There’s been a flurry of activity among prominent spokespersons (all white men) from the Wesley Covenant Association (WCA) as the Commission on the Way Forward begins its work. With Annual Conferences scheduled to begin around the United States in a week or two, the pressure on delegates to act certainly seems to be rising.
There are several things I think all Annual Conference members, Bishops, members of the Commission on the Way Forward, and the average lay person in the pew should consider as the politicking becomes more intense and the rhetoric ramps up.
First, we need to be very clear what the WCA is and is not. It is a gathering of largely older, white, male clergy and academics whose goal is one thing alone:
“I think that the way ahead lies with an exit plan for those who cannot accept the canonical teaching and practice of the church rather than a plan for division,” Abraham announced, coining the term “Mexit” for this Methodist departure.
Abraham suggested “those who disagree with the teachings and practices of the church should follow through on their own convictions and recognize the moral obligation of exiting The United Methodist Church.” – Mark Tooley, “‘Mexit’ For United Methodist Sexual/Theological Dissenters”, Juicyecumenism.com, March 29, 2017
There’s nothing Wesleyan or Covenantal about their organization. Indeed, I think it’s more than fair to say that, rather than the spokesmen for some silent majority, the WCA represents an ever-shrinking minority. Recent polling of the denomination, according to the linked Christianity Today article, has been consistent with a plurality favoring the removal of the discriminatory language from the Book of Discipline. The vast majority (90%!) want nothing to do with schism, split, or kicking anyone out over matters of sexuality, insisting the constant attention is diverting the larger church from its mission. So when Chris Ritter claims, “The majority of United Methodists believe what the Book of Discipline teaches about human sexuality whether they are vocal about this or not.” he is not only making an impossible, self-contradictory claim (how is it possible for anyone to know what the vast majority of any group believes if they also insist they are silent about it?), the claim is contradicted by actual surveys that show the UMC in America would far prefer we set aside the discriminatory language and lay the issue to rest to get back to being the Church.
From my own experience of more than four decades, I would venture to say the majority of United Methodists don’t even know there is a Book of Discipline or if they do know, only know it is a book of law for the denomination. I also observe that most United Methodists don’t live their lives on a denominational level but on a congregational level where they learn about and exercise their Christian faith far from any Book of Discipline.
This is a fair picture of my own experience as well. Which is not to say that church members consider matters of church law irrelevant. As they should be, and as surveys show, members of our United Methodists congregations around the country are far more focused on the mission of their local churches and how that fits into the mission of the United Methodist Church. Matters of human sexuality not only aren’t a priority; they’re a distraction.
The WCA claims to be the guardians of something one of their spokesmen calls “the Wesleyan/Evangelical/Orthodox tradition”. Yet none of the statements of the WCA regarding their beliefs – other than endorsing other statements of faith – has any theological content at all. Indeed, as I noted the other day in a piece linked at the top of this paragraph, what few statements I have seen are deliberately designed to be void of content while presenting to those outside the group a particular image: guardians of a tradition that is as old as the Church itself. For all they carry along a few big name United Methodist academics, there is nothing theological about their statements, about their attitude toward the larger denomination, and their insistence that either people who don’t accept the current Book of Discipline must leave or they will. They misrepresent who they are, who they represent, and how they should be perceived.
As we move into the always contentious Annual Conference season; as some observe from afar the working of the Commission on the Way Forward; as we all pray for discernment and peace; we need to bear in mind the WCA is the exact opposite of what it claims (as has its previous incarnations as Good News and The Confessing Movement): an aging conglomerate of the same older white men who have held far too much power far too long who deliberately mislead people regarding their intentions, often offering easily disproven claims as fact to bolster arguments that wind up being internally incoherent. They only have any power and authority because some people choose to grant it to them.
Their membership is relatively small, but there are members across the United States. We should love and honor these people who may have become members for any number of reasons all the while making clear they do not now and will not in the future represent some hidden silent majority of members of the United Methodist Church. They exist solely for the purpose of enforcing discrimination against sexual minorities, and will do anything to achieve their ends.
The easiest way to strip them of any power is not to grant them any; to speak plainly and honestly about who they are, how they operate, and that they just aren’t representative of even a large plurality of church members. Their goal, schism over questions regarding human sexuality, is rejected by the vast majority of the persons for whom they claim to speak. As they aren’t trustworthy conversation partners on a way forward for all of us, they should be rejected as part of that larger conversation.
But somehow in the last 40 years our modern culture has decided that God’s Word and His Will for us in no longer the truth. It’s now a truth. Our personal experience is often the sole determiner of truth for many in our culture and, sadly, in the Church. The new norm is if a person wants a thing, having that thing becomes their right. A person just needs to claim a thing, and it becomes their truth. It’s true for them. Truth is what they make it. And that individual truth according to out culture is equal to, or even better than the truth of Scripture and it supersedes the Will and Wisdom of the Creator of the Universe. For the better part of 200 years, the Wesleyan-Evangelical-Orthodox tradition has stood firm on the principle that all Scripture is God-breathed. Not some. All. That Scripture is the primary lens through which we frame our faith and practice, followed by 2000 years of Christian tradition, reason, and personal experience. But for the last 40 years, there are some in our church who want to claim that Scripture’s authority is no longer primary and can be shaped or over-ridden by personal experience. Some believe that those Scriptures that no longer conform to the norms of modern society are obsolete and without meaning. In essence, they want the church to proclaim to the world that in some places in Scripture, God got it wrong. – Rev. Jeff Greenaway, “The Bible Is True,” video transcription by me
I saw that United Methodist Insight had reprinted a response to Rev. Greenaway’s statement regarding Scripture. Written by Hebrew Scripture scholar Rev. Dr. Steven Tuell, it clearly and decisively demonstrates the nonsense that is the Wesley Covenant Association’s (WCA) position regarding Scripture. As a focused critique of the mess that is Greenaway’s statement, it serves well demonstrating what many have been saying for decades – whether they called themselves Good News or The Confessing Movement or the Wesley Covenant Association, in their declarations regarding both Scripture and doctrine these supposed “Orthodox” Christians are about as unorthodox as can be imagined.
I want to take this critique back a couple steps, however, and focus on the fact that the jumble of words that is Greenaway’s, and presumably the WCA’s, position regarding the place of Scripture in the life of the Church and believer is a carefully crafted jumble. The use of undefined words, whether Truth, Orthodox, Evangelical, society, culture, or what have you, allow the listener to define them for him- or herself. The use of the weasel words “Some people”, without once saying who they are, to describe those who offer a different view of Scripture, a view that is claimed to be the view of “some people”, again without reference to any individuals or groups within the Church, writings or speeches by such people, allows not only the creation of a straw argument, but for the listener to have a clearly-defined adversary, one whose position regarding the Bible, Truth, God’s Will are not Wesleyan, Evangelical, or Orthodox.
I sadly sold off a small book by the Thomist Josef Pieper, Entitled Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, the work addresses modernity’s assault on the the meaningfulness of language through its manipulation by those in power. While we are all familiar enough with it in our secular politics – “fake news” anyone? – its place in our sectarian political life, posing as a legitimate way of understanding the place of Scripture in the history and life of the Church is a sad demonstration of the depths to which those in the WCA will sink to manipulate the conversation regarding the place of sexual minorities in the life and mission of the Church.
In the United Methodist Church, persons are ordained into the ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order. That first one, Word, has many layers and meanings, not the least of them being preaching the Word to the faithful. This isn’t just some part of the life of a pastoral minister; it is among the most solemn, sacred duties, a blessing and gift from God to be the person through whom the message of grace and salvation is to be offered. This message can come in many forms, but because of the place of the Divine Logos in the history and life of the Church, our words should be among the most precious tools we have. Through them clergy should be seeking as clear a communication as possible, a simplicity and elegance of presentation that offers faith, hope, and love to the people gathered to worship God.
The Rev. Jeff Greenaway uses words carefully, to be sure. Rather than for the sake of simplicity and clarity, however, his “statement” is a carefully crafted piece meant to strip words of meaning and manipulate people toward ends that have nothing to do with the Gospel. It is not only the debasement of language. It is the denial of the purpose of the preaching office of the Church. I and many others have maintained through the years that the whole self-proclaimed orthodox/evangelical wing of the United Methodist Church is neither; in their latest guise as the Wesley Covenant Association, they demonstrate that both thoroughly and consistently. They are now, sadly, demonstrating their willingness to abuse language in service of a narrow, clearly theologically and Biblically false ideology. This should give us all pause as we move forward: The willingness to debase language so casually and so clearly in service of raw power demonstrates a willingness to do pretty much anything in order to achieve ends that have nothing to do with the life and mission of the United Methodist Church.
Simple Definition of sacrifice
: the act of giving up something that you want to keep especially in order to get or do something else or to help someone
: an act of killing a person or animal in a religious ceremony as an offering to please a god
a person or animal that is killed in a sacrifice
Methodist seminaries train their pastors in critical methodologies for studying the Scripture. Those methodologies teach that the Bible’s inspiration is not undermined by acknowledging the biblical authors’ historical context, the ways in which the biblical text developed, and the process of its canonization. But it does teach us that the Bible is far more complex than the common dictum, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” allows. – Adam Hamilton, “The Bible, Homosexuality, and the UMC – Part One”, Ministry Matters, April 27, 2016
Adam Hamilton has once more entered into the fray of making pronouncements about what the Bible does and does not advocate when it comes to same sex sexual activity and same sex marriage . . . .
My concern is with the misinterpretation of the Bible in this post as well as the misrepresentation of Methodist cultural trends at various points – Ben Witherington III, “A Response to Adam Hamilton’s Recent Post on the Bible and Homosexuality”, Patheos, April 28, 2016
[T]he most we can say about Jesus’ position on queer identity is that we simply do not know. To say otherwise is exegetical malpractice, which results in bad ethics by promoting discrimination that isn’t explicitly sanctioned by Jesus. – Morgan Guyton, “Making Jesus Answer Questions He Wasn’t Asked”, United Methodist Insight, May 2, 2016
I’ve said it often the past few years: We have rehashed and rehearsed the same arguments concerning same-gender love so much seeing them, yet again, isn’t so much insightful as it is tiresome. The latest iteration of these arguments began between Rev. Adam Hamilton and Dr. Ben Witherington, with Rev. Morgan Guyton taking Witherington to task for yet another of the same argument. It makes me want to clap may hands over my ears and shout, “Enough!”
Ours is a faith that has at its heart sacrifice. The LORD called Abraham to sacrifice his only legitimate son and heir – the heir, also, of the promise the LORD made to Abraham to make of his children a great nation. The Law of Moses has sacrifice-as-reconciliation at the heart of its priestly code. When challenging the priests of Baal, Elijah specifically used a sacrificial ritual to discredit both Baal and his priests. When challenging politically and morally corrupt governance in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the prophets would often declare the sacrifices – the heart of the national cultic practice for repentance, ritual cleanliness and reconciliation – were meaningless because of the lack of justice and pervasiveness of oppression in the nation.
Part of the way we understand Jesus death on the cross is as sacrificial death – what’s often called subsitutionary atonement. While we may have forsaken animal sacrifice, we Christians still call for “sacrifice” for the good of the ministry of the whole Church. Single people are called to a life of chastity (not celibacy; celibacy means they won’t ever get married, thus unmarried people are celibate by definition). We are called to sacrifice a tenth of our earnings to the Church’s work in the world. We are called to sacrifice the good opinion of our peers and the powers that be in order to stand firm in the faith. We are called to sacrifice our preferences and surrender to the Will of God, an odd situation for St. Paul to call “freedom”.
We are to be willing to sacrifice our lives for our friends, if called upon to do so.
As General Conference approaches – yes, this is yet another General Conference post – perhaps we should remember this call to sacrifice. We should be willing to give up the urge, yet again, to say the same things to one another. These ways of dialogue and argument have achieved nothing. I don’t think, really, they’re at fault for the poisoned atmosphere between and among some over the matter of sexuality and sexual difference, precisely because they’ve become meaningless. Like reciting anything by rote, whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer of the Pledge of Allegiance, the meaning slips away when we mouth words without thinking they might actually be the most important words we may ever say.
When we gather as a denomination in Portland this coming week, perhaps we should give up the urge to start yelling at one another about Biblical interpretation, tossing verses at one another, saying that “liberal” Protestants are “the only ones” who seem to be OK with gay marriage and ordaining sexual minorities (part of Ben Witherington’s argument in the linked piece above; as if, somehow, that means anything at all, that different people in different places and living out different histories would understand the Bible differently). Perhaps, just perhaps, we should sacrifice our own desire to be right, to have not only the best argument but the best way of arguing, to show the gathered delegates just how smart and educated we are. Maybe it might be a good idea to start talking to one another in different ways, better ways, meaningful ways. Ways that build up the Body of Christ instead of seeking to silence, intimidate, and (best of all) defeat those with whom we disagree.
I know I’m quite tired of listening to people who say one way or another of reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible to one’s life is either the best way, or perhaps the only way. To be honest, as soon as someone starts down this road, I’m quite convinced they don’t know what they’re talking about. There are as many varieties of Biblical interpretation, as many lenses of Biblical hermeneutics, as there are denominations, individuals, and congregations. Looking back over the complicated and varied history of the Church, it would be absurd to insist that the Church, at any historical moment, had a predominant hermeneutic. It might certainly at this or that time have offered an official statement regarding Biblical interpretation; in practice – and it is always in practice that these words have any meaning – the Church has always been “the churches” when it came to figuring out how to make those words in the text mean anything for our lives here and now.
So for the love of God please stop arguing about what the Bible says or doesn’t say, what Jesus did or didn’t say, about anything. My New Testament professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, Sharon Ringe, said that starting down this road will always land you in trouble because, maybe just maybe, that’s the wrong question to ask. It might be a good idea to give up our desire to be correct, to be right, to defeat and embrace our ability to be wrong, to be unsure, and to accept difference as just that rather than some ultimate divide that shall always separate “us” and “them”.
The gospel of modern white evangelicalism does not rest on the authority of Jesus’ cross, but on the threat of eternal violence. Instead of submitting ourselves to the slain lamb of God, white evangelicals enthusiastically line ourselves up behind our hero bad-ass God-cop whose most defining characteristic is his love of violent punishment. Instead of being convicted through the authority of Jesus’ blood of all the ways that we continue to crucify him through our injustice, we crucify others with authority as deputies of our bad-ass God-cop.
It is our theology that makes violent authority figures like Darren Wilson, Brian Encinia, and Ben Fields feel completely justified in their savage behavior. Jesus’ cross cannot save us if it is only the receptacle of the violence of a bad-ass God-cop we’ve invented to justify ourselves. Jesus’ cross only saves us to the degree that we recognize it as the place where we have violated God. The blood of Abel continues to cry out from the ground in the blood of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others. But if there are any true Christians in this land, then there’s power in that blood and the authority of the cross will ultimately triumph over the authority of the badge.
If there’s a hero in the story from Columbia, SC, it would have to be Niya Kenny, the classmate of the assaulted girl who got arrested for speaking out in protest of what happened. If you want to talk about obedience, Niya is the one who saw Jesus crucified and was obedient to the authority of his cross. Let us take up our crosses like Niya and do likewise. – Rev. Morgan Guyton, “The Authority Of The Badge Vs. The Authority Of The Cross”, United Methodist Insight, October 29, 2015
Homicide rates in 2010 among non-Hispanic, African-American males 10-24 years of age (51.5 per 100,000) exceeded those of Hispanic males (13.5 per 100,000) and non-Hispanic, White males in the same age group (2.9 per 100,000). – Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, Youth Violence Facts At A Glance 2012
This is addressed to you if you have spent even a moment thinking that former Randall County Sheriff’s deputy Ben Fields was somehow justified in attacking a 16 year old girl. This is addressed to you if you have said or written that kids these days are some unique threat requiring violence to suppress their tendency toward criminality. This is for you if you wrote, “If this were my kid . . .” because – can we be honest here? – if this had been your kid, you’re the parent who’d be on the phone so fast it would hurt the company to connect your call; you’d have lawyers and calling press conferences and suing as many people as you could name. This is addressed to you if you said or wrote, “Well, maybe she didn’t deserve that but . . .” because that “but” shouldn’t be there. This post is addressed to you if you believe in “buts”.
Here are some facts. If you look at that chart – it comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in co-operation with the Department of Education and Department of Justice – youth crime is kinda sorta way down. In fact, it’s kinda sorta so far down that we should be wondering what the hell was wrong with us, those kids back then in the 1980’s and 1990’s when the rates were so high. Kids these days . . . we should be applauding them. Instead, if I’ve read one person write about how “kids these days” are somehow worse, more disrespectful, some spoiled and entitled, I’ve read a hundred. Kids these days are the teachers – they’re teaching us how to live in a society that open and diverse, doing so with far less violence and far more acceptance of difference than has been true in the past. Kids these days are far better than we were. Perhaps we should be grateful for that, rather than pretend kids these days are somehow worse than we were.
Here are some facts. A 16-year-old-girl had just recently lost her only parent. Hurting in ways most of us cannot imagine, her cell phone was her lifeline to her legal guardian, perhaps the only adult to whom she could cling for comfort. When her teacher told – not asked but told – her to relinquish her phone, she apologized and put the phone in her backpack. The teacher insisted she turn it over. She demurred, for obvious reasons. She was then ordered to the principal’s office. She refused to go, which makes sense. The reality is she had done nothing wrong. When the principal arrived, he, too ordered her to the principal’s office. Now, I’m hazarding a guess the principal knew her personal situation; perhaps he could have shown her some understanding and compassion? Instead, he called the school “resource officer”, a cop known around the school as “Officer Slam”. In his infinite wisdom, he slammed her to the floor while still in her seat, tossed her across the floor, then handcuffed her. He then arrested another student who protested his actions and the girl’s treatment.
I’m wondering who was really disruptive?
If you believe schools are violent places where our precious children are in immediate threats to their life, that’s true only if you’re African-American. There’s an epidemic of violent death among our youth: It’s the second leading cause of death overall for people aged 10-24. For African-Americans in that same age-cohort, it’s the leading cause of death. Compared even to Hispanics, African-American youth are being murdered far more frequently. Rather than view African-American youth as some mass threat to our social peace, perhaps we should view them as uniquely victimized, in need of all sorts of assistance and support both public and private to prevent the ongoing slaughter of their children.
Finally, if you call yourself a Christian and you’re still defending Ben Fields’s actions, you should feel shame. Real shame, as in “Wow I really messed up, didn’t I. I feel horrible.” I’m guessing, however, that shame just isn’t part of your make-up. Which is really too bad.
PS: “It’s just my opinion” means you’re willing to ignore any and all facts that get in the way of your pat answer and judgement.
Too many people think this is what “theology” is: Big old books that are unreadable.
Laments about the status of theology in the Church are as old as the Church. Remember in St. Peter’s Epistle, that reminder to be ready to give a defense of the faith? What else is that but a plea for people to get straight how they talk about what they believe. We in the United Methodist Church, unclear on the distinction between “theology” and “doctrine” carry on as if the words are interchangeable. Then of course there are people like this guy who warn of Zombie Theologians, as if ignorant lay people are going to eat our brains if we don’t teach them theology! Aside from the lousy and misused metaphor, all this Sturm und Drang and clothes-rending is ridiculous. Our churches do theology all the time. Sometimes they do it quite well; sometimes they do it poorly. That is to be expected. Even the best theologians of whom we know got all sorts of stuff wrong. Rather than bewail our communal failures teaching “the Christian faith” and “theology” – not at all the same thing; I would have thought a Seminary professor would know the very big difference – perhaps we should celebrate all the ways our clergy, lay people, church staffs, congregations, and hierarchy are out there doing theology all the time.
First of all, theology is not just a specialized academic discipline, producing books and articles read by fewer and fewer people, couched in a specialized vocabulary that even the initiated struggle with. Theology is also what people do when teaching children the Bible. It’s what Disciple Bible Study is all about. Church committees, right up to those most important ones like Finance, Trustees, and Administrative Council are theological to the core. If a church or Conference or even General Church budget isn’t a theological document, what else could it be?
We too often confuse “using a specialized academic vocabulary” with doing theology. That vocabulary is important. Its precision is necessary for reasons of clarity of expression and exposition. That is not what makes a particular discourse “theological”. The faithfulness of those engaged in such discourse; the way faith in Christ is the center around which such discourse takes place; the refusal to allow pat answers or shiny objects distract from the necessity of being faithful; these are some of the marks of theological discourse. If the folks so engaged aren’t using a particular specialized vocabulary, yet are arriving at the same place by a different route, what is the problem?
Now, if the issue isn’t a matter of the vocabulary and discourse, but rather expressed ignorance about basics of the faith, then I think all of us share equal blame for that. Clergy and laity all need to work together to ensure people are engaged in our faith seeking understanding. It is not enough to declare oneself a Christian, to point to a moment or series of moments that one’s life shifted because of an experience of God. If there is a basic inability to articulate the content of one’s faith – to say more than “It is this God in whom I believe” – that is a failure all of us share. We don’t need to be busy teaching people to read St. Thomas or Peter Abelard or Calvin or Langdon Gilkey, although if you want to more power to you. At the very least, however, we do need to engage people in thinking about and being willing to answer the question, “Who is this God in whom you believe?” That is the beginning and end of theology, right there.
The standard question in Seminaries when courses in Systematics roll around is, “What does this have to do with being a pastor?” Interesting question. Since being a pastor is more than marrying and burying; since it’s more than administration and paper-pushing; since it’s more than devising a worship outline and a sermon each week; it would seem that anyone charged with serving a congregation would at least be curious about what it’s all about. Of course like so much else in education from elementary school through post-doctoral work, how we go about getting people to understand why acquiring even the rudiments of a theological vocabulary are important run up against the simple fact that our schools are not designed to educate people, i.e., to teach them to think for themselves. Our whole education system is designed to turn out workers, to separate those who succeed in our service-based economy such as bankers, attorneys, financial traders, and doctors from those who will not succeed. Theological education, at least at its formal level, is no more immune from these socio-economic pressures than it is from other social and cultural ailments. All the efforts at reforming theological education that don’t admit this is the reality within which it operates will always fail.
If people aren’t hearing real theology being done in our churches, perhaps we’re listening for the wrong thing. If people aren’t recognizing the faithful wrestling in which our congregations engage, perhaps the matter isn’t a lack of theological understanding on the part of lay people (and why for God’s sake is it always the lay people?). Perhaps the people so desperate for “real” theology in our churches are really talking about something else, and using the long-running assumption of congregational theological ignorance as a way of talking about something else.
It’s too easy and convenient . . . oh, hell, it’s just downright lazy to carry on about theological ignorance. If you think the problem is so bad and pervasive, devise a curriculum to address it! Oh, wait . . . that’s all ready been done. If the matter is so pervasive because you believe there are clergy who claim they are too busy to teach the faith, perhaps you should offer an example or two. Teaching the faith, after all, is about more than leading a class. It would seem that would include sermons with no theology in them. It would mean weddings and funerals without the Good News being declared. It would mean meetings that don’t begin with an prayer for God’s presence. It would mean Bible Studies that somehow evade the meaning of the texts being considered. I’m sure such things happen. I just have not seen, in almost fifty years in the United Methodist Church, any evidence our congregations are not theological. They are, often deeply so. There isn’t an understanding of the technicalities of academic theological discourse; there often is ignorance of particular doctrines – again, not the same thing as not knowing or being able to articulate theology – but that is easily remedied. I just don’t see any evidence either of theological ignorance or an unwillingness to engage in doing theology in our churches.
Our churches do theology. Our people are able to articulate that in which they believe. More importantly as congregations, they live out their theology in so many ways that touch both their local communities and the whole world.
Theology? We’re soaking in it.
All that scattering is for the sake of the Mission of God, a mission that has nothing to do with uniformity, but rather asks for unity among those who would undertake it. It may not be comfortable or neat or easy, but as the church it is our mission. – Andy Bryan, “Unity and The Sin Of Babel”, United Methodist Insight, October 2, 2015
I’m going to share a story out of school as it were. Lisa and I are in the midst of a disagreement centering on my appearance. I have to admit part of it is rooted in what is probably a mid-life crisis of one kind or another. At the same time, it has to do with expressing who I am. For several years I’ve worn my hair very closely cropped – almost a buzz cut. I’ve been letting my hair grow out for several months and it’s past that awkward stage and beginning to wave and curl. I haven’t decided for sure if I’m going to just allow it to continue growing or get dreadlocks. It has to be a minimum of three inches long for that. I’m also growing out my goatee while keeping the rest of my beard short so that, when it gets long enough, that can be braided.
Why the big change? To express who I am. I’ve never fit in to any particular group. When I was in Seminary, one of the faculty I respected a great deal, Mark Burrows, said to me, “One of the things I really admire about you is you get along with everyone.” Now, I honestly don’t know if that’s true. I think I tried to get along with everyone; more to the point, however, my effort to get along with different types of people comes from the fact that I just don’t fit in with any single group. Furthermore, I’ve never tried to fit in to one group. Where’s the fun in that? I’ve always figured it’s better to have all sorts of different kinds of people in one’s life. How else do you learn and grow? How else do you share all sorts of experiences with others if the folks you call acquaintances and friends are all like you? That’s boring.
One of the most important theological lessons I learned in Seminary was that God wants us to be us. We were each of us created to be who and as we are. Our life, all the things that go to make up who we are, they are our most precious possessions. God uses that uniqueness in specific ways to achieve the ultimate divine end – the Kingdom in which the New Creation exists to give our God the glory. The salvation offered in the crucified and risen Jesus comes to each of us as we are, calling us to be who we were created to be for the glory of God. The freedom we enjoy is the freedom to surrender care for ourselves to serve others. It is also the freedom to do so with the unique gifts only each of us has. For me, part of the uniqueness is appearing as one who does not fit in anywhere because this world, in the end, is not my home.
Ours is a world with so many enforced conformities. Labels get attached so easily, and short-hand summaries of others are far too easy to come by. It is part of that sin of Babel Andy Bryan points out: The urge toward uniformity less God scatter us. Uniformity and conformity flow from an unfaithful fear of God’s wrath. As the early chapters of Genesis make clear, ours are lives spent going out in to the world; in the Great Commission makes clear, this “going forth” is part of our identity as Christians. It is that to which calls us. Going out to the world, being scattered for the sake of the Kingdom should offer us the kind of freedom to show the world, “This is who I am as one beloved child of God!”
When I was in Seminary, I attended Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church because it was just across the street from American University. The pastor at the time, Rev. William Holmes, sent us forth with the best benediction ever: “Now go! And be the scattered Body of Christ at work in the world!” Part of being that “scattered body”, of not becoming ensnared in the Babel trap, of following the command to spread across the Earth, to preach the Good News from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth, is allowing ourselves to be the person God created us to be. Be willing to express that so the person God created can be a sign of what is possible through God’s saving and perfecting grace.
I still haven’t decided on the whole dreadlocks thing. On the other hand I do know that being part of the scattered Body of Christ means that I’m just one small yet unique part of a massive whole aiming toward bringing about the Kingdom of Peace for the Glory of God. How I look isn’t important at all compared to getting out there and being and doing the call I hear each day in new ways.
I think we need collectively to figure out how to have ongoing conversations with people with whom we disagree. None of us has the whole picture independently, but together we can make up the whole picture. – Cynthia Astle, “Disengaging From The Conversation”, United Methodist Insight, September 18, 2015
There is little doubt the United Methodist Church is in trouble. As has been the case through our national history, we have taken on the poisonous politics of the surrounding society, leading to hostility, anger, and at times a pettiness that should embarrass us all. Like our secular politics, however, there seems to be no solution. Instead, we must traverse this particular valley of the shadow of death with faith that our LORD is with us. What lies on the other side will be something new, and as the Psalm sings, the LORD will prepare a table for us in the presence of our enemies – whoever we think they might be.
Two long-time friends of this blog, Cynthia Astle of United Methodist Insight and Joel Watts of Unsettled Christianity have come to a parting of the ways in a very public, shocking (to me at any rate; I’ve dealt with both for years and can’t fathom what’s happened in its specifics) way. A combination of miscommunication resulting in a bit of vitriol leaves me sad and puzzled. Astle has solicited “help” from people on how better to use this medium to continue the necessary on-going conversation among little-heard voices within our denomination. The problem, at least from my perspective, isn’t the medium. It is rather the larger context in which we try to engage others with whom we disagree. The Internet offers great opportunities for people to engage one another in honest, sometimes heated, discussion. That the anonymity and distance of the Internet also provides some people the freedom to say things they would never say in a face-to-face argument has long been a subject of criticism. All the same, that same distance allows a level of honesty and clarity that a face-to-face encounter could never provide. Too concerned over rules of etiquette and propriety, face-to-face encounters might produce discomfort should the argument get as heated as it does online. There are benefits to face-to-face meetings that no less personal encounter can match. Which leaves me, again, thinking it isn’t the medium. Rather, it’s the expectations we bring to Internet discussions and the ease of miscommunication always at play in written as opposed to spoken discourse that create part of our problem.
But only part. Another part of what prevents us from dealing with one another is the decision, as Astle names it, to disengage.
David F. Watson asked that his previous material be removed entirely from our database after we published an article by Geoffrey Kruse-Safford criticizing his work.
This part of Astle’s linked article shocked me. I had not seen Watson’s work in UMI. To learn that I was the reason for his refusal to participate any longer in their forum, however, was more than a little surprising. Academic Dean at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, I have certainly been critical of things he’s written. I would go further and say that those disagreements have been substantial, presented forcefully. To think that something I wrote made Watson wish no longer to engage, however, is more than a little embarrassing. After some checking, I found the article that might have been the reason Watson discontinued his association with UMI and I have to admit more than a little confusion. Ironically, that article concerned Watson’s scolding some people for how they conduct themselves in online forums; I pointed out to him that, by the standards of the larger Internet, while certainly heated United Methodists have by-and-large conducted our discussions with a great deal of civility and respect.
And now we have yet another voice, citing both “unWesleyan doctrine” – I’m honestly not sure what that means; are all United Methodists supposed to adhere to a narrow Wesleyan theology? – as well as “slanderous personal attacks” – for which I can find no evidence at all; one thing I admire about Cynthia is she does not countenance such things; I’ve been reminded of that several times by her when she read something of mine she took to be an ad hominem attack. It has made me far more conscious of how to present what I write, being clear issues and not personalities are front and center. Joel’s use of the word “threat” is more than a little odd. Cynthia “threatened” nothing; she informed Joel their Twitter discussion would be featured in a longer article explaining why his article had been removed.
Our poisonous politics, sacred and secular, make all of us edgy and ready to strike out when a perceived affront, insult, or just general disagreement arises. Rather than push through the frustration and anger, we all too often resort to ceasing any further dialogue. Breaking communion – in its original meaning – seems preferable to some than staking a claim to one’s position without closing one’s ears to others. Of course, the latter is difficult. The thing is, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. More than anyone’s feelings, or any group’s theological preferences, the stakes in our current illness are high. I have made my positions clear enough; I have also always made clear that neither I nor anyone else has some access to “truth” denied others; further, I know that the United Methodist Church has been and will be far stronger if all our voices – discordant as they may be now – join together. How facile, paltry, and even erroneous would we be if only like-minded persons gathered, heard sermons that made them feel good about themselves, rather than being challenged by the Word? How much less would our mission and ministry be if we only associated with people like us?
There are many steps toward healing that need to be taken. One of those steps is being willing to continue to talk with each other despite our differences. Whatever happens next spring will happen; the larger body of United Methodists, hierarchy, lay, academic, owe it to one another to keep talking. No matter how difficult that might be. We are all in this together. If we don’t remember that and carry on our discussions in the grace we preach and try to practice, then perhaps we need to be gone as a denomination. I would far prefer this not be so. Yet, as I see it, unless we are willing to take that small step, we just aren’t moving forward.