God is Love

I asked a friend, Rev. Lisa Blackmonson of Broad Street UMC in Portsmouth, VA, if she would allow me to post the sermon she preached earlier today as a blog entry today, and she graciously agreed that I could publish it here. Thanks, Lisa, for your witness and for this word – and for being my first ever guest blogger!  I will be giving Lisa the last word on this blog about General Conference – at least for awhile!
I would encourage you all to read her texts for the sermon, since sermons are expositions of a particular text or texts.  The links here will take you to 1 John 4:7-21 (which also was the text I had in mind when writing a recent post on General Conference) and John 15:1-8.

Every four years the United Methodist Church holds a gathering of its top legislative body called General Conference.  This is a General Conference Year and the conference, this year held in Tampa Florida from April 24 until May 4, has just ended.  General Conference is a gathering of over 900 elected clergy and lay delegates from around the world, including Africa, Asia and Europe. General Conference is the only entity that speaks for the 12.1 million member United Methodist Church.

Over 4,000 people serve in a variety of roles such as greeters, registration officials, marshals, pages, translators, hosts, guides, drivers, musicians, technicians, reporters and emergency responders…the majority of whom are volunteers.

During the 11 day session, the 988 delegates revise the Book of Discipline, which regulates the manner in which local churches, annual conferences and general agencies are organized.  The book includes policies regarding church membership, ordination, administration, property and judicial procedures.  Delegates also revise the Book of Resolutions, a volume of more than 300 statements, declaring the church’s stance on a variety of social justice issues.

In addition the assembly approves plans and budgets for churchwide programs for the next four years and elects members of the Judicial Council and University Senate.

All of this may or may not be a big deal to you…As I look ahead to June and my taking lifelong vows of membership as a Clergy person in the United Methodist Church it is a really big deal to me.

Much that happened these past two weeks at General Conference directly affects me… and inevitably all local United Methodist Churches.  I won’t get in to all of that right now…but suffice it to say it has been a roller coaster week of emotions for me and for my Colleagues as we tuned in to the General Conference via Live Internet Video Feed.

Curiously what has affected me most has not been the vote to do away with Guaranteed Appointments, nor the vote to restructure the entire denomination shifting power structures and agendas like the faultlines in our denominational foundation…no, what has affected me is the ways in which change has been made.

Few people like change.  It makes us move, and we are quite comfortable in the places we have settled…but it isn’t the change itself that has spoken to my heart this week…it is the ways in which Christian brothers and sisters have engaged in conversations with one another as change was made.

Through live video feed I, and all who cared to tune in, witnessed the United Methodist Church engage in both amazingly beautiful, loving and Holy Conferencing and ugly, hateful, very Unholy conferencing.

Alas the church, even at it’s best falls short of God’s example of perfect love…and at our worst…well I’d rather not relive it.

But there is good news…For our hope does not lie with the United Methodist Church: though we engage in community and service to Christ through the United Methodist Church, no denomination of Christ’s body, the church, has a full claim to the whole of Christ!   Our hope does not lie in any one institution or organization or even local church…no our hope is in Christ Jesus who is indeed present with us as we gather to worship and conference…Christ Jesus who tells us that if we abide in him, if we seek to live in relationship with him, then He will in fact live in and through us as well.

Christ Jesus who says that if we live in relationship with him, he will teach us not only to love our brothers and sisters, but even how to love our enemies.  Christ Jesus who is building the Kingdom of God in our midst as we learn to love perfectly, but even as we love imperfectly.

As I studied the passage from 1 John I kept coming back to the question…how do we love?  What does it look like when we love as God loves?  And as I considered and prayed about this I remembered the famous love chapter…1 Corinthians 13

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”

This is what it looks like when we love even our enemies.

The author of 1 John tells us “God is Love”…curious he didn’t tell us what God is not…but we tend to think like that…we look at things in terms of the negative…or the negate-tive…we look at things and people in terms of what they are not…

Ronald Cole Turner wrote, “In our insecurity and longing for protection, we often yearn for a God who can control nature and prevent sickness or violence, a God who will protect us from all harm.  In a world of moral confusion, we wish for a God who lays down the law with complete clarity and holds everyone accountable, catching the cheaters and rewarding the faithful.  In our hunger to possess, we might even imagine a God of prosperity, one who promises to make us rich if we obey a few principles.

Whatever may be true about God’s power or moral order or generosity, the author of 1 John avoids all of these descriptions in favor of the simple word agape…or LOVE.  It is not power or law or prosperity, but self-sacrificing love that is the heart of the truth about God.  God has acted in love, sending Jesus Christ to overcome the destructive and divisive power of sin.  God has defined God, and God’s chosen self-definition is love.  We don’t have to wonder what God is like…God has shown us in Jesus Christ.

God is patient, kind, not envious, boastful or proud.  God does not dishonor others, God is not self-seeking, nor easily angered.  God keeps no record of wrongs.  God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.God never fails.

If we abide (stay close) to God then God will perfect us in love.  This doesn’t mean we will be made perfect…but God’s perfect love will be seen in us.  Which leads me to an important point.  To abide means to stay or live there…to dwell with.  It is a discipline to live in love…to abide with God..this is why we call it “practicing faith…or practicing religion”  we must continue to work at it.  All relationships are hard work and this is what the scripture  is getting at when it says…

“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Love is contrary to our insecurities…what comes naturally to our insecurities is fear…We are fearful as we dwell in sin…as we choose to abide with distance between ourselves and God fear stages a wedge between us and God and us and each other too.  This is what the scripture means when, in encouraging us to abide, dwell with God…and it says 

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

As I meditated on our scriptures, and as I watched in prayerful discernment of all I was witnessing on the live stream video of General Conference, I was troubled by what to me seemed a great chasm that was building between my understanding of the scriptures and what I witnessed on my computer screen.

I was awakened very early one morning, and as I awoke I believe that God gave me a vision, perhaps to comfort me…perhaps to comfort others…with some sense of fear, but with boldness of faith I would like to share with you my experience.

As I awoke from sleep I saw a thin veil blowing and moving, it seemed it was daylight on the other side, though I could not tell for sure.  It was as long and as tall as I could see.  I stood in the night, but did not feel afraid, more at peace and then I heard these words:

“The veil is thin now.  The world is battered, bruised, burning, but not destroyed or forsaken – what is coming is not death, not retribution, but peace and salvation.  It is in fact already here – peace is upon us- salvation is here- but we place our faith in our own power- we rely on our battered histories our bruised and wounded lives and relationships…The veil is thin and we are panicked because we think that punishment lies on the other side – we see darkness where there is light and love, mercy and grace and from our fear we create more darkness which blinds us – the temple curtain was torn in two- into….The angels continuously remind us “Be not afraid” Jesus said “Peace be with you, my peace I leave with you” …peace not like the world gives….The veil is thin now- be not afraid!  Salvation, love, mercy and grace lay just a breath away – Do Not Fear- the veil is thin- Listen to the Ruach…it breathes through the veil- feel it wash over all that is, was and is to come/ Peace Be Still!”

Friends,  God is not finished with us yet.  We and this world is God’s masterpiece in progress.  Thomas A’Kempis said we should seek to be “imitators of Christ”…Jesus tells us in John 15 “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

This doesn’t mean that in our selfishness or even in our retributive prayers we might ask for personal prosperity, or plagues upon those who offend us…but the closer we draw to Christ the more our minds will be of the things that are precious to Christ and therefore the things we will ask will be things of love and building up the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  It isn’t about changing others…it is in fact about changing each of us, one by one into the image of Christ.

I leave you with this clip from the movie “Hook”, a rendition of the Peter Pan story…Robin Williams plays the now Grown up and married with children Peter Pan who has returned to Neverland…but the lost boys do not recognize him because he has changed so much…so they do not trust him they will not stand by him…to battle the evil Captain Hook.

Our world is locked in fear…our church our world even our very selves may at times be eaten up with fear…but the love of Christ can heal even the most fearfully broken heart and soul.  This is why we must seek to see Christ’s face in everyone…even our enemies.  For we have all been created in the image of God…sometimes it takes time for God’s chiseling work to reveal God’s image underneath all that we have masked and plastered on ourselves and each other…But if we search the Christ in me…can greet the Christ in thee…and we can say to each other…”Oh…there you are Jesus!”

Invisible Methodist

Earlier this week, I took my daughter with me to vote.  She likes to feel part of the process, and her fine motor control has finally reached the point where she was able to sit on my lap and fill in the bubbles on the ballot for me this year!  There were so many ovals for her to fill in – but the one I was especially concerned about was the lone item on the back of the ballot:  Amendment One – in which an attempt is being made to write discrimination into the NC Constitution.  It is already illegal for gays and lesbians to marry in North Carolina, so the amendment is at best unnecessary.  But it could also take away protections that already exist for same-gendered and mixed-gendered couples alike – things like health care coverage, domestic violence protections, and the ability to visit each other in the hospital – the reach of the amendment could be devastating to so many people.  But even were the amendment narrowly drawn, I would have voted against it.  It seems wrong for discrimination to be written into a constitution – a document that is intended to set forth what is most essential to the governing of our state.  Is only protecting legally married hetero couples under the law what is most essential to the governing of our state?

So my daughter colored in the oval I indicated next to the word “Against,” hopped off my lap with ballot in hand, and stood on tiptoes to feed it into the machine that counts and secures the ballots.  She was given a sticker in return.  “Why does my sticker say ‘future voter’, Mommy?” she asked.  And I replied, “Because one day, when you are older, when you are 18 years old, you will get to choose for yourself which ovals to color in.”  I buckled her into her booster seat, and soon we were driving away in the sunshine with our windows down, blasting Casting Crowns’ rendition of “Joyful, Joyful” (or, as my daughter calls it, “the song from your wedding, when you and Daddy walked down the aisle together at the end.”)  It seemed like a perfect afternoon, and a perfect way to celebrate our vote, thinking about weddings and love and God, singing, “God our Father, Christ our Brother, all who live in love are thine – teach us how to love each other…”

I know it is a close call in North Carolina.  We may live in a city where almost every sign urges us to “Vote AGAINST!” – but when taking the whole state into account, the polls still show Amendment One passing by a margin of 2-3%.  It is because of how close it will be that I wanted to be sure that nothing kept me from the polls this Spring.  I always make an effort to vote, but I am usually not so precautionary – but this Spring, I am oscillating between hopefulness and concern about what will be the decision in this somewhat conservative state.  So even though our official election day isn’t until this coming Tuesday, I took advantage of early voting, so that I could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that my vote had already been cast.  That day, singing in the car with my daughter, hope welled in me – perhaps we would dodge this bullet – perhaps North Carolina would not be the latest in a series of states to make the national news for passing such a hurtful law.  I was so filled with the assurance of God’s love for every person that the passage of Amendment One began to seem implausible.

And then I started tuning in to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Quite the bubble-burster.

For decades, the United Methodist Church has had discrimination against gays and lesbians written into its book of law – the Book of Discipline.  “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching..,” “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained, same-sex unions may not be celebrated by a United Methodist pastor (lest he or she be stripped of his/her clergy status.)  Until recently, at least gay and lesbian Christians were not barred from church membership, but a couple of years ago, a judicial council decision left the door open for individual pastors to refuse membership on the basis of sexual orientation.

Every four years, there is a battle about this at General Conference.  And every four years, the language either remains unchanged, or becomes even more restrictive.

But this year, there was a ray of hope.  A few visionary individuals recognized that an up or down vote – us vs. them – was not the way forward.  (Props are due to James Howell, Mike Slaughter, and Adam Hamilton.)  In order for reconciliation to take place on this issue, we first had to name that we are divided.  And so a resolution was put forward to simply acknowledge that people within our church disagree on this issue.

There were a lot of concessions to the majority in there – it named, first, that belief that homosexuality is wrong is the majority opinion.  It also didn’t change any policies – it was not an “agree to disagree” resolution, which might allow both parties to operate as their conscience directed.  Pastors still would not allowed to perform same-sex unions, no matter what their feelings on the matter.  Pastors still would be subject to being defrocked if they were found “guilty” of being “self-avowed, practicing homosexual[s],” no matter how gifted they were.  The resolution simply described the situation on the ground: the majority believes x, the minority believes y.  Both groups base their conclusions on their reading of the scriptures.  Both groups are made up of faithful United Methodist Christians.

I could not bring myself to watch.  I felt sure that even such a reasonable resolution would not pass.  But oh, how I longed to be wrong about that.  Sadly, I wasn’t.  The resolution was defeated.  The Social Principles of the UMC would not name that good Christians can disagree on the matter of homosexuality.  Instead, once again, it would simply name homosexuality as sinful.

What was most hurtful about this decision?  A vote against this resolution was a vote against the assertion that a person can be a Christian and believe that gay and lesbian relationships are not condemned by God, but may even be blessed by God.  Those who voted against were saying, to put it egocentrically, that I am not a Christian, that I do not base my thinking on the scriptures, that I do not belong in the United Methodist Church.  Further, they were saying that the vast majority of United Methodist pastors in the United States are not Christian, do not base their thinking on the scriptures, do not belong in the United Methodist Church.  The vote rendered myself, most people my age or younger in the church in the U.S., and most pastors in the church in the U.S. invisible.  The vote made it possible for the New York Times to report that the United Methodist Church had once again condemned homosexuality – when, in fact, large swaths of our church do not feel that way at all.

And so, while I was not in the least bit surprised by the outcome of Thursday’s plenary session (I am from Generation X, after all – we were born jaded,) I was nonetheless further alienated by the decision than I had anticipated.

Yesterday, I turned my attention away from General Conference in order to attend the funeral of a friend from seminary.  He was a pastor of a local Baptist congregation, active in the area Baptist association, an instructor at a college in Raleigh.  I remember that my father used to say that he tried to avoid Baptist funerals, because they went long – “every preacher there thinks he has to stand up and give a eulogy,” he would complain.  And I sure enough heard 4 eulogies yesterday.  But if Woody Guthrie’s line, “I ain’t got a home in this world anymore” was echoing in my head after the vote on Thursday afternoon, it took three eulogies and three choir specials to get my head in the right place to hear the word in the fourth eulogy that I most needed to hear, “… I’m going to make Heaven my home.”

One day, we will all be drawn to God, and so all be drawn close to one another, and every one of our tears will be wiped away.  But until that day, when I am feeling homesick, I can taste homecoming in my interactions with the friends who recognize in me a fellow lover of God and of the scriptures and of God’s work in the world – even when we disagree on what that might look like.

I’m pretty sure my friend and I did not agree on what role gays might have in the church – but I know that I was not invisible when I was with him.  We were real to one another, and respected one another as people of deep and thoughtful faith.

It is a lonely thing, being invisible – no matter what the reason.  To love someone well, we must first see them, name them, acknowledge all the contours of their existence.  And what is the church called to do, if not to love, and love well?

“Leadery Leaders” – Wherefore art thou pastor revisted

This past fall, I published this article on the blog as a “page” before I understood what those were for! So now I am moving it to a post.  The article is itself a revision of an earlier blog post – revised for The Morning Breaks, The Shadows Flee, edited by Russell Johnson and Kara Slade – a playful festschrift for Amy Laura Hall, presented to her on October 7, 2011.  The title “Leadery leaders” is an expression frequently used by Dr. Hall in her Ethics class.

The Pastor Dilemma:  How are United Methodist pastors to lead without becoming “leadery leaders”?

 What is a pastor?  What is a pastor for?  Who should or should not be a pastor? What should a pastor do?  When I was a seminary student, these questions were asked by the students, but almost never examined in the classroom.  For the most part, it was assumed that the answers to these questions were known – that, beyond being able to recite the definitions of the Discipline when before the board of ordained ministry, no further existential explorations along the lines of “Wherefore art thou pastor?” were required.

I imagine that things are not all that different now.  Which may in part explain one critical difference between the students now at Duke Divinity and those who were students with me ten years ago:  after generations of no explicit answers, today’s students are less and less feeling called to a position they cannot describe, explain, or (in some cases) even justify.

But I am not ready to do away with the position of pastor just yet.  What I would like to do is re-imagine it.  As one who feels called to the Order of Elder – an order in the UMC that is different from Deacon not only in the relation to the sacraments, but in being responsible for “Order”ing the church, it is about time we thought about re-ordering the Order.

As Bob Dylan sang, “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”  And true to the Fall-driven disorder of the world, a lack of theologically sound direction in what pastors are to be has led the pastors to find their direction elsewhere – they gotta follow somebody.  And who pastors are following are the authors of various books that purport to solve whatever leadership problem they are having – books of dubious theology, rooted in the dominant language and narratives of our national faith in such contradictory (and elusive) ideals as freedom, power, rights, and the market.  Marketing is particularly enjoying ascendancy now, as anxieties about dwindling membership have burst into full bloom.  (Let us not say “taken root,” as these fears took root some decades ago.  It is only now that they are leading to full scale dashboarding and boards of inquisition in the various conferences.)

My father used to often describe his role as “the CEO” of the congregation.  He’s not the only one.  Whether they speak these words aloud, or even recognize that they see themselves this way, many pastors behave as the chief executive or their corporation.  They take their ideas about leadership from the post-Reagan business world – which means that their purpose (and aren’t we enculturated to desire a “Purpose Driven Life?” Even those of us who sneered at the book and its readers?) is to come up with new and exciting ways to re-invigorate the brand, and so bring in new customers.  To be a CEO is to lead the company (the pyramidical, top-down, power driven company) into a future of decreased costs and increased revenues.  But this future had best be a near-future, because the analysts will be closely examining your quarterly results – that is, Charge Conference reports.

But perhaps with a new model, consciously explored and adopted, pastors would find themselves with a more God-centered life – which is to say, a less market driven life.  The model I propose is the model of the anchorite, a religious order that is most familiar to seminary students through the life of Julian of Norwich, who was herself an anchorite.

Anchorites lived a monastic life.  But rather than living that life in a monastery or in some remote location, the anchorite’s cell shared at least one wall with a church sanctuary.  The anchorite’s life was one of worship, eucharist, and prayer – of total devotion to God.  They were provided for by the congregation with which they were associated.  They were available to the members of the congregation (and other visitors) to provide counsel – counsel that was understood to arise from the time they spent in communion with God.

Now granted, anchorites did not lead worship, so that is one key difference.  But I am not suggesting that pastors become anchorites – only that they consider it as a model / metaphor for the pastor’s life.  Shall we imagine that the congregation pays the pastor to be a CEO?  To give them a next quarter better than last quarter – on the books, anyway?  Or shall we imagine that they provide for the pastor’s needs in order that she may devote her time to the service of God, and that her doing so will benefit the members of the congregation (to which you are “attached,” as the cell of an anchorite was attached to the church wall) considerably – especially insofar as they seek her out?

The words of Paul are particularly instructive here:  “Am I now seeking the favor of God?  Or am I trying to please men?  If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.”  Indeed, pastors spend all too much time trying to please (mostly) men in positions of “power” – the men who judge one’s ministry, whether on the Cabinet, on the SPRC, or in absurd Annual Conference proposals that adopt the standard of the number of “professions of faith” as the sole measure of the worth of a pastor.  As if Satan himself cannot recite scripture when it appears expedient.  The time has come for pastors to stop fearing men, and to fear God alone – because the way of serving the whims of men (you gotta serve somebody) puts us body and soul into a living hell.

But if pastors are to fear nothing but what their lives will be if they do not serve God alone, then we must not throw these fledglings out of the nest unprotected.  If the past generation (or two or three) has feared the bishop, the SPRC chair, the sweet little couple on the front row who has threatened to withhold their offering check, then the seminaries must share some of the blame: the seminaries who neither warned nor prepared these young pastors for the reality of service in the local churches.  (Better that Duke-stone be tied around our neck and we be thrown into the sea than that we mislead these young people.) Giving the students a model of a God-centered ministry may just give them a chance to make it as pastors – a role that requires them to be (perhaps more than any other Christian) in the world, but not of it.