United Methodism’s Long Division Problem

First United Methodist of San Diego — Habitat for Humanity Work Day

United Methodism’s Long Division Problem

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?

United Methodism’s Long Division isn’t this easy!

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.

Bishop Grant Hagiya, 2019

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.

FUMC San Diego Acting as Witnesses

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.

A Blessing Indeed

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.

Why Seek a King Cyrus?

Why Seek a King Cyrus When We have a King Jesus?

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Katherine Stewart writes of what she has been discovering among many right wing, Christian Nationalist groups.  [See Katherine Stewart, NY Times.]  Having read her thought-provoking report, I can’t help but wonder why Christians would seek the re-emergence of a King Cyrus when we have the far more appropriate witness in life, death and resurrection of King Jesus, as our guide?  

I also stop and consider what recent socio-cultural trends mean for the church.  While United Methodism has been distracted by folks seeking a heretofore undesired “doctrinal purity” on issues like “homosexuality,” our core message of multiple ways for faithful disciples to “Know God in Christ” has languished… and in some places nearly disappeared. All the while, our distractions have kept our attentions from the deeper cultural realities. Basic assumptions about liberty and faith provided by folks like the Niebuhrs, ML King, Jr., E. Stanley Jones, Georgia Harkness and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been undercut. A profound shift in understanding of the nature of Christian citizenship has eroded beneath our feet.

This, I believe, was (and continues to be) a well-planned, well-funded and well-executed effort by persons who have little or no interest in encouraging a Wesleyan spirit. I don’t believe many of my sisters and brothers caught up in the so-called “Good News” movement or the so-called “Wesleyan Covenant Association” intended this. Even so, they are in my view the seminal actors in this tragedy. I do also wonder, at the same time, if they (and we) haven’t “been played” by nationalistic and anti-democratic forces over the past several decades. Have we unwittingly made space for some to suggest that POTUS is a modern “King Cyrus?” Alas.

I believe our foolish warfare over welcoming our gay brothers and sisters has contributed, in some significant measure, to the current season of intolerance and authoritarianism that passes for Christianity. Can United Methodism recover it’s voice? Can we move back to a focus on living lives based on the teachings of Jesus? Can we again practice basic democratic, respectful and honorable civic dialogue? This was once a part of Methodist annual conference sessions — in many places in recent years it has been lost.  Can we mend the soul and witness of our church?  The soul of our nation may stand in the balance.

 

Reclaiming Jesus

Reclaiming Jesus

When the history of the church in the U.S. in the early twenty-first century is written, there will be a question as to exactly who the one known as Jesus of Galilee was understood to be.  There will be questions as to whether what he taught made any difference in the way folks lived their lives today.

My prayer, my hope, is that the history will include the sermon that Bishop Michael Curry preached at the wedding of Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  Bishop Curry’s powerful message captured much of the teachings of the Jesus long ago.  It was a vision that is far from much of what passes for Christian teaching in too many American churches. 

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Bishop Michael Curry, Reuters photo

While the wedding sermon for Prince Harry and Meghan Merkle was heard by perhaps two billion people around the world, Bishop Curry joined hundreds of other religious leaders in the United States only four days later in an even more important event focused on “Reclaiming Jesus.” 

They marched on the White House and proclaimed that the ‘America First’ slogan adopted by national leaders in the U.S.  is “a theological heresy for the followers of Christ.” [See: Reclaiming Jesus in a Time of Crises]

It is the sermon Bishop Curry preached at National City Church in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday evening that deserves even more attention.  Cur5b0830e51a0000cd04cdfc71.jpegry said we are called to: “Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino neighbor and your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor! That’s why we’re here!”

Yes, that is indeed why we are here.  When the story of the church in this century is written, I pray it will be of the church that decided to Reclaim Jesus.

 

#WednesdayAshes

#WednesdayAshes

Let this Lenten Season begin in #WednesdayAshes. 

In a nation where far too many “Christians” hide beneath the umbrella of cover-churches and look-the-other-way-religious-leaders who give space for greed, racial bigotry, manufactured cultural divisions and self-centered nationalism, let’s offer a counter narrative.  Let’s proclaim messages of transformation and renewal?

In this season let’s encourage one another to think about the issue of wealth and poverty in new ways?  The book by Maricio Miller, The Alternative is a place to begin.  #WednesdayAshes is a way to share new understandings.  If you are in or around central Indiana, folks will be gathering to learn more on February 24th Register here.

What better time to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). 

We might be clear that the time for repentance and renewal in this nation so full of words designed to divide and demean is at hand.  Personally, I am sending my congressional representatives the passage from Isaiah 10:1-2 under the #WednesdayAshes.

10:1 Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.

Care to join?