Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Some days, pray and listen as I might, God seems awfully silent. Other days, I hear Him loud and clear.

A series of events this morning leads me to share what I'm going to share today about our priorities as Christians and as United Methodists. Bear with me as I share a little context regarding spiritual promptings.

This morning. I looked out one of the north office windows waiting for the Keurig to make another cup of coffee, and saw prominent patches of purple amidst the clover in the lawn. I looked it up, and it's polygonum pensylvanicum, of the family polygonaceae - Pennsylvania Smartweed, part of the Buckwheat family (Dr. David Pitts, my botany prof from undergrad days, would be proud). It's a weed - but it's beautiful.
“I think it p*sses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.” - Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Go back an hour: I was driving to the office this morning when I received a phone call, and "Blocked" popped up on the phone screen. I never answer such calls and let them go to voicemail. So I pressed "Decline" - or, I should say that I meant to - and all of the sudden I realized that this person was on the air over my car speakerphone (and so was I), so I answered. She begins: "Are you Sky McCracken the D.S.?" I told her I was, and starting bracing for whatever complaint was about to come my way. I proceeded to have the most interesting phone call I've had in a while. In short: she was tired of the United Methodist Church acting like the United States in political division, she was weary of bishops and pastors being partisan instead of prophetic, and wanted to know when we would get serious about making disciples instead of finding every excuse and cause in the world to get into a fight. She went further to say that she thinks clergy fight to avoid being convicted that they've been unfaithful and ineffective to the mission of the Church and in being true to our roots in being Methodists.

I pulled over. 

This woman said she was ashamed to be United Methodist. Through conversation I learned that she had gone to a UM college, was steeped in the writings of Wesley, knew of his fervor for local mission and discipleship and his preference for the poor over the classism of England, knew he believed in the power of lay witness over clericalism. She said she hadn't given up on the Methodist Church yet, but she had quit reading UM News Service, the UMR webpage, most blogs, and all the UM Facebook groups. She said she liked what I said about discipleship but feared I was wasting my time because people would rather fight. She wouldn't tell me her name, but she thanked me for listening.

Go back a day: Bishop McAlilly held a "Covenant Conversation" for the Memphis Conference clergy (and is having one for the Tennessee Conference clergy as I write this). Anne Burkholder from Emory (and a clergy member of the Florida Conference) presented a very good discussion about how we who are elders, deacons, and local pastors live in covenant with each other, holding differing opinions and theological positions, yet vowing to live as brothers and sisters. She reminded us that brothers and sisters cannot get divorced, unlike those who choose to marry. We talked at tables about why and how we should care for others who live together in this covenant, how we should have respectful conversation instead of labeling/pigeonholing others long before we even TRY to have relationships with each other, and reminded us (or, in most cases, informed us) of Wesley's Twelve Rules for Preachers. These got a lot of silence:
5. Believe evil of no one unless fully proved; take heed how you credit it. Put the best construction you can on everything. You know the judge is always supposed to be on the prisoner's side.
6. Speak evil of no one, else your word, especially, would eat doth like a canker; keep your own thoughts within your own breast till you come to the person concerned.
11. You have nothing to do but save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those who want you, but to those who want you most. 
"Observe, it is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care merely of this or that Society, but to save as many souls as you can, to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power, to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord."
Amidst all the infighting about sexuality, doctrine, political leanings, what "social gospel" means; what kind of worship is most faithful; whether the preacher should tuck their shirt in or wear a clerical collar; or whether God should be called He, She, or whatever gender-neutral pronoun you can find - we are the least passionate about that which we were called to do above all else: make disciples of Jesus Christ. I'm not a Greek scholar, and I've heard some say, "We really can't MAKE disciples," or "That's not really what that passage means," but I've read it in context (in about 14 differing translations) intensively for about five years and they all say, "Go make disciples" or "disciple/teach the nations" in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, either all the Greek and New Testament scholars on every one of these translation committees were whacked in the head, or it might really mean what it says.

2014 poll commissioned by
United Methodist Communcations
The most effective pastors and churches that I know have made discipleship a priority, and they have done it by making the Great Commission the top priority. Adam Hamilton (at best an acquaintance, certainly not on speed dial) and the church he serves know how to do discipleship. We've shared an email or two between us. Do I agree with every social and theological stance he takes? No. But neither does he make those stances the main thing; discipleship is the main thing. Jorge Acevedo and Shane Bishop (people I know a little better than Adam) and the churches they serve know how to do discipleship. Their social stances are different than Adam's.  Do I agree with every social and theological stance they take? No. But neither of them make those stances the main thing either.

It's all about Jesus. Really. And discipleship should be what we are majoring in, because in this season we no longer have the luxury to argue amongst ourselves or to major in the minors. Simplistic? Perhaps I am. But here is what I am sure of: whatever we think might be gained in all these divisive arguments among brothers and sisters, the loss is huge. We are losing the confidence of those who sit in the pews. They aren't seeing this as the most important problem in the UMC. My unofficial poll and observations match a poll taken by UMC Communications a few months ago. Now, I am cautious about polls and "popularity" among people, since we Christians are supposed to be counter-cultural, but I give this poll a little more credence, since it was a poll of United Methodists, not of greater society.

Our leaders seem to think sexuality is the most important thing. And I certainly have my own views on the matter (and have been public and transparent on the matter). Yet our people in the pews place that a lot lower on the list, and see discipleship at the top of the issues we face as a denomination. That seems to match what Jesus said.

It seems to me this present "crisis" in the UMC is not sexuality, or biblical hermeneutic, or any other issues save two: (1) failure of UMC clergy to fully live in covenant with each other as brothers and sisters, and (2) failure of clergy to enable and equip congregations for discipleship/disciple making.

What if we were to take Alice Walker's quote and turn it to the interrogative: "What about the UMC p*sses God off?" I fear I know the answer. I certainly know one laywoman's answer. And what scares me is that some of our best leadership and followership may just go on and continue in faithfulness and fruitfulness, letting the rest of the UMC fade, as Wesley sometimes feared, into "a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power."

If folks wanted a fight - we have it. Is it worth it? So worth it that we'd break covenants with each other regarding how brother and sister clergy vowed to live and work with each other? So worth it that we clergy would disregard the opinions and passions of the laity who are begging to be led in discipleship and have made it clear they care less about the things that seem to give clergy energy enough to fight with each other? So worth it to give up our primary mission as Christians to win it?

I am an orthodox, centrist, United Methodist. But I love Jesus more than my stances, and enough to adapt my priorities to His, which are clear: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."



Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Noisy Gongs and Clanging Cymbals: Labels and Pigeonholing

Between attending national/international United Methodist events, and reading what goes on in and around United Methodist circles, I see an increasingly disturbing trend amongst the people called United Methodists: we are a people of labels. In fact, I would daresay that we are a people who are desperate to label others. We seem to have to know where someone else stands on an issue so that we can know if they are like us, or they are like... the other. 

We Americans get it honestly. We see it modeled every day with the way our politicians and news media act. While every Christian denomination certainly has its version of church politics and caucusing, we United Methodists seems to do it better (or, more accurately, worse) than the rest. I am more than thankful for the diversity of our denomination, but I lament the horrible blood feuding that takes place among people who call themselves Christian. I have to be honest: I've found that Methodists and Calvinists often get along better than United Methodists and United Methodists.

We seem to be desperate to label each other. Desperate. As if all else depended on it. And when someone uses words that were once definitive for Christians and, more specifically Methodists, they are now "code" for whatever the labeler needs them to say - words that have lost their original meaning, bastardized into dirty words depending on which side of the ideological fence one sees the "other." 

The problem is, the labels we stick on people are rarely fair, much less accurate. I've always thought I tended to be around the middle/via media - which is why I continued along a Wesleyan/Anglican path. Theologians like N.T. Wright and younger UM's like Jason Vickers and Andrew Thompson speak to me. However, I've been told by some that this makes me a conservative... or a progressive (confused yet?). Yet others have told me that my personal stance on capital punishment makes me a progressive. My beliefs on abortion get me labeled a conservative. Still others have told me that my sacramental bent makes me a progressive... or a conservative... or a Catholic (my sacramental beliefs pretty much align with our official UM statements, by the way). And my recent article on sexuality got me labeled a conservative by those who didn't like my use of the words "traditional ethic" and a progressive by those who didn't like my plea for round table discussions on sexuality (which I believe we desperately need on other matters as well). Now, I do find some comfort in knowing that John Wesley endured some labeling as well: bible moth, bible bigot, a "Holy Club" member, sacramentalist, and most scandalous: Methodist. The last one stuck.

Labeling others becomes convenient (and expedient) because it spares us the harder work of initiating and fostering relationships. One fear of making relationships is that we're afraid of how we will be labeled if we are seen, or even perceived, of being with the "other." Guilt by association. Maybe it's because we know what happened to Jesus when he met the woman at the well, or went out to the lepers, or fellowshipped with people. "He is a drunkard and a glutton. I bet he cavorts with tax collectors and is a womanizer, too." More labels. I'm convinced our need to label is based on fear.

If we ever hope to be a truly United Methodist Church - beyond the "united" simply coming from our 1968 EUB/Methodist merger - we are going to have to go beyond labels and ideologies to taking covenant seriously where we intentionally seek out relationships instead of seeking out differences. When we attempt to pigeonhole others, we are practicing our own private bigotry. Will Durant said it best: To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves. 

I posted an article on church bullying yesterday on my Facebook face, and one person commented, "There are no politics dirtier than church politics." I fear she's right. We as the Church ought to do conflict and deal with our differences better than the rest of society. But right now, we are mirroring American politics. In days past, Republican and Democrat lawmakers fought on the congressional floor, then in the evening went to a bar or restaurant together and worked something out. Now, doing such and getting a picture snapped an put on Twitter would mean certain political death of such politicians. It seems we church folks feel the same way: don't get caught dead with "the other."

If we want war, we already have it. But if we want to be people of peace who truly embrace Jesus - we HAVE to sit with each other. Talk. Build relationships. Pray. Desire to have a heart that is at peace rather than at war. Listen. Quit labeling. Quit looking for "code" words. Long before we had any books on conflict resolution, we had Jesus modeling all of these things. 

In my opinion, the future of the United Methodist Church has very little to do with our theology or doctrinal stances, how we feel about sexuality, or our differing hermeneutics on scripture - for these arguments have been present long before any of us were even born and even at the beginning of Methodists (ever read about Wesley and Whitefield?). The future of the UMC will be dependent on our willingness to build relationships and establish trust AMIDST our differences. Until we are willing to get to that root cause, we are spinning our wheels. I suspect far more people are put off by the Church by our infighting instead of any of our beliefs. I mean, let's face it: why would anyone want to join a blood feud?

Do we really want to be noisy gongs and clashing cymbals?