May 11, 2017
Dear Hyde Park Family,
Next year, the United Methodist Church will be fifty years old. And it will be in its forty-sixth year debating homosexuality. That is a long time for family members to be at odds.
The dispute has only grown more hostile over recent years; the church was even on the precipice of an irreparable split at its most recent General Conference in Portland last May. The election of the denomination’s first gay bishop last year, and the subsequent ruling by the Judicial Council two weeks ago that declared her election a violation of church law, has only enflamed the passions on both sides. We continue to pray for The Commission on a Way Forward, a group of thirty-two clergy and laity authorized by the 2016 General Conference to discern a plan for the church to find a way through its current impasse. A specially called General Conference has been set for 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri, with the express purpose of considering the plan put forward by the Commission.
These are difficult days for a denomination caught in a contentious tug-of-war that feels like there can be no winners.
TO SERVE THE PRESENT AGE
Last week in Nashville, I was invited to be part of “To Serve the Present Age,” a gathering of 48 United Methodist leaders from across all five jurisdictions in the country who would identify as at or near the theological center in this debate. Some were on the “center-right” and others like myself were on the “center-left.” But we all shared mutual concern about how this argument reflects the kind of binary, dualistic and ultimately unhealthy culture of the wider world.
For a very full 24-hours, we shared, prayed, cried and lamented the harm that has been done to many in the church. Toward the end of our time, we began to coalesce around a hopeful vision that the broad center of the United Methodist Church might overcome its laryngitis, refusing to become a mere third rope in the tug-of-war and instead reminding the church of its nature and necessity in a critical time in our history.
I don’t know what will eventually become of that initial gathering, nor do I know what my future leadership in this group might be. However, I left Nashville even more firmly committed to the mission, vision and core values of Hyde Park United Methodist, for when we live into who we are called to be, we can be a witness to the wider denomination of a church in the broad center that has overcome its laryngitis.
NOT THE CHURCH VS. CULTURE, BUT THE CULTURE OF THE CHURCH
The argument by many on the far right of this debate is that those who have more accepting views of homosexuality have acquiesced to the culture, that we have allowed the ways of the world to shape our belief and practice, rather than the other way around. But to be warm-hearted and open-minded is less about shaping or being shaped by the culture around us. It is about tending to the culture within the church. It should be no surprise that many of Paul’s letters to the early churches, particularly I and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Galatians, dealt with the way Christians treated each other. And the way we treat each other can itself be a witness to the rest of the world.
So, even as I reiterate that I am for marriage equality and the ordination of gay and lesbian persons, and wish to work within our system to make those changes, I would like you to know that if you are on the opposite side of this debate, I love you as your pastor. You are not only welcomed here, you are accepted here.
Why? Because I recognize that I did not always believe as I do now. Thirty years ago, when I had a very different view of homosexuality, if the United Methodist local church of my youth was condescending of people with a more conservative view, like myself, then I would not have felt welcomed there. I likely would have left that church, which means I would not have been called to ministry in that church. I would therefore not be United Methodist today, and I would not be your pastor.
Even thinking about that alternate trajectory of my life makes me teary as I type.
This is not to say that I expect you to change your views to be like mine. And it does not mean that if you agree with me, then I think you are a better Christian. Having a church of multiple voices joined together by common mission does not make us weaker or culturally acquiescent. It does not make us a “mushy middle of ecclesiological niceness or a casual compromise of conflicting convictions,” in the words of Jim Harnish.
It makes us multilingual in our mission. And I’m pretty sure that Pentecost would say that’s a good thing.
Besides, if we really wanted to acquiesce to the culture in its present state, then we are doomed to reflect its current polarized, binary, dualistic ways. As I spent time with my colleagues in Nashville, I couldn’t help but think of the number of times Jesus was presented with either/or questions. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Who sinned: this blind man or his parents? Is it right to heal on the Sabbath? Many times, when asked a question about sin posed in the form of a contentious tug-of-war, Jesus refused to play. Not only did he never say a word about homosexuality, he had a lot more to say about the grace of God, which transcends either/or categories that are more useful to cast judgment on others than they are in transforming lives.
So, I want you to know that in this church, we are unafraid to talk about sin. All of us deal with it. None of us are immune to it. We have all fallen short of God’s glory. And though many like myself have now come to the place where we believe homosexuals are created who they are by God, and that living into that identity is not sinful, it does not make that position soft on sin. Because I know of no one, gay or straight, who would say they are sinless. And it reminds me that the best answer Jesus ever gave to a binary question about sin was this: Let the one without sin cast the first stone.
So, I’m pretty sure we could all agree on this: we all really need Jesus.
THE ETHICS OF LOVE
I recognize that some people who do not affirm marriage equality and gay ordination say that the central issue is less a question about its sinfulness, and more about preserving traditions and institutions, like marriage and the structures of the church. The concern is that if everyone simply did what they wanted to do, then that would be detrimental to our society. As a rules person myself, I understand this position at a personal level. I do my best to observe covenants and boundaries, and to be obedient to the systems and institutions that govern my life and my calling.
In this light, this part of the debate is a reflection of the larger ongoing tension in the wider culture, among 1) those who value the stability of institutions, 2) those who value the authenticity of personal experience, and 3) those wish to value all perspectives as having equal merit. In terms of Spiral Dynamics, a color-coded theory of human consciousness espoused by psychologist Claire Graves, we are in the midst of a formidable tectonic shift among these three groups, which – put in terms of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – are those who most value tradition (Blue), experience (Orange), and reason (Green).
This interplay is not new. Within the biblical narrative is an ongoing conversation between the ways of God and the structures of earth. It is a dialogue between God’s initiatives and humanity’s ways of codifying them. But by the time Jesus came around, he realized that the institutionalization of God’s commandments had itself become monolithic, and when faced with the (again, dualistic) question of whether he had come to follow the law or abolish the law, Jesus said neither. He had come to fulfill the law.
If there is any bridge to be made among these three polarities in the church, it is the ethics of love. That is the theme that Jesus returned to, time and again, when he was confronted with these questions. For the traditionalists, an ethics of love means that our structures are merely a means to the fulfillment of our mission of sharing God’s love. For the experientialist, an ethics of love ought to govern the way we treat one another, even those who don’t share in that experience. For the relativist, an ethics of love is the parameter that determines what options are harmful, destructive and out of bounds.
For us Christians there is no greater revelation of that ethic of love than Jesus, revealed to us in the Bible.
THE GOD WHO IS STILL SPEAKING
That is why I believe that God is still speaking to us. Because the times are changing, the timeless word of God revealed to us in Jesus has the capacity to speak in surprisingly relevant and novel ways. This point is contrast to one Christian speaker I recently heard who declared that God is no longer speaking. He claimed that all that God needed to say to us is revealed to us in the Bible and that is, therefore, all we need to know.
One of the singularly transformative moments in my seminary career was in my theology class, where Professor Tyron Inbody said to us, “Okay. Let us accept for a moment that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, word of God, and all that God wishes to say to us about anything is included in it.” Then he asked the zinger:
“Isn’t it the case,” he continued, “that we would still need to interpret it? That we still need to make connections between its words and our times and situations? Of course we do. So, what is to prevent us, as imperfect and mistake-prone as we are, from taking the holy words of God and interpreting them in an unholy way? Every act of interpretation has the capacity for fallibility.”
I realized then that he was right. Yes, the Bible is our primary authority. In in the words of John Wesley, in it is contained all that is necessary for our salvation. But because we are far from perfect, we need the constant, steady voice of the Holy Spirit to help us interpret the Bible in the way God needs it to be embodied and enlivened in the world today.
The church may have closed the biblical canon. But it did not close the mouth of God.
A CHURCH IN THE CENTER
Ultimately, here is why I am energized to be the senior pastor of this church, regardless of what is happening in the higher levels of our denomination. We are a Christ-centered and biblically-rooted church. That is at the core of who we are, and those two values alone define the center of our life together. It is what enables us to be both warm-hearted (open to a diversity of people) and open-minded (open to a diversity of perspectives). And because we are mission-directed and connection-committed, we remember that all that we do is guided by an ethics of love.
The world today is governed by a different ethic. It is one of humiliation. It is one where a black teenager cannot walk the neighborhood at night without worrying if they will be humiliated by a police officer. It is a world where a white male is made to feel humiliated for having too much privilege, when he instead feels so helpless and poor. It is a world where a gay person called to ministry feels humiliated by a church who forces them to choose between the way they were created and the way they were called by God. It is a world where a person cannot long for a preservation of tradition without being called a bigot.
But our core values are clear: in this church, humiliation has no place in Christian community. We worship together, debate together, serve together, and love together. Not just because we have more in common than we are different (though we do). And not just because we need each other (and we do).
But because the world needs us. They may not realize it, but they need the institution of the church to be an alternative community against the brokenness of the world. It is a community not shaped by the polarizing dynamics of our society, but by an ethic of love. And because there are way too many people in the world who need Jesus, we are the body of Christ.
Now, more than ever, it is good to be the church. And I am privileged to be your senior pastor.
Let’s make God’s love real together.
Grace and Peace,
The Rev. Magrey deVega
Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist
IF YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE OR WANT TO RESPOND
To Learn More about the Nashville Gathering:
To learn more about the gathering in Nashville called “To Serve the Present Age,” you can read the press release. To read a wonderful reflection on the experience, check out the latest Faith Matters by Jim Harnish, one of the organizers of the event. To sign up to receive future updates about the group, email UMC.firstname.lastname@example.org.
To Learn More about the Commission on a Way Forward:
Click here to learn more about the work and members of the Commission. I invite you to be in prayer by name for those who are serving on it. If you would like to meet two of the Florida representatives on the Commission, there is a pre-Conference gathering in Orlando on Wednesday, June 7 that you can attend.
To Learn More about How We Got Here:
To read Bishop Ken Carter’s excellent historical overview of the current debate, click here.
If You Would Like to Share Your Thoughts, Questions, and Feelings:
I can speak for all six of your clergy when I say that we welcome your thoughts, questions, and feelings related to this discussion. We are here to listen and offer pastoral support to you, wherever you are in this debate. Please don’t hesitate to contact me or any of the other clergy if we can be of any assistance to you.