The temptation we don’t discuss

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)

Clergy face a temptation that is not talked about much and certainly never breaks into public attention the way other temptations we face do from time to time. It is the temptation to tell our congregations what they want to hear.

A sizeable number of our people want us to soothe their fears and worries with easy assurances. They want to be able to get on with life and not think about things like sin and death and eternity. And if we help them do that, they will thank us and love us, or at least they will until the day comes when they are staring into the black night of death and they discover the elixers we’d been feeding them were strong enough to numb what had been haunting them but not strong enough to cure them.

Too many Christians get to a crisis of faith and discover they have built upon sand. They face death and find themselves overwhelmed by grief and terror. They experience the loss of a loved one and uncover deep wells of bitterness toward God that drive them away from church forever. They encounter hardship and find that they have no spiritual reserves to draw upon because they have been fed straw rather than true food. And it is people like me who have helped them arrive at this point because we are too afraid of upsetting people and too worried about how we will stand up to the charge of hypocrisy. We make a secret and unspoken pact with our people. I won’t talk to you about sin and salvation too much and you will bring me lovely little cakes. It all works out fine until the sand start to give way beneath their feet.

I am a far from perfect man and a far from perfect pastor. I am going on to perfection and have much distance to travel still. But I truly do believe that we preachers do a grave disservice to our people when we offer them words of peace when what they need is to have the source of their fear and unease brought forth where it might be exposed to the light of the gospel. That is scary work and painful for all involved, but it is the only way we can truly help people. Soothing their pain in the moment only sets them up for much worse down the line.

Rumblings from the Rockies

A couple days before Christmas, the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences of the United Methodist Church issued an appeal for financial help. The statement announcing the appeal is somewhat vague about the need and purpose of the funding. It is equally vague about the size and scope of the need.

The appeal is linked to the election, consecration, and appointment of Karen Oliveto as bishop over the two conferences. The election of a non-celibate lesbian bishop has caused a lot of turmoil in the wider UMC and, apparently, in the two conferences she serves. The fund-raising appeal, issued Dec. 22, includes the following:

[T]here has been stress in some of our most theologically diverse congregations. Some have lost members. Others have had members withdraw their financial support. We believe theological diversity is critical for the vitality of The United Methodist Church. We seek to help our churches as we live into this new future. All our churches throughout the Mountain Sky Area play a vital role in witnessing to the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their communities. We remain committed to all churches in our area.

That is why the Mountain Sky Area is creating a Mountain Sky Vital Congregations Sustentation Fund to provide churches with short-term financial assistance as we move toward the day when God’s hopeful vision of all being included in The United Methodist Church becomes fully real. This fund is especially needed where a pastor’s compensation is at risk. Allocated funds for equitable compensation support will be exhausted before the need is met. And, importantly, by Discipline, equitable compensation funds cannot be used for part-time pastors in the same situation.

The appeal appears aimed in part at shoring up part-time appointments in the conferences where the loss of members and financial support would be felt the most quickly. At least, the last line of the quoted material above appears to justify the fund because it would permit support of part-time charges. Whether the problem is confined to part-time charges or is more widespread is not clear from the appeal.

It is tempting to try to draw conclusions about what is going on in these conferences or try to draw some generalizations about the meaning of all this for the wider UMC, but that seems pretty dangerous given the lack of specific information. If you know more about this or the situation on the ground in those conferences, please share in the comments section.

Our origin story in five sentences

A brief account of the orgin and rise of Methodism as a movement taken from the minutes of an early Methodist conference:

In 1729, two young men, reading the Bible, saw they could not be saved without holiness, followed after it, and incited others so to do.

Note here: The first impulse was toward holiness and the conviction that without it no one can be saved. This conviction runs deeply counter to the common hope of ordinary Christians, then and now, that they will be saved despite their lack of holiness and their lack of desire to seek it.

In 1737 they saw holiness comes by faith.

Eight years! This explains why Aldersgate was such a big deal for John Wesley. For nine years he had searched earnestly for holiness and not found it within himself. For a year, he had been convinced that faith was the doorway but it had stood closed to him until that night his heart was strangely warmed and he knew that Christ had forgiven even him for his sins.

They saw likewise, that men are justified before they are sanctified; but still holiness was their point.

In the words of old Methodism, we go on to perfection. Jesus Christ gives us the power to overcome every temptation and sin, but we have not yet learned to use that power or lean into it fully. We need grace to help us grow.

God then thrust them out, utterly against their will, to raise a holy people. When Satan could no otherwise hinder this, he threw up Calvinism in the way; and then Antinomianism, which strikes directly at the root of all holiness.

Of course, the Church of England, Calvinists, and advocates of various forms of Antinomianism would tell a different story than this last part, but at the very least we might remember that at one time it was possible for Methodists to imagine that our work was worthy enough to deem it God’s own work and dangerous enough to stir up the opposition of Satan.