For the love of the game

I’ve often thought that our trust issues in United Methodism would be helped with more public thinking by the men and women charged with leading our denomination.

This is why I have always valued Sky McCraken’s blog.

His latest post is a spot on example: A Pastor By Any Other Name — Revisited

The question that emerges for me after reading his post goes something like this: Would I be a pastor if there was no salary, no insurance, and no retirement plan? Would I do it because I was called and for no other reason?

If the answer is yes, then what would that look like?

The answer to my first two questions is “yes.” But I’m not sure what the answer to the third question would could be.

I wonder how you would answer.

Five things United Methodists say about the Bible

David Watson discusses the mainline Protestant tendency to say more about what we don’t believe about the Bible than what we do believe.

He ends his post with five statements he drew from the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church:

1. Scripture is the primary source of divine revelation in our tradition. Other claims to divine revelation should be tested against scripture.

2. Everything we need to know to receive salvation is in the Bible.

3. The Bible is the true guide for Christian faith and practice.

4. The Holy Spirit helps us to understand and apply scripture to our lives.

4. Christian tradition, such as is found in the creeds, helps to interpret scripture for teaching the historic faith of the church.

5. Reason and the experience help us to understand scripture, but on matters of salvation, and matters of faith and practice related to salvation, they should not contradict scripture.

My postmodern friends, I suspect, will object to some of these statements because they suggest that scripture has a meaning independent of the community of interpretation.

To address those kinds of objections, I find I need to talk about revelation and the work of the Holy Spirit. But we ground those statements — or at least I try to — on scripture. So, there is a certain circularity in my argument that I do not see how I can avoid.

In the end, I find that I adopt the attitude that scripture is something we receive as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, and in light of that attitude of reception I embrace the five statements that Watson offers above.

At the local crossroads of connectional quandry

I’ve been engaged on a low-level for a while with the choices offered United Methodism by two groups within the church.

On the one hand we have a group offering a local option that would allow churches and conferences decide whether to ordain people who engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex and whether to perform weddings for couples of the same sex.

On the other hand are a group calling for an assertion of church discipline and laying the groundwork for an orderly or disorderly separation within United Methodism. That is probably not how that group would describe their goals, but that is the only endgame I see.

There are other plans and suggestions out there, of course. The dean of my seminary is co-author of one plan. My bishop is author of another idea. There are others I am not listing and do not know about.

All of these plans fill me with a sense of hope and despair. I am hopeful because so many people with such passion, experience, and wisdom are trying as hard as they can to find a way forward for United Methodism that does not shatter the church. I despair, though, because this entire crisis exposes the weakness of our polity and perhaps even our model of being the church. Perhaps we would be better off to sell off everything and start over from scratch.

I have not worked out for myself where I would fall if given supreme power to decide a solution for this crisis. But I do have some thoughts and observations that I fully admit are not well formed or even non-contradictory.

1) In a speech to evangelical leaders in Atlanta, theologian Billy Abraham distanced himself from the label “politician,” while hanging that name on the leaders of the local option. The unwillingness to understand the issues before the church as deeply political is a mistake. It is also ironic for Abraham to disclaim the title politician while giving a political speech at a political gathering. I think it is mistake for we in the church to treat politics like some kind of unclean activity we must shun. Forming a kingdom people is political to the core and shying away from that truth is to cede the contest to those who understand this.

2) I wonder if evangelical churches, which have often have tried to keep the larger connection at arms length, are handicapped by their focus on the local. The very energy that has made them effective also cuts them off from influence and networks of good-will across the connection. These have to be built outside the connection rather than through it. I wonder if some evangelical leaders have done such a good job of insulating their congregations from the influence of the larger connection that they now find it hard to create leverage within it. (This is really more a question than an observation, as I am not that well informed on this topic.)

3) The local option plan bears a heavy imprint from Adam Hamilton’s writing style. I don’t know the drafting process, but I’ve read enough of his books to recognize many of his turns of phrase and points of emphasis. I with only half-seriousness suggested a few years ago that we elect Hamilton as a bishop. I wonder if he is demonstrating in practical ways that he is a bishop of the church, just without the purple cloth.

4) The local option plan puts a lot of emphasis on the church being intellectually credible. It turns to this kind of concern multiple times. I’m wary of this as a major point of emphasis because in it appears to me to often work against obedience to Christ. What goes under the name of concern with being credible to “thinking Christians” often ends up being nothing more than rationalization for disobedience. In this vein, I think the way the local option plan describes the General Rules in our Book of Discipline is illuminating:

We find helpful those guidelines we call the General Rules: Refrain from evil, do all the good you can, and do those things which help you grow in love for God.

Notice here how the “Rules” are relabeled “guidelines” and praised because they are “helpful.” The third general rule — practice the ordinances of God — is reframed as doing those things that help us. My observation is that we are often poor judges of what will help us. I’m not arguing for fundamentalism here. I believe God gave us brains for a reason. But I do worry about being too enamored with being credible to the intellectual prejudices of our culture. It seems such concern often substitutes what we call “reason” — but often just seems like current popular opinion — for revelation.

5) In all this turmoil, I am constantly reminded of General Conference 2012. I remember all the lead up to the conference and all the talk about vast changes that would be implemented. I remember many of the same players working hard for the years leading up and a sense — at least on my part — that something significant would happen. Then the meat-grinder of General Conference happened and the Judicial Council vetoed what was approved. I want to believe the conference process in 2016 will be the start of a resolution to this crisis. But I find it hard to be hopeful that it will.

As I say, none of this is very organized. It is merely where I am as I wrestle with the issues and developments.

I recall in the midst of all this something John Wesley once wrote. He said we should gauge every action we contemplate by the twin questions of what will allow us to do the most good and to be the most holy.

I am trying to figure out the answer to those questions in the midst of the current connectional crisis. As I do, I notice that neither Wesley nor Jesus included “be the most comfortable” in their guide to action.

The key question we can’t answer

Simon Sinek’s talk and book about the importance of starting with the question “why?” has a lot of fans and followers.

At the heart of his argument is the claim that very few people and organizations know why they do what they do. They don’t know their purpose or their reasoning for being.

Here’s the video if want more than my brief summary:

If Sinek is correct, it helps explain why the United Methodist Church’s mission and marketing slogans seem so uninspiring.

“Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This operates more of less on the level of what we do and how we do it, perhaps getting to why at the end. The why, it turns out, is to transform this world, although we hide that part at the end.

Or how about: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”

That is a “how” statement, if I understand Sinek’s categories properly. Maybe it is a “what” statement. What I know for sure is that it does not tell us “why” we do what we do.

Here is my understanding of how John Wesley thought about and talked about what he was doing.

His purpose was to show people the way to happiness in eternity. Everything he did was motivated by the belief that each one of us is hanging over a great gulf and we will either fall into an eternity of pain and suffering and darkness or land on a happy shore of joy, peace, and light.

If you want to know the way to that shore, Wesley said, I can show you the way that the Bible teaches to arrive there. And here is the best news. It is not only something you arrive at after you die. You can taste it right now. You can see, feel, and experience today. It starts in this life.

Do you want to know how?

I don’t think I could point to any single place where Wesley put it precisely this way, but I don’t think this is an unfair example of how Wesley would explain the “why” of what he did. And — to Sinek’s point — I believe the “why” was always forefront in Wesley’s mind and actions.

I don’t think we today in United Methodism can begin to answer the why question — why do we do what we do — in any coherent or uniform way. And I don’t believe we really are aware of that. We can talk a good game about what we do. We have lots of support for how to be a United Methodist. All our metrics about “vital congregations” tell us what thriving churches do and offer some theories about how those actions create vitality, but we rarely talk about why any of that matters to anyone else. How many of us and how many of our people can answer the simple question: “Why do you do what you do?”

Do you see an answer to this “why” question in United Methodism today that I am missing?

What’s after the crossroads?

What happens when the Council of Bishops does not act?

That was my first question upon reading the Methodist Crossroads web site with its call for for the following actions at and after the Council of Bishops’ fall meeting:

  • The Council’s commitment to promote, defend and uphold the church’s biblical teaching that marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman;
  •  A commitment from all active bishops that they will fully enforce the Discipline with respect to those clergy members who disregard church teaching and choose to preside at same sex services;
  •  A strongly worded directive to all annual conferences and jurisdictions not to circumvent the Discipline’s teachings regarding same sex services or the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals;
  •  A public statement noting that those bishops who have stated they will use their influence to prevent trials as a means of just resolution for clergy who preside at same sex services have been censured by the council; and,
  •  A commitment from all bishops that when trials occur they will appoint as counsel for the church individuals fully supportive of the church’s teachings and the necessity for organizational accountability.

Given the membership of the Council of Bishops, I cannot imagine the body will satisfy the desires of those who wrote and endorse the Integrity and Unity statement.

In the FAQ on the website, the authors propose the following if the Council of Bishops fails to act on its request:

If the Council is not able to restore unity with integrity, then we believe the healthy and mature response is to admit we are so deeply divided we are no longer one church. And the church would do well to seriously explore the option of amicable separation. Again, we hope it does not come to this. But no one believes it would be productive to continue an unresolvable debate that hurts feelings, damages persons made in the image of God, and fosters cynicism throughout the church. It would be better for us to honestly admit we are no longer united. Remaining together would only sow confusion and undermine our witness and ministry to the world.