Chuck, the committee, and your church

I’ve enjoyed many of the Chuck Knows Church videos.

This new web series on church revitalization called “The Committee” looks like a good one and a possible resource for churches looking to have a discussion about their own future.

Will Willimon still causing me trouble

As I enter into the struggles of my people, I have considerably more to offer than myself. I have the witness of the saints, the faith of the church, the wisdom of the ages. A pastor must therefore be prejudiced toward the faith of the church.

— Will Willimon, Pastor

Will Willimon has caused me no end of problems as a United Methodist pastor. His writings were among the first I read when entering into the ministry, and statements like the one above have dug down deep like chiggers.

The problem created by statements like the one above lies hidden in that whole “faith of the church” bit at the end.

You see, when I was in the process of becoming a local pastor, I set out on a search for the faith of the United Methodist Church. I read my Book of Discipline. I read a whole bunch of John Wesley. I started writing on this blog and asking questions about what we as a church believe and teach.

And this is where I started running into trouble.

It turns out that the faith of the United Methodist Church is hard to nail down. In the early days of my blogging, when my readership was more diverse than it is now, I would post a quote from John Wesley and ask why we don’t seem to teach or preach this any more. I’d often get answers about how Wesley is not our Pope or how we can’t be tied down to his 18th century theology. This happened enough to make me realize that at least a portion of our clergy don’t view Wesley as particularly central to the faith of our church. This was disorienting for someone who took Willimon’s counsel to heart and believed that their must be thing called “the faith of the church.” After all, he was telling me to be prejudiced in favor of it. How could I be prejudiced toward something that does not exist?

I can point to our official documents, of course. But when asked what makes Methodism unique, I would have a hard time formulating a doctrinal answer that would reliably mark out the faith as actually preached across the connection. Even if we think in terms of centered sets rather than bounded sets, it is hard to define a center when looking at actual practice.

For many United Methodists this not a bug but a feature. It is not a problem, but one of the things that makes us great. For me and my desire to be, in Willimon’s words, a bearer of the church’s faith and not merely my own, it is a problem. How can you bear what you cannot identify?

What I have done is attempt to teach, preach, and bear a faith under the influence of our Articles and Confession with a heavy dose of Wesleyan free grace Arminianism. I hope this is faithful to my call and certification as a minister in the UMC. I hope that is faithful to my call and certification in the UMC.

Waiting for Tatooine

“Are you going on to perfection?” A Wesleyan question.

It is a question, though, that makes an assumption, namely that we are not there yet. While we desire, long for, and strive to be made perfect in love, we must admit that if we are still going on, we have not arrived.

This makes pastoral work a messy thing because we so rarely meet anyone — including that clergy person in the mirror — who has leaned fully on the power Christ gives us to conquer sin. We are constantly greeted with the question of how best to nurture further growth. Do we place our eye on the weeds or the wheat in the life of the person before us? Again, I ask this question about myself as well as others.

In John Wesley’s sermon “The Repentance of Believers,” he describes the state of the soul of those who have been justified but are still going on to perfection.

[A] deep conviction that we are not yet whole; that our hearts are not fully purified; that there is yet in us a “carnal mind,” which is still in its nature “enmity against God;” that a whole body of sin remains in our heart, weakened indeed, but not destroyed; shows, beyond all possibility of doubt, the absolute necessity of a farther change. We allow, that at the very moment of justification, we are born again: In that instant we experience that inward change from “darkness into marvellous light;” from the image of the brute and the devil, into the image of God; from the earthly, sensual, devilish mind, to the mind which was in Christ Jesus. But are we then entirely changed? Are we wholly transformed into the image of him that created us? Far from it: we still retain a depth of sin; and it is the consciousness of this which constrains us to groan, for a full deliverance, to him that is mighty to save.

Wesley urged Methodists to attend closely to the “inbred monster’s face” within. He warns that we not forget that nothing in our worthiness led Christ to shed his blood for us, and nothing in our power can overcome the darkness that still lingers within. It is only obedience to and trust in Christ that will move us along the way.

And so, as a United Methodist pastor, I find myself wondering how to live this doctrine out in the midst of the messy not-yet-there church in which I serve.

I wonder — and am convicted by the thought — whether I have failed as a pastor to describe what “there” looks like. Have the outlines of holiness been drawn by me with enough clarity that people can see and feel for themselves the gap between where we are and where God promises to lead us? (Is that why Hell is so much easier to describe? We have lots of at-hand reference points to help us imagine Hell. We have so few to help us anticipate heaven.)

I was talking the other day with someone who — like me — is excited about the upcoming release of the new Star Wars movie. We had both seen a video about the movie that was released at a comic convention. What we shared was how excited and eager we were for the release date to arrive. It makes you ache to have to wait for it arrive. Take our money, now, we joked.

Do we ever, ever, ever get close to describing the future God has in store for us with enough clarity to make us ache that way at the gap between the world to come and the one that is?

Unlike waiting for a movie release date, of course, the gap we live in is not just about time. We do wait. But we also know we are not ready for the day to arrive. It is like we are movie fans who have not yet grown ears or whose eyes cannot see the images on the screen. And even more than that. There is a gap within our hearts. Wesley’s inbred monster whispers to us that we should not even long for such a day to arrive. It is an illusion or the mirage conjured up by people who want to oppress or stifle us. The movie studio is just in it for the merchandising and the money, after all. The church is just about power.

How do you reach people in such a world? How do you sort through the messiness of pilgrims who still have far to go? What do you do with those who would rather stay in Egypt than imagine Israel? And yes, you are sometimes, like Aaron, among the ringleaders.

Jesus as a metaphor?

I found the following advice offered to a parent in an inter-religious marriage (Jewish & Christian) who wanted guidance about how to respond to a son who is beginning to feel a tug toward Christianity, but still wants to have his Bar Mitzvah. The web site is one devoted to addressing spiritual concerns of the Jewish community.

Here is part of the answer given to this parent by one of three writers:

I would explain to your son that if he declares Jesus as his personal savior and affiliates with an evangelical Christian denomination, then that would be a choice of Christianity and a move away from Judaism. But if he wants to learn more about Jesus as an inspiring Jewish historical figure, or about Jesus as a metaphor in some of the more progressive Christian denominations, this exploration could be compatible with a Jewish (or interfaith) identity.

In my sermon this morning from John 6:42, I spoke to the kind of contrast that the Jewish writer above draws. I confess to preaching an incompatibility between a Jewish or Muslim view of Jesus and a Christian one. So I want to ask my brothers and sisters* who call themselves progressive whether they feel any tension or conflict in the description above. Is the Jesus of progressive United Methodism “an inspiring Jewish historical figure” or “a metaphor”? Or is progressive United Methodism not among the tribe of “more progressive Christian denominations” that this writer looks to with approval?

These are serious questions for me as I seek to understand my place and my role within our diverse denomination. I hope the answer is that progressive United Methodists do not embrace the kind of Jesus who can be understood merely as a Jewish historical figure or simply as a metaphor. We leave that to others, right?


*I read recently that the new progressive preference is “siblings” rather than “brothers and sisters.” I’m afraid you will have to tolerate my backwardness on this front.

You can’t make this stuff up

It was one of those articles I had to check to see if it was on a satire web site.

An ordained United Church of Canada minister who believes in neither God nor Bible said Wednesday she is prepared to fight an unprecedented attempt to boot her from the pulpit for her beliefs.

Unprecedented? Is there a history of the United Church of Canada applauding its atheist pastors? No. It turns out the church had never investigated a minister for fitness to be a minister. Never. How is that possible?

Here is some of what stirred the hierarchy into action:

“I don’t believe in…the god called God,” Vosper said. “Using the word gets in the way of sharing what I want to share.”

Vosper, 57, who was ordained in 1993 and joined her east-end church in 1997, said the idea of an interventionist, supernatural being on which so much church doctrine is based belongs to an outdated world view.

What’s important, she says, is that her views hearken to Christianity’s beginnings, before the focus shifted from how one lived to doctrinal belief in God, Jesus and the Bible.

“Is the Bible really the word of God? Was Jesus a person?” she said.

“It’s mythology. We build a faith tradition upon it which shifted to find belief more important than how we lived.”

Vosper made her views clear as far back as a Sunday sermon in 2001 but her congregation stood behind her until a decision to do away with the Lord’s Prayer in 2008 prompted about 100 of the 150 members to leave. The rest backed her.

Things came to a head this year after she wrote an open letter to the church’s spiritual leader pointing out that belief in God can motivate bad things — a reference to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

So the story ends with the United Church of Canada convening a process to examine whether this pastor has broken her ordination vows, which include expressing belief in God shockingly enough. But the pastor is appealing the process because, and I quote from the story here: “it puts any minister at risk of being judged and found wanting.”

So she is appealing an investigation of her fitness to be a minister because it may discover that she is not fit to be a minister. The church leaders admit that is a bit worrisome to them as well.

You should read the story yourself. It is not long and gets comical near the end.

I had a few thoughts while reading that — or maybe three.

First, John Wesley must be horrifying for people in this church to contemplate.

Second, thank you, Jesus, that we in the United Methodist Church are not here yet. We aren’t, are we?

Third, maybe instead of all this commissioning paperwork and evaluation I’m doing this year, I should just head up to Toronto.

What if it was all an illusion?

A colleague posts some piercing and heart-felt questions about the United Methodist Church:

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve spent my entire adult life devoted to a fantasy, something real only to me. Oh, not God – we’re not going there – but, the Church. Is the Church (more pointedly, is The United Methodist Church) what I’ve maintained it is and labored to make it? Or was it just something that existed in my head, and when I quit believing in it, things will go on quite well without my delusion?