Archive for the 'United Methodist Church' Category

A Church Full of Yes

“In a world full of no, we’re a plane church full of yes.”

“…in [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” 2 Corinthians 1:20 NRSV

Have you noticed what I’ve noticed? More and more of us (myself included) are investing more and more time and energy in “NO-ing” our neighbors who don’t see and do life our way. It happens in business, politics, church, child-raising, and more. It happens in the common space we share, both physical and online. Civil, respectful co-existence is becoming increasingly rare in our life together.

Some of us find temporary respite when we board an airplane. At least that’s the tone one airline’s cocktail napkin seeks to set for your flight. Just walk down the jetway, turn off all your electronic devices, settle into your seat. Relax on “a plane full of yes” while we cruise along miles above that “world full of no”. It’s an attractive invitation, especially when you’ve had “a day full of No”. Unfortunately, some Christians have helped our movement become known as a people whose favorite word is “NO!” That doesn’t sound to me like the Good News of Jesus or anybody else! But I know lots of people who might welcome an invitation to “a church full of Yes”. We United Methodists could be that church. But we have some hard work before us if we want to embody that welcoming invitation!

Last February our General Conference (the official legislative body) gathered in St. Louis. Those 800+ delegates spent three days “No-ing” each other in a severely polarized debate over the church’s position with regard to LGBTQ+ persons. Many of us heard a harsh “NO!” as the body narrowly adopted legalistic and punitive legislation called the “Traditional Plan”. That NO spoke volumes to LGBTQ+ folks already within our church and also to “all sorts and conditions of persons” desperately seeking “Yes” in whatever “world full of No” they live in.

Three months later, divorce is in the UMC’s future. The once-strong 10-million member United Methodist Church will most likely re-form into multiple Methodist bodies . As I write, folks from various factions are gathering [sometimes even across party lines, thank God!] to talk and listen, to worship, pray, study, and envision the future of the Methodist movement. Our journey toward God’s promised future won’t be easy, simple, or quick. It involves working through countless details regarding legalities, dollars, property, and (most of all) people and relationships.

Believe it or not, I find hope in this apparent chaos! Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of men, women, and even children and youth are talking, listening, writing, praying, studying, visioning, and dreaming toward the future. God’s Spirit is working through their messy work together.

It’s hardly the first time. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached to Jesus’ first followers:

“In the Last Days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they’ll prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18 MSG)

Last week my wife and I took another plane trip. That napkin showed up again! It brought this old man a bit of a “dream and vision”. Can we turn the page to the next chapter God has for us? Can we Methodists move beyond “NO-ing” each other to become “A church full of Yes!”?

“…in [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” (2 Corinthians 1:20) “A church full of Yes” lives to help each person within our reach hear God’s unconditional Yes to his or her life. We value every person’s God-given uniqueness. With Paul we affirm the rich diversity of God’s gifts to God’s people: “Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful…” (1 Corinthians 12:7 MSG)

“A church full of Yes” welcomes people in all ages and stages of life. Some churches have a rug at the front of the sanctuary. Children can sit there, see the action more clearly, play or draw, and know they belong in this family of God. Some churches offer gluten-free communion bread, adaptive listening devices, large-print bulletins, space for service animals, and other accommodations that enable full participation

Omaha, NB First UMC works hard to help its youth hear God’s Yes. The eight middle-school students in this year’s confirmation class (preparing for full church membership) closely followed the events surrounding General Conference. Ultimately they chose not to become full members of the church at this time. The statement they wrote and shared with the congregation describes their childhood church experiences. Those experiences taught them that “…[the community of faith] is where children belong.” The statement explains their concern with the church’s direction following events at General Conference. “Because we were raised in this church,” it concludes, we believe that if we all stand together as a whole, we can make a difference.” Watch for these young men and women to continue growing in their faith and help build “a church full of yes” wherever their lives take them.

“A church full of yes” also stands with those to whom the world says “NO”. In Jesus’ time that included lepers, Gentiles, women, and assorted folks whom the religious leaders labeled “unclean”. Today’s “unclean” might include the poor, the homeless, those who are old, infirm, mentally ill, or developmentally challenged. It might include folks from ethnic or religious minorities (Jews, Christians, or Muslims, depending on your context), racial minorities, folks of unconventional sexual orientations.

In our world of No, we reject those whose ideas are disturbingly different. We reject whoever makes us uncomfortable for any reason. We pretend they’re not there. We “marginalize” them. We push them back to the farthest edges of life. But Jesus seeks out those folks we’ve “marginalized”; the folks the “upstanding townspeople” actively and brutally ran out of town. Jesus embodied “…every one of God’s promises…” for these folks who lived in “a world of no”. He touched them, healed them, welcomed them, loved them, empowered them.

Those who’d lived in that “world of No” grew into “a church full of Yes”. Their Yes to God’s Yes to God’s Yes in Jesus made them more together than they’d ever dreamed of being by themselves. This, wrote the late Rachel Held Evans, is God’s dream for God’s people. God gathers the most unlikely group of folks around the table. What brings us together? We’ve all said “Yes” to God’s “Yes” to us in Jesus Christ. And we know “there’s always room for more”.

Let’s build this church together! Right here where we live our lives, in the middle of what so often seems to be “a world full of no”, among our neighbors desperate to hear God’s Yes. “…in [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.'”

OUR TENT JUST SHRUNK!

Folks who follow this blog have heard me describe myself as a “prenatal Methodist”. My parents met through Epworth League, a church-related youth/young adult group. The Methodist Episcopal Church nurtured my parents’ growing faith and social conscience through “big tent” faith communities that embodied founding father John Wesley’s vision for the Methodist movement: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

That “big tent” welcomed my father and other conscientious objectors to military service as World War II dawned, as well as my uncles who served in the US armed forces. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, persons of Japanese descent,  many of whom were US citizens, were interned (imprisoned) in camps for the duration of the war. My mother served in the church’s ministry to those folks who lived in very difficult conditions. Some folks opposed this ministry because it felt to them like “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”. But the church’s “big tent” made space for folks with all those diverse viewpoints. Some of my mother’s Japanese intern pen pals became lifelong family friends-and Methodists!

Maynard Memorial Methodist Church, the church that helped raise my sisters and me, was located in the city of Los Angeles. Across the street was Culver City, a suburb where many church members lived. During that time (the 1950’s and ’60’s) Culver City realtors shared an unwritten “covenant” not to sell homes to African Americans. As the Civil Rights Movement grew, some church members recognized the racist nature of this practice. Our pastor at the time led the church to begin getting acquainted with an African-American congregation. That process began with an annual pulpit and choir exchange. Not everyone approved. But our Methodist “tent” had room for whites and blacks to worship together, and also for those (both black and white) not yet ready for even that step.

Maynard was about a mile away from Palms Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Methodist and EUB denominations were working toward a merger in 1968. A few years  before, the two pastors began intentional preparations for that event. They took time to build their own relationship. Then they led their two congregations to share events together and begin praying and dreaming toward their common future. Ultimately the two congregations merged as Culver Palms United Methodist Church. They sold both church properties built a new facility in a far better location. The process was not without its ups and downs. Sometimes folks struggled to “…be of one heart…” But they persevered and built a roomy, spacious tent where they could welcome their new neighbors. Almost fifty years later Culver Palms continues to serve a diverse urban congregation. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of congregations have their own unique “big tent” stories of learning to …,love alike…” even though they don’t always “…think alike.” That’s who we United Methodists are.

This week in St. Louis our United Methodist “big tent”  was rudely and drastically remodeled. Politically skilled and very hard-working conservative delegates won the day at the specially-called General Conference (the denomination’s global legislative body.) . Their “Traditional Plan” prevailed by 54 votes out of some 800+. This action reaffirmed the official denominational stance adopted in 1972: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” (2016 Book of Discipline Par. 304.3). LBGTQ+ persons have been ineligible to serve as clergy or to be married in church facilities, and UM clergy have been forbidden to perform same-sex weddings. As adopted, this legislation continues those provisions and adds draconian sanctions for anyone who violates the rules–clergy, congregations, even bishops and annual conferences.“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?

That loud noise you heard last Tuesday may have been the UMC’s well-advertised “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds” slamming shut! Many now see the UMC not as a “big-tent” church where all God’s people are welcome, but as a church that treats LGBTQ+ folks as second-class Christians at best. This prenatal Methodist struggles in vain to recognize the perpetrators of this action as heirs of Wesley’s movement: “May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” This faction apparently wants to shrink the UMC’s “big tent” to fit only the “one heart” and “one opinion” acceptable in their sight. They reject the last fifty years of growing scientific, psychological, theological, and cultural understanding of human sexuality. They reject the experience of countless Christians who have moved beyond fear and literalism. Bible study, prayer, scientific progress, and simply getting to know our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in Christ has convicted more and more followers of Jesus that we can no longer exclude these brothers and sisters. God’s love in Christ embraces them, just as they are, as it does all of us.  

It will take some time to understand fully the impact of this action. The new legislation is scheduled to take effect January 1, 2020. First it will be reviewed by the Judicial Council, the UMC’s “Supreme Court. Some or all of it may well be declared unconstitutional. The church’s regularly scheduled General Conference in 2020 will almost certainly address these issues. Clearly we are headed in a new direction, but it’s far from clear exactly what that direction is.

Meanwhile Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, arrives next Wednesday, March 6. I invite you to lay aside church politics for Lent. Let’s dig deep into our faith. Let’s focus on the basics–Love God and love your neighbor as yourself–all your neighbors, especially the ones easily within your reach. Regardless of where we stand on this issue, let’s invite God’s Spirit to form us anew into the people and the Church of God’s dreams. May we grow into a people whose loving, welcoming spirit overcomes both the perception and reality of closed doors, hearts, and minds. Let us lay aside our anger, disappointment, bitterness, and resentment. Regardless of where we stand on this issue, let’s invite God’s Spirit to form us anew into the people and the Church of God’s dreams. Let’s dare to ask God to make us a living example of Wesley’s vision: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”

A colleague suggests that we treat this transitional time like Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. It’s eerily quiet. Death seems to have the upper hand. But we hope against hope toward Resurrection! On Saturday the full force of Resurrection Life energy is let loose–until the power of evil is overcome once and for all. Whether we see it or not, transformation happens in the deepest depths. Death is dying. Life is rising. Good blossoms from what we believed was unredeemable evil. A door opens where we’d seen only a dead end. God’s new day dawns for all God’s people!

 

 

Generous Orthodoxy II–Deeply Personal with Global Implications

Three months ago I shared “Part I of a Few” about Generous Orthodoxy. Theologian Hans Frei coined the term to describe a position beyond liberal/conservative theological polarities. “Orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness,” he wrote, “and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.” But how do we navigate that tension? How do we hold together opposing polarities? How do we engage in meaningful, respectful dialog with those whose views are polar opposites of ours?

I started writing Part 2 in early December. Then Life intervened, as it often does, with travel, holiday festivities, peaks and valleys, surprises, and U-Turns. But Christmas also sharpened this message. Christmas proclaims Love’s visible, tangible reality. God had sent assorted prophets and other messengers to tell Israel the wonder of being children of God. Finally God said, “Look, I’ll show you,” and poured Limitless Love into one human life –Jesus of Nazareth. That bold grace-full act transformed “God is love” into “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood…” (John 1:14 MSG).

“Incarnation”is the theological word that describes God’s  decision to embody/enflesh Love in Jesus. At its  best, following Jesus is always incarnational. At our best, our words, deeds, and presence are a seamless whole. We embody our faith in deeds ranging from almost-invisible acts of love and care to highly-public game-changing acts of personal sacrifice and/or leadership that energize a transformative movement. Incarnational faith looks like Schweitzer, King, Bonhoeffer, Tutu, and countless more disciples whose names we don’t know but whose lives speak volumes. 

The United Methodist Church (of which I’ve been a part as long as I’ve been) has before it an unprecedented opportunity to practice Generous Orthodoxy. In less than three weeks its General Conference (churchwide legislative meeting) will convene to address the church’s nearly-fifty-year-old running disagreement over human sexuality. Political maneuvering and gamesmanship are escalating. The noise level is peaking.  Advocates talk past each other so loudly that they overwhelm quieter voices calling the church to prayer to seek God’s will for our future. Florida Bishop Kenneth Carter has urged the church to conduct this dialog in a spirit of Generous Orthodoxy.

From where I sit (admittedly very far from the church’s inner workings), very few seem to be hearing and embracing Carter’s message. Are the delegates that laser-focused on legislative technicalities, parliamentary maneuvering, and–quite honestly–Winning? I want to believe the vast majority of those 864 folks prayerfully seek the best solution for the whole church. Legislation and rule-making are part of that process. So is the hman impact of their decisions. How has the church’s continued exclusion of LGBTQ persons from full participation affected those children of God? How will this General Conference’s decisions (or indecision!) impact them, and all the millions of UM members with various perspectives? What does Generous Orthodoxy look like in one life, one family’s life, especially when addressing this sensitive and highly charged issue?`

Rev. Chester Wenger just wanted to follow Jesus and be the best father and Mennonite pastor he could be. He didn’t know he was practicing Generous Orthodoxy long before Frei, Malcolm Gladwell, and others coined the phrase. Chester and his wife SaraJane served as missionaries in Ethiopia for many years. After the family returned to the USA, Chester continued his outstanding work in missions and Christian education. 

In the late 1970’s 15-year-old Philip Wenger told his parents that he was gay. Chester reaffirmed his love for Philip–and shared his hope that Philip would “grow out of it.” Chester also set out to learn all he could. He studied Scripture and read widely on faith and human sexuality for ten years. (Somewhere during this time Philip told his father that he hadn’t “grown out of it”.) Chester’s intense study led him to understand and accept Philip’s sexuality. Philip was excommunicated by the Mennonite church because of his sexual orientation. The Wenger family’s eight children continue to be divided on the issue. Some support their church’s position against same-sex marriage. Some believe same-sex marriage can express a couple’s Christian faith.  Long before “generous orthodoxy” had been named and described, the Wenger family had made generous orthodoxy their way of life.

SaraJane Wenger, Rev. Chester Wenger, Philip Wenger, Steve Dinnocenti

In July 2014, Pennsylvania recognized same-sex marriages. Phil and Steve, his partner of twenty-seven years, immediately applied for a marriage license. They asked Chester, now 96, to marry them.  Following the wedding Chester reported his action to his ecclesiastical superiors. “…they responded with grace-filled pastoral listening,” he said, “while acknowledging that what I’d done was out of step with established credentialing agreements…Afterward the…credentialing committee met…and retired my credentials…I am at peace with their decision and understand their need to take this action.” Why had Chester performed his son’s wedding? When asked, he replied, “…he’s my precious son.

A few months later Chester wrote “An Open Letter to My Beloved Church”. Do take time to read the whole letter. Toward the end, Chester said, “My wife and I are devoted to the Lord, with a firm commitment to the authority of the Scriptures. We strive to be faithfully obedient to Jesus. We invite the church to courageously stake out new territory, much as the early church did. We invite the church to embrace the missional opportunity to extend the church’s blessing of marriage to our homosexual children who desire to live in accountable, covenanted ways…My dear companion of 70 years and I declare our enduring love for Lancaster Mennonite Conference, for the Mennonite Church…and for all God’s people. We carry no bitterness or regret…We pray that our love in family and Church will bind us together in God’s family even when our understandings of God’s will may differ. Christ’s prayer for oneness in John 17 can be attained!” 

May Chester and SaraJane Wenger’s spirit of reconciling love infuse General Conference as it does the church’s business. And may Bishop Carter’s vision of generous orthodoxy be embodied in all they do and say: “…generous orthodoxy begins with God, and more specifically with the grace of God…A generous orthodoxy will rediscover the practices of Jesus in the gospels, calling all people into communion with him. Is that call a tacit approval of who we are, in our humanity? No, and this is true for gay and straight people…the ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross, and this is the common ground of grace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Transformed NonConformists, the Creative Maladjusted, and the Spirit

For the secomakingdisciplestransformationnd year in a row I’m helping teach our church’s Confirmation class. Confirmation in the United Methodist Church (and some others) invites students in middle-school and above to take a deeper look at Christian faith. Ideally these young men and women will  “confirm” as their own the Christian faith they’ve learned from their families and their church. We’re about a month away from our church’s Confirmation celebration. On that great day, these youth will join twelve million other United Methodists in our mission “… to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. “ (2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline, Par. 120). They’ll share our mutual promise to support this mission with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness”. While this generation’s discipleship will reflect their God-given uniqueness and the times in which they live, they’ll also show a strong “family resemblance” to previous generations of the Christian community.

The world in which we live and serve as “disciples of Jesus Christ” hasn’t stood still during our four-month journey. It’s continued to change at a pace somewhere between breathless and chaotic. Much of that change runs counter to our vision of “the transformation of the world”. I wonder how well we’ve equipped our students for their/our transforming mission. Doing church “the way we’ve always done it” won’t work any better than it has for the last few decades. Our class is learning the Church’s traditions. One we often fail to teach is that God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) and invites us to partner in that continuing process of God’s Spirit uses God’s people to tell the Christian story in new ways that touch peoples’ hearts and “make new” our ever-changing world.

Jim Wallis wrote recently about an inter-racial, ecumenical gathering on the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 5, 1968) at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ebenezer is the church both Dr. King and his father served for many years. Wallis’ closing remarks that evening included some of Dr. King’s own words: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists … The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creative maladjusted.” (Strength to Love)Transformed NonconformistDr. King described the post-Easter church perfectly! Jesus’ first followers formed a community of radical sharing. They welcomed the poor, the crippled, everyone their Jewish religious leaders had labeled “unclean”. Then Peter and Paul threw open the doors of the church to Gentiles—the most unclean of all! And that was just the beginning. These “transformed nonconformists” were out to change everything!  I would argue that the Spirit moves more often through out-liers than through the Establishment:

  • In 5th-Century Ireland pirates captured a Christian named Patrick. This “nonconforming minority” of one got to know his captors so well that he translated the story of Jesus into their own cultural expressions and eventually baptized many of them.
  • In Germany in 1517 a “creatively maladjusted” young monk challenged the massive Christian monopoly known as the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s boldness ignited a revolutionary transformation in the Church of Jesus Christ.
  • In early 18th-century England two seminarians invited fellow students to form an intentional community. These “Methodists”, as their critics called them, set out to live a more disciplined Christian life together. They embraced their new name. John Wesley wrote the words for the new movement, and his brother Charles wrote the music. John struggled for a while, but eventually experienced a personal transformation that focused and energized his ministry. The “nonconforming minority” called Methodists grew into today’s global Methodist movement that is millions strong.

The history of the Church is full of “nonconforming minorities” and “creatively maladjusted” communities like the Desert Fathers, the Mennonites, Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, Howard Thurman and the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, Henri Nouwen and L’Arche Daybreak, Sojourners Community, Cecil Williams and Glide Memorial Church. Beyond these headliners, millions of very ordinary followers of Jesus share God’s transforming love in Christ each day in countless ways all over our planet.

Last fall I wrote about “Doing Jesus’ Laundry”.  Fifteen-year-old Caroline Gowan needed a community service project to complete requirements for a Girl Scout award. Caroline and her mother regularly made their own laundry detergent, and donated some to their church’s food  pantry. Clients welcomed it because it saved them some money, but they still spent up to $20-30 every time they went to a laundromat. Caroline thought, prayed, studied—and formed a plan. She arranged to use a local laundromat one afternoon a month. She enlisted her church’s help with donations of money, supplies, and volunteers. She spread the word as widely as she knew how. Last June “Loads of Love” began washing clothes and sharing God’s love in Bonaire, GA. They come in with dirty laundry,” Caroline says, “and leave with a renewed spirit and clean clothes…I feel like not only am I doing something for the people around me and that I am doing something for people I don’t even know, but that I’m doing something for the Lord. I am doing Jesus’ laundry!”

A few daysJesus Laundry ago I heard from Caroline’s mother! She’d seen my post. Caroline had received her Girl Scout Gold Award. “Loads of Love” continues “doing Jesus’ laundry” in Bonaire, GA and many other communities. Last Friday,” Michelle said, “27 volunteers from her family joined [Caroline] to serve the people in this community in honor of our grandmother and her legacy of service. Cousins came from all over the state and we had a family reunion at the laundromat. We began the night with $250 in quarters and when we left, we had done dozens of loads and had $315 in the box. There is no way to explain it other than ‘loaves and fishes math’. One thing she knows; God wants her to continue this ministry”. 

Thank God for “transformed nonconformists” like Paul, Peter, Patrick, Caroline Gowan, and all the rest! Thousands of youth are in Confirmation classes like ours this Spring. May the Spirit form them into “transformed nonconformists” serving our God who “makes all things new”!

This Is Our Witness?

My oldest grandchild texted me this link a couple of days ago. “Take a look at this,” she wrote, “and tell me what you think when you get a chance.” The link opens an article about the church trial of United Methodist pastor  Frank Schaefer for officiating at his gay son’s wedding six years ago. His action violated the denomination’s clear prohibition of clergy performing same-sex marriages.  Rev. Schaefer was found guilty of violating the policy and suspended for thirty days. At the end of his suspension he must either agree to follow all provisions of the United Methodist Book of Discipline (the denomination’s law book) or surrender his ministerial orders.

This whole affair was news to my granddaughter. She’s not a United Methodist, so she hasn’t followed our internal conflict closely. She’s been raised Catholic, and has grown into an intelligent, curious young adult with intense curiosity about a wide range of issues. Like many young adults a couple of years out of high school, she’s working, taking college basics, and figuring out what’s next.

I texted her back that a meaningful response required more than 140 characters and followed up with an extensive email. It included a brief history of the issue (we’ve been arguing for forty years without settling anything), and outlined what defines the “sides” in both church and culture. I described how cultural attitudes have changed as our understanding of human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular have evolved. I described the impasse at the 2012 General Conference and the subsequent responses of “Biblical Obedience” , a form of ecclesiastical civil disobedience advocated by the 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference and others who continue to work to change the church’s policy, and the insistence by the Good News organization and others that “rules are rules” and those who break them should bear the consequences. Finally I mentioned Bishop Mel Talbert’s presiding over a gay marriage in Alabama in late October  and the subsequent action of the Council of Bishops requesting that a complaint be filed against him.

If you’d told me twenty years ago that this was where we’d find ourselves, I would have doubted your sanity. We’re dragging our pastors into church courts for performing their children’s weddings? For forty years we’ve held together the tension between “All persons are of sacred worth” and “…homosexuality is incompatible with Christian practice”? No wonder things are coming apart! Successive General Conferences have chosen power politics (vote-counting and arm-twisting worthy of Congress!) over acknowledging that people of deep faith are on all sides of this issue? We’d choose to resolve our differences with a series of church trials that at least one writer calls “A Methodist Inquisition” ? This is our public witness in the second decade of the 21st century?

Call in the spin doctors!. Maybe we can airbrush away the wrinkles, blemishes, and parts we want to hide in the darkness. Too late. This is who we are right now and the whole world sees. Young adults like my granddaughter see it. Faithful young United Methodists feeling called to ministry see, and wonder whether they can fulfill their calling with integrity in a polarized church; folks attracted by  our “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” marketing struggle to reconcile the promise with the closed minds, hearts, and doors in this bizarre tale.

We have to do better. For God’s sake we can and must do better. Let our public witness lift up the life-changing role of the United Methodist Committee on Relief in disaster relief and recovery in the Philippines and all over our planet. Let our public witness spotlight urban ministries that are transforming cities all over our country. Let our public witness show how “Imagining” No Malaria has fueled a wide-ranging partnership among diverse people and institutions that’s making “No Malaria” a growing reality. Let our public witness tell the story of thousands of faithful ordinary congregations in all sorts of circumstances. Let our public witness highlight countercultural faith communities that welcome those who are unwelcome everywhere else. Let our honest, prayerful, Christ-centered process of working through this conflict and its underlying biblical and philosophical issues become our powerful public witness.

I don’t know the next step. I do know that folks on various sides of the issue will have to step up in remarkable, Christlike ways. I do know what Paul wrote to some early Christians who’d rather fight than reconcile: “…to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.” (1 Corinthians 6:7 NRSV) I know that Paul identified Christlike love as the ultimate spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 13). I know the advice about Christian maturity in Ephesians 4 which includes “…speaking the truth in love…” (v. 15), “be angry but do not sin” (v. 26), “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander…”(v. 31) and “…live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (5:2).

Most of all I know that every new chapter in this “Methodist Inquisition” leads to death, not life. We’re not that far from becoming a circular firing squad. Everyone stands in a circle with their guns pointed toward the center. At the command “Ready, Aim, Fire!” all fire simultaneously—and you know the rest of that story. We can, must, I pray will, find another way. It’s not just a survival issue for our church. It’s far more important. It’s a life-and death issue for millions who need the Love that’s made us who we are and now reaches out to love others through us. It’s a matter of faithfulness to all who have loved us to life in Christ; to all who have gone before us in the history of the church; to succeeding generations like my granddaughter who would love to be part of an authentically- loving faith community. Most of all, finding a new way forward is a matter of faithfulness to our Lord who goes before us to build a New Creation–with or without our participation.

Let’s Not Fix Our Church

In this Lenten season of giving-things-up, I want to suggest something that we United Methodists and other mainline Christians could give up for Lent—in fact, for good. Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s give up trying to save/renew/bail out failing, floundering, foundering institutions that are at best resistant to change and at worst incapable of the “adaptive change” that some would make our new United Methodist buzzword. (When I told my wife what I was writing about, she said, “So you want to let the church go to hell?” Of course not. Stay with me as we move toward a transforming alternative.)

I’ve been reading the latest round of “how-to-fix-the UMC” blogs, articles, and ponderous pronouncements. This excruciating experience has driven me to offer this drastic strategy. Let’s give up trying to fix/revive/bail-out/prop up our church. Let us embrace anew our stated mission: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. Let us dare to make our stated mission our actual mission by aligning the expenditure of our money, time, energy, prayer, and attention. Let us begin with ourselves and the brothers and sisters in Christ within our reach on any given Sunday.

One obvious question arises. “What is a disciple?” We could spend endless time and energy pharisaically debating the issue. Some (including myself) would say that our penchant for endless debate and insufficient action has gotten us exactly the results we should have expected. We’d also point out that our planet already has a climate-change crisis. The last thing we need is more hot air!

My working definition of “disciple” comes from Dallas Willard:

“A disciple or apprentice…is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is…as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God…I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner in which he did all that he did.”

Nearly every church has at least a few people who embody this vision of discipleship. Nearly every church also includes others whose growth has been severely stunted. Sometimes  these are long-time church members, but “developmentally delayed” immature disciples. (DISCLAIMER—All of us have periodic relapses into immaturity—especially when we judge and point fingers at someone else’s “immaturity”.) With that in mind, consider Johnny, the clearly-out-of-place student in this video, “Faith in Kindergarten”. [For those unable to view the video, “Johnny” is a 40-ish man enjoying his “career” in kindergarten. He embraces his success and steadfastly refuses to leave his comfort zone to face the challenges of first grade and beyond. If you can’t see the video, I urge you to get some technical support—perhaps your child or grandchild! It’s really a must-see.]

Who’s responsible for our collective spiritual immaturity? I am—along with my clergy colleagues, laypeople in every church I know, and conference and denominational leaders. We have settled for mediocrity in ourselves and others. We have accepted and even cultivated spiritual immaturity. Granted, we have seen notable individual and institutional exceptions. But they have been just that—exceptions. Our growing desperation to reverse decades of decline points like garishly flashing neon to our collective immaturity. Mature discipleship focuses minimally on ourselves and mainly on God and our neighbor. But we care more about ourselves, about “my church” “my needs”, and “being fed”. We care more about not rocking the boat and maintaining the institution than about embracing and immersing ourselves in God’s mission where we live life.

Bishop Robert Hoshibata, the recently-appointed leader of the Phoenix Area, wrote recently in his column “Living the Connection, Renewed by the Spirit” about getting acquainted with the congregations he now serves. He says that he’s heard inspiring stories of sacrifice, dedication, and accomplishment in his visits with churches. But so many of those have been “good old days” stories. Now those same congregations struggle with decline. A few, not nearly  enough, are finding a way forward. He identifies three questions that seem to shape that way forward:  “‘Who is my neighbor?’…‘What are the… physical…AND spiritual needs of the people who live around the church who are not yet part of the church?’…‘What can I or we offer them if we really want to reach out and touch their lives with the love of Jesus Christ?”’ 

NOW, AS PROMISED, A TRANSFORMING ALTERNATIVE— Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s invite the Holy Spirit to heal the brokenness of our “developmentally-delayed” discipleship. Let’s stop living out of fear and start living by faith. Let’s decide to be who we say we are. Let’s intentionally focus all available resources on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

It doesn’t take years of political maneuvering. It doesn’t require mountains of legislation. It begins with a critical mass here and there. The size of a “critical mass” varies according to our context. Jesus did a lot with twelve people. He told those twelve that “two or three” plus his presence could form that critical mass (Matthew 18:20).

Talk to folks who might join you in becoming a “critical mass”. Share your hope and dreams. Pray together deeply and frequently. Keep your pastor in the loop. Work with him/her, not against. Don’t be secretive. Do be humble and open. Find people who are serious about apprenticing themselves to Jesus. Explore together what that means for you separately and as a community. Your “critical mass” may well include formerly-churched, differently-churched, de-churched, even unchurched people.

Bishop Bob offers us one model for living out our mission. It’s hardly the only one. But it’s a great starting point. It’s simple, Biblical, and comprehensive. PLEASE—Let’s not engage in endless debate like good Methodists. Let’s be good Nike-ists. “JUST DO IT!” Let’s give up trying to fix our church. Let’s take up following Jesus as faithful apprentices wherever he leads us.


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