What We Would Still Face if United Methodism Holds

The Council of Bishops have gathered in Dallas for the latest round of discussions about United Methodism’s future.  We eagerly and anxiously await a word.  Many United Methodist are praying for wisdom for our leaders, for good outcomes, for unity.  In my daily prayer time, I pray for our bishops and other leaders.  As I was praying this morning, a thought came back to me.

Let’s say that, by some dramatic move of God, The United Methodist Church remains united. We come through the fire with new life.  Where would we stand in general?  What challenges would we face?

First, we still will need a core of doctrinal unity, a core that matters to all of us.  There is a deep reflex in United Methodism to downplay doctrine for the sake of mission.  I sometimes put it facetiously this way, “Yeah, we all know we love Jesus.  Let’s just go do something (good for the world).”  We should know by now that we cannot trade doctrine for mission.  They are inextricably bound together.

So, which doctrines?  Take Easter, for example.  What do we celebrate on Easter Sunday (and every other Sunday)?  The bodily resurrection of Jesus?  Do we believe – as a denomination – that Jesus “did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature…?”  (Article III of the Articles of Religion)

Either Jesus rose bodily from the grave (by the way, I’m NOT talking about resuscitation, but resurrection) or he did not.  If he did, then we think in radically new ways about the world, about human life and destiny, about reality.  If Jesus did not rise bodily from the grave, then we may have reason to honor his memory and teachings, but a dramatically different religion emerges than one proclaiming that God Incarnate died and rose again.

Yes, there is overlap in activity of course.  If you believe that Jesus rose from the grave, you still take his words to heart, “Just as you did it (or did not) to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40)  If you do not believe that Jesus rose bodily from the grave, but nevertheless came to show us the reign of God, you take these words to heart.  But the motive for doing so is different and the envisioned outcome – what we think we’re bearing witness to –  is entirely different.

Think of how the bodily resurrection affects our understanding of atonement.  How does the cross look if Jesus did truly rise from the dead or if he did not?  Is it God Incarnate hanging on a cross and dying for the world’s sins or is it the heroic death of a human filled with God consciousness?  Think of how this belief affects how we structure worship?  How we talk about all manner of faith questions.

There can be real value for people in a religion that does not understand Jesus to have risen bodily from the grave, but, whatever else it may be, it is not the faith once delivered to the saints and it is not in keeping with United Methodist doctrinal standards.  A future United Methodism will have to get very clear about basic points of dogma like this one.  Otherwise, we will repeat a very sad history.

Which leads to a further point: if we stay together, we still will need effective means of accountability and discipline for when we wander from our core beliefs and mission.  Any organization that does not have a good accountability measures is not worth joining.  If we want to win young people, we had better show them that we take our own stated beliefs seriously enough that we are willing to bench people for not keeping faith with our mission.  Otherwise, they won’t bother joining us, and why should they?  In a new United Methodist future, we will need to face this challenge squarely, courageously, lovingly, effectively.

Can we be flexible and generous?  Of course!  Accountability does not mean that we’re hellbent on kicking people out.  It means that we prove in practice that we believe what we say we believe.  If we really believe we serve God’s transforming mission, then discipline in light of that vision is a necessity.  It is too important a task to wander from it and act as if wandering doesn’t matter.  If we are lax in discipline, we bear witness to the world that we really don’t believe what we say we believe.  And that makes us not worth listening to.

Because of these first two reasons, we need, thirdly, to re-assert the critical role of the teaching office in the church.  In theological education, we need to teach rising pastors how to be good teachers.  Jesus was called “Teacher.”  Notice how often the Gospels refer to his teaching.  The pastoral letters remind us, as do others, that the teaching office is crucial for the health of the body.  Our pragmatist bent in United Methodist culture has been devastatingly bad for our members. My heart breaks when I teach about United Methodist beliefs and structures and hear someone say, “I’ve been a Methodist all my life and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”  If a rising pastor is not a dedicated and effective teacher (and there is a wide range of effective teaching styles and venues), that person should not be ordained to the office of elder.  We cannot dodge or delegate this responsibility.

I am praying for the healing of The United Methodist Church.  If we divide, I honesty don’t know what I’ll do.  Whether we split or don’t, we will still be left with the need for clarity about core beliefs/teachings/dogma and for courage in effectively holding ourselves accountable to the vision we believe God gave us.

The Sneaky Problem of Loving the World: A Lenten Meditation

We’re familiar with Jesus’ focus on motives as much as behavior in a number of his sayings in the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s not enough that we don’t kill our brother or sister.  It also matters how we deal with our anger toward them.  It’s not enough not to hate an enemy.   We are commanded to love the enemy.  It’s not enough not to commit open adultery.  If we have lust in our hearts…

1 John 2:15 gets at a similar point:

Do not love the world or the things in the world.  The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world–the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches–comes not from the Father but from the world. (NRSV)

Motives matter.  Motives inevitably produce action.  John knows this.  He is dealing with a difficult pastoral situation.  There are antichrists in the neighborhood.  “They went out from among us,” (2:19) making their loyalties clear.  There is a clear moral dualism at work in the text.  We can love God or we can love the world.  Which we love will move us one way or another.

John 3:16 says that God so loved the world.  In John 15:18, Jesus reminds the disciples: If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”  John 16:33 shows Jesus saying, “I have conquered the world.”  What is going on here?  The world (ho kosmos) is understood as a system of relationships and power that valorizes appearance over substance and a “get mine first” mentality that ironically makes people vulnerable to subjugation and control.  “The world,” therefore, is something that we don’t want to emulate or promote.

Christians are as prone as anyone to this problem.  “The world” is in the church.  Whereas we want to give ourselves a pass (“It’s really not as bad as it seems…”), the moral dualism of this scripture hauls us up short: If the love of the world, with all its lusts, is what controls our life, the love of the Father is not in us.

The sensitive souls among us start to worry about whether or not they actually love God.  They rifle through their ready-to-hand catalog of sins in order to figure out how they might be offending God.  I bless them and pray that they not worry overmuch, though I appreciate the sensitivity and responsiveness.

As usual, our concern is more with complacency.  The problem with complacency is that we can’t see our own problems.  Complacency is moral turpitude. I worry that we have so emphasized God’s love that we find it extremely difficult to recognize the power of sin at work among us.  We slip into a sleepy state of a sort not easy to recognize in our Christian subcultures.

Let me offer an example for the sake of discussion, one that I know personally.  Many years ago (the 1970s and into the ’80s), I participated as a young man in lay witness missions.  Eventually, a dear friend who became a real model to me – George Tittsworth (Tal, I’m thinking of you!) – asked me to serve as the leader of the youth section of the missions for which he was the director.  I did several such missions while I was a college student and they were indeed a blessing.  I learned from watching George lead his team.  He was a great role model.

So, what is a lay witness mission?  A local church decides they need spiritual renewal.  They ask a team leader (e.g. George) to bring a group of people to the church for a weekend of singing, worship, fellowship, small group sessions and testimony.  People on the team take turns sharing their stories of conversion, salvation, sanctification, healing, whatever, with members of the local body.  The point of the weekend is catalytic for revival.  There is no preaching, only sharing, to speak plainly and openly what God has done, is doing, in one’s life.  Most weekends resulted in great moments of joy, release, forgiveness, cleansing and renewal.

I began to realize that it was actually very easy to live for the exalted experience of these weekends, while in between them, one settles for sinful lassitude.  One can crave the experience (I was sometimes guilty and saw others guilty) over the actual work of God, who sparks the experience.  One seeks the high of the weekend, to get another boost, another spiritual “shot in the arm.”  Ironically, fixating on the experience competes with “taking up one’s cross daily,” making the weekend a stand-in for real discipleship.

Update the scenario and we find the same problem.  There is no shortage of opportunities to have this kind of experience: rallies, retreats, “Christian” cruises, you name it.  The rest of the time we’re OK with mediocrity.  Obviously, I’m not saying these events or opportunities are in and of themselves the problem.  No.   The problem is how we use them for ourselves, the opposite of what God wants.

Now, let’s see the problem clearly.  In the name of a holy God we turn something good into something evil, obviously not evil in the normal ways we think about “evil,” but in much more subtle, dangerous, ways.  We prey on holy moments for spiritually narcissistic ends.  As I ponder this problem I’m not sure I could find a better description of evil – to use the holy things of God for self-serving ends.

Do my words sound too harsh?  Judgmental?  Perhaps.  But I think a good dose of humility and hunger for truth is called for.  We should not be deceived and we desperately need to remember that God is not mocked.

It is a most salutary exercise for us to lay our motives before the merciful, holy God and ask for truth.  Just how much do we Christians love the world in the 1 John 2:15 sense and not the John 3:16 sense?  How much do we really love God rather than ourselves?  It takes some honesty and humility to get to a true answer.

The Peaceful Fruit of Righteousness

(I’m posting here my homily for today’s Ash Wednesday service at Southern Methodist University. It is based on two verses from Hebrews 12.)

“Endure trials for the sake of discipline (paideia). God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:7)

“Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Her. 12:11)

I do not go to a concert to listen to the performers play scales, nor, I’m guessing, do you. But practicing scales for musicians is an essential part of their discipline. Practice of this sort frees them for the goal, which is, in one obvious sense, the performance, but in a larger sense, it is the music itself. We don’t go to concerts to hear performances. We go to hear music. Something ineffable, something transcendent happens, as we experience music.

Case in point: Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion singing “The Prayer” brings me to tears just about every time I hear it. If you know the song, there is a bridge in which the music rises and swells in crescendo while the singers voice these words, (which they sing in Italian):

“We dream a world without violence any longer, a world of justice and hope, every day near your hand, symbol of peace and fraternity.”

Of course, it’s much more beautiful in Italian and the force of the rhyme comes through:

Sogniamo un mondo senza più violenza
Un mondo di giustizia e di speranza
Ognuno dia la mano al suo vicino
Simbolo di pace, di fraternità

The skill of Bocelli and Dion is beyond question. Their discipline in developing their technique would be interesting to observe, but it’s the music that is their goal. Listening to them make music takes us out of ourselves to something more, something bigger.

We may be tempted to focus on the Lenten discipline, perhaps, too much as an end rather than the means, as if, like going over the scales again and again, the point of practicing was the practicing itself. We don’t practice the Lenten discipline for the sake of the discipline, crucial though it is. We observe Lent for something bigger, for, as this text calls it, the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

How do we bear this fruit?

Discipline. Discipline is the means. The end is righteousness. The Greek term for which “discipline” is the translation is a word familiar to educators. It is the word paideia, well-known in Greco-Roman culture as the education an aristocrat’s son would undergo to prepare to govern. The young one enters into paideia, undergoes the process, endures it. In a quite literal way, one suffers this discipline, using that word in the same sense as the one who does not suffer fools gladly. Paideia can be difficult and stressful, pushing the student beyond her preconceived limits.

Likewise with Christian discipleship. Paideia in our scripture, applied to the Christian community, keeps the basic meaning of the word and aims it toward God’s comprehensive will. Our paideia, our training, is for something bigger than just our own personal, spiritual benefit. As daughters and sons of God, our aim in the Christian life is perfect love, love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. The goal is love of God and neighbor, holiness of heart and life. The goal is conformity to the image of God for the sake of God’s purposes in the world.

In short, the goal of our Lenten discipline, indeed all our spiritual disciplines, is the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Righteousness is not just for us; it is intended as a blessing for others. Our keeping the discipline of Lent is as much for the world as it is for ourselves.

Discipline, though it is sometimes, even often, painful, is essential to the Christian life. Divine grace is the source of our strength, the reason we can stay faithful, but the discipline is essential. We are, as Saint Paul says, to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in us both to will and to do for God’s good pleasure, not ours.

And so, as you keep the Lenten discipline:

Perhaps as you fast from eating a meal, OR
If you abstain from some other activity (some of my friends “fast” from Facebook)…

…when you feel discouraged by the hassle of the Lenten discipline, when the way grows wearisome and you are tempted to break it, take the opportunity to pray for our campus. Pray that our students who undergo the paideia we create for them, would flourish. Students, may your keeping this discipline be a blessing to others.

May the goal of this scripture – the peaceful fruit of righteousness – be ours in abundance as we journey toward Easter’s victory.

Last Adam

We are still celebrating Christmas and nearing Epiphany. Thoughts of the incarnation of the Word of God continue. Like Mary, I want to ponder these things in my heart.

A scripture (Hebrews 2) from a recent daily reading: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death…”

In the previous chapter the writer has told us that the Son “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” This is the Incarnate One. The One who sustains all things is the One who was glad to share our very flesh and blood. Our Elder Brother, who taught us to call God, “Father,” shares our sufferings. He was “made perfect” through them. A couple of chapters on (ch. 4), he is the great and perfectly sympathetic high priest, who knows our temptation, having been tempted in every way as we are (yet without sin).

These scriptures announce an utterly mind-boggling claim. By sharing human existence the Son exposes himself to all that afflicts us. Doing so, he made the Father known. Doing so, he destroyed the works of the devil and freed us from the power of death. Doing so, he brings many children to glory.

While we western, usually Protestant, Christians tend to skip from Christmas to Easter in our Christology, scriptures like this one confront us with truly astonishing clarity about the whole trajectory of human life. When it says that Jesus was made perfect through suffering, it does not refer only to his passion and death. He emptied himself (Philippians 2), taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. Not only was he born, he humbled himself and became obedient. The Gospel of John says the same: “My food is to do the will of my Father, and to accomplish his work.”

The whole of Christ’s life was a suffering, not in the sense of feeling pain or sorrow every moment, but in the sense of enduring, or going through, an experience. So many realizations radiate from this one: In sharing our nature, in being brought to completion through what he suffered, he undertook to reclaim every fiber, every molecule, every corner of human nature.

He crawled. He toddled. He scrawled out his first letters. He learned. He grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humans. He wrestled with thoughts of God in the temple as a soon-to-be son of the law. He wrestled with the tempter’s taunt, “If you are the Son of God” in the wilderness. He transformed the untouchable by his touch. He restored a daughter of Abraham to wholeness. He put a terrifyingly deranged man back into his right mind. He fed the hungry and ate with sinners. He taught. He brought sight and insight. He made friends and enemies. He endured ridicule and alienation. He prayed.

And much, much more.

It was fitting, Hebrews 2 says, that he should do all these things. He is the Last Adam.

Dare I say? Here, truly, is the most interesting Man in the world. May we grow in the knowledge and grace of the One who took up our nature.

My Perspective on “Uniting Methodists”

Almost two weeks have passed since the Uniting Methodists  made public their vision for institutional unity in the midst of our fractiousness. As usual, I’m late getting to the party, but now, finally, I have dutifully considered their statements, as I have with the WCA and others and so, some thoughts.

The vision statement of Uniting Methodists  draws the denominational picture as a dichotomy.  On the one side are the polarizers. Whether “traditional” or “progressive,” they polarize. (If only they knew!) To be fair, the Uniting Methodists statement doesn’t name names. They put the problem abstractly, lamenting the “harmful polarization that…has infected the church.” They tell us, “We are not interested in being another combatant in a denominational tug-of-war.” Polarization requires polarizers. The polarizers are engaged in a tug-of-war. They must be opposed.

Enter the Uniting Methodists with their call for unity. What serious, committed United Methodist disciple of Jesus Christ could possibly resist this call? Who in her/his right mind would be against unity? Yet I remain diffident, unconvinced and, to be honest, angry.  Explaining why requires my telling you some of my story as a United Methodist elder.

I have been a United Methodist all my life. I’m also a preacher’s kid, which means that the United Methodist congregations my father served were like family. The UM Church is family. Always has been.  I have studied our doctrines. I agree with and uphold them. I was ordained elder in 1988. I continue to engage the Wesleys and Methodism, historically, biblically, theologically, philosophically, devotionally. I did a PhD in religious studies, focusing on John Wesley and Methodism. I go again and again to sermons, treatises and hymns, to the stories and people of our Wesleyan family.

In 2008, I was endorsed as an episcopal candidate, one of two that year, by the (then) Kansas West Conference. My fellow endorsee (shout out to my sister, the Rev. Cheryl Bell) and I questioned our delegation about the wisdom of endorsing two. They convinced us that they had prayerfully considered that question and had decided to move us both forward. So we did.

As part of the interview process, the (then) Kansas East delegation told me that they would not endorse me.  (Kansas West and East had this practice of jointly endorsing.) Their reason? I was a “polarizing” figure.  Of all the reasons not to endorse me (and there were plenty), that one totally baffled me. It also smarted. Here’s why.

In my old annual conference, I was “known” as an evangelical the liberals could talk to. I had graduated from Saint Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary, by no means a bastion of conservative evangelical orthodoxy. I appreciated my education, though at times I struggled. I got a good dose of process, feminist and liberation theologies, along with living in an ethos that was, at times, openly hostile to my theological convictions. I wanted to learn from this “liberal” environment and I did. Saint Paul helped me to understand the beliefs and values of folk who did not see things as I do. I came to the annual conference, then, with a real desire for people of differing “camps” to talk to each other, to have serious, honest dialogue, in order to figure out what unites us! Hence my utter disbelief at being called a polarizing figure.

For as long as I have been a United Methodist elder, I have sought and worked for honest conversation. In the early ’90s, I helped to organize a conference-wide event that we called “Beliefs and Boundaries.”  The purpose was entailed in the name: to engage basic theological topics and to have discussions around tables to get a sense of what unites us. Or doesn’t. The logical complement to unity is boundaries. Not a single traditionalist, conservative (pick your label) I know desires disunity or wants to exclude anyone. Not a single one! But if we can believe virtually anything and be United Methodist, then the name becomes an oxymoron and we dissipate our mission. If unity matters, then beliefs matter, as do boundaries. This point is logically inescapable.

I also helped to organize a conference-wide event on sexuality some years later, in the late ’90s or early 2000s.  Again we organizers sought to bring people of divergent viewpoints together for learning and honest discussion. We had presentations from experts in the fields of medicine and psychology. We had guidance on scriptural exegesis. We talked to one another. We drew no conclusions.

One more example, much more informal and on a smaller scale: Though I have forgotten the year, I also helped to gather a group of about ten United Methodist clergy in our annual conference to spend an afternoon together talking about what core theological commitments we actually share. After about two hours’ discussion, the only point we could agree on was this: on the first Easter morning, something happened. We could not agree that the bodily resurrection of Jesus happened. Just something.

(If anyone who participated in that discussion happens to read this blog and remembers it differently, please feel free to comment. I’m pretty confident my memory serves adequately.)

I’m trying to show, by my sharing a bit of my own experience as a “conservative” (I just don’t like this misleading label), evangelical, orthodox, classical, Wesleyan believer, that I’m every bit as interested in the unity of the church as the Uniting Methodists. I know that my experience is that of just one person, but over the years I have talked to plenty of people who position themselves as I do and feel the same frustration. We’re constantly being told that we either don’t understand or that we have bad motives that we probably don’t recognize or that we want to “exclude” people or that we’re engaging in slippery slope fallacies. Ad nauseum.

So, yes, I’m getting a little sick of the calls for honest conversation.  They sound hollow and disingenuous to me. In the social media era, I have studiously avoided, for the most part, online polemics, so, on several occasions I have communicated privately, in an honest attempt to make clear my concerns and to ask the questions that I think are desperately important but that we seem not to address in any of our public debates. In almost every case, I received no response.  Not just unsatisfying answers, but no answers.

I yearn for the unity of the church every bit as much as the Uniting Methodists, but on what grounds?  By what measures? I’m looking for more than false dichotomies and platitudinous generalizations. And some of the leaders could start by answering their mail.

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