Unanswered Questions

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I used to think that part of the responsibility of a pastor was to answer people’s deepest questions about life and God and death. That’s why seminary was essential; that’s the place where we learn all the answers, right? And if seminary didn’t give us everything we needed, then we’d figure the rest out with good ol’ experience.

After twenty years of pastoring, however, I’m still struggling with those questions. I’m less sure about my answers now than when I started.

This has nothing to do with a crisis of faith; no, I am confident in my relationship with God, but the shape and form of that God keeps changing. Every time I think I have got God sorted out, God slips out from under my theology. I have to wrestle all over again with basic concepts like providence, sovereignty, and free will.

It’s also been difficult to get a handle on the death and afterlife matters. After so many funerals and unexpected deaths, I still have lots of questions myself. What really happens after the moment the body shuts down? Is there really such a place as heaven, or is it more a kind of third dimension?

Again, I have a confidence, a trust that God will be with me throughout the process of dying, including afterwards, but it sure would be nice to have some clarity.

Complicating all these matters is the fact that I don’t have confidence anymore in the basic institutions that I once did, first and foremost of which, is the church itself. We United Methodists seem destined to divide ourselves, just as Christians of other stripes have done.

And then there’s the “so-called Christians” in our country who promote heretical ideas and support white supremacy and corrupt political leaders. At times, I wonder if we share the same religion. Do we really know the same Jesus?

If I’m honest, I will admit that I have unanswered questions as the pastor of Kessler Park UMC. What are we to do about our youth program? What should our long-term vision be? How do we extend our ministry to the thousands of people moving into our community? What should we be doing differently?

Every day, I wake up with these questions on my mind, and sometimes I feel pressure to come up with a quick answer.

However, I have learned something in these twenty years of pastoral ministry. And one of the most important things is this: I don’t have to know all the answers. In fact, if I thought I did, that would be a very bad thing.

But that’s not what being a pastor is all about. And it’s not what being a Christian is about either.
We are really only supposed to follow Jesus. Following is a completely different kind of thing than knowing. Jesus rarely explained things to his disciples; he simply beckoned them forward, and they moved. Sometimes they would learn the answer to a question in the action of following; other times, they never did learn anything. I think that, most of the time, we end up learning that the questions we thought were so important, are irrelevant.

In the end, that’s the best I can do as a pastor. I just want to keep following Jesus on down the road of life. He’s led me to some fascinating places so far, and I have the feeling that the best is yet to come.

What Just Happened

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While I was busy at the NRA Convention last weekend, two significant developments emerged out of the Council of Bishops meeting that concern the United Methodist Church. Both were clouded in confusion, lack of clarity, and messy roll-outs.

After talking to the bishop and reading a number of articles and documents, I think I finally understand what happened. So let me try to explain as plainly as I can, without editorial comment …

First, the bishops heard the recommendations of the Commission on the Way Forward, which was created in the wake of the 2016 General Conference. This commission was tasked with presenting the bishops with a plan for unity amidst the denomination’s differences on homosexuality. The bishops were presented with three plans; I won’t bore you with the details of each plan (you can read that here).

All you need to know is that one plan was approved overwhelmingly by the bishops. It’s being called the One Church Plan, and it simply calls for the removal of discriminatory language about homosexuality and same-sex weddings in the Book of Discipline. It would be up to individual churches and pastors to determine whether or not they will perform same-sex weddings, and each annual conference would determine whether or not it will ordain gay clergy. 

This is the plan that the bishops will present in February 2019 at a specially-called session of the General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. One thousand delegates will decide whether or not to accept this plan. They will also be free to amend it, change it, or perhaps even go back to one of the other two plans. Or they may do nothing. 

The problem is that the bishops bungled the communication of this news in the press release. The release stated “the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the Special Session of the General Conference in 2019 that includes: All three plans (The Traditionalist Plan, The One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan) for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council; The Council’s recommendation of the One Church Plan; (and) An historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.”

The fact that the bishops stated that “all three plans” were being submitted in the report led conservatives to seize on the idea that all three options were still on the table, one of which is their own preference — the Traditionalist Plan. They conveniently ignored the fact that the bishops clearly plan to recommend the One Church Plan.

I don’t know what will happen in St. Louis next year. Judging by the results of the 2016 Conference, and considering that most of the same delegates will be present, I don’t know how likely it is that the One Church Plan will be adopted. 

Second, the bishops also revealed the results of worldwide voting on five constitutional amendments, only three of which passed. Amendments are passed by General Conference but must be ratified by a 2/3rds vote in all Annual Conferences around the world. 

The amendments which did not pass revolved around gender equality. Amendment 1 would have added the following new paragraph to the Discipline: 

As the Holy Scripture reveals, both men and women are made in the image of God and, therefore, men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. The United Methodist Church recognizes it is contrary to Scripture and to logic to say that God is male or female, as maleness and femaleness are characteristics of human bodies and cultures, not characteristics of the divine. The United Methodist Church acknowledges the long history of discrimination against women and girls. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten women and girl's equality and well-being.

 

This amendment failed to get the required 2/3rds vote, falling less than a 100 votes short: 31,304 “yes” votes were cast against 15,753 “no” votes, falling short by .2%. 

Why it fell short is hard to explain. Some perhaps felt that the statement was redundant; the Discipline speaks of gender equality in other places. But there were also conservatives who took issue with the second sentence of the statement, fearing it to be part of the liberal agenda to remove masculine language from God in worship, or to deny the divinity of Jesus.

Amendment 2 would have amended a paragraph in the Discipline which would now read (additions in bold):

The United Methodist Church is part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist church, no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, ability, or economic condition, nor shall any member be denied access to an equal place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church because of race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, or economic condition.

 

This amendment failed by a larger margin: 29,049 “yes votes against 18,317 “no” votes, for a majority of only 61.3%.

The problem with this amendment was, apparently, the use of two words, “age” and “gender,” in the last sentence. Conservatives feared that, by prohibiting discrimination based on age, the bishops would be unduly empowered. Here’s how one conservative commentator explains it: “Outlawing any discrimination over ‘age’ would have ended UMC’s longstanding requirements for bishops and other leaders to retire before reaching a certain age. Thus, this provision would have effectively served as a power grab for bishops seeking to consolidate and hold onto their power for far longer than what would be healthy for the church.”

Concerning the inclusion of the word “gender,” conservatives feared that this was a back-door attempt to legitimize LGBTQ acceptance in the church.

For more reading, I recommend this statement from our bishop, this press release about the constitutional amendments, and this pastoral letter from the female bishops

Ministering to Each Other

by Ken Kelley

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This coming June, Colleen and I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of our marriage in the sanctuary of KPUMC.  I will always remember, as I readied myself to see Colleen walk down the aisle, standing in awe in our beautifully decorated sanctuary filled with our family and friends, including many from KPUMC. 

I hadn’t been a member long, and most of those from our congregation were friends of Colleen and her family. But, as I had experienced many times at KPUMC, this congregation welcomed and embraced me as part of the church family that night, and you continue to support and inspire me even now.

I, along with Colleen and our daughter Shannon, feel the blessings of your care and concern when we struggle with life’s difficulties and feel your joy when we celebrate our milestones and victories. That’s what congregational care is all about, and I pray that I can find a way to equip and nurture you as we continue to grow this important ministry together. 

But to minister to each other, we must first have a way to communicate with one another. I’m available to you at any time by email - ken@kpumc.org or cell - 214.707.9605.  To facilitate our members contacting each other, we will soon all have access to an online directory. You’ll receive an email next week with additional information.

At the times in my life when I’ve had my act together, when I strive to get right with God, one of the most important hours in my week is 11:00 on Sunday morning when we worship God together. In worship, we do more than just celebrate God. Worship has the ability both to inform us and transform us. When we worship, we remember who God is and who we are to be as God’s people.

As another opportunity for worship, on May 16 we’ll have dinner church at 6:00 pm. In this service, we’ll share a meal, read scripture, have informal discussions, sing, and have communion. Please plan to join us for this informal worship service.

Besides worship, our church offers many other opportunities for our spiritual enrichment and development. Rev. Kay Ash, our new Director of Christian Education, tells us of her plans for our children’s department: “During Summer 2018 our Sunday School children will explore the Grand Narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures beginning with Creation in interactive, creative, and outside-the-box ways.  Then, starting the last full week of July, our VBS children will go on a rolling river rampage to discover that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Look for us to start each morning of July 23 - 27 with music in Roberts Forest!”

Our youth and their parents will meet this coming Sunday 4:00-6:00 pm in the youth room to discuss the future of this important ministry with Kay and Wes.

Our last Wednesday Night Live will take place next week, but we have several other opportunities to serve and be served.  If you aren’t already attending one, I invite you to try a Sunday School class. The adult classes gather in the Fellowship Hall and conference room at 9:45 each Sunday morning, and they’d love to have you. We have a women’s Bible study group that meets on Wednesday nights at 6:30 and a pastor’s Bible study group that meets with Wes at 5:00 on Sunday afternoons to discuss the following week’s worship service scripture. Both groups meet in the conference room.  Our Chancel Choir and handbell choir always welcome new members. Feel free to contact me or one of the other ministers if you have ideas for other small groups or would like to volunteer in one of our existing programs.

A task force composed of some of our newer members will present to us their ideas for the future of KPUMC at the all member Church Council meeting on May 20th right after church. I strongly encourage you to join us for lunch and to hear this report. Plans for later in the year include a Grief Share grief support group, new catalyst groups, and other opportunities for fellowship and enrichment. 

When we have our act together and, more importantly when we don’t, I pray that we will continue to grow and enrich our ministry to each other. I hope to see you in worship Sunday and leave you with a prayer I discovered last night: 

“My prayer today is that we remember, and seek out each other intentionally, asking what we can give one another that will cause the quickening of each other’s hearts to subside in relief that we are not forgotten, but rather cherished and loved.” (Ana Lisa de Jong)