Inclusiveness – “To Be or Not to Be” – GC – 2019 – United Methodist Church

Ephesians 4:1–6

Unity in the Body of Christ

[1] I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, [2] with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, [3] eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. [4] There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—[5] one Lord, one faith, one baptism, [6] one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (ESV)


Ephesians 4:1–6

This week is a crucial week in the life of the United Methodist Church in the United States.  This is the week that that the General Session will vote for full inclusion of LGBQT people into the church.  It seems that this is not going to be the case, and that the church has decided to hold to the traditional teachings of the bible regarding human sexuality.  The issue really isn’t about human sexuality, but unity.  Two plans were presented at the General Council  of United Methodists which is meeting this week in St. Louis, Missouri.  One is called the One Church Plan supported by progressive United Methodists, and the Traditional Plan which is supported by evangelical United Methodists.

My understanding is that the One Church plan would allow individual conferences and local congregations to decide whether to ordain people who are gay, and to marry same-sex couples.  The Traditional Plan would affirm the language in the United Methodist Rule Book about homosexuality that it will not support openly ordained practicing homosexual clergy or those clergy that marry same-sex couples.  They would have to “find another church home.”

Other denominations had split over the issue of human sexuality, the ordination of openly gay clergy, and whether or not clergy can marry same-sex couples.  This has happened with Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians.

Other denominations like the United Church of Christ are openly gay affirming.

To many of the LGBQT Christians that worship within the United Methodist Church, this vote against the One Church Plan felt like a sucker punch.  Many advocates and allies of LGBQT Christians felt that love and justice was not served during the council. 

To many, being a welcoming and affirming church is an all or nothing proposition.  John Pavlovitz writes:

This should be a pass-fail deal breaker for people who claim to love LGBTQ human beings.

Traveling this country and engaging thousands of Christians every month, I encounter local faith communities, both inside and outside the United Methodist Church—who claim to be LGBTQ-affirming or LGBTQ-inclusive, but who want to do so with all sorts of caveats or conditions in place. They aspire to see themselves as open to diversity in areas of sexuality, but with barriers in place that make those aspirations disingenuous at best.

I would agree with John.  It is all or nothing.  Honesty and integrity are values that LGBQT Christians look for when they are wanting to participate in a local church.  They do not want to go to a church which openly conceals or lies about their position when it comes to human sexuality, inclusiveness, and gender issues.  They want to participate in the church and use their gifts and talents in music, leading groups only to be rejected because of their sexual orientation.  The website http://churchclarity.org helps LGBQT Christians and their allies find openly inclusive churches in their area.  This website will inform LGBQT Christians which churches in their local community are not affirming even though they maybe welcoming and relevant (worship style, preaching, etc.).

Jesus was inclusive and openly welcomed the outcasts of his Jewish/Palestinian culture of his day.  He welcomed the tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and others that would be considered unclean to follow him and accept the Kingdom of God. (Mark 2:15)  I believe if he walked the earth today, he would welcome openly LGBQT people into his Kingdom.

Every church had stipulations for its members going back to the first church council in Acts 15.  Gentiles were welcomed into the ekklesia and into God’s new covenant community with other Jewish believers, but had to not participate in sexual immorality, eat meat sacrificed to idols, or eat raw meat.  The Gentile believers did not have to adhere to the kosher laws and ritual laws held in the Old Testament like circumcision like other believers.  Yet to keep the peace with other Jewish Christians, they had to adhere and flee from sexual immorality which would include homosexual acts. 

Many conservative Christians point to Acts 15 as a way of justifying excluding the LGBQT Christians from participating in church leadership. Yet, many forget, that all of us have fallen short of the glory of God, gay and straight Christians alike (Rom. 3:23). Again according to the One Church Plan, it would be regulated to the local congregational level, not on a denominational level.

John Pavlovitz continues:

The UMC, like many religious entities and local communities is talking in semantics right now, when it needs to be cutting to the heart of the matter.

Either you believe LGBTQ are made my God and fully indwelled with beauty and dignity—or you don’t.

Either you value their contributions and talents and intellects and stories to allow them to share such things—or you don’t.

Either you declare their worth by inviting them fully into your community—or you refuse to.

Either you believe gender identity and sexuality aren’t moral flaws—or you believe they are.

Choose which of these is true for you, and get on to living that out.

Love isn’t inclusion or affirmation, it’s participation.

Conclusion

I myself am gay affirming, yet go to a church that is not.  I do believe that it is up to the local congregation whether they are fully inclusive or not.  Whether it is a United Methodist congregation or a Southern Baptist congregation.  Like what Paul says above, what unifies believers is not whether or not a church is gay affirming, but if we believe in one Lord (Jesus Christ), one baptism, one faith, and one Father (Source) who is in all and overall (Eph. 4:6).  Unity is about what we believe as Christians who Jesus is (both his humanity and divinity), his calling, ministry, death and resurrection.  Being a Christian is centered around Jesus Christ. So whether someone is gay or not, in my opinion is irrelevant.

Again, I feel deeply for those that are allies and are LGBQT Christians who choose to worship in the United Methodist Church.  I know that Jesus accepts you as you are.  I am sorry that there are still hoops to jump through for those that are LGBQT Christians in the UMC.  I am sorry that you do not feel loved.  I am sorry that you feel excluded from using your gifts and talents to grow the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:7).  I am sorry that equity and justice hasn’t been served for your today in the United Methodist Church.  There are other churches and denominations that are openly gay affirming.  Go and be part of a church that will accept every part of who you are in Christ.

Going Deeper with God

This year my goal with my relationship with God is more intimacy, more relationship, and hopefully being transformed and conformed more into the image of God.  This is demonstrated by the Apostle Paul when he writes to the church in Phillipi:

My goal is to know him and power of his resurrection and fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection among the dead.  (Philippians 3:11-12)

Furthermore, he writes:

“I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)

For someone like me who was saved first in his intellect, walking with God means digesting, marinating, and analyzing scripture, discussing theology with friends, and being involved in a small group.  Unfortunately, it leaves a huge portion of my relationship with God untouched which is relating and communing with God in prayer. 

Prayer is much more than just talking to God, making requests to God like a cosmic vending machine in the sky that may seem trite and transactional; it is based upon two way communication where I spend quality time with God listening to him, sitting with him, and just being in his presence.  This is what the mystics call contemplative prayer.

To gain a deeper insight how to learn how to do contemplative prayer and have a deeper, fuller, more richer prayer life, I have been reading two books, that discuss contemplative prayer on a deeper level.  The first one is called Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer by Father Richard Rohr.  The second one is called Every Breath We Take: Living in the Presence, Love, and Generosity of God by Terry Wardle.

Both of these books deal more with our position in prayer rather than our performance with God.  A lot of us look at our relationship with God like we look at other relationships in our life.  If we believe love is conditional, then we will treat God’s love as being conditional, something that has to be earned not received.  We believe the more we pray, the more we do the spiritual disciplines (fasting, contemplation, silence and solitude, study, prayer, worship, celebration, and fellowship), the better our relationship with God.  These exercises will no better enhance our relationship than they would be if we didn’t do them.  Terry Wardle writes:

“Engaging in spiritual practices will not change you.  To be more specific, praying, fasting, going to church, reading Scripture, saying the Jesus prayer, and countless other practices transform no one.  However, such activities position you to encounter God, and he will change you.  That is why you need to make the spiritual practices a regular part of your life.” (Wardle, page 40)

Dr. Wardle discusses how we get into God’s presence by what he calls the three “R’s” which are to rest in his presence, receive his love and mercy, and respond to his love.  As we position ourselves through the spiritual disciplines, we can relax, let go, and be in a place to receive what the Lord has for us. 

Resting in God’s presence is probably the most difficult.  It requires us to practice solitude and silence.  Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr call this contemplation.  Cynthia Bourgeault calls this the Centering Prayer.  We live in a culture and time in history where we are connected 100% of the time digitally through our smart phones and social media.  Dr. Wardle says that striving and driveness of our world’s culture has infested the people of God.  Richard Rohr writes from Everything Belongs:

The religious version of egocentricity is wanting to be right and wanting to be in control.  To give that up is major surgery.  Religion might call it major conversion: as Jesus says, “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat” (John 12:24). 

(Rohr, page 62)

Rohr goes on and says, “to live in the present moment requires a change in our inner posture.” (Everything belongs, page 75)

 [28] Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. [29] Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. [30] For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

(Matthew 11:27–30 ESV)

Dr. Wardle defines rest as “rest can be described as a state of peace, contentment, serenity, refreshment, stillness, tranquility, or calm.  He goes on to say the rest is fundamentally about trust.  You are called to actively believe that God is deeply connected to you and promises to be the source of fulfilling your deepest longings in life.  What you are incapable of securing through a lifetime of performing and pleasing, God has given you by grace through faith in Christ.  You are loved, accepted, secure, significant, understood, and have purpose.”  (Wardle pages 86-87)

In stillness and silence as I wait for the Lord, I can let go.  Let go of those cares and concerns that weigh on me.  Let go of those besetting sins that I hold on to.  Let go of any bitterness and resentment I may have towards God and others.  As I let go there comes a freedom found in Christ.

Richard Rohr writes that through contemplative prayer, “we move into a different realm. it is not the arena of merit, of reward and punishment; it is the realm of pure grace and freedom. It is such an unterly different world from the ground up that most religion drags along the reward/punishment system since it can understand no other. The concepts of crime, punishment, performance, and reward are the only ways we know to get people in the game. But love flourishes only in the realm of freedom. ” (Rohr page 90)

Conclusion

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about prayer, esp. contemplative prayer which the mystics believed as a way of entering into God’s presence.  I will be looking at what it means to “abide in Christ and his love” (John 15:9), and how abiding brings peace, unity, love, and contentment in our life.

The Prayer Closet

But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!  (Matt. 6:6-9)

From <https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matt.+6%3A6-9&version=NLT>

To live in the present moment requires a change in posture.  To discover the answer, we have to wait and observe.  That’s what happens in the early stages of contemplation.  We wait in silence.  In silence all our usual patterns assault us.  Our patterns of control, addiction, negativity, tension, anger, and fear assert ourselves.  That’s why most people give up (on contemplative prayer) rather quickly.  When Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, the firs things that show up are wild beasts (Mark 1:13).  Contemplation is not first of all consoling.  It’s only real.  (Everything belongs, Father Richard Rohr, page 75).

I have been reading Father Richard Rohr’s book, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer.  It is a manual on how to enter into the mystery of our relationship with God.  Thomas Merton calls this the prayer of unknowing.  By unknowing, we are known.  By emptying, we are filled, by forgetting and becoming nothing, we become accepted and significant. 

Contemplation happens in silence.  It happens in secret where the Father sees everything.  It can be humiliating be alone in a confined space (like a prayer closet), or in a place where our thoughts run rampant.

Richard Rohr reminds us that our inner being is found within the soul.  “The soul doesn’t know itself by comparison and differentiation.  The soul just is.  The soul knows itself through what is now and everything that is, both the dark and the light.  The soul triumphs over nothing and therefore cannot be defeated because it is not in the game of succeeding or failing.  It does not need to separate the dark from the light.  Everything belongs.” (Rohr, page 72)

Comparison is a function of the ego. In the ego, we differentiate between ourselves and others.  We see ourselves as distinct from other people.  We compare and contrast, compete, criticize drawn by what Father Richard calls “dualistic thinking”. 

He defines dualistic thinking as “the “egoic operating system,” as my friend and colleague Cynthia Bourgeault calls it, is our way of reading reality from the position of our private and small self. “What’s in it for me?” “How will I look if I do this?” (From <https://cac.org/the-dualistic-mind-2017-01-29/> )  He further goes on and says:

The dualistic mind is essentially binary, either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, opposition, and differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid, not realizing there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum. Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience.  (From <https://cac.org/the-dualistic-mind-2017-01-29/> )

The dualistic mind distinguishes and is descriptive and can bring us into our solitary state, but the desert is where the soul comes alive, and we can come to a place and see that God is in everyone and everywhere.  It is also the place where I can learn to let go and empty myself (kenosis) to be filled with God himself.  It can bring us to a place where we can:

Be Still and Know that I am God;

Be Still and Know

Be Still

Be

(Ps. 46:10)

From the Rocking Chair – Nadia Bolz-Weber on Conception, Pregnancy, and Abortion

Last week two states in America (New York and Virginia) enacted legislation that validated late term abortions that can be legally performed in the third trimester if a woman’s health including her mental health are in danger.  For those that were pro-choice, pro woman’s rights, pro-family planning, it was a victory.  For those that were part of the political pro-life lobby it was a defeat.  In other states the pro-life lobby is attempting to enact the “heartbeat bill” that will make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy if a baby’s heartbeat is detected which Governor DeWine in Ohio said he would sign if it came across his desk.

Abortion is one of the most hotly debated political issues within the church today and is very personal to those that are parents, wish to be parents, or for those that decided at some point in their life to terminate a pregnancy.  In her book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Nadia Bolz-Weber tackles this difficult topic from a personal perspective.  When she was in her twenties, she decided with her boyfriend to terminate a pregnancy.  She wasn’t ready to be a parent.  She writes in her own in your face way:

But at 24, I wasn’t married with two children.  I was single, just two years clean and sober, and making $800.00 a month as a “psychic.”  I hadn’t even seen a dentist for six years.  I would have made a horrible single mother.  I loved my boyfriend too much, but he loved me not enough-and although for a minute I thought maybe we would marry and start a real life, that’s not what happened..The morning after the abortion, I was lying on the thin mattress in the corner of my studio apartment…I inhaled as deeply as I could, which wasn’t that deep because I was angry.  Then I said something I had never said in public.  “And you know what?  I had an abortion when I was twenty-four.”  Then  I told the story I had written just that day about how I love babies and that choosing to not have one had destroyed me for a while and yet I never regretted it, because I knew it was the right decision for me.” (Shameless, pages 108-114).

As Nadia wrote, the issue of abortion is deeply personal, and no one should have to be put into a position to terminate a life, or a potential life.  For Nadia, at the age 24, it was the right decision, yet difficult decision to make. 

When people politicize something as personal as what Nadia went through, we are not showing the love of God.  We become more like Job’s friends who tried to find some reason why he was suffering.  We do the same.  Nadia’s friend Claire loved her through her choice, and that can be the most Christlike thing we can do when someone has to make a life and death decision whether it is pulling the plug with a loved one who has a terminal illness, or if one should terminate a pregnancy.  There are many ethical questions at stake.  From a Christian perspective God is always for life and not for death, yet things happen in this world that is beyond his control.  What is true is that God is love (1 John 4:8), and God is always for life (John 10:10).  The debatable question is when does life begin?  For many Evangelicals, life begins at conception.  For others, life begins when a baby has its first breath (Gen. 2:).  It varies on our personal perspective of when life begins.  Nadia continues:

“There are so many varied experiences of conception and pregnancy. Some of us long to conceive and never do; some of us had babies we did not want; some of us miscarried babies we desperately wanted. How each person experiences conception and pregnancy differs according to their circumstances, beliefs, and desires. By reminding you of this history—that Christians originally believed life began at birth and that the pro-life movement was contrived by political motivations—I do not wish to diminish or deny anyone’s experience or perspective. I only wish to say that if the prevailing Evangelical argument about abortion—that the Bible is “clear” that life starts at conception or in the womb, so anyone who is truly Christian must therefore believe what good Christians have “always” believed, that abortion is murder—has created shame within you, or if it kept you from terminating a pregnancy you wish you could have ended, or if it has caused you to harm yourself or others, or if it has kept you from voting your conscience, I want you to know the history of this position. And I want you to be free, because there are many ways to view the issue and remain faithful. There are many ways to read scripture and remain faithful. There are many ways to remain faithful.” (Shameless, page 117)

I appreciate Nadia’s vulnerability and transparency.  The issue of when life begins biblically is debatable.  Keith Giles, author of Jesus Untangled, and one of the hosts of the Heretic Happy Hour, has argued that abortion is even biblical.  Nadia shared her heart to let those know however they feel about the topic, there is no shame in whatever they decide to do with the pregnancy.  That is to terminate the pregnancy, carry it out, or give the baby up for adoption.  Only the would be parents know what is best for the child. 

I know that many Evangelicals would be angry with me because they believe that God is the one in his sovereignty that is the author of life and death, not ourselves.  After reading “God Can’t“, I believe in God’s uncontrollable love for us, that he participates with us in our decision making.  Regarding abortion, He may try to persuade us to keep the baby and choose life, but in our circumstances such as Nadia’s circumstances, it wasn’t the best decision for her to keep the child.  God may not agree with our decisions, yet in his uncontrollable love for us, he gives us free will to make our own choices.  He will be with us as we live with the outcome of our decisions whether they are good or bad.  God’s love for us never changes.  He loves us whether we are walking in his will or not.

Finally, being a man, I believe that this is a woman’s issue, and for me my role is to support the decision of any woman of what she wants to do with her pregnancy whether she wants to keep it or not whether it is my wife or my daughters, or close friends and family members. My role is to love them regardless of their decision.