1) The virus of democracy successfully infects the Middle East and drastically softens its sociopathic hatred of everything non-Muslim. 2) Vast areas of the Middle East are irradiated and left lifeless after the United States responds to terrorist nuclear attacks on its homeland." (See here.)

Reading John's blog over time, I have come to respect and even to feel affection for John, but I fear that 9-11 has so shaped his understanding of the world that he has come to see a whole culture of the world's people as foreign and hostile ... to see millions of people as alien and other. I worry that this will be more or less true for an entire generation, including the Class of 2005.

My experience as a pastor has taught me this: When trouble comes to any one of us, we can react either by pulling away from others and isolating ourselves --going it alone-- or we can respond by letting others embrace us and by embracing them.

The first response leads toward anger and bitterness. We can even come to love being angry and bitter. I have known those who have nursed their hurts until they have come to love being angry, resentful and bitter, and their very souls were poisoned by it.

The second response leads toward hesed. I have known those who have even come to love being kind, merciful, forgiving and reconciling -- to love it! I have known those who have been deeply hurt by life and instead of becoming bitter, they have used their own experience of being hurt to become so understanding of the hurts of others, that they have come to love being kind and merciful toward those whom we would least think deserve kindness -- to love it!

This is also true when trouble comes to our nation and to our globe. When trouble comes we can either isolate ourselves and become resentful and bitter, or we can choose hesed.

Is it possible? Can we turn the other check? Can we go the second mile? Can we love our enemies? Can we love those who do not love us? Or was Jesus just blowing smoke? (Mat 5: 38-48)

Micah asks an even harder question: Can we love to love our enemies? Can we love hesed?

You, Class of 2005, will answer this question for us. This may be the question for your generation. Can we love a world that we are not sure loves us? Can we love hesed? You will show us.

There is a story I first read in a book of sermons more than 30 years ago. For some reason it has lodged itself in my mind. It happened following the Korean War. A reporter went to Korea to write about what it was like there in the aftermath of the war. He came across an American nun, a nurse, who was treating wounded Korean soldiers -- the enemy.

Toward the end of the war, the Korean army had few supplies or medicines left. The soldiers' wounds had not been treated, and the wounds had become infected and gangrenous and ugly.

As the reporter watched the nun cutting away gangrenous flesh from a Korean soldier's leg, he held a handkerchief over his face and muttered under his breath, "I couldn't do that for all the money in the world."

The nun heard him. She paused in her work for a second and said to him, "Neither could I."

May this nun who loved hesed --kindness and mercy -- more than anything the world could offer her live in you and in me. And may she especially live in you, Beloved Class of 2005. May she especially live in you, for today we begin to entrust the world to your care. Please be kind.