I Have Seen the End and It Isn’t Pretty

I have seen the end and it isn’t pretty.

A couple of nights ago, I attended one of a handful of regional gatherings across the North Carolina Annual Conference.  These meetings, led by the Bishop and our General Conference delegates, were intended to outline the three proposals advanced by the Commission on a Way Forward.  Laity and clergy were both invited to attend.  Billed as a time for questions and answers, I hoped it would be a time of learning and sharing.  I was wrong.

I hadn’t been in my seat five minutes when someone raised their hand to speak on the most accurate definition of homosexuality.  It should (said this gentleman), according to any definition one might find, include the term sodomites.  If he said sodomite once he said it three more times.  To be honest, the meeting went downhill from there.

The Bishop did her best to keep order and maintain a sense of decorum.  However, it was clear those in attendance didn’t think much of the one church plan or changing the Book of Discipline to be more accommodating to all United Methodists.  Soon the same tired tropes emerged, homosexuality is the sin par excellence, Jesus didn’t talk about homosexuality because they still stoned sodomites in 1st century Palestine (so Jesus didn’t have to bring it up), and Methodists need to be more concerned about keeping people out of Hell.   I wasn’t sure if the man who mentioned stoning wasn’t still advocating taking people, as he said, “to the local rock pile”.   He was intentionally ambiguous.

There were also secondary complaints about the lack of information from the committee, annual conference, and those in charge.  To those who hear only bits and pieces of information or follow Rob Renfroe’s version of Methodism, these plans seem sudden and frightening.   Fear is the word which kept coming to mind.  Beyond the anger, misquoted Bible verses, and the outright bigotry I witnessed; this meeting contained a palpable sense of fear.

My sisters and brothers are scared.  Frightened people have difficulty being faithful disciples.  They are afraid of their neighbors, losing their church, the control they pretend to maintain over God’s kingdom, and the idea that God’s grace is bigger than they realized.  This isn’t simply homophobia.  Yes, that’s part of the equation.  It is theophobia, a fear of letting God be God. What happens if God demands we love people we’ve been inaccurately taught to despise?  God’s spiritual audacity and expansive moral grandeur is frightening to those who image of God is one of wrath and punishment.

The meeting I attended is a microcosm of events occurring around United Methodism.  In fact, I’m betting this gathering was kind of a dress rehearsal for the special General Conference.  The same hurtful words, self righteous speeches, and stereotypes will be thrown around the convention floor in St. Louis.  It will be as wrong and as hurtful there as it was this week.

There’s free speech and there’s hate speech.  What I heard in this meeting bordered on hate speech.  It made me sick to my stomach and ashamed to be sitting in a United Methodist Church.  By the time our gathering finished, I couldn’t wait to leave the building.  I felt confused, angry, and disappointed.  I know people can be mean.  I realize even when we clean up and go to church, we feel like we can say ugly, vile, and reprehensible things about people God created because we “do it in Christian love” or “tradition”.   I’m not naive or ignorant.  However, I’m always surprised (a bit) when I see in person.   A Methodism that is rude, discriminatory, and cloaked in judgmental self-righteousness isn’t the church I know and love.   If that makes me less of a Christian (or United Methodist), I guess we can get adjoining rooms in Hell.

The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote about the idea of “God needing us” for God’s very existence.  I’m not one to usually argue with Heschel, however, after what I saw this week, it looks like God could do just fine if we weren’t figuring out ways to put up roadblocks to inclusivity and border walls around the Kingdom of Heaven.  When we’re like this, God doesn’t need us.  Before we’re going to be of any use to anyone, (LGBTQI United Methodists, the elderly, children, migrant families, Syrian refugees, or heroin addicts in our own community, etc.) we need more of God’s love.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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How’s The Church at Ephesus Doing Today?

What happened to the church at Ephesus?  Everything seemed to be going so well.  Paul seems pleased with their success.  After Paul’s visit to Ephesus, which was memorable, they continued to grow and thrive.  In an era without the internet and modern communication, he was able to stay abreast of events in the church he planted.  “Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, this is the reason that I don’t stop giving thanks for you when I remember you in my prayers.”  Paul remains thankful for the Ephesians.  They are at the top of his prayer list.  This makes sense.  After investing so much of his time and energy in establishing the church, he’s glad to hear things are working.  I’m sure Paul prays for all the places he’s lived, visited, and established.  Nevertheless, when given the variable, especially in the middle of a hostile culture and Roman religious practices, Paul’s going to be extra thankful for the Ephesians.  These first few verses of Ephesians point in us that direction.

We know from Luke’s story of Paul’s time in Asia Minor what happened in Ephesus.  The letter to the Ephesians reveals Paul’s directions and response to ongoing events in Ephesus.  Yet, this doesn’t answer my first question.  What happened to the church at Ephesus?  We know what happened.  You can travel to Turkey and take a tour of Ephesus and see the remains of the community of Ephesus.  The church isn’t there.  You can do the same thing in Corinth, Philippi, and Galatia.  Most of the places where Paul planted churches are archaeological ruins.  Let me emphasize the word “ruins”.  Paul’s greatest successes have vanished from the face of the Earth.  There are no functioning churches.  If churches do exist in the vicinity, they are not the churches Paul started.  Paul’s churches are dead.  The Corinthian Church, unable to love but always willing to fight, is consigned to the dustbin of history.  The Ephesians and the Philippians (the two communities who seemed to “get it”) are no more viable than United Methodism is about to be.

Reading Ephesians 1:15-23, I came away with this idea:  good churches that make disciples, with grand intentions to transform the world, who do everything right, still fade away into history.  We can do everything right (whatever “right” means) at the special general conference and the next general conference and still fail.  It probably won’t matter.  If right means preserving each “sides” version of the status quo, then we’ve left the powerful in place and postponed our inevitable journey toward Ephesus like oblivion.

Mainline Protestantism is dying.  Our churches are struggling. This is not because there are liberals in the pulpits and conservatives in the pews.  It’s not because people aren’t giving until it hurts.  The system we’ve inherited from our parents and grandparents is broken, antiquated, and isn’t easily adaptable to life in the 21st century.  We’ve streamlined and changed titles.  Nothing changes this reality:  our organizational structure is essentially as it was prior to World War II.   That’s killing us.  It’s 2018 and we’re still assigning clergy like it’s 1918.  That’s a serious problem.

Methodism’s current theology toward human sexuality is also flawed.  Also, our institutions and systems of power were developed in a pre-industrial age America.  If we discard the former we need to significantly overhaul the latter.

The institutional church is out of touch with the people sitting in the pews; one need only read the horribly written press release which announced the Council of Bishops’ decision last Friday.  Communication is not among their spiritual gifts.  Private meetings and unreleased votes and ridiculously long time tables inspire little confidence in those who are charged with leading communities between Sunday services.    I know more about what Robert Mueller will do if a subpoena to the president is challenged in the Supreme Court than I do the future of my own denomination and livelihood.  The White House keeps America better informed than the Bishops keep Methodists in the loop.  That’s sad.    It’s also true.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

Cancel Your Trip To Germany, Save Money, Use Skype

 

It’s a sign of how out of touch the Commission on A Way Forward is with the United Methodist Church and the world as a whole. Over the past two weeks, two hurricanes of epic proportions have rocked the foundations of the United States and the western hemisphere. A textbook case of ethnic cleansing is occurring in Burma. A massive mudslide killed hundreds of people and washed away entire villages in Sierra Leone. In the Philippines churches are resisting a campaign of extrajudicial killings ordered by a despotic president. North Korea tested a 250-kiloton hydrogen bomb. And yet, our church has the time and the money to fly 29 people to Germany for a “critical” meeting.

I know we’re a world church.  I get it.  Honestly, this isn’t about United Methodists in the farthest corners of the globe.  This is a domestic American political and religious issue.  Pretend all you want, you’re not going to solve this problem in Berlin.

But that’s not the real problem. What’s really obscene about this trip is the money. If, conservatively speaking, the general church spends $700 on round-trip tickets to Berlin (that’s roundtrip from Atlanta), airfare alone for the 21 U.S. commissioners is more than $14,000. Two members are from the Philippines and seven are from the continent of Africa, where travel is even more expensive. One commissioner, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, lives in Germany, and another, David Field, lives in Switzerland, so presumably their travel costs won’t be that much.

When UMCOR is raising money (and small churches like mine are both raising money to help hurricane victims and trying to pay apportionments) how can members of the “Commission on a Way Forward” look at themselves in the mirror?  How can I go into the pulpit with a straight face and say, “give us money to help hurricane victims while our handpicked leaders are working out the big issues of the day in Berlin?” Has no one heard of Skype?

At a time like this, someone from the U.S. church, which is bearing the biggest cost, should step forward and say, “The optics of us jetting off to Berlin in the wake two natural disasters while our church raises money makes us look like the Louise Lintons of the United Methodist Church.” Louise Linton is the wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. She made a notorious Instagram post a few weeks ago, flaunting her wealth on a trip to Fort Knox. This Berlin meeting, dear brothers and sisters, is on par with her faux pas.

I’ve written on numerous occasions that global events would overtake the denomination. There would come a time when we no longer had the luxury to debate ordaining gay clergy and same-sex marriage as if it were September 10, 2001. It’s not. We need to make a decision, one way or another, so those of us who do know how we feel can get on with our lives. I’m tired of paying for your vacations to Europe and being made to feel guilty when I ask the question, “Why?” People are dead in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas. Way Forward’s U.S. members, who make up the bulk of the commission, need to be home helping, not in Germany debating.

Richard Lowell Bryant