I’ve been thinking a lot about courage this week. I’ve been thinking about it so much that I changed the lesson plan for my youth group to give a talk about it. Courage isn’t something that I think about in the context of my faith much – after all, we’re called to be humble and meek. Courage doesn’t call those qualities immediately to mind.
I think this is because we have, for too long, equated courage with bravado. When I was in the Army, “personal courage” was one of our core values. In fact, when I was asked at a promotion board which Army value I valued most, I chose personal courage. For me, it symbolized the ability to face consequences in the pursuit of right or honorable action.
When we send young men and women off to the military, we give them the idea that the very act of enlisting is an act of courage. I won’t dishonor their sense of duty, honor, or service by denying that enlisting in a dangerous profession is a form of courage. But, the courage that I am so often inspired by is not the kind that involves picking up a weapon and standing guard against enemies. The kind of courage that I’m inspired by is courage of the moral variety.
Earlier this week, in advance of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, 111 UMC clergy outed themselves as LGBT. Hundreds more have joined in support. Ministers are camping outside their churches, as a symbol of the idea that our doors are not open to everyone.
Now, this might not seem courageous to everyone. But, we’re in a time in the United Methodist Church where non-LGBT clergy are being punished simply for being vocal and practical allies to the LGBT community. Church trials have become a regular occurrence. Clergy have lost their credentials. Defying church law by marrying same-sex couples – a practice that is now legally allowed – results in harsh penalties, because of the exclusionary language of our Book of Discipline.
So, if heterosexual ministers are facing persecution within the church for their willingness to include LGBT persons in the sacrament of marriage, I can only imagine how much worse it might be for those clergy who have declared themselves to be the very people that the Book of Discipline excludes.
That’s courage to me, far more than I ever showed while patrolling the streets of Ramadi. I had a weapon and a platoon of 30 other men to keep me safe; these clergy have no cover, and they’ve given up their concealed positions. While public opinion can protect them to an extent, the denomination has shown no compunctions about ignoring the large segment of our Church that believes in inclusion. At the end of the day, the leaders of our denomination have been content to hide behind the Discipline rather than engage in a substantive debate. This is best evidenced by the current state of General Conference 2016, where they have spent 3 days debating a rule that would govern how they will even talk about inclusion.
The truth – the naked, shrill, dirty truth – is that the United Methodist Church has lost its courage. We’ve become the Cowardly Lion of the mainline Christian Church, willing to engage in “safe” Christian activities (important issues like homelessness and hunger, but still “safe”) but unwilling to even talk frankly about the exclusion of countless members of our Connection from worship, from leadership, from ordination.
The truth, stripped of pleasant Christian language and euphemism, is that our denomination is now more interested in being faithful to the rules of our Discipline, than we are in being faithful to the members of our Connection.
Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday, in which we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit – the tongues of flame that appeared above the heads of the disciples, the boldness with which they spoke the Gospel to a crowd of thousands.
What we absolutely must remember as we celebrate Pentecost – what I desperately hope the General Conference will remember – is that the Day of Pentecost was a Day of Inclusion. It was a day in which a group of outcasts – a leaderless group of disciples – stood up and spoke in many tongues to a group of people who had no shared language. But, while they spoke in many tongues, they also spoke a shared language – the language of a common faith which they shared (Judaism.)
In our time, so far removed from that day, let us have the courage to speak the languages of all the different, unique members of our great Connection. And, may we have the courage to remember the shared language – whether LGBT or not – of our faith in and commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.