Simple Methodism

In our ministry in the church, I know that our task is not to recreate what has come before. The Holy Spirit is not a cookie cutter, stamping out identical churches in every place and every time. But it is either my gift or my handicap that I am drawn to look at the root of things to discern what should be our central and animating principles today. So today, in the opening days of my ministry among a people new to me, I find myself looking again over John Wesley’s “Plain Account of a People Called Methodist.”

In that letter written in 1748, Wesley lists the four particulars about true Christianity that he and his brother Charles wished to persuade any who would hear them preach.

First, that the end of religion is that we become holy, happy, peaceful, and righteous people. It is about deep transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, that repentance and faith in Jesus Christ are the only way to that end.

Third, that Christ forgives, pardons, and frees from the power of sin and death all who have faith in him.

Fourth, that the fruits of this faith are not stored away to enjoy in heaven after we die, but are tasted even now in this moment and in this life.

What I take to be Wesley’s great target in this message is a kind of dead, formal, and cold religion that provides little comfort and little power. It was a religion that put a great emphasis on having the correct knowledge in your head about various theological topics, on being blameless in our outward conduct, and in doing all manner of good and pious things.

There is nothing wrong with orthodoxy. There is nothing bad about being good and pious people who show up to church every Sunday and the food pantry on Wednesday. Wesley did not disparage any of that, but he did not want people to confuse the means of religion with the end or purpose of it.

The purpose of it all is to restore to people the joy and peace that God intended for them from the Creation.

It seems to me, looking out over the church in America today, that we might benefit from this old idea if we can learn how to preach and teach it in a way that can be heard today.

Praying for Portland

I’ve had several requests not to delete this blog. Not trusting my own judgment on such things, I have decided to leave it live.

And since it is live, this seems like the best place for me to share some thoughts for anyone who cares to read them.

It has been a dispiriting 36 hours for me as a United Methodist. In a couple of weeks, I will go forward to be commissioned as a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church. That day comes at the end of a long journey that has had some significant personal costs attached to it. I approach my pre-commissioning retreat as General Conference rages on in Portland. I have nothing but sympathy and respect for the delegates and leaders at the gathering. I cannot imagine the emotional, physical, and spiritual burdens they are bearing.

But I am also finding myself more and more troubled by what I am reading about the conference.

It is not the votes and decisions that trouble me. It is the way my brothers and sisters in the church speak about each other that has me in distress.

As I read commentary and reactions from many different points-of-view from within our church, I find that nearly everyone writes as if the angels were all on one side and the devils on the other. We attack the character and motives of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we defend those attacks with the conviction of one who believes that all righteousness resides on our side of the debate. We point to what “the other side” has done in the past to justify demonizing them in the present. We call people names. We shout about the speck of sawdust in the eye of our adversary. We run as fast as we can to take our brother or sister to court.

And every step of the way, we tell ourselves we must do these things because the stakes are so high.

It is probably right that I am merely coming forward to be commissioned as a provisional elder to serve a small church in Northern Indiana. I am ill-suited to the titanic struggles at General Conference and ill-fitted for the battles that have to be fought there. Even so, I am saddened by what I read. In victory and defeat and deadlock, we seem equally incapable of charity toward one another.

I pray for all my brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church, and especially those in Portland right now. I pray that God will bless them and keep them and grant them peace.



Divorce in a global church

The Liberia Conference of the United Methodist Church recently upheld a rule prohibiting clergy who are divorced from the office of bishop.

Here is a thoughtful article that raises good questions about the implications of this ruling for the global nature of the United Methodist Church. It has obvious parallels to other debates with in the church.

For my part, I hope the questions raised in the article are addressed by the Judicial Council at some point.