Posts Tagged 'United Methodist Church'

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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