digging deep into Plan UMC #gc2012

I admit… I may not have done my due diligence in digging out the details of Plan UMC.  Not that as a reserve delegate I got to vote on it.  Not that we had enough time to absorb it.  Not that there was enough time and attention given during plenary to truly perfect it. 

But I knew that when I went home, I was going to have to explain what we did, so I’ve been digging deep through it so I could share honestly and truthfully.

Here are some discoveries:

1) There is absolutely no process listed for the election of the new Executive General Secretary of the board… none whatsoever.  Not who elects, not where from. Nothing.

2) Any cobbled together piece of legislation is messy… it jumps all over the place… it took me hours to figure out what everything was and make sense of it.

3) There are inconsistencies in the number of reps the boards will have.  I may be a preacher, but I once was good at math, and my addition leaves me with one extra member on almost every board.

4) The numbers for the representation for UMW are different than what we passed on consent calendar and because it was passed afterwards thus supercede the request and approved numbers from the UMW themselves.

5) Faith and Order moves from being a committee that reports to General Conference to a committee under that Council of Bishops.  This, I believe, is one of the most amazing changes in this legislation… it means that the theological and ecclesiological questions of how we live together now rest where (I believe) it should… with those we have chosen to lead us and with those who are set apart to offer prophetic witness and to move the church to where the Holy Spirit calls.

6) A new General Secretaries Council is created that is a gathering of all of the general secretaries from the boards and agencies + the executive general secretary.  This is for the purposes of collaboration and sharing.  But, it is also stated very clearly that if the direction from the new General Council on Strategy and Oversight conflicts with the intention of a specific board, that General Secretary is obligated to follow the direction of the board and not the GCSO. There is freedom here 

7) I was worried about young people.  Previously, there were specific spots mentioned in the discipline regarding membership of each board/agency and representation.  In the Book of Discipline… under the description of membership on each of the boards, an item regarding diversity WAS RETAINED.  It actually calls for diversity in gender, clergy/lay, race/ethnicity, and mandates 10% of the board members be young people.  On a board of 30… that is at least 3 seats.  On the GCSO, that is at least 5 seats at the table. 

8) As the new Committee on Inclusiveness is described, I am not so fearful as I once was when we seemingly lost the work of GCSRW and GCORR… there are some hopes that the monitoring, ethical, and prophetic work they do might actually have a stronger voice in it’s new location… only time will tell. 

As you can see, I have a positive feelings and negative feelings. I’m not sure how it will all shake out, but some pieces of this plan give me reason to hope that maybe we didn’t just restructure money… but might have done some small adaptive changes… God help us! 

competing goods and womens’ bodies…

Lately, womens’ bodies and health care and pregnancy and contraception and abortion and religious freedom and laws and the kitchen sink have been tossed around and talked about ad naseum.

My twitter feed blew up with critiques and praises of the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  My newsfeed from facebook was littered with comments about rights to health care and freedom of religion. Over breakfast, having coffee, in person, on the phone, the issues these questions raise are all around me.

And I guess why this is so exasperating for me, personally, is that I can’t figure out what to say and where to stand.  I see all sorts of different sides to these issues.  There are a thousand shades of grey to understand in the conversations and multiple “goods” that unfortunately do not play well together. And so when I’m asked my opinion or what I think about it, it would probably take three hours just to lay out all of the pieces of the puzzle… and that doesn’t include any time spent trying to actually give an answer.

Most often, however, the arguments are boiled down to two positions.

On the one side – let’s just call it what it is – the left side – the argument comes from a question of whether or not people have access to resources they need to care for their bodies, make informed decisions, and lead autonomous lives. It is about rights and conscience.

On the other side – the right side – the argument begins with the beliefs/traditions/morals that institutions hold about our bodies.  It is also about rights and conscience.

You could start trying to pick a side by asking yourself -well, which is more important?  An individual’s rights? or an institution’s beliefs?

But then that leads to questions about what happens when one individuals conscience leads them to harm another? What happens when an institution’s conscience leads them to harm another institution? or an individual? or a group of individuals? Who/what is more valued? Which institution gets the say? The government? A church? Are any particular persons more “persons” than others?

(we aren’t even dealing with details, yet… just the big picture of rights)

Take the issue of birth control and the mandate (or whatever it is) that all institutions will have to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees through their health care.  It doesn’t apply to churches, but it would to educational institutions, hospitals, etc. that are religiously affiliated.  Which puts the issue of institutional vs. individual right smack dab in the center of the debate for an institution like the Roman Catholic Church that does not see contraceptives as a moral good.  It prevents life, therefore they are against it. I can completely understand and respect an institution’s beliefs and values and want them to have the freedom to stand by them.  But I would also like for the many Catholics who actually use birth control pill to have the ability to have it affordably.  I would like for the teenagers covered by their parents insurance who use birth control pills to mitigate acne to get it for a good price.  I would like the women who suffer with long and painful periods to be able to make a choice and have it covered by their employeers insurance if they need to use the birth control pill or IUD or other method to help regulate their cycles.  I recently read that over 50% of the women who use the birth control pill do so for a reason besides pregnancy prevention.  That number absolutely floored me.

As I heard on NPR this afternoon – if it is an argument about religious freedom… the bishops win.  If it is an argument about accessibility of contraceptives for individuals… then the administration wins. I want both institutions and individuals to have the freedom to make informed decisions and to stand by their convictions.  But in these particular issues, we just can’t have it both ways. So which is more important?  Religious freedom? or access to health care? Pressed to make a choice, I take the fifth.

I think I struggle also with the issue of abortion because it is not clearly a black/white issue… as much as people try to frame it that way.

The official United Methodist position regarding the issue can be found in The Book of Discipline:

The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born.

Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection.

We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life. We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion. We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth. We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption. (See ¶ 161.K.)

Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.

From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2004. Copyright 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

I appreciate the nuance that our position holds.  I believe it tries to hold up the goods of not only life, but also the good of family, responsible parenting, a woman’s body.  It also leads us into prayer about “the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion.”

One of my most memorable experiences in seminary was attending the Cal Turner Center for Moral Ethics retreat.  Graduate students from five different fields were brought together to discuss issues that we all will face in our career fields.  I was surrounded by students from the law, business, medical and nursing school – along with my colleagues from the divinity school.  The presenter that really helped me to understand the “gray” area of the abortion question was Dr. Frank Boehm, who had written a book called, “Doctors Cry, Too.”  He talked about his experiences in the emergency room treating young women who had either tried to perform abortive measures on themselves or had recieved “back-alley” abortions.  They found themselves in the E.R. with deadly infections, rips and tears, and irreparable damage. Some died.  He struggled with his convictions about life and the pragmatic reality that safe and legal ways of terminating a pregnancy were needed or these women would continue to use whatever means necessary.  His story has caused me to truly not have an answer when asked if I am pro-life or pro-choice.  I both want to uphold the sanctity of life and want those who see no other options to have safe and legal options available to them.  I also firmly seek to provide options and resources and hope to those who find themselves in those positions.

The UMC position also tries to bring some nuance to the very term “abortion.” We make a distinction between the stages at which procedures are performed. But mentioned here in this piece is no mention of the “morning-after pill.”   Some who are pro-life today would oppose use of the morning-after pill because it would prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg.  And yet, most morning-after pills are merely strong doses of the same ingredients found in other contraceptives. In reality, many contraceptives are effective in part because of this reason.  At the same time there is national conversation about mandating the coverage of contraceptives in health care, states like Mississippi have proposed legislation that take the definition of abortion to extremes that could potentially make said contraceptives illegal. That measure was NOT passed thanks to 58% of the voters of the state rejecting the measure. We have to have these conversations because even if and when we agree that protecting life is good, we don’t agree about what life is and when it begins.  Fertilization? Implantation? when an embryo becomes a fetus? According to some places in the Old Testament, life was determined by the breath.  We have talked about life ceasing with heart beats, so does it also begin with them? What about brain waves? It is a complicated and difficult conversation with no easy answers.

In all of these questions, there are goods that we are trying to achieve.  Goods like health, life, equality, choice, accessibility, convictions, morality, community, and accountability. And unfortunately, sometimes those goods compete and we have to choose between them.  And sometimes our decisions are merely choices between evils rather than goods. I see so many different sides and truly faithful and good people coming from all different perspectives.  My number one hope is that we might have these conversations with civility, respect, and a willingness to listen to the heart and experience of another person.

I just wish that these debates weren’t always about women’s bodies.  It is frustrating that we live in a world in which so many of these complicated issues have to do with what women can and cannot do with their bodies and have so little to do with the physical bodies of adult men.  I sometimes wonder if the conversations would be different.

Ode to the Book of Discipline…

Oh Book of Discipline, how do I love thee…

Let me count the ways.

I love that when I am confused about how to proceed regarding a new parsonage purchase, you contain orderly directions.

I love that when I wrote my papers for ordination nearly every question could be found within your beautiful pages.

I love that as a new pastor I can use you to add weight to my words… because it says so in paragraph such and such of the Discipline.

The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2008-2012I love that as I look through prior editions, I can see how our church has grown and changed.

I love that you contain, without apology, the history and tradition of our roots and that those pages cannot be changed.

I love that you hold the outcome of our shared wrestlings as the people called United Methodist about difficult issues and theological quandries.

I love that as much as I love you, we both know that you are never completely perfect and that each time our General Conference meets we can fix typos and make amendments and add clarifications.

I love that you are dynamic and changing and yet, at the same time the foundation for our shared ministry through time.

I love that in the words of the 2004 edition, you are “the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together.”

I am running to be a delegate to our General Conference in 2012.  And this afternoon I recieved a phone call from a fellow pastor who had some questions for me.  I thought it was awesome that she has taken her own initiative and is doing more research on each person to make an informed decision.

One of the questions that I was asked was whether I will uphold the Book of Discipline as it stands… or something to that effect.

At first, I hesitated.  Because as an ordained elder, I am under this particular rule of law.  These are the agreements that we have made together about how we are going to live together.

So the first words out of my mouth were, “yes, as a pastor, I will work to uphold the Discpline.”

But immediately, I had to qualify that statement.

Because you see, every four years, the Book of Discipline is subject to change and scrutiny.  Every time our church meets together as the General Conference, we “amend, perfect, clarify, and add our own contribution to the Discipline.” (tenses changed, again from the BOD2004)

The Book of Discipline is not holy or sacred.  It is a conversation through time.  It is the product of our connectional spirit.  And while we meet for fellowship and celebration of ministry and worship at General Conference… we also meet to speak on behalf of the church and to figure out how we are going to agree to live together for the next four years.

The United Methodist Church is diverse, global, changing, and – I pray – Spirit led.  As such, we adapt to new situations and ministry fields, we attempt to respond to the new problems the world throws at us, and we continue to try to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this place and time.

So yes, I will work to uphold the Discipline that I love… but if the case is made, if it will further the work of God in this world, if we will make more disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world… I will vote to change it in a heartbeat.

I’m being ordained!!!

For two and a half years, I have been serving a congregation faithfully as a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church. And on June 6, I will be ordained at our Iowa Annual Conference and I will become an elder in full connection.

This whole process started back in 2002, when I was a junior in college. The process is fairly long, with a lot of hoops to jump through, but each one of them are designed to help provide me and other candidates with encouragement and to help us to clarify our calling.

When I began the process, for example, I felt I was being called to ministry as an ordained deacon. Deacons are focused more on servant ministry and while sometimes they are found in churches (as Christian Educators or Music Ministers), they are often found in places other than the church. They can be teachers or doctors or nurses or lawyers or therapists – their calling is to connect the church with the world.

So I went through the “red book” and was assigned a mentor. And together we sorted our way through the “blue book” – a spiral bound monster of a book that talks about biblical history, asks you to examine your family and your culture.. When I completed that study I became an inquiring candidate for ministry.

Then came the “purple book.” My mentor and I continued to discern and refine my calling and I knew that seminary was in my future. So I became a certified candidate for ministry, approved by the Pastor-Parish Relations committee of my home church, and headed off to Nashville in 2004.

For those who want to be ordained, a masters degree in divinity (or theological studies for deacons) is a requirement. At Vanderbilt Divinity School, I still planned on becoming a deacon and was trying to figure out what that might look like. But my experiences serving a church and especially participating in the sacraments led me to realize that my true calling was to be ordained as an elder.

The next step in the process was to be commissioned. I submitted a written exam, a bible study that I had prepared and video taped sermons that I had presented in Nashville. And then I had an interview with a team from the Board of Ordained Ministry here in Iowa. In 2007, I was commissioned as a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church and when I graduated that December from seminary, I came here to Marengo!

According to our Discipline, I must be in residency for at least two years before I can be fully ordained as an elder. So that is what these past two and a half years have been for me. I have learned so much from you and I couldn’t have asked for a better placement. This past December I submitted again a written exam and examples of my preaching and teaching (which totaled 40 pages!) and on April 8th I was approved for ordination.

So what comes next? What changes now that I am being ordained?

Nothing! Absolutely nothing. God willing, I will remain serving my church in the same capacity that I have been. There are a few things that I will get to do, like serving the sacraments outside of my congregational context, but for the most part, I will continue doing what I have been all along.

And I am so excited to jump through that last hoop =)

the Christian journey

How do you understand the following traditional evangelical doctrines: a) repentance; b) justification; c) regeneration; d) sanctification? What are the marks of the Christian life?
Whenever I think of the Christian life, a quote I heard Anne Lamott give (whether or not it actually originated with her) comes to mind: God loves you just the way you are… and loves you too much to let you stay there. The Christian faith journey is just that – a journey, a process of discovering our true selves as created by God. In many ways, these four doctrines are lacking because they don’t acknowledge one that must precede them – God’s prevenient grace that allows us to see our need for repentance. The wonder of God is that the instant we recognize our sinful state is the same moment justifying grace is extended to us; in acknowledging our sin we are given grace by which we can be transformed. This begins a lifelong process of growth and transformation and practice and mistakes and setbacks and return to God for forgiveness and renewal and going on to perfection that makes the Christian life.

We can see evidence of that growth through the three very basic and simple virtues – faith, hope, and love. Working on these papers, a quote was shared with me from Teresa Fry Brown that claims, “Hope hearing the song of the future. Faith is the courage to dance to it.” I would add that love is inviting others to take your hand and join in. We were created for relationship with God and with the rest of creation. Unless we are willing to take a leap of faith and actively participate in the transformative love of God, unless we are willing to have hope in the promise that all of creation will be renewed, we are denying the precious gift we have been given and continue to be in need of God’s grace.

Photo by: Stephen Eastop

what are we saved for?

What is your understanding of a) the Kingdom of God; b) the Resurrection; c) eternal life?

As I think about this question, the words from the funeral liturgy keep coming back to me: In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ. In the past two years, I have buried many individuals that I never had the chance to know in this lifetime. Our denomination is a bit more inclusive that some of the others in our community and so I am often called in to lay to rest people who have had no faith affiliation. In many cases, I am not sure at all what was in their hearts about God.

This question for me is about redemption and about who receives it and about when we receive it. In the resurrection of Christ, we glimpse the radical and transformative power of God. It is not something that we can harness, grasp, or earn apart from the gracious act of God. That power is what re-creates not only individual lives but the entirety of God’s creation and when we talk about the completion of that transformation – we are talking about the Kingdom of God. We began to see glimpses of that reality through the life of Christ and we participate in that Kingdom now only through his power. How it will be finished, when it will come, what it will look like is completely beyond us, yet we are still responsible for embodying that kingdom sacramentally here and now in our own lives.
So when I stand before a family and I place my hand on a cold metal casket and say the words, “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ,” I am placing that person in God’s hands. I stand there as a witness to the power of God to redeem. I stand there as a witness to the fact that Christ holds the keys to hell and death. I stand there as a witness to the hope I have for that person’s life – a hope that carries beyond their death. This past summer, I was profoundly impacted by the words of German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann. He said, “…if a life was cut short, God will bring what he had begun for the human being to its intended end and death cannot hinder God to do this, because God is God, and cannot be overcome by death.” So I cannot know the future of the man or woman I bury, but I do have sure and certain hope in the Lord of the Kingdom of God and the power of God’s transformative love and the promise that all things will be made new.

the Church

Describe the nature and mission of the Church. What are its primary tasks today?

If the sacraments call us into the world, the church is the “us” that is called. In my previous paperwork, I talked about the church being the place where we come to know and begin to embody the Kingdom of God – but as I have grown in my understanding of the church, I realize more than ever that the church is not a place, but a people. It is the community in which we first participate in the means of grace and the Body of Christ that sends us forth in mission to the world.

I would heartily agree with our denominational vision that we are called to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world – but how we define “church” dramatically changes how we understand that mission. If the church is a people, then our task is not necessarily to get someone to join a particular congregation, but to invite them into the journey of faith – a journey that may never take them inside the four walls of a traditional congregational building. They may worship God with other believers in a house church, or study the bible in an intentional community of faith that meets at the local bar, or be a part of a new monastic community.

As I have been in conversation with emergent and missional theologies, I have begun to drawn a distinction between the church and the congregation, the church being the fullness of the body of Christ – not limited to a building, or a congregation or even a denomination. That is not to say that the congregation and denomination are unimportant. They are the institutional partners that provide structure and support for the work of the church in the world. But I think what is key is that the mission of the church lies outside of the bounds of any particular congregation or denomination. As I have taught this in my own congregation, we remember that the church is to embody the Kingdom of God in all that we do. We are the church when we are at work, when we are at play, and we are the church to each and every single person that we meet. We carry with us the faith, hope, and love that have sustained us in our journey and we invite others to be travelers on that journey with us.

Photo by: Jascha Hoste

Touching and Tasting God’s Love

What is the meaning and significance of the sacraments?

In the sacraments of our church, ordinary things like bread and grape juice and water become vehicles of God’s divine grace. We gather as a community not only to acknowledge God’s presence with us, but we are each able to reach out and experience for ourselves the holy. We feel the cool water of cleansing beneath our fingertips. We smell the loving warmth of freshly baked bread. We taste the sweetness of God’s grace. We hear the water being poured out like streams of righteousness and hear the bread of heaven being broken for us. We see into the eyes of our brothers and sisters and find Christ there. Our sacraments not only remind us that God-is-with-us… the sacraments enable us to experience God-with-us, Emmanuel.

In baptism, we are washed clean of past transgressions and we are marked as children of God. We are given new life through those waters – a life that begins in community. In the sacrament of communion, we are not only reminded of the covenant Christ made with us, but invited to participate in its coming – we experience a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Time stands still when we invite God’s sacramental presence into our lives and we are swept up into the divine reality. But the sacraments are not merely mountaintop experiences – both of these sacraments transform us so that we become different. We become initiated into the priesthood of all believers and in the confirmation of our baptisms take vows to resist evil and injustice and oppression. We pray that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. The sacraments call us into the world.