The Kingdom Of God Depends Not On Talk But On Power

St. Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne, 17th Century

St. Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne, 17th Century

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. – 1 Corinthians 3:18-19a

As the pages of United Methodist Insight heated up with discussions about the future of the United Methodist Church – to which I contributed – editor Cynthia Astle penned a piece calling on all participants to take a step back and engage in spiritual discernment, including entering in to the arguments of opponents.

the church’s future isn’t going to be determined by how we write or argue or postulate or advocate, but by how well we discover and follow God’s will. In our collective hubris, we have forgotten that we do not speak for God, nor do we defend God. Our tasks are to seek God; to give witness to divine activity as signs of God’s mission; and to counsel together on how we can fulfill God’s mission.

So instead of escalating the latest skirmish, let’s experiment. Pick any article posted currently on United Methodist Insight (including those involved in the current tempest) and read it again through the open-ended lenses we recommend. Post your responses in the Comments section of each article with reference to “discernment” in the title. In a week, we’ll collect your discernments into an article. We may be surprised by what we find together.

I appreciate the sentiment.  At the same time, this is something I cannot do, for reasons that will follow.  Here, I take my guidance first from St. Paul.  The two letters to the Corinthians are filled with admonitions regarding how we are to live together are brothers and sisters in Christ: we are to live in love; we are to regard the Gifts of the Spirit not as signs of preference and distinction, but as parts that make up the whole, each of equal worth; we are to gather at the Lord’s Table ready to share together, rather than divide due to matters of class distinction or, worse, simple hunger; we are not to claim pride of place because of our teacher; while all things are lawful to those who are in Christ, not all things build up the body, so be gentle with those outside so that the Glory of God may be discerned in our actions; most of all, do not boast of social position, of wisdom, and of power.

St. Paul called the members of the Corinthian congregation to task for multiple wrongs and sins, from semi-incestuous fornication (a member of the congregation was living with his father’s wife) to pride to gluttony to a simple lack of love demonstrated within and among the members of the Church.  The title of this post comes from a warning St. Paul issued: Some among the congregation felt they could do what they wanted because they did not believe Paul would visit them again, yet Paul says that he is coming. He then asks which they would prefer, to be admonished by his words, or by a demonstration of his power which comes from the crucified and risen Christ?

In our on-going discussions, my own pieces have tended to focus on how we carry on the discussions.  I have called out various people as “tone police” and “argument police”, something I have learned from eight years of engagement on the internet.  The moment someone comes along and clicks their tongue about the tone of a discussion, my hackles rise because every time this becomes part of the discussion it is an attempt to control not the tone of the argument, but its terms, who can and cannot argue properly, who is and is not acceptable as a discussion and argument partner, and who is and is not welcome at the table for the discussion.  One lesson I learned a quarter-century ago from James Cone is never to allow others to restrict through definitions and a priori rules what is and is not acceptable.  This is the way the game is rigged, and as soon as you agree to those rules, you’re playing the game others have set up, by their rules, and you will lose.

The topic of whether or not the floor of General Conference should or should not be open is, as they say, a red herring.  This is another reason I will not engage the topic itself.  It is an attempt, like all the schism talk this past spring in the run up to Annual Conference season, to distract people from the real issue, which is the future direction of the United Methodist Church in a society that is changing rapidly even as the denomination’s numbers shrink, its giving plummets, and more and more of those who once filled our pews no longer hear any Good News from us.  As long as we are talking about schism, or the technical rules of who is allowed on the floor of General Conference, we aren’t talking about how to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to a generation that isn’t sure it matters.  As long as we are arguing over the proper way to argue, we aren’t asking the really hard question: Are we willing to make all the changes necessary to become the Church for the 21st Century, stuck as we seem to be, variously, in the 18th (Wesleyan Fundamentalists), the 19th (Holiness Absolutists), and the 20th (Social Action Christians)? I have no reason to listen to those who refuse to listen to the cry from the world for a Gospel spoken in a language that makes sense.  I have no reason to abide by the rules of those who use those rules to exclude, divide, and silence others.  I refuse to argue by rules that aren’t “laws” but just arbitrary things others say are rules, but are nothing more than ways to control what is and is not proper.  God does not stand on propriety, and the Spirit abides by no rules.

Compared to those I criticize, I am  no one.  I hold no position of authority.  I have no particular wisdom to offer.  While it’s true I do read a lot, all that reading has convinced me how little I know.  I am a person of no consequence. I do not say this with false humility, but just as descriptive fact.  The one gift I have – at least I think I have; others might not agree – is the ability to string together words so others may read them.  Yet, as St. Paul reminds the people of the Corinthian Church, the Kingdom of God (which is what we United Methodists are supposed to be about, right?  “the transformation of the world” and all) will not be demonstrated in words, most especially words of wisdom.  It will come with power, the power of the crucified and risen Christ.  I want the United Methodist Church to continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  I believe it cannot and will not do so if we play stupid games like who gets to argue, who gets to speak at General Conference, and how we communicate with one another.  The future of our tradition, a tradition which has so much to offer a world in need of Good News, will not be set by those who control the debate before it even begins by tossing out things for others to discuss rather than the future of our Church.  All I have is the desire to get others to see through these smoke-screens and be willing to violate all the rules of argument, of propriety, to discuss what others want to discuss the way they want to discuss them, and get talking about becoming the United Methodist Church for the 21st Century.  All the rest, as St. Thomas said in another context, is straw.


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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