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DIVERSITY DIALOGUE - Introduction


The following is the long version of the introduction I will be using for the upcoming diversity dialogue to be held in the Northern Illinois Conference in Rochelle, Illinois. I had to cut it down some to fit the time frame but will print the whole version on the web site when we post the transcripts of the event.

DIVERSITY DIALOGUE MAY 22ND, 1999 ROCHELLE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH ROCHELLE, ILLINOIS

INTRODUCTION Rev. Kent L. Svendsen

Welcome to the Northern Illinois Conference Diversity Dialogue. I would like to thank the Reverend Allen Campbell and the Rochelle United Methodist Church for hosting this event. I would also like to thank the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns for providing the funding needed to make this special day a reality. I am the Reverend Kent Svendsen and a representative of the Rochelle Cluster, which is the group that is sponsoring this event.

Our purpose here today is to have both doctrinal reflection and theological dialogue. To help us in our efforts, let us begin by listening to these words from John Wesley. The following quote is attributed to him by Mr. Robert Miller who tells us that Wesley shared this insight with the Preachers assembled at a Conference in Liverpool in August of 1820.

The first time I had the pleasure of being in company with the Rev. John Wesley was in the year 1783. I asked him what must be done to keep Methodism alive when he was dead: to which he immediately answered, “The Methodists must take heed to their doctrine, their experience, their practice, and their discipline. If they attend to their doctrines only, they will make the people antinomians; if to the experimental part of religion only, they will make them enthusiasts; if to the practical part only, they will make them Pharisees; and if they do not attend to their discipline, they will be like persons who bestow much pains in cultivating their garden, and put no fence round it, to save it from the wild boar of the forest."

Rupert Davies, A. Raymond George, Gordon Rupp, eds. A HISTORY OF THE METHODIST CHURCH IN GREAT BRITAIN, vol. 4 (London: Epworth Press, 1998), p. 194.

Within this passage, John Wesley tells us that doctrine, experience, practice, and discipline all play an important role in the life and vitality of our denomination. Did you notice that the first three things mentioned are provided to help us keep balanced in our faith and that the last one is provided to protect us from damage to our faith community. Without discipline, how does one keep order and how do we maintain that "fence around our garden" which provides us with protection from the outside forces that threaten to destroy the fruits of our labor?

As United Methodists, we are facing many challenges in the world today. We represent many different nations, cultures, languages, and ethnic groups. We also represent a wide range of theological views and perspectives. A guiding principle for those working within the foreign mission field is the understanding that one must adapt to the environment of the people you are attempting to reach in ministry. This requires one to be creative and to adapt to new ways of presenting the "Gospel" message. This same principle applies in a similar manner to our work in the mission field we call the local church.

Because of our rapidly changing society, we are now faced with a serious dilemma. In the past, adopting ministry to a changing world was a process that moved much slower and was more exact. Today, change is so rapid that things called contemporary can become outdated in the blink of an eye and quickly discarded. Unfortunately, this tendency to do away with the old and bring in the new has also been applied by some to many of our traditions and doctrines that are critical to a unified understanding of the faith.

Let me share with you a quick example of what I mean. The Rev. Gary S. Wales is an Elder and the pastor of a United Methodist Church in Michigan. He is part of a weekly Bible study group made up of United Methodist pastors. One of those who attended that Bible study was an ordination candidate who served a nearby parish. In an attempt to be helpful, the group invited her to share the paper she was preparing for the Board of Ordained Ministry. It contained the answers to the questions from the Book of Discipline, which reveal her theology, vocation, and practice of ministry.

"After reading the young woman's paper, I was truly confused. Though it was perhaps thirty pages long, I saw scant mention of Jesus Christ. In the presence of the entire Bible study group I asked, "Where does Jesus fit into your theology?" She said, "He doesn't." I asked, "How then is a person saved?" She said, "Anyone who believes in God is saved." I said, "Does that include Muslims, Hindus, and even idol worshipers who believe in some kind of a god?" She responded, "Yes. It looks like you have found me out." I was horrified. She had openly denied the most foundational truth of the Bible, that Jesus Christ is the only Savior. But about two months later she was ordained to the ministry on the basis of that very same theology paper. Why? I guess because she was very articulate in defense of beliefs that should have been indefensible in a Christian church."

Are we to allow so much diversity that we ordain church pastors who call themselves Christian, but have no place for Jesus Christ in their theology? And what about the Historical Questions that are asked as part of our ordination vows? Is it all right to say “yes” to all of them as long as there are not more than three or four upon which we disagree?

John Wesley tells us that when it comes to the non-essentials, we should have the liberty to agree to disagree. However, he also says that when it concerns the essentials of salvation, we must have unity. One day during my seminary training we had a gathering in which we were allowed to ask questions of members of the teaching staff. I quickly raised my hand and asked: "John Wesley tells us that we must agree concerning the essentials of salvation. Just what are the essentials of salvation?" For whatever reason, the question was not acknowledged and went unanswered. How nice it would have been if that question had created a dialogue. Perhaps it wasn't answered out of fear that academic freedom would be suppressed or that theological investigation would be stifled. Perhaps if we had identified those essentials, and taught them diligently to those who would graduate and become United Methodist clergy, we would be more unified today.

II Timothy 1:7 tells us this:

"For God hath not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind." Why are we so fearful to talk to each other and to sort out the issues? Why do we constantly talk at each other without stopping to listen and trying to understand? What is it about our sinful human nature that always tries to suppress the views of others in order to protect our chosen position from any and all forms of criticism?

I would like to stop talking about rules and regulations now and talk about people. I have a relatively new friend named Steve, whom I love dearly as a brother in Christ. He is a musician and one of the most loving and kind persons that I have ever met. Oh yes, I might also add that he is H.I.V. positive and strongly disagrees with my belief that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. I met Steve on an Internet forum called The Waterline of which Randy Thomas, who is one of our guest speakers, acts as one of the moderators. It is a forum, which provides safe ground on which to have open and honest dialogue between those who disagree, when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. (http://www.bridges-across.org & http://www.waterline.org)

When Steve and I first met he was anything but friendly to me. The reason for that is simple. I represented every negative experience that he had ever had in connection with organized religion. I represented the hurtful comments and snide remarks he had heard. I represented every sermon preached which condemned the homosexual to hell without any hope of redemption, simply for having same gender attractions. I represented the hypocrites in the church who pointed an accusing finger at him and yet would not seriously consider any of their own sins. Since that time, I have proven my love and concern for him and he has now lowered his defensive mechanisms and reached out to me as a brother in Christ.

Now you must realize that while I am his friend, I also still believe that the Book of Discipline is correct in its language and judgments concerning homosexuality. On the other hand, I also believe that we should be ashamed of ourselves for the way we have failed to be in ministry to our brothers and sisters with same gender attractions. As concerns my friend Steve, I am fully convinced that he has a commitment to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. I fully expect to see him in heaven and hope we get to sit together in the heavenly choir. In fact, I wanted Steve to have the opportunity to share with you today and he has given me permission to share parts of our ongoing dialogue.

Steve Schalchlin (e-mail steve@bonusround.com) is quoted as saying:

"EVERYONE is tired of the war. Everyone knows that there's more wrong than just "us versus them". Also, and this is my experience, when you tell the truth, people know it, want it, reach for it, thirst for it and recognize it."

This quote was in response to a message I had sent to some evangelical colleagues. In that message I had encouraged them to be more open to ministry to the homosexual community. To my surprise, several e-mailed me back thanking me for my encouragement. Steve when on to say this about that response:

"All you did was tell the truth about what you observed when you crossed the divide and listened. You found out the same thing I found out: We're all the same. We have the same fears, the same faith, the same hearts and souls. In other words, when we fight past the rhetoric, the bigotry, the fear and the exaggerations, we begin seeing each other AS JESUS SEES US..."

Later on Steve says these things:

"I didn't have a clue how terrorized most churches were and are over this issue. There is a war raging and it feels like everyone has totally lost his or her mind… Neither side is seeing the other for who he/she actually is. Each side accuses the other of perverting the scripture. Each side believes the other is simply affirming his or her own prejudices.... I've met affirming and transforming ministers. Each one has been honest, real, sincere, and totally devoted to their beloved Methodist Church.

The fighting has been so vicious that one transforming minister I have spoken to, feels shell-shocked. He feels he is being attacked as a bigot and hate monger by the affirming side. He also believes that his approach to scripture is both honest and traditional and not based on prejudice. He also feels like no one is listening.

But many affirming ministers also feel as if their voices are not being heard. Let us take as an example the Rev. Gregory Dell, the minister who was punished for conducting a commitment ceremony for two men. He is a United Methodist pastor whose church is in a gay community within the city of Chicago. His church has a significant gay membership. I will assume that he sees many gay people sacrificing their lives in the bar scene or the party scene and in response believes it is vitally important to affirm healthy same sex relationships as good role models. In the same regard, I also assume he believes his views are scripturally sound and he is trying to serve the spiritual needs of his congregation with honestly and integrity.

Right now, if everyone stays on the present course, the church may split down the middle. But I believe that there is a way to avoid this potential tragedy. The way to do that would be to honestly ask ourselves: Do we have the courage to allow diversity within the denomination in order to keep it from blowing up? That would be a good start. A second question might be this: Does the affirming ministries have the courage to allow for the presence of transforming ministries and does the transforming ministries have room within the denomination for affirming ministries?

I want to encourage dialogue in which we can honor and respect each other's beliefs. I emphasis the word respect, because there are both reasonable and unreasonable people on each side of the issue. I believe if the church has a denominational split it will be because they have not seen a better vision, a more compassionate and loving solution."

Steve has become a good friend and he helps me to keep things in perspective.

Everyone here has most likely heard about the shootings in Littleton, Colorado. How tragic those two intelligent young men walked onto the school grounds and began shooting and killing their classmates. They then committed suicide. One of the reasons they were so angry with their fellow classmates was the fact that they were treated so badly by their peers. Did you know that one of the worst insults which students used to attack and ridicule them was to call them gay?

Because of his many public appearances, my friend Steve often has individuals with same gender attractions ask him for advise or just share their grief and concerns.

Here is what one young man shared with Steve:

"I'm in a small town in ____, I'm gay, I can't tell my preacher because he hates gays, my parents, I can't tell them. I'm so totally alone I just want to end it all with my dad's gun. I mean, God hates me anyway, doesn't he? I have no car but I snuck off and had sex with a guy I don't know. I wonder if I have AIDS? I can't get a test. I can't tell anyone. Tell me why I shouldn't just pull the trigger."

I pray to God that we can stop our fighting long enough to start looking for a way to reach people like this young man and the two high school youth from Colorado and give them all a good reason to not pull the trigger. We have a wonderful opportunity here today to begin to make a difference.

Thank You


Rev. Kent Svendsen is an ordained elder and the pastor of the Reynolds United Methodist Church which is located in rural route Ashton, Illinois. He is an Illinois Army National Guard chaplain and serves the 1/178th Infantry Battalion with headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. Finally, Rev. Svendsen is also the Northern Illinois Conference coordinator for the Confessing Movement Within The United Methodist Church.

 

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