Thursday, May 24, 2012

"We can't rule the Earth, because human beings are unruly."

I went to see the movie Avengers today. This is not my normal movie fare, but I am hosting a pastor from Liberia and this was his pick. So, being a good host, I went along and sat through two hours of punches, kicks, crashes and explosions.

I spent a lot of my time thinking about the art of sound effects. Who thinks up what the flight of a superhero should sound like? Who knows what it sounds like for The Hulk to jump from building to building smashing everything in sight? Someone must because the theater was full of the sounds of destruction.

There were several lines that made me laugh out loud and a short scene that was definitely about anti-nuclear proliferation. But mostly people just jumped or flew around destroying or being destroyed. Interestingly, there was very little blood and no one seemed to be affected by the concussions they suffered every fifteen minutes.

But the best came at the very end of the film, after most of the credits had gone by. The scene changed from earth to a far off planet floating out in space. Two bad guys were discussing the unfortunate events of the day at the hands of the good guys, The Avengers. Their plans for world domination had been foiled. One said to the other, "We can't rule the Earth, because human beings are unruly."

Well, if their only exposure to humanity was The Avengers, they were certainly right. I've never seen so much destruction done in the name of saving planet Earth. But I think they were on to something bigger in their observation. Humanity is unruly.

In our Wesleyan tradition we would consider that the result of free will. God gives us the gift to freely choose who we will follow. And the person we trust the most to follow is us. Even if we say we're following someone, a political candidate for example, we are following to meet our own needs.

I wonder if God came to the same conclusion as the alien bad guys a long time ago. These human beings are unruly!

Unexpected Item on the Belt

I was checking out in the Meijer self-serve lane last night. I picked up a container of cherry tomatoes and turned it upside down to scan the UPC code. The container burst open and cherry tomatoes went everywhere.

I could have recovered from the mishap quietly and efficiently, except for the comments from the checkout computer, "Unexpected item on the belt." I scooped tomatoes from the scanner plate, the grocery ledge and the floor. I picked up tomatoes that had rolled on to the belt. The computer kept telling me that it was experiencing something unexpected. I said out loud, "I know." After the second comment, I said, "Sorry, I'm picking these up as fast as I can."

I am reminded of when I turn a different way than my dashboard GPS wants me to. It says, "Recalculating." Sometimes I detect a note of irritability in the device's voice. As if it has had to recalculate once too often along our journey. I have to tell myself that the GPS isn't really upset. It keeps me from apologizing to it.

I bounce my phone on the floor, pick it up and ask, "Are you alright?" I say, "Thank you", to the voice that warns we to be alert at the end of the moving walkway.

I am wondering this morning if it is my ingrained habit of politeness that has me wanting to please the electronics in my life. Or if I've grown so used to (and dependent on!) these electronic assists that I want to stay on their good side.

Monday, May 21, 2012

My Summary - Detroit Annual Conference 2012

The Detroit Annual Conference met this last weekend (May 17-20) at Adrian College, Adrian. It was a combination of worship, celebration, memorial, reports, and legislation. Unlike some years, there were very few pieces of legislation and even the most controversial were adopted or not adopted with little fanfare.

The weather was sunny and the breezes gentle. The same could be said about the Conference. While the dark clouds of continued attendance and membership decline in our churches rumbled on the horizon, there was no specific consideration of facing the coming storms. While issues of human sexuality threatened to create an overcast atmosphere, even those tensions were low key.

The theme was "health" and members heard about United Methodist efforts in global health. There were also reports on UM health ministries in Michigan and a the health of clergy was addressed.

The Conference reaffirmed its commitment to assist with salary support for Liberian pastors. I'll admit that while have done my personal share (clergy are asked to contribute 1/5 of 1% of their salaries), I have not done so in a few years. I learned this weekend that clergy contributions have dropped significantly since 10 years ago when the program started. I'll be making my contribution this year.

Members of the Conference also voted to urge parishioners to oppose a change to state law that would allow concealed weapons to be carried in churches. In addition, a motion passed that each congregation identify someone to be the Restorative Justice Coordinator, working with victims, offenders, families and communities to promote restorative justice.

Restorative justice, when individuals and communities do the hard work to achieve it, is truly spirit-led experience. I know, however, that it will take much more than a resolution passed at the Detroit Annual Conference to make this a reality. It would be worthwhile to have congregation members trained in restorative justice. Another project for Brighton FUMC.

The Conference urged members of the church to call our Michigan senators to speak against being involved in a war in Iran. In addition, the Conference passed legislation that included questions to ask elected officials as we approach the 2012 fall elections.

One of these resolutions which involved advocating for peace and non-proliferation was considered in the legislative section that I attended. One member stood up and asked why the church was involved in politics at all; we are too be about the business of making disciples for Jesus Christ. I stood and offered a brief history lesson concerning our Wesley heritage. John Wesley was at the center of a movement that brought people to Jesus Christ and then expected a response in how believers interacted with their entire world. Wesley openly opposed slavery and worked to improve conditions for the imprisoned and mentally ill. In other words, a result of his faithfulness was a stand that would be considered political today.

As Methodists we work in the tension between working on our personal faithfulness and on social justice. It is a hard place for our large and diverse church to be, but it is one of the most compelling reasons that I am a United Methodist. During the women's movement of the 1970's there was a saying, "The personal is political." Borrowing that logic, I would say that personal faith lived out completely is political. If we're doing the work of transforming the world, then our government is included in that.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Remembering the Dead

On Friday, May 11, I presided at a funeral service for Frances Griffin. She was a life-long resident of Brighton, Michigan who lived to 104. She was baptized and confirmed at the Methodist Church and, even after being home bound in her last few years, continued to receive monthly communion. Frances was a steady, gracious force for her family and her friends. She was faithful. I am giving thanks.

On Saturday, I attended the memorial service of Paul Geer. Paul was a faithful member of Lexington United Methodist Church. Back in the mid-1970's, he was the leader of the United Methodist Youth Fellowship. I credit him for pulling together a group of kids from our small town and teaching us to care for one another. I learned from him that I was both lovable and capable at a time in my life that I had my doubts. In his leadership and care, I experienced the grace of God. Rev. Tim Ziegler officiated at Paul's memorial service. He testified to Paul's life of faithfulness that was known in his church, in his family and throughout community. Tim asked those present, hundreds of people overflowing the sanctuary, to stand if Paul had invited them, mentored them, befriended them or been an example for them. Everyone stood. His life was lived as a testimony to the goodness of God and God's creation. I am giving thanks.

On Monday, May 14, I will preside at my uncle's funeral, Woodrow Loshaw. Uncle Woody was the one in the family that was often overlooked in the busyness of getting on with life. His mother saw him as the one that needed to be helped, to be protected. Woody's brothers and sisters supported him, as they were able. He lived a simple, quiet life. And Woody's life narrative would end there, except for the witness of his co-workers. In these last days, as family gathered around Woody's hospital bed, co-workers stopped in to talk about the man they knew. The family heard stories of generosity, humor and friendship. They heard that the life Woody led was deeper, broader and richer than they could have imagined. I am giving thanks.

Some will wear their goodness like a humble coat through the years, an example seen by others. Some will offer themselves in service and compassion as if the well would never run dry. And some, will leave a legacy, brought to light in the darkest of time. God works in us and through us. I am not sure we always get to choose how that happens. What we can choose is how we will acknowledge the gifts. I am giving thanks.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Civil Unions or Marriage?

On Wednesday, May 9, President Barak Obama stated publicly that he is in favor of same-sex marriage. He said that his position had evolved over a period of time. He had supported civil unions for same-sex couples, but had come to realize that marriage should be open to both heterosexual and homosexual couples.

I believe that marriage is, for the majority of American, primarily a civil union. As I look back over the marriage ceremonies I have performed, the majority have been for couples who are non- or nominally-Christian. A "church wedding" or having a clergy person perform the ceremony in a garden, backyard, restaurant, etc. is what is expected, rather than a celebration of God in the midst of marriage.

Couples, for the most part, are not interested in spending time exploring their relationship to God through Jesus Christ or the role of spiritual practices in their marriage. They are more interested in the production of a wedding, the length of the aisle, the music for the bridal procession, the style of the cake and the color of the flowers.

This is not Christian marriage. When I perform these kinds of weddings, I am functionary for the state, witnessing a civil agreement between a man and a woman. Because of this civil agreement, tax status may change, the couple can share health insurance and represent each other legally in emergencies. They can speak for each other in medical decisions. My conviction that many "marriages" are civil unions is evident in the practice of divorce. In my experience, couples in the church finally come to the pastor when the legal preceding for divorce are underway. Divorce dissolves, in the state's eyes the civil union.

When I meet with couples before a wedding, I talk to them about what Christian marriage means. It put it simply. In the Bible, writings in both the Old and New Testaments refer to marriage as a metaphor for God's relationship with God's people (Old Testament) and Christ's relationship with the church (New Testament). This means that I should be able to look to any couple who has participates in Christian marriage and say, "So this is what my relationship with God should look like. This is how God loves me and I am to love God." Christian marriage is the ultimate metaphor for the human/divine relationship, mutually caring, self-sacrificing, hoping the best for each other, true to self and each other.

In the debate over marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples, I would offer these suggestions. We must first acknowledge that a "legal" marriage is in fact a civil union. The state has simply given permission for clergy to represent the government in witnessing this agreement. (Clergy, bride, groom and witnesses sign a legal document that must be returned to the state within 10 days.) So, the only thing that the government can authorize or legislate are matters concerning civil unions.

Marriage, on the other hand, is the work of religious institutions and spiritual communities. I would suggest that marriages are the result of careful spiritual exploration, mutual agreement and commitment to living in loving relationship that holds the couple up and enriches the community. For me, I see a true marriage when I see a metaphor of God's love lived out. Gay or straight, couples who are committed to living in this kind of relationship are ready for marriage.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Difficult Return to Church

I was the first one to arrive at First UMC of Brighton on Sunday morning, May 6. As is the habit of our staff, the first person to arrive turns on lights and unlocks doors. I was heading down the staircase near the sanctuary to unlock doors, when I lost my balance and fell down a flight of stairs.

I landed with my head against the metal frame of the staircase landing and my feet propped up on the first step. I lay there for a while, catching my breath. Then I assessed the damage. I had a large "egg" on the back of my head, a sore hip and abrasions on my shin and knee. I got up and hobbled my way back up the staircase. Deacon Loretta took me to ER where I spent the rest of my morning.

Since then, a few more injuries have come to light. That's understandable. I did a classic roll down the staircase and I hit hard in a number of places.

Today, I am still recovering, feeling sore and stiff.

It is times like these that the church is at its best. I give thanks to Pastor John and Deacon Loretta for "carrying on" with power and grace. I am thankful to Donna Thompson for getting me home. I am thankful to the many who have prayed for me and those who have provided meals!!

Years ago, I decided to stop fighting against the gracious gifts of others. When I need help, I remember that receiving is as important a practice as giving. We give to celebrate the living presence of God's reign. We receive and know God's gracious love is present.

It is my prayer that I am able to spend more time giving than receiving. My prayer is also that I remain gracious, whatever the circumstances.

General Conference: An Early Reflection

Now that General Conference is a few days behind me, I have found that when I reflect on the experience with friends and colleagues, I may not sound too hopeful for our denomination.

The last evening of General Conference was chaotic. A restructuring of denominational boards an agencies (Plan UMC) had been declared unconstitutional. Early in the evening there was a move to refer Plan UMC for further perfection. There were many who disagreed with a referral of the legislation, since the Judicial Council had not only called it unconstitutional, but unsalvageable. The call fro referral was eventually tabled, and the legislation "died". The General Conference delegates spent the rest of the long evening, passing legislation that would reduce the governing boards of boards and agencies of the church. These changes, brought the UMC in line with the adjusted budget. General Conference was adjourned about 11:00 pm on Friday, May 4.

Through the two weeks, I saw more back room "politicking" than I cared for. Coalitions and groups allied by shared interests "worked" delegates with their views. I watched delegates reading verbatim from talking point sheets and I saw groups gathered for debriefings and directions. "Plan UMC" was, itself, the work of small group of delegates that did not consult with the wide-ranging constituency of the church.

I had a sense that many had come to General Conference to be the "winners". Unfortunately, when participants come into a setting determined to "win", it means that someone will most certainly "lose". Worse yet, those with unmoving polarized positions left little room for productive conversation or healthy compromise.

At General Conference, there was a lot of emphasis on "Holy Conferencing". Delegates practiced it and covenanted to be in a spirit of Holy Conferencing. It seemed to me that the model only extended to a more polite discourse, with very little agreement to listen openly to all sides. Even with the cautions to keep the conversation "holy", there were harsh words spoken in both the legislative sessions and in the plenary session.

Where is the hope? There certainly is hope. First, this is the church of Christ and not of a group of delegates who worked out United Methodist polity. Thanks be to God. The church will survive. The question might be: Will the United Methodist Church survive. One bishop "tweeted" the day after General Conference that what we are witnessing is the birthing process of a new church. It's not easy; it's messy and painful.

I have found the greatest hope in the grassroots efforts of the local church. As the General Conference rolled on, around the world, people worshipped in our churches and reached out to feed, cloth and house people. At First UMC of Brighton, we prepared planting beds for a community garden.

Disciple making and transformation of the world will not come with polarized politicking. It will come with each hand held to take another, each word spoken in kindness, each moment given to listen to another's story.

I may not sound too hopeful when I talk about the experience, but I have not lost hope in the people of the United Methodist Church nor hope in what God will do through us.

Friday, May 4, 2012

General Conference Session Extended

As I write this, it is after 10:00 pm and the General Conference is still in session. The late night session has been the result of the adopted restructuring plan being declared unconstitutional. (Not only did the Judicial Council call the plan unconstitutional, but went further to say that it was so flawed that it was unsalvagable.) Some delegates worked to get the plan referred for further work. That motion was tabled. Then the delegates worked to get a structure in place that would work with the previously adopted budget. When that was done, the session was recessed for 1/2 hour while the financial implications were worked out. 

The presiding bishop has said that the session will go no later than 11:15 pm. We'll see how much we'll get done by then. 

Judicial Council Just Declared New Church Restructuring Plan Unconstitutional

The General Conference was surprised when the Judical Council announced that the newly adopted structure for the UMC. The basic reason was that the new structure put policy and goal setting in the hands of agencies. In the UMC policies and goals are only determined by the General Confence. 

Deliberation will continue after a dinner break. 

Westboro Baptist Church Protests Outside Convention Center

Representatives of Westboro Baptist Church (the chirch of Fred Phelps) are demonstrating across the street from the Convention Center near a tent used by a coalition of groups including Reconciling Ministries and the Methodist Federation for Social Action. They are shouting inflammatory names and carrying signs that read "God Hates Fags", "Methodist Fag Church", and "Your Pastor Is a Liar".

End to Elder Guaranteed Appointment Referred to Judicial Council

The new legislation that would end guaranteed appointments for elders has been referred to the Judical Council. There is a question of whether or not it is in compliance with the UMC constitution. The body is currently awaiting a ruling. 

All Petitions Dealing with Issues of Human Sexuality Tabled

The General Conference has voted to table all petitions related to human sexuality. This means that the language in the current Discipline concerning homosexuality and same-sex marriages and civil unions will be retained in the 2012 Discipline. 

Both those hoping for more inclusive language and those who were committed to keeping the language the same voted to table the motion. Why? For those who want restrictive language, legislation to change the language in the Social Pronciples had already failed. Our Discipline will, once again, say that the UMC does not condone the practice of homosexuality and that its practice is not compatible with Chrisitan teaching. Because that legislation was defeated by nearly 70%, those who wanted restrictive language were confident that no other changes could be made. 

And for those who had worked to end the restrictions on performing same-sex marriages and to allow LGBT men and women to be ordained and serve as clergy, the decision to vote to table came for another reason. There was fear that if human sexuality legislation was considered, that the Discipline language would be changed to be more excluding. In addition, the debates concerning human sexuality that have taken place in legislative committees and in the plenary sessions have included harmful and wounding words. Tabling the legislation ended this painful practice. 

Differences, cultural and theological, concerning human sexuality has influenced General Conference conversation. I have no doubt that this conversation will continue. My hope is that the conversation is surrounded by God's grace and care for all God's people. 

Youth and Young Adults at General Conference

Near the end of the morning session, a young adult made a statement to the Gerneral Confernece.  She began by describing how she had been blessed by new relationships and experiences over these last two weeks. She went on to describe how the voices of young adults and youth, elected by their conferences, have been disregarded and silenced. Ironically, following her statement there was motion to reopen legislation to include a youth/young adult on the committee for oversight and strategy. The delegates chose not to consider the motion. 

At FUMC of Brighton, we elect youth and young adults to committees as directed by the Discipline.  It have we truly done our part to hear the voices of youth and young adults?

Legislation on the Last Day of General Conference

The Committee on Agenda and Calendar has determined that the General Conference deal with essential business items before considering other petitions. So, this morning the delegates have been debating and voting on parts of the quadrennial budget (2013-2016). Overall, the budget is being reduced. 

This has been an interesting morning. In recent years of the Detroit Annual Conference, proposed budgets have passed with little discussion. (I understand that this has not always been the case.) Delegates have offered amendments that would reinstate and fund commissions eliminated in the new structure (Commission on the Role and Status of Women and the Commission on Race Relations) and amendment ts for more accountability when hiring consultants. The amendments were defeated. 

The delegation will return to other petitions in the afternoon. I will keep readers posted. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Members of the Detroit Annual Conference Delegation

It is important that the delegation of the Detroit Annual Conference be in place whenever the General Conference is in session. The four laity and four clergy delegates are seated at the back of the hall, but they have done a good job of getting noticed when they want to speak.

Balance Between Clergy and Laity at Annual Conference

Presently, the UMC Constiution requires that there be a balance of clergy and lay delegates at annual conferences. This count includes all clergy, appointed to churches and other places and clergy who are retired. This means that several at-large lay delegates represent districts to make up for the imbalance. However, not all retired clergy are able to or choose to attend. A proposal considered by the General Conference would invite retired and incapacitated clergy an opportunity to decline to attend. This would decrease the number of at-large lay delegates needed to balance the numbers. This would, in the end, decrease the cost of holding annual conferences. 

The petition was approved by the delegates. This will, most likely, reduce the number of at-large laity attending annual conference. 

Clergy Pensions

For many years, retiring clergy have been blessed by a generous pension. Even though the pension plan has been adjusted over the last 30 years, the pension that clergy receive is a combination of defined benefit and defined contribution. The General Conference was asked to decide between a modified plan with a reduced defined benefit (something like what now exists where clergy receive a predictable monthly income and the risk of loss is on the UMC, the plan sponsor), and a plan with a defined contribution (where individual clergy hold the full risk of market ups and downs for pension dollars contributed on their behalf and receive at retirement the earnings of their pension investment). 

Both plans reduce the amount of pension that future retiring clergy will receive. The main decision is where the risk of investment should be placed, with the church or with the clergy.

Note: In the Detroit Annual Conference, the pensions of our retirees are fully funded far into the future thanks to wise investments in the past. It would be to the benefit of our Conference and clergy to keep some form of the defined benefit model. 

The General Confernece decided to keep a modified form of the defined contribution pension benefit. However, it will be up to each annual conference to decide whether clergy serving less than full-time will be covered. 

Protest Follow Up

After a plea for  peaceful resolution to the group occupying the plenary floor by the Council of Bishops, the group left voluntarily. Before they left, their pain was acknowledged by President of the Bishop's Council, Bishop Werner. Prayer was offered. 

Discipline Language Concerning Human Sexuality

The UM Discipline contains language in several places that says "the UMC does not condone the practice of homosexuality and the practice of homosexuality is not compatible with Chrisitan teaching.". Many petitions were submitted in an attempt to remove this language. Other petitions were submitted to strengthen the present language. It is Thursday and the issue is being debated passionately. 

At this point the language of incompatibility will remain in the UMC Social Principles. There are still matters to decide including: whether all people, regardless of sexual orientation, can be ordained; whether or not UMC clergy can perform same-sex marriages or civil unions; and if clergy will be charged if they do not obey the Discipline guidelines. 

Many people have come to General Confernece to plead for full inclusion of LGBT. Organized protests have been peaceful until today. At 11:00 some protestors crossed the bar of conference and refused to leave. They joined in singing, even as the presiding bishop asked them to leave. Finally, the presiding bishop called an early lunch recess. We are currently waiting for the session to begin this afternoon. What will happen to the protestors that are not leaving the conference floor?

This is a protesting group entering the plenary floor on Wednesday. 
On Thursday morning, protesters surrounded the delegates and prayed. 
These protestors remained on the floor of the plenary two hours after being asked to leave.

Memorial Service for UM Bishops Who Have died in the Last Four Years

On Wednesday evening there was a memorial service for bishops who have died over the last four years.  Bishop Jonathon Keaton, our Michigan Area bishop participated by carrying on of the lights that symbolized those who have died.  The luminaries were set out to float in the waters beside the conference center. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Morning at the Medical Clinic

This morning I decided to see a doctor for a sore throat and cough that I have had for the last week. I discovered that the General Confernece organizers had pre-arranged doctor appointments for delegates at a local clinic. They also provided rides to and from. The clinic, located in an older part of the city, was very busy and I heard several of the people seated in the waiting area talking about having no insurance. The staff was energetic and appeared to treat everyone with kindness. 

I talked to the nurse and doctor about being from the UMC conference. They said that they had seen many patients for symptoms like mine. In addition, some of our delegates from Africa have come in, not for acute symptoms, but for chronic conditions. The doctor worried that despite the identification of chronic conditions that would be treated with regular medication in this country, those diagnosed would not be able to receive regular treatment and medications when they returned home. 

Bronchitis and a trip to the doctor are an inconvenience for me today. I cannot imagine having a chronic condition that can reduce the quality and length of my life and knowing that I will return home to no treatment. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Volunteers at General Conference

Along with the monitors (mentioned in a blog post below), there are many other volunteers needed to help General Conference run smoothly. Volunteers from all over the host conference, Florida, serve as greeters and guides. Many choirs and bands have traveled from all over the US and the world to offer their talents. The choir from First United Methodist Church of Plymouth, Michigan performed at the lunch break ( picture below) and at the evening worship service. 
Another group of volunteers work as pages. Pages help to count votes during legislative committee meetings. In addition, pages pass messages for delegates while they are in plenaery session. Applications for pages are taken in the year before the General Conference. Volunteers can come from any  annual conference. Rev. Mike Seymour, a retired member of the Detroit Annual Conference, is working as a page. 
Marshals are volunteers that protect the bar of the conference, making sure that only authorized delegates are seated. 

End of Guaranteed Appointments for Elders

On Tuesday, the General Conference voted to end the United Methodist practice of guaranteed full-time appointment for its elders in good standing. Beginning in January 2013, bishops can appoint elders to less-than-full-time appointments or to "transitional leaves" of a maximum of 2 years. A transitional leave would be a time when an elder would work toward transitioning into another vocation.

Why this change? A team, assigned by the 2008 General Conference to study clergy effectiveness, determined that this change would increase flexibility in the deployment of clergy.  It was also thought that this would provide a process to ease persons out of pastoral ministry who have not proven effective in leading the church.

Is this a decision that will help the church? Some say it will allow bishop's the ability to move clergy into appointments (even if part time or transitional) that will help the overall ministry of the church.  Others are worried that this may adversely effect the ministry of ethnic minority and women clergy. In addition, this places more power and authority in the hands of bishops.

We can trust that even with this change, checks and balances still exist for the fair treatment of elders, but at this point, many are uneasy.

I believe that the necessary processes for removing ineffective clergy already existed in the Discipline before the action. And whether it is through the old process or the newly adopted one, it takes deliberate, grace-filled work to remove clergy from full-time appointment. I hope that this decision will not disproportionately effect ethnic minorities and women. It is also my prayer that bishops will use this new "tool" carefully and compassionately for the upbuilding of the church.

Considering Petitions

Considering petitions, especially those that have been amended by the legislative committees, is a daunting task. Delegates refer to the original petition (either in print or as a PDF) and to the amended petitions in another publication. In addition, more amendments are often offered from the floor. Here's a picture of how the screen helps the delegates to find the information the need. 
Delegates at work on legislation.