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.
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)
It was a year ago. The worship service was ending, benediction pronounced. The postlude begun and I greeted the first in line. He refused my hand and pounced verbally. It took a few seconds to register — his anger, his scolding, his need to correct, transcended any niceties. With forefinger raised and a frozen glare, he let me know that I was wrong. He was certain of it!
I was new to the congregation, an interim pastor, still learning the good folks in the pews and the culture of the congregation. What was my mistake? I spoke positively of Senator John McCain. It was, after all, Sunday August 26th, 2018, the day after McCain’s death. My mention of the senator was brief: “Think of the ways Senator McCain demonstrated the heart of greatness through service!” I offered, “In one of his last public addresses Senator McCain spoke of “serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America.”(1)
That was it, nothing more. The Biblical texts for the day were from Ephesians 6 and John 6 focusing on the Spirit that gives life.(2) I also quoted Bob Greenleaf who wrote of Servant Leadership and suggested “weak leaders expect to be served – strong leaders serve.”(3)
Greeting the preacher following worship is a well practiced ritual. Over the decades I have exchanged pleasantries with tens of thousands. Occasionally I am faced by persons who disagree with the sermon. Never, however, have I been approached with such vitriol. Yes, folks sometimes offered correction. There were occasional sanctions about a mispronunciation, a typo in the bulletin, or error in scripture citation. I once misspoke and named the traveling companion of Paul “Bartholomew,” rather than “Barnabas.” And one Sunday in a university town, a distinguished professor made certain that I should speak of the American University “AT” Beirut and not “IN” Beirut. Such corrections are needed and appreciated. There have been people who disagreed and a few who have walked out as I preached. But this? This was different.
Most often words of gratitude are shared at the door, or information is passed about someone who is visiting, the birth of a child or one in hospital. Sometimes the words spoken are humorous — whether intended or not. I recall the time a woman took my hand and with great sincerity said, “Every sermon you preach is better than the next.” She smiled and moved out the door, unaware that her intended compliment had an opposite meaning to what was intended. At least I hope so.
The critique of my mention of John McCain continued with increasing vigor for several minutes in the front of the chancel. A line of well-wishers waited patiently behind him. Then it shortened to a few, then vanished. As I remember it now, he insisted, Senator McCain was not a person of honor; rather, he informed me McCain was “a self-centered narcissist, who always sought the limelight. He was a rebel and was not dependable in his voting record.” It was only my third Sunday in that pulpit. I thought a mention of McCain was appropriate. And, after all, San Diego is a Navy town. Whatever else one might think, McCain was a U.S. Navy pilot who had spent 5 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prison. Surely, this would help illustrate the sermon’s intent.
Aware that there was no way to end the conversation on that day and stunned to hear such a rant about one who had so recently died, and for whom I had great respect, I simply said, “Well, it appears we disagree.” The man said, “We certainly do! And, you are certainly wrong!” As he turned my words trailed behind, “Let’s find time to talk.” We never did.
That Sunday a year ago, I had unintentionally strayed across an ideological yellow line.(4) I had touched a third rail. As the fella left, the word “certainly” hung in the air. “Certainly, certainly…” There it was. Life was to be a one way journey along a path of certainty. No preacher should disturb the binary ideological categories. The Religious Right was apparently now the province of the Alt-Right. I learned later that this man’s pattern of accosting the preacher was not new. He had been practiced on others.
As popular author Ann Lamott has written: The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty. It is madness. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he or she hates all the same people you do. (5) Or, as Søren Kierkegaard posited, it is only when objective certitude fails that belief becomes possible.
I believe John McCain was a fine man, a remarkable man. He had flaws as we all do. Yet, he displayed a fierce ability to consider an other’s point of view. I recall his taking the microphone from the woman who said “Obama is a Muslim” in the 2008 Presidential campaign. He indicated that she was mistaken and that while he disagreed with then candidate Obama, McCain said he believed the future president was a decent man. It was a display of courage, of humility, of faith that no doubt hurt him among some in that election.
Our nation seems caught up in a time when the action of listening and disagreeing seem unlikely. We have chosen up sides and divided up the future into competing realities. And what of my need for certitude? What of my hunger for agency? What of my fears and misplaced allegiances? We live in a season when fear trips up humility, when chaos clouds the pathways of hope, when dichotomous thinking pushes us into corners that blind us to cooperation. It was Parker Palmer, drawing on the work of Thomas Merton, who in his small volume, The Promise of Paradox, written now forty years ago, wrote that our hope rested in learning to live within and even celebrate the contradictions that confront us.
One place we can all begin, at least those of us who are observant, is after attending future worship services and hearing a word of faith is wait in line and thank the one who speaks with courage. Let her know of your support. Let him know of your prayers. Let all those who speak difficult words of Gospel in these days, know you stand with them. You see, it is not easy, this work of proclamation. There seem to be so many places where a hunger for certainty blinds the ways of faith and where ideological or partisan commitments place a silencer on the Christian message. And, if you disagree with the preacher, let her or him know. But do it this way — invite them to lunch — converse, listen, and you pay!
* This is the first of several occasional posts that will reflect on actual pastoral experiences.
Senator John McCain spoke at a ceremony at the National Constitution Center, October 16, 2017.
The sermon was titled “Hands of the Strong” and was based on Ephesians 6:10-20 and John 6:63-69. It is the Spirit that give life the gospel proclaims and Paul speaks of the “full armor of God” ending with Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
Robert Greenleaf writes: “Leader first and servant first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature... The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will he benefit, or, at least, will he not be further deprived?” (The Servant as Leader, Robert K. Greenleaf, p. 7) AND, “The only real justification for institutions, beyond a certain efficiency (which, of course, does serve) is that people in them grow to greater stature than if they stood alone.” (Trustees as Servants, p. 13)
I am somewhat embarrassed to look back now and realize that McCain’s thumbs down vote that kept the Affordable Care Act in effect marked him as a traitor in the eyes of some.
Anne Lamott, Plan B: When Your Plan Fails and God’s Prevails. See Søren Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript for example.