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.


News from Zimbabwe

Friends report that Zimbabwe is peaceful despite a draconian government blitz that has destroyed "informal shelters" (wood shacks that people pieced together for housing in high density suburbs), food stands, and shops.

The operation, which began about three weeks ago, is being called "Operation Murambatsvina" or "Operation Restore Order." It has apparently displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes and livelihoods.

An editorial in the Herald, the government-operated newspaper, justifies the action by saying that the unlicensed structures and vendors had become havens for illegal activity and were not paying taxes. Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa strongly defends his friend, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, by stating that the country's "secondary economy" and "parallel market" (sometimes called the black market) are ruining Zimbabwe's economy. Mkapa blames the secondary economy for Zimbabwe's run-away inflation. (See story here.)

Other reports, however, are suggesting that the blitz may be motivated by the fact that the high density suburbs are stronghold of support for the opposition party -- the Movement for Democratic Change-- that has been attempting to unseat the ruling Zanu (PF) party. It has similarly been suggested that the government is punishing the high density suburbs for their support of the opposition party in general elections held in March.

The United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe is 107 years old and has been a major presence in the nation. United Methodist schools are very highly regarded. Many of Zimbabwe's first generation of indigenous leaders who won the nation's independence were educated in United Methodist schools. The United Methodist Church has also been a primary provider of health care, care for orphans, and agricultural and economic development.

Zimbabwe is also the home of Africa University, a United Methodist school begun in 1992 that draws students from throughout the continent. The Zimbabwian UMC has over 100,000 members and is experiencing continuing rapid growth.

Jane and I have visited Zimbabwe numerous times, most recently during the 2002 presidential election. Foundry's Minister of Music and Worship Dr. Eileen Guenther has taught at Africa University. A Volunteer in Mission (VIM) team from Foundry is scheduled to travel to Zimbabwe this summer.

Apparently some VIM teams have begun to cancel their plans for fear of violence erupting but friends on the ground there report that there are no signs of violence. When ordered to do so, people living in the high density suburbs actually participated in tearing down their homes and dragging the wood into the streets where it was burned.

A friend advises Americans not to act like reporters --Zimbabwian officials are very hostile to the press-- but says that otherwise it feels completely safe in Zimbabwe.

I hope United Methodists will keep newly elected Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa and all of our sisters and brothers of Zimbabwe in our prayers. Please request the prayers of your congregations.


The Best UMC Idea I Have Heard Lately

A group of United Methodist Church leaders want to discover what United Methodists are passionate about. What is our "main thing"?

A bishops' task force on unity and the new Connectional Table, a body established by the 2004 General Conference to coordinate the work of the general agencies, have begun an effort to discern "the main thing that we [United Methodists] are all so passionate about" so that "if we can move on the main thing, some unity will occur as we become more intentional in working together," according to Bishop John Hopkins, chair of the table. (Quoted in an UMNS story here.)

To do this, they are using a process called "Appreciative Inquiry" that is increasingly popular with major nonprofits, the military, and corporations as they plan their futures.

Wonderful idea. It deserves our support and applause. It is the only thing I have heard about lately that has the possibility of moving us past the several stand-offs we seem to be in -- what Lyle Schaller calls "a score of lines in the sand" that have been drawn in "our complicated intradenominational quarrel." (See his book "The Ice Cube is Melting: What Really Is At Risk in United Methodism?")

In the essay "Five Theories of Change Embedded in Appreciative Inquiry," Gervase R. Bushe describes Appreciative Inquiry as a way of helping to shape an organization's future by researching people's peak experiences and high points as a part of the movement or group.

"The key data collection innovation of appreciative inquiry," Bushe writes, "is the collection of people's stories of something at its best. If we are interested in team development, we collect stories of people's best team experiences. If we are interested in the development of an organization we ask about their peak experience in that organization. If enhanced leadership is our goal, we collect stories of leadership at its best. These stories are collectively discussed in order to create new, generative ideas or images that aid in developmental change of the collectivity discussing them."

The U.S. Navy has used Appreciative Inquiry. They interviewed Navy officers (find interview questions here) in order, as interview guidelines put it, "to discover what is happening when we are operating at our best. In particular, our goal is to locate, illuminate, and understand the distinctive values, practices, and skills which are in operation when the Navy is operating at its best."

Interview questions included ones like this: "As you look back over your entire career in the Navy, think of a moment when you felt particularly successful, a time you had an influence on the outcome of something that was important, a time when you were effective in making a difference that mattered. It could have been a creative idea you imagined or an action you initiated. Perhaps it was something that made a difference to one individual. Or perhaps it was something that impacted your unit's mission. What's important is that this is a moment in which you felt most alive, most involved, effective, impactful, in which you felt you made a difference. Tell the story of what happened."

The whole list of questions the Navy used is worth browsing.

What might we learn if we asked every United Methodist pastor and lay leader these kinds of questions? I suspect we would learn what it is, really, that makes us Methodists and it would not be about keeping categories of people out of ordained ministry or fighting for power in our annual conferences.

I wish the bishops' task force on unity and the Connectional Table well. I think they are on the right track. I am eager to find out what they learn.


Can anyone help me understand William Abraham?

Can anyone help me understand William Abraham?

Years ago, maybe 1998 or 99, I heard William Abraham defend the United Methodist Discipline's position on homosexuality in a lecture given at a theological institute sponsored by the Baltimore-Washington Conference. I didn't understand what he was trying to say when I heard him say it years ago, so I was pleased to discover that his lecture has been published. This would give me a chance to read and study what he has to say. Unfortunately after reading and rereading his lecture, I still don't get it.

Yet, I have to give Abraham credit for this: During a time when many seminary faculty members simply refused to share their opinions and insights on the church debate about sexual orientation, Abraham was out there lecturing on this topic all over the place. In contrast, an amazing number of faculty at United Methodist seminaries, who presumably are being paid --at least in part-- to be resources to the church, just refused to speak about the topic or even to answer questions about how their academic disciplines might inform the discussion. Apparently, no matter what their viewpoint, they were nervous about their careers and, thus, chose to abdicate what some might consider to be their professional and Christian responsibility to help educate the church. You've got to say this about Abraham: He's not a coward.

But that doesn't mean he makes sense. Abraham's lecture, published as the first chapter of the book Staying the Course: Supporting the Church's Position on Homosexuality edited by Maxie Dunnam and H. Newton Malony, is more and more of a puzzle to me the harder I try to understand it.

Abraham says he wants to move the discussion beyond a debate about verses of Scripture. "The appeal to Scripture in the debate about homosexual practice," he writes, " has also led to a trivializing of the debate." (p. 23) Good point.

Abraham seems to realize that quoting a handful of biblical texts (see my discussion here) to support the Discipline's position is not very convincing, especially since there exist biblical passages of much greater significance that --if taken literally without consideration of the societal context of the times-- disagree with the Discipline's positions on divorce, the ordination of women, and other concerns. Why should we interpret the Bible literally and simplistically about same-gender sexuality if we have not chosen to do so in areas that are more likely to affect the rest of us, such as the possibility of divorced people and women being ordained? So Abraham does well to try to move the discussion beyond a shallow debate about what the Bible says.

It is where he goes from here that is a puzzlement and wonder. He suggests that to get past the problem of our inconsistency in using Scripture, applying it literally in the case of homosexuality but not in many other cases, we should understand the Discipline's position on homosexuality to be an expression of divine revelation rather than biblical interpretation.

If I understand Abraham (and I have already admitted I am not sure I do), calling the Discipline's position on homosexuality an expression of divine revelation rather than a matter of biblical interpretation means 1) we don't have to take the findings of reason (science) and experience (personal knowledge) seriously anymore because it is not just Scripture we are dealing with but divine revelation (p. 24), 2) the rules of discussion and debate change because now we are not just talking about the Bible but about the Word of God addressed to us here and now, which is not debatable (p. 25) and 3) the crucial Scripture texts are no longer the ones that address homosexuality but "the teaching of our Lord on marriage" which reveals to us "the divine intention for marriage as a specific divine calling in which male and female are joined in lifelong commitment." (p. 25)

Changing the discussion from a matter of biblical interpretation to a matter of divine revelation apparently means we can pick one or two verse of the Bible (three words actually: "male and female") and use them to trump all the rest of Scripture, not to mention reason, experience and tradition!

What about the Discipline's view on divorce then? Abraham's answer is that we have rightly followed the Eastern Orthodox Church on this. The Roman Catholic Church does not permit divorce on the basis of God's revelation. Protestantism does permit remarriage after divorce on the basis of compassion and grace. Eastern Orthodoxy upholds both revelation and compassion by including a ritual of repentance for divorced people as part of the liturgy for second and third marriages. Even though we don't actually do this, Abraham argues that the Discipline "has gotten the matter essentially if not comprehensively right ..." (p. 27)

What about the Discipline's position on the ordination of women, which might seem inconsistent with revelation? Abraham's answer is that the Bible has no blueprint for ministry. He concludes: "Since there is no blueprint on ministry in Scripture, no blueprint on the gender of those ordained can be derived from Scripture." (p. 28)

But apparently in Abraham's mind the Bible does have a blueprint for marriage, and the essence of the blueprint is heterosexuality. Because Jesus specified in his discussion about divorce in Matthew 19: 3-9 and Mark 10: 2-12 that God made us "male and female," Abraham reaches the conclusion that heterosexual marriage is an unchangeable and inflexible norm of divine revelation. Meanwhile, for Abraham, the point of Jesus' teaching --the unacceptability of remarriage after divorce-- can be tempered by the need for compassion and grace. On the other hand, the words"male and female" cannot be tempered by compassion and grace, or reason and experience.

Abraham offers two other proofs for his argument that divine revelation shows us that heterosexual marriage and practice is the only possibility for romantic relationships. One proof he offers is that it is true because some people strongly believe it is. He says: "On the matter before us, conservatives are both tenacious and urgent. This is not accidental. They are tenacious because the opinion they hold is not just a matter of human judgment or opinion. It is construed as the teaching of our Lord in divine revelation." (p. 29) It is revelation because some people feel strongly that it is.

Abraham's second proof is this: Because the church is the place where "the pure Word of God is preached" and because heterosexuality is the pure Word of God, heterosexual marriage must be the only Christian option. He writes: "If the United Methodist Church were to abandon its current teaching on homosexual behavior, it would cease to be a body where the pure Word of God is preached; and thus it would undermine its own most important ecclesiological insight." (p. 30)

After reading Abraham I feel like the mark who is trying to figure out where the pea is in a shell game. Abraham is quick, yes, but he is also slippery. He manipulates the rules to fit the conclusion he wants to reach.

He leaves me asking a lot of questions: Who gets to define divine revelation? Who gets to decide what is merely a biblical verse instead of divine revelation? Whose strong feelings get to determine what qualifies as divine revelation? If both of us have really strong feelings, whose trumps whose? Who gets to determine what is "the pure Word of God" and what isn't?

The most puzzling aspect of Abraham's essay is that he argues against proof-texting, and then uses a three-word prooftext as the basis of his argument by declaring it --arbitrarily-- to be divine revelation. Can anyone help me understand William Abraham?


Bill McKibben on Jeffrey Sachs' Plan to End World Poverty

Bill McKibben has been one of my favorite thinkers ever since I read his book The Age of Missing Information back in the mid-90s.

To write The Age of Missing Information, McKibben spent 1,700 hours watching cable television from Fairfax, Va., the cable system with the most channels at the time, and then he went camping in the Adirondacks to see if there was anything he might learn from nature that was different from what he'd seen on TV (even on the nature shows). One of the things he noticed is that never once did he see a natural death on TV. While camping he saw again and again that death is part of the cycle of life. He concludes that TV is making us dumber about life's deepest meanings.

In the most recent issue of the Christian Century (May 31, 2005) McKibben has written an analysis (more than a review) of a book that hopes to provide the solution for world poverty. The book is The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time written by Jeffrey D. Sachs. Sachs is a highly credentialed economist. At the request of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Sachs led a panel of 250 experts in economic development that Annan had asked to come up with a plan to reduce global poverty. After the panel's report was released, Sachs wrote his own book in which he describes his strategy for eradicating poverty by 2025.

To my surprise, McKibben seems to accept many of Sachs' conclusions, albeit cautiously and with reservation. Sachs argues that we should concentrate on eliminating extreme poverty -- meaning the circumstances that cause more than a billion people in African and South Asia to live on the equivalent of less than a dollar a day. If we could help these folk move from extreme poverty to moderate poverty (an income of between one and two dollars a day), they could get a first foothold onto the ladder of the global economy and the worst would be over, Sachs believes.

Sachs says we could help end extreme poverty through five interventions -- what he calls the "Big Five." They are: 1) agricultural aid, such as more fertilizer and better seed; 2) investments in basic health to prevent malaria and treat AIDS; 3) investments in education, such as school lunches; 4) electricity and roads; and 5) safe drinking water and sanitation.

Here is the shocker: Sachs says that all this could be done at a cost of 31 cents a day per extremely poor person. The total cost to the rich world would be $124 billion, or 0.6 percent of our income. Not 6 percent, McKibben emphasizes, but six-tenth of 1 percent. The United States could pay it share by repealing the Bush tax cuts for people making more than $500,000 a year, McKibben notes.

McKibben believes we should try many of the things Sachs proposes. Certainly Christians should not have any problem with the cost. "I was hungry and you gave me 0.6 percent of your income," McKibben deadpans.

McKibben, as I noted, has some reservations. He believes it may be a mistake to assume that the rest of the world should develop along the same lines the West has. He is nervous that Sachs' emphasis on urbanization may have environmental consequences that will make Sachs' vision unachievable. He suspects that Sachs' plan is too grandiose and not sensitive enough to local circumstances. He criticizes Sachs for using per capita income as his only measurement for development. (He offers the example of the state of Kerala in India where per capita income is no greater than the rest of India but where life expectancy, literacy and fertility compare favorable with parts of the United States. This quality of life was achieved not by industrialization but by land reform.)

Yet, whether we agree with Sachs' macro approach or McKibben's more community-oriented strategies, or some combination of the two (which seems to be what McKibben is really proposing), it is clear that we have the capacity to greatly lessen world poverty at a relatively small cost. The value of both Sachs' book and McKibben's essay is to show us that reducing world poverty is doable.

I wonder if a presidential campaign based on a promise of "ending world poverty in out lifetimes" would attract the faith-based vote, including the Religious Right? Sounds pro-life to me.

Like most of what he writes, McKibben's Christian Century essay is worth reading and brooding about.