18 months ago, I wrote this article with Jeremy Smith on why we believe The United Methodist Church should not split over the issue of human sexuality. In recent weeks I’ve been reminded that some things never change (or at least take a long time to change) because it seems article after article is being written on why, for some ungodly reason, it makes sense for those of us in The United Methodist Church to pack up our toys, go our separate ways, and play only in the camps where we feel comfortable and everyone agrees with us.
In reading these articles and listening to the recent commentary on this issue and where the Church should go from here, I’m still moved by one of our opening sentences from 18 months ago:
“And we both want a better UMC for our daughters than the one we inherited.”
As young clergy who will have 40 years of ordained ministry ahead of us (although the rising retirement age may be at 86 years old by the time we get there!), we do not find a valid reason for schism. We both hold that the church should resist this and redouble efforts to find unity in diversity.
Most writings on the subject of separation seem to model the church as a funnel, whereby all resources and formation go toward a common mission. Anything that distracts from that mission is dangerous, and thus the talk of schism is attractive and every conflict becomes an opportunity to dream of escape while the idea of covenant becomes an expendable virtue.
So where do we stand on this debate in the United Methodist Church? It seems progressives who want to split forget that the church they leave will continue to have gay children. And it seems traditionalists (not “orthodox” as some claim because orthodoxy is defined by creedal beliefs and NOT social stances) who want separation naively think separation will finally rid the church of the homosexual debate, as though gay persons will no longer inhabit our spaces of worship, formation and service.
Clearly, schism will not end the conversation before us.
If conflict ultimately destroys any hopes of a homogeneous church, what’s a more faithful model? I see the Eucharist as the sacramental and formative model for how we are to be the Church. In the Eucharist, as the worldwide church gathers around the table, unity in diversity is at the heart of what it means to be the Body of Christ. This is why we can say with confidence and hope that the church’s unity is grounded in a reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another. The Church as Eucharist is a guiding model for our inclusiveness and for a demanding call for transformation—it’s what unifies us all as sinners in the need of God’s redeeming grace. The Church as Eucharist means we are continually called out of and sent back into the world as redeemed people.
Stanley Hauerwas writes:
“The church, therefore, has rightly thought confession of sin, penance, and reconciliation necessary for the reception of the Eucharist. How could we dare come to the feast of reconciliation not in unity with our brothers and sisters? The name given to that unity is ‘love.’ The gifts of bread and wine must be brought by those at peace with God and one another. If we are unreconciled, we best not receive; we dare not dishonor the holiness of the gifts of God.”
By having the Eucharist as the central metaphor for the church, it serves as the corrective for both sides on this debate. It means we’re both radically inclusive and that we put the Body of Christ ahead of any individual, caucus or political camp. And it means that through our worship, our service, our lives, and yes, even through our conferencing together, unity is at the heart of it all. We may worship in diverse ways across our connection, and there may come a point where our polity is diverse as well (as it currently is in our worldwide church), and such diversity is not disconcerting in a Church with the Eucharist as its guide.
Quite simply, by seeing the church as the Eucharist, we become the means of grace to a broken world. In a world of polarizing politics, widening chasms between the “haves” and “have-nots,” demonization of the “other side,” what better means of grace could the Church offer than how to hold together unity in diversity, to welcome the varieties of the United Methodist experience around the Communion Table?
Through our liturgy, every time we gather around the Table we declare that we long to be made “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” Are we serious about this longing for oneness, or do we simply give lip service to the idea of unity? If we’re serious, then members of both the progressive and traditionalist camps will have to come out of their respective camps and join together—maybe at the Communion Table—and decide whether our identity as the people called Methodist is more important than any issue that could divide us. It won’t be easy, but no one ever said being the church was supposed to be easy.
And this unity is grounded in holiness marked by our common love for God and one another — something sadly lacking in the way(s) we talk and write about those we disagree with.
I was encouraged by a Facebook post Rev. Adam Hamilton wrote last week talking about a meeting he had with someone he disagreed with but who shared a common interest in trying to love and listen to him:
“I flew to Memphis on Thursday to spend time with Maxie Dunnam, an elder statesmen in the UMC and its most influential conservative. I love, value and respect Maxie. He’s done a great deal in his lifetime of ministry to help people know Christ, to grow in their faith, and to prepare leaders for the church. We don’t agree on everything, though we agree on far more than we disagree on. We both love Christ, we are passionate about evangelism and church renewal, and we care deeply about the United Methodist Church.
Over Memphis barbecue, long walks, and glasses of iced tea we discussed what we share in common, our hopes for the church, our differences and if there is a way forward for the UMC that avoids dividing over the issue of homosexuality. I’m not sure that is possible, but I hope and believe it is. It won’t come from name calling and demonizing those with whom we disagree. If there is a way forward, I believe it will come out of conversations like these that begin with mutual respect and a focus not only on our differences, but on what we share in common. I also believe it will only happen with the Holy Spirit’s work in and through us.”
We want our generation to be the last that has been broken by the homosexuality debate. And we know more conversations like this need to happen. You can’t rush unity, but you sure can take the baby steps necessary to attain it — especially when those baby steps mean checking your own self-interests at the door in the process.
Jeremy and I don’t know our daughters’ sexual orientations yet, and we want a church committed to relentlessly loving them regardless. They both have, however, been baptized which means they will be named “Christian” by less than perfect churches who are a part of a less than perfect connection of churches. So our greatest hope and most fervent prayer is that it’s a connection that will seek unity—not because it’s expedient but because it’s difficult and ultimately faithful.
We want more for our daughters. We want more for your sons and daughters. And we still hold out hope that God is not yet done with the United Methodist Church.
We believe that the United Methodist Church, united in common mission, but not uniform in its expression of that mission, will serve a polarized world better than two Wesleyan traditions who took their toys and bitterly retreated to their respective camps.
However this is also the time of year when Conference Boards of Ministry all over our connection are meeting to evaluate candidates in the ordination process. And all of this talk about spring and new life and hope doesn’t carry much weight if you’ve just received the hard news that you have been deferred in the ordination process.
For some, these first days of spring are tough because you’re now learning to live with the sting of rejection. You feel like one who has failed in your calling to ministry. Your emotions range on a scale from anywhere between frustrated and devastated. You’re trying to pick up the pieces of your shattered ego in order to find some way to faithfully serve and pastor during the rest of this Lenten season and into the glory of Easter . . . and that’s a lot harder than it sounds.
I know exactly how you feel. Last year I was deferred in the ordination process. I know how much the news stings. I remember how I felt when all at once my heart started pounding and my stomach started sinking. If you were told the news in person or on the phone, it was hard to even put words together in response. If you found out by way of a written notice, you probably stared at the page and read it over and over just to make sure it was real and not some sort of trick your eyes were playing on you. As one who was where you are just a year ago, I can tell you that I know just how much this hurts.
But I’m writing not just to affirm your feelings and remind you that you’re not the only one who’s ever felt the brunt of this devastating news. I’m also writing to let you know that new life is, in fact, possible even when you’re deferred in the ordination process.
As I prepared for my interview a few weeks ago (where I would come back and face the same committee that deferred me the year before) I realized that even though I did not want to sign up for another year in the wilderness of deferral, I would not trade the previous year for anything in the world. As I’ve thought on it, I realized that I learned several lessons during my year of deferral.
First, I learned the value of what it meant for pastors to be pastored by others. In the immediate aftermath of our board’s decision, the members of the church I’m serving rallied around me to express their care and even their frustration over the news. Their warm words served as a balm for my wounded soul. If I knew nothing else, I knew the next year of growth would be spent with people who loved me and believed in my calling to ministry no matter what.
Secondly, I now know that seasons in the wilderness can actually be the grounds for new life to spring forth. God just has a way of speaking life into the most barren of circumstances. So I use the term “wilderness” on purpose – being deferred places you in a position to question and grow in ways you may not have imagined before. While I worked on the specific areas for my ordination work, I also experienced the grace of growing personally as I turned especially to the spiritual writings of people like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. I look back and see this past year not only as a year of growth professionally or vocationally, but also as a year of personal growth. And for that gift of grace, I’m very grateful.
Finally, I learned that while being deferred by the board of ministry can be devastating, life beyond deferral is possible. And by life I don’t mean pretending as though this never happened or that you’re perfectly okay with being deferred in your process. I mean it’s possible to find new life in light of this setback. There is hope in a Risen Lord who carried scars with him. Life and ministry have a way of helping us learn to live with scars, and sometimes we even find those scars are beneficial to our sense of compassion and love for others. So please know that life after deferral is not only possible, it is at the heart of what it means to be called into ministry by a crucified and risen Savior.
As you spend the coming days and weeks healing and growing remember a few things: First, let people love you and pastor you. Merton reminds us, “We do not find the meaning of life alone – we find it with others.” Let others help you heal and grow. Second, as you address the shortcomings of your ordination work, be open to the work of God in your personal life. The work of transformation in your life is even more important than your ordination work that you’ll turn in next year. Let yourself be open to personal growth through grace. And third, live into the mystery of this growth knowing that you will come out on the other side a new person. Listen for those who have gone through this before you. And know that you’ll be able to help those who will come after you.
Oh and one more thing…know that you’re not alone. God is with you and is still calling you as part of your baptismal identity. And the Church is longing for your presence and willingness to serve even (and especially) when setbacks happen. For that mysterious hope all we can say is, “Thanks be to God.”
As a United Methodist pastor just three years out of seminary, it is a daunting task to go into a local church and teach people the ins and outs of what it means to be a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition. Adding to the difficulty of the task is the fact that so many people who occupy pews in our United Methodist churches come from varying backgrounds — some are raised Baptist, others have left the Catholic church, some were Baptist and then married a Presbyterian and found the United Methodist Church to be a “compromise church,” others are working on their third or fourth denominational affiliation. Being a Christian these days can be complicated considering how The United Methodist Church is for so many a “big tent” tradition where folks from all sorts of backgrounds can find a home.
I am currently serving in South Georgia which means I’m serving right around the right hand side of the buckle of the Bible Belt — a setting where Calvinism in both the traditional and neo sense is very much alive, well, and prominent in religious culture. So when I was pointed toward Don Thorsen’s little book, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice, I was thrilled to find a book that might help me undertake this monumental task of clarifying what it meant to be a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition.
And I was NOT disappointed.
Not only did I read this book, I taught it in a Sunday School setting. Our group was largely made up of upwardly mobile 30, 40, and early 50-somethings. On the first day we did an experiment to see how many denominational traditions were represented in our group and we found that only 4 out of 20 of us were “cradle Methodists.” 80% of our group had spent time in another denomination. So that became the launching pad whereby we jumped into Thorsen’s concise, yet comprehensive work.
I cannot begin to describe the thrill a pastor can feel when topics like the sovereignty and love of God are debated (Ch. 1, God: More Love Than Sovereignty). I cannot tell you how exhilarating it is to have people passionately talk about the power of grace in their lives even when they do not realize it (Ch. 4, Grace: More Prevenient than Irresistible). And then for a group to be encountered with what it means to live a life of holiness marked by the love of God and our neighbor (Ch. 6, Spirituality: More Holiness than Mortification)? Well, you get my point. Seeing the light bulbs go off as people grew in both clarity and conviction about why they are uniquely Christian in the Wesleyan tradition is an experience Methodist pastors long to experience.
Thorsen’s work is accessible to both clergy and laity alike. And despite the adversarial cover and title, he is very hospitable to Calvin. At the same time he makes no bones about what makes Wesley’s perspective unique and, in the end, superior. As Thorsen reminds us, “From Wesley’s perspective, there should be no ‘half a Christian’ — that is, one who receives justification by faith but fails to go on toward sanctification by faith” (p. 82). In other words, believing the right stuff and agreeing with the right stances does not make us Christian if our lives do not reflect the holiness of God. Thorsen reminds us that Wesley’s emphasis on practice and growing in grace more fully tells the story of what it means to be a Christian. The wonder of being a Christian is working out our salvation, empowered by God’s grace and in union with the church made up of fellow sojourners, and lived in a spirit of humility marked by a distinct love for God and our neighbor.”
In just under 150 pages, Don Thorsen writes a brilliant account of Wesleyan theology for both the new and more seasoned Christian. He deals with the matters of God, sin, grace, salvation, holiness, the Church, and how we live the beliefs we profess in remarkably clear and direct ways. It has been a book that will have a reserved spot on my bookshelf for years to come and in many ministry settings yet to come. So I strongly recommend you not only read this book yourself, but include a small group of friends in your reading as well. And that advice doesn’t just come from me, I have 20 friends who would gladly agree.
Last week I came across two instances where a discussion arose about the relationship between the demise of the church in America and the demise of nuclear families. The argument in both forums went something like this:
Demise of the family unit –> Demise of the church –> Demise of Christian values –> Demise of society as a whole
Essentially we can blame the moral decay of our society on the lack of Christian values that permeate our culture. We can also blame the decline of the Church in America on the decline of the family unity, aka the nuclear family.
Now this is not a post designed to debate the fact that morality in America is shifty at best — it just is. It’s not a post to debate whether or not a healthy and loving nuclear family can raise children to be healthy and contributing members of society — studies show this is often true. This isn’t even a post to debate whether or not the church in America is in a season of decline — the numbers tell that story just fine.
The hope of this post is to remind us that by virtue of our baptism and the historic role of the Church in forming communities of faith, we’ve never (ever) considered the nuclear family to be the most important unit in society.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.
This is the introduction to the service of baptism in The United Methodist Church. One thing you’ll notice is there’s no mention of a nuclear family the way it’s understood in contemporary American society. There’s a reason for this: as Christians we believe that through baptism, we are offered the grace of a new, and much larger family than your nuclear family. Parents who bring their children for baptism in a community of faith do so with the hope that they will not be alone on their in raising their children. And congregations are asked questions like:
Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include [this child/person] now before you in your care?
And then, through God’s grace, they respond:
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround [this child/person] with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.
But this isn’t anything new in the Christian tradition. Numerous passages in Scripture tell us that the community of faith is called by God to care for those who have no family at all — widows, orphans, and immigrants. Those who have no family in this world, can in fact, find family in the Church. The motherless can find mothers. And the childless can adopt children to love and care for. On our very best days we can participate in God’s redemption of circumstances and relationships that are damaging and hurtful — even within the nuclear family. And family lines can be drawn and redrawn all by the power of God’s grace.
So if you ever hear anyone say the Church’s role is to promote the nuclear family in American in order to preserve some vague notion of Christian values, know that we are called to something much larger than that. We are called to the Church — to adopt families and individuals, the share and the grace of holy water, and to live Spirit-filled lives that care about things bigger and grander than just worrying about whether or not our culture looks differently than it did 50 or 100 years ago.
And there are people yet to join our family and share in the grace of life in Christ with a community of love and forgiveness and service — widows, orphans, nuclear families, single people, immigrants, children, and adults. The family drawn by lines of blood and DNA is important, but it’s not the fullness of family according to the God and found within the life of the Church. Blood might be thicker than water for some, but if you’re talking about the waters of baptism then all bets are off.
What does the Bible mean to you?
I asked this question in a Sunday School setting this past week and we launched into a pretty neat discussion. For starters, we mentioned some of the typical answers: “Scripture is God-breathed,” “The Bible is God’s holy word for God’s people,” “For many the Bible is without errors or contradiction” — you know, the typical Sunday School answers.
It was interesting to ask this in a group setting because we all tend to have our own bias ways of reading the Bible that we pretend aren’t bias at all. We gave space to admit our biases and even laugh at them a little.
Have you ever heard or uttered phrases like, “a plain reading of Scripture” or “a biblical view on marriage, parenting, relationships, sexuality, creation, science, war, etc.? The funny thing is that we can all come up with different and even conflicting answers when we approach the Bible in this kind of way. We all have our ways of twisting and turning the words of Scripture to say or support pretty much whatever we want. And more times that not, we do this in order to strengthen an argument and prove someone else wrong. But we rob the Bible of its enormous richness whenever we use it as a means to attack others or just to prove them wrong. After all, the Bible is not an encyclopedia or dictionary. All of the answers to every question ever asked cannot be found in the back of the book.
Now John Wesley saw the Bible as very authoritative and even the final word of authority. But he was honest enough to admit that we bring so much to the Bible whenever we read it. We cannot divorce ourselves from the traditions we’ve been formed in, the contexts we live in, or the biases we cling to whenever we read the Bible. So Wesley saw tradition, reason, and experience as important authorities with which to engage Scripture as we read and seek to be transformed by the text. Scripture may be the final authority but it is certainly not the only authority.
This is why we find ourselves living in a constant tension between the way(s) we read the Bible, the biases we cannot shake ourselves from, and the challenge to live in such a way that we continually seek to make God’s story our story. So let me offer a couple of ways we can faithfully delve into the Bible in (hopefully) new and exciting ways:
Here’s a question our group got back to that I think is a great question and reveals a lot about us: How do you use the Bible in your life?
How we answer that question will reveal a lot about what we believe about the Bible. We might call it sacred but if we never read it, is it actually that sacred? We might say we believe God speaks through it, but if we’re too busy finding evidence to support our own opinions when we read it, are we giving God a chance to speak? And if we only see it as a weapon to exclude or prove wrong or hurt others, then surely we aren’t being changed by the wonderful mystery of the gospel revealed most fully in Jesus Christ and found within the pages of this amazingly complex and life-giving book.
This will be the final post this Advent season so I wanted to finally share a prayer for the day — Christmas Eve’s Eve.
O come, O come, Emmanuel…
We are a people who live in captivity. We find ourselves captive to sin, whether it’s in the form of bad choices or decisions we make or the power that keeps us from living into the full freedom of life with you. We are lost without you.
We are a people captive to burdens. Loneliness, despair, heartache, anger, bitterness, unforgiveness – these are just a few of the shackles we drag behind us daily. The weight of which grows heavier with each passing day.
We are captive to the ways of this world. We spend our time and energy seeking to consume and help others consume in the hope that somehow a gift — or two, or ten — wrapped in a package with a nice bow on it can somehow be our ultimate source of joy. We confess that we live by the ritual rhythms of the consumer calendar and we forget that as your people, we are called to a different sense of time and space and rhythm. Help us to slow down, consume less, and seek to love and give in more meaningful ways.
O come, O come, Emmanuel and free us from the burdens that hold us captive. Grant that we might live as a people free to joyfully follow you and love one another. May we sift through the empty promises and glitzy, tinsel laced facades of this season in order to truly find you – coming among us in poverty and obscurity as a light that shines in the darkest places in our world. Save us to be a people who live in hopeful and humble expectation for your coming. Grant that we may not be lured into notions of exceptionalism, superiority, or arrogance just because we dare to call ourselves Christian this season. Lead us down the humble road to Bethlehem that we might find you in a manger – cold, fragile, vulnerable, truly human, yet truly God in human flesh.
We pray all of this in the hope of your coming Messiah, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
May your Advent be a time where you find hope in waiting. And may your waiting be met tomorrow and the next day in the coming of God’s own Messiah.