The United Methodist Sandwich

Someone asked me the other day where I’ve been, as in blogging. General Conference left me and our denomination in a kind of fog. There were high moments of grace when the Arapahoe and Cheyenne forgave us for the Sand Creek Massacre that was led by a Methodist Lay Preacher. The depth of heartfelt grace in the convention center was palpable. I felt a lot less grace when a thousand points of order, derisive accusations, and stalling tactics derailed any hope of recapturing Methodism as a movement.

Sure, we made some good, even great, decisions. A new hymnal was approved and that’s such a wonderful thing. We are much better at singing our faith than articulating it. In other good news, we gained 1.2 million new members, raised $75 million dollars to help eradicate preventable diseases like malaria, and we celebrated milestones like the 60th anniversary of full Clergywomen’s rights, the 30th year of Disciple Bible Study, and the 25th year of Africa University.

There was so much more for which to be grateful, but where are we really as United Methodists? The aftermath of General Conference has left me speechless for the most part with intermittent bouts of verbalized frustration. I’m somewhat at the point of thinking of us as a sandwich. There are two slices of bread on either side of the middle, and though the bread is extremely important, what’s in the middle is what’s most important. It makes it a sandwich. Perhaps if we focus on the middle we can find reasons to celebrate and move forward. I honestly think the middle is where most of us are.

The middle is a scary place and it’s usually not a very satisfactory place to be. The June 6, 2013 edition of The Atlantic has a helpful article by Larry Alex Taunton. It’s about college students who were formerly Christians, but now count themselves as atheists. The author observed these commonalities: they had attended church; the mission and message of their churches was vague; they felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions, they expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously; ages 14-17 were decisive; the decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one; and, finally, social media factored heavily into their conversion to atheism.

Since the theme of GC2016 was “Therefore Go,” implying a focus on making disciples of Jesus, then we need to listen to these young adult atheists. All of Taunton’s observations strike me as especially pertinent to United Methodism. Several even more so: “the mission and message of their churches was vague,” and “their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.” Did we come out of GC2016 with vagueness? Will the creation of a special Commission add to our lack of clarity, or will it actually help answer life’s difficult question about the practice of homosexuality?

Interesting, isn’t it? On one hand there’s a sense that we became vaguer even though the Discipline’s language on homosexuality did not change, and, on the other hand, the Commission is going to try to tackle one of the most difficult questions of our time. All the while, I want young adults and every one of every age to come to know Christ. On that, we must not be vague. In a paraphrase of systems-thinker, Ed Friedman, “Clarity equals maturity,” but, self-differentiation is difficult in a one-size-fits-all denomination that values equanimity and consistency. So our struggle is about what can we be clear about, and what can we leave ambiguous.

We can agree that Jesus is Lord, even while we hold to very different meanings of the atonement. Connectionalism is a core value, but worship styles may vary. We certainly agree that together we can do more than if we’re apart. Our seemingly insurmountable impasse is said to be about homosexuality, but I think it’s also about covenant. We are in the thick of a battle between competing covenants, and some of us claim that our understanding of covenant is more sacred than another’s. But are there different levels of covenant? Perhaps, and that’s the source of much of our conflict.

To illustrate, our W-2’s, voter registration cards, military oaths, federal loan agreements, and driver’s licenses represent civil covenants with the government, and all of these implore people to act responsibly. Our ordination documents and the Book of Discipline are at a different covenantal level, very much like marriage. When we were ordained we knew what was expected and required. Marriage vows are very clear, too, “in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” Certainly, there have been people who just went through the motions of a wedding without due consideration of the gravity of these statements, but that’s no excuse for violating, ignoring, or devaluing the holy covenants we’ve made.

That word “holy” may make all the difference. Some covenants are actually holy, while others only rise to the level of a “deal” or a “transaction;” i.e., like the ones that I enumerated about citizenship, though Memorial Day makes me feel the weight of holiness as I ponder how much is owed by so many to so few.  Nevertheless, systems theory and doing a transactional analysis of GC2016 may actually help the UMC. The Council of Bishops’ Commission gets to rethink what is or isn’t a vow. Hopefully, they will study the theological impact of “covenant” on both homosexuality and our ecclesiology, our very identity as a church.

Someone came by my office this morning and made me ponder our denominational situation with two statements. The first was, “Help me to choose the harder right than the easier wrong.” Secondly she stated wisely, “Help me to bring gentleness to the hard places.” We’re so afraid of the hard places, but being between a rock and a hard place is the meat of the sandwich that we call United Methodism. I pray that I can choose rightly and bring gentleness to the hard places.

13151536_10154922476912575_6754839860366658336_n

Trinity Sunday as United Methodist Hope

General Conference 2012 was a wake-up call for United Methodists to recapture our ecclesiology based on the Trinity. Much of our muddling was because we left out the theological underpinning that we so desperately needed to be civil in holy conferencing and to do good, not harm in our actions. I think that two of John Wesley’s best contributions to theology come from his understanding of how we as human beings are reflective of the Image of God, the imago Dei. Those two emphases, simply put, are an intentional concentration on sanctification and conferencing. While other faith groups emphasize that humankind carries the Image of God in a legal way that underscores dominion and ownership of the earth, Wesley believed primarily that we are made in the Moral Image and the Social Image of God. If God does the right thing, we being made in God’s image should do the right thing. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Hence, our Wesleyan understanding that God doesn’t save us in Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

Then Wesley really hit the jackpot in emphasizing our reflecting the Social Image of God. One of the best ways to think of the Trinity as social community is through the Greek word perichoresis. Think of two words to get at its meaning, peri is where we get the beginning of our word perimeter. It means “around.” Choresis is where we get the first part of the word “choreography,” which, of course, is about “dancing.” So the Greek or Eastern word with which Wesley felt most comfortable when thinking of the Trinity, literally means “Dancing Around.” When we see God as Parent, Child, and Spirit; Father; Son, and Holy Ghost, we see God dancing around in community, with intimacy and unity of purpose – a great model for Christian Community that provides a Wesleyan basis for holy conferencing. If God needs to dwell in community how much more so do we? So, as United Methodists, we have charge conferences, annual conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences, and general conference. The work of community is also found in Wesley’s class meetings and small accountability groups. The image of God is literally in our DNA and especially as it is reflected in our ecclesiology, our practice of being and doing church in the world.

The first Sunday (June 3, 2012) after Pentecost is always Trinity Sunday in celebration of God’s Three-In-One nature and action on creation’s behalf. If you’ve ever tried to explain the Trinity to a child or an adult, you know how difficult this doctrine is to comprehend. Though believing in a Three-In-One God seems more polytheistic than monotheistic, I don’t care. The more the merrier. I need all the help that I can get. I need God’s loving care as a parent, as Jesus the Savior, and through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity makes sure that we as individuals plus the Godhead are always a majority against any enemy. To be clear, however, we are monotheists. We just believe God has chosen to reveal God’s self through three distinct but indivisible persons.

To be sure, the Trinity is an unfathomable mystery. Every analogy from water (liquid, solid, and gas) to St. Patrick’s shamrock falls short of explaining the unexplainable mysterium tremendum of the Trinity. However, we miss the greatness of our God unless we accept how God has presented God’s self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Harry Emerson Fosdick illustrated the revelation of the Trinity by pointing to various portrayals of Theodore Roosevelt. His Autobiography portrays Roosevelt as a statesman, politician, president and public figure. His Winning of the West portrays Roosevelt as a sportsman, hunter, explorer and soldier. His Letters to His Children shows him as a winsome, lovable, gentle father, husband and family man. Each one of these portraits was true to whoRoosevelt was. We know enough from each one of them to know something. But even when we put them all together, we still don’t know everything there is to know about who he was.

Likewise, Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC says, “If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and obfuscating, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and invisibly the one and only you.”

The Trinity is an affirmation of teamwork – One in Three and Three in One. Madeleine L’Engle says, “The Trinity proclaims a unity that in this fragmented world we desperately need. We are mortals who are male and female, and we need to know each other, love each other. The world gets daily more perilous. Our cities spawn crime. Terrorists are around every corner. Random acts of violence increase. Less understandable and less advertised is the sad fact that Christians are suspicious of other Christians. Don’t we have all the central things – God, making; Christ, awaking; the Holy Spirit, blessing – in common?”

The Trinity, therefore, models the unity that we should share. As United Methodists I hope that we will embrace our Wesleyan and Judeo-Christian heritage as bearers of the Image of God. If we can reflect God in doing good, not harm, and remember that we need each other in Christian community then we have a hopeful future. However pained many are in the aftermath of General Conference 2012 there is a way forward. Trinity Sunday is a superb reminder if we will ponder it!

The Journey of a Connectional People

>

Well, one more day of the Worldwide UMC Study Commitee. I’m looking forward to driving home tomorrow. It’s been a good meeting. The right issues have been raised about what’s contextual around the Connection and what’s universal and holds us together. There seems to be consensus that we will retain our unity and not slip into an Anglican-style confederation that abrogates our connectional polity. The discourse has been an example of holy conferencing. We have heard from divergent segments of the church from traditional and progressive caucus groups, general agency representatives, and persons from the Central Conferences. I sincerely hope that the US will not fragment into one or more regional conferences. I promise to help craft the best legislation possible while retaining my commitment to our distinctive polity. This isn’t about human sexuality. This is about our structure expediting effective ministry. Form should follow function. The question must be answered as to what we value: special interests or the common good. The local church and the annual conferences are the locus of primary disciple-making. Whatever we do must support and empower laity and clergy on the local level. There is much to process from what I’ve heard. It is humbling to be part of this group. Each person plays a vital part. I, for one, promise to keep localism as a core value without allowing regionalism to trump our identity as a movement of God. We will meet in Manila in the Spring and Africa later in the summer. It will be good to hear from the people in the places where the church is growing.

Human Self-headeness or Christ as the Head

I have been at two back-to-back General UMC meetings: The Connectional Table and the Worldwide UMC Study Committee. The Connectional Table coordinates the mission and ministry of the denomination and decides budgets. The WWNC is studying how we can be a worldwide church allowing autonomy in certain ways in diverse areas of the UMC while defining boundaries of non-negotiables that hold true for the entire denomination. Tomorrow and Tuesday we will hear from divergent and opposing groups on the issues. The defining issue that seems to be driving a desire for the US branch of the UMC to form its own regional conference or conferences is the practice of homosexuality. I think we should spend more time listening to the voices of those outside the US. By listening to US groups we perpetuate the reality voiced by overseas UM’s that we are a US-centric church that is structured to enable a codependency model and neo-colonialism. I think it is a matter of spiritual warfare for the heart and soul of the UMC, and I don’t think this hot-button issue should be the primary force for dismantling our time-tested ecclesiology. Our polity is one that does and should embrace diversity, but not at the expense of connectionalism. It is a work in progress. I embrace process theology that is dynamic and not static, but though theology should have local variation, doctrine should be off-limits. The first and second Restrictive Rules in the UMC Constitution protect our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. Our difficult task is to discern what is doctrine and what is theology. So… pray for us to have wisdom and truth-telling in love as we work on this task.

Of more importance than any of this is whether or not we witness to people of Jesus’ power to save and transform. Our only hope as a church is to share Jesus. All the tinkering and special-interest maneuvering is irrelevant if we don’t share Jesus with hurting people. What the world needs is Jesus. You can’t legislate the Gospel, you have to share it. May it be so! We can promote regional self-headeness (autonomy), but not if it replaces Christ as Head of the Church with Humans.