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Church is a Miracle: Reflections on General Conference 2016

umh-545 lyricsI’m not certain what I think about General Conference.

The usual rundowns from secular media – quoting a progressive, a conservative, and then maybe a moderate bishop or academic – reflect the problems of General Conference as much as they describe them. Both “sides” are, in different ways, claiming victory and crisis.  Most statements from denominational leaders seem to me the kinds of things one has to say when one is in leadership, not honest assessments of where we find ourselves. They fail to take seriously, at least in public, to degree to which wilfulness and division – major ingredients in the unholy concoction called evil – were everywhere on display in Portland.  Bishop Swanson’s powerful homiletic exorcism was a refreshing bit of honesty. Let’s go ahead and ask him to do that every morning in 2020.  The low point, at least to this live stream viewer, was watching a presiding Bishop, widely respected by both conservatives and progressives, get spoken down to like a school boy that had just forgotten his hall pass.  As David Watson points out, such a lack of trust is disturbing.

Regardless, the Church goes on.  I do not necessarily mean the United Methodist Church, whose institutional life is frayed. I mean that whatever happens to our particular part of the Body, the work of Christ’s family goes on.  And the true Church, wherever it is found, is based around table fellowship with diverse people. (Look to the Articles 13, 16, & 18 for the centrality of the Table.)  This has been true of the church from the very beginning, even in the church in utero, represented by the disciples.

In a wonderful section of his ecclesiological tome Does God Need the Church? titled, ‘Table Manners in the Reign of God,” Catholic theologian Gerhard Lofhink reflects on the how the church, seen in the figure of the twelve disciples gathered around the Eucharist, reflects such diverse people that only God’s Kingdom could bring them together:

Certainly the common meal, and therefore the common table, played a crucial role simply because a wedding is being celebrated. We can even say that the profane table at which Jesus eats with his disciples becomes the new place of salvation. Jesus dares to effect the eschatological renewal of the people of God with the simplicity and intimacy of a table around which is disciples gather as a family.

These disciples were by no means “like-minded people.” There is a good deal of evidence that Jesus chose the Twelve from the most diverse groups in the Judaism of his time in order to make it obvious that he was gathering all Israelites. The Twelve were a colorful mixture: from the former disciples of the Baptizer (John 1:35-40) to Matthew the tax-collector (Matt 10:3) to Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15).  In a tax-collector and a Zealot the most bitterly opposed forces that existed in Israel at the time were joined within a single group, for the tax-collectors gathered revenue for the Romans while Zealous utterly rejected the Roman occupation as incompatible with the reign of God.

We should try to imagine how such different people could sit at one table. They were like fire and water. But just there began the miracle of the eschatological people of God. If each one were to remain in his or her own corner and individual house nothing of the reign of God could be seen.  Its fascination can only appear when people of different backgrounds, different gifts, different colors, men and women sit together at a single table – and when they join their lives so that together, undivided, they can serve God’s cause. (Lofhink, 174-175)

We wonder how different folks – Zealots and tax collectors, natural enemies! – can sit together at the one table of Christ.  The truth is that it is a miracle.

The church is always a miracle.

thereforegoThis is because the church is most herself when she points towards the reign of God.  It is easy for the church to reflect the world: its division, strife, discord, and polarization. United Methodists know too much of this.  But if and when the church reflects God’s Kingdom – when folk of different opinions and ideologies, life experiences and social locations, come to the one table – it is a gift of God.

As an Arminian, I believe that we can be open to or closed off to God’s gifts. God, in God’s radical freedom, grants human image-bearers a similar freedom.  As such, His gifts can be accepted or rejected.

When and where God’s people depart their “own corner and individual house[s]” and come to God’s table, there the miracle of church is enacted.

But when we refuse to leave our own huts and enclaves, when we try to keep one foot in my way and another foot on the narrow way, or if we come to God’s table with prejudices and ideologies that are more determinative than the Word of God, we have refused to receive the gift called Church.  We we make God’s table our table, we have rejected the very nature of Christian community.

I believe God’s desire is for a United Methodist Church that, like the eschatological feast that is at the heart of our faith, brings different people together to praise, serve, and witness to God’s grace.  But God has given us freedom in this. And while the Spirit binds us together and equips us for ministry, we are capable of following other spirits.

But unfortunately, the principalities and powers have been having their way with us.  The bishops’ post-Portland letter closed, cryptically, with words from John Wesley’s deathbed.  That’s the definition of cold comfort.

But God is in the business of making rivers in the desert and raising the dead to life.  It is not too late for a miracle.

I will be praying for one, and I invite you to join me.

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John Wesley’s Creed

John Wesley and Creed.  Now that's perfection.

John Wesley and Creed. Now that’s perfection.

“What I like best about being a Methodist is that you can believe anything you want.”

-Charles Wesley (via John Meunier)

Creeds are a point of contention among Christians.  Because we live in an age where authority is a dirty word, the idea that Christians should assent to any set of beliefs about God* is a scandal (dare I say – a heresy?).  Even churches that do affirm the creeds, like the United Methodist Church, are sometimes wary about their liturgical and pedagogical use.  An old article still (unfortunately) found on the UMC homepage actually claims, “Affirmations [like the creeds] help us come to our own understanding of the Christian faith.”

The last thing we as Christians need is “our own understanding of the Christian faith.”  There is, after all, a deposit of faith that was revealed in Christ and taught by the apostles; this is what Jude refers to as “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)

Several folks I read to great benefit have been reflecting on creeds recently, and I commend their work to you.  David Watson of United Seminary asks if the Wesleys were creedal.  Joel Watts develops this, compiling an impressive list of quotations by Wesley on the creeds.  Lastly, Andrew Thompson from Memphis Theological Seminary weighs in on Wesley and the creeds with a focus on the doctrine of the Trinity, including some quite helpful reflections on common misconceptions about the creeds and Methodist worship.  Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards’ thoughtful feedback here and here on two of the above posts is also worth your attention.

Below is an excerpt from a letter that Wesley wrote to a Roman Catholic, attempting to find some common ground.  Thompson, linked above, quotes this section in part, observing keenly, “Wesley resorts to a creedal form of writing.”

Ted Campbell once suggested this list “is as close as John Wesley came to a statement of essential fundamental teachings, even though it is not structured as a list of fundamental teachings.”  While not a formal creed, it draws heavily on the structure and content of the Nicene Creed and Apostle’s Creed.  More specifically, it bears commonality to the baptismal form of creeds (note the personal language of “I believe”). Campbell also notes that a certain Bishop Pearson – whom Watts quotes in the above link – contemporary with the Wesleys, had written a well-known exposition on the Apostle’s Creed, which may have influenced the whole Wesley clan (including Mama Sussanah, who herself wrote a commentary on the Apostle’s Creed).  With all of this in mind, consider what I am happy to call, with only a bit of tongue-in-cheek, John Wesley’s Creed:

A true Protestant may express his belief in these, or the like words:

As I am assured that there is an infinite and independent Being, and that it is impossible there should be more than one, so I believe that the one God is the Father of all things, especially of angels and men; that he is in a peculiar manner the Father of those whom he regenerates by his Spirit, whom he adopts in his Son as co-heirs with him, and crowns with an eternal inheritance; but in a still higher sense the Father of his only Son, whom he hath begotten from eternity.

I believe this Father of all, not only to be able to do whatsoever pleaseth him, but also to have an eternal right of making what and when and how he pleaseth, and of possessing and disposing of all that he has made; and that he, of his own goodness, created heaven and earth and all that is therein.

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Saviour of the world, the Messiah so long foretold; that, being anointed with the Holy Ghost, he was a prophet, revealing to us the whole will of God; that he was a priest, who gave himself a sacrifice for sin, and still makes intercession for transgressors; that he is a king, who has all power in heaven and in earth, and will reign till he has subdued all things to himself.

I believe he is the proper, natural Son of God, God of God, very God of very Gods and that he is the Lord of all, having absolute, supreme, universal dominion over all things; but more peculiarly our Lord, who believe in him, both by conquest, purchase, and voluntary obligation.

I believe that he was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.

I believe he suffered inexpressible pains both of body and soul, and at last death, even the death of the cross, at the time that Pontius Pilate governed Judaea under the Roman Emperor; that his body was then laid in the grave, and his soul went to the place of separate spirits; that the third day he rose again from the dead; that he ascended into heaven; where he remains in the midst of the throne of God, in the highest power and glory, as mediator till the end of the world, as God to all eternity; that in the end he will come down from heaven to judge every man according to his works, both those who shall be then alive and all who have died before that day.

I believe the infinite and eternal Spirit of God, equal with the Father and the Son, to be not only perfectly holy in himself but the immediate cause of all holiness in us; enlightening our understandings, rectifying our wills and affections, renewing our natures, uniting our persons to Christ, assuring us of the adoption of sons, leading us in our actions, purifying and sanctifying our souls and bodies, to a full and eternal enjoyment of God.

I believe that Christ by his apostles gathered unto himself a Church, to which he has continually added such as shall be saved; that this catholic (that is, universal) Church, extending to all nations and all ages, is holy in all its members, who have fellowship with God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; that they have fellowship with the holy angels, who constantly minister to these heirs of salvation; and with all the living members of Christ on earth, as well as all who are departed in his faith and fear.

I believe God forgives all the sins of them that truly repent and unfeignly believe his holy gospel; and that at the last day all men shall rise again, every one with his own body. I believe that, as the unjust shall after their resurrection be tormented in hell for ever, so the just shall enjoy inconceivable happiness in the presence of God to all eternity.

 Before you say, “It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do,” hold the phone.  Wesley adds briefly after this list: “Does he practise accordingly? If he does not, we grant all his faith will not save him.”  For Wesley, it is faith AND works, belief AND practice that make up the Christian life.

So, what do you make of John Wesley’s Creed? What holds up today as truths central to Christian belief? What doesn’t?

Thanks be to God that the Christian faith is not malleable based on our whims.  The good news is this: I don’t have to grope in the darkness and come to my own understanding of God. God has come for me and to me long before I have ever sought out God. What is this God like? I have only to look in the back of the United Methodist Hymnal.

*Outside of believing that God is benignly benevolent and really wants me to be personally fulfilled on my own terms – AKA Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

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Welcome to the #UMC Straw Man Fighting Championships

Sure, you can beat up on them, but it doesn't really get you anywhere. Courtesy wikipedia.

Sure, you can beat up on them, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Courtesy wikipedia.

The Walk Out

In the world of combat sports, someone who pads their record by defeating unskilled opponents is said to be fighting “tomato cans.”  This is essentially what the crotchety trainer Mick says to Rocky in Rocky III: you’ve been fighting easy fights, and you’re not ready for Clubber Lang:

Rocky: What are you talkin’ about? I had ten title defenses.
Mickey: That was easy.
Rocky: What you mean, “easy”?
Mickey: They was hand-picked!
Rocky: Setups?
Mickey: Nah, they wasn’t setups. They was good fighters, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. He’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!

When our opponents are hand-picked to make us look good, there isn’t much glory in victory.  The academic parallel to picking easy fights is the logical fallacy known as a straw man.  When you engage in a straw man attack, you are misrepresenting an interlocutor’s position, offering a counter-argument to that misidentified position, and summarily declaring victory.  But in reality, you have dodged your opponent, and you become what Clubber Lang called a “paper champion.”

The following are two examples of the straw man fallacy at its strawiest.

Round 1

In a recent series of blogs, a few people have suggested closing the floor to all but delegates, bishops, and essential personnel at the UMC General Conference in 2016.  There have been many helpful critiques, corrections, and questions about these proposals along the way, and for those I am appreciative.  But not all of them have been so thoughtful.

Jeremy Smith over at Hack[ing] Christianity dismissed many of the critics to his analysis by pointing to their gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.  In a follow-up, he essentially declared victory on the grounds that his only pushback was from straight white men who were less enlightened than he, as a straight white man 2.0 (note that, as far as Adam West’s Batman is removed from Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, so is Smith removed from all straight, WASP-y men who might dare to question his insights):

There was significant online critique from straight white men who felt strongly that pointing to their common social location was unfair–and it was quite confrontational!

The problem is that this was a straw man, because he did indeed get feedback from people who were not SWM, which he ignored.  Comments at David Watson’s blog included well-reasoned perspectives from women and African-American men.  This part of the former comment especially (but not strangely) warmed my heart, since I was one of the people “hacked” by Rev. Smith:

All three people you “engaged” in your post, who come from very different places theologically, reacted to your post by insisting that you distorted what they themselves thought was at stake. This is intellectual vice. You also, despite their diversity of theological perspectives, lumped them in together and acted as if they were all the same because of their race, gender, and marital status.

While Jeremy responded to several folks on that thread, he did not respond to either of the comments above, perhaps because they did not fit the narrative around which he had built his straw man argument.

Round 2:

Another recent post by former Methodist seminary president Philip Amerson similarly jams together all of those who’ve suggested closing the GC2016 floor with this epic straw man:

Recently, some traditionalists have suggested that our General Conference should become a closed-door meeting that would allow only delegates to participate.

On an outlet featuring almost exclusively progressive voices like UMC Lead, the casual label “traditionalist” is more than enough to have an argument dismissed with no further adieu.  Sadly, it mirrors almost exactly an experience about which Stephen Rankin recently wrote.   Even worse, had Amerson done a bare minimum of homework, he would have known that at least 2 out of 3 of the folks he labelled “traditionalists” are anything but – including yours truly! – and spend as much of their time critiquing the UMC right as they do the UMC left.  Instead, he lumps all of us in with the far right of the church (with whom I would not identify Watson) and delves into deep psychoanalysis to suggest this proposal is really offered “out of a need control the outcome.”

This neglects two very important points: 1) The proposals have not been targeted at any particular groups, but at anyone who is not a delegate, bishop, or necessary personnel; 2) Don’t those who want the floor to be open actually want to “control the outcome” by interfering with the process we have?

Amerson has also set up a straw man, in naming all of those who are interested in this particular proposal control-mad traditionalists and assuming within them the worst possible motives.  Like Smith, his critique is really little more than shadow-boxing, because the boogeyman he’s fighting simply doesn’t exist.

The Judges’ Decision

The Straw Man Fighting Championship will not move us toward any desirable outcome as a church.  I am well aware that I’ve never written anything that is above critique, and I truly enjoy all kinds of healthy dialogue and pushback.  I have thick skin.  I was a Just War advocate at Duke Divinity School, for Augustine’s sake! (For those unfamiliar with my alma mater, it would be like walking across the OSU campus in a Michigan sweatshirt.)

I love a good argument.  But I can’t stand being misrepresented, and then watching others claim trophies for defeating a phantasm.  I can’t say this emphatically enough: we must do better.

As David Watson has suggested in the piece I mentioned above,

How we argue matters. I can’t emphasize this enough. The way in which we engage one another, the motives we attribute to one another, and the rigor with which we engage one another’s arguments–these all matter.

A good argument can accomplish much.  But lazy, fallacious, dismissive, and surface-level arguments like we’ve been having will not take us anywhere we want to be.

The choice is ours, church.

 

P.S. For the sake of consistency, I fully expect progressive UMC critics of the proposal in question to begin a letter-writing campaign to their elected officials to ensure that the floor of Congress is opened to the Tea Party, Code Pink, the KKK, the Nation of Islam, and any other group who might feel a need to be heard in that venue.

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Temper-Tantrums or Conversation? #UMC

quarrel

Healthy discourse is hard to come by, especially in contemporary forms of media in which the best way to get attention is through insult, rant, and hyperbole.  We all say we hate sensationalism, but the ugly truth is we are far less likely to read something that doesn’t make a shocking or outrageous claim.  Much of the Christian blogosphere, as reliant as it is on idol-worship and idol-busting, is rife with this sort of madness.

After all, it is much easier to dismiss an interlocutor with insinuation, ad-hominem, or labeling than to actually engage ideas with which we disagree.  That is because, in our infinite capacity for self-deception, we easily keep exclusively to the self-licking ice cream cone of our own ideological outhouses.   We  too often succumb to the temptation of intellectual comfort by surrounding ourselves with those who agree with us, who confirm all our biases, and then proceed to shout down in the most dishonest and uncharitable fashion possible any criticism we receive.

Welcome to the internet.  Welcome to our polarized society and church.

But there are some different voices, and they are worth highlighting because change will only occur if we reward people for writing with sense and sensitivity, with passion and restraint.  Here are three examples, all with similar stories to tell, and all people of intellectual rigor and genuine caritas.

  • David Watson from United Theological Seminary reminds us that how we argue is as important, if not more so, than the truth for which we argue.  Ends and means both matter.
  • Stephen Rankin from Southern Methodist University tells a personal story about how his own sincere, bridge-building effort to move a difficult conversation forward was dismissed out of hand with a simple label.  A sad, all too common story.
  • Evan Rohrs-Dodge, a UM pastor and fellow curator over at Via Media Methodists, uses Aragorn to remind us how important it is to actually listen to one another.  Listening is harder, but the only way to actually get anywhere.

As Chesterton asserted, it is easier to quarrel than to argue.  A quality argument can do much to bring needed change to couples, families, churches, and whole societies.  But petty tempter-tantrums and name-calling will only dissolve our bonds and harm whatever efforts there are to produce genuine conversation.

USA and #UMC, take heed.

How not to move the conversation forward.  Courtesy freeimages.com.

How not to move the conversation forward. Courtesy freeimages.com.

 

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