Thursday, March 30, 2006

Two churches already?

I know - I need to be working on homework, but this is too much for me to just set aside. I just read an article from (put out by the publisher of Zion's Herald magazine) called "Methodism is Already Two Churches" by William A. Holmes, a retired pastor in the UMC. The article, on top of the fact that I've been reading Methodism @ Risk, really makes me think about this concept of unity in diversity, as I talked about a couple of posts ago. Is it really possible to hold all of these tensions together within our denomination? Why do we want to?

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, both the book and article mentioned above talk about the work of the Good News movement within (or perhaps on the fringe of) the UMC, partnered with the IRD (Institute on Religion and Democracy). I will admit that I'm not an expert on either of these two groups, but I have experienced their message enough times to know it's not one of unity. This group, as explained in Holmes' article, continually sets up their own alternative to official UMC agencies and groups - their own women's group (RENEW) as an alternative to UMW and the Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries, their own mission group (the Mission Society for United Methodists) as alternative to the GBGM mission personnel, even their own publisher (Bristol Books) as alternative to Abingdon, the official UM publisher. Holmes' point is - and I have to agree - if this isn't already two churches, what is?! General Conference 2004 saw the Good News group talking about "amicable separation" from the greater UMC, and we can all debate on what "amicable separation" might look like, but has the separation not been going on for quite a while already?

Holmes brings up many other questions and excellent points in his article, so I would encourage everyone to at least read it through. For example, "Homosexuality is only the most volatile issue roiling our church today; it is symptomatic of an even more profound division. We are without even a common understanding of what is meant by “making disciples of Jesus Christ.” I have talked before about how I see two of the fundamental differences between variuos groups of Christians being (1) biblical authority and interpretation and (2) what "Christian love" means or looks like, but Holmes makes me add (3) Christian discipleship. Perhaps this could be considered part of Christian love, but I'm choosing to list them as separate issues at this point. Holmes address biblical interpretation in his piece as well, but the notion that we all mean something different when we say we "make disciples of Christ" is really important. We read that statement as part of the UMC's purpose in the Book of Discipline, but do we talk about what that means? We often talk about concepts like grace, love, worship, community, etc. but do we know what we're talking about? If we don't make it explicitly clear, do other people know what we're talking about? But then if we do make it explicitly clear, perhaps we make the definitions narrow, and run the risk of becoming exclusive. Who's to say that what I think of as discipleship is right or wrong? Who are any of us to say that what anyone thinks is right or wrong? I know I want to say Good News is wrong - they are legalisitic and exclusive and not expressing the love of Christ, but can I really do that??

I understand the love of God, taught and exemplified in Jesus, to require inclusion and hospitality to all people - even if they don't want to include me. That means I'm supposed to include Good News at my church table. I'm supposed to tolerant towards those who are intolerant. But how far can that go? Realistically, the Good News movement has been in existence within the church for decades and now that they are talking about leaving, I have a hard time fighting to convince them to stay. I don't think that it's what God wants for us - to develop divisions around any kind of issue - but I also don't know how to continue to have the same conversations over and over again without changing anything. I don't know how to keep inviting people who tell me to get lost. How much rejection can someone take? I guess if we look at Jesus as an example, you take it all the way, even to death. But the counselor part of me wants to talk about self care, self respect, etc. Are these contrary to the Christian call? I don't think they are, and yet finding a balance seems impossible. I think about Paul's concept of the Body of Christ - we're each different parts with different functions, and while we may not like the way another part looks or functions, the fact is that we all work together. Perhaps Good News is that foot that I can't understand as an eye. Perhaps there's a bigger picture that we can't understand and we DO need to find a way to keep everyone at the table. But can we still call ourselves "united" methodists?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Spring "Break"

Well, there are no classes this week and I'm thoroughly enjoying the fact that it's 70 degrees out and I don't have to be sitting in a classroom all afternoon. I'm also looking ahead at the calendar and wondering how I'm going to make it through the rest of the semester. I'm not even talking about school work - although that is definitely a big consumer of my time - but all of the other things that make up my "life." I don't know how other seminary students manage family life, being a student pastor and getting their school work done - I feel like I barely manage two of those, never mind doing either of them as well as I want to. On top of school and those household chores/errands that someone has to do to keep the home fires burning, I also find my calendar filled with things like meetings (for school groups or church groups), the occasional "date night,"counseling appointments, dr appointments, vetrinary appointments, etc. How does anyone do it all? And how does anyone find time to check in with themselves, let alone checking in with God in the midst of all of the business?

I'm enjoying the fact that I don't have to sit in classes this week, and I admit that as of this moment I've done almost nothing on my homework. I have a friend coming to visit this weekend, so I have to get it done sooner (since I'll be busy when 'later' is upon me). I guess in a way I'm also taking a break from this blog - there's so much to think about and I need a break from all of the thinking. Until the brain juices get flowing again...

Saturday, March 18, 2006

"What are we selling?"

I was in my Theology of Paul class on Thursday morning when one line of the professor's really caught my attention. "What are we selling?" He was particularly asking us to think about what our personal understandings of salvation are in light of Paul's epistles and the interpretation that James Dunn gives of the theology therein. I'm no closer to understanding my personal concept of salvation (other than the fact that the word makes me queasy) but it made me think about the church in a way that I've never wanted to see before - as a business. Let's face it - we live in a capitalist society where everyone is selling and buying all the time. We even have dating services and website where, in a sense, we sell ourselves. Churches are competing for people in the pews - the ones who have the largest congregations and the most money to play with are seen as the "winners" converting souls and doing God's work with blessing. What are we really selling? Do we have to look at it that way? Isn't there something beyond the consumer model? What would Jesus have to say about this mentality (and the cleansing of the temple scene comes to mind)?

Regardless of how idealistic I want to try to be, the fact remains that many people don't think of church as something they want to do, but either something they need to do or are obligated to do. That doesn't seem right to me - although need and obligation are a part of it, I go to be part of a community - to worship with people who think like me and value the same things I value (for the most part). In this society, we can sell anything anywhere, including over our computers where we never really have to see or interact with anyone. Is that the kin_dom of God? Is that the ideal life for anyone? We can show our kids Disney movies galore that teach us it's not about the things in life but the people, but everything around us tells us otherwise. Advertising thrives on the message that happiness can be bought, and how do churches thrive? Is the church too something that can be bought?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Is unity in diversity possible?

The last week and a half has been a difficult one for me and others on campus. I won't go into the sordid details, but the basic issue is how to deal with differing opinions and theological understandings among our campus community. There are a variety of debated issues in the church and in this country - abortion, homosexuality, stem cell research, etc. - but all of the disagreements at some point or another come down to people having different understandings of what the Bible says, how much authority it has, and what it meant by "Christian love." I'm not about to start another debate on this blog (although it is somewhat tempting at times), but the rumbling conversations around campus right now make we wonder how unity will ever be possible in the church universal. Perhaps it's one of those things to be relegated to the kin_dom of God, not really possible in this "fallen" world, but I can't help but hope that someday we'll be able to manage it.

General Conference 2004 in Pittsburgh heard the question of splitting the denomination over homosexuality raised. The idea was defeated and a statement that suggested unity was adopted, but in the end, all the different groups went back to what they do, thinking about what kind of strategy to take up at General Conference 2008 in Dallas. I'm admittedly part of one of those groups that is working on strategy, but it amazes me how much I don't want to see the church split. There are days, of course, where the idea doesn't seem so bad, but as soon as I start thinking about how property and memebrship would theoretically get split, my head starts to hurt and I get a vague idea of how painful divorce must be. Regardless of how we feel about the issues, I know that we are all members of the Body of Christ, brothers and sisters in this spiritual journey and life journey. I fought with my biological brother all the time - still do at times - but that doesn't mean that I love him any less. I have just gotten to the point where I know which things I can and can't dicuss with him. Is that what we have to do in the church? Is that possible? I would say no, it isn't. I believe that the church needs to take stands on issues and be involved in political discussions as a moral voice, but as long as we in the church can't agree on what that voice should be saying, how do we go about it? We have church boards and agencies that speak on behalf of the denomination on many things, but there are always groups in the church that disagree with their statements and actions. Can we afford to keep going about it this way, angering those in our own ranks? Can we afford not to?

Each position on any particular issue feels that they are "right" and others are "wrong" - there never seems to be room for any other possibility. One of the things seminary has gotten into my head is the sense of false dichotomy - it doesn't always have to be "either/or" - sometimes it's "both/and" - or maybe we're ALL wrong. Maybe we can't even begin to see all the possibilities and the issues that we're even arguing over are completely missing the point. I don't know. I'm not God. But while I can admit that, I'm not ready to let go of my opinions and desire for the church to take a stand on things I believe are right. So how do we proceed?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

KC Coalition

Ok, I'm tired of talking about myself, so this entry is shameless publicity for other groups of which I'm a part. Mainly, I wanted to mention two things - a Mass Peace Gathering on March 19th sponsored by the KC Iraq Task Force and the Kansas City Coalition.

On March 19th from 3-5:30 pm at Mill Creek Park (47th and Main in Kansas City, by the large fountain at the Plaza district) the KC Iraq Task Force is sponsoring a large event - a Mass Peace Gathering. It's the 3 year anniversary of the war in Iraq, and I don't know about you but I remember exactly where I was when the war began. At the time, I lived in Oklahoma City and my partner was assigned on her second deployment to "Southwest Asia" but my mom and brother flew out to visit me and we took a road trip to Kansas City. It gave them a chance to see Saint Paul (and here Andy Bryan preach in chapel - you should check out his blog "Enter the Rainbow") as well as see the area where I'd be living for the next several years while in seminary. We had gone out to dinner and were going into one of the riverboat casinos (tsk tsk) when I heard a woman scream something along the lines of, "Woohoo, we're at war! We're finally going to get that Sadam bastard!" I remember thinking how odd it was that she was so happy about it and then the worry set in. I never hear much from offical Air Force National Guard channels about where people are going and when they might be back, but it was suddenly way too real a possibility that there would be serious injury or death to people that I cared a lot about. Afghanistan/Pakistan the year before had been bad enough. Well, anyway, three years later, the war continues, and things seem to be getting closer and closer to civil war rather than established democracy and peace. Regardless of how anyone felt about the war when it started, we're all getting tired of seeing the numbers of soldiers killed climb while we get nowhere closer to peace. I will personally be in the gathering next Sunday, holding a picture of one of the soldiers that has been killed in Iraq. My church is one of the endorsers - a fact that makes me proud - and I know that particular spot is popular for protests so it will be interesting to see how many people show up and what kind of response we get. If it rains, things will move to Unity Temple on the Plaza (at 47th & Jefferson), but I really want to be outside. There will be several speakers, including Bill Williams - a Marine Corps veteran, MO Rep. Beth Low, and VA National Board member Randy Barnes. I would encourage anyone to come join us or at least honk and wave in support as you drive by! :)

The Kansas City Coalition is an ecumenical group that focuses on faith-based community organizing to spread the welcoming movement in the Kansas City metro area. What does that mean, you ask? Well, the welcoming movement intentionally welcomes GLBT people in their places of faith - mainly churches, but I also know of synagogues in the metro area. Just about every denomination has some kind of a welcoming program associated with it - for example, there are More Light Presbyterians, and the United Methodist Church has the Reconciling Ministries Network. In some denominations, churches can become affiliated as welcoming, but what I especially like about the RMN is that it includes individuals, campus groups, Sunday School classes, etc. as well as congregations. That way, people can show their support no matter where they go to church or in what capacity. There's a network speicfically for Reconciling Clergy and another for parents of GLBT persons, a group for college and seminary students, etc. Back in December, the RMN cosponsored a faith-based community organizing training event (other sponsors were Community of Christ and Lutheran's Concerned - Reconciling in Christ program). I attended the training, which was at Community of Christ headquarters in Independence, and met a group of about 15 people from around the metro who felt like this was something important to work on and we formed the KC Coaliition. There's actually a little more to it than that, but it gives you the general idea. Our first event was held only a few weeks ago - we sponsored an education event called TRANSforming our Community which was a panel discussion about transgender issues. We had three MtF members of the panel and they spoke about their personal stories, faith life (or lack thereof depending on experiences), and answered a lot of questions. The big question is, now what? We've been trained on having conversations with people and helping groups talk about becoming welcoming, but we don't know how to let people know we're here for that. We can't just walk into random churches and say "Hi, we want you to become a welcoming church." So, if you know of a church who would like to start a dialogue - NOT to say that they definitely will become welcoming in the end, but you at least know of some people who are interested - please let me/us know. I'm only one of the dozen or so members of this group, and we're supported by the Institute of Welcoming Resources (a great website to check out if you're looking for anything from any denomination regarding LGBT issues) but you can check out our group by going to our Yahoo Group page.

Now that I've blabbed on about all of that stuff, I think I'm done for now. It's been a crazy week on our seminary campus - particularly regarding this welcoming issue, but I don't think it's appropriate for me to discuss here. Suffice it to say that as "liberal" as Saint Paul gets labeled, there are a lot of places where they could be more so. I graduate in one year, and while I don't claim to be the only or the loudest voice on campus, I am worried about what will happen when I leave and there isn't someone willing to speak up honestly about the fact that they are not the typical WASP straight male pastor-to-be. Only time will tell....

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Faith Crisis continued

I don't have a whole lot of time before church, but I've come up with some new questions after a lengthy conversation with a friend who was previously in seminary. Why does a person go to seminary in the first place? Is it to be trained so that they can minister and help others? or is it for themselves, to figure out what they believe and how to make it work in the current church framework and modern world? I think it's both, but different people put a different amount of emphasis on one or the other part of it. I also think it's interesting that so many people are told "be careful" when they go to seminary. People are concerned that seminary is going to somehow ruin them or destroy their faith. I don't entirely understand this concept, but would ask, if one's faith is destroyed in seminary, was it really faith to begin with? Does real faith falter because of education? Is education really the problem in this equation?

In my quest to complete seminary, I'm beginning to ask myself why I am here. I'm learning great things in most of my classes, but have no concept of how they are going to help me in the real world. While I can sit in class and talk about some of the merits of Buddhist faith (as well as similarities to Christianity), I would get thrown out of a majority of churches for mentioning such a thing. Talking about feminist concepts in class is wonderful, but the real world is patriarchal and there's not a lot of practical advice for how to change that. I know I'm only one person and not alone in this struggle, but so often it seems like the people I know in seminary become someone else when they're serving their churches. The woman who talks about the power of the female in spirituality when in classes, resorts to saying "Our father" every Sunday and doesn't even question it. The person who thinks LGBT people should be welcome when talking about it in Reconciliation class, doesn't breathe a word of his lesbian friend to his congregation for fear of their reaction. I'm not saying this is everyone, but there are cases that are even more extreme than this. Someone will write a paper about how some kind of social justice was integral to Wesley and is important to United Methodism today, but only wants to talk about individual salvation in church sermons and leaves it at that. There's not the integration between what's learned and what's practiced. So why learn all of this if people in the "real world" don't want to hear it or think about it?

I once used a metaphor from my childhood development (psychology class) to explain the church. Babies just rely on the parents for everything, no questions or concept of "world" outside of their needs and desires. I think there are many people like this in the church. Toddlers and young children begin to formulate a bigger concept of the world and ask a lot of questions, especially "WHY?" and will accept the answer given to them by someone they trust (parent, teacher, etc.). I think this is where a majority of people are in their faith - they want the Pastor to give them answers to the questions they come up with but don't want to or can't understand ambiguity or that there are questions they haven't thought of yet. As children grow older, they begin to question how much they can just accept what they've always been told - especially in the teen years there is a big search for what is truly "them" and a lot of experimenting occurs as they try things out and decide for themselves rather than taking someone else's word for it. Finally, when becoming adults, people (generally) have their own ideas about the world and who they are as individuals in it. Granted, these are broad and sweeping statements about the stages of life, and they come out of an American context (likely white, middle class as this is where most of academia sits) but I think there's something to this. If we, as church leaders, are the "parents" of these people, is it our job to answer their young child questions, or is it our job to help them grow into responsible adults in the faith?

I do not see myself in parish ministry - it would be confining, even stifling for me, to have to watch every word that I said. I don't want people putting that much stock in the things that I say and I don't want them to assume that I have all the answers they could never come up with on their own. So what am I going to do with this seminary degree? Is there a place where I can make a living (a requirement to have housing and food) and still keep my spiritual integrity? I think I found it in the Deaconess program, but right now I'm not feeling sure about much of anything. It was suggested to me that I might be one of those people meant to live a life in academia - there's a reason I love seminary and the discussions in my classes. However, I have a strong commitment to social justice, and don't know that teaching students who are going to abandon whatever we talk about as soon as they go back to their churches is enough for me. I guess the pondering continues...