The United Methodist Church – God’s Music Box

Epiphany season is the sacred season of miracles, the extension of grace beyond the confines of Judaism, and the celebration of God’s presence among all peoples. When we say that someone has had an epiphany we know that it means that they have had an “Aha!” moment. When was your latest epiphany? For a lot of us epiphanies have been few or non-existent in the year 2011 and we can’t wait to turn the page on a rough year.

Generalized fear and malaise has created what friend Dr. Tom Frank calls a “rhetoric of crisis” in our denomination. Sadly, this kind of panic is crossing all cultures, faiths, and political persuasions. Just this afternoon, no doubt to capitalize on the Mayan 2012 “End-of-the-World” predictions, the movie “Deep Impact” came on TV. At least there was some good theology with a spaceship named “Messiah” and people chosen to stay for 2 years underground in the “Ark.”

Unfortunately, fear mongering and empty promises are daily fare for folks in the church and culture. Just have a listen to political candidates. Who wins in the Iowa Caucus will probably be the one who panics people the most and at the same time offers the best panacea. Cough syrup for someone dying of lung cancer doesn’t get it done. The medicine has to match the malady, and that’s the problem with crying “Wolf!” without credibility and/or a proper solution.

With General Conference looming there are lots of people doing the “Iowa Thing,” as I’ll call it, in the church – bemoaning the future of the United Methodist Church while offering answers we already know are only half-measures. Removing “continued availability of appointment” AKA “Guaranteed Appointment” from the Book of Discipline may seem like an answer for underperforming clergy and the churches that have suffered through them, but what about how that changes our theology of prophetic proclamation. There surely need to be easier and quicker exit strategies for people whose gifts and graces are wanting or waning. However, I’m reminded of Edwin Friedman’s seminal work, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

The title says it all, doesn’t it? Quick fixes demand later fixes to correct unintended consequences.  I am not one to want to do the usual thing and set up another study committee to report to the next General Conference, but can’t we at least put theology before the financial cart concerning some issues? In the IOT/CT restructuring legislation, for instance, the qualifications of the 15-member Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry that will control the work of all the agencies of the UMC and nearly $2 Billion in assets says nothing at all about years of service to the church or theological background – only a litany of business skill sets.

Others whom I greatly respect have predicted a “death tsunami” that will exacerbate our rapid decline in church membership. Out of fear and/or faithfulness there are well-meaning people in the UMC who have called for such radical changes in the ways that we do ministry via itinerancy, connectional ministries, and ordination that our theological identity could be  muddied beyond recognition. This might be a good thing though.

We’re used to things being muddy in our Via Media (“Middle Way”) conjunctive faith history a la Dr. James Fowler and his Stages of Faith. So why not put ordination first and full conference membership last as the legislation asks? It will help our relationships with other Christian bodies, so it’s said. Ah! But there’s the rub: We’ve already failed at that since we can’t produce any proof of apostolic succession in UM ordinations anyway!

We were meant to be a movement not a domesticated legitimized institution, but I’ll keep listening, learning, and hoping that I’ll soon have an epiphany at the Pre-General Conference News Briefing in Tampa. I need more information. My mind isn’t made up on so many things. Do I panic or reach out to new possibilities with hope? I’m being pulled to and fro by the dissonant tunes of those who cannot separate doctrine from theology, the essential from the non-essential.

I can’t help but think of Friedrich Nietzsche, great doubter of the 19th century. He once wrote a letter to a friend disparaging dull and dead Christians: “If these Christians want me to believe in their god, they’ll have to sing better songs, they’ll have to look more like people who have been saved, and they’ll have to wear on their faces the joy of the beatitudes. I could only believe in a god who dances.”

What Nietzsche and maybe even more United Methodists have failed to realize is that God likes to dance. Better than that, Epiphany season is a reminder to those of us who are dull of mind and feet that God wishes to dance with us, especially as the discordant sounds of church squabbles rise! This is mostly metaphorical, to be sure, but the sheer truth is that God wants to dance a jig with us as partners, confused though we are. The key is that God has to lead so the cacophony turns into a symphony!

I sure can’t lead when it comes to music. I’ve never been very talented musically. Music enthralls me. It helps me worship. It inspires adoration. The problem is that I can hardly carry a tune. When I was preaching on TV for the 9 years prior to becoming a District Superintendent the folks in the video booth learned to turn off my microphone if there was any way my singing could be heard. I love to sing, loudly and with feeling, and it sounds fine to me, but others say it’s more like a joyful noise. Maybe more like a joyful train wreck, with wheels screeching.

The closest that I’ve been to good music is listening to good choirs, contemporary Christian musicians and bands, “Celtic Woman” on PBS, and the occasional live concert. As I was growing up we had an old Polyphon, a German music box that played large 19 inch diameter metal discs. You might say that it was the precursor to the record player or the juke box since it had a slot for a large cent on both sides of the wooden case. We would put on our favorite disc (mine was entitled, “The March of the Cameron Men”), and let the big sound of the music box fill the house.  It was marvelous.

As we approach a New Year, Epiphany season, and General Conference, I think God wants us to fill our lives just like the sound of that music box filled our house. God wants each of us to carry the sound of God’s love song to the world. That marvel would surpass any off-beat notes and screeches that you or I can make and whatever comes of what happens at General Conference. That sound will be music to the ears of a world that thinks we’re irrelevant. Don’t we believe that the church is of God and will endure to the end of the age? It might end up with a different name than the one we’re used to or have myriad theologies yet timeless doctrines. No matter what, this Epiphany season I want God’s music to flow from me, into me, and beyond me to the entire world so that “Aha!” moments might abound to the glory of God – dissonance turned to harmony.

I don’t want to let embarrassment or confusion stop me from dancing. I, therefore, need to get over my fearful “rhetoric of crisis” driven music-aversion and timidity, and just let it rip! There’s a heartbreaking scene in the film “Shall We Dance?” where a dance instructor working with a beginning student berates him in front of the class: “Stop. Control yourself. Stop slobbering like that. Your hands are dripping wet. You’re making me sick. There’s no way you’re becoming my partner.” The man is humiliated but courage rises enough so that he looks up to speak: “Do I really make you sick? Am I really that disgusting? Do I really look that bad?”

How would you feel if your dance instructor/partner looked at you with disgust? It might make you want to give it all up, but here’s the good news of Jesus’ Epiphany for us in 2012: God delights in dancing and singing with us, regardless of either our great skills or pronounced inabilities. The joy in the exercise isn’t in the precision of our steps or voices. It’s not in the exhilaration of being swept away by the moves or the music. The joy of the dance is in the delight of our partner’s eyes and our Partner is God. Epiphany season is a chance for you to sense the smiling eyes of God on your life. “Join in the tune. Dance with me,” says our God! Is this a positive way to envision what seems herky-jerky in our attempt to dance with God and each other in “Holy Conferencing” at General Conference? I pray so!

Polyphon Music Box
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7 thoughts on “The United Methodist Church – God’s Music Box

  1. This is a quite dense and wonderful post that will take some time for me to digest. But one point stands out for me. It is not perhaps your MAIN point, but I don’t want it to get lost in the discusion… I am deeply concerned about the possibility of the end of the guaranteed appointment. As one of the pioneer clergywomen in the Florida conference (I was ordained a deacon in 1979 and an elder in 1981) I valued that safety net tremendously. I spoke with the authority of the conference backing me up. As a clergywoman, my ministry was NOT focused on gender issues, however. I did my best to proclaim the Gospel of Christ—and THAT challenges many of the contemporary values of our church and our culture. United Methodist preachers NEED the guaranteed appointment in order to be free to preach what may be a difficult message for a congregation to hear. I have read many posts about the Call to Action, but you are the first person I have read who has mentioned the need for guaranteed appointments. THANK YOU.

  2. Holly, Sorry the post is so long even for me! A lot on my mind – headed this coming Wednesday to speak to SEJ Assoc. of Conference Lay Leadersfor 2 hr presentation on Call to Action, restructuring, and ALL these issues. For some of my other thoughts go to the archive and go to 10/27/2010 “UMC Call to Action Assessment”, 11/7/2011 “Women Clergy and Stained Glass Ceiling,” and 10/21/2011 “United methodist Pope and Problems of Consolidation. There’s other stuff under tag cloud for Call to Action and United Methodist Church, UMC. We need safeguards for all clergy in proclaiming Gospel – goes back to John Wesley and model deed and his society meetings. There does need to be an exit process that is less cumbersome but must not violate the restrictive rule in UM Constitution against clergy right to trial. Preach on!

  3. Oh! I have read several of those posts. I am glad you will be addressing that group next week. Your voice deserves a hearing. I am afraid the delegation meetings are being used by the Council of Bishops to promote CTA. I have thought and prayed deeply about how the church needs to change, and I am convinced that the solution involves the way we use our money and resources. “Follow the money”…I have submitted a petition to GC2012 that I think deserves serious consideration. I am proposing that annual conferences establish a salary RANGE for pastors–a minimum salary and a maximum salary that is no more than twice the minimum. If a church votes to pay MORE than the maximum set by the conference it may do so, but if it does, it must also pay the same amount over the maximum to the Equitable Salary fund. In addition, a conference may give those funds to other conferences with greater need for clergy support. (Central Conferences especially). Anyway, I would like you to read and consider my petition before you go next week. I’ll be happy to email it to you, or anyone else who DM’s me with an email address…

  4. Holly, You need to know that I’m not opposed to CTA’s emphasis on vital congregations though metrics gives me indigestion if it’s used AGAINST effective clergy in ineffective churches. The IOT/CT legislation needs corrective measures for the COB. The agencies are already addressing their disconnect from local churches and size. The COB is not addressing their disconnect. I would lean toward a revitalized CT that holds agencies accountable, no 15 member uber board of directors, and amke sure that bishops are present and effective in their AC’s. The agencies were started by grassroots passionate people about needed issues and then from 1968 to 1972 they got turned into bureaucratic silos. We have to recapture the passion and decentralize. See my blog post about UMC as a Starspider if haven’t already. Thanks for discussion and blessing for Epiphany and New Year!

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