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When Will the Tail Stop Wagging the #UMC Dog?

by Drew 9 Comments
Courtesy of Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons.

Courtesy of Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons.

When will the tail top wagging the dog? When will the whole United Methodist body cease to be driven hither and thither by what is really a small appendage?

I’m a longtime critic of the various caucus groups in the UMC.  While I don’t think they are all equally villainous, I do believe that on the whole they serve to draw resources from United Methodist pews that are better spent elsewhere.  Moreover, they form a sort of self-reinforcing system that goes something like this: RMN organizes to change the Book of Disciplinee; Good News fundraises to counter their efforts; Love Prevails then bounces off the “harmful” rhetoric of evangelicals and announces ahead of time that they plan to make sure nothing gets done in Portland which they don’t explicitly condone; then, finally, the IRD fills their coffers by reporting on the adolescent shenanigans of Justice’s Storm Troopers.  The caucuses have a sort of symbiotic relationship and form a vicious cycle.

These groups, in many ways, lead our denominational conversation – though I’m not at all convinced that, even all combined, they remotely represent the views of a majority of United Methodists.  I’m reminded of this quote from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, who noted that the bluster of radical groups often far outstrips their real influence:

“The vanity, restlessness, petulance, and spirit of intrigue, of several petty cabals, who attempt to hide their total want of consequence in bustle and noise, and puffing, and mutual quotation of each other, makes you imagine that our contemptuous neglect of their abilities is a mark of general acquiescence in their opinions. No such thing, I assure you.”

Despite the noise, there is no “general acquiescence” to the caucuses.  They are merely the loudest voices in the conversation.  If the Trump living nightmare candidacy has taught us nothing else, we’ve sure learned this: being loud, rude, disagreeable, loose with the facts, quick to attack, and light on nuance can actually get you a lot of attention.  It will even get you a seat at the table.  The committee in charge of organizing General Conference even met with the leaders of these groups last year.  Now, really, do we think this will placate the caucuses or embolden them?

Burke again would urge us not to take such tactics seriously:

“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring…whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.”

Portrait of Edmund Burke by Joseph Reynolds, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Edmund Burke by Joseph Reynolds, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Most United Methodists do not share the priorities of the divisive caucuses.  A representative sample of over 500 parishioners was taken in 2014 to get a sense of the real priorities of the people who sit in our pews.  Sexuality did not even crack the top 5.

I see no future for us unless we stand up to the denominational hostage-takers and refuse to let the tail way the dog.  Much like Americans are experiencing in the national arena, denominational politics are not well served by letting the loudest, most divisive voices lead the conversation.  They don’t represent us.  They have every incentive to increase outrage and bend the truth to fund their own projects.

For the United Methodist Church to have a healthy and vital future, we cannot allow the most brutal voices to dictate the conversation.  We can do better.  We must do better.  But make no mistake: it’s up to us.  We, the vast majority of Methodists who love each and every one of their neighbors and want to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world, decide this future: the ways that we engage one another, the things we read and share, the delegates for whom we vote give away whether we are directing our mental, emotional, and other resources towards victory or agape.

The tail does not have to wag the dog. But that’s up to us.

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Pope Francis’ Address to the #UMC

His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a 'funeral face,' courtesy Wikipedia.

His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a ‘funeral face,’ courtesy Wikipedia.

In, “Wow, he never ceases to amaze” news, Pope Francis just dropped a Petrine hammer on his own inner circle.  The Vatican Curia – the upper echelon leaders of the vast Vatican administrative machine – got some coal in their mitres during what is usually a pretty benign Christmas address.  The short version: he said the Curia was sick. Of the 15 ‘ailments’ he named that are harming the life of the Roman Catholic Church, I thought a few especially applied to my own communion, the United Methodist Church.  The full list, and the original numbering, is found here from the AP, from which the following selections are quoted.  The commentary attached is my own.  See if you think the Holy Father’s words are fitting for today’s UMC:

1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticize itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself is a sick body.”

Going on to perfection is kind of our thing, isn’t it?  In 2012, the UMC showed a remarkable ability to avoid self-improvement.  How can we become a healthy body instead of a sick body?

2) Working too hard. “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”

For too many Christians, lay and clergy alike, busyness has become a status symbol and an idol.  Why don’t our clergy preach sabbath? Why don’t our churches expect it of their pastors?

5) Working without coordination, like an orchestra that produces noise. “When the foot tells the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ or the hand tells the head ‘I’m in charge.'”

It is easy to look upon other corners of the church as backwards, or out there, or fruitless, or whatever.  But we are all in this together, folks. (By the by, Bishop Grant Hagiya recently had some great things to say about the Pacifict-Northwest, often dismissed by Methodists here in the Bible Belt, on episode #7 of the WesleyCast).  Moreover, coordination – aligning our ministries, resources, and energies – is critical to accomplishing our ministry.  See also #1.

6) Having ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’ “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias, in those who build walls around themselves and becomes enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

Ask about rescinding the Guaranteed Appointment and watch our clergy suddenly develop ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’

7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the color of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”

We are too damned competitive with each other.  The megachurch pastors all want the number one spot.  The mid-size church in town competes with the large downtown church.  On a charge, the smaller church or churches feel inferior to the larger.  Clergy boast about “God’s work” in their church, sharing posts on social media about all the amazing things going on but really we just want our colleagues and superiors to think better of us. In internet parlance, this is called a “humblebrag.” All of this is poison. Pure poison.

9) Committing the ‘terrorism of gossip.’ “It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”

Christians should not be gossips, and we in the UMC are as guilty as anyone. We talk behind the backs of our pastors, our lay leadership, our bishops, etc..  We of all people know the power of words to make and unmake lives, galaxies, families, and churches.  Clergy should take the lead in condemning gossip in all its forms.  Dave Ramsey’s (I know, I know) take is helpful.  If you think Ramsey is too strong on this, remember – the Pope just called this terrorism.

12) Having a ‘funeral face.’ “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”

The subtext for too many of our denominational gatherings – international, national, and local – is death.  We Methodists wear the funeral face well. We shouldn’t.  As another Bishop of Rome, John Paul II, said, “We are Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

14) Forming ‘closed circles’ that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad — scandals — especially to our younger brothers.”

If all or most of your friends are on the same side as you, in the church or in the world – you need to rid yourself of this sickness.  Caucuses (such as the IRD, RMN, Good News, and Love Prevails) have done the UMC precisely what some of the Founders – quite correctly – warned that parties would do the the US.  If you want to affiliate with some sub-group of the UMC, fine; but we are contributing to the dissolution of the church and our own spiritual myopia if we only associate with like-minded folk.

There’s my annotated, partial list of Pope Francis’ recommendations for United Methodists.  What do you think?  What should be added? Might the UMC benefit from a similar speech from one of our Bishops?

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For the Sake of the Bride: Steve Harper on a Third Way

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If you care about the state of the Bride of Christ, the church. read this book. Soon.

Aren’t you tired?  Aren’t you worn out by all the nasty wrangling?  I think many of us are getting hungry for an alternative to the culture wars that dominate our political culture in the US and in the church.  In particular, the Mainline denominations, especially my own United Methodist Church, have been riven by partisanship that would make the most radical Tea Party or Code Pink gathering blush.

Myself and a growing number of others have been calling for an alternative kind of church, a better discourse, and more and more I sense a hunger in others for something deeper, less shrill, and more Christocentric than ideological.  If that sounds like you, then you are in luck. Retired seminary professor Steve Harper has just provided an excellent primer on why a third way is needed and what that path forward might look like in his new book For the Sake of the Bride.  Agree with his conclusions or not, I posit that it would be difficult for anyone to come away after reading this book without respect for Harper’s prayerful and heartfelt analysis both of our situation and a potential path through the present morass.

As someone who has invested a considerable amount of time in seeking out a Via Media between the extremes that dominate our church (and churches), I am deeply grateful to Dr. Harper for his work.  Below are collection of quotes pertaining especially to the third way as Harper narrates it (the largest number of quotes come from chapter 4, entitled “A Third Way”).  I highly encourage you to buy, read, share, and discuss this book with your classes and small groups as soon as possible.  In a perfect world, this would be required reading for all General Conference 2016 delegates, if for no other reason than its basic ecclesiological focus: a concern for the health of the Bride of Christ that is usually not evident in those who seek to tear her to shreds in order to get their way.

But enough from me.  Here is your sample – but make sure to pick it up and read it in full for yourself.  I would love to hear your own feedback on these quotes or the  full book in the comments section.

“Early in my experience I saw more clearly than ever before that Jesus was able to make friends with people who were unable to make friends with each other. I saw that this was a deliberate choice on his part […] In short, I saw the inability of dualistic thinking to take us where we need to go in restoring intended honor to the Bride.” (9)

“Dualistic thinking pervades nearly every part of our lives, especially evident in advertising, which reinforces the ‘good, better, best’ mentality and which (even if kindly) tells us that one product is superior to another. Dualistic thinking not only tempts us; it trains us to use the same tactics when we deal with people, places, and things. Almost without realizing it, we are conditioned to enter into life not simply differentiating, but dividing and conquering.  To come out of this process requires insight and courage. The insight is fundamentally that those who choose a third way will not be welcomed by either of the sides. And because we like to be liked– by somebody, anybody– we gravitate toward a side rather than calling the process of taking sides into question. Jesus challenged the status quo when he told his disciples not to trust the yeast of the Sadducees or the Pharisees (Matthew 16:5). Neither side had the complete picture. The whole ministry of Jesus was a third way…”

“The very nature of the third-way enterprise will be limiting and incomplete, because we do not often see it attempted. We do not see it fully applied in the divisive issues of our day. And when we do, it is often caricatured as inadequate by the dualistic thinkers who must have it one way or the other.  An invitation to a third way is actually more difficult than choosing a side and then defending it to the death.” (14)

“…this book is a call to find a third way that enables the sides of the debate to bring their best to bear upon finding a new way to move forward into the future.” (62)

“…the old processes have patterned us toward negativity and divisiveness. The way of love does not accept these attitudes and actions as the only options that we have.” (86)

 

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“To This Annoyance We Are Called”: Why Dialogue is Not Dead in the Church

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Orthodox icon of the Council of Nicea, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend I am heading to New York to participate in a panel discussion as part of the Just Resolution in the Ogletree case.  I am grateful for the invitation and I’ve been doing my best to prepare.  When the panel was announced, many cried foul: “We’ve been talking for 40 years!” “Dialogue is dead!”

Both the left and the right are difficult to please with these conversations.  People associated with Love Prevails (for whom “love” apparently means crashing every gathering of 2 or more Methodists with placards and a video camera) declared that “violence” was done at the recent Connectional Table panel discussion, presumably because one person was bold enough to suggest the Book of Discipline might be correct.  Conservatives often feel set-up in these discussions, which, is claimed, often seem weighted against them – this was certainly true in the CT dialogue, which makes the resulting progressive outrage all the more confusing.  Conservative Methodists have also pre-determined that I am a progressive because I have been known to criticize the right (because, if you aren’t for us, you are against us), and thereby dismissing me before the conversation happens.  Thus, if you listen to those on the fringes, it is easy to believe that dialogue is fruitless.  But there are others who deserve a hearing.

In his dense but valuable little work Church in Crisis, Oliver O’Donovan examines the sexuality controversy in the Anglican Communion.  He notes that a major part of the crisis was a failure to do the hard work of communal discernment:

…the North American churches merely acted, in default of a thorough deliberative process of their own, under the force of strong cultural pressures, the reasons for which they never explained even to themselves, since an ill-conceived doctrine of pluralism persuaded them that thinking was an unnecessary labor. They may have suffered something worse than a bout of racism, if such a thing can be imagined; they may have suffered an implosion of their powers of practical reason, the result of long habits of irresponsibility. And since theology is nothing if not a discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together, unless they recover it, their days of being churches of any kind are numbered.” (53)

Theology is not some academic pursuit that is or should be confined to cloistered students in seminary, but the name given to conversation with and through the Church.  While it is easy to lose patience with what O’Donovan called the  “discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together,” to shun this calling to cease being the Church.  That said,  we should also be honest enough to admit that it can also lead to much consternation, especially in a worldwide communion like Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, or the United Methodism.  Differences in culture, language, theological emphases, political context, and other matters can lead to a great deal of friction in the work of Christian conversation.  But, O’Donovan notes,

“…to this annoyance we are called, as Christ warned and as generations of the faithful have since proved. The question is, what sacrifice of faith we would make if, to avoid this annoyance for ourselves and so spare the church its turmoils, we were to close down on the reading and interpretation of Holy Scripture, if we were to declare that there was nothing to discuss any more.” (81)

Of course dialogue is uncomfortable. It’s always easier to live life surrounded by those who do not challenge us (studies suggest that those around us impact our ability to reason independently).  But God’s people are not called to comfort, we are called to the communion of love and truth that is the Body of Christ.  We are called to struggle with the Spirit, trusting that God will not leave us without His voice.  Afterall, it took us centuries to get to Nicea (pictured above), and thus to define some of our core doctrines; it never has been and never will be as simple as an appeal to Scripture and/or common sense.  We are called to wrestle, and, like Jacob wrestling until morning, we may walk away limping. But we might also discover we’ve received God’s blessing in the process.  O’Donovan concludes his book with an exhortation to keep striving:

“But at the very least we cannot know whether and how much of a famine of the word there is in any disagreement until we submit it to disciplines of patient common inquiry…

There are no guarantees. There never are in the Christian life. But that is not a reason not to try. And seriously trying means being seriously patient. Anyone who thinks that resolutions can be reached in one leap without long mutual exploration, probing, challenge, and clarification has not yet understood the nature of the riddle that the ironic fairy of history has posed for us in our time.” (118-119)

Our calling as Christians is, in part, a calling to be in conversation with one another, in charity and humility.  As Paul said to the Ephesians,

“…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ” (Ephesians 4:1b-3)

May God continue to give us patience to live out our calling as the Body of Christ – even when it is annoying –  and may we followers of the Crucified One lay down our arms so that we can endure each other.  And this, not out of some sentimental devotion to harmony, but out of devotion to the triune God, that the Church may be one and the world may believe.

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You are Not an Independent Thinker

BubbleBoy

Living in a bubble is safe, but it can also make us hostile to what is outside. Courtesy WikiSein, the Seinfeld Encyclopedia.

What if we aren’t the independent thinkers that we fancy ourselves to be?

One of the most troubling aspects of debate in today’s church and society is the regionalism that seems so triumphant.  Why is it that certain regions should be associated with, say, gun rights on the one hand, or other areas known for environmental concerns?  Why are churches in some parts of the world very LGBT-friendly and others more traditionalist?  Why is it that I can guess where most of my colleagues stand on things based on what seminary or university they attended?

Let me tell you a story about a series of experiments.  Some were done in the 1950’s and others were repeated more recently.  The basic purpose: to determine how much basic decision-making is influenced by being a part of a group in which one or more parties loudly advocates for the wrong answer.  Susan Cain describes these experiments in her marvelous book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  The earlier experiments come from a Dr. Asch:

Asch gathered student volunteers into groups and had them take a vision test. He showed them a picture of three lines of varying lengths and asked questions about how the lines compared with one another: which was longer, which one matched the length of a fourth line, and so on. His questions were so simple that 95 percent of students answered every question correctly.

But when Asch planted actors in the groups, and the actors confidently volunteered the same incorrect answer, the number of students who gave all correct answers plunged to 25 percent. That is, a staggering 75 percent of the participants went along with the group’s wrong answer to at least question. (Susan Cain,  Quiet [New York: Crown 2012], 90, emphasis added.)

Notice: a few loud voices drastically altered the ability of people to solve basic, simple problems.  When these experiments were repeated under slightly different conditions more recently, Asch’s conclusions were vindicated by a researcher named Bern and his team:

The results were both disturbing and illuminating. First, they corroborated Asch’s findings. When the volunteers played the game on their own, they gave the wrong answer only 13.8 percent of the time. But when they played with a group whose members gave unanimously wrong answers, they agreed with the group 41 percent of the time. (91, emphasis added.)

Once again, the ability to give correct answers to basic questions is dramatically altered by the presence of a voice or voices giving incorrect answers.  Cain goes on to note that detailed exploration in the latter study revealed that the brain itself was affected by the presence of the group.  She concludes,

Peer pressure, in other words, is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem.  these early findings suggest that groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too. It’s not that you’re saying consciously, “Hmm, I’m not sure, but they all think the answer’s A, so I’ll go with that.” Nor are you saying, “I want them to like me, so I’ll just pretend that the answer’s A.” No, you are doing something much more unexpected – and dangerous. Most of Berns’s volunteers reported having gone along with the group because “they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.” They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.” (92, emphasis added.)

We are blind to the effects of peer influence.  In other words, we are not the isolated “thinking things” (as James K.A. Smith would say) that modernity would claim.  All of us are influenced by our communities, friends and social environs, to the point that our brains are actually altered when we are surrounded by others advocating for a particular answer.

If this is true for the basic, simple problems used in the experiments above, how much more could it be true for complex questions like health care, abortion, and churches blessing gay and lesbian marriages?

Right or wrong – quite literally – we are influenced by the people with whom we surround ourselves.  This is why dialogue is vital, because retreating into the echo-chambers of our idealogical allies may make us less capable of coming to different conclusions, even though the people around us could be wrong.  It’s easier, of course, to only engage with people who agree with us.  Life inside the bubble can be quite comfortable.  The womb is a cozy place, but we cannot become adults there.  And besides, there are higher goals to pursue than comfort.

What do these findings mean for how we should seek answers to the tough questions we face? How can we be sure our convictions are not just groupthink?

At the very least, this tells me that a hermeneutic of charity is always needed.  Because it is actually very difficult to determine where my convictions and the convictions of my social location differ, we should be haunted and humbled by this: I may be wrong, even in those those things that I feel most strongly about, and especially if I am surrounded by others with whom I agree. This does not mean we won’t, or shouldn’t, have convictions. But it should impact the way in which we hold those convictions.

What do you think?

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A prayer for those considering schism

by Drew

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Anger is easy.  Prayer is hard, especially for one’s enemies.  And yet, that is the work we are called to do as Christ’s body.

News today broke that is not totally surprising and yet nonetheless sad – pathetic, really.  “Conservative” UMC leaders are openly having discussions about actions ranging from withholding apportionments to outright schism.  While division over matters of sexuality and covenant has been ramping over the years, the group stated, “the present reality, where a growing number of United Methodist bishops are unwilling to enforce the Book of Discipline, is unacceptable and untenable.

Apparently the childhood lesson we all learned has not sunk in to this group: two wrongs don’t make a right.  I am also concerned about the response of some bishops to breaches of the Discipline, and yet I don’t see that as a reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

And so I offer this prayer from the United Methodist Hymnal, #564.  Oddly enough, it is a Chinese prayer, no doubt from the pen of a Christian who appreciates the true nature of oppression, and the need for a unified church to witness against all that is dark and evil. I offer this prayer for myself and for others, on all sides and on no side.  May the Spirit of the Christ who prayed that we “might be one” prevail against all self-righteousness and individualism.  May the Holy Spirit drive out the spirit of this age in all its forms.

Help each of us, gracious God,

   to live in such magnanimity and restraint

that the Head of the church may never have cause to say to any one of us,

   “This is my body, broken by you.” Amen.

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Where is the Good News? (Or: Please Stop Giving Money to the Caucuses)

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Emmett Kelly, courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Good News, a conservative evangelical caucus, is not pleased with how things are going in the UMC.  A statement following a recent board meeting, denouncing our current state of affairs as “untenable,” read in part:

“We see the present situation as untenable. We are aware of conversations taking place among leading pastors and other groups around the country to examine what options are available for those of us who are biblical Christians and who have agreed to live by The Book of Discipline.  Those options include sweeping reform of the church or the creation of a different kind of future.  If we are one church, we cannot act as if we are two.  If in reality we are two churches, it may not be wise to pretend any longer that we are one.  Many are discussing the wisdom of churches continuing to fund a denomination that is unwilling to live by its policies and whose chief officers do not enforce its beliefs.  Some have already curtailed their financial support in protest.  Concrete and dramatic actions are likely to come out of those conversations in the next few months.”

Notice the vague language: “We are aware of conversations”; “leading pastors”; “some” and “many,” etc.  This got me thinking about how complaints and controversial matters are handled on church boards.  One of the rules that any healthy church holds among its decision-making bodies is something like “speak for self, use only ‘I’ statements.”  This is because often times people will attempt to manipulate a process of discernment by implying that untold numbers of persons have a problem with thus-and-such.  You’ve probably heard of conversations like this.  “Pastor, a bunch people are really upset about [x].”  Or, “I’ve been talking to a lot of people, and they are thinking about leaving unless you do something.”  Oftentimes, the unnamed masses are really just one or two ornery troublemakers who are attempting to augment their influence by claiming others as anonymous co-conspirators.

I would hope that Good News, composed as it is of many who serve in various leadership capacities in local churches, would be astute and honest enough to avoid this kind of power play.  These kinds of veiled threats are, on the whole,  unbecoming of the body of Christ.  What is true at the local church level is equally, if not more so, true at the level of denominational advocacy.

A particularly troubling tactic is the threat of withholding funds unless the one gets their way.  An all-too-common ploy, this is often reserved by power brokers in a local church to use when all else has failed.  Again, what is true of the parish is true of a caucus; hostage-taking should be beneath an organization dedicated to the renewal of the church.  It is, pure and simple, a manipulative tool unworthy of Christians in covenant together.  Apportionments are not dues paid when all is well, but the shared burden that makes shared ministry possible.  As I would say to someone in my church, you aren’t withholding from the local church, you are withholding from the God to whom you have promised a portion.

One last request: can we stop resorting to the self-righteous rhetoric that declares some Christians “biblical” and others (by default) “un-biblical?”  Perceiving oneself as following Scripture on a particular ethical question probably doesn’t mean that one follows every jot and tittle of Scripture at all times.  In that sense, none of us are “biblical.”  This is the conservative equivalent of the Christian left accusing anyone who questions their agenda “homophobic.”  Both are often crass and self-serving adjectives that say nothing helpful in furthering a conversation.

Perhaps the time has come for the people called United Methodists to withhold their funds from these caucus groups, which seem to be more and more intent on running headlong toward a cliff.  They don’t seem to be getting us anywhere: they aren’t sharing good news, they aren’t interested in reconciling, they aren’t confessing anything interesting, they only want love to prevail through bullying and intimidation, and rather than “religion and democracy” they are promoting idolatry and ideology.

Mind you, this is just a humble proposal.  I’m not aware of any others expressing a similar desire. So I won’t promise you that incalculable legions have my back on this.

I’m just speaking for myself.

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How Not to Renew the Church: The IRD and the Need for a Better Conversation

by Drew 4 Comments
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We can do better than this.
Image courtesy freedigitalimages.net.

Recently John Lomperis, the director of the United Methodist arm of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, blogged about how progressive UM leaders had supposedly conceded that they had lost the debate about human sexuality. This was a distortion of what Reconciling Ministries Network president Matt Berryman had indicated in his comments, but that is a separate issue. What most troubles me is how Lomperis spent three paragraphs (read them yourself at the link above) attacking the progressive UM position in what he called a “fairly summarized” manner.  The rule of Bible translation is that every translation is also an interpretation, and in that regards Lomperis’ interpretation of the progressive position was more caricature than summary. And that was far from the only problem with Lomperis’ post.

I attempted to offer what I felt was a friendly and fair critique, but alas, my response was not approved.  Here is my comment, unaltered from what I attempted to submit at the bottom of the post in question on the IRD’s Juicy Ecumenism blog:

Since when is it acceptable to simply put words in the mouths of one’s opponents for paragraph after paragraph? This is a hatchet job. There is no news here, it just a screed designed harden the opinions of fellow right-wingers.

This is particularly ludicrous: “…the usual arguments between theologically liberal and culturally conformed vs. biblical and counter-cultural approaches to the Christian faith.”

First of all “biblical” is a meaningless term in this context, as both sides claim the Bible in support of their views. Secondly, the obviously right-wing political tactics and linguistic hyperbole frequently employed by the IRD are clearly in line with the typical methods of the – highly secularized, mind you – culture wars and are in no way “counter-cultural.”

Lastly, if you are going to pontificate about bullying, anti-Golden Rule behavior, get the log out of your own eye before pointing out the splinters of others.

There is a place for criticism and we need voices on all sides UMC, and of course you have a right to your opinions. But you need to rethink your tactics if you think this kind of work is going to further your cause. It should be beneath any organization ostensibly dedicated to the renewal and strengthening of the church.

For more:
http://www.pastormack.wordpress.com

Of course, there is an irony to calling yourself the Institute for Religion and Democracy if you cannot bear to hear critical voices.  What is even more sad is a look at some of the comments that were approved, including this (a direct quote):

Jared says:

The gays in the UMC should simply give it up because everyone knows that Homosexuality is unnatural, abnormal, shameful, vile affection, perverted, and God has promised to judge all unrepented [sic] homosexuals! Stop trying to force people to believe the nonsense that you’re spouting.

Now, most of what the IRD puts out is far from this flagrant and malicious, but what does it say about them that this kind of support is publicly allowed while a relatively benign critique like mine is verboten?

Encouraging the worst elements in the church while stifling conversation is not the way forward. Renewal will not come by attempting to “win” some sort of ideological battle while burying our heads in the sand to other voices.

We need a better conversation: one that is able to hear other voices, not just lampoon them. A conversation in which all sides are firm in conviction, but charitable and fair to others in both language and tactics. We need to hear each other, and not just lob bombs before retreating back into our respective bunkers.

If that interests you, I encourage you to join my friends Stephen, Evan, and myself with a new project we are working on called Via Media Methodists. We are looking for a better way. We think God has plans for the United Methodist Church, that there is a way forward, and that it will only be discovered as those of us from different places (geographically, theologically, and ideologically) begin to converse, pray, and wrestle together.

There is a better conversation beginning to happen. I hope you’ll be a part of it.

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A Stirring Ode to Methodism: A Response to Mark Tooley

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Methodist DNA, courtesy of United Methodist Memes

Earlier this month, Mark Tooley of the always-cuddly IRD got a Chris Matthews-style “thrill” up his leg courtesy of John Piper’s poem “The Calvinist,” now set to a dreamlike video complete with cheesy musical score.  This surprisingly apparently moving poem stirred up all kinds of warm fuzzies about Calvinists for Tooley:

“These determined people endured the flames, created their own cosmology, generated revolutions, crossed oceans, conquered virgin lands, built civilizations, and writ themselves large across history. Calvinism inspired literature, art, work ethics, and systems of governance. Theirs is a world of fire and drama.”

This is in contrast, he says, to the Methodist world. We Methodists are a friendly bunch, with our pot lucks and warm smiles, but we are not particularly inspirational. “Methodism doesn’t easily spark the electricity that Calvinism often has,” he laments. Tooley even asks if we would have the moxie to produce something akin to Piper’s bold poem/video.

I’m afraid this confirms a long-held suspicion for me: the leaders of the denominational caucuses, left and right, are not lovers of the Methodist tradition. They look longingly to the progressive utopia of the UCC or Episcopal Church, or enviously to the famous pulpits and lockstep doctrinal enforcement of the Reformed and conservative evangelical communities, and everywhere see greener grass than that of their own ecclesial yard. Yes, they love that John Wesley was inclusive, or read the Bible a lot, but their interest in being United Methodist Christians pales in comparison to their desire to see their ideological agendas win out among competing factions. I am reminded of Solomon deciding the case between two women who both claimed to be an infant’s real mother (1 Kings 3:16-28); the difference here, of course, is that both “mothers” (read: ideological agendas) would sooner see the baby split in two than the other side “win.”

But on to my own Ode. I have no gift for rhyming; I’m no Jay-Z or Charles Wesley, but I do love my church family, warts and all. Yes, there is some truth to Jon Stewart’s charge that we can be the “University of Phoenix” of religions, and we’ve all felt the Methodist Blues. Wesley’s descendants are nice to a fault, which is probably why the LifeWay study showed we have the most positive name recognition of any denomination. We don’t have celebrity pastors like John Piper or Mark Driscoll (for which we thank the Almighty), but we do have some pretty awesome folks like Will Willimon and Adam Hamilton. If the 19th century was the Methodist century, and the 20th century was the Christian Century, then the 21st sometimes looks to be a dystopian spiritual landscape in which only the most shallow or extreme forms of Christianity can survive. What is left for the messy middle, or, more properly, the Extreme Center?

I believe the movement started by the Wesleys still has much to offer. We do not have great systematic theologies from our founders to pore over like the Calvinists do, but we do possess  some excellent sermons and correspondences, and hymnody so fantastic that even stoic Presbyterians can appreciate it. We may not be known for dogmatic rigidity, but we are doctrinal bridge-builders: Wesley’s eclectic approach to soteriology combined the juridical concerns of the Christian West and the therapeutic focus of the East in a unique manner that offers a potential grounds for détente between these two long-separate parts of the Body of Christ.

That is characteristic of Methodism, actually. As my teacher Randy Maddox (see link above) put it, Methodists hold together what other Christians often pull apart. We can boast a love for Scripture & tradition, works of mercy & works of piety, spiritual & intellectual formation, evangelism & sacramental life, grace & works, personal & social holiness.  In other words, we demand to have the cake and devour it, too.

Moreover, we may not have American theologians as renowned as Jonathan Edwards, but we have an impressive network of hospitals, camps, universities, and other mission agencies (in the US and abroad) doing God’s work in diverse ways. Our empire may not have the grandeur of Calvin’s Geneva, but we can boast an early emphasis on abolition and women’s ministry that Calvinism cannot.

Tooley sounds forlorn when stating that Methodism, while quaint, doesn’t “spark the electricity” that Calvinism does. But Jesus never describes the Kingdom like a bolt of lightning (that has a decidedly pagan ring to it). Instead, he says it is like a mustard seed: small, but growing into a giant tree. Or, the Kingdom is like leaven, working slowly and quietly, but with great impact. No, Methodism does not snap and crackle like Calvinism does, but if a little less wattage is the price we pay for not having the horrific imagery of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” on our conscience, it is a happy trade in my book.

As for poetry, I’ll see Dr. Piper’s wager (as sexist as it is simple) and raise hymn (ha!) a Charles Wesley tune which, for my money, has more beauty in this single stanza than Piper’s entire poem:

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

In closing:

For me, being a part of a church is a bit like a marriage. We belong to the church in sickness and in health, for better and for worse. When other suitors begin to look more attractive than our own spouse, it’s not time to wax poetic (and adulterously) about someone who is betrothed to another. Rather, it is time to rekindle that old flame and remember the covenant. That might be my prescription for Tooley and for all in my tribe to who appear to be more about “Right” or “Left” than anything resembling the faith and practice of the Wesleyan movement (or about Jesus, for that matter!): take some time, look at the old photographs, pull out the love letters from the shoe box in the attic, and remember that no relationship grown cold has ever been reignited by singing the beauty of another.

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     If you can’t say anything nice about your own church,
          at least don’t sing the praises of other churches.

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Idolatry is Bad Ecclesiology

by Drew 0 Comments

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“God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear?”

-Acts 15:8-10

It’s been a rough couple of weeks in the UMC, at least if you believe social media (which, as is rarely admitted, is a highly privileged, Western-centered conversation). The Council of Bishops met at Lake Junaluska, and much speculation was rampant about how they would respond to Bishop Talbert’s open violation of both the clergy covenant and the official requests of his colleagues. This week, the church trial of a pastor who performed a wedding for gay son has continued that heightened anxiety. Even an event designed to help young adults hear the call to ministry became a battleground of the culture war that has infected our denomination and many others. Everyone seems to be convinced of their faction’s absolute moral authority, whether it is thinly veiled Tea Party theology of the IRD, or the tolerance as the sum-total of the gospel that one finds in the Reconciling camp. Many of us are stuck in the middle, disliking both options for a myriad of reasons. Everyone seems to be weighing in with thunderous words from Olympus, either celebrating or lamenting. To me, it all just feels wrong: the trials, the need for them, the reaction to them, and the lack of attention given to things we could actually move the needle on if we focused our attention and resources (like the Philippines). I don’t know what the alternative is, but I did find a good description for where I think we are in one of Reinhold Niebuhr’s short essays:

“Politics always aims at some kind of a harmony or balance of interest, and such a harmony cannot be regarded as directly related to the final harmony of love of the Kingdom of God. All men are naturally inclined to obscure the morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity. This is why religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm. The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, from “Christian Faith and Political Controversy,” in Love and Justice, (Louisville: WJK 1992), 59.

We need a better way, a third way, a truly Christian way. We need to stop relying on the way the world gets things done – bomb-throwing, trials, activism, platitudes as a replacement for genuine argument, and media stunts – and try something truly Christian: holy conferencing (which, by this author’s assessment, can’t happen in the social media space), sincere prayer, and a hermeneutics of charity. We need to at least attempt to get inside our opponents’ heads and hearts, stop presuming the worst, and cross the picket lines. We idolize our own positions so much that even basic communication becomes impossible. This isn’t working.

We all need to lay our idols down, come out of our ideological fortresses, get with Jesus (who did not identify, no matter what Reza Aslan says, with any of the factions of his day), and start over.

Let us close with an honest and yet hopeful word, maybe even a prayer, from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from  “The Rock”:

In spite of all the dishonour,
the broken standards, the broken lives,
The broken faith in one place or another,
There was something left that was more than the tales
Of old men on winter evenings…

The soul of Man must quicken to creation.

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