The Word of God for the people of God

We often use these words after we read from the Bible in worship: The Word of God for the people of God.

But I wonder if we always mean it.

Do we mean it when we call the Bible the Word of God? Many of us do not. We do not take the words of scripture to be the words of God to us. They are not from God, but about God. They are the words of humans grasping at an invisible and unknowable truth. That is what many of us believe, even if we do not say it in so many words during worship.

What would it mean for us to be a people who actually lived as if those words we speak out of liturgical habit were held in our hearts and not just on our lips? If the Bible is the Word of God rather than a word about God, shouldn’t we take it much more seriously?

Am I like him?

Rob Renfroe of Good News has a video that is both a statement of what it means to be an evangelical United Methodist and a call to action and call to battle for the soul of the church.

Renfroe uses the question throughout the video “I wonder if you are like me?” As I watched I found the question pressing on me. The deeper he went and the more combative his tone became, the less comfortable I was with that question.

It is not that I disagree with anything he says about what it means to be a evangelical Wesleyan orthodox Christian. But the call to conflict does unsettle me.

That does not mean it is wrong. It does not mean it is right. It merely observes my own reaction.

I wonder about you. How do you hear this message?

In the shadow of the cross

How early did Jesus know?

One conventional answer is that he was born to die, and as God incarnate he knew this all along. Even if we wait for explicit biblical references, though, it is clear that Jesus saw the cross looming up a long time before he got there.

And yet he kept walking forward. He kept teaching. He kept healing. He kept praying. He kept on doing what he was here to do.

This is the way life responds to death and fear.

A word to myself today.

A #GC2016 no brainer

David Watson has made a serious and sensible proposal about the 2016 General Conference taking measures to keep the focus of the conference on its appointed work. He argues that the General Conference should only allow delegates and conference officials onto the conference floor.

Some will pick up on his use of the word “close” to criticize what he is proposing, but that is lazy. Read the proposal. Watson is not a journalist or a lawyer, so his use of the word “close” is not intended to be heard the way it is used in those professions. What he is arguing for is completely uncontroversial.

Turn on C-SPAN if you want to see what this looks like.

The Congress of the United States — in both its houses — strictly controls access to the legislative floor. Not just anyone can walk into the space. Indeed, I believe the President of the United States needs to have permission and an invitation to do so.

And yet, these sessions are not closed in any meaningful sense of the word. Galleries around the the bodies are open to the public, although a person can be removed for being disruptive. Cable television cameras carry every moment live. Internet sites collect every document discussed. These are open meetings. The only thing that is closed is access to the actual legislative space by those who are not required or authorized to be there.

Of course, General Conference should do the same thing. There is not a school board in America that does not control the floor of its meetings. Surely the highest body in our polity can do the same without controversy.

Indeed, at the risk of being uncharitable here, if the people in charge of organizing the General Conference don’t endorse the idea, then I would question their fitness to do their job.

But we have food to offer

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17, NIV)

I was reading in one of my pastoral care books that the point of pastoral care is not to solve people’s problems. This was a theme of my CPE experience this summer as well. We are told that when we encounter a person in spiritual and emotional pain our job is not to do anything but to be with them. Don’t try to solve their problem. Don’t try to fix them.

Of course, this advice is always offered with the assurance that “just being present” is actually doing something for them. Being there is actually doing something, but it is a kind of doing that is acceptable.

I understand the caution against running in and blindly imposing some sort of “fix” on people. I get that we at times try to “help” people when our real motive is to reduce our own discomfort with their suffering. I understand all that and appreciate the counsel to avoid such things.

But I remain unconvinced about the general stance of passivity in pastoral care. I have two primary reactions. First, it feels like it is born out of the sense that we don’t have anything to offer people who are in spiritual and emotional pain. The best we can do is be with them and affirm their experience. I just don’t buy that. We have Jesus and the gospel. Or rather Jesus has us. And since I believe this, my second concern is that taking the passive empathy approach feels like the person James writes about in the quotation at the top of this post. We have food. If we tell a spiritually hungry person, “I feel your pain. Bless you.” are we not falling afoul of James’ teaching?

I got my knuckles gently whacked in CPE this summer more than once for not being able to let go of these ideas. My new pastoral care book notices that such attitudes are the signs of an inexperienced pastoral care provider. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll grow wiser with more experience.

A commitment to holy advocacy

The president of my seminary, Wendy Deichmann, has written her thoughts about the way of holy advocacy in the United Methodist tradition. In the piece, she offers her take on both what holy advocacy is not and what it should be in the midst of what she calls our “sex wars.”

The entire post is worthy of a few minutes of your time. I hope it gets wide readership among the people called United Methodist.

Perhaps because I am introducing my students to the meaning of team work this week, I wanted to lift up for a moment a few thoughts in reaction to her discussion of our polity.

Roman Catholics have a pope to pontificate, yes, imperialistically, over the denomination’s official position on social matters. Congregationalists (independent churches) take a vote to decide things on a congregational basis. Fundamentalists of various stripes (including many Baptists) rely on selective literal biblicist interpretations as determinative for their own respective judicatory. Some Anglicans, Lutherans, and others discern social questions in regional or continental contexts. United Methodists, by comparison, long ago agreed to define, defend, and/or change our official, denominational social positions and principles on the basis of General Conference vote. In the USA, with its cafeteria-style freedom of religion, any member objecting to a particular aspect of United Methodism or his or her own denomination is free either to use the provisions of the respective polity to try to change the denomination, or to leave it and take their preferences elsewhere.

Deciding things as important as social issues that affect people’s lives by General Conference vote has always meant that United Methodists (and those in our predecessor denominations) have had to live with differences of opinion, disappointment, and abundant, sanctifying grace to labor faithfully in ministry together despite personal, social, and political disagreements. Historically, we have had to do our best, God helping us, to continue to love, respect, and work alongside others in a denomination in which toleration of different opinions was fully expected, except when it came to the core doctrines of the church. United Methodist polity rests on an assumption not that there will be winners and losers in a vote, but that even when a vote does not go our way, God’s grace will equip us to exercise holy respect and tolerance for differences, even while we continue to work together for the larger mission of the denomination.

In my classes, I teach team work by using a book by Patrick Lencioni called Five Dysfunctions of a Team. As a denomination, you could easily say United Methodism displays all five. But the one that comes to mind while reading Deichmann’s piece is called Lack of Commitment. This is the tendency of people to hold back their support or fail to move forward because people will not commit to a plan of action. As Lencioni writes in his book, the problem is that in a team — sooner or later — people have to be willing to say that they will support the team’s decisions and plans even if they are not the ones they would have adopted themselves. If we all insist on always getting our way, then the team will always be mired in the mud.

United Methodism’s polity calls for this kind of commitment. Our process of decision-making is predicated on the idea that we will buy in to the process by which decisions were made and support them even if we would have preferred a different outcome.

For some reason, when I think this way, I always think of Al Gore at the end of the election in 2000. When the divided Supreme Court ruled narrowly against him and handed the White House to George Bush, Gore came out immediately and conceded the race. He surely did not support the outcome, but he endorsed the process.

For better or worse, United Methodism is built on the assumption that we will do the same.

United Methodism rests on the assumption that the Holy Spirit can empower us to both work for change in the parts of our doctrine and law with which we disagree while supporting and acting under the doctrine and law as it now is. This is a challenging discipline. It certainly challenges me. I am challenged both by the ways in which I currently do not live up to this call and by the ways our polity would call me to act if the 2016 General Conference brings radical change. When I hear people saying they would leave the UMC if our social positions changed, I understand their reasons, but it feels to me that I would be inconsistent with myself to suggest people who disagree with present doctrine should respect the process while saying I’ll leave if the process leads to changes.

It may be that our process has broken down so much — and our trust of the process and each other as eroded so far — that we no longer can abide by our own polity. But I am not beyond hope that we, or more properly the Holy Spirit, can repair what has been broken.