My experience is that much of our current United Methodist situation has been brought about by persistent and well-financed outside groups bent on reshaping Methodism away from our natural theological sensibilities and core understanding into a force field of division more to their liking (e.g., Institution for Religion and Democracy). What has happened to the Republican Party in the past two decades is an interesting parallel image. I encourage you to read Smith’s overview — it is a helpful analysis of where we currently stand and what might be possible.
Excellent overview, Jeremy. Excellent, thanks. The proposal has many flaws and potential cautions; however, it does seem to offer a direction if not a precise map to a way ahead. All of our categories and desires for perfection will be tested. That can be a good thing; if we are able to act and think in imaginative ways where the perfect is no longer the enemy of the good. Over the years I have been in three previous attempts at finding a space of compromise — of offering options beyond our ideological/theological entanglements. None made it this far… although a few came close.
Sadly a deep distrust will continue among many who carry decades-long wounds. Distrust will continue to percolate. Others more deeply tied to institutionalist roles will say silly things like bishops “have never stopped the pursuit for a more excellent way for the diversity of United Methodism to be freed from internal theological conflict so that love and respect can triumph over legislative votes that leave a divided church more wounded and less focused.” Poppycock. We need a more humble and repentant stance just now in my view.
What has happened is a tragedy… lost opportunity, broken promises, lost legacies, a tearing out at the root of centuries of witness, analysis that is shallow in anthropology and devoid of theological rigor.
Going forward we all could benefit from a larger dose of generosity, humility and repentance.
I huffed and puffed on December 31st to blow up a float for my six-year-old grand daughter, Eleanor. It was cold in Arizona where we were vacationing. Still, the pool was heated; and the float, named Star Flyer, called out to her for a ride. Four-hundred-and-fifty lungs-full later, Star Flyer was ready. Grandpa watched from a warmer spot at poolside. There is a reason I am counting things today.
The last day of 2019 was also the final day of my seventy-third year. Been that way all my life. A New Year’s baby in 1946… same every year. Cabbage, cornbread and blacked-eyed peas are my regular birthday fare. Seventy-three years and what have I learned? What do I hope for Eleanor and Gus, Zack and Colin, and for all children everywhere? Each year it seems, that along with cabbage and cornbread, I reconsider the message from Ecclesiastes 3 — “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
The poem goes: “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.“ (NRSV)
Most of us end this marvelous paradoxical poem with “a time for peace” as if that settles it. This year I contemplate particularly the rather singular commitments being made to make this a time to “break down” and a time to “throw away.” In our nation, in my faith denomination — United Methodism, there seems to be more energy being given to the breaking apart, throwing away, weeping, tearing down and hating, than to building up, laughing, healing, seeking, and loving.
As 2019 ends, there is too much attention in our nation and our institutions — even our families — by well-meaning people to focus our toil to a shattering, a brokenness, a disaffiliation, a separation with little to balance it on the side of uniting, healing, affiliating and joining. Such is life as 2019 ends. I’m ready for 2020 — another chance. Like death, the shattering of the past patterns comes to all. But what follows is another chance. In Ecclesiastes 3:9 is the follow-up question, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” The answer follows, “it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil” and “all should stand in awe before God.”
So, as the New Year arrives, I will commit to seeking God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. Oh, yes, tomorrow I plan to laugh and dance. I might even go for a ride on Star Flyer. Not certain I am ready for 74! As an early act of resistance, I have hidden the candles set aside to top my birthday cake — one shaped as a “7” and the other as a “4”. Let them eat cake with out those damn candles! I will stand in awe. Happy New Year, All!
My Response: Well said, Jeremy. Your suggestions are good ones. I must say that I am surprised at how many seem to want to rush to the exits without giving more thought to what this means theologically. What is their biblical/theological understanding of the church? They rush without even considering unintended consequences. We live in a time, in our world, when the perfect becomes, for too many, the enemy of the good. Perhaps “big boat” is preferable to “big tent.” It is certainly an image with better theological symbolism (at least to my ears).
There are many contributors to our current dilemma. You identify ways General Boards and Agencies might better engage. Yes, good on the Women’s Division. And, yes our boards and agencies can improve — but it is not just in these places where more constructive initiatives are needed. A part of our challenge comes from the ecclesial and annual conference strategists over recent decades, who have through their various programs and emphases, encouraged the establishment of a flotilla of smaller vessels — that is exclusive attention to congregations.
This congregationalism was reinforced by “congregational development” where “specialists” took up many conference and general church resources (think Path One in the general church). Or look at many annual conferences where the lion’s share of program budget, for years, has been spent on experts who focus solely on starting new congregations or revitalizing older ones, and these modeled more on independent baptist theology and strategies. Congregations can and must be renewed and new ones started; still the strategies seem ignorant of historic Methodist resources. These “start ups” or “renewals” are done in ways that move us away from a sense of common mission and connection.
I recall one interview with a pastor of a strong congregation in my state who, when I asked about the participation of his congregation in UMCOR, GBGM or even annual conference efforts, said he thought his congregation would be better served by joining the mission efforts of one of the UM congregations in another city that did “really neat” mission trips. (His congregation had a long history of support for wider denominational initiatives). That “other UM congregation” with the “neat mission trips” has paid almost nothing in denominational askings over recent decades. It does a re-baptizing of members and is held up as an example for the conference of how “it should be done.” And one looks in vain on the website of this “other UM congregation” for any mention of United Methodist affiliation. This anxiety-over-decline-followed-up-by-congregationalist-strategies has gone on for decades with no accountability from conference leadership… no call for connection or even a basic Wesleyan theological basis. So, many other small boats have been launched that claim no United Methodist identity; however, now they stand in line asking for a share of the accumulated resources of the general church.
I watch in recent months as our colleges and universities (and seminaries) move to disaffiliate or distance themselves from the denomination and wonder why GBHEM, through the University Senate or another resource, isn’t moving to offer them alternative positive responses as part of the General Church’s educational efforts.
The fact that anyone would suggests there is little worth saving the general church only emphasizes how poorly the truth of who we have been/are/and/canbe is understood. It dismisses our broad, inclusive witness. I say “Sail On Ship of Zion.”
Steve Harper continues his reflections on Holy Love by looking to the life and teachings of Jesus. The Jesus Hermeneutic as offered by Richard Rohr captures the preference of “Christ Transforming Culture” rather than a “Christ of Culture” (as H. Richard Niebuhr suggested over fifty years ago).
The fourth vantage point for seeing the hermeneutic of holy love is Christ, the one who reveals the creator (“whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” John 14:9), the one who made the creation (“ everything came into being through the Word,” John 1:3), and the one who is the mediator of the covenant (Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, 12:24). So, everything we have said thus far comes together in Christ, and it does so through love (John 13:1).
One of the things I have heard people say about the relation between Christ and human sexuality is this, “I wish he had made it clear about sexual identities, orientations, same-sex marriage, etc. I have wished the same. I have thought, “If only I could spend five minutes with Jesus.” I have a list of questions. Human sexuality is one of them.
Scholars are correct in noting Jesus’ silence about homosexuality. And…
My daily morning dyspepsia is, I believe, related to long division problems. I am awake in the early morning, unable to find rest amid puzzles I can’t seem to solve. At about age eight, a teacher taught me “to do long division.” The moment was delicious — I could solve big numbers that before seemed too large. In my early teens, I discovered algebraic long division. Another revelation, a gift, a tool.
Today, my morning dyspepsia, is not so simple. This problem requires an institutional calculus. It is not division I seek: rather, it is the seeking ways to avoid so much dividing — it is greater unity I would like to cipher. Every theological and social instinct within me calls out for linkage, for connection, for common ground rather than a land of separation. Am I simply foolish, nostalgic, tied to some ancient vision of St. Francis bargaining with the wolf or his meeting with the enemies during the Crusades to discover ways of peace?
Why is our nation so tribal, so insistent on becoming a splintering galaxy of spinning ideological enclaves? In ways I suspect most of us don’t fully see, the corollary exists in the divisions of the United Methodist Church. Both nation and church are pursuing long division problems. They are here now, in part because in both nation and church, we have been on a path too long-dividing. Many forces and fractions have brought us to this point: the rise of social media and loss of common language; new cultural and economic ecologies where unemployment and poor community resources persist; much focus on personal and social grievance; churches that avoid their prophetic voice as they fear the loss of market share and numerical decline — all these additives, and more, have brought us to this whirlpool of distrust.
Let’s focus on United Methodism. Maybe if we untangle this a bit, or at least untie some of these knots, it will assist with other riddles. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask for a division solution. It often happens like this – I am walking through fellowship hall at church and someone says, “What are we going to do?” I know what is meant but can’t help myself, I reply, “About what?” The answers are: “About the church.” “About the harm being done to LGBTQI persons.” “About damage to the United Methodist brand. ” “About the loss of our children who already think the church is out of touch with their worlds.” Or, I am entering a store downtown, a friend greets me and says, “What do you think is going to happen?” I play out the scene again. “About what?” I respond and I hear the same list of concerns.
Or, I get phone calls from friends around the country. (And, yes, I sometimes call them.) “What’s the latest you have heard?” “Which plan should we support?”
Add this to the daily news about presidential impeachments or government conspiracy and the result is dyspepsia along with a certain emotional and spiritual vertigo — right?
So, here are some thoughts about our long division problem in the church — these are a collection of hunches, perceptions, experiences, frequent early morning musings based on my faith journey and desire to be a follower of Jesus. Please note, these are not a plan, nor the son of a plan — no long division solution here. In fact, the PLANS I have seen are, to my mind, part of the problem. I almost chuckle at the plan of the week unveiled from some official or unofficial grouping of problem-solvers and I weep at the theological vacuity often evidenced.
I wonder if there aren’t several million plans out there among United Methodists around the world — one plan for each of the members of the denomination. Individualism and self-centered privilege lead us to find our corner with the like minded. We can shape things along with our gang and the lines of our personal preference. I think of Thomas Jefferson who in a letter to Ezra Stiles Ely on June 25, 1819 wrote: “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” My memory is that on another occasion Jefferson opined that he “carried his religious denomination under his hat.“
Well-meaning people (and some not so well-meaning) offer up new plans weekly. Some would divide the church into two groups, some three, some four. I have even heard of a plan for seven new denominations. At the same time I hear little of how these plans correspond with the great ecumenical prayer of Jesus that “they would be one” (John 17) or the message from Paul about the church as a body with many members (I Corinthians 12).
Most of the proposals that are trumpeted seem unaware of the lessons of church history or from Christians of other denominational families who have struggled with divisions in recent years. What might we learn from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that still speaks, five decades later, of “Forming Together” after the splintering of Southern Baptists? What lessons might our Pan Methodist friends teach us as some large congregations have split off from their fellowships? Or, what of the Lutherans, the Seminex story from the Missouri Synod Church, or the merger resulting in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and the challenges they have faced? What lessons from the Assembly of God and splintering there? The Wesleyan Church? What might we learn from the United or Uniting Churches around the world (India, Canada, etc.) Or, what of lessons from our older sibling, the Episcopal Church.
Rather than a plan, I would offer some paradoxical thoughts, some ecclesiological assumptions, some prayerful hints for how we might proceed… with or without a plan. Paradoxical, yes, I propose them as cruciform. For they are. One clear assertion I will make is this: there will be no resurrection for us, no renewal apart from the cross. (In the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew there are the words like these “Those who try to gain their own life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake… you will find it..) Here are seven paradoxes to explore.
I pray that any reshaping or re-imagining of the United Methodist Church will be: Centered in the Christ of scripture and Christ alive in our world today; shaped by prayer and a humble mystic spirit; a seeking of unity among all believers even as we resist efforts to harm; focused locally as essential to a global witness; open to the long-haul of history in order to be relevant today; ready for sacrifice in order to find abundance in unexpected places; and, opening our hearts to the story of others within and beyond our daily routines so as to sharpen our Wesleyan distinctives.
When have I seen us at our best? Not when we are arguing or devising our long division plans but rather when we are in mission with others. I see it when the gospel is shared and persons and communities are changed. I see it when bishops pray and invite all, especially those who disagree to a common table. When those who join that table represent the extraordinary array of those from multiple cultures and classes modeling together an invitation to live in our time and place in terms of God’s emerging kin-dom.
I see it in the thousands of places where our actions speak louder than our words. Where the “theology of the hammer” brings people together. I see it when the church works along the Mexican border and says in the name of Jesus, we will welcome these who are in need of sanctuary and we will not bear false witness against them. I see it when the church takes seriously its commitment to care for all creation.
I see it when I meet another United Methodist, from Africa, Zimbabwe. He tells me his name is “Blessing” and we laugh together when we talk about our mutual friends. Yes, he had taken some classes at Africa University. Yes, he was a student there when I visited that campus. We join in conversation about how we might heal a broken church, in order to set about healing a broken world. It is in surprises like this that my dyspepsia finds relief.
She was “only” ninety-nine. The photo taken in 2014 shows “Marnie” or Margaret Glass, at a gathering at her beloved parish, Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Marnie died this summer, June 26, 2019, only a few days shy of her 105th birthday. She lived a full, life-and-a-half, in calendar years. When I say she “lived,” I mean it, she did just that! Of the “great spirits” I have known, Marnie nears the top of the list.
Born in Chicago, Margaret was a natural, brilliant, a college athlete, playing tennis and captain of the basketball team. She graduated from Elmhurst College only a few years after the Niebuhr brothers who attended that school before her. When I met her, she was the lay leader at Broadway Church. It was the mid-1980s, the neighborhood around the church had gone through dramatic racial change as white flight was nearing completion and the gentrification that now marks that neighborhood was only beginning.
Marnie was one of dozens of wise and creative folks I knew in that parish in those years. They caused me to rethink my understandings of church, of faith and the role of parish pastor. Margaret was first among equals in challenging my preconceived, seminary-shaped notions of who lay folks are and the limited gifts they bring to ministry.
Last week I wrote in this blog of an encounter with an angry fella who sought to set me straight after a sermon preached a year ago that included positive mention of Senator John McCain (See Certitude and Its Discontents, August 2019). My concern at that writing was that some folks would think it a critique of that good congregation. I fear a few did, as I received messages of apology. None were needed. I have found sour-pusses in every parish and a few grievance-collectors typically populate the pews wherever I go. More often, however, I find remarkable saints-in-the-making in parishes I have served.
Marney was tops for me, such a spunky saint. A mischievous follower of Jesus, a conspirator in the search for abundant life for all. Her eyes would dance when she shared a story of some achievement of one of the children she tutored or some morsel of good news about a neighbor. She could change her mind — accept new ways of being church. Her winsomeness, her life, always caused me to think of the scripture: But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (II Corinthians 4:7, NRSV).
You could find Marnie at prayer meetings and protest marches. When we speak of the best of Methodism involving a vital piety and commitment to social justice, it was exemplified in Marnie’s life. I can see her grabbing the cheeks of a young woman and speaking words of encouragement. I recall the times she would take young children into her home because they needed to be in a safe place. She noticed the little things that another had done and thanked them.
She showed an ease in her faith; not that her long life was easy. She married three times as she outlived her first two husbands. Her last marriage was at age 98 and with Bob she continued speaking out on environmental and hunger issues.
Marnie was a part of a weekly Bible study group while I was pastor. One day as we finished, she said, “Please wait a minute, I have something to share.” She grabbed a brown, bulging grocery bag and headed to a nearby bathroom. She returned wearing her wedding gown and still in her tennis shoes. “This is my fiftieth wedding anniversary and I wanted to celebrate with you.” Her first husband was suffering from dementia and rather than hide in disappointment at that circumstance, Marnie invited us to join in a spontaneous celebration. We raided the church refrigerator, found lots of ice cream and other goodies there. Such was her transformative spirit.
She would probably deny it, but Marnie was my faith instructor, my mentor. As Fred Craddock would put it, through her life and words I could “overhear the gospel.” She didn’t always know that I was listening in. One Sunday in the mid-1980s, as the military adventurism by the United States in the Middle East was heating up, I faced a dilemma. The scripture lessons for that Sunday included Galatians 6 (“What one sews that one shall also reap“). My sermon called for a preference of peacemaking over military intervention.
Following the service as I headed to my office I heard voices in the hallway, around the corner ahead of me. It was Margaret speaking with a couple who were upset about the sermon. They didn’t know I was hearing them, their complaints. They said, “He is another one of those liberal preachers.” They likened me to a popular pastor who had spoken out against the Vietnam War twenty years earlier. I thought I was in good company and glad to be compared with this fellow who went on to be elected a bishop. It was then that Marnie-the-spiritual-mentor spoke. “No, no” she said, “this one is a Jeremiah, he will weep with you.” She didn’t know I heard. I turned and went to my office another way. As I was taking off my robe, Marney entered the office. To my surprise she began to chide me. Time for my second spiritual lesson! “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said. My heart dropped. Then she went on, “I am so glad you spoke against our military engagement, but don’t you ever enter the pulpit again with a difficult message and not let me know to be praying for you!”
In the span of five minutes, I was offered two of the most important lessons over the years of my pastoral ministry. First, a challenge to my pridefulness and second a reminder that such moments of witness should not be entered into alone and without prayerful support.
Tomorrow is Marnie’s memorial service. I have no doubt that dozens of other lessons from my teacher, Marnie, will come to mind. Other mentors and Great Spirits have died this year. I think of Judy Craig, Tom Trotter and George Metrovich who died in recent months. They are for me, persons who represent the insights of II Corinthians 4:7-10. Here is the text as offered by Eugene Peterson:
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! (II Corinthians 4:7-10, The Message, Eugene Peterson)
TODAY we cross a dateline for our planet. The Global Footprint Network calls it the Earth Overshoot Day. I encourage you to visit their website to learn more at: https://www.footprintnetwork.org/.
Earth Overshoot Day is the date each year when human beings begin to consume more of our natural resources than can be replenished in that year. July 29th, 209 days into the calendar year, is when we have burnt through the natural resources available to the world’s populations for the year. For the remaining 164 days of 2019, we will be overdrawing nature’s accounts. We are writing bogus checks on our world’s future replenishment abilities. We are using up our natural resources 1.75 times faster than they can be replenished!
I think of it as a tragic environmental Ponzi scheme, a plundering of nature — a using resources which should be set aside for our children and grand children. This over-exploitation increases each year. We in the United States lead in this extractive exploitation. If the entire world lived as we do it would take the resources of FIVE EARTHS to provide sufficiency.
Enter Wes Jackson — someone who has been thinking about this dilemma for four decades. Jackson is co-founder of the Land Institute in Salinas Kansas (Land Institute). Elaine and I stopped to visit on July 15th. I had read several articles and books he had authored or co-authored. I knew of his friendship and shared work with Wendell Berry; and, I confess to being more than a little star struck. After all Wes was one of the early recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship. I expected our visit to last an hour and then be on my way.
In fact we talked through the entire morning. We toured of the institute research facilities and farm research plots in Salinas. (Other research goes on around the world where institute scientists are working to discover new paths of regenerative agriculture.)
I found in Wes a friend… and mentor — someone with a deep concern, clarity about his vocation and a surprising light-heartedness. He confessed the dilemmas we all face. The human contradictions faced as we move from our extractive and fossil-fuel based systems. We laughed often; spoke of authors who had influenced us (Ivan Illich, Walter Brueggemann) and spoke of the need for a broader dialogue between science and religion. We talked about a possible conference where theologians and scientists might talk about the sustainability of our ecosphere. I loved it when Wes brought out his “computer” to take notes. It turned out to be his old Underwood typewriter!
I found in Wes Jackson a person who had done more theological thinking about our creatureliness and relationship with the ecosphere than most formal theologians I have known. It was not a surprise to learn that Wes and John Cobb were friends and correspondents. There were more than two dozen scientists and interns at The Land Institute at work that morning seeking to establish perennial polycultures. They are developing perennial grains, legumes and oilseed varieties that can be grown together replicating the patterns evident in native ecosystems.
We stopped on one hillside and Jackson pointed out the native prairie grasses and the cultivated fields below. “Modern agriculture” he argued has been moving in ever more destructive ways for the past 10,000 years. The Green Revolution, and the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers, did produce more in the short term; however at the same time they were depleting the resources of our soil, water and fossil fuels ever more rapidly.
As we looked out across the fields, I thought of my own experiences in seeking to encourage our United Methodist Churches in Indiana to consider the gifts of creation and to work toward living more faithfully as those who are to care for the earth as God’s gift. I recalled with sadness the ways leaders in the Indiana Annual Conference blocked small pieces of legislation designed to encourage care for the creation. We were told that such efforts were “too political.”
I left the Institute with a commitment to find ways to bring theological educators into greater conversation and relationship with the folks in Salinas.
On this Earth Overshoot Day, I give thanks for the true “master theologians” of our time like Wes Jackson. I don’t think he would like the title. In fact he told me he had been “excommunicated” from his United Methodist Church in Kansas several years earlier by a pastor who considered him a heretic. I wish the church had more heretics like him. Maybe with time we will. Let’s work to make this happen sooner rather than later.