Election Angst Parallels the UMC

The landscape has already changed in the US and the reason that the Republicans lost is because they did not recognize the changes. This sounds eerily similar to the situation in the United Methodist Church. Our base is shrinking. We are 92% white, getting older, and dying out. If we don’t do something immediately to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people then we can start planning the denomination’s funeral.

The election has convinced the last naive dreamers that this isn’t our parent’s USA. Certainly there are conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans and vice versa, but, for the most part, the two parties are differentiated by ideology and demographics. The results are in and once again we’re a blue state/red state country. Those most upset by the election results are the ones who had hoped that ideological and even theological conservatism had one more shot at relevance. The likes of Billy Graham even disregarded the cultic heresy of Mormonism to endorse Republican Mitt Romney. Mormons are the only so-called Christian group that UM clergy have to rebaptize because their baptism or religion does not represent orthodox Christianity (2008 Book of Resolutions #3149, pp. 306-307).

In last week’s election many people saw something more frightening than the upcoming fiscal cliff. They saw the world as it has been known pass the tipping point between the way things used to be and the ways things are going to be. It’s about time reality set in! Have mercy, as a District Superintendent, I am often reminded of our denomination’s inability to be forward-thinking. Some of our new churches and a few existing ones are multicultural and represent many races, but those are more likely to be adjacent to a nearby military post. The majority of my churches are not diverse. It’s a significant indictment upon our inclusiveness when the US military out gains the church in reflecting the diversity of the Kingdom.

Now, I get our mindset. It’s a natural propensity to hang on to the status quo, and to be homogeneous. Humans have a history of us vs. them that goes all the way back to Cain and Abel. I am not arguing that we need to become flat-world universalists, but that we become whole world evangelists holding fast to salvation through grace, repentance and reconciliation. Orthodox Christianity has an opposite anthropology than Mormonism. Mormonism has a system that exalts humans to gods with their mantra, “As Man is, God once was.” In other words, they actually believe that human beings can attain Godhood through a litany of requirements.

United Methodism and orthodox Christianity says that we are made in God’s image to be sure, but that image has been marred at the very least. We cannot save ourselves.  Grace and a Savior are needed for us to be restored to God’s image, but never so much as to become gods. Our belief is that Jesus offers grace so that we can be made Second Adams and Eves, not planetary rulers coupling and populating our own worlds into eternity. Mormon theology says that every child’s soul is birthed through the result of the continuing procreation of an elevated former man and woman who have become gods of planet earth through their good deeds. Orthodox Christianity believes Jesus is God come to earth to save humans, not that humans save themselves and become gods.

Therefore, we believe everyone stands in the need of grace and salvation. At the foot of the Cross the ground is level. Nobody is bettter than anyone else. All stand in the need of grace. A key problem is that our churches don’t demographically reflect this truth. Our “all” is 92% white. Our churches are mostly homogeneous. We are not reaching more people, younger people, more diverse people. We are hiding in a 1950’s dream that isn’t reality. We need to model John Wesley and reach all people. The hope of humanity is the Gospel that everyone needs without exception. The church as we know it has to die to its provincialism and reach a new world!

Bishop John Hopkins shared the following at a Connectional Table meeting several years ago. It’s worth repeating:

“An interesting article was written in a journal called The Public Interest. Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York, is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to this story.) Starr Concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live. It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant. There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own. 

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation. And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone who he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism. “Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote an editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.) Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.” Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, former editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.) He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.” Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implications in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

Wow! Three very different people see about the United Methodist Church what we can’t even see about ourselves. It’s time for us to offer the Gospel to everyone and welcome them to the Table! The world needs a new generation of United Methodists to lead the way. Will we?

Election Eve

With political campaigns in hot pursuit of a victory tomorrow, we have already heard a plethora of promises that seem to stretch the limits of veracity. Some pollsters say that the deciding factor in this year’s presidential campaign is trust. Unfortunately, since negative ads and truth-o-meters are NEVER unbiased, this year’s campaign has been relegated to a shallow-minded popularity contest mixed with a smattering of empirical data. Daily tracking polls are so skewed in my mind that they aren’t believable at all.

They are about as reliable as the college football polls. Who do you believe? Gosh, in my neighborhood there are signs for “Beth” or “Joan” galore. I have been robo-called way past annoyance. On Election Eve, I unenviably feel like Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?” Personality is what’s left to go on when you can’t perceive the truth of what someone says. With some of the local contests I don’t even know their personalities so I ask my neighbors and hope that they know something tangible! What a terribly vulnerable position to be in. Spin-doctors tell us what they think we want to hear, and we’re gullible enough to buy it. Perception, unfortunately, often outweighs substance.

Poor voter turnout underscores our distrust of the political process. Knowing how to trust and whom to trust are issues that haunt our lives from the political realm to the person in the mirror. Questions of integrity affect our relationships at work, school, and home. In the midst of this climate of distrust, however, a bigger question looms: “What is lonelier than distrust?”  Christian community and the imago dei in all of us demands that we live and work in an interdependent society. If we are made in God’s image and God lives in the Community that we call Trinity, then we better get our act together and work for the common good. With Hurricane Sandy relief and the shadow of a year-end fiscal cliff, we must lay aside partisan differences and put others before self!

So whom do you believe? Have you made up your mind? I know some people who can spot gold-diggers from a mile away. They are also pretty cynical and judgmental. I should know because I’m one of them. To go through life trusting everyone goes against the grain of my natural skepticism. I have been burned too many times to let my guard down. At the same time, however, I wish that I could return to the innocence of childhood. Better yet, I want to be at that place where Blaise Pascal says, “We arrive at the truth not by reason alone, but also by the heart.”

Getting my head and heart together is a difficult task, but this synchronization is the essence of why we have religion, and one of the hopes that I have for politics. The mental ability to discern the truth and the heartfelt innocence to believe that truth is possible is perhaps one of the most beneficial products of faith. Doubt, scientific inquiry, and study combine with faith to evaluate the substance of truth. Shucks, this is the essence of a good political process, too! The 18-inch connection between head and heart will determine who I vote for tomorrow.

An example of not putting one’s head and heart together to find the truth is found in a story about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was trying to make a point. His hearer was unconvinced and stubborn. So Lincoln tried another tactic. He said to his opponent, “Well, let’s see now. How many legs does a cow have?” The disgusted reply came back, “Four, of course.” Lincoln agreed, “That’s right. Now, suppose you call the cow’s tail a leg; how many legs would the cow have?” The opponent replied confidently, “Why, five, of course.” Lincoln came back, “Now that’s where you’re wrong. Calling a cow’s tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg!”

Your heart saying something is truth without your rational mind verifying it is the basis of most cults. So, where do we turn for a balanced approach in our search for truth? How do I get to this kind of synchronization before tomorrow? The answer isn’t in political pundits or switching back and forth between CNN and Fox. Our source of truth as Christians isn’t even the candidates themselves, however sincere they might me. The answer is Jesus Christ! He claimed of himself, “I am the Truth,” which is saying a lot more than, “I’m telling the truth!” or “He/She is lying!” Only in Christ can we find the whole truth, and avoid the seductive power of half-truths. God bless us all tomorrow, and may God’s truth prevail! Like the test for prophets, one strike and you’re out, we really won’t know the truth of God’s preferred future until long after Election Day. Until then we need to work with whomever is elected to make the best of everything for everybody. That’s, afterall, what God does with us!