What I meant to say was…

         I’ve stayed mostly silent through the latest Methodist debacle that was General Conference 2019. I didn’t want to contribute to the noise, and I still don’t. But the vote to reject a progressive approach to LGBTQ+ persons is something that I still have to address with my congregation of college students. Unfortunately, my opportunity to do that in chapel this morning was interrupted by a medical emergency with a student. Thankfully she seems to be fine, and that event did put the silliness of the Methodists’ posturing into stark relief. 

         Rather than shirk the larger discussion, however, I at least wanted to make the thoughts I was going to share available for those who might be interested. Below is the text of the sermon I would have given.

There’s an old kid’s song I used to sing for children’s sermons: at a time like this, I need the Lord to help me. Those of you who know anything about being Methodist probably know why.

For those of you who don’t know or who have forgotten, the United Methodist Church—the parent church of Dakota Wesleyan and the denomination in which I am a pastor—has been debating human sexuality for fifty years and out-and-out fighting for about the last twenty. Earlier this week, the official policy-making group of the Methodist Church voted to affirm traditional standards, meaning that the official church position is that LGBTQ+ persons are not compatible with Christian teaching.

As you might expect, this has thrilled some people. To say it disappointed others—myself included—would be an understatement. The process has already been ugly. It’s not likely to get better.

What does this mean for campus ministry at Dakota Wesleyan? I hope nothing. For a lot of years now, we have welcomed everyone who has walked through the doors. We have not disqualified people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some of us have more conservative beliefs and others are moderate to liberal. But we’ve managed to find a way to love one another and hold together through a lot of difficult stuff. We’ve managed to remain friends. And I think that puts us in company with Jesus.

Among the first things Jesus did when he began his earthly ministry was to gather friends around him. He called his disciples, but they were more than pupils. In fact, he tells them directly that he doesn’t think of them as servants, but as friends. He needed people to walk alongside him, to encourage him, to challenge him, to make him laugh, to remind him he wasn’t alone. On every step of the journey right up to the cross, Jesus kept his friends close to his side.

It’s no surprise, then, that as the cross drew near, Jesus would spend his last precious hours with his friends.

The story begins in earnest in John 11, when Jesus tells his disciples that their friend Lazarus is sick and that he wants to go see him. The disciples try to talk him out of it. Lazarus lives with his sisters Mary and Martha in Bethany, which is near Jerusalem. The city was then as it is now—in a state of perpetual unrest. And Jesus was not a welcome figure. The religious leaders viewed him as a heretic and troublemaker. Word on the street was that they would kill him if he ever showed his face again. So in the disciples’ view, there’s no real need to visit Lazarus. Why not send a card? Maybe flowers.

But then Jesus explains more fully. Lazarus is dead. He has to go to Bethany, and he intends to go, whether he has any company with him or not. His friends look at each other, trying to figure out what to do. If they go with Jesus and Jesus is arrested, they likely will be arrested also. They could be killed. No one wants to do this.

When someone finally speaks, it’s Thomas. The room gets a little more tense at this point, because Thomas is not known for his tact. He’s the kind of friend who will tell you straight up if your fly is open or there’s a booger hanging from your nose. Thomas is the one who, when you ask if that girl is into you or not, says, “No, dude, she’s out of your league. Aim lower.” He’s the one who, when you ask if those jeans make you look fat, answers, “Yeah, mainly across your butt.”

We don’t have a record of Thomas ever saying those exact things, but when he does speak in John’s gospel, he’s always that kind of blunt. He’s the one who, when Jesus asks if what he just said makes any sense, replies, “Nope.” He’s a skeptic, maybe even a doubter. He’s certainly a guy that could use a better filter. So when he opens his mouth to respond to Jesus’ crazy idea of going to Bethany, no one knows what he’s going to say until he says it.

“Let’s go. If we die with him, we die with him.”

That’s the kind of friend you want to have—someone who, for whatever other character flaws they might have, including a big mouth—is ready to stand beside you, come hell or high water. He’s the kind of friend who doesn’t let outside pressures get in the way of his friendship. He’s the guy that has your back, and a good thing, too. Because before long, Thomas is going to need someone to offer the same kind of friendship to him.

The most famous story about Thomas happens later in John’s gospel. Jesus has been resurrected and appeared to his disciples, but Thomas is not with them. They tell him the story, but he says, “Guys, no. I can’t go there. Unless I see Jesus for myself—unless I reach out and touch him—I’m not going to believe what you’re saying.”

“Doubting Thomas,” we call him, but that’s not really fair. Honest Thomas, maybe. Loyal Thomas, absolutely. Why would we linger on his doubt instead?

Maybe because that’s what really scares us. We’re afraid of doubt. We’re afraid of being wrong, of losing face, of being hopeless. We’re afraid that, when the world falls apart around us, there won’t be a God with us who really cares. We’re afraid of losing faith, because that means we’ll be alone. It’s easy to throw shade at Thomas because he doubts. We’re just condemning the thing in him that we fear in ourselves.

But if Thomas embodies our fears, he also gives us the best example on how to deal with doubt. Because he does his doubting among his friends.

Not long after he tells the other disciples he needs to see to believe, Thomas does see Jesus. In fact, he does more that see. He makes a declaration—a political statement. He kneels before him and calls him “my lord and my God.” That was a title reserved only for the emperor. At this point, however, Thomas isn’t afraid of powerful men with the trappings of wealth. He’s ready to proclaim Jesus as the one true king, and to pledge himself to him.

Don’t miss the context in which all of this happened. Where was Thomas? Not out in the desert sulking in solitude. He was back with his friends. Even though he doubted, he didn’t do it alone. He hung around people whose faith carried his until he got it back.

Feelings are great liars. They tell us that what we experience is the great truth of the world, when in fact our feelings are only a reflection of the way we perceive the world, and sometimes even that is colored by the chemical workings of our brains. Sometimes—especially when our feelings threaten to overpower us—we need to put them in their place. As friends, we can help one another do that.

At a time like this, we need the Lord to help us. And we need each other.

Those at GC2019–some of them very powerful people–handed down a decision early in the week that they think the entire UMC will live by. But I have no intention of letting someone else’s doctrinal agenda scare or injure the flock I’m entrusted with. So let’s not allow other people’s passions to tear us apart. Let’s love one another. Let’s keep praying, even if it feels like no one is listening. Let’s keep gathering for worship, even though we are afraid of what the future holds. Let’s keep waiting for the Lord to reveal himself to us.

In time, I trust that he will–not to any bureaucratic gathering, but to his friends.

Annual Conference Bingo Plus!

As long as we’re going to Annual Conference, we might as well have some fun with it! So I’ve developed a few AC games to add a little bit of humor to those sessions. The link below includes several games and instructions, including five separate bingo sheets, in case one isn’t working for you. I’ll have some printed copies at AC for those who would like them, and a backpack full of prizes.

And for those of you not in the Arkansas Annual Conference, please feel free to adapt these as needed to your local setting.

Here’s to a good time being had by all!

2014 Annual Conference Bingo Plus

Lasts

Last week was, for me, a week of lasts.

Last goodbyes with several friends before we move.

Bikers from TdF 2014 pose outside of Des Arc UMC. After 200 miles on a bike together, you're more or less family.

Bikers from TdF 2014 pose outside of Des Arc UMC. After 200 miles on a bike together, you’re more or less family.

Last mission trip with my ASU students. Along with that, the last Tour de Faith bike ride I will take as A-State Wesley’s pastor.

Last time leading worship with this group of students.

You’d think I’d be used to this sort of thing by now. An inherent part of campus ministry is saying goodbye. You welcome students to campus, get to know them, invest in them, but know all the while that, if all goes according to plan, you will have to let them go in four or five years. When they leave, you cry in your office. It’s just part of the rhythms of the job.

On top of that, I am a United Methodist pastor, working in a system marked by frequent pastoral moves. I knew when I chose this profession that it would be difficult to set down roots, and that I would not always be in control of my own appointment.

But none of that has prepared me for this particular move. After seven years in Jonesboro—about double the average stay for a UM pastor, according to the latest Barna report I could find—I have come to love this place and these people. And falling in love makes you vulnerable to the pain of loss.

In my more skeptical moments, I wonder if it’s all worth it. I wonder if my denomination really wants us to learn to love our people, since love means attachments, and attachment makes us more difficult to move. I wonder if it would not be easier to treat ministry like it was any other job, to serve my people in a caring but aloof fashion. I wonder why I don’t become just another service provider, a religious cashier of sorts, someone paid to define and facilitate spiritual transactions.

But that’s the “lasts” talking. In my clearer moments, I know there’s a bigger reality.

When I search the bible for direction and comfort during this transition, I keep going back to the story of Joseph. He didn’t just lose a job. He was sold out by the people who should have cared about him most. I can only imagine the sense of loss and desperation and disorientation he must have felt on his way to Egypt and then again in prison.

Joseph had two choices: die bitter, or fine a way to live better. He chose the latter, and his people were saved because of it.

The stories of those of us moving this year—mine included—are not nearly so dramatic. But the premises hold true. We can focus on what we lose in the change and be bitter about it, which will destroy us and leave our new parishioners underserved.

Or we can embrace the pain of the “lasts” as a necessary part of moving forward in God’s grace. We can look ahead knowing that, for every loss in pastoral transition, there is a corresponding gain.

The lasts don’t last forever, and they carry with them the hint of a promise. Soon the lasts shall be firsts, in a new place and with new people. As much as I grieve what I am losing, I can’t wait to fall in love again.

 

Authority

Last week, the Arkansas courts struck down a law prohibiting gay marriage as unconstitutional, prompting the expected reactions from across the political spectrum. Several of those who weighed in on social media were United Methodist clergy.

A few days later, the pastors in my annual conference received a letter from our bishop reminding us that, regardless of personal feelings, United Methodist clergy are not permitted to officiate any form of union between same-sex couples. While he recognized that some of his pastors have strong feelings that the Disciplinary language is unjust, he insisted that our duty is to uphold the Discipline. Those who disagreed were invited to call him to converse.

Enough ink (and blood) has been spilled over issues of marriage and sexuality without me adding to the muddle. But I do think that the bishop’s letter brings up related issues of authority that have tentacles throughout our jumble of UM polity and practice.

The question to me is not whether the bishop was within his rights to order his clergy not to perform same-sex ceremonies. As the one charged with ordering the life of the annual conference, he clearly was. That other bishops have chosen a different course does not lessen this bishop’s authority to speak directly and firmly on matters of the Discipline.

But what right do rank and file clergy—particularly dissenting clergy—have in responding to the bishop’s directive? Should they accept the authority of the bishop as the UMC’s governing representative, make an appointment to see him, and issue a private plea for a change in policy? Should they wait on the next General Conference and try once again to change the language of the Discipline legislatively? Should they openly defy the bishop and perform same-sex unions anyway, as has happened elsewhere, and thus force the issue?

Even in a state as conservative as Arkansas, the answers are not evident. Radicalism necessarily breaks connection, but connection inherently serves the institutional majority. Legislation has proven near impossible to pass. Conversation and prayer are at the core of our self-understanding, but they are often tools of inaction.

Tension continues to mount. People are talking openly of schism. It’s an uncomfortable position to find ourselves in.

And it’s one from which authority, no matter how well-meaning, cannot save us.

In a culture with a democratic ideal, authority cannot merely be assumed. It must be granted by those being governed. If authority gets used for anything other than the highest good, it will be ineffectual.

The UMC lives in a strange, idealized version of Rousseau’s social contract. We are willing to give up some of our individual convictions for the greater good, whether that good is practical governance or theological vision.

Lately, however, the concern of our administrative leaders have been with the nature of their authority (as per the last General Conference proposals) and with the numerical growth of the denomination. While these may be important, they don’t address the things most of us are talking about—things like fiscal responsibility, mutual accountability, and arbitrary itinerancy.

And same-sex marriage.

Again, I don’t question any bishop’s authority to speak on the subject, nor any thoughtful person (lay or clergy)’s right to respond. What I am saying is that, in a time when our convenant is strained, our trust in authority is strained even further. That’s a recipe for trouble.

My prayer is that those who wish to challenge authority—myself among them—will be measured and kind. But also that those in offices of authority will learn to listen more closely and govern more evenly. Perhaps it is too late to achieve complete unity on any issue, but we might at least find cohesion, if we can learn to trust each other somehow.

The danger of hope

Hope can be a river. It can also be a dam.
I think of these things as I wait for tonight’s game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, home of the famously hapless Chicago Cubs. Unlike a lot of my fellow Cardinals fans, I take no particular pleasure in their perpetual dysfunction. But there’s no denying that the Cubs have been, as one wry fan recently said to me, rebuilding for the future since 1906.
This recognition of inevitable failure makes me respect Cubs fans all the more. Deprived of actual World Series titles these 100-plus years, they have learned to live on nothing but hope.
But when is enough enough?
When it comes to baseball, the answer is probably never. And why should fans give up? Our hearts may be with our teams, but in the big scheme of things we don’t have that much to gain or lose by their performance.
Not so in other areas of life. This morning my wife told me about a documentary on the Dust Bowl she’s been watching. She talked about the danger if hope for those farmers, the need to overcome hope that the High Plains would ever get enough rain to be truly fertile for farming. The only sensible thing for those early farmers to do was to leave. But hope told them–lied to them–that next year would be the year, that the rains were coming and all would be well. The results if hope were countless deaths and bankruptcies, not to mention one of history’s greatest ecological disasters.
Lately I’ve found myself asking questions about hope, when its appropriate and when it’s misplaced. I often ask if the hope I have both in my own local ministry and in the larger United Methodist Church is based on devotion or delusion. I can’t say that I have yet found a clear answer.
It seems to me that two virtues are at war here. On one hand, the stubborn resolve to never give up hope keeps us going through the toughest of times. But on the other hand, wisdom and trust tell us that death–even of something we love–is not the end of hope. It is rather a redirection of our larger hopes.
So what should I do in the face of such uncertainty? Give up on Wesley foundation or the UMC? Bury my fears and put on a happy face? Again the answer isn’t clear. The course I’ve chosen for now is inspired by Cubs fans.
You don’t just give up on your team, they remind me. You love them when they are unlovable, and you keep trusting that next year is the year.
So I’m clinging stubbornly to hope right now. It’s the water that keeps me from withering. Perhaps it’s also the dam that holds back greater blessing. My vision doesn’t extend that far. All I can do is what I think is right based on the information I have. That will just have to be good enough for God until he decides to reveal more.