Being in the Middle

SkyMcCraken1United Methodist news circles and the blogosphere have been roused of late regarding same-gender marriage ceremonies. The news, however, is mostly only news to us United Methodists. My casual, un-scientific poll of people outside of the UMC tells me that this is largely unnoticed by the greater society.  Outside of the UMC and a few Facebook pages, few really care or are even watching. Overall, United Methodists are losing their influence on America. In 1970, there were over 10 million UM’s amidst 203 million Americans. In 2010 however, that number was down to 7.6 million UM’s.. amidst 308 million Americans (from the General Commission on Archives & History). We are in decline in the U.S. No wonder few are losing sleep over what the United Methodist Church does or does not do.

It’s not that same-gender ceremonies are an unimportant issue. They are — regardless of what “side” you might support. But most of the arguments that I am witnessing on blog pages, on Facebook, and in denominational articles come from an American perspective. For some denominations that’s the only perspective that matters, but for a long time now, the United Methodist Church has been a worldwide denomination, and in the UM conferences of Africa, West Africa, Congo, and Philippines, membership has gone up 3 million people since 1999 (State of the Church Report, 2011). While it is always hasty to make broad generalizations, these areas of our church tend to be more traditional in theology and doctrine.

The worldwide nature of the UMC sets up a situation that most American UM’s are unused to and frustrated by — something that transcends our either/or, Democrat/Republican, Harley Davidson/Japanese motorcycle, Duke/Kentucky basketball way of thinking, for there are others to think about or argue with besides ourselves. Such are the realities of being a world-wide church.

I haven’t found that social media has helped the situation much; indeed, I think it has made finding common ground even more difficult. To borrow from Martin Buber, some have left an “I-Thou” way of seeing others and adopted an “I-It” demeanor on this issue. By doing so, we objectify those who disagree with us.

For some UM’s, same-gender marriage ceremonies represent a civil rights issue. For other UM’s, it is not about civil rights but rather an ecclesial and doctrinal matter. For our African brothers and sisters, however, many take great offense at equating same-gender marriage and civil rights, as they live with the reality that Apartheid resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands South Africans. For them, there is no comparison. In African provinces, homosexuality is not just a doctrinal/ecclesial matter, it is a legal one as well. With conviction, they cannot be party to changing church doctrine on the matter, as their societies make such actions not only illegal but punishable by imprisonment or even death. For us as American UM’s, to ignore this part of the argument is to ignore a large part of our United Methodist Church. Again, such are the realities of being a world-wide Church. There are more issues, more cultural aspects, and more contextual realities than just American ones.

To love God is to love people. All people. Regardless. But it also means to embrace tolerance. Tolerance is not kowtowing, tolerance is to offer respect amidst the differences. And inclusivity – as opposed to being generic – means embracing all as children of God.

The question that we face is how tolerant and inclusive can we be as a denomination? Can we still see others as brothers and sisters even when they are as convicted as we are in matters where we do not agree? Are those who strongly advocate same-gender marriage willing to say that they have the absolute truth on the matter (in light of Reinhold Niebuhr’s words that to be Christian means living in the tension of having and not having the truth)? So sure that they are willing to disrupt UMC gatherings of likewise faithful and convicted people?

I’ve always maintained that the Church is to be counter-cultural and “maladjusted” by worldly standards. No matter what the polls or opinions or trends say, we are called to be in the world while not of the world, and our discernment of what God wants should trump popular opinion. At the same time, we are likewise called to support the civil rights of individuals as a concern for social justice. These things are not diametrically opposed.

The reason why I have no problem with states deciding whether or not they issue a marriage license for same-gendered couples is because such (getting a marriage license) functions under civil authority. It is a state issue – not a church issue, (which a Christian marriage ceremony is). It doesn’t mean I agree with it — indeed, I don’t agree with how easy the state makes divorce, or abortion, or how cavalierly some states deal with capital punishment. While we Christians should never water down our beliefs or witness, we dare not depend on the state to make our stands for us – we are Christians first, and citizens second. Our calling to be Christ’s is a higher calling. I love my country – but I love God much more. And while the Church is a human institution, hopefully it is led by people led by the Holy Spirit – and I continue to believe that it is the best hope of making disciples for the transformation of the world. Being United Methodist is, for me, the best expression of the Christian faith. I stand by its beliefs and submit to its authority – even when it pits me against friends and family. It’s what I vowed to do.

When it comes to doctrine and belief, the theological milieu in the UMC gets muddier still. Some are liberal. Some are orthodox (or generously orthodox, rigidly orthodox, or neo-orthodox). Some are conservative. Traditional. Postmodern. Post postmodern (always something new – or nothing new – under the sun). Some think Christ was really born of a virgin. Some say that’s an ancient legend (and everything in between). Some say Christ was really crucified and risen. Others say that miracles violate the laws of nature and must be discounted. Further, and most confusing to the average person in the pew, some say that Christian beliefs are based less on any one truth and more upon your “circle of interpretation.”

My goodness. Where do we stand?!?

McCracken_crucifixionMy short, inadequate, but I think faithful answer is this: I don’t see how Christians can place themselves anywhere else other than the middle. Not the middle as we Americans define middle. More than just the via media. The REAL middle. The place where Jesus was on Calvary. Crucified between a man who wanted Jesus to prove his power and fix things, and a man who knew that one day, he would get far better than he deserved.

I think that’s where God would have us: holding the hands of both. It’s not clean, in fact it’s quite messy. Yet, I’d rather stand in the middle and place myself in God’s will rather than my own, because left to my own devices, I’ll end up wanting a Jesus who will fix things rather than trusting Him to take us where we need to be.

That is the danger of taking the extreme positions on either side in our denomination – we run the risk of going where they want, rather than where God would have us.

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.

Sky McCracken

The Rev. Sky McCracken is the District Superintendent of the Paducah District of the Memphis Annual Conference.

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33 Comments on "Being in the Middle"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 

Guest
1 year 8 months ago

Methodists on way to schism @ General Conference 2016 amid all the twisted anti-Book of Romans theology?

Guest
1 year 8 months ago

Methodists are already attempting to soften opposition to Methodist blessings of non-human reprodutive ability same-sex marriage in 2016 in direct conflict to the Book of Romans Big denomination split ciming?

Guest
David Keith Wells
1 year 8 months ago

Rev. Sky
You are on to something here. You are being criticized by both sides. You must be perilously close to the truth. I am not exactly sure where you stand on the issue of homosexual marriage in the church and pastors not following the discipline they pledged before God to uphold, but I appreciate the reasoned presentation. One of the things that bothers me about this debate is the absolute metaphysical certainty of some in the discussion.
God Help us all.
David Keith Wells

Guest
d
1 year 8 months ago

The transmission in my car was stuck in neutral.
I got nowhere.
My lawn tractor was stuck in idle.
I never did get the lawn done.
A woman is being robbed in plain site for all to see.
The people walked passed. They remained neutral.

I see poverty and I ignore the plight of the poor.
I do not get involved.

I see a church divided.
I take no stand.
The church falls apart.

Remaining neutral has never been the Christian way.
When the Apostle Paul was informed of immorality, poor practice and misunderstood teachings in the church Paul took action. The Apostle Paul did not remain neutral.
When it was made known to Peter, Paul and the other Apostles heretical teachings were being taught and practiced in the church, they did not remain neutral.
When a man was found to be in an incestuous relationship he was thrown out of the church. Those are not neutral policies or practices.

All of the Apostles understood secular law and pagan practices where having an impact on the early church and corrected where they found conflict.
To think laws and norms in the secular world will not have an impact on the Christian Church is simply not true. There are hundreds of example of secular thinking and practice impacting the church, the services they offer and the financial costs associated with ever changing cultural norms.
History is filled with examples of laws and norms changed and the impact on the culture.
Secular laws governing drugs, marriage, divorce, porn, taxation, education all impact the church. It is the church that is left to pick up the pieces of bad secular law.
It is the church who houses the homeless addicted to drugs and drinking.
It is the church that will council the weary.
It is the church that will feel the pinch of over taxation.
It is the poor the church wishes to help that will go without.
It is the church that runs soup kitchens, food pantries, provides free clothing and help for those that make bad decisions based on secular norms and practice.

The church can remain in neutral and watch the world go it’s own way or they could get their act together and show the world how good works, humility, honesty, justice, family, holiness and leadership are defined and understood in the Christian Community. The church could show how the principles and practices laid down by God thru his prophets and apostles and recorded for us to learn from can and do work when they are incorporated properly.

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. Matthew 5:17

Guest
james
1 year 8 months ago

A little different slant here. The methodist church began to lose its way back in the 1950s. When many folks joined back then–they joined mostly for the sake of joining a “social organization”–as opposed to joining a faith-based Church. The folks were “good” people and the fellowship was ok. But, a quiet experience or a Damascus Road experience with the Risen Savior was no longer encouraged or expected for one to become a member of the methodist church. Sunday School curriculum taught “social gospel” stuff as opposed to “Good News” gospel stuff. Consequently–the fact that “ones righteousness” is as filthy rags to “God’s Righteousness” was lost in the shuffle.

Until the umc regains its desire to preach the Good News–that all have fallen short–that all must be washed in the Blood of the Lamb in order to be reconciled to Father/Son/Holy Spirit–social issues will continue to dwindle the now weakened umc. A changed heart–one that is filled with Father/Son/Holy Spirit–will/can do remarkable things.

Guest
WAD
1 year 8 months ago

Amen James. The world so desperately needs the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Will the Methodist church stand and deliver again in the Wesleyan tradition? That’s our only hope.

Guest
Gary Bebop
1 year 8 months ago

There are a few out there, like Rev. Sky and David Watson, who believe that Methodism can “stand and deliver” on these preaching points. But those voices are speaking into absolute bedlam right now.

Guest
WAD
1 year 8 months ago

Only a “few”who believe that Methodists can stand and deliver? Now that’s a frightening prospect. Preaching points? These “preaching points” are the essence, the core, the absolute definition of Christianity and this Wesleyan denomination. It is past time for our once great church to get back on this message with enthusiasm, fire, authority, and Holy Spirit led determination.

Guest
theenemyhatesclarity
1 year 8 months ago

Exactly right, James. I pray we are not just a corpse that hasn’t figured out it’s dead yet.

Guest
Scott Spencer
1 year 8 months ago

You are talking about gays, lesbians, bisexuals, right? Just curious since you only mention same gender marriage and homosexuality. Are transgendered folks included? Language is important and the words we choose or don’t choose reveals much. There are many folks in our churches who can’t bring themselves to use the word “African-American” and they continue to use the words “colored” or “black”.

I do understand your concerns about the extremes. But I also wonder if anything would ever change in this world without them. When women were elected to General Conference for the first time and tried to be seated, no doubt they were extreme and not part of the Methodist middle. And what of a little African American girl going to public school under the watchful eye of armed guards? No doubt that was extreme. And no doubt there were many who were part of the middle who would have never done that! We remember Rosa Parks today not because she was content with the status quo – not content with what those in privileged position of power thought and said and enforced.

Indeed, apartheid simply didn’t slip away. Someone had to stand up for change.

I still can’t figure out what you would have us DO? Hold hands? Of course. But why? To be nice and maintain the status quo? To ask the LGBTQ community to sit at the back of the bus?

Sky McCracken
Guest
1 year 8 months ago

Scott: we hold hands to stay in contact. To continue the conversations – in person, rather than only through social media. To make sure that everyone is heard, not just the loud or powerful or manipulative voices.

Passion and truth also comes from those whose voices are often drowned out when we objectify people by their stances, or worse, label them “homophobes” or “deviants.” We hold hands and pray to hear the Spirit, rather than rhetoric. The change that occurs when we do these things is more apt to be “thy will” rather than ours.

Guest
MethodistPie
1 year 8 months ago

To Scott’s concern: I think the alphabet is up to GLBTQIA, with the Q apparently standing for Queer and/or Questioning. The ‘I’ really confuses me. Am I the only one having trouble keeping up?

Guest
Gary Bebop
1 year 8 months ago

Rev. Sky writes with the deft touch of the “horse whisperer” for his subject. He’s the artisan Methodist leader, if such exists, the quintessential “voice of reason” calmly addressing the clamorous congregation on the verge of violent separation. We recognize the voice and the moment from sentimental motion pictures. It appeals to our nostalgic longings for an unrecoverable unity.

Guest
Jay Jonson
1 year 8 months ago

It is unbelievable that someone would say that since some African nations have draconian laws against homosexuality (some of which, like the proposed kill the gays law in Uganda are actually promoted by right-wing Christians from America and others are remnants of British colonialism), we should be sensitive to their perspective. No. Unjust laws are unChristian and people who advocate them should not be able to dictate doctrine on such a matter. In fact, I would say that those incredibly stupid laws should be a good reason to cut ties with African churches who support such persecution of others.

Rev. McCracken’s version of love seems to be as murky as his version of “tolerance.” We apparently are supposed to tolerate uncivilized laws and love those who would kill their brethren.

Guest
theenemyhatesclarity
1 year 8 months ago

@ Jay Johnson who said: “We apparently are supposed to tolerate uncivilized laws and love those who would kill their brethren.”

Should we love those who think it should be a constitutional right to kill babies in the womb?

Guest
John Battern
1 year 8 months ago

I’ve never met a United Methodist that agrees 100% with everything in our doctrinal statements and social principles. We are a diverse people with wide ranging beliefs. We seek to reach out to both sides. That’s something I believe most UM’s love about their church.

There’s another element in the image of the cross standing in the middle and that is that Christ going to the cross was an act of obedience. In the midst of our “middle-ness” we still must be obedient to our covenant, regardless whether we tend to lean toward one direction or the other.

Unlike Pubilius, I have never heard of anyone being brought up on charges for speaking their mind. (The UMC is very large & I realize I don’t know everything that happens & I’d like to hear of a specific case where this is happened). On the other hand, individuals who ACT in disobedience should expect to be held accountable. Dialogue helps the church, disobedience does not.

Guest
Kevin
1 year 8 months ago

I read Rev Sky’s rambling post three times trying to figure out the point he was trying to make. I am a little slow sometimes. The best I could tell was that loving God means embracing tolerance but I fail to see the connection. Tolerance of sin is not a loving act. What am I missing here? And to borrow a phrase from Goldwater “extremism in defense of Christ is not a vice.”

 
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