Opening Worship

Forty years ago (1968), on this very date (April 23), The United Methodist Church was born in Dallas, Texas. Today, we’re in next-door Ft. Worth, at the 10th General Conference since the merger of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church back in ’68. This moment in our history stood as a counter-balance to the theme of opening worship for General Conference, ’08. Taking that oft-used quote from Jeremiah 29:11, we are looking for “a future and a hope,” (or “a future with hope”).

As usual, we are off and crawling. Worship at 6:00 pm. I found myself thinking about watching Pope Benedict’s mass in Yankee Stadium last Sunday and comparing it with what I was witnessing tonight. Protestants easily stereotype Catholic worship as a combination of rote and pageantry. Although the dais on which the Pope sat and where the altar for the mass stood was huge, the service itself was, as liturgical services go, quite simple.

By comparison ours was oddly flashy: lots of “extras.” We always try in worship to demonstrate not only the make-up of our church, but also our intent to be inclusive. Like the Catholics last Sunday with the Pope in Yankee Stadium, we, too, celebrated Holy Communion in the Ft. Worth Convention Center. As usual, there was great music, with lots of visual (though not overstated) stimuli. The sermon by Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Annual Conference was solid. We are resurrection people. Our hope is not the vague, vain hope of “I hope so,” but the vibrant hope of people who know the resurrected Christ.”

A man announced that roughly 6,500 people had participated in worship. The convention center looked 80% full up in seating area. All the delegates sat/sit on the floor of the center, so the place was really full.

Worship behind us, we move to the opening exercise of the business side of Conference – enabling motions to set the bar, practice using the wireless voting pads, a check of security and then approving the various procedural rules so that the Conference can function. I said to one of the other reserve delegates next to me, “I really appreciate the people who have an eye for this sort of detail. I don’t.”

It’s midnight. Day 1 in the books. Our delegation meets at 6:15 tomorrow.

General Conference Ennui

I told my friends and students (who, of course, are also my friends) that I would blog about the United Methodist General Conference, so let me try a warm-up. Yesterday, during my morning devotion time, I settled on 1 Peter 1:8, “…and even though you do not see him, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”

For some reason, at that very moment the word “ennui” popped into my mind. defines “ennui” as “a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom.” Quite unfelicitously, it gave the following example: “The endless lecture produced an unbearable ennui.” Ouch! Boring lectures? Impossible! I’ve never done such a thing.

Next thought (still yesterday morning during prayer): “I’m not even at General Conference yet and I’m already suffering ennui.” Now, some 28 hours later, I’m thinking that maybe “ennui” is not quite the right word. Yes, there will be boring moments as conference committees slog through petitionary tedium. But that just goes with the territory. My particular brand of ennui is not so much weariness from boredom.

Sadness. That’s it. It’s weariness from sadness.

For at least 2 months I’ve been receiving items in the mail: letters, a video or two, various other publications. They all plead with me to vote for (or against) something: for this person for Judicial Council; for this or that legislation; watch out for the cruel conservatives (IRD) who are taking over our beloved UM Church. This is the stuff I’ve been getting in the mail. Certainly I appreciate and can sympathize with the zeal of the advocates. I don’t want my “ennui” to trivialize their concerns, but, surely, we care about more in the church than structures and boundaries and who gets to share the ecclesiastical goodies. I understand that General Conference is a legislative body, but something still is out of focus.

Maybe my reading I Peter is just bad timing. It’s the opposite of United Methdoism in the United States at least. Here’s a suffering church. Here’s a church with no power (there are parts of United Methodism in the world in which the biblical stories are existentially real to them. They are living I Peter right now. But not us in the USA). Here’s a church filled with joy, even though they don’t have any of what we usually associate with a prominent church.

There’s also a picture in I Peter of history (read the whole book; it’s short and you’ll see what I mean). These are the last days. We’re at the end of the age. In spite of trials, we have joy unspeakable; it’s full of glory. Be ready to suffer and in so doing, you’ll be like Jesus. Don’t give up. The suffering is not forever. Judgment begins with the household of God. Don’t worry about the “fiery ordeal” among us, but gird your minds for action. Be disciplined. Be holy.

I do not like this juxtaposition: a wealthy, aging, declining bureaucracy scrambling for status, going through its four-year ritual, assuming that we’re really doing something that counts (after all, CNN will come and video us!); a poor, suffering, powerless, hilariously, absurdly, joyful, hopeful fellowship preparing to die but full of life.

I’m sure my mood will brigthen once I get to General Conference. I’ll be watching honest, sincere Christians working hard to make faithful decisions. I’ll participate in interesting, well-done worship. I’ll see people from around the connection that I know and love.

But when we leave on May 2, will we have done anything that even remotely links us with the I Peter church? That truly looks like Jesus’ kingdom? Please God, by your mercy…

Bill Maher’s Kind of Poison

On a recent trip, at the end of a long day, I dragged myself to a hotel room and sprawled out on the bed to unwind. Heh heh. Unwind? I made the mistake of turning on the TV, where the first thing I encountered was Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” with his sneering sarcarsm fully on display. I admit, I’m not a regular viewer (strange as it seems, we don’t get HBO) and I didn’t watch this episode for long. Frankly, I can’t stomach much from Maher.

Maybe he’s like Don Rickles; his TV persona is all spewing and venom, while in normal life he’s a decent guy. I hope so. All I know is that he appears to take a particularly cruel pleasure at launching invective at people he thinks are idiots, or are corrupt, or both.

I know HBO is supposed to be edgy and all that. I just don’t understand the popularity of Maher’s brand of “hip, incisive commentary.” Am I just not getting it? Does he want us to take him seriously? How does one laugh at his attacks, even if they include witty oneliners? Maybe my sense of humor is underdeveloped, but I swear, I don’t get the attraction. He was plain mean to the guests who tried not to agree with him, even to offer a challenge to his tirade. The “conversation” seemed a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.

Which brings me to my point. Bill Maher strikes me as a tragic indicator of American popular culture, which has become pervasively poisonous. The line between serious, if pointed, critique and downright character assassination has been badly breached. If this is really what we like to watch, then we as a society are slowing eat out our own souls.

There are several ironies for me in this scenario. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (may he rest in peace) were and are regularly excoriated for their judgmental hyperbole. They both have said some pretty inexcusable things on national TV. I can say without a shred of doubt, however, that there is no one more hateful than Bill Maher, unless, of course, there is someone worse, admidst the gazillion cable and satellite stations available to people willing to pay. He is unequaled in setting the standard for hate speech on television. It doesn’t seem to bother people much. And that’s what worries me.

We’d better start paying attention. May Bill Maher’s schtick shrivel and die for lack of viewers.

Are You a Literalist or a…?

When researchers are trying to explain the factions among Christians, they often use views on the Bible as a way of finding the faultlines. Some people take the Bible “literally,” others symbolically.

“Literalists” and (I don’t know of one word, so I’ll make one) “metaphorists” usually don’t travel in the same circles. In my experience, the literalists proudly tout their literalism (although, having heard sermons from preachers in this camp, I know that they often interpret the Bible quite symbolically) while the metaphorists vociferously insist that they are NOT like the literalists.

I refuse to issue a “pox on both your houses” because I think it is too easy – even cowardly – to run to the middle and say “I’m a moderate” just for the sake of position. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll position myself. I found help in Scot McKnight’s fascinating “Hermeneutical Personality Test” in the Winter 2008″Leadership” Magazine. I discovered that I’m on the conservative side of moderate. So now you know. I’m a moderate – sort of.

What are you? Does it matter? I think it does and I think we could stand for a little more literal interpretation, especially these days. I think so because the mood of our culture has swung far to the metaphorical side, with serious consequences. The trend in attitudes toward the Bible (especially among younger people) is not toward violent literalism, but toward empty symbolism. “The Bible can say pretty much whatever you want it to say,” is an increasingly prevalent attitude.

We need to quit talking so much about the dangers of a literalist interpretation of the Bible (forget the fracus over Genesis and evolution) and we ought to start considering the dangers of an overly symbolic, metaphorical reading. The pendulum is swinging the other way and we ought to pay attention.

The Evil Side of “Peace of Mind”

Here’s a thought (and be prepared to wince): “Christianity is not a therapy for those who wish never to be upset.” It comes from Robert C. Roberts in his book, Spiritual Emotions: a Psychology of Christian Virtues, (Eerdmans, 2007). You’ll find it in the chapter on peace. It reminds me of a comment John Wesley once made about people wanting “a pillow for the soul.”

We rarely admit it so candidly, but isn’t this sort of peace pretty close to what we really want? Isn’t this desire what we have in mind when we talk about the “peace” that Christians have in Christ? Isn’t this why we memorize and quote verses like, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything…and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding…”?

Now, I want peace of mind, too. Who goes around saying, “I want to be mentally tormented?” One of the blessings of walking with Christ is peace – a sense of settledness, even rest – that one feels even if one’s circumstances are not peaceful.

But when we turn peace of mind into the ultimate aim (to see how much we want peace of mind, think about how much we talk about stress), we take what is good and twist it into something evil. The Christian’s peace of mind starts to look suspiciously like “therapy for someone who wishes never to be upset.” On the contrary, the follower of Jesus is supposed to share the sufferings of Christ. How else do we feel compassion – which literally means “to suffer with” someone? Consider the implications of Philippians 3:10, for example. I often think of what Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, prayed: “Let my heart break with the things that break the heart of God.” Now that is a truly dangerous prayer.

Dare we assess the health of the Americn church on this question? Go to a Christian bookstore and see what is being published. Ask the manager which books sell the best. Check a Christian bestseller list. Are more people reading Joel Osteen or Shane Claiborne? (I hope you’ll google for book titles.) Listen to sermons preached. How many times have you heard that God loves you no matter what, which is true, to be sure? How many times have you been challenged to risk sharing in Christ’s sufferings?

If we truly take the biblical God seriously, then we have to ask, how long will God permit this Christian self-indulgence to go on?

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