What’s next?


These are not my thoughts for tomorrow but rather thoughts about what has transpired over the past few days.

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There are a number of things going on in the United Methodist Church and churches in general that have me worried, bothered, and questioning the direction in which we are headed.

First is the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, on the issue of intelligent design. Whatever people may think about the way the world was created and how it was created, to develop a theory which incorporates an “outside force” guiding the process violates the basic concepts of science. And if this discussion is, as it seems, nothing more than a disguised attempt to bring creationism into the classroom, then we are again trying to mix two incompatible areas of study, science and religion.

People have never been comfortable with the concept of evolution as first expressed by Darwin. The problem is that what people understand about Darwin is not necessarily what Darwin said and/or wrote. Second, evolution is not always taught as it should be. Evolution is a theory, the best explanation of the available physical evidence. Unfortunately, it is often taught as factual information and that is not correct.

If someone wants to argue that evolution is taught incorrectly, I will agree with them. But to say that we need another viewpoint, especially one that avoids the issue of physical evidence, as a counterpoint is also wrong.

The real issue is not just the improper teaching of scientific theories; it is how parents and communities respond. It seems to me that the response has been to challenge what is taught, not how it is taught. If a child comes home with questions about faith, I would think that parents should rejoice, for their child is thinking. But it seems to me that rather than rejoicing, parents are panicking and becoming defensive. If one’s faith cannot stand up to critical questioning, one needs to examine how strong one’s faith is.

I think that is the problem we face today. Rather than allow our faith to be questioned, we build fences and barriers to defend our faith. But if the underpinnings of our faith are not strong then, like the levees of New Orleans, they will collapse under the pressure of outside forces.

The central point of intelligent design seems to be that we come to some point where we can no longer explain how something works. We have, in the words of intelligent design, reached a point of “irreducible complexity.” But have we reached a point because we cannot go any further or have we reached a point where our tools, our skills, and our abilities are incapable of taking us any further?

Two hundred years ago, we saw the atom as a single indivisible piece of matter. But then electricity showed us that there were such things as electrons. And electrons convinced us that there must be protons. Suddenly, new information showed us that the atom could be divided. Later in the 19th century, the discovery of radioactivity confirmed that the atom was not the single, indivisible piece of matter that we once thought it was. And as the 20th century progressed and our skills grew and tools became more advanced, we found that the protons, electrons, and neutrons were not as they seemed to be.

But if our theory about the atom were limited by “irreducible complexity”, we would never have moved beyond the simple concept of the atom. We have long said that biology is a new area of research, what is to say that the tools we work with are incapable of resolving issues in biology.

I feel that the outcome of the trial in Dover will result in the inclusion of “intelligent design” in modern science teaching. Even if all this requires is that a teacher read a statement that suggests alternative theories, this result will result in science research slowing down. Science and science education cannot nor should it even consider basic tenets of faith; to include a statement that has as its underpinnings fundamental religious beliefs will do just that.

The second thing that has me worried is the “marketing” of the church. I cannot see, and I have written and spoken on this before, how we can market the Gospel. Marketing is designed to make something palatable to the consumer. To market the Gospel means to make it acceptable to people. But the principle of the Gospel is to make people change and you cannot do that if you make the product simple. The Gospel is meant to challenge people and Jesus made it very clear that those who choose to follow Him were going to have a rough road to walk. Those who preach the “prosperity gospel” or “gospel-lite” message don’t point out that Christians are called to sacrifice. Marketing Jesus is something that cannot work and I wonder why we even bother to try.

Having said that I don’t like marketing, I wonder what we are going to do with the current marketing campaign of the United Methodist Church. First, who are we directing this campaign to? In what areas are we looking to build churches? Larry Hollon pointed out that the current direction of the United Methodist Church is away from the traditional roots of the church (Adapted from “The Season to Discount” by Larry Hollon, http://homepage.mac.com/larryhol/iblog/C2050680009/E20051007090723/).  We seem to spend more time on the big churches and on a message of comfort for the individual than on small churches and concern for all.

Up until this week I thought that the description of the United Methodist Church as one of “open hearts, open minds, and open doors” was pretty good. It invited a person to visit without making judgements or promising them something that wasn’t true. (I just wish that the time slots selected were a little more realistic; the first time I ever heard one of the spots was at 2:30 in the morning. I may have been awake but who else is?). But the recent decisions of the UMC Judicial Council make me wonder if the campaign is appropriate or even truthful.

The decision of the Judicial Council concerning Reverend Stroud (http://www.umc.org/site/c.gjJTJbMUIuE/b.1145011/k.F51E/Judicial_Council_reverses_lower_court_rules_against_Beth_Stroud.htm) was not unexpected; they really didn’t have any choice. The Discipline is very clear on this matter and the Council was not in any type of position to decide otherwise. To have done so would have ignited a fire storm of such proportion that nothing would have been left standing. Rosa Parks’ funeral this past week reminds us that it takes great faith to fight a law which is wrong; I don’t think the Council was prepared to take that step.

The second ruling that the council made, concerning Reverend Ed Johnson (http://www.umc.org/site/c.gjJTJbMUIuE/b.1144999/k.E558/Church_court_reinstates_pastor_who_denied_membership_to_gay_man.htm), was also in line with The Discipline. But the subsequent letter from the Bishop is meaningless if the church is going to give pastor’s the discretion to decide who can be members of their church. These rulings have done, in my mind, two things. First, they have told a group of individuals that they are, in effect, second class citizens. I am reminded of a blues song from the early 1950’s

Black, Brown And White (B. B. Broonzy) – This song can be found on the CD: “Big Bill Blues” (Vogue). The recording date was September 20, 1951 in Paris.

This little song that I’m singin’ about

People you know it’s true

If you’re black and gotta work for a living

This is what they will say to you

They says if you was white, should be all right

If you was brown, stick around

But as you’s black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

I was in a place one night

They was all having fun

They was all byin’ beer and wine

But they would not sell me none

They said if you was white, should be all right

If you was brown, stick around

But if you black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

Me and a man was workin’ side by side

This is what it meant

They was paying him a dollar an hour

And they was paying me fifty cent

They said if you was white, ‘t should be all right

If you was brown, could stick around

But as you black, m-mm boy, git back git back git back

I went to an employment office

Got a number ‘n’ I got in line

They called everybody’s number

But they never did call mine

They said if you was white, should be all right

If you was brown, could stick around

But as you black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

I hope when sweet victory

With my plough and hoe

Now I want you to tell me brother

What you gonna do about the old Jim Crow?

Now if you was white, should be all right

If you was brown, could stick around

But if you black, whoa brother, git back git back git back

What does the future for the United Methodist Church hold? All I can see, and this is knowing the the Council of Bishops have written a letter which tries to stem the damage done by these two decisions, is that we are saying to a class of people in our community that they are welcome to come into our church but they must sit in the back of the church.

Some conservatives don’t like it when their thoughts on homosexuality are compared to the thoughts of their counterparts of one hundred and fifty years ago. But it is the same type of thought. From the 1850’s through most of the 20th century, people of the church have taught, preached and said that the minorities in this country were not the same as the whites. We may have overcome that idea but we are bringing it back with this new idea.

Sexuality is not part of the Good News that Jesus brought to the people. Perhaps homosexuality is a sin, especially if it is in the manner described in the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah. But that was not a lifestyle; that was rape. As far as I have been able to determine, the only reason there are biblical comments against homosexuality is because two homosexuals cannot have children. You had to have children in your family to insure that the family and tribe survived. The Roman Catholic Church’s policy against birth control has nothing to do with the sexuality of the individual; it has to do with a policy of bringing children into the world so that the race and the church can continue. Shall we tell couples that they better have children born in their marriage or they shall be considered sinners in the eyes of God?

I do not feel that I should be the arbitrator of what is proper and what is not. Jesus pointed out that the one without sin could throw the first stone; who was there to throw that stone? And if the abuse of sexuality is a sin, then should we not throw out or bar those who have committed adultery? How about those who are divorced? Is not divorce a sin; should those who have been divorced not be allowed to enter a church? Remember that John Wesley got into a great deal of trouble when he was in Georgia because he barred a former girlfriend from taking communion with the man who replaced John Wesley in her heart?

And what are we going to do, if in one hundred years, we find that homosexuality is not a “lifestyle” but a genetic reality? We preached for a number of years that blacks were inferior (and there are still Christians who say and believe that to be true). We quickly changed our tune when we discovered that we are all alike under the skin. What will we do to counter one hundred years of prejudice and hatred if we find that people are born homosexuals, a product of their parent’s genes? What shall we say when it becomes clear that God’s plan is not as clear as people would have it? But, perhaps we need not worry about that. After all, if we introduce “intelligent design” into the science curriculum and the teaching of science suffers because we no longer dare or even attempt to probe deeper into the nature of matter and life, then we won’t find out why lies in the genetic makeup of people. And then we won’t have to worry.

I am concerned about what is happening, not so much with this country, but with the church, both in general terms and in terms of the United Methodist Church.

In 1969, during what was perhaps the worst part of my academic career, I spent a night at the Bible College in Moberly, Missouri. I was trying to get back to school after Easter/Spring break and it was not an easy trip. That night, one of the students told me rather emphatically that my baptism as an infant was not sufficient for me to get into heaven; only baptism as an adult would do. On a day when everything had gone wrong, when my future looked very much like it might be in the jungles of Viet Nam, such words of doom did not east the pain that I was feeling that night.

I did not feel the need then nor even today to think that a second baptism is necessary for me to seek salvation. I have accepted Christ as my Savior and I have tried to walk in the way that He showed me. Fortunately, I found others who could offer words of hope and promise rather than gloom and doom.

But I wonder how many people are going to hear and read the words that have been printed and spoken and turn away from the church because they see it as a house of hatred and fear, of condemnation and rejection. How many people will not hear the Good News that Christ came to this world to save us, not reject us?

I wonder how many people remember why Jesus came to our little world; what has transpired this past week seems more like what the Pharisees and Sadducees would have said and done, not what Jesus said or did. What will come next week? Will I find that the church that I wish to attend has closed its doors to me because I dare to question what is going on?

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