“I’m going to pray for you!” Normally these words are of great comfort, but not today. They were said almost as a threat and, thankfully, I didn’t respond that way. “Great!” I said. I stepped towards her as she was walking away but still facing me. I was in my clergy robe and stole right after the ordination and commissioning service at Annual Conference. “My name is Tom. How may I pray for you?” It was then that she pointed her finger at me and said in a harsh tone, “I’m going to pray hard for you!” before turning her back and walking briskly away. I felt almost as if she was going to sic God on me. I hope she will pray for me. I will be praying for her…and wishing I knew her name so I could pray more directly for her.
This brief encounter was unexpected. Annual Conference had been a great experience with powerful worship, meaningful Bible Study and rich “engaging in relationships.” My friend, Matt Seals, had just been ordained and I was one of the two elders he invited on stage to lay hands on him as the bishop ordained him. Ordination is a big deal in The United Methodist Church. On the education side, we get a college degree and then apply to seminary. The list of schools accepted is rather small. I ended up attending Duke and Matt went to Hood Theological Seminary in the western part of NC. On the church side, there are a number of committees we must interview before…including our church, our district and our conference…many times! First, we apply for commissioning as a provisional member of Annual Conference and then serve 2 years under supervision. It is then that we apply for ordination which is similar to a doctoral dissertation in that there is significant written work and an extensive interview. Matt had served with me as a youth pastor for several years when I was in Greenville. It was there he fully discerned his call and decided to attend seminary and pursue ordination. It has been the better part of a decade between then and his ordination. I was happy and excited, and so was Ricky, a mutual friend, and a man Matt and I both love.
Ricky was the lay leader at Salem Church. He is no longer a United Methodist. Ricky was concerned about many things and he had questions. I was eager to answer his questions, ever in hopes that he might return to The United Methodist Church. The brief encounter with the aforementioned woman certainly didn’t help me win him back to our fold. I was sharing with Ricky the work of The Commission on The Way Forward and giving him an update. Our bishops are endorsing something called “The One Church Plan” which will be fully “fleshed out” in a published report no later than July 8, 2018. While I have read and heard much, I think it means every church and every conference will be given freedom to pursue their conscience on matters of human sexuality. Some churches will endorse and perform gay marriages…some won’t. Some annual conference will ordain openly gay and lesbian pastors…some won’t. Some jurisdictions may have openly gay and lesbian bishops…others won’t. Like you, I am eager to see the full report and hear all the details of the One Church model in July. Until then, my thoughts and reflections are suppositions, at best, and I offered them to Ricky with humility.
One question I do have is about those who identify as something other than heterosexual or homosexual. In most circles in The United Methodist Church, we hear the letters LGBTQI in relation to human sexuality. I feel certain we will continue to ask our heterosexual children to wait until marriage for sexual intimacy…just like we always have. I think we’ll also ask our homosexual children to do the same. What about the other letters? What about those who don’t identify with a single gender? What about those for whom sexuality is more fluid? Is monogamy even possible? Are we giving up on the idea of monogamy for everyone? I have questions and I am asking them. I am not getting many answers. I feel a need to know how all the pieces fit. That’s just how my mind works. I consider myself a systems thinker and I do this with every decision. For example, before I buy a new car I need to know what the cost of insurance is, how much tire replacement and other maintenance is likely to be, how quickly it depreciates, and many other details. Just having the finances to buy the car is the starting point of a conversation. In the same way, I need to know how all the letters relating to human sexuality fit within a Biblical context. I also need to know if we are done adding letters. What other doors of acceptable human sexuality are we allowing to open? I guess this is a lot more than just one question. If I am going to accept the One Church Model, I need a lot more information. I was sharing this with Ricky and, since our conversation wasn’t private, or in a private place, we were easily overheard.
Our denomination, like many others, is under increasing pressure to be more accepting and inclusive of sexual expression beyond one man and one woman. I understand some people have attractions for the same gender in the same way that I have an attraction for the opposite gender. I understand that some people don’t feel like this is a choice or ever can be a choice. I also understand that the more letters we add to the conversation, the more clouded the conversation becomes. I shared with Ricky how I interpret Scripture. From beginning to end, Scripture speaks with a singular voice. God made male and female for each other. This is how God designed us sexually. I believe this is God’s plan for us. I struggle to open to another understanding of Scripture and it is vitally important for me to conform myself to God’s plan in every way. The Bible is more than a guide book for me. It is God’s law and a blueprint for me, my life and my behavior. The Bible is more than simply important. It is ultimate truth that I cannot disregard or reshape and certainly not ignore. Others feel just like I do. We seem to be at a stalemate. I’m not sure if I can be moved from my position. I feel that others certainly cannot be moved from theirs. It is as though our denomination has us locked in a duel not unlike a “cage match.” We have debated this issue for decades with little movement from either side. Do we come apart? Can the One Church Model the bishops endorse end this? It is not easy to walk away from one’s denomination…this is one thing on which I think both “sides” agree.
Overhearing all this, the sister in Christ looks at me and tells me our conversation is hurtful. I was shocked. With a smile, I simply said, “I’m tired of fighting.” You know the rest. She is going to pray for me and, from her tone, in a way to straighten me out…or have God do that for her. Maybe God will straighten me out. I hope so. I have many growing edges as a work in progress. Although she wouldn’t give me her name, I am praying for her too. I want her to be blessed. I want her to have peace. I want God to reveal God’s will to her and to me. If I am interpreting Scripture incorrectly, I want God to show me. Until then, here I stand and can do nothing less. I fully believe she will say the same thing about her position. Will this One Church Model help bring us together so we can focus on mission and ministry in Jesus’ name? I hope so…and with you, I am eager to find out more. Until then, let’s pray for peace, for unity and for God’s will to be revealed to all…
Peace & Partnership,
For more information on The Way Forward and The Once Church Model: