Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Advent of my dreams -- or something like it...

For years now, I've looked forward to the time where I could spend an entire liturgical season in one place -- yes you heard me right, a whole liturgical season... Just Advent to Christmas, or Lent to Easter -- I'll even cede the second half of the cycle (Christmastide or the paschal pentecost)! These are central times of the Christian year -- the two "penitent" seasons leading up to the two great feasts -- times I'm convinced should be spent with a local community for the sake of mutual support...

Alas, since I went to college, I've rarely been able to spend the entire cycle in one place -- let alone in a community that takes these seasons as seriously as I'd like. I keep looking forward to a time when that will be possible....

This year, in some sense anyway, I'll be spending all of Advent in one place -- the church where I work -- straight through until Christmas Eve services! So far, so good! Christmas day, because my commute to work is as long as it is, I'll spend the time with my wife and attend her church, but the time is finally here!

Somehow, the pressures of the ordination process, the crunch of the end of the semester, and too little time to spend with my wife in the midst of everything drags on the idyllic nature of my ideal Advent, but I'm still thrilled to be so close! Now, when Lent and Easter come (and I can do Ash Wednesday all the way to Easter -- or better yet Pentecost in one place...), then I'll be truly extatic!

If I told you about the last few weeks you'd understand...

I've been keeping extremely busy with coursework, youthwork, and a preaching date while spending time with family over Thanksgiving. No, that's not an excuse for not blogging at all, but it's something, I think.

The next week or so is crunchtime at BU, so there'll probably be a lack for another couple of weeks, too... Sorry, dear readers (whoever's still out there!)...

Friday, November 18, 2005

Holy Conversation

I've started writing a post several times over the last two weeks, but it's never gotten more than a sentence before I've given up. Over that time, there's been family stuff, charge-conference stuff, ordination stuff, school stuff, and continued talk about the recent Judicial Council decisions flying around me. I guess if I'm going to get back to blogging, I'll need to "data-dump" some of that.

Yesterday, Bishop Peter Weaver visited the School of Theology at BU for "Holy Conversation" about the recent decisions. Those students who are deeply committed to changing the position of the UMC in relation to ordination of sexually active homosexuals didn't seem happy with Bishop Weaver's rather moderate response. One said in my hearing, "He didn't have to bring charges against Beth Stroud -- there were other options -- if he really believed in justice he would have risked his job to defend her ministry!"

I'd expect that from students who are deeply committed to advocacy, but the former Dean of the School, who is now Dean of the Chapel told Bishop Weaver he thinks that the paragraph saying that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" is "bad theology." The Bishop disagreed, I think clearly, citing the New Testament sexual ethic that emphasizes the importance of celibacy, the proper role of marriage, and the persistent reference to only heterosexual marriage in the New Testament. Our Dean countered with the statement that "all of that is in the context of polygamous heterosexual relationships," which made the following discussion a bit convoluted...

Over all, the Bishop's call for conversation among all United Methodists were dismissed by the pro-gay students as impossible, inappropriate, and insincere "as long as some people are prevented from being ordained by Church law." Apparently, we can only have conversation if we first agree to ordain "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals."

I'm not convinced that would further discussion. If the UMC agreed to ordain "self-avowed, practicing homsexuals," would the more conservative members/clergy stay with the UMC long enough to have a conversation? Would the conversation be more fruitful, since any change at that point would be "introducing discrimination," to the Church? If we cannot have a conversation, unless one side gets its way first, why should we try?

For me, there's another issue in this conversation that doesn't come up much: Can we have a church without discrimination? I think not. We might want to determine what kind of discrimination is appropriate, but if the United Methodist Church is to remain a distinctive Christian denomination, and not just become a social club, we need to expect our members to consent to our doctrine, or at least to be willing to be shaped by it, and grow into believing it. Also, we need to be able to say that our clergy should meet some standards of educational competency, doctrinal integrity, and that they will live exemplary lives of Christian holiness. We might not agree what that looks like, but it will require to discriminate between candidates for ministry.

I want the conversation. I can admit I might be wrong, and I'd be willing to listen to biblical reasons why we should think differently about homosexual behavior than the vast majority of church tradition has. I'll even listen to insights from human experience and modern science to help us understand what the Bible has to say to us, but we can't have the conversation unless everyone is willing to admit that they could be misreading Scripture and the insights of the contemporary world.

That's basically what Bishop Weaver said, and it was rejected by some as insensitive. I think it's the best way to save the UMC. It would require putting agendas on-hold, though perhaps as a good-faith measure and not formally, waiting for long-term careful reflection, and an end to the unfair rhetoric by both sides that conflate homosexual orientation and homosexual behavior.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Insights from Anthony Gittins

This particular post grew out of a paper I submitted for a seminary class. I'm posting excerpts from it because I've been looking for a new, creative way to talk about the Christian responsibility not just to offer, but also to accept hospitality in the way of Jesus. For what it's worth, here it is:

Over the course of his book, Ministry at the Margins, Anthony J. Gittins deals with a series of significant issues for cross-cultural Christian mission. Over the first four chapters, Gittins discusses a series of issues for Christian mission that deal with the powerful forces surrounding and contained in language and culture. Over the course of the second half of his book, Gittins deals with particular issues involved in mission: making the Gospel meaningful in the language and culture of particular people; the problems Western missionaries might encounter by failing to understand gift-exchange, and how to learn to live in indebted ways to be part of a group; and learning how to be understanding and hospitable to strangers, as well as the virtue in learning how to be a “missionary as stranger.” I believe this final insight is key – to be a Christian in mission we need to learn how to be good strangers and guests.

Gittins inspired me to think of mission, both abroad and at home, in new and different ways. I found in his descriptions of gift giving, gift-exchange, hospitality and strangers a world I know, but I am not sure if I know it well enough. I grew up in a Western, middle class world, defined by its values and goals. While my parents tried to instill in us a sense of “Christian differentness,” and our responsibility to serve others in the name of Christ, the world around us reinforced its values whenever it could: Call before you arrive on someone’s doorstep, pray quietly and inwardly – most people do not want to see your religious life, make sure you are dressed right, and always think about the risks of accepting any kind of “charity” from others!

For me, Gittins emphasis on accepting hospitality helped give words to thoughts that have been growing within me over the last year. Gittins suggests that part of the missionary life requires learning to be a stranger and a guest: “If we are to be as Jesus was, we cannot be content to help strangers: we must become strangers ourselves (145).” Only by becoming strangers who can let others fulfill our needs can we truly learn to be like Jesus. Accepting gifts of eggs, tomatoes, honey, zucchini and other produce from members of a rural church is fairly easy (and vital for building good-will), for any pastor. These may be simple gifts, but accepting them allows a relationship to begin. Rejecting them, for anything but a clearly defined, mutually understood reason, could jeopardize the relationship between that person and the pastor, and in some cases, the whole church or community and the pastor. My wife currently serves a small, rural church – the eggs, honey and vegetables members of her congregation have offered us have enriched our table, but accepting them has enriched her ministry and made our offers of hospitality more appealing to members of her community – they know the relationship is not merely one-way.

More difficult for me, however, has been finding ways to commute to seminary the last three semesters. When my wife was appointed a significant distance from school, and I had to give up my job to make the move possible, and we knew we could not afford for me to pay for housing while attending classes. The long days of classes, the need to do work in the libraries, and the price of gasoline, parking, and public transportation, made daily commuting impractical. I stayed with a long-time family friend for awhile, as well as with my wife during the time she kept her job as a hotel desk-clerk, but most often, I stayed with one of my wife’s friends from seminary and her husband. I had met
Adrienne and Peter, but I didn’t know them. Their hospitality, and my financially-mandated humility that compelled me to accept it, has allowed us to develop friendships. Without learning to be a stranger/guest accepting hospitality, these relationships would never have developed.

If we are not willing to become strangers and guests, I am convinced we will never be effective hosts or communicators of the Gospel. Marginal ministry requires us to cross boundaries into new and exciting worlds, and while we can offer the Good News of Jesus Christ to others, if we are to be taken seriously, we first need to learn to walk as Jesus walked, which means not only feeding the poor, oppressed, and sinners, but eating and living with them in their worlds, their homes, and their circumstances – that is where Jesus built relationships that became transformational, and that is where we will too.