Wednesday, February 10, 2016

An Open Letter to the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders

Esteemed sisters and brothers in Christ,

Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

In the invitation to holy communion, we are invited to partake in God's grace if we love Christ, truly repent of our sins, and seek to live in peace with one another.  This threefold invitation reflects the discipline of our own General Rules, doing no harm (repenting of sin), doing good (seeking to live in peace), and loving Christ (attending the ordinances of God).  It is in the spirit of this invitation and pledge that I write you today, that we may honor Christ and do good rather than harm.

Recently, your association submitted to General Conference a proposal to amend the UMC Constitution.  The intent of this legislation is to abolish what you consider to be a principle of "guaranteed appointment" or "a guarantee of lifetime employment for any minister." To resolve this concern, you propose radically expanding the power of the episcopacy.

By granting the episcopal office sole, arbitrary, and secret discretion over the continuance of UMC clergy, this proposal undermines the democratic, open character of peer review, something we call "fair process" or "trial."  This process is a responsibility of the annual conference, the basic organizational unit of the UMC.  The proposed expansion from a limited to infallible episcopacy would also change what the Constitution calls the "plan of our itinerant general superintendency."   These aspects of United Methodist polity are protected by the Restrictive Rules, as you are aware.

I suspect that this proposal may arise from actual experiences with ministers who have fallen short of your expectations and those of Christ.

Perhaps you have experienced pastors who were lazy and complacent.  Perhaps you have experienced bias on the basis of race, gender, class, or political ideology.  Perhaps your churches have suffered with ministers who failed to uphold the doctrine and Discipline of the UMC, those interested only in money, those who led a double life, those whose secular hobbies seem to consume more time than ministry duties, and those who betray their covenant through scandalous immorality.  Perhaps the problem has been an abuse of authority.

Sadly, such abuses do take place, and worse.  When they have taken place, they have caused great harm to you and to your communities and have harmed the credibility of our ministry. No church should have to suffer under an abusive, corrupt, or incompetent pastor.

Those of us serving in the rank and file itinerant ministry have a similar concern.

Our bishops and superintendents are also members of the clergy.  The power, position, and privilege associated with those offices necessitate an even greater vigilance against the temptations of clericalism.

My conference was painfully reminded of this with the recent resignation of our bishop in response to a complaint.

Imagine for a moment that security of appointment had not been restored by the Judicial Council.   An individual who later resigned under complaint of sexual misconduct would have had sole authority over the status of every pastor in my conference including those historically subjected to employment bias (women, ethnic minorities).

It is precisely the human character of the clergy that led Francis Asbury and others to develop a plan for a limited episcopacy, establishing the process of trial by jury (for admission and expulsion) and democratic elections.

Our polity embodies the values of the democracy in which it was founded.  Our bishops are not monarchs.  They are not infallible.  They are consecrated, apostolic, executive, and exemplary Christian servants with responsibilities to travel throughout the context of ministry, preside at conferences, lead general agencies, rule on the Discipline, and make appointments.  This is a holy calling, worthy of obedience and respect.

When toxic clergy have received appointments, it was not due to a lifetime guarantee of appointment.  It was due to the failure of their local and conference leaders to bring an appropriate complaint process.

This being the case, your proposal will not have the outcome you seek.  The corrupting influence of power without responsibility cannot be addressed by granting more power and less responsibility to our most powerful clergy.  In some cases, it might result in a more expedient dismissal of an ineffective, immoral, or incompetent pastor (with little to no record kept to protect others in the future.)  In other cases, it will deprive you, your churches, and the mission field the leadership of diverse ministers with the courage to speak Biblical truth to power. Worst of all, it will irreparably harm the integrity and balance of our polity essential to healthy relationships.

Most clergy welcome accountability as a means of bearing historical testimony to the work of God in our ministry.  When applied with equity and on a routine, on-site observation and evaluation improves competence, helps identify areas for growth, strengthens relationships through honest conferencing, identifies and shares best practices, and assists all of us on the journey to Christian perfection.  Such an approach also provides objective evidence when discontinuance is warranted.

An arbitrary decision to expel or suspend made in the secrecy of a cabinet room will never provide this level of quality.

We can improve accountability while honoring the values of fair process, democratic (conference) authority, and the separation and balance of powers. To do so, we must place expectations upon each of the various democratic bodies charged with accountability of clergy to fulfill their responsibilities.

Please receive these remarks and suggestions in a genuine spirit of Christian charity.

By God's grace, I am...

Your servant in Christ,

Rev. John P. Feagins
Pastor, La Trinidad United Methodist Church
San Antonio, TX

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Modest Proposal for UMC Unity

This week, delegates to the 2016 General Conference were briefed on proposed legislation, constitutional amendments, structures, and other potential changes all meant to enhance the mission of the church, respect our global nature, fix our ministry, make more converts, and keep people happy.

Unfortunately, as in the past, many people are not happy.  The ongoing debate over human sexuality continues to create rifts between the various groups within the church.

As of yet, no single proposal to resolve this conflict has gathered the support of the entire church.  We have something called the "third way" (straight, gay, ? ), proposals for amicable separation (oxymoron alert!), proposals for eliminating the trust clause (trust us!), proposals to anathematize those who hold our current position (to be truly inclusive), and proposals to let churches vote (without splitting them, of course).

At the risk of "taking a passing dog by the ears," being misunderstood, or offending someone, and in the spirit of the venerable Jonathan Swift, I thought I would throw in my own modest proposal for UMC Unity.


No, not the kind that frees you from years of torment in Purgatory.  We are after all Protestant and don't believe in that.  These would be more like "cap and trade" permits that let polluters pump more greenhouse gases into the air if they can pay for the carbon credits.

Indulgences would provide a way for people that have a big disagreement with some aspect of UMC doctrine or discipline to stay connected.

For example, take a church that wants to hire its own pastor instead of having the bishop appoint someone.  To get the person they want, they purchase an indulgence. The larger the church, the more expensive the indulgence.

Want to teach that all religions are the same?  Get an indulgence.

Can't hold back from posting inflammatory propaganda on social media?  Purchase an indulgence.

Appointed to a rough area and want to "open carry" some heat in church to scare off potential bad guys?  Buy an indulgence.

Know a wealthy parishioner who feels its time to be re-baptized or wants you to do a wedding at a previous appointment?  Get an indulgence.

Want to serve liquor to guests at the parsonage or let the Girl Scouts sell raffle tickets at church?  Purchase an indulgence.

Planning a mission trip to an exotic tourist destination while remaining indifferent to poverty in your own community?  Buy an indulgence.

Think its a good idea to promote men more than women or give choice appointments to the adult children of your friends?  Get an indulgence.

The money raised from these indulgences would be designated to offset the inequity created through the appropriation of individual privilege.

Funds raised would assist pastors, churches and ministries that faithfully uphold UMC doctrine and discipline and lack the financial means to purchase indulgences for themselves, those serving developing countries, struggling neighborhoods, the unchurched, students, the elderly, the sick, the incarcerated, immigrants and ethnic minorities.

With sexuality, the proposition of an indulgence has the potential to please the greatest number of people.

Indulgences would be offered for everything except the most harmful of sins.  As such, the system would be both safe and fair.

For a modest price, progressive pastors, churches and conferences would be free to politically, doctrinally, liturgically and privately pursue individual conscience while actively funding social justice.  Evangelicals would be able to relax within the ecumenical consensus as the church continues to collect penalties from those who stray from official dogma while being free to continue lavish church suppers and expensive high-tech worship experiences.  Mega-church congregationalists would be able to purchase the freedom they seek from burdens of connectional, itinerant ministry.  With each faction free to indulge its own idiosyncrasy and self-interest, the church would remain united, saving our episcopacy and denominational bureaucracies.

Best of all, this modest proposal would direct much needed resources to those we marginalize and neglect through our self-indulgence.

Of course, it's not entirely an original idea, but it might work!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Thanksgiving Miracle

In 1999, I received an appointment to open a new congregation on the north side of Laredo, Texas.   The assignment was a "parachute drop" - salary support, some start up funds, and a few phone numbers, but little else.  As resources were very limited and altar furnishings are very expensive, I personally built our cross, pulpit, and altar table.  The cedar wood altar featured a Celtic braid pattern representing the Holy Trinity and the uniting of the English and Spanish speaking people under God's providence.

The work in Laredo was difficult but accomplished much for God's kingdom with many professions of faith and baptisms and vocations to ministry as well as significant missions on both sides of the border.  At the same time, many factors including the high price of real estate and the turn-over of many new residents to Laredo offset our growth from evangelism and outreach and made long term sustainability difficult.  It became obvious that the church would not reach the goals set for it by the Annual Conference (300 in worship, funds to support a full time elder, purchase land and build a facility).  Attempts to adapt to this by putting the church on a multiple point charge or locating the church in underutilized church-owned facilities in town all failed.  To give the church one last chance to survive, after four years of work, I requested a move, hoping they would receive a part-time appointment or be linked with another congregation.

In October of 2003, I moved from Laredo to San Antonio.  Within weeks, the Laredo new church was closed, its members involuntarily joined to other churches, and its financial assets utilized to move the McAllen District office from McAllen to Harlingen.  All its other items were donated to other churches.  I served five more years at Chapel Hill UMC, and five more at UM Campus Ministry in San Antonio before being appointed to San Antonio La Trinidad UMC in 2013.

A few weeks ago, La Trinidad in San Antonio completed major renovations of its basement.  One of those new spaces is the chapel.

The new chapel features the beautiful pews from the 1921 Templo, but has no altar table or other adornments.  I began to consider how to find an altar, and wondered what ever happened to the altar table I made for Church of the Savior in Laredo.

Last June, my in-laws, Rev. Rodolfo and Isabel Cajiri, received a new appointment to the La Trinidad UMC in Laredo, Texas.  Raquel, the boys, and I traveled there a few days ago to enjoy an early Thanksgiving meal with them.  After we held hands to pray over our meal, I opened my eyes and noticed a brown utility table on their patio just outside where we were seated.

Something about the table called out to me...

My eyes filled with tears as I noticed the Celtic pattern on the side of this table. At some time prior to their arrival to Laredo, the Holy Altar had been converted into a common work table and painted with the same paint used on the doors inside the house!  Trying to fight back feelings of shock and grief, a still small voice spoke to me...

"Why are you sad?" it asked.  "Have you not found what you were seeking?  This table has been working to prepare the home for your loved ones.  Now, the same hands that built this table will restore it."

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Wound That Won't Heal

A Wound That Won’t Heal
John P. Feagins
28 June 2015 - Sermon Preached at La Trinidad UMC, San Antonio, TX
Mark 5:21-43
21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
24So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32He looked all around to see who had done it.33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?”36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
On Tuesday of last week, I had the privilege of traveling to North Georgia to participate in the ordination of a former student intern and long-time friend from Monterrey, Mexico, Rodrigo Cruz.   Rodrigo is now one of a handful of Latino elders in the very large North Georgia Conference.  He is being appointed to open a new church, and was also elected this year to serve on their delegation to Jurisdictional Conference.   While I was only in the Atlanta and Athens area for a day, it was a very joyous occasion, with family and friends from the church he has served celebrating prior to the service. 
Our celebration, however, would be short-lived. 
My friend Rodrigo is also a Doctor of Ministry student at Wesley Theological Seminary.  Like many people, his life was touched by the inspiring friendship and ministry of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Rev. Clementa Pinckney, as you likely heard, was one of 9 precious souls who were brutally betrayed and murdered by someone they had welcomed into their weekly Bible Study.  According to the murderer, 21 year old Dylan Roof, a young white man who used his birthday money to purchase a handgun, he killed them because they were black.
Because they were black?
The hate.  The conspiracy.  The deception.  The betrayal.  The horror!  The profanity!
Such evil, such wickedness, such grief - it opens up deep wounds.  For me, those are wounds that just don’t want to heal.   They just keep bleeding.

You see, when I look at those photos in the media of Emanuel AME church, I don’t see something distant, foreign and removed from my experience.  I don’t see people who are different.  I see a congregation standing together in their Sunday best, assembled in unity both today, and in black and white panoramic photos in front of their historic temples, one made of wood, one made of brick, another more modern.  I see a place where faithful people gather not only on Sunday, but on Wednesday, to encounter God’s Word.  I see a place where a proud, saintly, people were born and given power and authority to stand up for their own dignity.   I see a mother church.   I see a church like La Trinidad.

I see home.  I see my family of faith.

I also see precious brothers and sisters, not unlike the African American members of our own conference and of my former parish, Chapel Hill UMC, intelligent, virtuous, beautiful, loving, generous, wise, leaders who I hold in my heart, and it is there, in my heart that the wound has been opened again.

It is not the only wound.
When I see the image of Dylann Roof, posturing with a Confederate Battle Flag and his brand new birthday present pistol, plotting to bring evil into a holy place and death to a holy people, unlike many of you here today, unlike the brothers and sisters of Emanuel AME church, I do not have the privilege of seeing someone who is different, who is strange, who is alien.

No.  I have to see ancestors, relatives, a family of origin.  I have to see a white person from the South.

I have to see a great-great grandfather who fought for the Confederate Infantry in Tennessee, taking up arms to defend the same twisted ideology represented by that flag.  I am forced to hear again, in my childhood memories, the voice of my paternal grandfather, speaking in that near unintelligible Tennessee accent, telling us not to trust, not to respect, not to associate, and not to love our black neighbors, teaching us to hate.  I am forced to remember my own mother’s tears, struggling to keep that indoctrination from continuing at home.  I am forced to remember a Confederate flag that hung not over a state capitol, but in my brother’s room.

You see, one of the many wounds that opened up in Charleston is my wound.
It is also the wound of our society.
Call it what you want: bigotry, hate, prejudice, racism – it’s a wound that keeps bleeding.
It is the bleeding sickness of a society that was born through conquest, colonization, extermination, and exploitation.  We can rewrite history all we want.   We can create hagiographies of our nation’s founders and myths about our manifest destiny, but the evidence shows we have a genetic sickness, and this sickness keeps on bleeding.
It bleeds every time a person of color becomes a victim of poverty, prejudice, bias, discrimination, profiling, oppression, brutality, zero tolerance, three strikes you’re out, mass incarceration, broken schools, broken families, broken neighborhoods, toxic substances that break bodies and minds.

It bleeds when we detain families seeking refuge in our country, when we deport mothers away from their children, when we expel young people we have raised who love us.

It bleeds with our indifference.  It bleeds with our escapism.  It bleeds with our elitism.

It bleeds when we think hate is only something related to race, or gender, or sexuality, that its not systemic, that its not about privilege and power, that its nothing more than mere prejudice. 

It bleeds when we feed the mother of all bigotry, ideological loathing, the very form of hate that nailed Jesus to the cross, a work of the flesh that the Bible calls “heresy” in the Greek language, “party spirit” – the very basis of war, undermining civility, dividing friends, family, and our nation, causing us to become more partisan, polarized, political.

It bleeds when we prefer propaganda instead of seeking truth.

We’ve been to the doctors.  Oh yes, we have been to the doctors.  We’ve paid the doctors.
Our doctors of philosophy, of academia, of psychology, of sociology, of political science, doctors of the media.  They’ve described it.  They’ve analyzed it.  They’ve deconstructed it.  They have diagnosed it.  They contradict each other.  The compete with each other.  Many have promised, but none have cured it.  Nine bleeding bodies in a Church in Charleston and a racist flag flying proudly in the aftermath can tell us that.

So now what?
Let us go to the Gospel.  Will you come with me?  Today’s Scripture is about an interruption.  It is an eruption that comes between two other things.  Jesus is interrupted.

It begins with an encounter between Jesus and a man of power.  His name is Jairus.  He is the head of the synagogue, and he is desperate.  Jairus daughter is near death.  He loves his daughter.  The prospect of her death has Jairus acting like a fool.  No longer is he skeptical about Jesus.  No longer does he care what those watching him think.  He’s anxious.  He’s in a panic.  He falls on the ground and begs Jesus.  Come, Jesus, lay hands on my daughter so she will live.  Come heal my daughter!

And Jesus responds to his plea.  Jesus loves him.  Jesus goes to his house.
Before Jesus can get there, however, he is interrupted. 
25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 
Twelve years, bleeding.  Bleeding that wouldn’t stop.  Bleeding that left her unclean, shameful, unworthy, outcast.  Outcast from the synagogue.  Outcast by Jairus!

Useless doctors.  Money wasted.  A wound that wouldn’t heal. 

But she had heard about Jesus. Did you catch that?  She heard about Jesus.  Someone told her.  Someone shared with her.  Someone probably told her where to find him.   And she didn’t just hear.  She believed. 
If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.  You see this isn’t about teaching.  This isn’t about pleading.  This is faith in the Holy Spirit and the very love of God for her soul.
And she touches him.  And she feels, inside, from her tip toes to the top of her head, power, dunamis, Holy Spirit healing, restoration, deliverance, liberation!
And Jesus feels it also.  He asks, “who touched me?”  Trembling, fearful, she tells him the truth, and he responds.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Daughter!  Do you hear that?  Out of her family of origin, into a new family, a spiritual family.  Jesus calls her daughter.  She is adopted.  Next stop for Jesus, raising the dead.

Our society is like that woman.  We have a wound that won’t heal.  We need Jesus.  We need to touch him, to grasp his clothing, the clothing of our baptism, the clothing of his righteousness. We need to reach out, to be filled by his Spirit, the transforming power that comes out of him, healing our bleeding wound!  And when we stop bleeding, we need to be washed, washed free of the shame of hatred, bias, the legacy of racism, and to find power to tear down the systems that open those wounds! 

Christ has the power to stop this bleeding!  Christ has the power to wash away its filth!  Christ has the power to heal it at its source, the human heart!  Christ calls us sons, daughters, to unite us.
Precious church, it is not by mere coincidence, irony, accident or entitlement that my life, my family, my ministry, are surrounded, immersed in the beauty of diversity, of color, of language, of thought.

I am the product, the beneficiary, of the same grace, mercy, hope and hospitality that the sweet Christian sisters and brothers of Mother Emanuel AME extended to Dylann Roof, their last act on earth.  I have received unmerited love from people different than myself.  Like many of God’s people, before I could serve God as a missionary, I had to become a refugee. Those who adopted me also delivered me.

The healing begins with each of us.  Do you bleed?  Do you need to reach out and touch the garment of Christ?  I invite you.  Come.  He is here.  Enter your spiritual family.  

Civil Marriage, Civil Rights, Civil Liberties

When the United States Supreme Court extended the right to civil marriage to same-sex couples, many people saw this as an affront on religious liberty.

This perception is unfounded.  Civil marriage is not a religious sacrament.  It is not a divine ordinance.  It is not a response to divine vocation.

Civil marriage is a contract between two persons and the state.  These persons have decided to assume certain responsibilities for one another, their mutual estate, and for any children they raise together.  These responsibilities convey certain privileges such as the privilege of sharing joint property, borrowing together, bequeathing inheritance, sharing insurance, access at hospitals and other places, making legal or medical decisions for a partner, filing taxes jointly, the privilege of sharing custody of children, etc.

The Supreme Court ruled that civil marriage is a civil right for couples of the same sex.  As such, it is an inalienable right.  Persons seeking a marriage license cannot be refused on the basis of gender alone.  If they are already married, if they have not paid child support to previous spouses or partners, if they are (I assume) next of kin, they will still be refused a marriage license in most states.

The decision to allow same-sex marriage appears to place the civil definition of marriage in conflict with many religious traditions.  In truth, those definitions have always been in conflict.

Within most Christian traditions, marriage is seen as a covenant not between two autonomous individuals and the state, but rather between a man, a woman, both of responsible age and eligibility, and God.  This covenant is often made before witnesses within a community of faith.  It is a covenant for life, to be lifted only in extreme circumstances (abuse, abandonment, adultery).  Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, marriage is a response to the divine vocation for man and woman to come together and become one flesh.  Sexual differentiation and intercourse are an expression of the created order established by God, not to be put asunder (Matthew 19:4).  

Civil marriage cares nothing about sex, sexuality, or sexual intercourse, save perhaps for the welfare and health of potential children.  Intimacy takes place, or doesn't take place, behind a protected barrier of privacy, a wall that protects all of us from government intrusion into bedroom matters.  This is why same-sex couples are treated the same as opposite sex couples.  Partners in a same-sex marriage do not even need to be gay, as the government has no means or authority to confirm sexual orientation or intent.  Two straight men or two straight women could therefore seek the status of marriage.

The tradition of allowing ordained ministers, without any verification of credentials or measure of responsibility, the authority to solemnize, sign, and therefore enact civil marriage licenses is an artifact of the colonial era.  This practice is, and always has been, a breach of the fundamental separation of church and state.

With the expansion of civil marriage to include same-sex couples, many clergy feel they are faced with a conflict of interest:  honor the civil rights of all people or remain obedient to provisions of canon law and discipline within their communities.

This conflict may now have grave consequences for the religious minister.  By signing a civil marriage license, an ordained minister ceases to function as a religious priest or pastor and becomes an agent of the state, a surrogate for the Justice of the Peace.  As such, he or she is liable to the provisions of the law of the state.

This conflict is easily resolved.

Members of the clergy should cease and desist from participating in the process of civil marriage.  As stated above, civil marriage is a distinct institution from a religious covenant.  Ministers should stop signing marriage licenses.  Couples who approach clergy for a religious ceremony should be instructed, as they are in Latin America, to obtain civil marriage from the civil authority.

In other words, religious clergy must differentiate their agency from that of the state, and by so doing, differentiate civil marriage from religious covenant, ritual, and privilege.

This differentiation has many benefits.  It honors the separation of church and state.  It allows people of faith to live within the provisions of the law.  It honors the civil rights of all people.  It preserves religious liberty. It protects the integrity of religious traditions.  It allows for religious diversity, as communities of faith work out their own understanding of marriage.

In addition to this practice, clergy and churches should also refrain from the following:

1.  Conducting marriage ceremonies for persons who are not church members.
2.  Offering a church to the public as a venue for weddings, especially for rent.

These two common practices communicate that the rites and ceremonies relating to marriage are offered as a public accommodation, open to the public, or offered in exchange for money, a secular business.

Unless the religious community is prepared to respond impartially to all who solicit this service, these practices open the local church up to a charge of discrimination.  They also beg the question as to the covenantal, sacred, and uniquely traditional nature of the marriage rites.

In conclusion, far from challenging or harming religious marriage, the action of the Supreme Court to extend civil marriage to same-sex couples provides the opportunity for communities of faith to differentiate the two, freeing religious marriage from syncretism and secularization while honoring the civil rights and equal protection now extended to same-sex households.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Inspired by Faith - Welcomed by Fear

One hundred years ago, the Mexican Revolution drove entire families to seek refuge in Texas. Communities of faith embraced their language and culture and provided them with resources needed to establish new lives. One of those communities was La Trinidad United Methodist Church of San Antonio.

Today, a new wave of refugees from Central America is fleeing places in the world with the highest murder rates and gangs who kidnap and exploit children. Many of these refugees are devout Christians. Some have received aid from Christian missionaries on their journey, such as the volunteers at the Laredo Humanitarian Relief Team, where I had the privilege of volunteering yesterday.

As Christians, these immigrants find inspiration in the Bible with its stories of pilgrimage and deliverance. Scripture tells of a human race expelled from paradise, seeking to find its way back. It tells of God calling Abraham to enter a new land, of Hagar and Ismael, abandoned yet rescued by God. It tells of Joseph, sold into slavery, yet blessed by God, and of Moses leading his people out of slavery through a journey in the wilderness. Scripture speaks of Ruth, an ancestor of Jesus, who left her people and land to follow God. 

The biblical God is also a sojourner, dwelling in a tent, traveling as a pillar of cloud and fire, coming to earth as the child Jesus, the Word made flesh, born to a migrant family without lodging, and becoming a child refugee. Jesus also traveled into the wilderness before opening an itinerant ministry of teaching and healing.

Scripture also provides the teachings of Jesus, the mandate to love our neighbors, to welcome and protect children, to do unto the foreigner as we would do unto Christ.

Unfortunately, the biblical vision of redemption through sacrifice, pilgrimage,and hospitality no longer informs U.S. immigration policy.

In recent years, the U.S. has deported more than 4 million people, many of whom had already assimilated to American culture or had U.S.-born children.  Spending on enforcement has increased ten-fold. Corporations operate immigration prisons and use their profits to propose harsher laws. Immigrant detention centers are saturated and 50,000 unaccompanied children are being held in concentration camps, isolated and invisible, until their families come out of secrecy to be deported with them. 

Our immigration laws not only oppress our most vulnerable neighbors, they threaten any decent American who would offer them hospitality with severe fines, property seizure and a prison sentence.

These policies are repugnant to the values of faith and destructive to our society. They make enemies of people who would be our friends. They deprive our military of recruits with a proven resilience and determination. They waste our investment in education. They tear apart families. They prevent competition in our economy. They harm our food supply. They deprive our government of revenue and create exorbitant costs for enforcement.  Finally, they undermine our authority as a leader of the free world.

Conflicts of interest have crippled all attempts at reform. The void of leadership is filled by xenophobic propaganda, biased news coverage and anti-immigrant demonstrations, all appealing to our most cynical prejudices.

The frenzied protester thus holds a placard saying, "Not our children!" and she is correct. They are God's children. In God they trust.

When we sacrifice our most cherished values in order to deter others from coming, we are the ones turning America into a third-world country, not the immigrant.

We have responded to the poverty of our neighbor with our own poverty of character, and we have lost our own way along the pilgrimage of redemption.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Deconstructing the Division

Within the church, we generally experience disunity as a breakdown of community and the onset of antagonism.  People want to believe whatever they want, keep whatever they want, and do whatever they want, and don't take kindly to others getting in their way.

Christian unity, in contrast, calls us to a common faith and order, a common ministry, and a common purpose in mission.  Unity, in turn, helps promote a credible Christian witness (John 17:21).

Within the United Methodist Church, three components of church government specifically support these aspects of our unity.

The Book of Discipline is our common book of doctrine and law.  The General Conference is the steward of our Book of Discipline and has authority limited by the Restrictive Rules to create and change legislation.  Those Restrictive Rules ground us within the Christian tradition, the itinerant form of ministry, and the episcopal form of church government. Our Discipline orders the church and our doctrines establish standards of authenticity for our itinerant ministry and our episcopacy.  The Book of Discipline helps us live by a common faith and order.

The Itinerancy is our common and shared ministry.  Obedient to their bishops, our pastors move between churches and new mission fields.  Their common authenticity facilitates these transitions.  As pastors share pulpits, churches share resources to cooperate in the work of mission and ministry.  The Itinerancy helps us share a common ministry. 

The Episcopacy provides a common oversight and authority.   The unique perspective and authority of these traveling general superintendents help our common ministry establish a common purpose, while conforming it to our common faith and order, linking our itinerant ministry to the Discipline and to the mission field.  Our bishops are elected by the jurisdictional conferences and are accountable to the General Conference and the Judicial Council.

Conflict within the UMC generally manifests itself as antagonism toward one or more of these three elements of church government.  These forms of antagonism can be classified as follows: 

Antinomianism.   Standing against our Book of Discipline, antinomianism considers the rule of law or common standards for authenticity to be antithetical to freedom and grace.  It resists order as unjust, unfair, and oppressive.  Within our church and culture, we encounter antinomian attitudes in the following:
  • Relativism (different strokes for different folks)
  • Hedonism (if it feels good it must be good)
  • Utilitarianism (the ends justify the means)
  • Nihilism (nothing matters except the will to power)
  • Anti-semitism (disdain for Jewish people and the idea of scriptural holiness).
Antinomianism lets people believe whatever they want.

Congregationalism.  Standing against shared itinerant ministry, we find congregationalism, defining each church by its special needs, idiosyncrasies, ideology, economic status, liturgical preferences, cultural and racial identity, rather than by its common faith and order.  Each church understands its assets as its own and resists the imperative to share its pulpit, ministry, and resources with others.  We find congregationalism in the following:
  • Abolition of appointment security / equitable comp 
  • Schism and The "Local Option"
  • Proposals to abolish the trust clause
  • Very long pastorates for the most wealthy and ideologically eccentric
  • Opposition to paying apportionments
  • Economic bias against ministry with the poor
Congregationalism allows people to keep whatever or whomever they want.

Corrupting the integrity of our episcopacy and leadership, authoritarianism shuns responsibility even as it seeks greater privilege and power. We see authoritarianism in the following:
  • The Cult of Personality (popularity = authority)
  • Bureaucratic Clericalism. Consolidation of power in the executive by dismantling elected, volunteer, oversight
  • Undermining fair process and church trials
  • Ideological, gender, race, and economic bias in appointment making
  • Ultramontanist claims to direct divine revelation
  • Breakdown of accountability (see David Watson:
Authoritarianism lets people in power do whatever they want.

We cannot reduce the conflict in the UMC to mere differences of opinion or agenda between liberals and conservatives.  Such differences of opinion will exist within any diverse and democratic society.  Unity does not require unanimity.

If unity is at risk, it is due to a much deeper conflict undermining the values of authenticity, charity, and accountability that inform our commitment to shared order, ministry, and oversight which are embodied in our Discipline, Itinerancy, and Episcopacy, respectively.  These values hold us together, ground us in Christ, and send us forth in mission.  Disunity is a symptom of their disintegration from within our practice and polity.