Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Irreconcilable Differences

I, too, am suffering from a profound sadness. I also have some anger.

My last entry to this blog sounds foolish now. I thought we would naturally put aside our arguments for a time and focus on the gulf coast and obviously I was wrong.

The PSW region stated they have “irreconcilable differences” with ABC-USA. What a profoundly troubling selection of words. The words “irreconcilable differences” are the most often used words to describe the legal reasons for a divorce. I felt I had to use those words once in my life but I didn’t like them then and I don’t like them now. As a Christian I don’t believe there are irreconcilable differences. As church leaders, we try to help folks reconcile the irreconcilable. Jesus specializes in the impossible and we work for him.

But for a moment, let’s agree that a region and a denomination can have irreconcilable differences on a particular issue. Why does that justify breaking up a denomination?
We live in a culture that encourages all or nothing. I’m trying to figure out why we don’t have actions we can take short of execution. Folks disagree with the position on an issue of a pastor (or Executive Minister) (or denomination) and the choice seems to be keep them or get rid of them. Nothing in-between.

On the other hand, I can think of some very healthy churches I have know over the years that were different. I heard an old-timer say that he remembered Rev. “A” as a wonderful pastor. “He was absolutely wrong on the subject of ------. But he was a wonderful pastor.” A serious disagreement on one very serious issue wasn’t enough to terminate the relationship.

Today we are much more into punishment rather than healthy criticism. Why couldn’t a region board make a declaration that, in their opinion, the denomination is incorrect in its position or its procedures? And then get on with the tasks of evangelism and caring ministries? Go on record and then get on with ministry.

Our life of faith is a pilgrimage. We are granted eternal life with God when we accept Christ. But then the journey starts. The rest of our lives we work on improving ourselves, growing more Christ-like. The church is a place for people with bad habits, distorted understandings, off-base opinions, and limited Biblical insight -- people on a pilgrimage, trying to be faithful. On that journey, we may grow steadily and surely, or we may grow suddenly and dramatically, or we may stubbornly cling to a sin for years before seeing the light. And when that light fills us, sooner or later, we may discover what we thought was irreconcilable, isn’t.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A Sad Day

I just got back in the office this morning and read the Associated Baptist Press release reporting the action of the Board of Directors initiating the withdrawal of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest (PSW) from ABCUSA. [ link to story ]

I am sick. And there is no way I can write about my profound grief without it sounding like I am pontificating. So I will keep this brief.

I am sad because this action seems contrary to what I have been told by the leadership of PSW, both publicly and privately. I don’t know if things got out of their control, we weren’t trusted enough to hear the truth, or if we were deliberately deceived. Until proven otherwise, I choose to believe it was the first or second. But I am still sad, because I have friends and colleagues in PSW.

I am sad because some will rejoice, thinking that a major thorn in their side has been removed, and now all will be happiness and joy in ABCUSA and we can get back to business as usual. The habit of identifying two or three regions, one or two organizations, and/or a half dozen individuals as the source of our conflict does not bear up under close scrutiny. This conflict is widespread and goes down into the very roots of our being. The debate is about who we are (our identity), not what we do. The conflict will remain with us.

I am sad because my reading of Baptist history says that we have been diminished every time there has been a departure under such circumstances. We become more homogeneous and, consequently, wear blinders because an important corrective voice is no longer present. Make no mistake; this will significantly impact the identity, programs, and resources of ABCUSA.

I am sad because this has great symbolic significance. And I can’t embrace what it symbolizes. This is but one example of the distorted sense of autonomy that has seized many of us and is being reflected in the institutions/organizations we lead and represent. I do not believe koinonia is optional for Christians. Indeed, I am absolutely persuaded that it has theological priority over autonomy, at least in the way autonomy has come to be expressed among us. If we cannot express the same passion for koinonia that some of us do for autonomy, we will not stay together.

Monday, September 12, 2005

How About A Postponement?

No, Dwight, I can’t accept that we are past the tipping point. I respect your intelligence and wisdom so I realize you may be right. But, right now, I can’t accept it. [I am absolutely with you in not having much heart to continue talking about the practice of homosexuality. In the last two weeks I’ve thought about calling you and suggesting we quit this blog.]

I have been encouraged by grass roots responses to Katrina while large relief organizations have struggled to come up to speed to respond to a disaster of this vast dimension. I have seen people who disagree on issues work together to respond to hurting people. And isn’t that why we became a denomination in the first place?

Short of a miracle (which I fully believe could happen) we are not going to resolve our differences on the practice of homosexuality. Too much fear. Too much hostility. Too much polarization. So, do we dump everyone on one side or the other? Or, can we decide to minister together to the displaced, the poor, the lost – bringing them help, hope, and the good news? Can’t we do this even if we think some of the people we are working with are absolutely wrong on some issues?

As I’ve written on this blog before, American Baptists feel very strongly about abortion. They feel very strongly on both sides of the issue. But we realized that we were not going to come to agreement so we agreed to disagree. That doesn’t mean we never talk about it. There are those on both sides who work to help others see another perspective and consider changing their minds. We seek to encourage, teach, listen, understand as the discussion continues. But the discussion is not keeping us from our greater mission – letting folks know God loves them.

We have before us a disaster of huge consequences. Our attention and our energy needs to be devoted to the greatest love response ever seen in this country. Let's take the risk. Let’s lay down our weapons of debate, threat and fear, and get busy helping, hoping and loving.

There will be plenty of time later to fight with each other.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Fear Sets Priorities

Sounds like Susan has been enjoying her own “circle of fear.” Actually, it sounds more like the old football drill I learned as “bull-in-the-ring.” I have had lots of experience with the latter. And, like Susan, I stay there and take the hits because I love God and because I try to love those God put me with to form community centered in Christ. (Although she is undoubtedly better at that than I am.)

However, following Hurricane Katrina, I must admit that I don’t have much stomach for these discussions. (I really didn’t have much to begin with.) It seems like everything has gotten out of perspective.

One of my colleagues was in Dallas with evacuees, and I spoke with her yesterday. As overwhelming as the physical devastation has been, she described psychological devastation even greater. She spoke of trying to comfort children who had become separated from parents, having no idea of where they were or even if they were alive. She spoke of one girl who had been unable to sleep because her recurrent dream included floating bodies. I expect we will continue to see the scars of this tragedy 20 years from now.

But she also spoke with great satisfaction that the Church was present, and was bringing hope. The Corps of Engineers may plug the levees. The Red Cross may feed people. The government may rebuild infrastructure. Humanitarian physicians may stitch the wounds. Habitat for Humanity may erect houses. But no one can bring healing to seared psyches like the Church—at least when it truly acts as the presence of the living Christ. While hurricane relief should never assume the full manifestation of the Kingdom of God, it is a graphic reminder that there is more at stake, and that we should give some consideration to our priorities as citizens of that Kingdom and as disciples of its King.

I really do not believe the Kingdom of God hinges on the denominational acceptance of clergy who are openly and actively homosexual. Likewise, I do not believe the Kingdom of God hinges on a denomination-wide sweep, purging every vestige or hint of homosexual (or any other aberrant) behavior.

But fear has other plans. Despite its eclectic, fictional spirituality, the Star Wars series understands that “fear is the path to the dark side.” That path is littered with priorities raised by fear.

And so, like Susan, I find myself again and again in the ring. The priority that fear has set for me includes personal visits with 15 pastor clusters, costing about $3000 in mission dollars, and devouring my time and energy like a black hole. The priority that fear has set for me includes running worst case scenarios of funding and its impact on regional mission and ministry as I plan the budget for next year. The priority that fear has set for me includes two major denominational projects for which I simply do not have any heart. (And I know that I am not singing a solo.)

Fear has hijacked every discussion group I have been part of for the last nine years. A long time ago I learned a simple pattern for groups working toward decisions. That pattern is F-F-I-D. First, you express and deal with feelings. Then you gather and examine facts. Then you consider the implications of various decisions. And, finally, you make a decision. Fear is an emotion, a feeling. We never get past the “feelings” part of this formula. Even people who are trained and who should know better get stuck in the quagmire of feelings, and the prevailing feeling is fear.

In one of my recent meetings a pastor spoke, nearly with tears. “Let me be clear. I am absolutely confident that homosexual intimacy is sin. We should not be ordaining persons who engage in this sin any more than we should those who are unrepentant of any other sin. I have never found it necessary to approve of or make excuses for sin as I minister to people. But I do have ministry to do, and this fight is an unnecessary distraction. Both of you, please take it some where else.”

In another meeting, after Katrina, I stole a few minutes to advocate for relief. One of the avenues I suggested was One Great Hour of Sharing. Afterwards a person came up to me and said, “I won’t trust American Baptists with my money. I will give to XXXX instead.” The church was one of the largest financial supporters in the entire denomination.

I think that hurt worse than any of the other darts that have been hurled at me. I had always thought that, of all the ABC offering channels, One Great Hour of Sharing was the most resistant to ideological and theological sentiments.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great little book: The Tipping Point. He analyzes major social changes using the analogy of a contagious epidemic. Because of my previous life in medical research I find that very interesting. Fear is epidemic. I have come to fear that we have passed the tipping point.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Price of Fellowship?

I think the “Circle of Fear” is amazing. I need to think about it. Perhaps next week, I’ll ask some questions.

I’m just back from a trip visiting seven churches in four days, listening to what the folks are talking about and doing, sharing some stories, sharing meals, worshiping, celebrating an ordination, and, in one case, enduring a grueling interrogation asking me how the ABC could have gotten itself into the mess that particular congregation feels we are in. I listened, I explained history, I explained process, I listened some more, and I prayed for them. A couple of things were brutally clear to me that night. 1. A time like this is a really crummy time to teach effective means of Biblical study or Baptist history and polity. [but better now than never] 2. We haven’t learned how to debate tough issues with grace. Some of the folks in the room were angry, one was rude and most of the silent ones showed grace after the evening ended. I left the church building with more than a little frustration. I’ve endured some pretty dramatic church fights but somehow, on this particular evening, I was spent in a way I’ve never experienced before. I had tried to absorb their anger and fury and it nearly did me in. You see, I love them.

In Sunday School in the 1950s the Judson curriculum taught me “Baptists believe the Bible is the word of God and our authority in all matters of faith and Christian living.” I believe it. I memorized it. And yet, I own too many material things, I am not generous enough, I speak in church, I wear jewelry in church without one iota of guilt, I eat too much, I am divorced, I cut my hair. I am not above gossip and critiquing people I have no business critiquing. I can go days without praying for the poor (or even thinking of them). My prayer life has known times of dryness. I am a bad steward of my time. I am not a theologian or a Bible scholar; I am a teacher/broadcaster who got sidetracked by God into denominational work. I still think of myself as a layperson. Since I was a child, I have tried to live my faith in my daily life. But, obviously, I have had limited success. Just like most other American Baptists.

My pastor sent me an e-mail this week with a quotation from Bible scholar, C.E.B. Cranfield. It’s in Barclay’s commentary on I Peter 3:8-12 and his consideration of unity as a quality of the Christian life."The New Testament never treats this agreeing in Christ as an unnecessary though highly desirable spiritual luxury, but as something essential to the true being of the Church. Divisions, whether disagreements between individual members or the existence of factions and parties and- how much more!- our present-day denominations, constitute a calling in question of the Gospel itself and a sign that those who are involved are carnal. The more seriously we take the New Testament, the more urgent and painful becomes our sense of the sinfulness of the divisions, and the more earnest our prayers and strivings after the peace and unity of the Church on earth. That does not mean that the like-mindedness we are to strive for is to be a drab uniformity of the sort beloved of bureaucrats. Rather is it to be a unity in which powerful tensions are held together by an over-mastering loyalty, and strong antipathies of race and colour, temperament and taste, social position and economic interest, are overcome in common worship and common obedience. Such unity will only come when Christians are humble and bold enough to lay hold on the unity already given in Christ and to take it more seriously than their own self-importance and sin, and to make of these deep differences of doctrine, which originate in our imperfect understanding of the Gospel and which we dare not belittle, not an excuse for letting go of one another or staying apart, but rather an incentive for a more earnest seeking in fellowship together to hear and obey the voice of Christ."