Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Christians: Take a Season Off from Politics - We Don't Do It Well.

To be clear: yes, Christians should be concerned and involved IN the world. The trick – and our call – is not to be OF the world. The πολιτικό σώμα, the body politic, is certainly a part of our lives. But the partisan politics of America have taken a decisive turn away from the Christian ideals of ethics and morals in how we live our lives in Christian witness. 

From the book God’s Politics, p. 76:

“Most simply put, the two traditional options in America (Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative) have failed to capture the imagination, commitment, and trust of a clear majority of people in this country. Neither has found ways to solve our deepest and most entrenched social problems. Record prosperity hasn’t cured child poverty. Family breakdown is occurring across all class and racial lines. Public education remains a disaster for millions of families. Millions more still don’t have health insurance or can’t find affordable housing. The environment suffers from unresolved debates, while our popular culture become more and more polluted by violent and sex-saturated ‘entertainment.’ In local communities, people are more and more isolated, busy, and disconnected… The political Right and Left continue at war with each other, but the truth is that these false ideological choices themselves have run their course and become dysfunctional.” 

I would add that both parties give lip service to the increasing national debt and unfunded liabilities… and yet both get bigger and bigger every election. Not very fair to our children, and far from a conservative financial practice.

The moral dilemma many voters had in 2016 was one that resulted in the largest undervote for president in recorded history: a record 1.7 million people in 33 states and D.C. cast a ballot without voting in the presidential race (which is legal, by the way) – nearly 1 million more than in 2012. In other words, 1 out of 50 folks left the “choose one” on the presidential ballot blank.

“False equivalency” is the new buzzword people use when folks like me point out the dysfunction of a system that many of us feel passionate about. But there's no getting around the fact that, morally and ethically, people had good reasons not to support either candidate from a strictly moral/ethical standpoint: 
  • People were upset that Hillary Clinton stood by her man, and in so doing put a stamp of approval of silencing his abuse of women “for a greater good.” 
  • Likewise, American Evangelicals put their stamp of approval on Donald Trump, a thrice-married man caught on tape saying some very unflattering things about women, and who publicly stated once regarding repentance and asking God for forgiveness: “I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there… I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't."
Neither of these folks would have survived such in days past. In fact, past presidential candidates dropped out of elections for things far less problematic than what we are willing to "overlook" today.

All people have feet of clay, and all fall short of the glory of God - myself included. In this season, I think it only faithful to act this way: support your candidate and/or party for their political ideology and philosophy. But please leave God and faith out of it, because there’s no way to bring God into this current season of politics - other than asking for forgiveness and mercy. In a Christian ethic and morality, the ends do not justify the means. In the political world, we seem to be comfortable with such. That may indeed be the practical solution to being a citizen in the present political climate. I’m even finding some peace with it, but please: let’s just leave God out of it. 

President Trump may be right when it comes to politics: “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't.” And before we beat up on our present president, know how many presidents – religious or not – have found themselves in similar situations when it came to war, political strategies, and how to win elections. Again – that may be what gets the job done in the political world. And again, my plea is simply: just don’t bring God into the picture. Certainly, don’t ask for the Almighty’s stamp of approval, or tout any candidate as “ordained by God.” That’s the classical definition of blasphemy.

I’m not advocating people divorce themselves of politics, but I am advocating that those who claim to be practicing Christians give it less press (and certainly less vitriol and passion) than we presently are giving it. It has become idolatrous. Ask yourself how people know you best by your public witness – social media, casual conversations, bumper stickers – and then examine such through your baptismal vows: is this how I want to be known in how I am a member of Christ’s holy church and serve as one of Christ’s representatives in the world? Is this how I best witness to the world with my prayers, presence, gifts, and service?

I’m an admitted political cynic: I’ve been a Republican, and I’ve been a Democrat. Now I am neither – as I cannot place either party into a Christian framework and live in either with integrity, and even using the logic of the “lesser of two evils,” I still find that doing such is still choosing evil. I envy those who can find a way to do so. 

Bryan Roberts, a former church planter and now a freelance writer, helped me put my difficult feelings on the matter into words: “Political discourse is the Las Vegas of Christianity—the environment in which our sin is excused. Hate is winked at, fear is perpetuated and strife is applauded. Go wild, Christ-follower. Your words have no consequences here. Jesus doesn’t live in Vegas.” He continues: “I balk when pastors tell me the Church should engage in the political process. Why would we do that? The political process is dirty and broken and far from Jesus. Paranoia and vitriol are hardly attractive accessories for the bride of Christ.”

Roberts suggests that Christians be involved, but that we talk about politics in a way that models the teachings of Jesus rather than mocks them. That I could live with. But I can’t abide the way it’s presently configured. My own denomination is beginning to mirror the US’s political environment, because our culture seems to thrive on competition, paranoia, and vitriol. That’s what happens when you move from being IN the world to being OF the world.

Roberts’ seven things to remember about politics might do us some good: as a nation, and as a denomination:
  1. Both political parties go to church.
  2. Political talk radio and cable “news” only want ratings.
  3. Those who argue over politics don’t love their country more than others.
  4. Thinking your party’s platform is unflawed is a mistake.
  5. Scripture tells us to pray for our governing leaders and to respect those in authority. This doesn’t mean praying the President will be impeached; it doesn’t mean praying your candidate will win and the other lose, and it doesn't mean approving of bad behavior. 
  6. Don’t be paranoid. The country is not going to be destroyed if your candidate loses. Democrats and Republicans have been presidents for a long, long time.
  7. Stop saying, “This is the most important election in the history of our nation.” It’s not. Every generation thinks it’s living in the most important moment in history. We’re not, our parents were not and our children probably won’t be.
In Jesus’ time, Caesar Tiberius was the emperor. He was also a murderer, abused many sexually and mentally, enslaved Jesus’ people, and claimed to be a god. When some asked Jesus about supporting the emperor by paying taxes (and thus trying to trap him), he told his detractors: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” They didn’t respond by saying, “Told you so!” or “Now we know the answer to that question!” They were amazed and couldn’t respond at all… and left on their way. In short: Jesus didn’t play their game nor dignified their questions with an answer. 

Neither should we. Let’s be in the world, but not of the world.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

It's About Jesus, Or It's Nothing

The latest Pew Research Center report on the decline of Christianity in the U.S. came out last week, noting that the decline is continuing at a rapid pace. A good article on the report can be found here, and the report itself can be found here. As with all surveys, there are always flaws in methodology, but Pew does a better job than most on admitting such and how they perform their interviews, publish their sample sizes, etc.

Here's some of the things that the survey reveals about the United States:

  • trends toward increased church disaffiliation continue
  • church attendance is in decline
  • "religiously unaffiliated" is most pronounced among young adults
  • both Democrat and Republican church numbers are swelling in decline
  • the U.S. population is increasing, but numbers of Christians are decreasing in absolute numbers (in other words, we aren't even maintaining our own)
  • the largest decrease of Protestants is in the South

What does the report reveal? I think it implies that we are beyond being a post-Christian culture, and are instead what Southern Baptist Russell Moore calls "pre-Christian." Before you argue too much, consider how many generations have now been unchurched. Now, more than any time in recent history, there are lots and lots of folks who haven't been introduced to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason, I would assume NOTHING regarding religious background, basic Christian beliefs, or past experiences when (1) a first-time visitor comes to church, or (2) if I were to invite someone to come to church.

We are now missionaries. (Hint: We always were - but most of us in the U.S. Church have never seen ourselves this way!)

In short: this could be a time "ripe for the pickin's" where evangelism, sharing the Gospel, and making disciples is concerned. It could also be a time where we could royally screw up the opportunity - basically, by remaining ourselves. The definition of insanity: doing the same thing, yet expecting different results.

Shirt/swag purchased from the
podcast  Crackers and Grape Juice.
Here's what Christian churches, members, disciples, and pastors/priests/ministers will have to be willing to consider, ponder, and do:

  • All the fighting and infighting by and within denominations, autonomous churches that split and split and split, etcetera - has got to stop. We've created a culture of distrust of anything institutional or organized. No one wants to join another special interest group. Fellow Christians are not against us; they are for us, and we are diminishing in number.
  • We've got to get on our game regarding hospitality. Christians were once known for their hospitality: welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. 
  • Quit the blame game. "Today's culture" isn't causing a decline in Christianity. Homosexuality isn't causing it. Liberals aren't causing it. Conservatives aren't causing it. Christians are to blame for not spreading the Gospel. It's that clear, and it's that easy. It's a hard pill to swallow.
  • Folks on the Left and Right, make peace with each other, and with the Middle. Before you say, "The middle of the road is where dead animals end up," remember that they initially got hit by someone from the left or right side of the road... those that didn't end up thrown into or left in a ditch, that is.
  • More and more young people don't trust politics or our government. Don't give them reason to distrust the church by sounding the same as our media outlets or your favorite political candidate on social media, casual conversations, etc. Do an audit of your personal social media, daily conversations, and bank accounts: how much of a Christian witness is coming through? Who would be more apt to ask you to follow them: Jesus, or your favorite political candidate?
  • With fewer folks and diminishing resources, what is the best use of our money re: buildings, staffing, missional outreach, and program? All those will need hard discernment and reconsideration. We won't always like the answers.
  • Don't major in the minors. 
It's all going to boil down to change. Deep change. HARD change. What's clear is this: whatever we did for the past 50-100 years ultimately didn't work. Even the stuff that we Christians love so very much, but might not have that much to do with the Gospel.

Bill McAlilly, my bishop, preached in our town a couple of nights ago, and reminded us that on the Day of Pentecost the Church started with five thousand-some families. Two centuries later, there were five million followers.

It can be done, if we remember Thy will - not my will - be done.


Monday, September 23, 2019

Some Social Media Guides

Some social media guidelines:

  • Don't believe everything you read on the Internet just because there's a picture next to a quote. Vet and verify. Progressives and conservatives alike post "fake news" and misattributed quotes.
  • Be wary of article titles and bylines. They often say one thing, yet the article says another. Media needs money to operate (news is a business). Misleading titles and bylines can be clickbait. Our media is owned by a handful of folks. Rupert Murdoch owns both Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Both of these news sources often clash on opinions and reporting. Yet money is getting made on the conflict of news and "truth" - by the same person. It's like owning both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs.
  • No political party has a monopoly on the truth, and both parties issue war cries and make promises they can't keep. They always have. No one is going to take away anyone's guns, and Mexico will not pay for the wall to be built.
  • Religious interest groups and caucuses see their rivals as extremists and make the most noise. Yet few Americans subscribe to extremism.
  • Labels are rarely helpful - or even accurate. Just more rhetoric. This applies to politics, and to Christianity.
  • Many of the Founding Fathers warned about the evils of a two-party system. John Adams: "There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution." The two-party system reflects human nature, but it does not reflect the wishes of the Founding Fathers.
  • The words of Jesus are clear - choose which Kingdom you give your allegiance to: Caesar, or Christ. To quote my friend Eddie Bromley, "If the Democratic or Republican plank has become your Gospel, why do you still need the church?" 

Give me Jesus
Give me Jesus
You can have all this world
But give me Jesus. - Spiritual, author unknown


Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The UMC: Single-Issue Driven, Bad at Math, and War Weary

My beloved denomination is getting ready to wage war again for General Conference 2020. Submission for proposed legislation is due on September 18th. I'm not a delegate and I am not submitting any legislation. I've decided to become a conscientious objector in this season. I was a soldier long enough in a war that is going nowhere.

It's starting to feel a little bit like Vietnam: the public was all behind the war when President Johnson sent troops in. Then the country became horribly divided. President Nixon withdrew troops eight years later, but the division remained. Three million people died - half of them civilians. Soldiers came home and were vilified: some who opposed the war thought way too many innocent civilians died and accused them of being butchers, while some who supported the war viewed them as "losers" for not being successful. We were horrible to Vietnam veterans. Shame on us.

These things took their toll on those veterans: many later suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and high rates of divorce, suicide, and addictions. And even though a war was fought and finished, a country remained divided.

In my opinion, our denomination is headed toward the same ending of the Vietnam war: nothing will be accomplished, everyone will be upset and blame the "other", and many will bear scars that will forever remind them of the war... a war among those who claim Jesus as Lord and Savior and the Prince of Peace, who will find themselves once again divided. How many denominations will Christianity be up to by then?

Besides breaking the first General Rule (do no harm), we are fighting the wrong war. While we piss and moan about sexuality, the denomination is hemorrhaging in every way measurable. The United Methodist Church has not had a net gain in membership since its creation in 1968. To be sure, Christianity is not ALL about numbers. But at the rate we're going, things are going to be unsustainable pretty quickly. The Kingdom will certainly go on, but is it really necessary to self-inflict all this damage upon ourselves and the legacy that some left for us to thrive instead of squander? Over, of all things, sexuality?

We Americans have learned some of this behavior from our government. Our two parties are at war with each other over lots of things. Each believes passionately in their being "right" and being "superior." There are hundreds of issues to debate upon. Yet the one thing both parties continue to platform upon doing something about is the national debt. It makes for great debate. And yet, when they get elected (anyone, regardless of their party) - nothing gets done about it. Other issues get raised, fought over, and social media-ed to death. And the debt gets bigger, bigger, and bigger. Andrew Jackson was the last president to have a debt-free government. That was 1835.

Today, the U.S. national debt is $22.5 trillion. That doesn't count our UNFUNDED debt and interest, which then shoots that figure to $74 trillion. The unfunded liabilities on Medicare and Social Security, along with veteran and federal employee benefits, are $125.5 trillion.

How much is a trillion? Think about this:

  • 1 million seconds = 11.5 days.
  • 1 billion seconds = 31.7 years.
  • 1 trillion seconds =  31,710 years.

Convert seconds to dollars, and you soon see the problem. This is not sustainable. The math is bad.

Have you heard any real urgency about this from our politicians? Maybe it's just me... but this would seem to be a major priority above all other issues. An individual's share of the national debt is $225,000, $876,000 per family.  (All of these are always inexact figures, and extrapolate from several sources, but their accuracy is close to being in the ballpark)

The math is bad where the United Methodist Church is concerned, too: U.S. membership fell from more than 11 million in 1968 to less than 7 million in 2016. The biggest reason: people died. The theory that it's because of "liberal" or "progressive" issues isn't holding much water these days, because the Southern Baptist Church is also in decline: The largest Protestant denomination in the United States declined in membership to 14.8 million in 2018, which is the first time it has been below 15 million since 1989, and the lowest it has been since 1987. Southwestern Baptist Seminary's president, Adam Greenway, simply stated: “Facts are our friends, even when the facts themselves are unfriendly." This is not sustainable. The math is bad.

Just a hunch: I don't think the decline of the Southern Baptist Church can be blamed on its liberal/progressive stances!

While the Southern Baptist decline is not yet at the rate of the UMC's, neither denomination can sustain that kind of decline for long. Christianity in general is in decline. Signs of that decline are undeniable. The main culprits behind church decline? Internal divisions, an identity crisis, and lower birthrates. And because doing something about those would require a huge shift in our thoughts, words, and deeds... we need to blame something else. Blame is always a convenient excuse to keep from dealing with reality.

Here are some things that have split/re-split communions, denominations, and local churches:
  • Argument over the appropriate length of a pastor/priest’s hair or beard (in the case of a male)
  • Argument over a pastor/priest's manner of dress (in cases both male and female)
  • Using real wine vs. grape juice in Holy Communion
  • Ordination of women
  • Slavery, racial segregation
  • Modes of baptism, including whether to baptize infants or not
  • Sexuality: celibacy, marriage, clergy being married, interracial marriage, same-gender marriage
One of these splits is very personal for me. As noted on the "Timeline: Methodism in Black and White":

1866 - A group of black Methodists within the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, petition the General Conference for their orderly dismissal from that church.

1870 - Those former members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, found the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tenn.

That happened in the basement of the church where I am typing this. Mother Liberty CME is a seven-minute walk away, where an old family friend, Dr. Carmichael Crutchfield, is pastor. So close... and yet so far. What a stupid divide.

Presbyterian cleric Henry van Dyke once referred to his own denomination as “God’s Silly People,” for a couple of reasons: (1) “Presbyterians have a propensity to quarrel amongst themselves and divide their forces on minor issues.” (2) “Presbyterians have an almost incredible indifference to the real significance of their own history.” I think you could substitute "Methodist" for Presbyterian and the quotes would still hold. I tremble about what God thinks of our silliness.

As our church has immersed itself in a study of the prophet Nehemiah and how we are to see our community as our congregation, I have been haunted by the words of Joe Daniel (a former district superintendent and whose book we are now studying): "[T]oo many leaders have become classist and have not come face-to-face with the full picture of why our current situations are the way they are. And as a result, our leadership is often single-issue driven and oblivious to the welfare of all. We don't need leaders like this." (Walking with Nehemiah, pp. 31-32)

The good news is this: some congregations, thankfully, haven't been paying that much attention to the war. They go to a local church somewhat matches their theology and politics, learn to live with the differences within, and allow themselves to be slowly changed into who God wants them to be. They don't give in to stupid divides. They boldly face the present and the future, unafraid. They know that unity is at best an agreement upon general direction, not the pipe dream that everyone believes and discerns God's will with 100% accuracy. For us, that ought to be that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

We're nowhere near where God wants us to be. But we will not get there fighting wars over the
minors while the majors are avoided because they're hard. Having General Conference after General Conference fight a war over a single issue gains us NOTHING. When it is all over, when whatever is "finalized," what is gained? An internal win for some, an internal loss for others - all of which does nothing for the outside world and damages the reputation and witness of us all.

If you want to argue from "the truth is the truth" position, be reminded of the fact that we are, at best, foolish in our discernment of God's wisdom and truth next to God's wisdom and truth. And if you want to argue from a justice position, be reminded that a just war must have a reasonable chance of success and that innocent people must not be harmed.

Find a way to end the war, General Conference 2020. Peacefully. Declare us a loose fellowship like the Anglican Church, or a consortium of somewhat like-minded people that agree on the majors and disagree on some minors. Just don't be surprised when some refuse to vote or take sides, or others respond, "Whatever. We're going on ahead."

In fifty years, what will our children say? And what will God say?

Monday, August 19, 2019

Put Not Your Trust in Credentials

I recently saw a title for a book review, "Put Not Your Trust in Credentials." It makes me think of one of the most insidious prejudices among United Methodists pastors (that I am convinced one day we will have to answer for): those who went to seminary, and those who didn't.

Some say we clergy should compare ourselves to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals where education is concerned. Yet John Wesley had a strong resistance to the class consequences of “professionalization” – such as medicine and the law. At best, he embraced the tension of academically educated clergy while lamenting it.

As Randy Maddox from Duke Divinity has noted: "In the 1956 Discipline of the Methodist Church (¶332 and following) the default “standard” for ordination shifted from course of study (with college and or seminary as alternatives) to making a Divinity degree the standard for admission on trial and eventual ordination as a Traveling elder, with the course of study now a restricted alternative. This growing professionalization was linked to escalated class status, and fit prudential realities of majority of Methodist congregations at the time." He also points out that our closest pan-Methodist partners (AME, AMEZ, etc.) all retain local elders and wonders why we ever ditched such.

To further paraphrase Maddox: Our cultural and financial realities, as well as the decline in American Christianity, has got to push us to broaden the range of persons that we ordain for ministry, and mandates that we:
  • have greater flexibility in educational expectations for ordination;
  • separate ordination from conference membership (not just for practical reasons, but theological and ecclesial reasons)
  • embrace a greater openness to bi-vocational and other models of clergy leadership

We cannot - morally, ethically, or practically - ask young people to sacrifice 10 years of their life and go into debt they cannot recover for a profession that requires the education of a lawyer or a physician, but is nowhere near as lucrative (nor should be). At the same time, there are other ways to educate and form clergy beyond the traditional "American way" of higher education. We make it even harder for second career folks to answer the call of God, who are usually relegated to the "local pastor route" - which we elders, as well as our denomination, have treated and regarded such as second-class citizenry.

We can do better.


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Problem of Labels, Assumptions, and the Economy of the Whole

Last week I changed my Facebook cover photo to display the phrase, “When you label me, you negate me,” (a quote attributed to Kierkegaard, which can be vaguely supported). Like all grand sweeping generalizations, it can be problematic. As one friend of mine pointed out, who basically agreed, yet also pointed out: “I can also say that there are times of grappling with identity that labels can be very helpful. Christian, gay, Irish, engineer... these are all words that help ground who I am.”

So while labels can be helpful, they can also be problematic in that they are often more diversionary than descriptive. I fear that in this day and age, especially in the American Church, they are diversionary and divisive. We have learned this well from American politics. Monkey see, monkey do; sad, but often true.

From those of us in the United Methodist sphere of Christianity, we have increased the tension in the air to a more-than-palpable state. We now have ever-changing labels of how someone, some church, some conference, or some slate of delegates are labeled. “WCA” or “UMCNext” seem to be the latest labels, and the election of lay and clergy delegates to General Conference are seeing the respective camps getting ready for battle. 

In the midst this, some have proclaimed (thru proclamation and rhetoric) the death of centrists or those who reside in the middle ground. I have noticed, however, that such was proclaimed without consulting those who find their grounding in the middle. While what follows is an unscientific observation, I believe it to be an accurate one: the UMC is not a neatly divided denomination into theological and ideological extremes. We more resemble the facets on a cut gemstone than anything else: the facets are not all the same size, and some are cut at different angles than others.

So when we look at who is elected to General Conference, it is quite possible that General Conference does not reflect the faceted nature of the denomination, just small (but vocal) parts of it. 

The latest complete figures show that there are 12,600,000-some lay members in the UMC in the world (around 45% from Africa, Asia, and Europe). There are 54,400-some clergy members in the world. Yet, there are an equal number of clergy and lay delegates to General Conference: 850. 425 will be clergy, and 425 will be laity. Some note that seems to be a huge disparity in representation. Mathematically at least, it is.

Before we beat up on clergy too much, consider who the pool of laity are who attend annual conference as delegates. They must have flexibility of lifestyle to be able to attend an annual conference, where plenary sessions are always held during daytime hours, and often meet during the week rather than the weekend. How many of our laity are able to attend such? And if they are able to come to Annual Conference, could they offer themselves to election to General Conference, take the time off from their jobs to study and pray over all of the proposed legislation, attend listening and planning sessions, and then take the two weeks off from work to attend the following May? (I won’t add the out of pocket costs to travel, lodge, eat, clean clothes, because I can tell you: your per diem won’t cover it)

So a valid question is: do those elected to General Conference truly represent the whole of our denomination, or just a few privileged facets of it? To be sure, those who go to General Conference have a huge responsibility delegated to them, and I pray for them every day. The question is: are such folks representative of the totality our denomination?

My hunch is, no. It looks good on paper, and sounds good to those of us who grew up in democratic processes, but the reality is that we have an elite class of people who go to General Conference, and I admit to having been one of them (I chose not to offer myself for election this year) – very similar to who and how we elect house and senate members to Congress. Those clergy who are elected have the benefit of an advanced education (ordained elders only) and those laity elected have the luxury and privilege of a flexible schedule and sufficient funds. Many, many United Methodists will never be given an opportunity to share their life experiences, faith, and make such binding decisions for their denomination, either at their own annual conferences or at General Conference.

So when someone makes the claim that there are no centrists or “people in the middle,” I would accuse them of an extremely myopic view of their denomination. While the current issue at hand is sexuality and identity, there are hosts of other issues that could rise to similar ire given the right circumstances. The WCA makes the Nicene Creed a central part of their belief statement, yet I could quickly find 100 conservative, rural churches that would take issue with several parts of the Nicene Creed, including “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” believing in a “catholic church,” and that little phrase “who proceeds from the Father and the Son” that ended up splitting Christianity over a thousand years ago. 

Historically and theologically, it makes very little sense for Methodists to try to be “super orthodox” and homogenous for this simple reason: we started out as an illegitimate child. Our own founder never converted to become a Methodist himself, and without any authority Wesley ordained its first pastors. He also “licensed” women to preach (scandalous!). Wesley intended to start a movement that was directed 180° from the Anglican Church of its day. Today, we find that we’ve made a full 360° and in many ways are right back where we started.

The “draw” for many Methodists has been that while there is a foundational framework to build upon, there is also the allowance of the Spirit to blow a fresh wind through us that brings us both the ancient faith as well as the gift of growth and expansion of our minds, hearts, and faith to do a new thing, moving us to use new wineskins for the new wine being gifted to us.

As I attended the last annual conference, I was overcome with sadness – and it’s quite possible I’m suffering from some PTSD from the last three General Conferences. It is a borrowed phrase, but I believe it to be true: I do my best to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other, as I know it stretches me to places I need to be. But during these last three to four years, the bucket of grief is way, way heavy as I watch dear friends at odds with each other, sometimes in less-than-loving ways. I fight being angry at those organizations and leaders that seem to have fueled the fire and manipulated us into such divisions that make us emulate our American politics and give such a poor witness to the world about discipleship and the Church. Our trust of each other is at an all-time low. 

I would beg us not to be defined by labels, theological bent, or ideologies. We are not called to make others in our own image, but to reflect the image of God. I know that when I was ordained, I was not called or asked to transform the congregations I was appointed to into my image. I was called to meet them where they are at, pastor and shepherd them, teach, and embrace their gifts that God gave them. There are many facets to those in our congregations, and they do not neatly fit into one mold – nor should they. As children of God, they reflect the diversity of the gifts that they have been given. That should be embraced, not forsaken. 

Our throw-away society has made it too easy to make relationships casual, which makes it easy to say, “I’m done with so-and-so.” One person at General Conference said that “some divorces are good.” I can’t agree with that. There's nothing good about divorce. It's painful.

Instead of shaking hands and saying goodbye, we should be embracing and saying, “See you tomorrow.” We are all blood-kin, by the blood of Jesus Christ. It may be our differences from each other are our gifts to each other. Our congregations are not as monolithic as we think: if we allow ourselves to continue this binary thinking, we will dismiss a LOT of United Methodists. We often forget that for many, Methodism is the meeting place for many who cannot abide the extremes of Roman Catholic and Fundamentalist dogma.

The extremes may realize that they made a huge mistake in dismissing the middle. Despite what some may say, there is a LOT of middle left. They may not say much, but my hunch is that they aren't going anywhere, either. We are not the “either/or” people some would like us to be.


Friday, May 31, 2019

One Sentence Can Split a Church, If You Let It

I said the above words in a sermon several Sundays ago, referring to a sentence in the Nicene Creed. I guess I should have gone into more detail, as several folks have called/texted/emailed me, "Well... what sentence were you talking about?"

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son...

Basically (and this is VERY basic; you can read books, dissertations, catechisms, and the like if you want to know more), it can be illustrated thus:

That one sentence split the largest part of Christianity in half. The timeline of it all:

321 - Nicene Creed affirmed by the Council of Nicea without the Filioque Clause
382 - Creed was expanded by the Council of Constantinople without the Filioque Clause being added
451 - Creed was confirmed by the Council of Chalcedon without the Filioque.
589 - Filioque Clause was added to the Creed by the Council of Toledo (not an ecumenical council)
680 - The Filioque Clause was added to the Creed by the Council of Hatfield (not an ecumenical 
1014 - The Filioque Clause is added to the Creed in Rome on the coronation of Henry II (German) as 
           Holy Roman Emperor.
1054 - BOOM! The Great Schism of the West and East

Now, is this important? From a theological point, yes. And you can find scriptures to back both the Eastern stand and the Western stand. But is it a deal breaker? If we get it right or get it wrong, will it really make that much difference? I liked what commentator Bill Muhlenburg said:

[M]any Christians may find all this going over their heads, and/or see it as all rather unnecessary. The truth is, theology matters, and sometimes the complex truths of God and about God need to be hammered out as best we can. And at times disagreements will arise.

The matters here are very significant indeed, yet nonetheless one can differ on these matters, or even choose to concentrate on other matters. Thus one’s salvation is not directly impacted on which way we run with this issue.

In addition, I would add these as not directly impacting one's salvation (and these are more particular to United Methodists Christians), but can certainly run to the level of schism in some people's minds:

  1. Believing the "right" Theory of Atonement (there is no official Methodist stance)
  2. Real Presence at the Eucharist (the official United Methodist stance is yes, there is)
  3. Rebaptism (the official United Methodist stance is, no, we should not)
  4. Women being ordained. 
  5. Ordaining licensed local pastors (the official UM stance is that we don't, but we used to)
  6. Divorce. The New Testament certainly seems against it, especially if you hold a church office. But we United Methodists fully accept divorced people into the life and any role of the Church. We UM pastors often marry Catholic, Baptist, and Church of Christ folks who can't get married in their own church. 
  7. Being gay and fully accepting gay people.
1. Theories of Atonement are just that: theories. Atonement theories can be derived from scripture, but you won't find any one of them explicitly outlined. My hunch is that Atonement is a mixture of all these things, and a mystery.

2. Real Presence. I'm not a Thomist or an Aristotelian, so explaining transubstantiation to someone else is difficult when I have my own problems grasping these schools of thoughts to begin with. I've always leaned with the Eastern church and Anglican Church that did not accept the notion of "transubstantiation" or the notions of "substance" or "accidents." These are the wrong schools of thoughts to deal with a mystery of faith like the sacraments.

3. Rebaptism. It doesn't make much sense (especially if we believe God (and not us) is the act-or in baptism). I'd never do it for the same reason I'd never get recircumcised - it's already been done. But if someone does, I don't think they're going to hell for it. 

4. Women Being Ordained. There are good biblical arguments for and against it. For whatever reason, some of the churches that Paul addressed had women who were out of line about something. At the same time, Paul refers to Phoebe in Romans 16 as a deacon/διάκονος; not a female "helper" but as one holding an office of leadership and service. So while Paul wanted some women to be silent in some places, he evidently wanted others to speak, teach, and serve (add Junia and Priscilla to the list). If we took Paul literally when he initially spoke to the Galatians, none of us have any business preaching the gospel, because we're all stupid and foolish.

5. Ordaining Licensed Local Pastors. I've written about this one aplenty. It's ecclesial malpractice to put someone in a congregation with the authority of the ordained office without the benefit of ordination. All ordination in United Methodism is a charism, a gift from the Church that can only be exercised under authority. Clericalism in United Methodism needs to take a hike. I treasure my master of divinity degree and am thankful for my education. But it is clearly nothing more than a tool in my belt, and certainly not required by either scripture or Early Church decree (and if it gets anymore expensive, our clergy will only come from the upper class or from those with rich uncles and aunts).

6. Divorce. I hate that it happens. And contrary to what some say, I don't think there's ever any such thing as a "good" divorce. I also don't believe God intended us to do harm to each other, particularly harm to body and soul. I don't know an annual conference in United Methodism that doesn't have divorced clergy within their ranks, progressive and conservative alike. Some of them divorced more than once. When did it become "okay?"

7. Being Gay. I've been a pastor and counselor (more accurately a listener) since I was 21 years old. I've heard parents (a) apologize for, (b) weep over, and/or (c) brag about their gay children. I've listened to gay folks who have begged God to replace their orientation with that of being heterosexual. I've counseled gay folks who are angry at God: "Why am I this way? If it's wrong, then why did God make me this way?" Worse: "I tried to be married to my wife/husband. I really, really tried. But they knew even better than I did that it simply wasn't going to work. No matter how hard I try, I can't fake being straight." Clearly, it's not a choice.

All of these things - as well as so many more I haven't listed - can split a church, if we let it. The question to me is: why do we let it?

Maybe it's just the "cool" thing to do these days. We gotta keep up with our politicians, you know. Never pass up a chance to be in, or start up, a good schism.

We'll see how God and history look at us in twenty or so years. I hope with grace and forgiveness that we do not deserve.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Logistics of General Conference 2019 - Making Sure It Works

Much has been said, written, and continues to be debated regarding the called session of General Conference 2019, The Way Forward, and the three four several Plans being advocated. I won't add to the many opinions, theological treatises, and scientific theories regarding sexuality, Natural Law, and modern psychology. Everyone has an opinion, and we'll continue to hear about them ad infinitum.

Unless you're Gomez Addams, train wrecks are not fun to watch. Some fear a train wreck is in the making at the called General Conference of the United Methodist Church next month. I hope for the best, and pray that some of the nitty gritty things are being fleshed out, so that the main purpose can be accomplished.

I'm only a fair scholar, a mediocre theologian, and a somewhat-capable church pastor. But one thing I think I'm fairly good at is strategy and logistics, probably instilled upon me at an early age by a few bosses I had in secular life. One of the sage pieces of advice in life given to me was by one of these bosses who had also been my high school principal: "Sky, at the end of the day, all the theories, convictions, and expert opinions don't mean $@&% if it doesn't work. *issing matches [turf wars and power grabs] will insure it won't work." I can't remember what the conversation was about, but the reason I remember his words so well is because he looked me in the eye and grabbed my shoulder when he said it. He taught me a lot about team work, and taught me a lot about life.

With that being said, here are some logistical issues, ponderings, and hopes:

  • How, exactly, will General Conference work regarding organization, and the handling of legislation re: the Plans and ninety-nine filed petitions? 
  • Will the "Committee of 864" organize the petitions into a logical grouping and create omnibus bills that can be voted upon, then perfected in the plenary of General Conference? Or will each petition be voted upon separately? If I remember correctly, ALL of the petitions have to be voted upon - someway, somehow, before we adjourn at the end of the day on Feb. 26th. 
  • Whomever we elect as chair of the committee will need our continuing prayers... and a great grasp of presiding and Robert's Rules of Order
And related to that... what about hiring a registered or professional parliamentarian as a consultant to our chairperson and presiding bishops? We ask our committee chairs and bishops to do an awful lot, and given how (I am guessing) parliamentary procedure could be used as a strategic tool of leverage... and a weapon... it might be good to head off knotty messes before they happen. Plus, we elect bishops for their leadership and spiritual abilities - not their acumen at Robert's Rules of Order.

I'm no expert on parliamentary practices, but I took a college class on it (mainly because the records office called and told me I was 3 hours short on an elective). I thought it would be an easy class. It was anything but easy. Not only did we have tests, we had to participate in mock proceedings, and everyone had to be the chair once. I still have one of the tests. Among the questions asked (they were all essay questions):
In what ways are main, subsidiary, incidental, and privileged motions alike? In what ways do they differ? 
Are there conditions which permit a member to interrupt another member that has been assigned the floor and has commenced speaking? If so, list the conditions and explain. 
Why can't the motion "to lay on the table" be reconsidered and why does it yield to privileged questions? 
Suppose you were acting as presiding officer and a main motion was made and seconded and was followed by a motion objecting to the consideration of the question. The latter motion was not seconded. State fully the procedure that you would follow, and how your procedure would be varied if (a) no second was offered, or (b) if the question was put and a majority objected to the consideration of the question.  
Motions to reconsider and to rescind both offer the group an opportunity to reverse former action. Explain the ways in which these motions differ. 
If you were the presiding officer, how would you attempt to stop a small minority that was trying to interfere with the orderly transaction of business?
I made a "B" in Dr. Kiesling's class, and I was happy to have it. I never thought I'd need it... until I was a district superintendent. I got to preside over a potentially contentious church conference regarding a piece of property and the handling of a large foundation bequest. The congregation was made up of both town folks and a lot of large-operation farmers who had all participated in parliamentary procedure in their high school FFA clubs (and some were ready to play "stump the chump" with the chairperson - me). I was never more thankful for Dr. Kiesling's class, and I survived the day. If I'd been smart, I would have brought a parliamentarian with me as a consultant. What could it have hurt? The important thing wasn't me or being seen that I could or couldn't handle it; the important thing was getting it right. I had a little training, and a little luck. I could have prepared better.

We'll need all of the help we can get for this General Conference, as it will be like none other. In addition to our theological arguments and opinions, we'll need folks with expertise in presiding and in Robert's Rules. All of this will be rendered academic if things don't work.

Here's to hoping the logistics work. As my Irish friends would say (lifting a glass): Sláinte!