Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church: Part 1

By the time we reach General Conference next year, our denomination will have been struggling with the issue of sexuality for 36 years! Yet, few in our Church seem to remember how this debate began in the first place.

In 1972, as the newly merged United Methodist Church re-shaped its Social Principles two gay clergy persons, Gene Leggett from Texas and Earnest Reaugh from upstate New York, submitted a resolution in support of gay and lesbian persons in the Church. Inspired by movements for equal rights of gay and lesbian people following the historic events at Stonewall in 1969, Leggett and Reaugh believed the Church ought to join this social justice movement that was erupting around the country. They understood the issue of gay and lesbian rights as part of the long legacy of social justice advocacy within the Methodist movement. Their original resolution read as follows:

"Homosexual persons, no less than heterosexual persons, are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured."

While the Atlanta 1972 General Conference included many progressive voices in support of this resolution including delegations of youth, young adults and seminary students, a small group of conservative leaders from the southeast and south central jurisdictions, frustrated by their failed attempts to block the creation of commissions addressing religion and race and the status and role of women, were able with the help of what Morris Floyd identifies as "parliamentary process 'errors'" to amend Leggett and Reaugh's resolution to include this last sentence...

"though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

This phrase now known throughout the Church as the "incompatibility clause" has become the very foundation of continued discrimination and exclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in the church. Since 1972 we have watched with sadness and disappointment as more and more barriers to full participation have been added upon this one clause; restricting funding for ministries with GLBT persons, prohibiting same-sex unions and marriages, barring faithful GLBT persons from ordained ministry, and even in recent years prohibiting faithful Christians who happen to be GLBT from joining the membership of the Church.

The day this clause passed Georgia Harkness, renowned Methodist theologian and scholar, held her head in her hands and lamented..."They know not what they do. It will take years to undo the damage they have done today."


NOTE: For more information on this early conference see the following resources:

Morris Floyd, "A Ministry and Movement of Reconciliation" in Open Hands (Vol. 15, No. 4) Spring 2000

Charles Keysor, "In the Aftermath of Atlanta." Good News, 1972 Summer: 38, 45.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Church Born Out of Diversity

Today we celebrate the birth of the Christian Church at Pentecost. The first 100 believers had gathered with thousands of other Jewish people to celebrate the festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem. The city was teeming not only with devout Jews from every nation, but also with thousands of others who lived, worked, and traveled to this urban center. Like any other metropolis Jerusalem was an ethnically, culturally and socially diverse city. People came from all over, speaking different languages, practicing different customs, wearing different clothes, worshipping different gods. And it is here, in this diverse, urban context that our Church was born.

Gathered there for what they assumed to be a routine celebration of the Jewish festival something extraordinary happened. The Scriptures tell us that suddenly there was a sound like the rush of a violent wind that came from the heavens, and there appeared divided tongues, as if of fire, flaming tongues that came and rested on each person, filling them with the Holy Spirit. As they were touched, each began to speak in other languages given to them by the Spirit. As onlookers gathered, they all heard the believers speaking in their own native tongue!

Can you imagine? Ecstatic jibberish flowing forth in a cacophony of sound, yet being understood as loud and clear as if spoken in one’s own native tongue! The crowds were amazed as they listened to the believers tell the of the power and deeds of God working in them and at the end of the day three thousand people from around the world, people of different nations, languages, ethnicities and cultures were so convicted by the words spoken by these believers that our Church was born!

What I find so amazing about this story of the birth of our Church is the miraculous way in which the believers were unified in and through their diversity. Through the power of the Holy Spirit people from different nations, classes, ethnicities, cultures, and languages were made one in Christ that day. The unity of the first Church did not come at the expense of, or despite, the diversity among believers, but in fact came in and through the celebration of these very differences. As people witnessed the power of God working in their lives, the Holy Spirit did not obliterate differences so that all could be understood, but rather She worked through the differences of language using diversity as a way to create unity. When each heard the strange tongues being spoken, they were not immediately translated into some sort of lingua franca for the Middle East. They were not all heard in Hebrew, or Greek or even Latin, not even King James’ English. No, the power of the Holy Spirit celebrated the differences of the people gathered that day by translating the language of God into a myriad of different native languages spoken by the variety of people gathered there that day. Unity was found in celebration of diversity!!

For United Methodists, particularly at this time in our history, unity is a loaded word. In recent times unity has been used as a weapon against those who seek to create change in the denomination. Some say that for the sake of unity, those who seek full inclusion in the Church ought to be silent. Don’t rock the boat, they say. If you just be quiet, we’ll let you come to church…maybe. Don’t be so flamboyant. Sometimes you have to know when to be quiet.

These appeals to a false unity at times can dowse the flames of our passion for the Church and for God. The holy breath of life with which the Spirit infuses us, can be sucked out of us in an instant as our fires of hope are dampened by this dangerous call to unity.

We must remember, however, that unity does not have to be gained at the expense of diversity, at the expense of the life of the Church. Historically, the mark of unity has been understood as a gift of the Spirit that brings together all the faithful who believe in God, revealed through Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit; exactly what happened so long ago at the birth of our church. Yet, over time, the mark of unity has been mistaken by many in the Church as uniformity. While unity implies the coming together of many into one that celebrates diversity, uniformity implies the coming together of many into a totalizing one that negates and destroys difference.

When I think of this type of uniformity I often recall a scene from a children’s fantasy novel, A Wrinkle in Time. The author Madeline L’Engle employs science fiction to talk about the problem of evil and the Christian response to it. In this book, two children are sent on a cosmic journey to battle the forces of evil. This quest sends them to a planet that has entirely surrendered to an evil power that threatens to destroy the universe. We might imagine a planet that has been consumed by evil to look radically different from our own….perhaps we might envision perpetual war and violence, death, pestilence and destruction. But that is not the vision L’Engle paints for us…no, evil looks very much like the contemporary world in which we live today…there are neighborhoods, children, families, a large city to which people travel to work every morning, fields and meadows, shopping centers and movie theaters….the only difference is that everything on this planet is exactly the same. As the two earth children wander through the streets they realize that each house on the street looks exactly the same. All the girls are skipping rope in time with each other as the boys bounce a ball in the exact same rhythm. Mothers call out the doors at exactly the same time and fathers walk in sync with each other to the center of the city to go to work. No one is allowed to question or to think independent of the One. It is quite an eerie depiction, one that haunted me as a child.

For L’Engle cosmic evil can be described as totalizing uniformity in which difference is negated and denied to the absolute suppression of the human and divine spirit. Sound familiar?

The Church has for ages fought with those tendencies to make everything uniform in the community of faith. Long battles have been waged over making sure people believed the exact same thing, worshipped in the exact same way, dressed the exact same way, spoke the same language, lived in the same type of families, sang the same songs and called God by the same name. We know those battles, the ones we read about in our history books and the ones through which we live in our own communities of faith. Uniformity has throughout the life of the Church tempted us toward an easy but false unity, sucking dry the life that the Holy Spirit poured upon us all at Pentecost.

For the GLBT community this drive toward uniformity has been particularly painful and oppressive. The scene from A Wrinkle in Time brilliantly illustrates the overt heterosexist values that characterize the evil planet. The girls jump rope, the boys bounce the ball, the mothers stay at home, the fathers work in the city….the face of evil we could say in other words might be compulsory heterosexuality. Be clear I am not saying that heterosexuals or heterosexuality is evil. Rather I am suggesting that the compulsion to enforce heterosexual gender norms may be part of the evil L’Engle described.

Uniform heterosexist gender norms are dangerous for us all regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity. Those of us who dare transgress gender norms have been ridiculed, excluded, abused, marginalized, oppressed, shamed, beaten and battered, put in concentration camps, even murdered. Why? Because we chose to stand outside of the social uniform of heterosexuality.

Just this week, we in the United Methodist Church watched the guardians of ecclesial uniformity swarm in response to the affirmation of Rev. Drew Phoenix’s ministry in the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference. Rev. Phoenix is a gifted and talented pastor who in the past five years has tripled the size of his small urban congregation. In the midst of a denomination that by all accounts is withering in the urban centers, one would imagine the Church would rejoice at such an extraordinarily gifted pastor. The problem however has nothing to do with Rev. Phoenix’s gifts and graces for ministry. The problem is simply because Rev. Drew Phoenix used to be Rev. Ann Gordon.

This transgression of heteronormative patterns of gender threatened for some in the Church the traditional roles for women and men, shaking the very foundation of social order in which women and men are assigned certain scripts for proper social behavior. These uniform gender roles do not enhance the unity of the Church, rather they suppress the divinely ordered diversity that gives life to our Church and world.

Uniformity is not unity. It never can be. While uniformity seeks to make us all alike by suppressing difference, unity celebrates our differences as we strive toward a common goal. The unity of the church is not found in a static set of beliefs, but rather in the dynamic process through which the church moves closer and closer to the mission of God, the vision of God, the reign of God, the kin-dom come, shalom, peace, justice.

Let’s go back to the text…remember the converts came to the faith, not solely because of some supernatural trick, but because of the message the believers conveyed through the tongues….remember, the text tells us that the believers were all speaking words about the power of God working in their lives…that’s what unified the church….it was the message of God’s power and action in the world, in the lives of people as peace and justice and love broke forth into their community. When we proclaim the power of God working in the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight persons, we work toward unifying the Church as one in mission to bring forth God’s vision of peace and justice.

Our diversity brings unity.

Unity is found in the process of embodying God’s reign in our lives so that others may see God working in us….that is where we are unified. Gustavo Gutierrez reminds us that unity is not a given condition within either church or world, rather “it is a process, the result of overcoming all that divides people.”

This celebration of difference in unity is the true mark of the church for it unleashes the powers of human creativity, ingenuity and imagination as powerful tools toward reaching God’s vision of peace and justice. As a people on the margins, as a people who have at some level or another rejected the myth of uniform or compulsory heterosexuality, the queer community has incredible resources for moving the church toward more fully becoming the church as it was created at Pentecost.

Judicial Council May Rule on Transgender Pastors

After affirming the ministry of transgender pastor, Rev. Drew Phoenix, Bishop Schol has been asked to rule on his eligibility for ordained ministry by the conservative, political caucus of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, UMAction.

Most likely, this case will find its way to the Judicial Council in time for its October meeting. Although there are no restrictions on the participation of transgender persons in the current Book of Discipline, this will not be an easy case. We remember that the Judicial Council in the past has ruled on issues not found in the Book of Discipline. Just two years ago the Council affirmed the right of a pastor to deny membership to a gay man without any solid legal grounding in the Book of Discipline.

Let us pray for Rev. Phoenix, for the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference, the Judicial Council and our Church in the days ahead.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Kudos to Bishop Schol and the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference

Kudos to Bishop Schol and the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference for supporting the ministry of Rev. Drew Phoenix this week during their annual conference session!

The Baltimore Washington session of annual conference affirmed Rev. Phoenix's call to ordained ministry after what he describes as a spiritual transformation during which he transitioned from female to male. As a commitment to Rev. Phoenix's ministry, Bishop Schol re-appointed him to the congregation he has faithfully pastored for five years; a congregation which has tripled in size under his leadership.

Over fifty years ago, women in the Church struggled to break the gender barrier that excluded them from the ranks of ordained ministry. In the midst of this movement, many called upon the practice and ministry of our founder, John Wesley, who blessed and encouraged women's leadership in the Church. For Wesley, the call to ministry was not restricted by gender or age or even class. Wesley was convinced that the marks of a true preacher, the marks of someone authentically called by God to serve the church were rooted in the fruits of their labor. It was on this basis that he not only permitted, but affirmed the leadership of women as preachers in the early Methodist movement.

As the Church considers the ministry of Rev. Phoenix, we ought to remember the marks of a faithful pastor as outlined by Wesley. We ought to be more concerned with the fruits of one's ministry than any social category or identity. Gender identity for Wesley then and for us now is no barrier to a call from God.

Rev. Phoenix is one of many, faithful transgender persons who is leading the way for the Church as we struggle to understand issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. The clear affirmation of Rev. Phoenix and his ministry is a hopeful step forward in the midst of what is often a painful and difficult denominational conversation on the nature of gender and sexuality.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Marriage, Divorce and Homosexuality

Rev. Donna Claycomb, a pastor in the DC area, recently posted her sermon, "Marriage, Divorce and Homosexuality." Well written, moving and finely argued, it is a sermon worth checking out.

To read the sermon, click here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Re-Structuring the Global Church

Last week a report was issued from a General Conference task force that would create a new central or regional conference in the United States. The interim report from the Global Nature of the Church Committee to General Conference proposes legislation that would extend the study time for this task force to 2012 at which point they envision a new structuring of the Church in which the United States becomes a central or regional conference.

While the proposal would not change the number, purpose and function of jurisdictional conferences; the way bishops are elected or assigned; the purpose or mission of any church wide agency; the size or power of General Conference; the way the Social Principles are decided upon or amended; or the apportionment formulas and allocations, it would strike all the references to central conferences as only outside of the US and replace the language of "central" conferences with "regional" conferences in order to move away from the racist past of central jurisdictions in the US. This would in essence allow the US to become its own regional conference.

These proposals stem from a desire to embody the denomination's theological commitment to being a global Church. The report notes the undue influence of the United States in church wide governance as evident in the Book of Resolutions, stating,"It disempowers central conferences from being fully actualized within the body and allows the church in the United States to escape responsibility from dealing with its internal issues." This imbalance in perspective threatens the Church's ability to be whole. The document goes on to say, "To be whole is to value all. Our structure must reflect this value and prompt us to ever-greater degrees of responsibility for reflecting God's reign in the church and the world."

Yet, while the intent behind the proposal is important, I am left to wonder how effective this structural change would be for the Church as a whole.

For those seeking a dismantling of colonial hierarchy, this proposal seems to do little to address the economic imbalance between the United States and other central or regional conferences. Although the US would in theory be equal to all others, in reality the US regional conference would still hold the purse strings to the bulk of wealth and resources within our global denomination. These changes seem to only create a balance in the Book of Resolutions, which while significant, is in reality rarely employed in the daily life of our denomination.

Likewise, for those seeking to contextualize Church polity, this proposal does nothing to address the differences in theology, culture and religious life among our global Church partners. The design of the General Conference would remain the same with power to change the Book of Discipline still in the hands of a diverse conference representing divergent social, theological and political realities.

I have heard many speak of this proposal as the solution to our current debate around sexuality. Some believe that if the US were to become its own regional conference, we like central conferences, could legislate our own Book of Discipline with more progressive understandings of sexuality. But this is simply not the case with this proposal as it currently stands. This proposal does nothing to alter the US Social Principles or the composition and functioning of the General Conference.

If our denomination is serious about contextualization and diversity in our Church, we must acknowledge that it is impossible to foster such a community through the imposition of a central, uniform set of social and theological values imposed on all regardless of their differences. We must listen to the voices of all and allow room at the table for a rainbow array of theological, social, cultural and political realities. By preserving one, uniform set of Social Principles, are we truly moving away from the colonial mindset of past missionaries or simply painting over the deep fissures to create a facade of unity?

As a global Church, we must create structures that facilitate the embodiment of our theological convictions. Yet, as we move toward a better and more equitable Church, we must be careful that the change we seek can truly be accomplished by administrative means.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Reaching Across the Table: King and Falwell Pass

Yesterday the news media was abuzz with reports of fundamentalist Jerry Falwell's death. Yet while the newshounds swarmed to cover the controversial life of Falwell, rehearsing all his most scandalous and hate-filled comments, a modern day saint passed.

This morning news of Yolanda King's death is slowing beginning to percolate under the frenzy that Falwell's death initiated. King passed yesterday evening at the age of 51.

I find it cosmically ironic that Falwell and King passed on the same day; two people whose lives could not be more diametrically opposed. While Falwell spent his life railing against all those deemed as threats to the gospel including the "pagans, abortionists, feminists, the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, [and the] People For the American Way," King dedicated her life to the movement for social justice. Just an infant when her home was firebombed and only 12 when her father was assassinated, King's life was forged in the crucible of the struggle for justice.

As I have been reading the obituaries for King, I am surprised at the sheer neglect of King's commitment to GLBT rights. She, like her mother, Coretta, vociferously supported the GLBT movement. In fact, in 2000 I had the privilege of being arrested with her at the United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland. That day, King rose to address the crowd of advocates gathered there. Facing Fred Phelps and his hate-filled signs, King said, "I am here to encourage tolerance and compassion." She told crowds that while she was there to foster change in the UMC, her hope was directed much wider, toward all denominations that they might become places of true welcome and authentic gospel love.

In 2006 speaking at the Out and Equal Workplace Summit, King said,

"In the 1950s and 60s, African-American men and women made some choices--often dangerous ones--and they were joined by men and women of goodwill, gay and straight, from all races and backgrounds, and together, tremendous progress was made toward the betterment of our nation.

The civil rights movement served as the inspiration and paved the way for all the movements for human rights which followed it--the women's movement, the peace movement, and, of course, the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.

We have come a long way. And while the scars and stains of racism remain, the fact is, racial discrimination is no longer legal. However, discrimination under the rule of law still exists. If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, you do not have the same rights as other Americans. You cannot marry. And while there has been some progress, thanks to the work this organization [Out & Equal Workplace Advocates] in the workplace, you still face discrimination in the workplace, and in our armed forces. For a nation that prides itself on liberty, justice and equality for all, this it totally unacceptable."

King's life stands as a witness to the world of Christian love in spite of the hateful rhetoric we see so often publicized in the media. Just this year at the MLK commemoration, King said this, "We must keep reaching across the table and, in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, feed each other."

I'd like to imagine King now, sitting with her father and mother, reaching across that heavenly table and offering Falwell a taste of grace.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Mother's Day Proclamation

Few people realize that the original Mother's Day was far from the card companies' crass commercialization of familial ties that we celebrate today. The first Mother's Day began with a proclamation written by Julia Ward Howe. Although most commonly remembered for penning the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," Ward Howe grew weary of the triumphalism of war and violence and in 1870 put out this rallying cry to women of the world:

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have breasts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Today women around the globe were called to a similar manifesto by a small group of women in Ohio. Inspired by the book, The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering by Sharon Mehdi, they put a YouTube call out to the women of the world, inviting them to join together in their quest for peace and justice by standing together at 1 PM in parks and public squares.

Won't you join them?

Standing as Witnesses to the Gospel

During the Easter season we have been exploring what resurrection means, not in death, but in life. We have asked what it means to practice resurrection and we have looked with hope for signs of this reality in the world around us. Yet, this is only the beginning. Inevitably, we like all other followers of Christ, must ask the same question, after the resurrection: What next? When Jesus ascends, as he will in the text for next week, what are we to do?

The Book of Acts gives us one answer: after resurrection we are called to tell the story of resurrection life to others. In the beginning the movement was shaped by a passion for communicating this exciting good news. Paul and the apostles told the story of Jesus and asked people to join the Jesus movement. There was no series of faith professions, or theological statements to which people had to adhere. There was no strict doctrine or polity or even Book of Discipline. Rather, the apostles simply asked folks to believe in this new vision of a kin-dom initiated by Jesus, empowered by the Spirit and made real through small house churches which were to embody the good news through their lives. With a focus on witnessing to the story, rather than creating a hegemonic religious cult, the Jesus movement was open to new possibilities, new ways of communicating this message and as such opened doors to leadership for those who might otherwise have been left aside.

This week in the lectionary, we read about just such a person, Lydia, the Church Mother of Macedonia. Her presence comes as a surprise to both the reader and to Paul, for it is not exactly what they imagined. Paul had set out for her homeland only after receiving a clear vision of a man who had cried out to Paul, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Surely all of them imagined they would meet such a man who needed their help.

Yet, upon arriving what they found was not a man, but a group of women, and women who didn’t need help, but rather offered help to the apostles. The text tells us that the women they met were worshippers of God. Among the women gathered there was Lydia, a merchant of fine purple cloth, a wealthy business woman, independent and successful. Listening to the apostles she was drawn to the message of this Christ and decided right then and there not only to be baptized herself, but to baptize her entire household.

Now, when we read household, we must not imagine the nuclear family structure of contemporary culture, but rather envision of network of various relationships, that could include extended family, friends, employees and even servants. Lydia is a matriarch, a leader of an entire household which may or may not include her biological children. A commentator in 1891 reminds readers that “There is no ground for the inference that she was even married, or had children.” I’m sure his agenda in pointing this out was different from ours, but nonetheless it points to the correct interpretation of household in this culture.

Upon her baptism Lydia offers the apostles a place to stay, food to eat and a place of privilege and power within the local community. Far from needing help, Lydia and the other women, proved to be capable disciples and apostles, bringing others to Christ and offering concrete material aid for the movement. These women were organizers, something the early church desperately needed!

We see in this story a tale of a great mother, not necessarily a mother of children, but rather of one who mothered a church into being in Macedonia, a church we know will grow and thrive over the ages. Lydia’s mothering of this nascent community of faith reveals to us not only what it means to evangelize, or to spread the gospel, but it also illustrates for us a glimpse of what it means to mother.

Walter Bruggemann points out three essential things about Lydia:

Lydia, like Jesus, had an open heart. When the apostles arrived she listened to the strangers in her midst. Unafraid of this queer band of religious zealots, Lydia took time to earnestly listen to what they had to say, not merely to be polite, or nice or a “good woman,” but so that she might truly understand the message. She listened with a heart and mind that was open and receptive to new possibilities.

Lydia, like Jesus, found that the rules of the age now had no power over her. She received, in her baptism, the freedom to be God’s child and to live by a new set of rules…those of Christ’s kin-dom. In baptizing her entire household, Lydia baptized them into a new way of living and loving that was independent of the world around her. She was no longer subject to Roman rule, but rather was free to embody Christ’s vision of peace and justice in her household and community.

Lydia, like Jesus, manifested through her actions the new commandment of love. Immediately following her baptism, Lydia took action, embodying the message through her concrete choices. We know of her initial act of love and generosity in offering hospitality to the motley crew of apostles, but we can also imagine that this love for the stranger extended beyond this first act, for we know that her church community continued to grow, welcoming new people from all classes and ethnicities to join her in this new life of love.

These three marks: open hearts and minds, freedom from the powers of the present age and a willingness and desire to love and welcome all, offer us a vision of what evangelism looks like, not just for Lydia but for the Church throughout the ages and for us here today. Spreading the good news of Christ’s kin-dom requires that we have hearts and minds open to not just to one another, but to the myriad of new possibilities God has for us in resurrection life. It requires that we say no to the powers and principalities of the age that would hinder our ability to witness to a gospel of radical inclusion, peace, justice and non-violence. And it requires that we embody Christ’s good news first and foremost as love.

Open hearts and minds, freedom from institutional powers and a desire to embody the gospel through love.

I think that these three characteristics also point to an alternative vision of what it means to mother in the kin-dom of God. Mothering in the kin-dom is not always like our cultural image of the super-mom reflected in society.

Today of all days we become acutely aware of the cultural expectations put upon women and their children. Sometimes we over sentimentalize Mother’s Day, envisioning the perfect woman, sweet, meek and mild, who passively cares for adorable brood. We imagine an uber June Cleaver and reify this image in sappy, sugary sweet Hallmark cards and boxes of candy. In doing so we create a false image of motherhood that can make many in our culture feel either guilty or cheated. When the realities of our ability to mother or our memories of less than perfect mothers fall short of this ideal, we find ourselves feeling disappointed and disillusioned. Yet, I think perhaps worse than this collective sense of cultural guilt and regret, this false image of mothering does a great disservice to those who mother by ignoring the ways in which their mothering is powerfully fierce.

When we look to Lydia as an example of mothering in the kin-dom we see motherhood in new ways. Mothering in the kin-dom transcends biological family ties. It is marked not by domestic perfection, but rather by open hearts and minds, a willingness to stand over and against cultural and political powers, and a radical expression of love for all.

This image of mothering seems contrary to many of the expectations and images of Mother’s Day in our own time, yet this seemingly radical image was the vision of the first Mother’s Day in 1870.

How many of you have sent Mother’s Days cards this week? Or planning to…? I wonder if any of your cards had phrases like “The sword of murder is not the balance of justice” or “Blood does not wipe out dishonor.” How about “From the bosom of the devastated Earth” or “let us bewail and commemorate the dead?”

I’m guessing not many of you were able to find cards like these at Hallmark. But, if we were celebrating Mother’s Day as it was first envisioned by Julia Ward Howe, our cards ought to bear similar sentiments.

Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation as an earnest appeal to women around the world to join in a movement for peace. A prominent American abolitionist, activist, suffragist and poet, most famous as the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Ward Howe intended the proclamation as a manifesto for a new rising up of women everywhere against the violence she witnessed during the Civil War. For Ward Howe, Mother’s Day, was not just a day to wine and dine your mothers, but an opportunity to unite women around the world in the struggle to end war and violence. This was no sappy, sugary sweet Hallmark holiday contrived to fuel the economy. No, this was a special day to be set aside for the pure promotion of peace.

This first Mother’s Day Proclamation embodied that same evangelistic spirit of the kin-dom we see in Lydia. Ward Howe’s vision for the women of world required having open hearts and minds, speaking truth to power, rejecting the culture of war and violence around them and most of all loving the world with a fierce passion.

In a time like today when thousands of people lose their lives in an unjust war in Iraq and Afghanistan; when the culture of war and violence infiltrates our lives to the point where in the name of fashion we dress our girls in pink camoflauge skirts and our boys in the desert camo of their parents; when we watch silently as genocide sweeps through Darfur and unjust political regimes oppress the people in Zimbabwe; when our holiest places become the sites of the most atrocious violations of human dignity; when we glorify war in the name of a patriotism that trumps even our God; in a time like today, we are called to stand with Julia Ward Howe and the women of the world to say no to the power of death and yes to the vision of the kin-dom we know in the gospel, in the lives of disciples like Lydia and in the vision of Ward Howe, of a world marked by peace.

One hundred thirty seven years later, Ward Howe’s proclamation has not been forgotten. Resurrected from card companies’ crass commercialization of domestic duty, Ward Howe’s vision has inspired a group of women to re-new this call to justice through their own manifesto known as the Standing Women.

"We are standing for the world's children and grandchildren, and for the seven generations beyond them. We dream of a world where all of our children have safe drinking water, clean air to breathe and enough food to eat. A world where they have access to a basic education to develop their minds and health care to nurture their growing bodies. A world where they have a warm, safe and loving place to call home. A world where they don't live in fear of violence -- in their home, in their neighborhood, in their school or in their world. This is the world of which we dream. This is the cause for which we stand."

Today women all over the globe stood for five minutes of silence in their neighborhoods, parks and public squares to say no to the injustice of the world and yes to a radical vision of peace and justice.

While we affirm the nurture and care we receive from our mothers and celebrate the ways in which we have received such unconditional love from friends and family who have mothered us, we also must acknowledge the role of women as leaders, as organizers, as activists who not only care for hearth and home, but lead the world to a new vision.

Mother’s Day is not only about celebrating our biological or adopted mothers. Mother’s Day points us to a new image of mothering that transcends traditional images, pointing us toward a radical image of mothering that is fierce, active, powerful and communal. Mothering, like true evangelism, is not an individual act, but rather a collective commitment to protecting and nurturing the whole world through acts of radical justice, open hearts and minds, opposition to institutional oppression and loving hospitality for the sake of the kin-dom. We mother one another into the family of faith when we cultivate lives of openness and love that challenge the places of violence and oppression in the world. Today we are called to stand with Lydia and Julia and the women of the world to witness to the good news of Christ’s kin-dom of peace and justice.

Let us stand together!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bishops Chose Silence Over Leadership on Homosexuality

This week Bishop Tuell, perhaps best known for his statement of repentance for his former homophobic stance in the Church, urged the Council of Bishops to break the silence over the issue of homosexuality. In response to a vote to table a recommendation to change the denomination's current stance on homosexuality Tuell urged the Bishops to confront the issue saying that, "leadership would be superior to prudent silence."

Tuell urged the Council to discuss the matter openly rather than retreat to silence. He understands that the denomination's incompatibility clause is "based on highly questionable theology and biblical understanding and causes profound hurt to thousands of loyal United Methodist members and potential members." Tuell went on to say the council is "somewhat immobilized these days on some of these issues that are really facing our church that are big issues" and hoped "we will find the ways more intentionally to be about the business of giving leadership in this area."

A council subcommittee had proposed replacing the "incompatibility clause" in the Book of Discipline (Par. 161G) with language that the church does not condone sexual relationships between people of heterosexual or homosexual orientation "outside the bonds of a faithful, loving and committed relationship between two persons; marriage, where legally possible."

Unfortunately, the proposal never made it out of the subcommittee. According to Bishop Robert Hayes of Oklahoma, advancing the recommendation on homosexuality would have "proven to be divisive and counterproductive to the unity that currently exists in the Council of Bishops and to the church today." He continued saying that the committee discussed the proposal at length, but did not act "because it would not have been for the betterment of the church at this time."

Bishop Hayes' appeal to "unity" reminds me of the same argument used by Latin American bishops in the 1970's in support of their silence on issues of poverty, violence and oppression. In response to liberation theologians who appealed to the bishops of Latin America to take a stand against the injustice of life for the poor in the region, the bishops said it was impossible to speak out on the side of the poor, for doing so would threaten the unity of the church and alienate the rich. Instead, they opted to watch as thousands starved, were disappeared, died of curable illnesses, and worked under inhumane conditions...all for the sake of unity.

Juan Luis Segundo in describing this period of history says that the silence of the bishops of Latin America made them complicit in the injustice themselves. In deciding not to choose sides, the bishops of Latin America stood on the side of the wealthy and elite. In not speaking out, they stood on the side of the status quo and since the status quo was oppressive, that meant standing on the side of injustice.

James Cone likewise points out the danger of idolizing unity. He asserts that the internal unity of a Christian church can only be attained or maintained by minimizing and playing down the radical historical oppositions that divide its members. In other words, one must pass over in silence such matters as ethnicity, class, status, gender, ideology, economic status, and even sexuality. In short, Cone claims the Church must pay a high price for unity. It must say that the issues of suffering, exclusion, violence and injustice are less critical and decisive than religious polity, formulas and rites.

Is this the price we want to pay as United Methodists?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Holy Conferencing or Holy Chaos

Last week the Commission on General Conference proposed significant changes to the form of our United Methodist General Conference (GC), the international body of delegates that meets every four years to re-form our polity, theological commitments and order as articulated in the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. The Commission proposed three new changes to GC in an attempt to make the assembly more efficient, streamlined and functional including, decreasing delegation size, allowing for term limitation for delegates and restricting individual petitions that come from outside official church bodies.

The General Conference is our contemporary form of an age old tradition in the Methodist movement of "Holy Conferencing." John Wesley, our church's founder, instituted this tradition when the Methodist movement began to grow in England as a way to create unity in the emerging connection, to address questions of theology, polity and order and to set aside space and time to intentionally discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. The very first conference was held in 1744 with five sympathetic clergy and four invited lay persons.

From the outset the conferences were not concerned with orthodoxy or doctrine, but rather exploring the problematic aspects of their particular theology of salvation and refining the organizational structures of the movement to more effectively communicate their evangelical message to the nation. For Wesley, holy conferencing meant having honest and open dialogue about the nature of the Methodist movement that invited the presence of the Holy Spirit into the conversation so as to guide and instruct the group in their discernment and decision making. While there was an implicit understanding that Wesley would be guided by a clearly expressed majority of the conference, he refused to institute a straightforward government by the majority. Holy conferencing was not a democratic process for Wesley, but rather a holy time of discerning the will of the Spirit and surely the Spirit cannot be held down by votes.

This tradition has over time devolved into what I fear Wesley never intended. The nature and design of our modern day General Conference has reduced holy conferencing from a sacred time of spiritual discernment to a democratic functional process where the will of the Holy Spirit is determined by a count of votes with the majority ruling, no matter how slim that majority might be.

In fact, the Holy Spirit actually lost a vote in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference several years back. A motion was raised to "be open to the Holy Spirit" on the issue of homosexuality. There was no position taken one way or the other on the issue. There was no attempt to change the statements in the Book of Discipline. The motion simply asked annual conference delegates to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. One would imagine this would be an easy vote. But the Holy Spirit lost that day. The vote wasn't even close. Conferencing is no longer about discerning the will of the is about enforcing ideologically rigid positions regardless of the movement of the Spirit in our midst.

The reforms proposed by the Commission on the General Conference may be a way for us to begin to reform our polity and renew our Church by (re)discovering Wesleyan practices. The proposed reduction in delegation size is one way to de-politicize the voting process. Currently, each annual conference is allotted a particular number of delegates based on a complicated calculation of the number of United Methodists in each annual conference. This means that while some annual conferences have only 2 delegates to General Conference, others can have upwards of 30 delegates. The current system creates an imbalance where certain geographical areas have undue influence over the polity and theological commitments of our denomination.

The new proposal would limit all annual conferences to 2 or 4 delegates. In doing so, not only would this change create a more manageable body in which real holy conferencing could be done once again with careful discernment by all, but also it would institute a polity of inclusion and equality for all our annual conferences. No more would our denomination be at the will of certain geographical areas.

The question we as United Methodists must ask ourselves is whether we want holy conferencing or holy chaos? The choice will be up to us.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

CWM Has Joined the Metho-blogosphere

Religion Is a Queer Thing has joined the Metho-blogospehere, an internet community of Methodist bloggers.

You can read our blog profile at Locusts and Honey and connect to the greater community here.

NOTE: Check back for the blogroll link...I'll put it up just as soon as I figure out how!

More Good Music

After discovering Susan Werner (a few posts back), I went on to find another good sacred gem...Mary Chapin Carpentar's album, The Calling.

Today in service we'll be listening to "Why Shouldn't We?"

Why shouldn't you too? You can find it over here.

Bring Forth the Kin-dom of God

The lectionary reading this week from Revelations describes a fantastical image of what it will be like when God’s new creation is fully realized on earth. The author describes a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. The holy city of Jerusalem descends adorned as if for a great celebration; death and mourning, crying and pain will be no more. God will dwell among creation and all things will be made new.

This utopic vision of a future without sorrow or suffering, a future when God and creation will be one, is the same vision that Jesus witnesses to throughout the gospels. It is a vision of a time of peace and justice, love and mercy, a time when all the “should-s” and “ought-s” we hear described in our faith stories are made real. There is no more discrimination, no inequality. There is no more vengeance or violence, no hunger, or poverty, or hate. It is a time when the fullness of God’s desires for the world are fulfilled and all, creature and Creator alike, dwell in peace everlasting.

This vision is often referred to in scripture as the "Kingdom of God. " Yet, this naming of God's vision of peace and justice as a "kingdom" is not without problems. Our Christian tradition having grown up in a feudal and hierarchical system appropriated the images and notions of their secular world in an attempt to describe their relationship with the Divine…just like we do today. The images of "king" and "kingdom" were familiar for they matched the very system under which many of our faith ancestors lived. However, the problem is that these images of kingship and lordship no longer match our understanding of God’s relationship with the world.

All relationships change…even our relationship with God. I believe that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work trying to teach us new things about God, the world, and ourselves. As we learn, we gradually come to understand that sometimes old ways of thinking are no longer appropriate to describe the present reality.

There are two reasons for not using the regular word employed by English bibles, “kingdom.” First, in suggesting the image of king for the Divine it presumes that God’s gender is male and male exclusively. But if as scriptures tell us we are all, male and female alike, made in God’s image, the vision of God as male becomes extremely problematic.

Second, the concept of kingdom in our world today is both hierarchical and elitist – as is also the word “reign.” The very words themselves become hindrances to communicating the vision God has for the world. We stumble over images that reinforce a hierarchy in the midst of a vision that calls for the destruction of all such forms of inequality and injustice. It becomes difficult, doesn’t it?

Ada Maria Isasi Diaz, a mujerista theologian, coined the term "kin-dom" as a way of re-appropriating or re-naming God's vision for the world that better communicates the nature of that future. The word "kin-dom" makes clear that when the fullness of God becomes a day-to-day reality, we will all be sisters and brothers - kin to each other.We will indeed be the family of God, dwelling together in the "kin-dom."

* For more on Isasi Diaz's notion of the "kin-dom" see her book, Mujerista Theology (Orbis Books, 2001).

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Making All Things New

Having grown up in the midwest I miss the sunny, warm days that gradually bring to blossom the fruit tress, tulips, and daffodils day by day. I miss the months of new birth that dispel the cold winter winds with a gentle breeze and calmly coax the tiny buds to open. I miss the flowering trees that paint the landscape for weeks (not days) on end and the fresh smell of new grass wafting through the air.

New England springs are quite different. They come suddenly and often without warning. Even before the cold winds leave for the season, there is a burst of color. Flowers explode open and then quickly fall away to make room for the green that replaces it on all the branches. The breeze is not gentle or warm, like in the southlands, but it does the trick, and in one seeming rush of new life, the landscape changes from brown to green in an instant. Some years you can miss it altogether if you are not paying attention.

But not this year. It seems this year New England has spring of its own...of sorts. For the past few weeks our days have vacillated between quenching rains and sunny days, creating the perfect conditions for a gradual spring. True, some trees could just not help themselves and have burst open in flower only to fall empty waiting for the green. But not so, with others. Each day as I walk the dogs through our neighborhood it seems the green becomes ever so slightly more intense, more pervasive. I have become entranced with this gradual greening of the land. I look for it everywhere. Each morning I check the progress of our seedling grass and watch with wonder for the first sprouts of our potted herbs. I watch as if in slow motion as the barren beds of our garden come to life with a brilliant kaleidoscopic green that washes over the dull brown of winter mud. The changes come slowly, almost imperceptibly, yet the pace is steady and sure.

I think that this gradual greening is like what our Scriptures describe as "making all things new." In the lectionary reading from Revelations this week God calls out, "See, I am making all things new!" The vision comes in the midst of bringing forth the new creation. Images of a new heaven and new earth adorned as if for a great celebration usher in a fantastical utopia where God dwells among the people, where death and mourning, crying and pain are no more. A literal reading of this text would lead us to believe this making all things new happens in an instant, as if the heavens open and God descended from clouds on high. I suppose this is where some in our Christian community derive the vision of the rapture in which Christ suddenly descends upon the earth to judge the quick and the dead.

Yet, Revelations was not written as literal prophecy. As apocalyptic literature, the authors of Revelation intended it as metaphor. The text becomes richer, more meaningful when we shed the shackles of literalism and begin to read with eyes of faith through the deep layers of meaning and metaphor.

I wonder if this divine "making all things new" is not so much like the sudden rush of a typical New England spring, but rather like the gradual greening of spring that happens slowly, almost imperceptibly, yet with a steady and sure pace. While we all yearn for the day when death and mourning will be no more, we understand that it does not come all at once, but rather bubbles up into our lives over time; sometimes so gently that we do not even sense the change occurring within ourselves until one day we find ourselves in a different place. I suppose it is much like the process of grieving: The pain which we imagine will never end, slowly, gently releases us and we awake one day to find ourselves a little closer to being whole again.

See, God is making all things new...just in time. Like the gradual greening that is happening now, so also is the Divine working among us to coax our spirits to blossom and bring the bud of peace and justice to flower in the world.

“What greater praise can I give you than to call you green? Green, rooted in light, shining like the sun that pours riches on the wheeling earth; incomprehensible green, divinely mysterious green, comforting arms of divine green protecting us in their powerful circle. And yet, you are more than even the noblest green, for you glow red as breaking dawn, you shine white as the incandescent sun. Splendid One, none of our physical senses can explain or comprehend you.”

Hildegarde of Bingen