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.


Free Zach ... and us all

Twenty-five years ago when I was a campus minister, one of the students in our group was determined to stop being gay. When everything else failed, he entered an aversion therapy program.

He went to a hospital several times a week. There he was hooked up to monitors to measure his vital signs. The therapist would then project erotic pictures onto a screen. When the monitors indicated that he might be having a sexual reaction (heart beat quickening and other signs of excitement), the therapist would give him a jolt of electricity -- a powerful and painful jolt.

The idea was that he would begin to associate same-gender sexual excitement with pain and it would "cure" him of being gay. I worried that it might eroticize electric shocks.

He came to see me because he felt the aversion therapy was not working, and he was in despair. He hoped for a religious cure.

I asked him to talk about why he was so determined not to be gay. It would kill his parents, he said, and it would bring great shame to the Methodist congregation he had grown up in.

He spoke again and again about his parents and his church whom, he was convinced, could not love or accept him if he were gay. All these years later I can still remember him shaking his head, teary-eyed, saying: "I can't be a homosexual. I can't be."

Last weekend a group of people from Foundry Church, straight and gay, marched in our city's Pride Parade. They handed out fans that said: "I found straight people, gay men, kids, moms, blind people, thespians, lesbians, liberals, conservatives, singles, couples, teens, seniors, infants, children of gay parents, people in wheelchairs, deaf people, blacks, whites, Latinos, African immigrants, Russian speakers, opera singers, gospel musicians, tone-deaf singers, missionaries, prayer partners, suits, jeans, writers, deep thinkers, comics, city dwellers, suburbanites at Foundry. Find yourself at Foundry!" (This list, by the way, is no exaggeration.)

As they marched in the parade, the Foundry delegation was cheered by the crowds watching the parade. The crowds especially cheered the children from our Sunday School who walked with their parents in the parade. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) folk are appreciative of congregations that try to be open and affirming.

The only group that was cheered more loudly than Foundry at the Pride Parade was PFLAG -- Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Nobody, but nobody, is more beloved by LGBT people than parents and family who choose to love, understand, and stand with their LGBT children and relatives. The cheers for PFLAG at the Pride Parade, of course, have a tender side. Some of those cheering PFLAG were cheering other people's parents so loudly because their own parents have not chosen to love, understand, or stand with them. There was a lot of pain in those cheers.

Cole Wakefield at Christian Dissent, a Methodist blog, has been writing about an internet movement called "Free Zach." Zach is a teenage blogger who came out to his parents. His parents reacted by sending him to a program called Refuge, a faith-based program that promotes itself as helping adolescents to find freedom from such additions as "pornography, drugs and alcohol, sexual promiscuity, [and] homosexuality."

According to its About Us page, Refuge is used as a referral by organizations such as Focus on the Family and The 700 Club, and is part of the "ex-gay" Exodus North America referral network.

Refuge is sponsored by Love In Action International, Inc. (LIA), a group that teaches that there is no gay sexual identity but only gay feelings and desires which are sinful when acted upon. LIA identifies itself as a missionary outreach of 14 congregations of different denominations, including one United Methodist church -- Christ United Methodist Church of Memphis, Tenn.

I am always a little cautious about internet movements, What if it turns out that Zach's story is made-up or that there isn't a Zach? But Refuge and LIA are, for sure, real. Teenagers struggling with their sexual identity are, for sure, real. Parents who choose to send teenagers to programs that teach them their orientation is sinful are, for sure, real. I am pretty sure Zach is real, too.

Teaching Zach, and other young people like him, self-hatred is very sad. Cole Wakefield thinks it is child abuse. (There are a string of comments at The Wesley Blog debating this.)

One of the realizations I have come to as a result of this discussion is that the mainline churches do not seem to be offering much help to gay and lesbian youth, so far as I can tell. I guess the topic is too controversial, and we are too divided. So we leave the playing field to Love In Action International, Inc., Focus on the Family and The 700 Club.

Some United Methodist groups ought to be offering warm, honest, accepting experiences --a week at summer camp, maybe-- for gay and lesbian youth ... or maybe somebody is doing it and I just don't know about it.

I lost contact with the student who 25 years ago so desperately did not want to be gay. I think of him often and wonder what his life has been like. I wonder if his parents and church would have condemned and shunned him if he had come out to them. Maybe, but maybe not. I have known rural United Methodist churches in supposedly conservative communities where gay sons and daughter were welcomed, loved, and celebrated when they came home for visits.

I am glad we have gotten as far as we have, but I hope we soon get past this moment of history in which sexual orientation is no longer so hidden but so many of us do not understand it well yet. There are ways this particular time in our journey toward reconciliation is especially cruel. Free Zack and all of us.


After Reading "Hard Ball on Holy Ground"

I was tempted to entitle this post "Is the IRD Part of a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy?" but decided that would be too sensationalistic.

It is, however, the sort of question one is left asking after reading the new book from Zion's Herald magazine, Hard Ball on Holy Ground: The Religious Right v. the Mainline for the Church's Soul.

The IRD -- Institute for Religion and Democracy -- is a conservative church reform group founded in 1981 that believes the Episcopal, Presbyterian and United Methodist churches have forsaken the Gospel for "political agendas" such as "radical forms of feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, multi-culturalism, revolutionary socialism, sexual liberation and so forth." (Quoted from the IRD's mission statement found here.) It has an office, headed by Mark Tooley, that focuses on the United Methodist Church called UM Action.

The institute's critics argue that the IRD has its own political agenda: "increasing military spending, opposing environmental protection efforts, and eliminating social welfare programs." (Hard Ball, p. 9)

I wrote recently (see here) about my concern that the book Hard Ball on Holy Ground was being published at all. I worried that its very existence might further polarize the church.

Having now read it, I need to say that the book, which consists of articles previously published in Zion's Herald, is mostly balanced and careful. In interviews printed in the book, the book's editor, Steve Swecker, who also edits Zion's Herald, certainly gave the staff of the IRD every chance to articulate their side of the story.

A couple of the articles are disappointing. They focus too much on guilt-by-association, and are written with a hysterical edge that weakens their credibility. (I don't think an article should discredit anyone by vague references to "ties with the ultra-conservative John Birch Society" (Hard Ball, p. 8) anymore than articles should hint at ties with the Communist Party. Innuendo is not helpful.)

Yet, despite some flaws, the book raises two questions that we need to ask about the IRD, questions which the IRD staff failed to answer adequately when they were given a chance to do so during interviews with Swecker.

The first question has to do with the significance of the IRD's funding sources. Hard Ball includes a list of IRD funders who have no particular connection with the United Methodist Church but who tend to fund ultra-conservative causes: The Scaife Family Foundations (Mellon Bank money), Fieldstone and Company (savings and loan money), the John M. Olin Foundation (Winchester rifle money), the Castle Rock Foundation (Coors beer money), and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation (electronics money) .

Furthermore, these contributions are not nominal by any means. Scaife has contributed $1.9 million; Bradley has given more than $1.5 million; Fieldstone contributes an average of $75,000 a year. Why are these organizations funding the IRD to this extent? What is their goal in doing so? Why do they care so much about the United Methodist Church?

The second question has to do with the makeup of the IRD board. Swecker raised this question in an interview with the late Diane Knippers, who was the IRD's executive director until her premature death from cancer this past April. "You have on your board of advisors prominent Catholics and people from the Jewish community," he asked. "What is their interest as IRD members in directly going to Protestant mainline churches to hold them accountable -- but not to their own faith communities?"

Swecker then makes the question even more pointed: "If the shoe were on the other foot, and you had an organization of self-appointed Protestants attacking Catholic or Jewish organizations, how do you think that would go down?" (Hard Ball, p. 89) Excellent question.

Swecker's answer to his own question is that the presence of famous conservative Catholics like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus has given the IRD credibility in conservative circles and, thus, helped the IRD get the kind of funding it has gotten from conservative funders.

Let me be clear. It is a free country. If Adolph Coors wants to use his Castle Rock Foundation to fund a group that attacks moderate and liberal United Methodists, it is his money. If Father Neuhaus wants to sit on a board that attempts to put the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society out of business even though he himself is Catholic and not Methodist, that is his business. (Although I suspect he might scream bloody murder if a Protestant agency were formed that called itself RC Action to advocate disbanding the Catholic Conference of Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.)

It is a free country, and anybody who wants to give his or her money to the IRD ought to be able to do so, and the IRD ought to be able to have anyone it wants on its board.

United Methodists, however, ought to recognize that something different from disagreements we have lived through in the past is going on here. This is something different from a family discussion, or even a family argument.

I am pleased that, unlike the earlier book United Methodism @ Risk: A Wake-Up Call published by the Information Project for United Methodists, the focus of Hard Ball is almost entirely on the IRD. I really believe the IRD is different.

I believe the discussion with the Good News Movement and the Confessing Movement is a family argument. These latter movements consist of United Methodists who love their denomination as much as I do, but who have a different theological understanding and vision. I was afraid Hard Ball, like @ Risk, would try to tar all conservative United Methodist organizations with the same brush.

There is only one article in Hard Ball that focuses on Good News. It is anecdotal and not substantive, and Good News is given the opportunity to respond, and does so at length. Still, this chapter would have better been left out of the book. The IRD and Good News are different kinds of organizations.

Good News and the Confessing Movement are efforts by United Methodists to influence their church. The IRD is an attempt to steer United Methodism, and other Protestant denominations, from the outside on behalf of a secular political agenda.

This is not illegal, but United Methodists ought to see it for what it is and not be influenced by it. Conservative United Methodist organizations, like Good News and the Confessing Movement, ought to distance themselves from the IRD. Publications ought not to quote the IRD without identifying the organization accurately. For the sake of clarity, whenever the press refers to the IRD or UM Action, it ought to mention that it is an organization attempting to influence the United Methodist Church's policies that is funded and run largely by non-United Methodists.

We can disagree with each other but, when an outside force tries to use us or manipulate us, we ought to stand together.

Zion's Herald has served the United Methodist Church well by publishing most of these articles and by collecting them into a book, but Zion's Herald also needs to be careful. Too much sensationalism (See "Did the IRD Endanger Missionaries?" Addendum# 1 of The Radical Right Assault on Mainline Protestantism and the National Council of Churches of Christ at ZH World.) will not help. Solid reporting and thoughtful articulation of sound opinions will.

I think few United Methodists want our denominational discussions to be manipulated by non-United Methodist organizations funded by outside foundations with self-interested agendas. If Zion's Herald just calmly keeps making this kind of information about the IRD clear, without exaggeration or hysterics, it will have served its church well.


Why Did Jesus Call God Father? --a sermon about inclusive language

Sermon preached June 12 at Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, DC

I’d like us to pretend we are Baptists or Plymouth Brethren this morning and actually get out our Bibles and look at the Scripture with our own eyes.

First, let’s turn to Mark 10: 28-30:

Mark 10:28 Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you."
29 Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,
30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life ...

Look at verse 29 closely. Notice the list of things that Jesus’ followers have left behind to follow him: House, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, fields.

Now, notice in verse 30 the list of things that Jesus’ followers will receive a hundredfold: Houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields.

What’s included in the first list that is absent from the second?

[Congregation says: Fathers!]

How odd. Was this a typo? Is there some significance to this?

Now, let’s turn to Matthew 23: 8-12.

Matt. 23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.
9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven.
10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.
11 The greatest among you will be your servant.
12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

“Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven.”

What a provocative statement! Read it again in the book with your own eyes. Could Jesus have really meant this?

I want us to think together this morning about the question: Why did Jesus call God “Father?” I want to suggest that if we pay close attention to the Gospels we may discover there is more going on when Jesus calls God “Father” than meets the eye at first glance.

It is my assumption that God transcends gender, although this discussion is so new that I suspect we still have a lot of thinking to do about the relationship between the divine and gender. Certainly it is my assumption that God is not one gender as opposed to another. The Book of Genesis is very clear that both female and male are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), so the divine either transcends or is inclusive of the genders, but is clearly not one as opposed to the other.

If God transcends gender, why did the Jesus of the Gospels so frequently –especially in the Gospels of Matthew and John—call God “Father?” Less so in Mark and Luke, but again and again in Matthew and John and fairly consistently in all four Gospels, Jesus normally and frequently addressed God as “Father” and encouraged his followers to do so as well. He taught his disciples to pray a prayer that begins “Our Father who art in heaven.” The word “Father” as a way of addressing God has dominated the liturgy, hymnology, and piety of the church.

For many Christians, their most essential image for God is “Father.” It is a very emotional thing for some of us, as you may discover if you try to mess with it.

Because the term “Father” is such a powerful part of the church’s prayer life and liturgy and hymnology, it is important we understand why the Jesus of the Gospels called God “Father.”

Of course, I can’t claim to read Jesus’ mind, but I think the Gospels themselves offer us some clues as to why Jesus called God “Father.”

Jesus lived a society and a culture that was male dominated. More than male dominated, it was male controlled with strong class and authoritarian structures. Women had some rights but very few. Poor people had very few rights. Slaves, workers, the diseased, the outcast, Gentiles, Samaritans were all mandated to be subservient to the authority of lords, rabbis, masters, owners, the “righteous,” the affluent and the powerful.

The name for this kind of culture is patriarchy – a word based on two Greek words, the word patria, meaning “father” and the word arche, meaning “rule.” The rule of the father.

The father was father of the family and therefore ruled the family. The priest was father of the congregation and therefore ruled the congregation. The teacher was father of the school and therefore ruled the school. The owner was father of the estate and therefore ruled over everyone on the estate. The governor was father of the colony and therefore ruled over the colony. The emperor was father of the empire and therefore ruled over the empire.

The entire authoritarian system that dominated government, commerce, religion, and the home in Jesus’ day was based on the principle of father-rule.

With Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Find a review of her book In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins here), I believe that Jesus’ emphasis on God as “Our Father who art in heaven” was a critique of father-rule. It was a way of offering an alternative vision of how people might live together.

“Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven.” This is as bold a challenge as anyone could ever make of a society based on father-rule:

Your Father in heaven
–the one who loves you and values and cherishes you,
--the one who includes you,
--the one who knows the number of hairs on your head,
--the one for whom the first shall be last and the last shall be first,
this Father is the only one you are to call father
the only one to whom you are to give your allegiance,
the only one who has authority over you,
the only one you must obey.

This teaching flies in the face of father-rule.

Schussler Fiorenza suggests that the absence of fathers from Jesus’ second list in Mark 10: 28-30 is more than accidental.

It was not that Jesus had anything against fathers per se, but he did have a problem with what fathers symbolized in a society based on father-rule.

Fathers as authoritarian figures – the guiding principle of an authoritarian system -- are absent from the new community that Jesus invites his disciples into.

In Jesus’ community, there is no father-rule, which means there is no male-rule, no teacher-rule, no priest-rule, no owner-rule, no governor-rule, no emperor-rule.

In Jesus’ community the first are last, the last are first, and everyone is sister and brother. It is a community of mutuality and equality. It is a community of sharing and love.

This is the significance of Jesus teaching us to pray “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” – thy name be hallowed, not the name of the Emperor, which was the name usually expected to be hallowed in the Roman Empire.

The priests and the political rulers, not usually friendly with each other, conspired together to kill Jesus because of this. This is why Jesus was crucified, because he threatened the patriarchial power of empire and religion. He challenged patriarchal systems of commerce (he turned over the tables of the money-changers), and patriarchal models of estate and household.

Jesus’ vision was, of course, all too soon subverted, even in the church. The very words and concepts Jesus used to challenge father-rule soon were subverted to legitimize it.

Instead of undertanding that calling God “our Father in heaven” challenges father-rule, this name for God came to be used to justify it. The new logic became: Because God is our Father, God must be more like the male and the male must be more like God.

So it was only a matter of time before we evolved, or devolved, from Jesus saying, “Call no one on earth your father,” to “Father” becoming the common honorific for clergy. Originally meeting as a community of equality and sharing in households --sometimes women headed households-- soon enough the church became an institution -- a male-dominated, authoritarian institution.

See: It is possible to repeat Jesus’ exact words and for them to serve a purpose contrary to Jesus’ purpose.

To this very day, the overwhelming majority of the world’s Christian churches do not allow women to be clergy. Well over half of the world’s Christians worship in churches where women are not permitted to be priests. The image of divinity is seen as so male oriented that these churches refuse to allow women to represent Christ at the altar to celebrate Holy Communion. They suppose it is impossible to see the presence of Christ in women or for women to stand in the place of Christ.

Even though we may understand that God is beyond gender, if the language, images and concepts we use for God are primarily male, this will reinforce male dominance and father-rule in church and society. We need to be attentive to this or we will use Jesus’ words to subvert his cause.

Yes. It is possible for us to repeat Jesus’ exact words and for them to serve a purpose contrary to Jesus’ purpose.

Snoopy is sitting atop his doghouse with his typewriter writing an article he has entitled: “Beauty Tips.” He manages to type out the first sentence, which says: “Always remember that beauty is only skin deep.”

As he sits looking at his first sentence he seems proud of himself, then his expression changes to one of puzzlement. He changes the sentence so that it now says: “Always remember that beauty is only fur deep.”

Soon, however, he is visited by his friend, the bird Woodstock, to whom he proudly shows his article. Woodstock reacts by squawking at Snoopy in bird language with much agitation. With an abashed look on his face, Snoopy changes the sentence again so it now says: “Always remember beauty is only feather deep.”

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott uses this Peanuts comic strip in her book The Divine Feminine: The Biblical Imagery of God as Female (reviewed here) as a reminder that language and concepts can include or exclude others, sometimes without us really thinking much about it. The way we think and the language we use to express ourselves can include or exclude whole masses of the world’s people. Language can empower and it can oppress.

I know trying to use inclusive language is sometimes uncomfortable –it is for me too—but I believe we can grow spiritually as a result of experimenting, by experimenting with language and concepts about God that do not elevate one gender over the other. Jesus called God “Our Father who art in heaven” to offer us an alternative to father-rule, an alternative to the rule of anyone over another, an alternative in which the first are last and the last are first, an alternative where the leader is servant of all and all are servants to one another, a community of sharing and love.

I don’t have a road map as to how to proceed to reform our language about God. I suspect sometimes we will do it awkwardly. Sometimes it will feel uncomfortable ... maybe even irritating. I hope we pay attention to those feelings, and ask ourselves why it feels uncomfortable or irritating?

If God transcends gender, and the names we call God are metaphoric rather than literal, why does it feel natural to call God “Father” and unsettling to call God “Mother” or “Mother/Father”?

I think this is another great journey God has for us. And I think the journey will be a blessing. I think we will learn aspects of God’s grace and beauty that we have missed before because of our own limited imaginations.

I think if we learn to think of God in broader imagery than the traditional male-biased language we tend to use, it will be good for our daughters and our sons, our nieces and our nephews. And it will be good for our own souls that need the opportunity to expand and grow in our relationship with the holy and divine. And it might even be good for God who maybe gets tired of being put into a gender box all the time.

Let’s experiment. Let’s stretch each other and ourselves a bit. Let’s be adventuresome.
God can handle it, and so can we. Let’s see if we can learn anything new about ourselves and about God.

Let’s do it or the sake of the children following in our footsteps ... for the sake of our own souls ... and for God’s sake.