How to love our neighbor

Christians are called to love God and love their neighbor.

This is the command of Christ.

When I hear or read these words, my thoughts go something like this.

As a Christian who looks to John Wesley as a spiritual teacher, I know that the commands of Christ serve many functions, each one beneficial and fitted to the needs of individuals at different places in their spiritual life.

For the non-spiritual, non-believing person, these commands are rocks to break up our pride and self-confidence. We no more contemplate them before we begin to squirm under their heavy burden. We know that in our heart we are selfish, self-indulgent, full of pride, and hungry for praise. We can no more make these commands a rule of our life from moment to moment than we could make a command to grow wings and fly to the moon a plan for tomorrow.

The person in a state of nature will experience these commands as unpleasant and either put them out of mind or justify their disobedience in some way — often by denying the very notion that obedience to the one who gave the command is required.

For the one who does not dismiss of self-justify their way out of the fetters of this double command of Christ, these words bring us by painful degrees to the recognition that we are the problem, not the giver of the command, and that we are equally powerless to obey as we are to break free of our rebellion. We come to understand that we need salvation — not from an external enemy but from ourselves. Our sin runs deep.

Whether we wrestle with these truths for a few moments for for years, we come at last to know the saving faith of Jesus Christ. We come to know that he won the victory we could not and will pardon us for all our wicked and rebellious ways. He will set us free from the chain of sin, which until recently we treasured as our most cherished possession. He will make us new by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And the fruit of this spiritual process, often painful and always transforming, is that we discover we have, by the grace of God, the ability to truly love God and neighbor. We become capable of love that is not tainted by our selfishness and neediness. We become capable of love that is not just another form of self-justification or another way to prop up our own self-esteem. We have overcome the need to regard ourselves highly, and thus by Christ won the great prize of being able to actually love. With this prize in hand, we discover that these commands of Christ confirm and guide us, teaching us again and again what it is to follow our Lord, which we are able to do now thanks to his grace.

As I write these words, I am aware this is not what the world means when it says love is the answer to the world’s problems. I know that the way I write about love here is not what many of my Christian brothers and sisters mean when they say “love wins” or something similar.

I do believe it is how Christians should speak of such things. I believe it is in keeping with what the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church enjoin upon its preachers to preach. To the best of my ability, I hope I do so.

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Guest post: Of Millstones and Misunderstandings

NOTE: The following is the text of a column that the Rev. Beth Ann Cook posted on her Facebook page and sent out by e-mail with her reflections on the recently completed 2019 General Conference. It is reprinted with her permission and edited lightly.

Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment. Proverbs 9:10

February 28, 2019

General Conference 2019 is over. I’m still exhausted. I’m also reflecting on what a mess it was and how we got here.

I’m convinced that one of the problem is that Progressives and Centrists do not understand what motivates those who voted for the Traditional Plan at GC. In the Indiana Delegation we have had lengthy, difficult, and even painful conversations about our positions and why we can or cannot support certain things. The Commission on a Way Forward did this well. I wish that people through out the church had done the same.

Case in point: Dorothee Benz of New York went to the microphone and said that a delegate from Pennsylvania had said gay people should be drowned. That is not what she said — although I’m sure it is what she heard. The delegate from Pennsylvania quoted Scripture:

But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. Matthew 18:6, NLT

The Pennsylvania delegate was saying it would be better for us to be drowned in the sea than vote for the One Church Plan. We are setting the official teaching of the denomination. One day we have to stand in front of God and be held accountable for our actions.

United Methodists who support the church’s historic position on marriage believe that changing the definition of marriage would be wrong. They believe God will hold them accountable for these actions because if we endorse it we are teaching people false teaching.

Conservative delegates were begged, cajoled, threatened and allegedly offered bribes to change their vote between the Legislative Session and the final vote. Tom Berlin told us that passing the Traditional Plan was the equivalent of giving the church a fatal virus.

But conservative delegates did not budge. Why? The answer is Fear of the Lord. We simply could not do so. We believe that we will be held responsible for this and that it is something that goes against the will of our Lord and Savior. We know we will stand before him some day.

These actions were not remotely understood by the Council of Bishops, Adam Hamilton, or progressive leaders. Part of the problem is that we live in silos. Those in places like the Western Jurisdiction rarely have real conversation with people who believe what I believe. Even in places like Indiana and West Ohio where we are theologically diverse we tend to talk mostly with people who agree with us.

They were convinced that based on their influence, charisma, or positions of power they could force OCP. At one point during a meeting in the Indiana Annual Conference I said I felt like a goose being fattened for foie gras — force fed something I couldn’t swallow.

In the run up to GC2019 Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, Confessing Movement and Africa Initiative leaders reached out to the Council of Bishops and Progressive Leaders. Chris Ritter did everything he could to talk people into trying for the Connectional Conference Plan even though it required constitutional amendments. There was zero interest.

The effort to pass a gracious exit even stalled when Uniting Methodists and Mainstream UMC leaders such as Jim Harnish and Mark Holland doubled down on “no exit provisions should be passed.”

No matter how much the voices like mine said “you are heading us over a cliff,” we were ignored. Bishop Scott Jones, who leads the Texas Annual Conference, spoke loudly about this and was not just ignored but vilified for it.

Those who believe what I believe went into St. Louis knowing that we likely had enough votes to block the One Church Plan and pass the Traditional Plan.

I talked with Kent Millard, president of United Theological Seminary and retired elder from the Indiana Conference, after the prioritization votes. He asked if I was surprised. I told him that we were about 1-2% stronger than I expected, but the vote was pretty close to my expectation. He told me the Centrists/Progressives were stunned.

Honestly I was stunned that they were stunned.

They kept citing this statistic that 2/3rds of US United Methodists supported the One Church Plan. I never believed this is an accurate statement. I think their poll numbers were skewed. The United Methodist New Service published a recent poll that shows that more United Methodists in the US identify as theologically conservative than progressive.

Yet the Council of Bishops is much, much more progressive than the average UMC church. They were so sure that everyone would line up behind their leadership.

I wonder if the Council of Bishops and Progressive/Centrist leaders are willing to listen now that we’ve inflicted so much pain on each other in St. Louis?

Can we now try to understand each other?

Can we now try to find an actual way forward we can vote for without violating our deeply held convictions?

Can we seek some sort of Affiliated Autonomous arrangement?

I pray this is the case. I’m willing to work for this behind the scenes. If anyone from the more progressive side of the house wants to talk, I’m willing to do that. (Although I would like a few weeks off.)

I’m also crazy enough to pray that I get elected to go to General Conference in 18 months in Minnesota. I know Progressives in our annual conference are very unhappy with me. I’ve seen a lot of posts about Progressives and Centrists organizing for elections taking place at Annual Conference. So I have no idea if I can get elected again. But I feel called to it — even if I’m weary of the whole mess. (And as a member of the Commission on the General Conference and the Ethics Committee, I have to go to GC2020 no matter what.)

May the Lord help us overcome our misunderstandings.

I continue to pray Luke 6:31. Lord help us treat one another as we want to be treated. Help us be known as people who love.

Blessings and peace,
Beth Ann

Can we talk about justification?

In “The Principles of a Methodist” John Wesley wrote about justification by faith.

I believe three things must go together for our justification: Upon God’s part, his great mercy and grace; upon Christ’s part, the satisfaction of God’s justice, by the offering his body and shedding his blood; and upon our part, true and living faith in the merits of Jesus Christ.

There is a lot packed into this short summary. Here are  few things that I observe.

First, we just don’t talk about justification much in the church today. For Wesley it was one of the central doctrines that motivated everything he did. We have some words that play in the same ballpark as “justification” — saved, born again, redeemed — but none really captures the sense of the word as Wesley understood it and our doctrinal standards discuss it.

Justification is simply the concept that we are out of line with God and we need to be brought into alignment. We are guilty before God and need to be pardoned. We cannot pay off the debt of our guilt. We can only be forgiven. This is justification, God’s gracious and merciful pardon of sinners, of us.

Perhaps you can pick up why we don’t talk about this much in the church these days. We don’t like to talk about sin. In the church, we like to talk about problems and issues. How do I cope with life when it is hard? How do I strengthen my marriage? How do I overcome anxiety? But we don’t like to talk about sin. And if we don’t know ourselves to be sinners, then we can’t have any interest in what is required for us to be justified.

I notice as well in reflecting on this short passage the emphasis on Jesus’ death as satisfaction required by God’s justice. What does that mean? It means that sin — our sin and that of the world — demands a payment. God’s justice requires that the debt and guilt piled up by our sin be paid off. We can be forgiven but balance must be restored. By his death, Jesus Christ reset the scales. He paid the price that should have been ours to pay and that we could never pay. This is part of why we say above that the mercy of the Father is necessary for our justification. What could have been required of us was not. In the words of the song, Jesus paid it all.

While it is true that the Christian church has never come down to a single understanding of the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross — what the theologians call atonement theory — it is undeniable that the people called Methodist preached from the very beginning of the necessity and power of Christ’s satisfaction.

And finally, I notice in reading Wesley’s words the necessity for not just faith, but a living faith that Jesus Christ has in fact won my pardon by the satisfaction he made on the cross. We are called to put our whole trust for peace in this world and glory in the next not in our own goodness, our own efforts, or our own observance of religious duties, but totally and solely in Jesus Christ.

If we have this faith, it will be as plain to see as it is to observe signs of life in any living thing. A living faith grows and bears fruit. It is a source of activity and energy in the life the Christian. It multiplies and reproduces. I depends on the Holy Spirit for its life just as we depend on air for ours. This is the living faith that Wesley preached and handed down to the Methodists after him.

On each of these three points, I believe the United Methodist Church today has much to learn. I know I do.