My Thoughts on #WCAMEMPHIS (So Far)

17190692_1317897651589772_5539392738647395563_nIt’s been no secret that I have been skeptical of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Specifically, I have been skeptical of the true motives of the organization. My fear is that this group would exist in order to bring about the divorce of the United Methodist Church. In other words, that WCA would be the groundwork for a new denomination that splits off from the UMC. I have been in dialogue with some people involved with WCA and have expressed my concerns. They have all assured me that WCA is not in place to group together like-minded churches and individuals as a united front against anyone who disagrees with them. I remained – and still remain – skeptical.

But I’m starting to soften a little.

I decided to attend the WCA-sponsored “We Believe in the Church” Conference in Memphis, TN in order to gain some insight for myself rather than simply relying on the blogosphere to form my opinions for me. I know a good many people who I greatly respect that support or are directly involved in WCA so this has also been a good opportunity for me to reconnect with some of these friends of mine. Now, I will not rehash all of the negative things which have been said about WCA in the blog world and elsewhere. In all honesty, I was not sure what to expect. We are still on a dinner break, still have two more sessions to go, plus several sessions tomorrow before I head back to Kentucky. I’m still not sure what all I will hear in the remaining sessions but let me tell you about some things that I have not heard. 

I have not heard “We need to split.” Not once have I heard anyone call for a separation of factions in the church. What I have heard over and over again are words like “unity,” and “together.” No one has called for a split and I really am doubtful that I will hear such talk here.

I have not heard hateful remarks about homosexuals. Many have painted the WCA as an organization which is anti-gay and hateful toward homosexuals. The attitudes I have encountered so far have been anything but hateful. A particularly telling moment occurred during a Q&A. A woman who self-identified as a lesbian asked if it was felt that God was absent from her life. The response, more or less, was: “I think that homosexuality is against God’s vision for marriage and relationships. But, I will not say that God is not at work in your life. I know God is present in your life.”

Rev. Chris Ritter related an episode from an experience he had in ministry after he preached on homosexuality. A man wanted to talk to him and then told Rev. Ritter that he is gay. The man asked if he would be welcome in the church. Rev. Ritter responded that he is welcome and is loved. He also said this: “I told him, ‘and if anyone here ever tried to hurt you because of your sexuality, they will have to hurt me first.’”

Such sounds anything but hateful to me.

I have not heard – or witnessed – anything racist. Nothing. Some have accused WCA of being covertly racist due to the racial makeup of its membership. Admittedly, the vast majority of people here are caucasian. However, there are also a significant number of other races present here. So far it seems that painting the WCA as an organization for “whites only” is patently false.

These are just my thoughts so far. The dinner break is almost up so I am returning to the conference floor. I will share more thoughts at a later time.

Picking Back Up at the Hotel

I wrote the first portion of this post while I was still at Christ UMC but I could not connect to wifi. Now that I’m back at my hotel and have wifi, I can share some other thoughts.

As I mentioned above, I have had my suspicions about the true intent of WCA. I acknowledge that there could still be behind the scenes issues but I also have to acknowledge that I could be wrong about that. One thing I did not mention above was that Bishop James Swanson of my home annual conference (Mississippi, in case you didn’t know) brought the thunder this afternoon. Bishop Swanson preached again in the evening session and brought the lightning, the thunder, the hail, and the flood. In a nutshell, Bishop Swanson challenged us to consider that all of the fighting that is going on within the UMC is nothing more than a distraction from the primary mission that God has given us. I believe this is a very real possibility and I can see such tricks of the great deceiver at work throughout social media and blogs.

From such posts, I hear a lot about specific issues but very little about Jesus. I think that’s a major problem.

Jeff Greenway also spoke and questioned whether the church is indeed at a moment like what Paul and Barnabus experienced. He made very clear that he was not calling for, nor is he a proponent of, separation but also acknowledged that a split is a real possibility and may ultimately be what is best for the Methodist movement as a whole. I feel that this is a fair observation and question that we must wrestle with, but I remain dedicated to doing what I can to keep the United Methodist Church United until such time as we have run out of options. Having said that, I hope that day never comes.

One additional event of note: The lady mentioned previously who self-identified as a lesbian also revealed that she is affiliated with Reconciling Ministries (if you’re not familiar with Reconciling Ministries, this is a caucus within the UMC that promotes full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church including recognition of same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals into the ministry). WCA leadership announced from the stage that she was making herself available tomorrow after the conclusion of the conference for conversation.

Tomorrow we have more speakers and questions to wrestle with. I have been given much to pray on and think about. If nothing else, I have taken this away from my experience today: The WCA may not be the “big bad wolf” that many, to an extent myself included, have made it out to be. Time will tell. May we remain faithful and focused on the mission at hand: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

On Blame and History

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818Yesterday, a sister in Christ and clergy colleague shared a link to a blog post regarding the upcoming Judicial Council decision regarding the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto at the last Western Jurisdictional Conference. Bishop Oliveto’s election is being contested due to her being a married lesbian, which is against the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. The post was written by the Rev. Jeremy Smith, an Elder serving First UMC in Portland, Oregon. Rev. Smith has been an outspoken proponent of changing of the BoD‘s current language against the practice of homosexuality by clergy so I was not surprised by his expression of support for Bishop Oliveto. What I was surprised about was his attack on United Methodists from the south.

To take him at his word, Rev. Smith feels that southern UMs are to blame for all of the ills within the denomination.

I am a native Mississippian and I certainly acknowledge that the south is not without blame in a lot of incidents of intolerance, especially matters of racism and other discriminatory practices. I have been outspoken about such myself. Laying the blame for any of the ills within the United Methodist Church squarely at the feet of the faithful from the south is disgusting.

This assessment could not be farther from the truth.

Rev. Smith’s attempt to paint the south in such a poor light comes across as an ad hominem attack on the entirety of the southern US. His insinuation that the South Central Jurisdiction is a “jurisdiction behaving badly” by challenging the election of Bishop Oliveto is ridiculous. Our Discipline allows for declaratory decisions to be sought by bodies within the UMC and this is what is occurring. No, the SCJ can not interfere in the ordination of clergy elsewhere but the fact that Bishop Oliveto is now a bishop – and thus part of the Council of Bishops – means that she is now accountable to the entire UMC, not just her annual conference or jurisdiction. The SCJ were well within their rights to challenge this election for that very reason.

Regardless of how one feels of the current language regarding homosexual practice in the Book of Discipline, the fact remains that at least for the moment practicing homosexuals are not allowed to be ordained as clergy (Bishop Oliveto has repeatedly had charges filed against her under church law – even by people within her own jurisdiction – but I will not speculate as to why these charges have not been dealt with as they have been in other annual conferences and jurisdictions). There are avenues for changing church law but the Western Jurisdiction – which due to their relatively small membership do not have as many delegates as other jurisdictions at General Conference do – have instead chosen to buck the system. The message they have sent to the rest of the connection is, “We’re going to do what we want no matter what anyone else says.”

With that in mind, perhaps the SCJ is not the “jurisdiction behaving badly.” And if such is not a schismatic action, I do not know what is.

Rev. Smith may also do well to be reminded that the election of Bishop Oliveto occurred on the 18th ballot. The position that Bishop Oliveto now occupies was the only open office within the episcopacy in the Western Jurisdiction… and it took 18 ballots to elect her. Let that sink in. This tells me that the majority of the Western Jurisdiction is not of one mind on the homosexual issue, contrary to what Rev. Smith seems to feel.

Rev. Smith also points out that the south is ultimately responsible for the current jurisdictional structure of the church, and that the segregated Central Jurisdiction where African-American congregations, clergy, and other leadership were concentrated. Unfortunately, history proves that this is true and I agree with Rev. Smith when he states that this is an ugly stain on our church. With that said, I have more bad news for Rev. Smith: The northern Methodists agreed to this and went along with church-sanctioned segregation for nearly 30 years, in spite of the clear anti-racism and anti-slavery teachings of John Wesley.

Why did the north agree to segregation – simply to grow the Methodist Church? My own experience previously living in a non-southern state is one of even deeper segregation than I witnessed in modern Mississippi. I agree that racism is a blemish on our church’s history, but the blame is not solely on the south especially when it was the northern branch of the church who agreed to the Central Jurisdiction compromise.

Both groups are equally guilty of allowing it to happen.

Here’s a history lesson: The groundwork for the desolation of the Central Jurisdiction was laid by many Methodists, including clergy from the Mississippi Annual Conference. The Born of Conviction Statement was written and signed by clergy in Mississippi to decry segregation within the church and in schools. They faced much opposition and many had to leave Mississippi after the statement was published. Rev. Smith would argue that the election of Bishop Oliveto may be a similar action, but I do not agree with such thinking.

All of this to say: The southern jurisdictions are not the ones to blame for all of the issues within the United Methodist Church and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous. To paint southern Methodists in as poor a light as he has is just as ridiculous.

Let me be clear: I have nothing against Rev. Smith. His posts have generally been thought-provoking and I find myself agreeing with him on several issues. My issue here is Rev. Smith’s opinion that the southern UMs are the ones being the “sticks in the mud” as we say back home within the United Methodist Church. I can not agree with such thinking and find such thinking to be offensive on so many levels, not to mention untrue.

Thoughts?

Sermon: Love One Another

Here is the sermon I preached this evening at an ecumenical Holy Week service here in Stanton.

Love One Another
A Sermon Preached at Grace Fellowship Church – Stanton, KY (PCMA Holy Week Maundy Thursday Service)
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
April 13, 2017

John 13:1-7, 12-17, 31-35 (NLT)
Before the Passover celebration, Jesus knew that his hour had come to leave this world and return to his Father. He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end.[a] 2 It was time for supper, and the devil had already prompted Judas,[b] son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. 4 So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, 5 and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him.

12 After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. 14 And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. 16 I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. 17 Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.

31 As soon as Judas left the room, Jesus said, “The time has come for the Son of Man[a] to enter into his glory, and God will be glorified because of him. 32 And since God receives glory because of the Son,[b] he will give his own glory to the Son, and he will do so at once. 33 Dear children, I will be with you only a little longer. And as I told the Jewish leaders, you will search for me, but you can’t come where I am going. 34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

There is an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb up again. After many more falls and efforts and failures, he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas,” Jesus said. “We couldn’t begin till you came.”.

On the traditional church calendar, today is Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday is where the church traditionally remembers the last supper in the Upper Room just before Jesus was betrayed by Judas. In addition, we remember that Jesus came not to be served but to serve. He demonstrated this by humbling himself and washing the feet of his best friends. In doing this, Jesus demonstrated what it means to truly show someone love. It was after he washed their feet that he revealed that it was by the way we love one another and how we love the entire world that people will know that we are his disciples. Love is the first and most visible fruit that a Christian can and should display.

Last night at Shiloh we concluded a study of a book called Final Words From the Cross by a pastor and theologian named Adam Hamilton. During last night’s lesson, we discussed metaphors and how much metaphorical language was used in Jesus’ teaching and ministry. A metaphor is a figure of speech. If you were to look at me and say, “He’s as big as an ox!” Well, I am big but I’m not as big as an ox. I don’t think my wife, Jessica, would allow oxen in her bed. But my point is, to compare me to an ox is a metaphor for my perceived large size.

A lot of what is contained in scripture is metaphorical in nature but not all of it. I’m a student at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore and there is a coffee shop just off campus called Solomon’s Porch. I go there between my morning and afternoon classes. Being in Wilmore, there is almost always a discussion about the Bible going on. One day I overheard two people talking and one of them made a statement like this: “I think everything in the bible should be taken literally, just as it was written.” The other person said, “Well what about where Jesus said to love everyone, including our enemies?” The first party thought for a moment and said, “Well, I think that was just a metaphor. Jesus couldn’t have possibly meant to love everyone.” I couldn’t help but laugh. It seems funny that people feel this way. They believe everything in the bible and believe it should be followed to the letter… Until they come to a part they either don’t like or don’t agree with, suddenly it’s open to interpretation. Yes, some things are metaphorical in nature and are there to illustrate a point, but the overall message of scripture is sound.

Either you believe that the message of the whole Bible is true, or you don’t. You either believe the entire spectrum of the teachings of Christ or you don’t. And put your steel toes on because now I might step on your toes: This includes the teachings that you don’t particularly like. Did Jesus often use metaphors in his teaching? Of course. But when he says things like “they will know you are my disciples by your love,” he meant just that, full stop.

I happen to believe that one of those things that is far from being a metaphor and that is part of the very message of the gospel is contained right here in John 13. Jesus made it clear to me that we, as Christians, are to love one another and to love all of the beloved of God – hint: It’s everyone! – and that is far from being a metaphor. Jesus said himself after he washed the feet of the twelve: “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” The example that Jesus gave is one of ultimate sacrifice on the part of putting aside our pride and even casting aside what society considers to be normal in order to truly love someone. Just as Jesus humbled himself, we are expected to do likewise.

Now, for us, showing love to someone may not actually include washing someone’s feet. Don’t touch mine, believe me, you don’t want to anyway. But what Jesus did was put on a seminar about how to wash feet but he demonstrated the kind of love that we are to show to all people and by not only saying that we are willing to do this, but by actually doing it, we are proclaiming His love to a world that no longer knows how to love with true sacrifice. The kind of Jesus that Jesus demonstrates and wants us to show to others does involve sacrifice, being willing to show a radical form of hospitality even to a stranger. In order to fully understand this, it may be helpful to know the significance of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

In the New Testament times, there were no planes, trains, or automobiles. The only way to get from one place to another was to either beat feet or to get there by donkey or camel. There were no paved roads back then, either. The roads were dusty, dirty, and even had animal droppings on them. And if you stepped in it, well, you just stepped in it. It was because of these dusty conditions that it was expected hospitality for a host to provide water so that a guest could wash their feet off. Actually loosening a person’s sandals and personally washing their feet was considered the work of servants, or submissive wives or children. In other words, it was something that was not done by proper people if you will. Jesus actually wrapping a towel around himself and bending down to wash the feet of his disciples was a big deal because this just was not done. It was a scandal in Jerusalem for him to serve the people who respected him the most. This was a big deal because Jesus was actually foreshadowing the nature of his coming death: He was the suffering servant.

Even those of us who think ourselves to be above certain things should remember that as disciples of Jesus Christ we are to count ourselves as servants first. Jesus laid out the example of how we should treat others by being willing to humble ourselves and show people the most powerful love that we can muster. Jesus being so willing to humble himself is an example for us to follow. Can you show someone love so radical that it could even harm your reputation? Such would have done that in Jesus’ day because social rank was important and a person of high stature just did not wash someone’s feet. And yet, Jesus did. What does this tell us?

Here’s something else to chew on: Jesus did not give us a choice this matter. It is not optional for a Christian to love someone. Let me say that again: It is not optional for a true Christian, a committed follower, and disciple, to love others. It is a must. Jesus reinforced this by using such strong language in verse 34 when he said, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” The usage of the word “commandment” gave his words all the much more authority. The Greek word that is translated “commandment” can also mean “orders.” Jesus has given us our orders and those orders from the table at the last supper are to go love as I have loved you and that is how people will know that you are my disciples. It’s not by who you vote for, by what bumper stickers you have on your car, how much of the Bible you can quote, or even by how much you pray. Jesus has said, “your orders are to love. Love is your mark, your signature stance as a Christian.”

I mentioned a few minutes ago that in the traditional church practice, today is known as Maundy Thursday. That seems like a very funny word and for a long time, I had absolutely no idea what it meant. I always thought it was just a funny name that some Pope or bishop or monk gave to this day hundreds of years ago because he must have liked that word for some reason. But, given the context of what we remember on this day in Holy Week, there is a very good reason why today is called Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum.” Let me say that word again: “mandatum.” If that word sounds a little familiar, that’s because mandatum is where we get our English word “mandatory.” Mandatory refers to something that is absolutely required, like a mandatory meeting or a mandatory assignment in school. Here’s where the Latin plays into what this day is called: It’s taken from the Latin translation of verse 34 which begins with the word “mandatum.”

James said, “Faith without works is dead.” To put it in the context of Jesus’ words in John: Faith without love is dead!
For a Christian to love is not optional, it’s not something nice to do, it’s not even just a good idea. For Christians, to love as Christ loves us is mandatory! And to make the choice to not love others for any reason is

or a Christian to love is not optional, it’s not something nice to do, it’s not even just a good idea. For Christians, to love as Christ loves us is mandatory! And to make the choice to not love others for any reason is a sin. If we have hate in our heart and we are not willing to love, then we have some problems that only repentance – asking forgiveness and turning away from the desire to hate – and embracing the mandate to love will solve.

Do you have hate towards anyone? Whether their family, people who were once friends of yours… People who are different than you… Christ requires us to love them sacrificially and intentionally. Just as Judas would be welcomed back to the table as in the story I told at the beginning, so we must welcome all people to our table, no matter what, period, full stop. If we want revival to sweep across our land, and I think we all do, then it starts with us taking this new mandatory commandment that Christ has given us seriously. We don’t have a choice. We must love. Let’s pray.