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!