Monday, December 1, 2014

Acts 15 Hope by Len Schoenherr

    The long traditions, laws and world view of Judaism seem to have defined the first decade of the followers of the Risen Christ.  But when Paul and Barnabas and Peter testified to their experiences of the Holy Spirit's activity among the uncircumcised the church faced a decision. Would the amazing activity of the Holy Spirit move the early church to override centuries of codified practice supported by their understanding of the teaching of scripture?  

    The account in Acts 15 marks the beginning of what has been a long, painful, and ongoing attempt to change the the practice of the church as it seeks to align itself with the clear evidence of the Holy Spirit's surprising, and to some, disturbing, activity.

    Some of us have seen the Holy Spirit move among LGBT folks we have baptized and confirmed. They, as we who are "straight", are working at creating loving and faithful relationships and are seeking to live lives of committed discipleship and service to God and neighbor. They love God, affirm Jesus as Lord and Savior and the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives and relationships is abundantly evident. Those experiences have led us to prayerfully discern that we can no longer deny these brothers and sisters in Christ the blessing of marriage. To do so would be to hinder the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

    In breaking with current United Methodist law and practice, we are aware of the pain and anger our behavior causes brother and sister laity and clergy who believe we are acting to destroy the church.  But we also love this church, love it deeply enough and love our LGBT sisters and brothers deeply enough, to prayerfully violate our Book of Discipline. We do so in attempted faithfulness to what we believe is the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit in continuing the work started in Acts 15. We so attempting to be faithful to the Good News in Jesus Christ.  

   Similiar activity in the past led to the end of slavery, the ordination of women, interracial marriage, permission to marry divorced persons, and an ongoing outreach to "Gentiles" of varied times and places. Changes in those areas did not come about without tension and pain in the body of Christ. We remain divided from sisters and brothers in other faith communities who still oppose the ordination of women on scriptural and traditional grounds.  The Body of Christ remains a broken body. We do not rejoice in adding to that brokenness.  But the continuing pain of exclusion felt by LGBT folks cannot be the price of unity.

   I personally hope and pray for some Acts 15 wisdom for the United Methodist Church I love and have been privileged to serve for over forty years.  

   I continue to pray for our Bishop and our Superintendents 
and for LGBT folks watching our discussions and actions 
as our church struggles with this issue impacting many lives.

God's grace and peace to ALL.

Len Schoenherr, retired pastor and 
Privileged to be the support  person for Rev. Michael  Tupper 
during the Just Resolution of the Complaint filed against him
for officiating at his daughter's wedding.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Make Our Light Shine!

            Is it time for church leaders to ‘make our light shine’? We’ve been living under the clay pot of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. Maybe now is the time to place our lamps on a lampstand where it can give light to everyone in our church. God might be calling us to tell our stories of celebrating same gender weddings and other stories of ministry with and hospitality toward all people.   
Tom Robinson, a Detroit pastor, shared a powerful story at our Signing Celebration on November 12th. The story was about Moseli, an African American with a tremendous voice who worked as a nanny for a prestigious white family. She would take the children to church every Sunday at the white church.
            One Sunday she asked the pastor if she could sing at their Christmas Party.  The pastor would have said “no” except for the fact that the man Moseli worked for was an important leader in the church.
            Just before Moseli got up to sing, the ushers carried a screen to the front of the sanctuary. They escorted Moseli behind the screen from where she sang, “Sweet Little Jesus Boy”. At the end of the story, Tom’s father said to Tom, “Today we’re behind the screen. But tomorrow we’ll be in front of the screen.”
            This analogy applies to so many of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who are kept behind the screen by their church. It also applies to so many in our churches who are expressing God’s inclusive love for all, but are doing their good works behind the screen.
            Jesus said, “You are like light for the whole world. A city built on top of a hill cannot be hidden, and no one would light a lamp and put it under a clay pot. A lamp is placed on a lampstand, where it can give light to everyone in the house. Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven.”
            Is it time for church leaders to ‘make our light shine’? Our church has placed us behind the screen and under a clay pot with the threat of a church trial and removing our ministerial credentials. But maybe now is the time to “make our light shine.”
I felt God calling me to do that after my daughter told me she was getting married. I’ve kept my light under the clay pot and behind the screen for years. I didn’t want to upset people in the churches I served. But this Lent when I reflected on Jesus’ decision to go to Jerusalem, I heard the call to make my light shine. That decision was confirmed when I heard our Bishop at Annual Conference preach about the courage of the midwives in the face of the Pharaoh. I knew I was not only supposed to officiate at Sarah’s wedding, but also tell my District Superintendent and others what I did. I was supposed to place my lamp on a lampstand.

            Maybe now is the time for you to “make your light shine.” One way you might do that is to write your story of ministry to all people, especially our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Then share that story with others. One way to share the story is through this blog. I’m willing to post your story on this blog site. Send them to me via my e-mail at michaeljamestupper at 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The "Good News" Perspective - Looking at the UMC from the Other Side

When Is Accountability of No Account?

A trend is developing in the way that some United Methodist bishops are handling complaints against pastors who perform same-sex weddings or unions. Instead of bringing accountability, the complaint process is being turned on its head and used to promote the very behavior that is the subject of the complaint!
This trend began with the Amy DeLong trial in 2011. As the penalty for performing a same-sex union, Rev. DeLong was “sentenced” to write a paper during a 20-day suspension on the meaning of covenant and to help lead discussions among Wisconsin Conference clergy on how to live together in covenant, given our disagreement over same-sex marriage.
This strategy was refined in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, where two pastors charged with performing same-sex weddings were given a one-day suspension, and the bishop committed to holding clergy conversations on how clergy can live and work together in covenant, given our disagreement.
A high-profile example took place in the New York Annual Conference, where a retired seminary dean was charged with performing a same-sex wedding. The complaint was dropped with no penalty, and the dean was asked to help lead a clergy conference on living together in covenant with our disagreement.
Bishop Melvin Talbert performed a high-profile same-sex union service in Alabama, against the wishes of the resident bishop of the area, as well as against the wishes of the Council of Bishops Executive Committee. At the Council of Bishops meeting, it was reported that the Talbert complaint process “had been followed.” As of yet, there has been no public statement about the Talbert complaint process. Nevertheless, Bishop Talbert was asked to speak as part of a panel of bishops addressing the issue of how the church should resolve our disagreement over same-sex marriage.
Finally, just this week, two clergy persons in Michigan had their complaints resolved over charges that they performed same-sex weddings. There is no acknowledgement that what they did was wrong, nor is there any promise not to repeat the violation of our covenant. Instead, the offending pastors are invited to be part of a design team to plan a state-wide series of events “at which LGBTQ and other interested United Methodists can have a safe place to tell their stories.” The goal of the events is to “reduce our church’s harmful rhetoric and actions toward LGBTQ persons.”
I could give additional examples of such complaint “resolutions.”
In other words, those who have violated our covenant are invited to help instruct us on how to change our covenant (or at least the way we act under our covenant) to permit the very actions that they were charged with. Rather than consequences for disobedience, we have here the promotion of more disobedience. Only the hope here is that it won’t be disobedience anymore because the church will change its rules.
I don’t think every pastor who performs a same-sex wedding ought to lose his/her credentials. On the other hand, I do believe that there should be some consequence for intentionally and knowingly violating our clergy covenant. To have no consequence means that such violations are permitted and even encouraged. Part of the power of civil disobedience is the willingness to live with the consequences of breaking what one perceives to be an unjust law. But here, practitioners of “ecclesiastical disobedience” have figured out a way to disobey what they perceive to be an unjust church law and not experience any negative consequences at all. In fact, the consequences are to instead undermine the church law and the integrity of the covenant itself.
Umpire-School-6-1This situation reminds me of the neighborhood baseball games I played with my friends as a kid. There were times when one of the players violated a rule of the game, but wouldn’t accept the consequences of being ruled “out” in that inning. Because there was no impartial umpire to enforce the rules, the disagreement would sometimes degenerate into an argument. When we all couldn’t agree on the enforcement of the rules, the game would usually break up and the players would head home.
In The United Methodist Church, we now have a number of annual conferences (maybe a dozen?) where it is permitted to break the “rules of the game.” Despite what the Book of Discipline says, pastors are permitted to perform same-sex unions or marriages. Most are performed quietly, under the radar. When a complaint is filed, an agreement is reached that involves no apology or recognition of wrong-doing, simply a plan for guided discussions of covenant. This Orwellian approach hopes that by continuing the endless discussions and allowing violations to occur unpunished, the opposition to same-sex marriage will weaken and disappear.
Why do we need to pass the Hamilton/Slaughter “local option?” We already have local option in at least a dozen annual conferences, no matter what the Discipline says.
One can forgive evangelicals for becoming cynical at this point in believing that progressives are determined to get their way in the church by any means possible. It appears that in many places there are no longer any umpires interested in ensuring that the rules of the game are being followed. Certainly, the disagreement has degenerated into an argument. All that remains to be seen is whether the players break up the game and head for home.

Friday, November 14, 2014

"It's About Community"

            The story I share about officiating at my daughter’s wedding starts out with a conversation I have with Sarah about where she and her partner Ali will stand. Sarah tells me they will not be sitting together during the wedding. I’m incredulous. I ask her, “Why would you do such a thing. This service is all about the two of you.”
            Sarah says to me, “It’s not about us, Dad. It’s about the community.”
            I experienced community at Sarah’s wedding that special August day in the pavilion at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. Over sixty people spoke in the service. Dozens of people helped with the physical work of setting up chairs for the wedding and adding tables for the potluck that followed. Most of the local people brought food for the potluck. The evening was concluded with an ‘open mic’ where people shared stories and music and some of their talents. The wedding was truly about ‘the community’.  
I also experienced community the past few weeks.
I was thankful for community when I met the Bishop for the third time on October 30th. The advocate who has gone with me to meet the Bishop each previous time was not able to make it. Len Shoenherr’s father was in the hospital so Len couldn’t go with me. Fortunately, Matt Weiler was willing to step in at the last minute. He was helpful as I processed many last minute negotiating that needed to happen. In addition, there were people praying for me before and during that meeting in a nearby room. I couldn’t have gone through this process without the community of pray-ers (in person and from a distance) over the past six weeks. Thanks to all of you!
I also experienced community the morning of October 30th. We held the first Michigan Area Reconciling Ministry Network meeting in recent history. Reconciling Ministry Network (RMN) is the United Methodist organization that advocates for and with LGBTQ persons. In Michigan, we have some local churches, some Wesley Foundations, some groups, and some individuals who have been affiliated with RMN. It was good to gather together as one group from both Conferences on October 29th.
We came together that morning as a community with a passion to make a difference in our Conferences, in our churches and in our communities. We talked about the work of our Marriage Equality Task Force and the hundred and ten pastors who have signed that they would be willing to officiate at a same gender wedding. We talked about the Supervisory Response process for Ed Rowe and myself and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was coming out of those meetings. We had a frank discussion of “Holy Conferencing”. We concluded by talking about potential legislation for 2015 Annual Conference. We set our next meeting for January 14th at 10:30 at University Church, East Lansing.
I experienced community the following Sunday night at Nardin Park UMC in Farmington Hills where the Dedicated Reconciling United Methodists (A Detroit area group) had their Annual Potluck. The speaker was Matt Berryman, the executive director of RMN. He talked about how we interact with a baby – we’re willing to act a bit crazy. This is the same type of hospitality and love we’re invited to show to all people. It was good that evening to be in the midst of this wonderful community of folks who understand what this means and live it out daily.
Finally, I experienced community this past Wednesday as about fifty people gathered together at University Church to celebrate the signing of the “just resolutions”. Ed Rowe, Detroit pastor, signed at the same time as myself. Ed is passionate about setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission where LGBTQ persons can share their stories. Part of our event on Wednesday was live streamed by RMN to people around the country. It was also covered by some church news sources. We gave thanks to our Bishop for choosing to follow Jesus’ law of love and inclusion in both of our just resolutions.
Martin Luther King Junior referred to God’s kingdom as the ‘beloved community’. He said:
“But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
from “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” 1956

I’m thankful for that ‘beloved community’!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Just Resolution

Proposal for a Just Resolution
Rev. Michael Tupper and Rev. John Boley

                This Just Resolution agreement results from a complaint submitted by Rev. John Boley against the Rev. Michael Tupper for conducting a same-gender wedding ceremony on August 17, 2014. After receiving this complaint Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey conducted a supervisory response in this matter under the provisions of the Book of Discipline 2012 (¶363).

                As a result of the Supervisory Response process conducted by Bishop Kiesey, the persons signing this document have entered into the following Just Resolution agreement:

1)      Rev. Tupper acknowledges that he knowingly and intentionally violated two sections of the 2012 Book of Discipline, as an act of personal faith and conscience, and acknowledges that others may have felt hurt by his action.

2)      Rev. Tupper, who desires to remain a part of the clergy covenant in the West Michigan Conference, will work with his clergy colleagues by using the proper channels toward changing the discriminatory language and provisions in our Book of Discipline, while continuing to advocate for the LGBTQ community within the United Methodist Church and providing pastoral care to all people under his appointment.

3)      Rev. Tupper will work with the Michigan Area Episcopal Office and Ed Rowe to form a design team with clergy and lay persons from across the Michigan Area, including LGBTQ persons. The team is charged with planning, implementing and resourcing an area-wide series of events using a “Truth and Reconciliation” model at which LGBTQ and other interested United Methodists can have a safe place to tell their stories. These events will have the stated goal of reducing our church’s harmful rhetoric and actions toward LGBTQ persons. These events will be planned to occur over the next 18 months.

4)      Rev. Tupper will develop a written theological statement which accurately presents the several existing theological positions within the context of the West Michigan Conference and includes his personal theological conclusions about the position he has chosen for himself.

5)      Rev. Tupper will avail himself of every opportunity presented to him to tell the story of his spiritual journey as an act of witness, and will offer his services as a resource to help our churches be more welcoming and inclusive.

6)       Each of the parties to this Just Resolution Agreement agree that the terms of this resolution may be shared with the public as needed. Further, they agree that they will not disclose the content of any other conversations which may have taken place during the Supervisory Response Process or speak on behalf of any other party to the agreement.

7)      This Just Resolution, having been agreed to by all parties, shall be a final disposition of the complaint in this matter.

Rev. Michael Tupper

Rev. John Boley

Bishop Deborah L. Kiesey

                                                                Date:     Nov 11, 2014

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The third time's the charm

     They say “the third time is the charm”. I met with the Bishop, her Assistant, and two District Superintendents for the third time in one month yesterday. This time we came together with an agreement we can all live with. We’ll be signing that agreement on Nov.10th.
            I’ve been a pastor in the United Methodist Church for over thirty years. I’ve never had an extended conversation with a Bishop before this. I’ve never been in the Area Office before this. I’ve never been in the Bishop’s study before this.
            I wasn’t sure what proper protocol is when visiting a Bishop. I have been listening on CD to Hillary Clintons’ new book, “Hard Choices”. Hillary talked about bringing gifts to dignitaries when she visited them as Secretary of State. I tried to think of some gift to bring the Bishop. The only thing I could think of was – cookies. So the first two meetings I brought her home-made cookies. Of course, she came to expect them and said she really missed them when I didn’t bring them yesterday.  
            Fortunately, this experience of meeting with a Bishop for the first time has been a good one. We’ve engaged in fruitful and frank dialogue. She’s been gracious and allowed me to share my hopes and dreams. At the same time, she’s been clear about what she’s willing to do and not do. She’s been firm about what she’s not going to publicly support at the present time.
            I came in to each meeting with a specific set of proposals I wanted us to agree on. Each meeting I was firmly, but graciously rebuked. In this third meeting, she presented her set of proposals she wanted me to sign off on. We tweaked them a little, but I basically agreed to her proposals.
            On the one hand, I was discouraged because I didn’t get my way. On the other hand, I came to realize that the Bishop seemed supportive of our movement toward inclusion and equality. Of course, the best news is that the Bishop did not want to send me to trial or penalize me or force me to say, “I’ll never do it again.” I thank God for that!  
            I’ll go to the Bishop’s office to sign that agreement soon. This time I’ll bring cookies!
 I hope it’s not the last time I spend time with our bishop – Bishop Deb Kiesey. I’ve come to enjoy our times together.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Because I love my daughter

            Why did I do it? I could lose the only work life I have ever known. My hard earned and long used ministerial credentials could be removed. I might have to face a demeaning trial court. Why did I do it?
            Because I love my daughter.
            My daughter Sarah came home for a visit last November. She shared with my wife and I, “Ali and I are planning on getting married this coming summer, sometime in August of 2014.” They had been a couple for almost 8 years. The state in which they lived had just legalized same gender marriage. We were so excited for them.
            Sarah has always been a witness to me of what it means to live for God in a more radical and complete way. As a youth she spent many summers overseas in mission to the needy. She challenged me to live more closely with the poor. This eventually led my wife and me to serve a small Appalachian mission church in Kentucky for five years.
Last fall I was closely following the trial of Frank Schaeffer for officiating at his son’s wedding. I was shocked by the eventual verdict and severe sentence – the loss of his ministerial credentials. Frank was simply doing what any loving minister father would do for their child.
I wrote in my journal that month: “Should I officiate at Sarah’s wedding? If I do, should I try to keep it quiet or should I be willing to publicize it?” I wondered if God was calling me to support LGBTQ people like my daughter by “going public”. As I watched Frank Schaeffer, I knew my decision might have significantly negative consequences.
It wasn’t until March 28th of this year that Sarah and Ali finally nailed down their wedding date. By that time I had prayed and discussed and discerned my understanding of God’s will.
My answer boiled down to one statement: “I love my daughter.”
Because I love my daughter I decided to sign the marriage license and therefore violate the law of the United Methodist Church. I chose love over legalism.
Because I love my daughter I decided to support LGBTQ people and get involved in the Reconciling Ministry Network. This is the United Methodist organization that works for the full acceptance of gay people in our church. I accepted the role of coordinator for the West Michigan chapter in July.
Because I love my daughter I decided to work toward helping the West Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church be fully welcoming to LGBTQ people. I have talked with people from other conferences in our denomination where it is a reality already. It gives me hope that soon it will be true for us as well.
Because I love my daughter I signed the marriage license on August 18th.
Because of this, a complaint was filed and I’ve been in a supervisory response process with our Bishop. We are hoping a trial will not be necessary.

But I’d do it again…because I love my daughter. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

All Are Welcome

            How do I describe one of the best moments of my life? It was my daughter’s wedding two months ago. The phrase that comes to mind is: “All are welcome.”
The wedding week started for me on Wednesday. I flew into Baltimore early because a two day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail was planned as a prelude to their wedding. We were in their kitchen that afternoon talking about wedding details.
I asked my daughter Sarah, “How will the pavilion in the park be set up?”
            “We’re setting up 150 chairs in a circle under the pavilion roof,” Sarah explained.
            “Where will the two of you be sitting - in the center?”
 “We haven’t decided yet, have we Ali? But it’s possible we’ll just be sitting in random seats on opposite sides of the pavilion.”
I retorted, “You won’t be sitting together? Why would you do such a thing? The whole ceremony is about the two of you and your relationship with each other. You two should be in the center together.”
“Dad, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s not about us” Sarah said. “It’s about ‘the community’. It’s about everyone in the community having an equally valued place,” she explained passionately.
I just shook my head. This was not going to be your ordinary wedding!
The wedding on Sunday was the most unique service I’ve ever attended in my life. Sarah and Ali introduced the service by talking about the ‘priesthood of all believers’. They adapted an Episcopalian service to include parts for over sixty different people. These were people they had contacted ahead of time to take part in the service. Each of us had a few lines to say. Seated in the round, with Sarah inconspicuously at one end of the pavilion and Ali at the other, we stood up at our seats and spoke our lines loudly.
What a joy to listen to everyone share their lines of Scripture or prayer! I especially appreciated the four year old little boy who said very deliberately, “And God is love.” His sister said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The three sermon-lessons were shared by different lay people who spoke with such wisdom and knowledge about the Scriptures.
            The Psalter reading was a unique experience. There were many people present from the bilingual Montessori public charter school where Sarah teaches in Washington D.C. Therefore, half of our Psalter reading was in Spanish and half of it was in English. 
The end of the service featured Sarah and Ali moving from their seats on the opposite ends of the pavilion. They met and shared very simple, heartfelt vows they had written for each other. Sarah and Ali each talked about the specific ways they were committing to share their love for each other as 175 people listened, many with tears sneaking down their cheeks.  I was crying like a baby.
Let me share one more story that once again highlighted – “all are welcome.”
On Sunday, the wedding day. Sarah sent me out early that morning to check the porta-johns by the Liberty Pavilion at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. While I was there picking up trash around the area, I noticed a man sitting in the pavilion. It looked like he lived there or at least spent most of his time there.
 “My daughter’s getting married here today.”
 “Congratulations,” he said.
“Wow, the garbage cans by the pavilion are overflowing.” I observed.
            “You ought to call the city to tell them to pick that up.”
“Maybe I will,” I said, “You’re welcome to join us at the wedding this afternoon.”
I drove back to Sarah’s to report.  Sarah told me, “The city won’t pick up that trash today. You’re going to have to bag it up Dad.”
I told Sarah about the man at the pavilion and how I invited him to the wedding.
            “What’s his name?” was her first question, immediately giving him value.
“I don’t know.”
“You need to ask him his name, Dad. Then he can come to the wedding.”
I went back to the park with garbage bags. While I was working on getting the trash from the cans into the bags, my new friend came over.  “Let me help you,” he said.
“What’s your name?”
“It’s Johnnie, with an ‘ie’ on the end.”
“Johnnie, my daughter really wants you to join us for the wedding and dinner right here at 4:00 this afternoon.”
“I’ll get my suit jacket and be here. Thanks.”
When I arrived back at the pavilion in the afternoon, Johnnie was there with his suit jacket on. He watched us as we set up the 150 chairs for the wedding. As the guests waited for the ceremony to start, Johnnie was in one of those chairs.
After the ceremony, we all enjoyed a potluck of food provided by Sarah’s many local friends and guests. Johnnie ate next to me. I asked him, “Did you get a chance to meet my daughter Sarah?”
He said, “I sure did. She came over and talked to me for the longest time. She made me feel so welcome."
 I thought about my daughter doing this on what was probably the busiest day of her life.
"She’s a good girl, you know.”
I fought back tears once again on this special day in which “all were welcome”.

My daughter’s witness led me to find the courage to sign her marriage license in spite of the potential consequences to my life and ministry. A complaint was filed the next day by my district superintendent to my bishop. I am presently in the supervisory response process hoping we can find a ‘just resolution’ instead of a church trial. Pray for the United Methodist Church that it might someday be a place where “all are welcome.” 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Penalty Options for Signing a Marriage License

       I signed the marriage license at my daughter’s same sex wedding in August, 2014. This is a chargeable offense in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. We’re at the stage in the Supervisory Response process where we are pondering the question: What is the appropriate penalty for disobeying the United Methodist church law?
a.     Defrocking – taking away my ministerial credentials
b.     One month’s suspension without pay and specific projects related to fostering conversation about this topic in our Conference
c.      Two week’s suspension without pay and specific projects related to fostering conversation about this topic in our Conference
d.     One week suspension without pay and specific projects related to fostering conversation about this topic in our Conference
e.     One day suspension without pay and specific projects related to fostering conversation about this topic in our Conference
f.       No Suspension and specific projects related to fostering conversation about this topic in our Conference

g.     No penalty and no consequences at all

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

My Journey to Love

          It’s not about an issue, but it’s all about persons. I was firmly convinced about my understanding of homosexuality and LGBT people before I met any of them. God used them to open my eyes to His love for all people.
 Let me tell you about three gay people God sent me so that I could one day be proud to perform the same sex wedding for my daughter.
          I started out on the ‘other side’. During my older youth years I joined the Church of the Nazarene denomination. I appreciated their passion for Jesus Christ and their reliance on the Bible. They taught me from the Scripture that homosexuality was a sin. I never questioned it.
          During my seminary days, I switched denominations and returned to the church of my childhood - the United Methodist Church. My understanding of homosexuality didn’t change because the United Methodist Church was clear that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching”.
          I was in my first appointment after seminary when I met Drew Hottell. He was a regular visitor to the church. I had just invited Drew to join our next Membership Class, when he asked if we could meet together. Drew questioned me, “Can I be United Methodist if I’m gay?” It was the first time anyone told me they were homosexual. I wasn’t sure how to answer him. Drew talked about his faith and his love for sharing that faith through music. I began to see it was possible to be a Christian and a homosexual. I hesitantly told him, “Yes, we’d be glad to have you join our church.”
          A few years later I served a church near South Haven, Michigan where I met Bob and Boots McKinney. Their forty-year old son Roger moved in with them and started attending the church. When I visited Roger he told me, ‘I have AIDS. I’ve come home to die.” He told me his story about another church he once attended in Grand Rapids. “The pastor told me I was living in sin. He said I would probably end up in hell because of my homosexual lifestyle.” Roger opened my eyes to see the painful judgmentalism and rejection that church people heap on the heads of LGBT people. I apologized for the words of that fellow pastor. I told Roger about a God of grace and love.
 I had the opportunity to spend time with Roger during that last year of his life. He talked with me often about his faith in God. A month before his death, Roger asked, “Mike I know I don’t have much time left, but I wonder if I could join the church?”
Roger was very weak at the time, but he made it to church that Sunday in November. I received him as a member of God’s church. I welcomed him in as one of God’s people. Fortunately, the congregation was gracious in their hospitality and love as well. A few weeks later, Roger passed away, shortly before Christmas. 
           The person who compelled me to reflect most intensely on my view of homosexuality and LGBT people was my daughter Sarah.
          While Sarah was a youth, we had many conversations about the issue of homosexuality. I didn’t realize at the time that we were talking about her. I told her about the journey I had been on. I told her about Drew Hottell and Roger McKinney. Sarah and I then explored together what the Bible had to say about this subject. We both believe God can speak to us through His Word, the Bible. So we struggled with the Scriptures that specifically mention homosexuality. We looked at those passages in light of the many other scriptures that talk about God’s love and grace.
          All of these discussions with Sarah led me to preach a sermon on the subject in 2005. I presented both the conservative and progressive understanding of this issue. But I concluded the message with these words:
 “Notice how Jesus loved the unacceptable outsiders of his day. Jesus moved closer to them. Jesus spent time with them. Jesus talked with them. Jesus brought them healing and grace. Jesus touched them.
What might it look like for us to love homosexuals as Jesus does?
What might it look like for you to love a homosexual person during this coming year? Could God be speaking to you now? Could God be speaking to me?"
I finished with a call and response that Sunday:
"As one united people of God in Jesus Christ, we face our frustration and vocation: 
We can’t do everything………………but we can love.
We can’t speak the final word………..but we can love.
We’re afraid about being hurt…………but we can love.
We have a low tolerance for stress…….but we can love.
We live with people who are different…but we can love.
We can’t always agree………………….but we can love.”
          God had prepared my wife and I to fully love our daughter Sarah when she told us at Christmastime five years ago that she was a lesbian. We cried tears of joy knowing that she trusted us with this ‘secret’. We embraced her with same love we knew God has always held for her.
          It’s not about an issue, but it’s all about persons. God sent three people into my life to reveal His matchless love for all. God sent them to me so that I could one day proudly perform my daughter’s wedding.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sent to the Bishop's Office

            Recently, I was sent to the Bishop’s Office. By God’s grace I survived to tell about it.
            It reminds me of a “traumatic” experience from my childhood – the time I was called into the Assistant Principal’s office.
I’m in Junior High School. My mom buys me new gym shoes that are to be worn only for gym class. At the end of class, I place them in my basket in the locker room and make sure the combination locker is set. The next week when I go to gym class, the shoes are missing. I tell my mom about it when I get home from school. I tell her my shoes were locked up, but now they’re missing. She’s upset because we just spent a lot of money for those shoes. The next day while I’m at school, my mom calls the school office and complains.
I’m in math class when someone brings a red note to the teacher. The teacher comes over to me and says, “The Assistant Principal would like to see you.” My hand starts shaking immediately. The Assistant Principal is a big man with a deep voice. He’s the one shouting at kids to behave in the lunch room. He’s the one who administers corporal punishment to misbehaving students. I say, “Are you sure, he wants to see me?” The teacher says, “Yes. It’s you.”
I have no clue why the Assistant Principal wants to see me. I couldn’t think of anything I might have done wrong. I’ve always been a “goody two shoes”. I am a first born rule-follower and people-pleaser. But the Assistant Principal wants to see me.
I walk down the hallway to his office taking shallow breaths. When I sit down in his office, my hand shakes like I have tremors. I’ve never been this close to this imposing man behind the desk.
Of course, the Assistant Principal wants to talk to me about those missing gym shoes. Unfortunately, he is not gentle with this terrified boy. He makes me feel like I am the criminal.
Fortunately, I never had to return to that office.
I thought of that experience when I opened up my mail on August 29th. It was a letter from the Bishop’s office. It said, “You are asked to come to the Bishop’s office on October 2nd, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.” The letter explained that it was the first meeting in the supervisory response process. A complaint had been filed against me for officiating at my daughter’s same sex wedding on August 17th. It is a chargeable offense according to the United Methodist Book of Discipline.
In the weeks to follow, I heard about another pastor in the Detroit Conference who was going through the same process as myself for a wedding he performed in June. He told me, “I’ve invited my friends and supporters to join me in prayer at the Area Center a half hour before our meeting. You can join them if you’d like.” I did.
As my own ‘big day’ draw near, I began to let more people know about my situation. I said, “I need you to pray for me and for our meeting.” I invited a few of them to pray with me at the Area Center before the meeting.
I had just entered the Facebook world the month before. I was starting to build a list of friends. I posted a brief notice there inviting people to pray for me as I met the Bishop.
Before I went to bed the night before my meeting, I checked my Facebook site. I couldn’t believe all the people who sent me a message telling me they were praying for me. I copied off a list of all the personal notes that were sent. I put it with my material I was going to share with the Bishop. It would remind me I was not alone.
That night as I was trying to sleep, I thought of all those people praying. I imagined their prayers like a cushion surrounding me. I was able to relax and trust that God would use this process to bring some good out of it.
When I arrived at the Area Center on October 2nd, I was pleasantly surprised to find over a dozen friends and supporters in the meeting room. They greeted me with warm hugs. Soon I stood in the center of the circle. They laid their hands on me and prayed. As they were praying, I could literally feel the weight of their love and concern pressing on me. I was surrounded by this cushion of prayers.
Fortunately, the trip to the Bishop’s office was nothing like my earlier trip to the Assistant Principal’s office. Bishop Deb was gracious, soft-spoken and kind. She allowed me to share my questions and my message. She listened carefully and caringly.
We are in the midst of working toward a ‘just resolution’. Pray that God will bring good for all people out of this process.

P.S. If you were one of those people who prayed, thank you!

Monday, September 29, 2014

My Journey to Jerusalem - Deciding to Officiate

          I was preparing for my Lenten messages this year when God spoke to me: “Go to Jerusalem.” I was preaching every Sunday one chapter from the gospel of Mark. The eighth chapter is about halfway through the book. Jesus announces that he’s going to Jerusalem. Peter tells him not to do it, but Jesus rebukes Peter. Jesus insists God wants him to go to Jerusalem. He knows this will lead to a trial before the religious leaders. But it was what God wanted.

          While I was preparing to preach a sermon about Jesus going to Jerusalem, God says to me, “Go to Jerusalem.” I understood God to mean that I needed to officiate at my daughter’s wedding. I knew it might lead to a trial before my religious leaders. But it was what God wanted.
          My journey in coming to this decision started four months earlier in November of 2013. Sarah and Ali had been a couple for about 8 years. Sarah came home for a brief visit that November and told us, “Ali and I are planning on getting married in August of 2014.” We were excited for them.
 I was following closely the trial of Frank Schaeffer for officiating at his son’s wedding. I knew there was a chance Frank could lose his ministerial credentials in the United Methodist Church, but I was shocked by the eventual verdict and severe sentence. Frank was simply doing what any loving minister father would do for their child.
I wrote in my journal that month: “Should I officiate at Sarah’s wedding? If I do, should I try to keep it quiet or should I be willing to publicize it?” I wondered if God was calling me to support LGBT people like my daughter by “going public”. But as I watched Frank Schaeffer, I knew my decision might have significantly negative consequences.
Sarah came home for Christmas with her partner Ali. We talked more about the wedding and the possibility of my officiating. My wife Lori asked, “But what about your pension, Michael? If you’re defrocked, will you lose all our retirement benefits from the church?” I told her I’d check into it.
I called our Board of Pensions and Health Benefits the first week of January. They assured me that even if I had my ministerial credentials removed, I would not lose my retirement benefits. I told both my wife Lori and daughter Sarah about this. They were much relieved and gave their approval for me to continue considering whether to officiate.
It was the beginning of March when I was preparing my Lenten sermons from the gospel of Mark that God most clearly spoke to me. He said, “Go to Jerusalem.” I sensed that God’s will for me was to take the road of potential suffering and officiate at Sarah’s wedding. God told me I should be willing to sacrifice all for Him and for the people He loved.
I met with Dave Lundquist on March 21st. Dave is the chairperson of the Task Force on Marriage Equality in our Conference. I told him I was thinking about officiating at my daughter Sarah’s wedding in August. We talked about both the witness and the danger in letting the news about this become public. He pointed me to some helpful resources on the subject.
A week later, March 28th, Sarah finalizes her wedding date. We are so excited for her. She and her partner Ali put together a wonderfully worded web site on the ceremony.
I reflect in my journal the following month about the issue of whether to officiate. I write: “My primary loyalty is to God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. That loyalty trumps my loyalty to the United Methodist Church. God has a tradition of welcoming and loving those treated as outsiders. I believe God celebrates our human institution of marriage. Therefore I feel compelled to officiate at Sarah and Ali’s wedding as a witness to God’s love.”

My journey to Jerusalem ended on August 17 when I officiated at their beautiful wedding ceremony. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Fully Welcoming and Inclusive by June
          “I have a dream…” that the West Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church will be fully welcoming and inclusive of all by the end of June of 2015.
          I have a dream that our Conference will affirm the Biblical view that homosexuality “is” compatible with Christian teaching.
          I have a dream that our local churches will be encouraged to be fully welcoming and inclusive of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, status, economic condition, sexual orientation or gender identity.
          I have a dream that all people will be considered for commissioning, ordination and appointment in our Conference regardless of race, sex, color, national origin, status, economic condition, sexual orientation or gender identity.
          I have a dream that any church in our Conference could be the site for any wedding or commitment ceremony.
          I have a dream that the clergy of our Conference could officiate at any wedding or commitment ceremony without fear of a potential trial.

          Lord, help us be your hands and feet and voice to work towards bringing your Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Thanking God for my church family

            Last night I started to tear up in front of the church group in Parchment.
 I was finishing up a two part Bible study on “The Biblical God’s View of Homosexuality”. It was the end of the hour long session. I wrapped up our review of the Scriptures by saying, “I just want to thank you.”
I said, “I want to thank you for looking at these Scriptures with an open mind and an open heart. We’ve studied the ‘clobber’ Scriptures that some Christians have used to ‘clobber’ gay people and tell them they’re going to hell. We’ve discovered that none of those Scriptures seem to represent God’s will for LGBTQ people today. They clearly denounce the abuse of any type of sexuality – child abuse, prostitution, gang rape. But they don’t declare LGBTQ people as we know them today to be terrible sinners deserving hell. Then we’ve looked at the Scriptures that highlight how God creates us just as we are and says ‘It is good.’ God loves our diversity. We’ve also seen how God has a special concern for those who are excluded or treated as second class citizens like LGBTQ people.”
I continued, “But most of all I want to thank you for the way you…”
This is when I started getting choked up.
“For the way you have supported us this year and loved our daughter and her partner.”
I went on to tell about the journey we’ve been on with this church over the past year.
“Lori first shared with you that our daughter Sarah was gay during her Lenten Talk this spring. She talked about God’s holy surprises. Afterwards, you were so supportive and encouraging to Lori. I mentioned it briefly in a message in May. I expected some negative flak for mentioning the word homosexual in the pulpit. But once again, you were supportive and encouraging. But the time you shocked me…
I have a hard time getting out the next story because I treasure the wonderful surprise of this moment…
“You shocked me on that Sunday in July when Sarah and Ali visited our worship service. I hadn’t planned to say anything. I was keeping Sarah and Ali’s wedding a secret. I didn’t want any of you to be offended or upset. I announced that Sarah and her partner Ali were with us in worship. I pointed to them.”
“Then I went on to say to everyone that Sunday morning, ‘And they’ll be getting married next month.’ You shocked me when everyone started clapping – as if you were really excited for them. That really touched me. I’ll always treasure that wonderful way you accepted and loved our daughter and her partner.”
“Thank you.”

I am thankful for my church family at the Parchment United Methodist Church.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Summary of Biblical God's View of Homosexuality

The Biblical God’s View of Homosexuality: Part I

          I believe in the Bible. But more than that, I believe in the God of the Bible. I follow the Bible. But more than that, I follow the God of the Bible. I have learned over the years that God and the Bible are not synonymous and sometimes don’t even agree.
          Adam Hamilton recently wrote about this in his book, “Making Sense of the Bible”. Hamilton refers to the three-bucket approach to Scripture. Much of the Bible can be placed in one of three buckets. The first bucket refers to the ‘timeless will of God’. The second bucket reflects ‘God’s will in a particular time’. This includes much of the Mosaic ritual law of the Old Testament and some of Paul’s advice to churches in the New Testament. The third bucket reflects ‘the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s will.’ This includes slavery, which is found throughout the Bible. It also includes the genocide found in passages like Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and Joshua 6:20-21. Genocide and slavery are biblical, but do not represent God’s will.
          As we study the Biblical God’s view of homosexuality, we have to determine which Scriptures are God’s timeless will, which do not represent God’s will and which do not apply to what we understand to be homosexuality today.
           First, we’ll look at the passages of Scripture that some use to claim that homosexual practice is a terrible sin. These are used to support the United Methodist Discipline’s view that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” These passages are called the “clobber verses” because they are used to “clobber” homosexuals. 
          The first passage in the Bible that includes a reference to homosexual practice is the story of Sodom. This is where we get the words ‘sodomy’ and ‘sodomite’ to refer to homosexuality. The story is found in Genesis 19. It is about two angels who visit the town of Sodom and stay with Lot, the nephew of Abraham. The men of Sodom surround the house and demand Lot turn over the angels, so the men could have sex with them. Lot offers his two daughters to be raped by the men of Sodom, rather than give up the strangers he’s just met. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen. The story goes on to say that God destroyed the whole city to punish the men of Sodom.
          Some have said this proves that homosexuality is a terrible sin that demands capital punishment. This is supported by another Scripture found in the Old Testament law. Leviticus 20:13 says, “It’s disgusting for men to have sex with one another, and those who do will be put to death, just as they deserve.”
         If these two scriptures taken at face value represent God’s will then it would be the responsibility of every Christian to make sure that all homosexuals go to the electric chair for their terrible crimes.
          Instead these Scriptures should be placed in a different bucket than God’s timeless will or they do not refer to what we know to be homosexuality today.
What is the sin of the men of Sodom? The story indicates that the main sin was the gang rape of two strangers. This is different than homosexuality.
Additional answers to that question are found by looking at other Scriptures. Scripture can interpret Scripture. The Old Testament prophets refer to Sodom four different times. The sin that the prophets mention by the men of Sodom is never homosexuality. Isaiah (1:10-17) says the sin of the Sodomites was injustice and not rescuing the oppressed. Jeremiah (23:14) says their sin was adultery. Ezekiel (16-48-49) says their sin was not aiding the poor and needy. Zephaniah (2:8-11) says their sin was bullying and boasting.
Therefore the passage in Genesis about Lot and the Sodomites is not about homosexuality at all.
The passage in the Law of Moses about putting homosexuals to death belongs in the third bucket marked: “Never reflected God’s will.”
Another verse in Moses’ law that refers to homosexuality (Lev. 18:22) is a part of the Purity laws. According to the New Testament authors, these laws are in the second bucket marked, “God’s will in a particular time.” Peter learned this in Acts 10.
It’s important to note that Jesus never mentions homosexuality at any time. Jesus does say that men should leave their fathers and become one with their wives (Mark 10:7-8). Some interpret this conversation to be about how heterosexuals are on God’s chosen pathway, instead of homosexuals. But Jesus is talking in this passage about divorce. Jesus is clear about not approving divorce, but he says nothing about homosexuality.
Paul refers to homosexual practice in three places: Romans 1:26-27, I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:9-10. The references to homosexuality in these places probably refer to either the ritual prostitution practiced in some of the pagan temples or pederasty, the practice of older men taken young boys as lovers. It doesn’t refer to the type of homosexuality we understand today between two lovingly committed equal partners.
 Paul makes mention in these verses that this practice is not natural. He says we should not go against our nature, the way God created us to be. Today, we understand homosexuality to be the way we were born, not a choice. Paul is encouraging the Romans to act according to their nature, to the way they were born.
In other words, we might apply Paul’s words to our situation this way: If you’re born homosexual, than God wants you to live with and have sexual relations with someone of your own sex. If you’re born heterosexual, than God wants you to live with and have sexual relations with someone of the opposite sex.
The Biblical authors are clear that homosexuality when it involves gang rape, temple prostitution and child abuse is wrong. None of the Biblical references mentioning homosexual practice refer to two people of the same sex sharing their lives in a committed relationship. Therefore, it’s clear the Bible does not declare all homosexual practice to be sinful, just like it doesn’t declare all heterosexual practice to be sinful.
This leads me to reflect on what the Biblical God does think about homosexuals. I’ll talk about this in my next post.

The Biblical God’s View of Homosexuality: Part II

      The last post made it clear the Biblical God does not find all homosexual practice to be sinful. There are biblical references that indicate homosexual practice involving gang rape, temple prostitution and child abuse are wrong. But a loving relationship of two committed same sex people is not immoral or sinful in the eyes of the biblical God.
          This post will take a positive look at homosexuality from a Biblical understanding of God’s will. We start again in the book of Genesis. The first chapter of Genesis concludes with the creation of human beings (Gen. 1:26-31). The author says that God created humans “in His image” to be like Himself. The final verse of that chapter says, “God looked at what he had done. All of it was very good.”
        The creation story was written to remind us that all of God’s creation is good. Each of us is created good. “God doesn’t make junk.” Whether we’re black or white, male or female, Chinese or American, homosexual or straight, left-handed or right-handed – we’re all created good in God’s image.
       Homosexuality is not a choice. It’s a unique gift given by God to certain people and not others. It is good in God’s sight.
     The rest of the Creation story emphasizes the diversity of God’s creation. God could have made things to look alike. All plants could have looked alike. All trees could have looked alike. There could have been only one insect, only one bird, and only one fish. Instead, God chose to create the world using an amazing diversity. We’re incredibly diverse as human beings as well. We realize there’s diversity in our sexuality as well. God created us both homosexual and heterosexual. We can celebrate that diversity.
        Let’s move to the New Testament.
        We’ll start in Acts 10. Here Peter has a vision that he is supposed to eat food he thought was unclean. Then God tells him to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. Gentiles were considered unclean, sinful people to be avoided by Jews. The vision and the visit awaken Peter to his mission to reach out to the unclean people: the Gentiles. He realizes Gentiles can be Christian without following all the Jewish purity laws.
         Who are considered by some to be the unclean, sinful people in our day? Homosexuals, people in the LGBTQ community. What does Peter’s vision and visit have to do with us? We are called to reach out to those who are considered unclean. They can be Christians without following heterosexual practices. God’s grace and acceptance are for all, not for the chosen few (the clean, the Jew, the heterosexual).
           Later, Paul writes a letter to the church in Colossae. The Christians in that town have gotten caught up in rules that go beyond God’s intentions. It is similar to the problem some of the Pharisees had during the days of Jesus. The Colossians had rules about what they could and couldn’t eat, rules about what they could and couldn’t touch and detailed rituals and festival practices. They taught that one had to keep all of these rules to be a part of the church.
          Paul told them this was wrong. He said that Christ died to set them free from rules like those. He said in 2:20-22, “You died with Christ. Now the forces of the universe don’t have any power over you. Why do you live as if you had to obey such rules as: “Don’t handle this. Don’t taste that. Don’t touch this?”… So why be bothered with the rules that humans have made up?”
       Later people referred to the problem in Colossae as the Colossian heresy. It’s been a problem we’ve seen throughout the centuries. We find it in rules that some churches hold on to today such as priests who cannot marry and women who cannot be church leaders. As a youth, I was a part of a church that taught that movie theaters, billiards, alcohol, playing cards and swimming with persons of the same sex were all sinful and forbidden. I’ve read about how intermarriage between the races fits the same category. It’s the Colossian heresy still with us.
        One rule that is a part of the Colossian heresy today is the rule against homosexual practice. Paul’s words to us are still helpful: “Why be bothered with the rules that humans have made up?” In the next chapter Paul goes on to tell what it should be about instead of those rules. “Love is more important than anything else.” (Col. 3:14)
        The difficult question is this: How do we know what is part of the Colossian heresy and what is God’s will? How do we decide and discern God’s will for us today?
       The answer is found at the heart of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ.
        We ask the question: What would Jesus do?
     How do we know what Jesus would do?
         We have to study the four biblical gospels of Jesus to best know what Jesus would do. We have to look at what Jesus said and what Jesus did. Let’s look at Jesus in light of the present rules people have placed against homosexuals.
      The most important thing Jesus lived and taught is found in Mark 12:28-31. Jesus was asked a question by one of the teachers of the law of Moses “What is the most important commandment?”
Jesus answered with two commandments: love God and “love others as much as you love yourself.” Jesus said, “No other commandment is more important than these.”
        In other words, the Son of God says love trumps human laws. Love is the essence of God’s true law.
      What does it mean for us to love LGBTQ people?
        Loving a person means we value and respect them and do not treat them as second class Christians. Loving homosexuals as much as we love ourselves means we allow them as many rights and privileges as heterosexuals. We allow them to love a partner and get married just as heterosexuals are able to love a partner and get married. We allow them to provide leadership in our churches just like heterosexuals.
        Jesus reveals what this love for all looks like by his stories and his life. Jesus has a special passion for those who are not treated as first class citizens. He reaches out to help the outsiders. He welcomes in those who are excluded and oppressed. This can apply today to the LGBTQ community who are often excluded and oppressed and treated as second class outsiders.
      The stories about how Jesus welcomes and includes the outsider are many. Jesus tells the story of a banquet in Luke 14:15-24 in which the host tells the servant to go out into the streets to bring in everyone to the party who is poor or crippled or blind or lame. Jesus heals an “unclean” leper in Luke 5: 12-16. Jesus reaches out to women in Luke 7:36-8:3. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10: 25-37. Jesus reaches out to a tax collector in Luke 18: 9-14 and 19:1-10. Jesus welcomes the children in Luke 18: 15-17. All of these people were considered second-class by the people of Jesus’ day. They were all excluded and oppressed. But Jesus loved them and treated them as equals.
          Jesus had strong words for those who focus on the supposed sins of others. He talks about this in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:1-5. He emphasizes our need to deal with our own problems and sins. He would not want us to “judge gays”.
         The biblical God loves homosexuals and people in the LGBTQ community. The biblical God calls for everyone to love homosexuals and those in the LGBTQ as much as they love themselves. This means we are compelled to advocate for their equal rights and equal treatment.
        Lord, help us love.