{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

“Bishop Who?” -A Guest Post from Josh Hale (aka Expatminister, himself)

The story goes like this: in the middle of a supercharged political-theological atmosphere, a bishop dies. The entire city, divided right down the middle, goes to the cathedral to elect a new one. The local governor was a Christian, but he went to the site more concerned to prevent rioting than to vote. Known for his fair-mindedness, he appealed to both sides for peace and order. But in the middle of his speech, he was interrupted by cries of “Ambrose, bishop! Ambrose for bishop!” And he was elected by the entire assembly to the episcopacy.

Though it might sound as if this could happen in Europe or Latin America today, the city was actually Milan in 374 AD.

Ambrose went on to be one of the most renowned bishops of antiquity, renowned for his intellectual tenacity. By virtue of his own personal character as well as relationships forged during his secular political career, he refused to admit Emperor Theodosius to a Eucharist after a massacre of 7000 soldiers. He personally lived a life of abundant generosity, and – oh, by the way – mentored a young, wayward scholar to return to faith named Augustine. Yes, that Augustine.

Unfortunately, as Fred Schmidt has astutely observed, it’s unlikely that such a figure would be elected as a bishop today, in The United Methodist Church or many others. Why? Schmidt hits us between the eyes: “we have created an ecclesial climate in which it is hard to elect bishops who have the gifts of an Augustine and nearly impossible for them to live like Augustine—even if they do possess those gifts and get elected.” I would add Ambrose, Hugh of Lincoln, and many more to a list of courageous and formidable ecclesiastical leaders that need emulation today.

I say this without ever having been to a UMC Jurisdictional Conference where bishops are elected; but from what I have heard there isn’t anything that marks them as particularly theological or spiritual processes. There may be individual issues that are addressed from a uniquely ecclesiastical point of view, or individual candidates or delegates may harbor those points of view, but I don’t see what makes this a process enacted by either an institution or a movement in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Process and structural concerns matter, especially in a denomination with the size and reach of ours.

If we aren’t going to embrace a process that is marked by faith concerns, then why don’t we get a headhunting firm to track down leadership from across the connection and present us with a candidate (or shortlist)? It might even save us money, plus these companies have experience and track records which we cannot possess. In fact, that sort of consulting & outsourcing is what brought us the Call to Action. (Or maybe that’s a cautionary tale?)

I don’t have any easy answers. But with General & Jurisdiction delegate elections beginning this month, and Episcopal elections happening in about a year, I would like to open the conversation (since I’m on Ben’s dime, here, ha!): what would a faithful process for electing bishops in the United Methodist Church look like? What would we spend less time on? What doesn’t yet exist that needs to? I look forward to reading your comments below!

Josh Hale is a United Methodist elder in the Texas Annual Conference; after serving 5 years in campus ministry, he’s changing mission fields this summer to pastor Perritte Memorial United Methodist Church in Nacogdoches, TX. Josh tweets @expatminister, writes somewhat longer at The Expatriate Minister , blogs semi-regularly for HoustonBelief, and keeps a great deal of thoughts to himself!

Our Theological Task as United Methodists in the 21st Century

Last Fall, I found I would be 1 hour short of finishing when I registered for the Spring semester. So I registered for a 1-hour Directed Study with Dr. Rex Matthews in Methodist Studies. After a little conversation, we decided it would be fun to attempt to rewrite a section of the United Methodist Book of Discipline known as Our Theological Task, and specifically the section known as Theological Guidelines: Sources and Criteria.

The object of the project was to design this section around a post-modern understanding of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. And by the way, after a semester of work on the topic I now realize that the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral was for Methodists both our most unique contribution to the theological world, as well as one of our greatest hinderances in understanding our own theological identity. Below is my futile attempt of a rewrite of a section of our Discipline. I welcome all critiques and comments. Enjoy!!!

¶ 104. SECTION 4–Theological Guidelines: Our Sources for Doing Theology
As United Methodist Christians, we have an obligation to bear a faithful witness to Jesus Christ, the living reality at the center of the Church’s life, witness, and activity in the world. To fulfill this obligation, we are called to reflect critically on our biblical and theological inheritance, striving faithfully to express the witness we make in our own time.
It is essential to consider the sources we employ to derive our theological affirmations. Such theological claims are made through careful consideration of truth as it is found and weighed within the active and ongoing conversation between Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Therefore, theological claims must be grounded on Scripture, informed by Christian tradition, enlivened in personal experience. and tested by reason.

Scripture reveals the Word of God: in union with God the Father and the Holy Spirit; present with the Father in the creation of the world; incarnate among humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; present with us in the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit. It is through active and ongoing study of the Bible that one can encounter the story of God testified to by the prophets, revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and continued through the work of the Church empowered by the Holy Spirit. Scripture serves as the multi-faceted and enormously complex lens whereby we encounter the truth of the Triune God — Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. While Scripture is the primary testimony to God’s story of redemption, it is not the only testimony. 

To aid his study of the Bible and deepen his understanding of faith, Wesley drew on Christian tradition, in particular the Patristic writings, the ecumenical creeds, the teachings of the Reformers, and the spiritual literature of his era. Such a tradition continues beyond the life of Wesley and is available to Christians today. Tradition provides a substantial Christian witness through its testimony to faith and the continuance of the story found in the biblical testimony. Christian tradition recounts the ongoing work of God through the Church in the world. This continual act of remembrance empowers the community of faith in this day. It is through Christian tradition that one encounters the historical testimony of faith on the part of the Church. Therefore, tradition speaks to both an historical account of faith as well as a heritage that is continued to be lived out in the present day.

The Christian witness, even when grounded in the overall narrative of Scripture and mediated by tradition, is ineffectual unless understood and embodied by both the individual and the community. To become our witness, faith must manifest itself through our personal and corporate reason and experience. It is invaluable to have a cogent account of the Christian faith understood through experience and reason, both to understand Scripture and to relate the biblical message to the world of knowledge around us. Wesley looked for confirmations of the biblical witness in human experience, especially in the experiences of regeneration and sanctification, but also in the “common sense” knowledge of everyday experience. One must employ reason to fully experience the living vitality of the biblical narrative. It is essential that reason aid us in relating the knowledge of faith to the experience of everyday life. Therefore, reason and experience work together to confirm that which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived.”

As United Methodists, we are steeped in the Wesleyan tradition of employing these sources of Christian witness just as Wesley did in his own theology. The nature of the ongoing conversation of these sources furnishes a guide for our continuing theological task as United Methodists. In that task, each of these sources informs the other and all act together to form the complete Christian witness of the Church.

In practice, theological reflection may be brought to its full and faithful state as each of these sources are employed to inform the other(s). Insights arising from serious study of the Scriptures and tradition enrich contemporary experience. Imaginative and critical thought enables us to understand better the Bible and our common Christian history. When human experience penetrates the mundane and becomes an encounter with the divine, the biblical narrative is made to come alive and ignite within us a fire fueled by the living Spirit of God.

It is also essential that active conversation between these source be the driving force of how theology is translated into faithful witness. It is in the process of actively testing and retesting one’s faith that a truly faithful witness is constructed. Such a witness is continually enhanced by both spiritual disciplines and study. When these sources are actively in conversation with one another, the life of the individual and community is fertile for experience informed and carried out by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, the active and ongoing conversation between these sources serves as the means by which regeneration and sanctification are carried out in the lives of both the individual and community of faith.

Final Thoughts on My Seminary Experience

[This post will run on Candler’s blog soon. I wanted to give a “first-run” on here. Enjoy!

They say all jokes have a hint of truth in them. That’s what makes them funny. There was a joke I heard when I started seminary three years ago that goes something like this:

Seminary is much like the Easter Story. The first year they’ll crucify you and things you believe in. The second year they’ll bury you in the tomb of major classes, lots of reading and papers. And the third year you’ll finally be resurrected.

It seems like yesterday I was in my first semester of classes at Candler. I can remember the conversations about classes, professors, and all of the work required to pass. If I think about it really hard, I can remember the feeling that three years would be an eternity. Graduation wasn’t even on the horizon—it was nowhere close to conceptualization.

Over that year, I can remember seemingly endless hours of reading and writing. I can remember assignments that made no sense at all and being asked to write papers on matters I could hardly spell, much less articulate with any sort of coherent or precise thought. All the while I was asked to sit through some of the most uncomfortable, and seemingly unending, sessions with people I did not know from Adam’s house cat (I’m from South Georgia so you’ll have to forgive the colloquialism) as we reflected on things we were experiencing at our Contextual Education sites or in the classroom.

I can remember the first time I was asked to critically consider some of the quant Sunday School lessons of my childhood in a classroom setting. It was as though someone had the audacity to walk right up to me and ask for the cloak off my back. How dare they ask me critically examine the stories of my childhood! But engaging in such critical thinking caused me to have a wonderfully scary encounter with foundational beliefs beginning to crack. I intentionally mean that it was both wonderful and scary all at once. It became clear early on that who I was when I came to seminary was not going to identical to who I would be after the rigors of the program. And that was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

By my second year I began to experiment with trying on various voices. Amid the burying underneath mounds of materials and thinkers, one begins to find that some of the thinkers resonate with them. Some have special qualities that tickle the fancy of budding theologians in such a way that often, you try their voice on for size. It’s okay to do that. Some voices fit better than others. Some you will quickly outgrow like a child can outgrow clothes in a single season. Others stay with you, like old friends. Either way, the array of voices has the ability to cause mass confusion in the life of the “in-process” seminarian. But you continue to listen for in the middle of the confusion are sometimes subtle, yet profound moments when they surprise you and sing in a melodious chorus together.

And then comes the glorious possibilities of being in your final year. By this time you have successfully questioned and re-questioned much of what you came to seminary believing and thinking. Some you have kept because, after all, Candler will never take the easy road of simply telling you what to believe. You will form relationships with professors and peers and, dare I say it, you will enjoy classes. As the end of seminary comes closer and closer you will even have days where you’re sad that what seemed like such a distant possibility is slowly, but surely becoming an all-too-close reality. You are, all at once, a bumbling mess of mixed emotions. Job possibilities hang in the balance. Ordination pressures arrive. The end of school means the exciting end to deadlines and never-ending papers. And then it hits you—you will soon no longer be able to hide under a guise of safety at Candler. You will learn that you will soon have to enter the world and do this ministry thing on your own.

You realize a couple of important things after your time at Candler is finished. First, after I realized how scary it will be to finish and “do this ministry thing on my own,” I remembered, “I’m not on my own at all.” God is with us no matter where we go. And we have the opportunity to be a valued member of a division of the “communion of saints” at Candler. And so you are never, ever alone in the world. Secondly, there will come a day that you will speak and it will not be the voice of Barth, Luther, Luke Timothy Johnson, Tom Long, Carol Newsome, Athanasius, James Cone or Howard Thurman. It will be you. And it might scare you the first time you hear it. It will sound like you, but not the you that you once knew. And it will also sound like those wonderful conversation partners you developed in your studies, but not exactly because none of them will ever be a perfect fit. It will be a you that is not finished developing yet. In fact, you’ll realize that seminary is only the beginning this new you.

But don’t let me spoil the ending too much. Enjoy your ride and know that you have a community of saints, both past and present, lifting you up in prayer through the deadlines, pressures, all-night study sessions, and exams that will ultimately lead toward a transformation that you never thought possible.

Maybe folks are right in that all jokes have a hint of truth in them. Maybe seminary can and will reflect a smaller version of the grand and glorious story of redemption in the lives of each and every student ready to embark on the journey.

A Faithful Response in Confusing Times

We live in a complex world where it’s often difficult to know what exactly is deemed as “good” and what might actually be “evil.” Were there ever simpler days, ones where the lines between good and evil were not so blurry? And if so, how did we know what belonged in which camp?

Our world has seen its share of violence over the last hundred years or so. It seems that technology only feeds our propensity toward violent reactions and responses. Our world has advanced in weaponry from the days of guns and knives to that of tanks, missiles, and atomic weapons. Over the last fifty years or so, we have had to reckon with the notion that we could, if we so pleased, destroy the world and most everything in it multiple times over.

And so it begs the question, how do people of faith live in such a world? How do we exist and practice our faith in a world where the law of the land seems to be that might is always right and at the end of the day, strength is best displayed through a powerful, and violent, response?

I awoke on Monday, May 2 to the news of the death of Osama bin Laden. And I have to confess, my first response was something like, “heck yeah! We got him!” Honestly, I’m sure that statement (or something along those lines) resonates with many people. I know it does because my Facebook News Feed (which I check most every morning after a few minutes of morning news) was full of similar reactions. However, as I sifted through the news from Facebook, I happened to notice other reactions as well. Some of my friends were praying for peace. Others were happy and sad at the same time. Would this escalate violence against our country? Would our troops get to come home or would they have to stay in Afghanistan longer? Could this event be both good and bad? Is it okay to celebrate the loss of human life, even when that person committed despicable acts?
It’s a strange irony that such events happen a week or so after we observe Holy Week and celebrate Easter—the ultimate conquering of death and evil in our world. And we’re reminded that we confess to follow a Savior who, in the face of torture, humiliation, and injustice, chose to pray for his enemies. He did not hold their wrongs against them. On the contrary, he loved them in spite of it.

Just in case you’re concerned, I’m not about to try to make a case for pacifism and peace at all costs. The world is much too complex to simply try to offer the other side of a reductionistic argument. The mixed emotions and reactions that people express tell me that an “either/or” analysis of responses to world events would be unjust in truly expressing the depth of confusion and despair in the face of violence around the world.

In a world where violence begets more violence, justice comes in funny shapes and sizes. What is justice for one may not be so for another. And in spite of all of that, how does such justice measure up to justice as God sees it? I can’t help but be reminded that Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Unfortunately, this sounds nice but it doesn’t settle the argument at all over whether we should celebrate a so-called victory wrought by violence or not. On the one hand, there is a sense of justice and vindication felt at the demise of Osama bin Laden. On the other, there is a fear that perpetuating violence will never end violence; it might even increase it. And then there’s that nagging detail about a God who, in the form of Jesus Christ, showed not violence, but forgiveness in the face of hate.

I wish the answers were easy—but they are not. I wish the lines between following God and being a loyal American were more symmetrical—but they are not. And so in these times, the only thing we can do is pray. We must pray for the safety of our soldier putting their lives on the line to defend our national freedom. We must pray for the innocent victims of wars being fought. After all, what we call “foreign lands” is someone else’s backyard. But we must also pray for our enemies. And we must pray for ourselves. The temptation will be great to get swept up by the tides of the sea of violence celebrated as “moral” victories. May we, in these confusing and emotionally-driven days, remember the words of that most powerful prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven.”

Who Am I?

[A big thanks to Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards for a tweet today that included this article. It set the writing motors running to write this post.]

We’ve lost it. I don’t know where it has gone. It’s one of those things that we’ve lost it so subtly, I wonder if we even know that it could be gone. What am I talking about, you ask? Identity. Dictionary.com defines the word as: 1) the state or fact of remaining the same one or ones, as under varying aspects or conditions; 2) the condition of being oneself or itself, and not another; and 3) condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is. So when did we stop being people and simply become known as Consumers?

A recent article lists some of the casual ways we are no longer known as people, or humans, or even members of society. Instead, we’re simply identified as consumers. Think about it for a minute, how much of our lives are run off of the study and patterns of the so-called consumerist trends? We measure the health of our society over whether or not people can afford to live luxurious lifestyles.

[And before anyone gets too tempted to question that last statement, please know I mean just what I said. We, as Americans, live grossly more luxuriously than does probably 80% of the rest of the world].

Everything we do in life seems to have a market value to it. We brand ourselves as whatever we want to be. I was listening to one of my favorite theological podcasts recently, when one of the guests pointed out that even theologians are prone to brand and market themselves. Yes, even the Brian McLarens, John Pipers, Rob Bells, and the Ben Gosdens of the world attempt to do ministry, share thoughts, and all the while market themselves as a particular breed of thinker in order to be appreciated by their audience. It’s what sells–or at least garners attention. Churches market and brand themselves to be whatever they think will draw the most people in the doors on a given Sunday. Even non-profits do this as they attempt to raise money. I’ve been listening to the Spring Campaign by NPR (I’m proud to say their tactics worked on me and I’m now a contributor). Throughout all of their appeals you can hear the thread of a particular branding of being both non-biased and also uniquely enriching to the world of news and culture.

One must wonder what sort of effect this has on a society. The tension of being consumers drives competition. That’s a good thing, or at least we’re taught that in school. But what happens when the consumerist mentality drives us to consume each other? What happens when our lack of civility, lack of compassion, and lack of care for another is nourished by our drive to purchase and sell materials or even ideas. You see, this is where both liberals and conservatives fall off the tracks in politics because the pursuit of power ultimately drives us to promise one thing to get in, and then compromise that in the name of keeping power. If you don’t believe me just look at the last 3 years of President Obama’s administration and the look at the 8 years of President Bush’s. That’s not to say that either are bad people at all. It is to say that maybe our consumerist identities ultimately drive us to consume everything we can in order to attain power. The drive for power is ultimately the drive to master. Such an audacious pursuit leads us to believe we can actually be masters of our world.

This consumerist mentality speaks to an array of issues people of faith must wrestle with. If one of the fundamental questions of the late-20th Century was, “How are we supposed to live together in such a diverse world?” then the question facing the early-21st Century is, “What exactly is sacred?” You see, sacredness flies in the face of our politics and even our consumerist views. It means that the goal of life is not saving an extra dollar when that dollar could be spent on a more responsible product that doesn’t exploit God’s children or creation. It means that we can’t simply vote because our so-called civic duty says we should pick a side between the best of two bad choices. Instead we should all lift our political environment out of the gutters of birth certificate hunts, scare tactics and litmus test conversations. It means that we must be willing to grow beyond the ideal that our personal freedom is the ultimate goal of human life when it comes at the expense of another’s freedom.

We can’t simply be satisfied with our personal choice and freedom to make such a choice. We have to push toward the day when we don’t simply exist together, but we live in a community of love and mutual care together. This day is the redemption we’re called to participate in in our baptismal vows. It’s at the heart of what God’s shalom is. It calls everything we regard with such divine esteem into question. And there is no political argument or product we can purchase that will answer these questions for us. There’s no price high enough for something so valuable.

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