The Church on Trial

Bishop Karen Oliveto after being elected in July 2016.

Bishop Karen Oliveto after being elected in July 2016.

As I write these words, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church has just begun hearing arguments in its April docket. One of those cases dominates the denomination’s attention and interest.

It’s the question of whether Karen Oliveto’s election as bishop last year in the Western Jurisdictional Conference is lawful under present church rule. Oliveto is a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” and is married to a same-sex spouse. This is forbidden by current United Methodist Church law, which is contained in the Book of Discipline (BOD).

The case was forwarded to the Judicial Council by the South Central Jurisdiction shortly after Bishop Oliveto’s election last year. Of course, the actual legal ruling has to do with matters of authority, jurisdiction, and precise terminology.

But in reality, this case mirrors the present impasse within the church, with implications that go far beyond the case of one particular bishop. If the election is upheld, then a great many people will argue that our laws have no force and that each jurisdiction will be independent. That is indeed, part of the Western Jurisdiction’s argument; they believe that church law gives authority to determine the credentials and qualifications of pastors and bishops solely to annual (regional) conferences and jurisdictions. Already, I have seen a conservative UM pastor complain on Twitter that, “We are basically in the position where each jurisdiction will become its own denomination if JC does not intervene here.”

If the election is rendered null and void, however, this will send a clear(er) message that LGBTQ folks are not to be considered candidates for ordination, much less the episcopacy. It will enshrine the BOD’s current language that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” And it will make it even tougher for future change.

As if anticipating the anxiety that this case is dredging up, the Council of Bishops yesterday announced that there will be a special session of General Conference called for February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri, to hear the findings and recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward, which was created upon the decision of the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon.

If all this simply confuses you, with its Methodist terminology, acronyms, and legalese, then let me simplify matters for you:

The United Methodist Church is headed for a decision point — finally. That decision point will NOT be reached this week. Regardless of what happens to Bishop Karen Oliveto, the real date to circle in red is the special session beginning on February 23, 2019. The decision on Bishop Oliveto will make half of the church around the world angry, and half will be satisfied, but it won’t really matter. The special session will be the event at which we decide whether we’re going to stay together, or get a big fat messy divorce.

I am aware that some observers believe there are three factions at play — conservatives, liberals, and moderates who just want everyone to get along. But I believe there is a much simpler division. Despite all the talk about orthodoxy, authority of Scripture, and denominational heritage, it all comes down to whether or not one believes that homosexuality is a “sinful practice.”

To date, there have been more Methodists who believe that, yes, homosexuality is a “sinful practice,” than those who don’t. That’s a sad commentary on the contemporary United Methodist Church, but it is the reality.

To date, the United Methodist Church has, in practice, opted for a “big tent” approach, meaning that it has been willing to overlook the fact that gays and lesbians already serve as clergy and lay leaders. But that is changing — from both ends of the spectrum.

Conservatives believe that the purity of the church is at stake; if homosexuality is a sinful choice and lifestyle, then it simply can’t be “accepted” by the church at large, and certainly not in church leadership. In this thinking, the immorality of homosexuality threatens the overall witness of the church.

Progressives are, quite frankly, tired of waiting for church doctrine to change. We don’t believe that homosexuality is a choice, nor is it a “practice.” We believe that a great injustice has been done to gay people, which has caused lasting damage. We know that our denomination’s teachings have contributed to self-harming behaviors, including addiction and suicide. In our understanding, the discrimination and shame foisted upon LGBTQ persons threatens the overall witness of the church.

I don’t think these two viewpoints can coexist in the same denomination. Either homosexuals are living in sin and need to change, or they are living out the fullness of their God-given being and are to be affirmed and encouraged to live out their vocations. It’s one or the other.

This is one of those times when the church is called to make an either/or decision. I think of Joshua, who stood in front of the people of Israel as they were about to cross over into the Promised Land. He challenged them: “Choose this day whom you will serve … but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

Long before we voted to become a “Reconciling Congregation,” Kessler Park UMC made its decision. We decided to serve the Lord by standing firmly on the side of LGBTQ persons, because they “are” us. We refuse to go backward on the path of justice, and we extend our arms to those who have been excluded by the church from living their full personhood.

The rest of the United Methodist Church must also choose ...

Creating Safe Spaces in Lebanon

I’m still dreaming about Lebanon.

But they are uncomfortable dreams … nightmares, almost.

My team and I learned a lot about what a real refugee crisis looks like when we visited Lebanon back in late February. Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million, now finds itself accommodating over 1.5 million Syrians. As you can imagine, this causes a severe strain on societal infrastructure.

For the most part, the Lebanese have responded with courage and good will, extending basic needs to Syrian refugees: shelter, food, healthcare, and basic education.

But we also discovered that there are a number of pressing needs which are going unmet. The trauma caused by the war in Syria has affected an entire generation of children, many of whom have lost a sense of hope for the future. 

According to Dr Mohammad K Hamza, a neuropsychologist with the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS), Syria's children of war have experienced more than just post-traumatic stress. He has coined a new term for the amount of emotional trauma that he is seeing in children — “human devastation syndrome.”

A study released by Save the Children last month, based on over 450 interviews with adults and children in Syria, showed that “toxic stress is wreaking havoc on children.” Half of the children interviewed said they never or rarely feel safe at school, and 40% said they don’t feel safe outside t heir own homes. Another 78% of children “feel grief or extreme sadness some or all of the time.”

In our brief visit, we encountered some of these children. One of them has become an emblem of the Syrian conflict to me. I met Pheros in his family’s tent in Marj, near the Syrian border. He was a hollow-eyed 19 year old, with no hint of hope. He didn’t go to school, didn’t work, didn’t have any spark of interest in anything. All he wanted to do, we finally got him to admit, was to return to Syria and fight alongside the rebels.

It may be too late to reach Pheros. He may eventually slip back across the border and join a rebel group. Maybe he’ll join an Islamist group. Or become a suicide bomber. 

Those of us who met Pheros have been dreaming about him ever since. We have been praying about what to do to prevent an entire generation of kids like Pheros from growing up without hope. 

As a result of this interaction, our team is working to put together an NGO called Safe Spaces, which will focus on the psychosocial health of women and children refugees in Lebanon. We plan to partner with some NGOs already on the ground in Lebanon, but provide training for their workers to identify trauma in women and children and equip them with some coping skills and strategies.

We plan to begin in the city of Saida/Sidon, which is south of Beirut on the coast. We want to partner with Al Reaaya, a Lebanese-based NGO that provides relief and developmental support to orphans and widows affected by the war. The first Safe Spaces will be housed in a new school, which we also hope to help finance and build.

Our dream is for this to be a replicable model, which can be expanded into other regions of Lebanon, and work closely with municipalities and school systems.

Don’t get alarmed — I’m not thinking of moving to Lebanon myself! Instead, I believe that I can help leverage the expertise, influence, and resource of the United Methodist Church in America to make a difference. I would also like to facilitate some short-term mission trips to Lebanon in the coming years. In fact, we are currently planning a return trip to Lebanon during the third week of September 2017. The Bishop has already expressed interest in going, as well as the pastor of a very large United Methodist Church in the Dallas area.

I would love for some of y’all to go on that trip, but if you can’t, there are other ways that you can become involved with Safe Spaces. In particular, I am looking for psychotherapists trained in the field of PTSD and children. If you know someone who fits this criteria, please forward their information to me. 

Even if you don’t know someone, there are things you can do to help support this initiative. Let me know; we’ll find a role you can play

Decision Time

This Sunday is a special day for our six confirmands. After special classes, trips, and a retreat with Matt Bell, the six preteens will be ready for confirmation.

When I take part in a confirmation service, however, I always have a few questions in my mind about the rest of y’all.

I know that many of you never went through confirmation. If you were raised in a church or tradition which does not “do” confirmation, then you didn’t; instead, you were probably baptized as a young person or adult. Often, I get lots of questions about confirmation — what does it mean, what is its purpose?

Let me briefly explain the Methodist understanding of baptism and confirmation. Baptism is a sacrament of joining, and being joined to, the body of Christ. Therefore, we will baptize any adult who makes a conscious decision to be joined to Christ, or any infant or child whose parents wish to make that decision on his/her behalf.

In the case of an infant, obviously the decision is not the child’s own until such time as he or she makes it personally. Confirmation is the formal process by which the church invites the child to do so. We usually make it an educational and social program, with classes and experiences that help someone learn more about what it means to follow Jesus, so that they can make an informed decision.

When they are confirmed, they are taking responsibility for the baptismal vows that their parents said for them. They are owning it for themselves. They willingly take on the rights and responsibilities that go with following Jesus.

My first question to the rest of you, then, is, “Have you ever owned the faith for yourself? Have you made a conscious decision to follow Christ?” This is an important part of the journey of faith. As I said in a recent sermon, we are not born Christian, we are made into Christians. It is an act of the will, an intention, a choice. Too many people have never made a real choice to follow Jesus, but instead rest on the laurels of their baptism, as if it were a magical ritual that saves them from hell. That’s not the point of it at all, though. Baptism is a joining of our lives to Jesus.

Now, while the intention to follow Christ is an important part of the confirmation ceremony, it’s not the only piece. We believe that baptism is a means of grace for the follower of Jesus. In other words, it’s not so much about what we do, but about what God does on our behalf. We are joined to Christ, not by our own efforts or worth, but by the free gift of God. We are given new birth, a new start in life, by the mercy of God. As the baptismal liturgy reads, “All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.”

So my second question to all of you is, “Have you received the grace of God for yourself? Have you found that the power of the Holy Spirit lives in you, and gives you a strength that is not your own?”

If you have never been baptized, then perhaps it’s time to think about making the plunge (pun intended) for yourself. You are invited to a new relationship with God that begins with the forgiveness of sin and a renewal of your spirit in God’s love. I would be happy to talk about baptizing you.

If you have never been confirmed, then it’s up to you to answer the two questions above. Have you accepted the baptismal vows that were made for you, and have you received God’s grace? Perhaps you simply would like to learn more about what the faith journey is all about. I encourage you to join a Sunday School class or a small group, where you will have the opportunity to learn more about the Bible or the specific shape of the Jesus-centered life.

I certainly hope that all of you will be present on Sunday morning, as we listen to the witness of our newest confirmands, and as we celebrate the next steps they are taking on their own journeys.