A few days ago, a strange instrument of polity we United Methodists created to resolve – hopefully once and for all – the question of the denomination’s acceptance of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex marriages met and failed. Without going into all the details, suffice it to say that the special session of the General Conference “resolved” the issue by emphatically endorsing existing language of the Book of Discipline that forbids the ordination of gay clergy and prohibits any ordained member of the clergy from officiating marriages for same-sex couples.
This all started in 1972 with the insertion of language into the Discipline of a statement meant to support the rights of gay members in the church and in society. However, conservatives at that General Conference succeeded in capping it off with following additional clause: “…although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
To the contrary, it is this exclusionary provision that is more likely incompatible with Christian teaching in the estimation of most 21st century United Methodists in America. Most of us see it as wrong to pretend that God’s love and the grace of Jesus Christ is somehow less available to people who express their love and commitment to each other in relationships that do not conform to 19th and 20th century ideas of acceptability.
In this century, people are coming to accept any expression of love and commitment as a beautiful thing and, for that matter, entirely too rare. Moreover, sexual identity issues and society’s exclusionary practices haunt our young. They have a good deal of trouble understanding why those of us who grew up in middle of the last century are having so much trouble understanding the simple emotion of love between two people who are willing to commit to living their lives together united in a love that only God could create.
I was shocked and heartbroken when I heard the news from the General Conference. They had gone into the session with three plans to consider offering a range of alternatives. I was not too thrilled with any of the three since I would favor excising the language cited above and the related limitations placed on clergy. The conference adopted the most conservative option by a fairly slim majority.
My disappointment quickly turned to anger. I was ready to quit my congregation, discontinue my giving, and begin enjoying my Sunday mornings at home with good coffee, the national newspapers and either good music or the network news shows. After all, if Lake Jackson offers any more progressive congregation than the one I was set to abandon, I am not aware of it.
But then Dietrich Bonhoeffer began to work on me.
Chapelwood offered a short study of Bonhoeffer during the four weeks of February. I participated. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister and theologian in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. He could not allow himself to become a part of the “official” Lutheran Church recognized by the Reich. Some friends arranged a position for him at Union Theological Seminary in New York and it offered him an opportunity to escape Hitler’s Germany.
He stayed in New York for only a very short time. Twenty-six days after he arrived he was on a ship headed back to Germany. His conscience would not allow him enjoy the safety and protection of America while his countrymen suffered the evils of the Third Reich. His dream of rebuilding the church after the war was not something he felt he could do effectively if he did not share the experiences of those he hoped to lead.
It was a decision that ultimately cost him his life. His faith required that he meddle in the state’s business, at first helping German Jews out of the country and then even participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested, imprisoned and executed a few days before the liberation of the Flossenbürg concentration camp where he died. But the writings from his prison cell have inspired Christians who followed him to have hope, to keep faith with God, knowing that it means giving everything to that work — including your life.
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
That is the most profound message of hope that one will ever hear, even if it is confusing to human ears. The only way to triumph over death is to live fully and that requires picking up the cross.
That is the message that was on my heart when I decided to continue my commitment to the United Methodist Church, to stay in fold and change it in ways more compatible with the commands of God’s love and the grace of Jesus Christ. If Bonhoeffer could stay and confront Hitler rather than abandon his flock, I could stay in the faces of those in this country with their limited understanding of the loving message of Jesus. Bonhoeffer insisted that the state could not define his Lutheran church, Likewise, I can’t allow our strange instrument of polity to define my United Methodist Church for me. As Bishop Will Willimon points out in his post-Conference comments in his blog, we have to fix this train wreck from the bottom up. Jesus didn’t add that crap to the Discipline; we did. now we can fix it. (Thank you, Rhonda, for that link. Those are my words, not the Bishop’s, by the way. Bishops can’t say crap even when they know that’s what they mean. His was a much more elegant discussion.)
I owe it to those who follow me in the generations now moving into positions of power in this broken world to do all that I can to preserve one of our world’s most effective institutions for teaching the values of love, charity, and generosity while respecting reason and experience as well as scripture and tradition. As I meet with our teenagers at Chapelwood each week, I know very well – even if they do not – that they will grow up to be leaders. And they will be leaders whose personal commitment to creation and to lives of love and grace may well be the key to the survival of mankind on this planet.
I frankly don’t have much interest in how they choose to express their sexuality so long as they know that it must always be an expression of love. And I certainly expect that they will keep pushing the United Methodist Church in the direction of social justice as an example for the whole world. I don’t think they really feel it is much of their business what their friends do in bed with each other so long as it is their mutual choice, it is done with love, and they get up in the morning facing the world with love and justice in their hearts. I agree with them.
Certainly most of us will never face the kind of choice Bonhoeffer faced and we will not have to walk to the gallows as he did. But every day, we must face those whose understanding of scripture and our Christian tradition is very different from our own. And they often possess a much higher degree of certainty – something they will very proudly and incorrectly call faith.
It requires courage every day to lovingly face these folks, often members of our own congregations. But it is time to meet the challenge. The United Methodist Church is not about making you feel good. It is about helping us all discern right-living and justice and putting it to work in the world. Every day we do that, we invest a bit of our life for others. Giving the days of your life for others is how United Methodists “come and die” every day and find the glory of eternal life in the process.
Don’t leave the church. Stand up and reclaim it as your own as you learned it from your family and community.