Via Media Disciples?

ImageI’ve noticed a blog called Via Media Methodists which is trying to get out of the left-right box the American church finds itself in.  That leaves me wondering: are there a group of Disciples who want to elevate the discourse in our tradition?

This is how Via Media Methodists describe themselves:

Via media, Latin for “middle way,” was a descriptor claimed by early Anglicanism as a third way between Catholicism and Protestantism. At its best, Wesleyanism as a branch of the Anglican family tree (including United Methodists and many others) has maintained this witness to a “third way” during the last two and a half centuries, evidenced by Methodism’s emphasis on both faith and practice, personal and social holiness, word and sacrament. However, we believe this viamedia has been lost in many of the present debates, which often turn on ideological convictions rather than prayer and holy conferencing. Our vision is thus to represent, resource, and give voice to a Middle Way at a crucial time in the North American church. As the Charles Wesley quote on the blog title suggests, the source of our unity and our hope is not in a particular party or sect, but solely in Jesus’ name. We are excited for you to join this journey as we seek a via media for the people called Methodists and welcome your prayers, thoughts, and contributions.

So, is there a “middle way” for Disciples?  Are there folks who are tired of the left-right discourse and want to talk and listen to each other, knowing that we are united in Christ even if we have different views on sexuality or government?

I can’t be the only one who feels this way.  If there are others, please let me know.

 

What Does It Mean to Be Prophetic, Part Three

JayWhiteMoralMondayNC

It was two years ago, that I wondered aloud what it meant to be prophetic.  I’ve heard that phrase a lot in many of the progressive circles I’ve been in, but I’ve always wondered if what is called prophetic is nothing more than espousing your ideology and wrapping it up in God-language.

What does it mean to be prophetic?  The reason I ask is that I think a lot of folks have an idea what it means to be prophetic that I think is a bit wrong.  I will see a pastor who will get up and talk about some of the major issues facing our world and it is billed as “prophetic.”  But more often than not, what I hear is more of a political agenda than it is calling the church to present the Kingdom of God.  Since I move around mainline/progressive Christian circles, I tend to hear what sounds like a churchified version of the Democratic party platform, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of what might pass as prophetic in evangelical circles just mirrors the GOP agenda.

So, what does it mean to be prophetic?  What does a prophetic church look like?  I have to think that it’s more than a party platform sprinkled with lots of Jesus.  I’d like to know, because what I see passing as prophetic kind of falls short.

Methodist pastor Drew McIntyre is asking the same question.  He comes up with an answer that is shocking (at least to me,) but true.  Quoting Henri Nouwen, he remarks that there is very little theological reflection in the church today:

In his wonderful little book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen names temptations common to leadership and offers particular disciplines as solutions.  He concludes this brief treatise by discussing the temptation “to be powerful.”  In different ways, both the right-wing and left-wing perversions of the prophetic are temptations to power.  Fundamentalists manipulate Scripture to show forth their own insight and giftedness, unlocking “secrets” of the end times heretofore unknown.  In so doing they often amass large followings (and bank accounts).  Progressives too quickly make use of the prophetic role to mask their own ideological agendas with a veneer of Biblical authority, and claim God’s voice for whatever the cause happens to be that week.

For Nouwen, the solution is “theological reflection.”  He concludes,

“Few ministers and priests think theologically. most of them have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms.  Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of ministry.  Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, psuedo-social workers.” (65-66)

Theological reflection is critical because without it, we will too quickly mistake our words for God’s, and so make fools of ourselves when speaking on His behalf (as a pastor, I’ve done this more than once).  This discipline is sorely lacking in every corner of the church, Mainline or Evangelical, Catholic or Charismatic.  Such a poverty of theological insight is all the more problematic because we (all of us, including the author) are quick to forget that we are not brilliant by virtue of living in the 21st century or having masses of education.  The great missionary and ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin points out that we may come to different conclusions than Paul, but that doesn’t  make us Paul’s moral superiors; we are apt to be as blind to some things in our day as Paul may have been to certain obvious evils in his.

McIntyre briefly talks about the Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina.  The movement happens to be led by a Disciples of Christ pastor.  Mother Jones magazine has a pretty good profile of Barber, but in reading you have to wonder: is this about following God or following a party platform (and protesting the other party)?  Would there be Moral Mondays if instead of a conservative legislature and governor passing conservative legislation, there were liberals in power. The answer of course is no and that’s the problem. If you are willing to protest Republicans who you are against and not Democrats that you agree with, then what you are doing isn’t prophetic and you need to quit fooling yourselves.

I tend to think that a true prophet is not going to be liked by either liberals or conservatives.  Another Methodist pastor, Alan Bevere had this to say in 2012 about prophets:

I have spent some time this week in the Old Testament prophetic books. I do not find it surprising that most prophets are not accepted in their own time. Their cutting words of truth at best fall on stopped ears. Then, in order to reinforce their words, they resort to symbolic acts which, if committed in the 21st century West, would be more than sufficient cause for them to be put away in special places reserved for people who walk naked in public (Isaiah) and who eat paper (Ezekiel), and walk around with an oxen yoke on their neck (Jeremiah). The people of God today have no more clue on how to recognize a prophet than the ancient folk. Every time I hear someone referred to as prophetic, it’s only because they are speaking words that the hearers who so designate them agree with. But that’s precisely the problem.

When God used Amos or Micah, it wasn’t because God wanted to raise the minimum wage or ban gay marriage.  God had a covenant with the Israelites and from time to time, God would tell the people when they were off track or when their worship wasn’t matching with their lives.  The closest parallel to this is God talking to the church today.  The prophets were speaking for God, calling the people back to righteous living.  The prophets were not setting policy.  They weren’t talking about voting rights, or same sex marriage or abortion, or the minimum wage.  It’s okay for Christians to work on these issues, but don’t use the prophetic writings for your own agenda.

This brings me back to Nouwen.  I think he’s correct that the church is sorely lacking in thinking theologically.  In a lot of cases evangelicals and progressives have basically adopted the ideologies of the main political parties and sprinkled God talk around them.  I’m starting to think that thinking theologically would mean spending time discerning issues and reflecting on what scripture and tradition have to say about an issue.  That isn’t attractive to a smashmouth church culture, but slowing down to find out how to listen to God and to each other might present a real third way to how the church responds to the outside world.

None of this means that churches should withdraw from the world.  But we need to be able to standback from an issue and see what God is saying.  Maybe in that time of listening we will learn what truly is prophetic.

* I know there have to be a few folks wondering why I didn’t take conservatives to task for doing the same thing.  I didn’t do that because that observation has been used ad nauseum for years.  We all know that the Religious Right jumped into bed with the GOP.  There’s no sense in repeating what we already know.  What a lot of people don’t know is how liberal Christians have basically done the same thing.  I condemn both, but the latter is a story that is not always told.

Some Thoughts on the Frank Schaefer Case

frank schaeferI haven’t followed the news about Methodist minister Frank Schaefer as closely as I should have.  For those who know even less, Frank Schaefer faced a church trail for going against the Book of Discipline by marrying two men (one of who happened to be his son).   What I do know about the affair has led me to ask a few questions and make a few statements:

So much for diversity. Many liberal Christians (myself included) love to talk about how wonderful diversity is and how much we have to strive for all kinds of diversity: gender, racial and ethnic.  The problem is that most liberal Christians tend to think that people of color share the exact same views that they deem important.  Then they meet reality.  The United Methodists are not as much a national body, but a world-wide body, made up of folks from everywhere.  African Methodists are growing in number and they don’t have favorable views of homosexuality.  North American Methodists are not growing and liberal Methodists are a small fraction.  What this all means is that the rules on sexuality aren’t changing any time soon and no amount of protest is going to change that, at least not immediately.  Diversity is a good thing, but the downside is that the person with a different skin tone might also have different views that you might not agree with.

Laws for Me But Not for Thee.  Being a gay man who just recently got (legally) married, I totally side with the good reverend on this matter.  That said, I am bothered by those on “my side” that seem to want the church to just throw the Book of Discipline aside and follow the law of love or something like that.  I don’t come from a creedal background, so on some level, I just think these things are sort of silly.  But the fact is, other denominations are set up around certain documents that govern their way of life.  The Book of Discipline is the way the United Methodists order their life together.  You can’t ignore the Book of Discipline just because you don’t like what it says.  You might think that the ruling on homosexuality is silly, but the fact remains it is there.  This doesn’t mean that my side of the isle must simply submit to what is considered an unjust law. There is a lot of room for civil disobedience, but people have to admit that they are breaking the law and be willing to face the consequences.  You can’t wish away a law you don’t like.

What About the Love? I can understand defrocking someone if they have committed a grave sin, such as child molestation.  I don’t understand the drive to not simply say that Rev. Schaefer violated church rules, but to humiliate him.  What about restoring a fallen brother or sister gently and in love?  Can we disagree without being mean? There really was nothing Christian about the sentence and it was rather cowardly too: they left it up to Schaefer to decide if he wanted to admit wrong or give up his ordination.  Please.  If you’re going to make someone “an example” at least have the guts to be upfront about it.If progressives are at fault for being too loose with the Bible and/or books of order, then conservatives tend to be guilty of using these tools for organizing as ways to exclude and shame.

The Center Cannot Hold. My time with the Presbyterians have had me thinking about two people, a man and a woman in their 80s who served the church in various functions.  The man is liberal and the woman conservative.  What was interesting about both is that while they had their views and held to them, they also had a belief in the institution, the thing that bound them together.  Because they had this thing called the Presbyterian Church (USA) in common, they were able to function with some impartiality, trying to solve problems for the good of the institution.  We no longer have that today, not in Washington or in our churches.  Institutions, especially the church, have been weakened.  In it’s place has risen the tribe, a group of people who share common concerns and views that is suspicious of those who are different from them.  We see this in our politics, but it is also rife in our churches.  Tribalism doesn’t give people the benefit of the doubt, but instead sees the different as a threat.  What has happened with Schaefer is all about tribes than it is about church.  The conservative tribe wants to make an example of the pastor, while the progressive tribe sees this as proof positive that the opposition is exclusive and backwards.  Tolerance takes a backseat when it comes to the tribe, whereas in the institution, tolerance is a bedrock rule, because you can’t have people aim to something higher than base pursuits if they see the person next to them as evil incarnate.  I don’t know how to heal the wounded center in American Christianity.  We are engaged in a zero-sum game with the other side and demand nothing short of total surrender.

The Schaefer case is on one level about gay rights, which I totally support.  But it also holds up how we as Christians in the United States fall so far short of being Christ in the world.

Repost: I Miss the Old Mel White

The following is a post from June of 2012.

I recently read an interview with Rev. Mel White. Most of you know him as someone who grew up as an evangelical, was a ghostwriter for many big evangelical stars and then came out as gay. I remember hearing about him in the mid-to-late 90s and back then he was kind of the SpongeBob Squarepants of the gay community. I mean that SpongeBob thing as a compliment, because he just seemed so darned positive, when it seems like most gay men were known for snark and bitterness. He was kind of a breath of fresh air to me and I was amazed and applauded his attempts to meet and even persuade his some of the people he used to work for. Yes, it might have been hopeless, but there was something wonderful about how he really tried to do that whole “love your enemies” thing that Jesus talked about.

This leads me back to the article I read. The positive Mel White of old is long gone. What’s left is a man that’s pretty pissed off at the church and when I say church, I mean the whole church. White is angry not just at evangelicals, but also more mainline denominations that either still haven’t voted in favor of equality (like the United Methodists) and those that have recently allowed for non-celibate gays to become ordained (like the Lutherans and the Presbyterians):

For example, in the United Methodist Book of Discipline homosexual behavior is labeled, “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Methodists—with their misleading logo, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors”—have voted against us for approximately 40 years and yet they are the largest and most progressive of the mainline churches. Changing the basic statement of the mainline churches from anti to pro has been the activist’s primary goal for decades with very little to show for it…

After debating the issue for almost half a century in recent years the Lutherans and the Presbyterians have finally voted to ordain lesbians and gays, but the United Methodists still refuse to ordain us. In fact, they still have on their books that local clergy can even deny membership to gay and lesbian Christians…

Again, after at least a decade of futile debate, the ELCA (Lutherans) voted to ordain and marry us, while the Presbyterians and United Methodists continue to deny us the rites of marriage. Even the liberal Episcopal Church is losing local congregations because this most progressive of the mainline denominations appointed an openly gay bishop.

On one level, I can understand his frustration. Many Methodists are upset that even a measure stating they agree to disagree failed, and rightfully so. Living in Minnesota, I know a lot of Lutherans and I know a lot of them either had to live in the closet or face ecclesiastical courts before the ban on gay clergy was lifted.

But the fact is, whether we like it or not, change like this moves slowly. Always does. It moves slowly in society and it moves slowly in the church. It takes a while for people to change their mind or see another way of looking at things. That’s frustrating, but I’ve come to learn that justice comes in its time and till then all you can do is press on making the case for change.

Another thing we have to do is love our enemies. Some times we can love them close and maybe even be friends. Sometimes you gotta love them from afar. White used to at least try, but it seems like these days, he’s just sticking to those who agree with him:

Christian fundamentalists, like fundamentalist Jews or Muslims, read their “holy books” literally. For fundamentalist Christians the Bible is clear: homosexuality is a sin. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Trying to build bridges with fundamentalists is a game I’ve played—a war I’ve fought—for 20 years and I’ve lost almost every battle.

Fundamentalists don’t listen to facts let alone to personal experience. What the Bible says to a fundamentalist Christian parent is more significant, has more weight, than what they see in the lives of their own children. I have stopped even trying to build bridges with fundamentalists. When one of them asks me, “Have you read Leviticus 20?” (a verse when taken literally demands that men who sleep with men should be killed) I reply, “You’ve confused me with someone who cares about what you think of Leviticus 20.”

Evangelicals see salvation as an act of faith, a very personal encounter between the believer and his/her God. The more historic churches see salvation as a sacramental act, through receiving the Eucharist. Most fundamentalists are evangelical but all evangelicals are not fundamentalists. There are many examples of progressive, even open and affirming evangelicals and we should go on trying to build bridges with every progressive evangelical we encounter.

And, needless to say, we should go on trying to build bridges with the liberal or progressive churches but if the label can be trusted, if a church or denomination is correctly described as “liberal” or “progressive” they are already working with us. Unfortunately, we continue to call the historic mainline churches “liberal” and “progressive” when on our issue they are neither.


Okay, but we aren’t really building bridges if we build them with people who already agree with us. It’s not bridge building; it’s building an echo chamber.

I don’t think trying to reach fundamentalists/social conservatives is a waste of time. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I have tried to reach out to social conservatives. Some folks aren’t ever going to listen to me and I tend to “love them from afar.” But others, I do try to sit and listen to them and have them listen to me. I don’t expect to change their minds; I leave that up to God. And I truly believe that God is powerful enough to change minds. But that’s not my end goal- my goal is to love them as God loves them even if I disagree with it. That’s not a waste of time to me- it’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about.

I can understand some of the bitterness found in White and in many of my fellow gay folk. When you live in fear that people don’t like you or worse, it’s easy to have a chip on your shoulder and ready to do battle.

Maybe I’m a coward, but I also think that as a Christian, I have to learn how to also learn to love others- even others that might hate and revile me. The Old Mel White had that Christ-like love that allowed him to meet with Jerry Falwell in the long-shot hope that Falwell might repent. It was a foolish and extravagant love that I was amazed to see.

The New Mel White is not so foolish. Some would say he has the righteous anger that Jesus had turning over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. I would agree we need that passion at times. But we also need that crazy, stupid love that White showed towards his enemies as well, and I think the world is poorer for losing that Mel White.

Discipleship or Consumerism?

seedA few days ago, I was at a church retreat.  In response to a question on what challenges the church is facing, a woman remarked that one challenge is how people don’t really want to get involved in church.  They don’t see it as a life, as much as a place where they can get their needs met and be on their way.

I was glad to see someone in the pews notice this.  It’s been a growing frustration of mine over the years.  Pastors are pushed in many ways to try to make their churches appealing to folk, especially the oh-so-important Millenial crowd.  We are told that younger folks are not interested in serving on committees.  We are told they want to do mission.  We are told they want a church that is welcoming to LGBT folk.  So, we try to do everything to try to attract people: we offer more mission opportunities.  We push for our churches to be Open and Affirming.  We try to make our worship experiences more hip.  There is nothing wrong in trying to be hospitable and welcoming.  I’m not saying we don’t engage in mission and I most definitely am not saying churches should not welcome LGBT persons.  But there is a danger in that we start to trade the call to discipleship, the call of Jesus to follow him and replace it with a slick marketing message in order to gain market share among a certain demographic.

Again, nothing wrong with churches doing marketing; that is my trade.  But there is something wrong about replacing the hard message of becoming a disciple of Jesus for an easy message that tries to get people in the pews.

Methodist pastor Ben Godson reminds us that churches need to engage their local communities instead of trying the latest fad:

A biblical mandate says to go into the world preaching, teaching, and baptizing. It says we are to disciple one another in the ways of Jesus. Part of carrying out that mandate is learning the lay of the land and prayerfully discovering how the ways of Jesus can be lived out in a particular context with particular people. Our American, capitalist drive says if certain methods work well in one place, all we need to do is duplicate those methods everywhere and we can franchise the way to be church. In other words, a biblical mandate cares about people first while a franchising mentality cares about methods and results first. Churches of all shapes and sizes can put people first by uniquely and faithfully seeking to engage the communities they are in using the resources they already have. Other peoples’ ideas too often become warmed over leftovers that don’t fit outside of the context they are in. And that’s okay.

Every pastor or church board chair wants to see more people involved in the life of their churches.  We are all desiring some kind of trick to make our congregations grow and thrive.  Of course we need to make sure we aren’t placing barriers that prevents growth, but we need to have faith that God will cause the growth to happen at a church.  What we are called to do is to help those who want to follow Jesus is to help them become better followers of Christ; in short, we need to make disciples.

Discipleship isn’t sexy and it can be slow.  It’s not something that people are going to flock to.  But I have to think the benefits are longer lasting than having the latest, coolest worship service.

Even as Minnesotans await a big snow (in May?), I get excited around this time of year because it means I get to plant flowers.  Now, I am not a great gardener.  Actually, I kinda suck.  I’m getting better at it and the flowers I planted last year are slowly coming up.  This year, I will water the plants, put some more mulch in the garden.  There is no shortcut to a good garden, it just takes time.

The same goes with discipleship.  It will take time.  Some people won’t be interested and that’s okay.  But if we want strong followers of Jesus Christ, we will take the time and not be so uptight.  We are called to make disciples, not consumers.

I Miss the Old Mel White

I recently read an interview with Rev. Mel White.  Most of you know him as someone who grew up as an evangelical, was a ghostwriter for many big evangelical stars and then came out as gay.  I remember hearing about him in the mid-to-late 90s and back then he was kind of the SpongeBob Squarepants of the gay community.   I mean that SpongeBob thing as a compliment, because he just seemed so darned positive, when it seems like most gay men were known for snark and bitterness.  He was kind of a breath of fresh air to me and I was amazed and applauded his attempts to meet and even persuade his some of the people he used to work for.  Yes, it might have been hopeless, but there was something wonderful about how he really tried to do that whole “love your enemies” thing that Jesus talked about.

This leads me back to the article I read.  The positive Mel White of old is long gone.  What’s left is a man that’s pretty pissed off at the church and when I say church, I mean the whole church.  White is angry not just at evangelicals, but also more mainline denominations that either still haven’t voted in favor of equality (like the United Methodists) and those that have recently allowed for non-celibate gays to become ordained (like the Lutherans and the Presbyterians):

For example, in the United Methodist Book of Discipline homosexual behavior is labeled, “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Methodists—with their misleading logo, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors”—have voted against us for approximately 40 years and yet they are the largest and most progressive of the mainline churches. Changing the basic statement of the mainline churches from anti to pro has been the activist’s primary goal for decades with very little to show for it…

After debating the issue for almost half a century in recent years the Lutherans and the Presbyterians have finally voted to ordain lesbians and gays, but the United Methodists still refuse to ordain us. In fact, they still have on their books that local clergy can even deny membership to gay and lesbian Christians…

Again, after at least a decade of futile debate, the ELCA (Lutherans) voted to ordain and marry us, while the Presbyterians and United Methodists continue to deny us the rites of marriage. Even the liberal Episcopal Church is losing local congregations because this most progressive of the mainline denominations appointed an openly gay bishop.

On one level, I can understand his frustration.  Many Methodists are upset that even a measure stating they agree to disagree failed, and rightfully so.  Living in Minnesota, I know a lot of Lutherans and I know a lot of them either had to live in the closet or face ecclesiastical courts before the ban on gay clergy was lifted.

But the fact is, whether we like it or not, change like this moves slowly.  Always does.  It moves slowly in society and it moves slowly in the church.  It takes a while for people to change their mind or see another way of looking at things.  That’s frustrating, but I’ve come to learn that justice comes in its time and till then all you can do is press on making the case for change.

Another thing we have to do is love our enemies.  Some times we can love them close and maybe even be friends.  Sometimes you gotta love them from afar.  White used to at least try, but it seems like these days, he’s just sticking to those who agree with him:

Christian fundamentalists, like fundamentalist Jews or Muslims, read their “holy books” literally. For fundamentalist Christians the Bible is clear: homosexuality is a sin. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Trying to build bridges with fundamentalists is a game I’ve played—a war I’ve fought—for 20 years and I’ve lost almost every battle.

Fundamentalists don’t listen to facts let alone to personal experience. What the Bible says to a fundamentalist Christian parent is more significant, has more weight, than what they see in the lives of their own children. I have stopped even trying to build bridges with fundamentalists. When one of them asks me, “Have you read Leviticus 20?” (a verse when taken literally demands that men who sleep with men should be killed) I reply, “You’ve confused me with someone who cares about what you think of Leviticus 20.”

Evangelicals see salvation as an act of faith, a very personal encounter between the believer and his/her God. The more historic churches see salvation as a sacramental act, through receiving the Eucharist. Most fundamentalists are evangelical but all evangelicals are not fundamentalists. There are many examples of progressive, even open and affirming evangelicals and we should go on trying to build bridges with every progressive evangelical we encounter.

And, needless to say, we should go on trying to build bridges with the liberal or progressive churches but if the label can be trusted, if a church or denomination is correctly described as “liberal” or “progressive” they are already working with us. Unfortunately, we continue to call the historic mainline churches “liberal” and “progressive” when on our issue they are neither.


Okay, but we aren’t really building bridges if we build them with people who already agree with us.  It’s not bridge building; it’s building an echo chamber.

I don’t think trying to reach fundamentalists/social conservatives is a waste of time.  Maybe I’m an idiot, but I have tried to reach out to social conservatives.  Some folks aren’t ever going to listen to me and I tend to “love them from afar.”  But others, I do try to sit and listen to them and have them listen to me.  I don’t expect to change their minds; I leave that up to God.  And I truly believe that God is powerful enough to change minds.  But that’s not my end goal- my goal is to love them as God loves them even if I disagree with it.  That’s not a waste of time to me- it’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about.

I can understand some of the bitterness found in White and in many of my fellow gay folk.  When you live in fear that people don’t like you or worse, it’s easy to have a chip on your shoulder and ready to do battle.

Maybe I’m a coward, but I also think that as a Christian, I have to learn how to also learn to love others- even others that might hate and revile me.  The Old Mel White had that Christ-like love that allowed him to meet with Jerry Falwell in the long-shot hope that Falwell might repent.  It was a foolish and extravagant love that I was amazed to see.

The New Mel White is not so foolish.  Some would say he has the righteous anger that Jesus had turning over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple.  I would agree we need that passion at times.  But we also need that crazy, stupid love that White showed towards his enemies as well, and I think the world is poorer for losing that Mel White.