My Open Letter Resigning from The United Methodist Church (2014)

On a Palm Sunday in the early 1970s, I was confirmed as a member of The United Methodist Church. I was excited to officially join my church, and I looked forward to being active in the large, dynamic youth group which became the cornerstone of my social life throughout my junior high and high school years. At the time, the extent of my church-related knowledge was this: Rev. Yocom would usually answer questions by telling a story about his life, and I looked pretty cute in my mini-skirt and mod white shirt with a band collar and lacy bell-cuffs. A product of the times, I was schooled in a combination of traditional Wesleyan theology (scripture, tradition, reason, experience) and popular theologies, probably summed up via a combination of Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and—I’ll admit it—the Beatles. Those influences along with a Jesus people-esque emphasis touting “All you need is Love” and “God is Love” were the basis of my youthful spiritual foundation.

Now I’m embarrassed to admit I belong to the United Methodist Church. I’m appalled that when non-Methodists think of the church, it is most likely based on our draconian approach to dealing with issues relating to homosexuals and those called to minister to them, including Rev. Thomas Ogletree of New York and Rev. Frank Schaefer of Pennsylvania. I’m puzzled that when there have been opportunities for the church to at least acknowledge that wisdom is needed to help the church determine its role in ministering with and to gays, the church has shut the doors of communication, choosing instead to reaffirm its current position; the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Florida, made headlines because of its refusal to consider an “agree to disagree” amendment on the topic when it was presented by Rev. Adam Hamilton of Leawood, Kansas, and Rev. Mike Slaughter of Tipp City, Ohio.

The church—any church, not specifically the United Methodists—has the duty and right to interpret scripture and other leadings however its leaders and people feel is correct. I don’t question that. At an organizational level, every church is a human-created and -operated entity that prays it is following the dictates of its understanding of what God requires of his followers. If the best minds and hearts of the Methodist church agree that its treatment of homosexuals and those who minister to them is God-driven, then I won’t question that its people are acting in all sincerity.

But I can’t continue being part of an organization that uses the Wesleyan tradition to exclude and marginalize others. The Methodist tagline—“Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”—is still emblazoned on the UMC website; it needs an added note: **unless openly gay. Inviting people based on the idea that we have open minds and open hearts, then slamming the door unless they stay in the closet—that feels like the type of mindset which compelled Jesus to overturn tables at the temple and play word games with Pharisees.

 In fact, the Methodist slogan seems tailor-made to welcoming gays, inviting them to leave their closet behind to find community and fellowship with a local congregation. However, many Methodists I know champion the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality, a phrase which embeds judgment in a micro-aggressive claim of love. Christian theology via St. Paul claims “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but my job is to love people and support them as they find their path. For me, labeling people as “sinners” is wrong. Jesus was harsh about people who were judgmental and hypocritical. I’m not in any position to throw the first stone—especially because I accept that sexual preference, like eye color and handedness, are inborn; critiquing how God chooses to create people is not my job either.

There are groups within the church which are working for equality and recognition. I applaud their efforts and believe they will ultimately make a difference. I’m not called to actively fight on this issue; I’ve struggled with this since 2005, when at South Hill United Methodist Church in Virginia, Rev. Edward Johnson refused to let a gay attendee become a member of the church. The church’s position on the issue hasn’t changed; I have. As an enthusiastic 12-year-old, I never considered asking questions about the church’s stance on homosexuality. At this point in my life, I cannot be officially listed as a member of an organization that judges my gay friends and family as unworthy of being treated like a child of God. Those who are fighting for change have my support—and I believe that the way I need to support them is to show that this issue matters enough to me that it’s worth leaving the Methodist church.

I’m proud that my own congregation is more inclusive, and at this point I intend to continue attending there as a non-member, but I’ve also attended a Quaker meeting that comes much closer to fitting my general theological understanding at this point in my life. Eventually that may become my “home church,” but my current Sunday school class offers opportunities for growth and fellowship, and I don’t want to leave that.

One of my favorite songs when I played guitar for my church youth group eons ago was “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” That song is in now in the Methodist hymnal, and instead of long-haired teens with guitars leading it, adult organists perform elaborate introductions to signal the congregation’s singing. The last time I sang that song, surrounded by the beautiful stained-glass windows in my impressive sanctuary, I choked up. Who will know we are Christians by our love? Not our gay brothers and sisters, or those ministering to them. After all my words and justifications, that’s the simple explanation why I’m resigning my membership to the United Methodist Church.

Not For Veteran’s Day

Note: I wrote this in 2012; I’m surprised by how much of it I still agree with. 

Two days ago was Veteran’s Day. Yesterday Billy Owens’ birthday. In my mind, those are connected.

Billy was a student in my epic AP class close to a decade ago. He wasn’t the usual AP student, but he wanted a shot and worked hard to earn his place. After graduation, he went into the military, and he was proud of the time he served. I talked to him intermittently both while he was serving and afterwards, while he was a veteran heading to college. The story ends too soon, with Billy committing suicide a while back. I’ve lost track of time, but I know that summer I had two former students do that; this is a rough era for young people, and suicide stats are one of the starkest proofs of it.

That isn’t what I intended to focus on, though. The intersection of Veteran’s Day and Billy’s birthday have me thinking. As a quasi-pacifist, I can’t wave a flag and yell “hip hip hooray for Veterans” if there’s any chance that I’m also glorifying war (Yes, I know that as a member of Daughters of the American Revolution, I’m on a slippery slope  using that criteria. Talk to my dad about it). One of the reasons I want to turn Quaker is because of their “Peace Testimony,” and as I’m writing this, I’m keeping their stances in mind.

When I started teaching, I was appalled that several special ed teachers used the ASVAB test, which qualifies a person for military service, as the major text in their room. They were prepping their students to be gun fodder–that’s the way I saw it then. I was pretty self-righteous about it, but at least I didn’t take to a bully pulpit. Usually.

In contrast, when one of my favorite students from the last couple years came into my classroom last month and told me he’s going in the Navy after Christmas, I nodded and told him that was probably an excellent decision. He’s a very smart kid, very personable–and for a lot of reasons, needs some direction and self-discipline– and he needs out of Lima. Many of my students are like that, needing some time to mature and learn skills, to figure out who they are while earning money and having a roof over their heads and a reason to get out of bed. College does that for some–but not all. The military is often the only other option, particularly in this job market. I hate the fact that there’s a decent chance he’ll be deployed in a war zone, but he knows the price he’s potentially paying for the shot at gaining maturity, experience, and a clue what to do with his life.

The change in my attitude reflects a greater awareness of the world and years of observing people. When I was a total pacifist, back when I honestly believed that with reason, love, and the right incentives conflict could be handled without resorting to throwing plates, fists, or bombs, my experience in the world was limited to people who had roughly the same assumptions about life and ethical constructs that I did. Debates about whether the car radio should play John Denver or the Partridge Family didn’t devolve to fisticuffs, and arguments about who should clean the bathroom at my college apartments may have involved snarky comments and pointed product placement (a can of Comet on the kitchen table eventually gets noticed), but again–no stitches or police were required.

And…as always…I’m a product of my age. It’s easy to say “War is wrong” when the only war you’ve experienced is Vietnam. I remember the  older kids worrying about getting a draft notice, or trying to choose the best way to be 4F. I remember asking why we were fighting there, and the confusing answers I got–perhaps that was an early sign that I ask too many questions, but people tried to answer, each explanation tangling with another, slightly different one, to create a sticky web that lead out one way: War is wrong.

But that was a long time ago, and I suspect that if I go to a zoo, I’ll even see the zebra in shades of grey. The stark right/wrong viewpoint that worked even through much of my 20s and 30s is much muddier now.

At this point, I define myself as a quasi-pacifist. In no particular order, that means I believe this:

  • Choosing to not fight can be powerful. Gandhi and the Civil Rights movement proved that.
  • People have the right to chose to not fight, but they need to be able to do it from a position of strength; pacifism cannot stem from weakness or fear and be effective.
  • People need to know how to deal with school yard bullies, both as children and adults. Weak people are targets, but that doesn’t mean that the best (or only) answers involve brute force.
  • Physical Force or the threat of it is overused in daily life and in the political arena. Almost always, reason, negotiation, and proper understanding of core values will improve a situation.
  • However, evil and myopically-self-involved people (and groups of people) exist in the world. They cannot be allowed to hurt others–but derailing those people must impact the least other people possible, and all possible non-violent means must be used first. “Preventative war” is an unethical concept, and “Collateral damage” is a fancy way of saying “innocent victims.”
  • Emotional rhetoric on from any party in the situation does not mean violence is inevitable or will help. It’s a sign everyone needs time–like a week–in the time-out chair to think about what they’re doing. (My school and the UN both need time out chairs!)
  • The only use of force that I can embrace is to protect those who cannot (not will not) protect themselves. And again, non-violent means of to achieve that goal must be tried first.
  • The fights between people, like between students in my school, should not occur. We should be doing more to create non-violent  interpersonal relationships.
  • The fact that the US military budget equals the next 15 countries’ military budgets combined is unreasonable and immoral.
  • People who choose to serve deserve all the honor and support our country can give them–and I don’t see our national policies doing that now.
  • The best way to honor and support our people in the military is to ensure they don’t have to go into battle, and when it’s unavoidable, give them materials and support, and get them out of it as soon as possible. Or sooner.
  • The high number of military and veteran suicides and PTSD means something is seriously wrong in the system, and we should be figuring out what now. Top priority.
  • There are many benefits to serving in the military, and I’ve seen many students gain confidence and become adults due to serving. Designing a National Service option/requirement should be investigated.

I started this by thinking about Veterans’ Day and Billy, and as a semi-literate somewhat- writer, I know that my conclusion should wrap up by tying all this back to Billy and Veterans’ Day. That neat ending eludes me–possibly because Billy chose an ending that doesn’t fit into a tidy, light paragraph. Billy and I discussed in detail why he went into the military, and he had many good reasons, reasons that my student last month echoed. All I can do is light a candle that the story ends up differently this time…for all the people serving.

Why You Might Not Want To Be In Sunday School With Me

We were talking about the Apostle Paul traveling around doing his apostle thing when this conversation took place (recreated as well as I can):

Man: Well, I see the rules that Paul set forth and wonder why we’re not following them better.

Teacher gets a gleam in her eye and turns to me.

Teacher: Jeannine, do you have any ideas about that?

I look at her, deciding whether to nod, smile and claim ignorance.

Me: As far as I’m concerned, one Jesus card  beats a hand full of Pauls.

Man: (looking confused) I don’t know what you mean.

Me: I mean Paul was as much a Disciple as Pete Best was a Beatle.

I stand by that position, but it took a while to explain what I meant to him.

 

 

 

Pass It On

I’m great at words, letting them roll out of my mouth in Mississppi-sized river of noise. But when deep emotion is involved, I go mute, opting for the cheap laugh if I have to say something. Often, though, the words do come, and I attempt to atone for my silence with a flurry of blogs, emails, and text messages.

This is one of those times. Today I went to the reunion of my high school church youth group. I’d known it was coming up, but didn’t decide to go until late last night when I made a run to the grocery for hamburger to make sloppy joes–yes, I know that’s only one step above taking potato chips. I considered taking chips, so I feel like a culinary wizard.

Why was I so reticent? I’m not sure. When I was in junior high and high school, this group of friends and my involvement in the church youth group was incredibly important to me. I tend to be very tribal–I have a few very close friends at any given time, but the tribe I’m in gives me a spiritual, intellectual and emotional home. For years, the youth group was my tribe. Other than my theatre/drama friends from high school and college,  I have never come close to replicating the sense of “tribe” I had there, and I know that I have tried, both consciously and unconsciously.

As a teacher, I can easily say that my greatest influences were my youth group leaders, Dick and Donna Snider. They taught me more through their patient, loving treatment of my friends and I than any college class or mentor I ever had. Their willingness to open their home and their hearts, non-stop and without qualification, to whoever wandered in, set a standard that I try to match everyday in my classroom.

So again, why was I so reticent about going? It’s odd to hear my friends–people who are 16 and 17 and 18 in my mind’s eye–talking about their grandchildren or what they’re doing since they’ve retired, but they are amazing people who are doing awesome things. Once I got there, I was eager to catch up with everyone.

But…it’s been a long, long time since I was the girl they remember. I’ve made a lot of choices that would confuse or disappoint my friends, and done things that I never imagined I’d do. Faith has always been complicated for me; I ask too many questions, follow too many bunny trails in my search for “truth.” While there are definitely points my conservative Evangelical friends and I would agree on, the places our faith journeys have diverged would trouble them. Even knowing that, I am comfortable being who and what I am. I just wasn’t sure I fit there anymore.

During the “sharing” time, when we were supposed to give an update about what we were doing and what our ministry is now, I avoided all that. I opted for the cheap laugh, in fact, when I got an opening (Sorry, Sharon–I really wasn’t going to give your husband my number….). Part of the reason that I was vague was simple: I don’t feel comfortable describing my career as a teacher as “my ministry.” I learn and gain as much from the kids and my coworkers as I give–and more honestly, I’m in a slump and know that at this point, I’m avoiding the deep connections and caring that “ministry” requires. I’ve been burnt and exhausted and known too many secrets, too many troubles. I’m stepping back, holding back–I’m letting someone else do the heavy lifting for a bit. I’ve carried enough burdens. That’s true in my professional life, at least.

That’s what I didn’t say today. The emotional tenor of the reunion struck me deeply, but I can’t openly sniffle and tear up like so many of them. I deflect, I joke, I nod sympathetically.

I sat there today, hearing all the stories about children’s accomplishments and meaningful lives, but I know that when I talked one-on-one with people, I heard other parts of their lives: health issues, professional disappointments, personal set-backs. Those felt more real to me than the litany of good, and those are the conversations I needed to have to know that I am still part of the tribe.