Sharing Means Caring, Part I: Holiness is Not Just for the Conservatives

Viola and Mina Sharing Food, courtesy Kathy Simon.

Viola and Mina Share Food, courtesy Kathy Simon.

When did holiness become something that only conservative United Methodists talk, preach, and write about?  In both our early British days and our American frontier period, the Methodist movement was known for taking seriously Wesley’s call to “spread Scriptural holiness” across the land.  For Wesley, holiness was not something optional, it was not an agenda for a particular group, it was the Christian’s calling.  In his famous house analogy about salvation, repentance is the porch, justification is the doorway, but sanctification – the holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” – is the house itself.  Holiness, the restoration of the Divine Image, was for Wesley the point of it all.

My amateur historian’s guess at the demise of holiness as a broad consensus for the faith, practice, and focus of the church would be the rise of Sunday School in the early 20th century.  As Methodism gained prominence in the US throughout the 19th century, there was a pressure to assimilate to the emerging Mainline Protestant consensus.  We stopped requiring small groups thus transitioned from a soteriological focus to a pedagogical one.  In many of our churches the only sense of holiness that remained, if at all, was some version of social holiness.  Two things are important here, however.

First, the artificial division of personal and social holiness is not from Wesley, who always spoke of the two together, indivisible.  Secondly, this falsely divided vision of holiness was then combined with a too-uncritical appropriation of Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel, and thus eventually even a Wesleyan social holiness was overtaken by a theologically bankrupt and anemic idea of social justice.  Add to that the desire of many Mainline Methodists to differentiate themselves from the fundamentalists, who began to roar about this time, and you have a perfect recipe for a near-total loss of holiness from all but the most conservative corners of Methodism (it didn’t help, of course, that the Nazarenes and Wesleyans split off over holiness matters).

In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis’ classic take on the basics of the faith, he argues for holiness as the purpose of the church in a way that should ring familiar to those of us in Wesley’s family tree:

“…the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

There will be no vibrant Wesleyan movement in the future unless we rediscover, ad fontes, the classically Methodist insistence that holiness leaves no corner of personal or communal life untouched.  As Lewis says elsewhere in Mere Christianity, we may want God to only renovate one room, but He aims to give us the full treatment.

This teaching is too important to be left to the conservatives, who too easily make holiness a legalistic rather than holistic endeavor.  Some conservative UMs talk like the Southern Baptists I left behind (pun intended) many years ago.  But there is more, much more, to holiness than not drinking, smoking, and dancing (in fact, these often go quite well together).  On a more relevant note, holiness is not just about sexuality, either.

Holiness means pausing to call BS on the consumerism of what the world calls Christmas, and we name Advent. It means hospitality to the stranger, whether the stranger is rich or poor, gay or straight, male or female, African-American, Latino, Asian, or Caucasian.  Holiness demands justice for the oppressed and food for the hungry, and it means trying to put the ax to every form of pride we find buried in our inflated egos.  In short, holiness is not, and never has been about a conservative, progressive, or moderate agenda.  Holiness in its myriad forms is about God is making all things new, including us, which means it is too powerful, too beautiful, to be the possession of any one group within the church.

It’s time to stop allowing holiness to be the property only of the conservatives.

What do you think? Can this be done?

Stay tuned for future posts in this series:

Sharing Means Caring Part II: Prophetic Witness is Not Just for the Progressives

Sharing Means Caring Part III: Moderation is Not Just for the Moderates

Loving Grace-fully

 

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Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I devoured Albert C. Outler’s book Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit. This small tome should be required reading for every Christian following in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. We previously highlighted this little classic here. In three short chapters, he elucidates Wesley’s understanding of original sin and the “human flaw”; the person and work of Jesus Christ; and sanctification, or “holiness of heart and life.” When discussing Wesley’s doctrine of perfect love, or sanctification, or Christian perfection, which, Outler notes, “were various synonyms, in his [Wesley’s] vocabulary, for ‘holiness'”, he writes the following:

“…Our love of neighbor (if it ever becomes more than a benevolent feeling) follows from our love of God. Love of neighbor is a function of our concern to hallow all of life, in all of its occasions, great and small. It is our part in answering the Lord’s prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…’ I’d feel easier with my pietist friends if their neighborly love were not so self-selective of their own kind. I’d feel easier about my activist colleagues if their neighborly love weren’t so often ruthless. The only love I’ve ever known that I’ve trusted and felt sustained by was from Godthrough men and women whose love was unselfish — i.e., people who have loved me grace-fully…It is grace-filled love that helps us become human and that nourishes our humanity.” 1

That word “hallow” stuck out to me. To hallow something means “to make holy or sacred, to sanctify or consecrate, to venerate.” If hallowing God’s name is a key function of the Lord’s Prayer, it follows that this informs how we treat our neighbors. This is not some sort of mushy, feel-good love – that benevolent feeling Outler noted. This is love that gets dirty, that lives in the everyday, that embraces all because everyone is precious in God’s sight.

Perhaps, as the anxiety and animosity heading into General Conference 2016 already seems to have ratcheted up (at least on social media, so take it for what it’s worth), we would do well to hallow each other. Can we truly look at the people with whom we have deep disagreements, and say, “I hallow you,” and mean it? May God’s grace allow us to do just that.

1. Outler, Albert. Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit., p. 69.

Disemboweling the #UMC

Edo period print of a Samurai about to commit seppuku, courtesy Wikipedia.

Edo period print of a Samurai about to commit seppuku, courtesy Wikipedia.

It occurred to me recently that Jesus has little to do with our current denominational crises (sexuality, authority, polity, theology, etc.).  We argue about all of these and more, of course.  But Jesus is rarely invoked.  Whether this is because Jesus is not particularly relevant to our debates (which I don’t believe is true), or because his life, his Spirit, and his witness are secondary to our ego-driven conniving, it is hard to say.  But make no mistake, Jesus is conspicuously absent from our day-to-day conversation in the UMC.  If invoked at all, it is either Jesus the one-dimensional revolutionary, or the (equally monochromatic) Jesus the holy celibate, who existed above all temptations.  We too quickly trade the Second Person of the Trinity for a usable Christ constructed in our own image(s), and then peddle fool’s gold as if it is precious.

Of course, the problem with this is that without Jesus, the Christian faith – and the church who bears that story – is bankrupt.  As John Stott wrote so viscerally,

“The person and work of Christ are the rock upon which the Christian religion is built. If he is not who he said he was, and if he did not do what he said he had come to do, the foundation is undermined and the whole superstructure will collapse. Take Christ from Christianity, and you disembowel it; there is practically nothing left.  Christ is the centre of Christianity; all else is circumference.” (Basic Christianity, 21)

In contemporary United Methodism, we spend most of our time playing around in the circumference, and little time sitting at the feet of Christ.

No doubt, many will say this is all an obvious and overly pious dodge – so simplistic it is almost foolhardy. But absent a refocusing on the One who truly matters, the circumference will continue to dominate our energy, attention, and resources.  Such a church will be many things – many of them good, beautiful, and just – but it will not be a church of the living Christ.  It will be a husk, a shadow, a corpse of a thing incapable of being neither salt nor light.  I pray this is not our future; but many of the loudest voices in our church seem satisfied with nothing less, either in the name of ‘scriptural’ fidelity or ‘biblical’ obedience.

Like the Greeks who approached Philip wanting only one thing, I believe the UMC has only one real need, despite our sea of petitions, conversations, and threats: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” (John 12:21b)

Will we recover “the one thing needful?” Only time will tell.

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Criticism and the Church

At seminary my roommates had one professor who would sometimes mark their papers “Correct but not Complete”. They hated this because it felt harsh. I remember one of them complaining, “If it is correct what does it mean that it is not complete?” While the answer on the paper may be the right answer, how you arrived at the answer may be the wrong way or insufficient. He was not doing this to spite my friends, but to encourage them to push deeper in their understandings.

I used to hate criticism too. At several places in my life I had bad experiences with criticism. I used to think it was nitpicking. Every time I thought someone was going to be critical of something that I did I would hide or just not do it. During a long period of inner work I learned that not all criticism is bad.

I have come to find two distinct types of criticism in today’s world:

  • Criticism as destruction. We sometimes use criticism to attack others who think different than us. This type of criticism is not an effort to help them grow or understand better. Criticism can and is often used as a weapon to attack the other side. You can see this type of criticism in sarcastic remarks on social media, blog posts that misquote or misrepresent their source material, or just simply putting down someone else to make a point. I see this type of criticism a lot in our world. This is the primary tool of our political parties. Just watch any campaign commercial today. Gone are the classical debates over what is best for society. They have been replaced by soundbites and fear. This is NOT a tool for the church to use. It does not build up the body of Christ.
  • Criticism as formation. This type of criticism helps us to grow as people. It is that old adage of Proverbs 27:17 – “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” In order to engage in this type of criticism you have to first want the best for the other person. You don’t desire that other person to become more like you, but for that person to grow in their faith and life. This is an important distinction. I am not trying to change you and you are not trying to change me, but we have a relationship built in our desire to see each other grow. Criticism done in this matter asks a lot of questions: “Have you thought about this? What about this? How did you reach this conclusion? What are some things you might be overlooking?” If you have taking a preaching class at seminary this is the type of criticism that is used in the classroom.

I meet frequently with a pastor from a different denomination to be critiqued in the second way. He asks questions about my preaching, my leadership, my spirit, my family, and my spiritual growth. The questions are difficult for me to talk about at times. Some of the questions challenge me to look at my failures. It stretches me in new ways because while I know we may not believe the same things he deeply cares for me and my family. I can open myself up for criticism because I know that he loves me.

The collective who curate and author this blog engage in this type of criticism. This may come as a shock for our readers, but we don’t all believe the same thing when it comes to issues in the church today! We are constantly asking for each other’s opinion on issues, and to be sure we aren’t insulating ourselves too much we ask for criticism from people outside our circles. We know we are not any type of authority on or in the United Methodist Church, but we all share in the desire to see it flourish as a family in Christ.

What I am wondering for my church is if we can learn a better way to criticize?

Can we use our words not as weapons but as tools?

As Ephesians 4:15 reads: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

Can we speak the truth in love?

Shining Light on the #UMC Shadow

photo courtesy of Google.

photo courtesy of Google.

On Tuesday, my home state of Maine reelected the gubernatorial incumbent, Paul LePage, to a second term. I haven’t followed the Republican politician all that much, except to notice a few of his public statements have featured some ill-chosen words and that his brash governing style bears a resemblance to my state’s governor, Chris Christie.

Yesterday morning, I read a Facebook post from a Maine business, one local to my hometown, regarding LePage’s reelection. The anti-LePage business owners have apparently decided to leave Maine for greener grass in Vermont, citing Maine’s LePage-voting residents as “IQ deficient” and “neanderthals.” I was immediately struck by the hypocrisy of it all: here were two liberal business owners engaging in the exact same sort of name-calling they had previously taken umbrage to under LePage’s administration.

This past Sunday’s Gospel lection from Matthew 23 is instructive to our post-election country, and it offers a word to The United Methodist Church. Jesus upbraids the Pharisees and other teachers of the law when he says, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them (Matthew 23:4, NRSV).” In other words, these religious authorities lived by a double standard: they expected a certain level of conduct from others, but were unwilling to adhere to the same.

It is human nature to point out faults in others, while failing to address the same in ourselves. Carl Jung called this the “shadow”: that unconscious side of the personality — almost always a trait one dislikes — which the conscious ego does not identify in itself, yet reacts against in the other. This “shadow” side seems to be a ubiquitous human experience.

This all seems to be par for the course in the political realm; but those of us tasked with manifesting the Kingdom of God are called to something more. In The United Methodist Church, so much of our discussion over controversial issues — namely, human sexuality (which I believe is really symptomatic of larger ecclesial and theological issues) — is riddled with “shadow” behavior. Just glance at the comment section of a variety of United Methodist bloggers or at posts in United Methodist Facebook groups, and the behavioral double standard will surely appear. We are called to so much more.

In 1857, after the Genesee (NY) Conference church trial of B.T. Roberts (who later founded the Free Methodist Church) a layperson wrote: “I agreed to support the Methodist Episcopal Church [forerunner to the UMC] as a church of the living God, not as the mere adjunct of a secular or political clique.” I fear that we have become defined by political cliques, especially at the denominational level, and by special interest groups demanding adherence to a particular agenda or disrupting meetings in an attempt to exert influence. The one holy catholic and apostolic Church isn’t found in political maneuvering or lobbying. I hear a warning in Jesus’ words  “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (Matthew 23:12 NRSV).”

Our attitudes in the political realm, in the church — indeed, in our whole lives — reveal a shadow, one that we ignore at our peril. Certainly, taking this shadow side of our shared life together seriously is a humbling process. Perhaps, though, that is precisely what we need: to be humbled.

“A Great Grace”: Community Among the Difficult

imitation of christ

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

-Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”

Thomas a’ Kempis’ Imitation of Christ is the best selling devotional book of all time for good reason.  Combining a deep personal piety with the realities of living among others (in his context, a monastery), the little-known monk who penned these words has been a source of spiritual renewal for generations of faithful. Sir Thomas More and Ignatius of Loyola considered it among their favorites.  St. Therese of Lisieux is said to have memorized it, and Thomas Merton credited the Imitation in part for his conversion.  Methodists should be no less impressed with this treatise.  John Wesley considered Imitation of Christ the greatest extant summary of the Christian life, and made an abridged translation available to his early followers.

Contemporary United Methodists – and all Christians – would do well to recover the wisdom of a’ Kempis, who knew what it meant to follow Jesus among others.  And isn’t everything easier when others are not involved?  Unfortunately, we are called to live into the reality that is the church, jerks and all.  So I suggest we apply what Thomas wrote about life in the monastery to life in the church:

“It is no great accomplishment for you to live with those who are meek and good, for this is something naturally pleasing to everyone.  Everyone enjoys living in peace and love with those who think the same as they do, but if you can live in peace with those who are difficult, obdurate, and undisciplined, ah, that is a great grace…a praiseworthy deed.” (Book 1, Chapter 4 from the Vintage Spiritual Classics edition)

In the UMC, we need to learn to live with each other despite our differences and even despite those who are “difficult” and “obdurate.”  Left to our own devices, it is natural for narcissistic and impatient sinners (which is most of us) to only want to be among the like-minded and peace-loving.  That’s why schism is so easy, and such an attractive temptation.  Sin is what happens when we do what comes naturally.  Unchecked, the acrimony that is building in our denomination could easily lead to something dire.  But it need not be so.

At root, we are a holiness movement.  We believe, and pray, and strive for the Spirit’s sanctifying work.  Chuck Wesley was not being idealistic or facetious when he asked God, in one of his greatest hymns, to “take away our bent to sinning.”

To be sure, it may be a fool’s errand to expect a change of hearts or a great leap forward in Christian perfection at this late hour.  But we worship a God who has done more foolish things, like entrust his mission to fishermen and conquer the world through a cross.  So my hope and prayer for the UMC is that we would spend the lead-in to 2016 petitioning; not petitioning the GC or our Annual Conference or even the Council of Bishops, but rather petitioning God for this “great grace” of learning to live among one another, difficult as we – as I – can be.

That would require our openness to God’s grace to take away our natural bent, a bent to sin, to division, and schism.  Grace is co-operative, after all.

God is able. Are we willing?

Refusing Both Options: Scripture and the Via Media with Hauerwas & Brueggemann

Two sides of the same coin? A mercury dime, courtesy Wikipedia.

Two sides of the same coin? A mercury dime, courtesy Wikipedia.

“Indeed literalist-fundamentalism and the critical approaches to the Bible are but two sides of the same coin, insofar as each assumes that the text should be accessible to anyone without the necessary mediation by the church.”

-Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture

The Via Media has many detractors, which is kind of funny because there isn’t much of a definition.  As Evan Rohrs-Dodge has pointed out, it is more of a hermeneutic than a monolithic perspective.  Joel Watts has helpfully differentiated between the Via Media and the Third Way; at its best, the Via Media is not so much about picking the “middle” between existing options, but about emphatically refusing both and choosing something different.

This shows up in how we approach Scripture.  Both conservatives and progressives approach the text in quite similar ways.  The fundamentalist-modernist split of the early 20th century was not, as is often advertised, a divide between moderns and anti-moderns, but between different types of modernists who were ultimately kissing cousins.  Hauerwas, in his firecracker of a book on Scripture, puts it this way:

“…the debate between fundamentalists and biblical critics is really more a debate between friends who share many of the same assumptions. The most prominent shared assumption is that the interpretation of the biblical texts is not a political process involving questions of power and authority. By privileging the individual interpreter, who is thought capable of discerning the meaning of the text apart form the consideration of the good ends of a community, fundamentalists and biblical critics make the Church incidental.” (25-26, emphasis added)

In today’s UMC, the church is indeed incidental to how traditionalists and liberals read Scripture.  Both affirm the church insofar as it affirms their reading of Scripture, and reject the church insofar as it rejects their reading.  The individual interpreter – and their respective camps – is king.  True heirs of the Reformation, we Methodists are happy to each be our own Luthers, declaring our sole ability to take a stand on Scripture and close our ears to all other readings.  The shared attitude of liberals and traditionalists is thus:  power and authority are ‘mine,’ and the church only deserves either if and when she agrees with me.

This Enlightenment focus on the rational individual means that fundamentalists and modern critics are really allies.  As Walter Brueggemann tells it, this 18th century “text” dominates (however covertly) the reading of those who consider themselves opposites:

“The power of this text shows up [1] in an excessive theological conservatism that has transposed fidelity into certitudes that are absolutes about morality as about theology, as though somewhere there are rational formulations that will powerfully veto the human ambiguities so palpable among us. The power of this text also shows up [2] in overstated theological liberalism in which every woman and every man is one’s own pope, in which autonomous freedom becomes a fetish and all notions of communal accountability evaporate into a polite but innocuous mantra of “each to her or his own.” (5, emphasis added)

In other words: conservatives have no room for ambiguity, and progressives have no room for accountability, and both have a poverty of hospitality because of shared assumptions about how to properly read the Biblical text.  That sounds to me like exactly where the UMC is at present.  The Via Media rejects both of these individualistic, modern readings of the Bible because both are fundamentally modern (pun intended).

What is the alternative? That is a whole separate post, and probably more than one. A hint: something like a Barthian reading of Scripture, or a narrative reading.  I would suggest a view of Scripture that takes the text seriously, but short of bibliolatry and far away from demythologizing.  The Bible is not merely a list of rules or an outmoded, ancient list of rules (see: literalist and modernist readings) but a story.  That story is the narrative of a God known through the travails of Israel and the Church, and most particularly through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  A focus on the person and work of Christ as the primary hermeneutic lens through which to read Scripture thus upends the Pharisees on the left and the right, for whom the only lens is The Agenda.  The teaching and the way of Christ are best determined and lived out in the community of faith, the Church.

Hauerwas and Brueggemann give us ammunition for just such a rejection of the twin options of modernist Biblical interpretation.  The Via Media refuses to do an end-run around the Church, but bears with her, warts and fights and pitiful controversies and all, daring to listen to the discernment of the church catholic (small-c).  The resulting conversation is much more interesting than the alternatives.

Say: Why I Write (Guest Post by Robin Fitzgerald)

braveBuckle in folks, this may be a long one. Triple your latte or tea. I’ve got a lot to say on this one. Let’s start here: my blogging “name” is Sassy. That name was deemed unto me by colleagues during a period of ministry when I finally started to claim my voice. I think you get it: I became sassy. When I started this blog, I wanted to speak from that voice. The voice that was sassy: bold, creative, pushed me and boundaries. Let me say that another way: I did not want to be another preacher-posting-sermons blogger. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I read some of my colleagues’ blogs and appreciate this niche; it just isn’t mine. I NEEDED with every ounce of my being for Sassy to have a place to come out. I needed to write.

It’s like this. I was reading one of my own beloved bloggers, Glennon Doyle Melton, of momastery. Let us all take a moment and thank Jesus for the witty wisdom and fun and truth that is Glennon. I was reading G (she lets me call her that—she lets everybody call her that) one day, and she said to me—to us, just write. If you are feeling the pulling at your soul and you want to begin writing and you don’t know where to start, just write. I wish I could find that post to link, but my tech team is out of the office (ha!).

So, I started this blog. I began with the name. I used my twitter handle and I thought about what I wanted this blog’s content to be and what I wanted it to reflect. But before I tell you that, I need to take you back in time to the other 2 blogs I had. The first was a blog I started that was more like a devotional for my church members. It fed them, but it didn’t feed me. I struggled hard for content because it wasn’t my true voice talking. And looking back, I suspect the reason is two-fold. First, I was writing solely out of a professional context. So, I was trying not to “dry up the well.” You know, not use all the ideas up so that I would have some sermon illustrations to use on Sunday. As if God would stop supplying them. Second, there was this. The churches that I served were loving but there was this underlying thing. My anatomy. And my ability to carry and deliver babies. That’s the best way I know how to say that. “Who are you to say?” they subconsciously and sometimes out loud said to me. We allowed you to be a woman in our pulpit but a woman with a growing belly, a woman nursing a baby, a MOTHER AND A PREACHER? That we can’t allow. That began to close down the relationship. And my blogging voice still had not fully developed because of this.

The next blog I tried for healing. Well, I am NOT writing for CHURCH FOLK anymore! I am writing for me. “Sassyandfree” was born. I had one post. In a year. That was not my voice.

As I type this post, my almost five year old is literally clinging to me, despite my protests, but that is so fitting for this post, I think. When I was deciding on the new blog, I thought: yes there ARE lots of women bloggers out there. There ARE lots of CHRISTIAN women bloggers out there. Some I read. Like Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey and UM Donna Claycomb Sokol. Some I don’t. Some I read for home design and find that they have an LDS button on their sidebar. You would be amazed at the number of Mormon women bloggers in the blogosphere!! What is unique about my voice I thought? I started with the name. Reverend Mommy. If nothing else, I would claim who I am. I am Pastor AND Mommy. And I would weave together both. I write about both parts of these.

What else do I bring to the table? Though my church friends read my blog, and I am grateful for that, it is no longer a “church” blog. It is my vision that this blog be for me to express whatever God needs me to express and that God use me to reach people through The Interwebs. So, I’ve had to be brave and broach some terrifying subjects: ghosts from my past, depression, imperfection. What is it like to be a woman writing in this niche? It is incredibly affirming. I have such an eclectic mix of readers, and I LOVE that. I love that people find a connection to what I have to say. Through it all, God continues to shape me and make more of me. That’s how I know it is God at work. Gail Godwin in the fantastic book Evensong says “Something is your vocation if it keeps making more of you.”


Rev. Robin Fitzgerald is the Pastor of a lively group of Jesus people at Pine Grove United Methodist Church in Winston Salem, NC. She has served with the “churchy friends” of Midway, Mocksville, and Lexington, NC. She is married to a darn cute Yankee and has two lovely little ladies. Visit her blog at reverendmommypgumc.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @reverendmommy.

Baptism: What Happens After the Water? (Guest Post by Cynthia Astle)

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By Cynthia B. Astle

Baptism presents one of the most contentious issues in the history of Christianity. Armed conflicts have broken out over baptism’s proper application, i.e. whether water is to be applied by sprinkling, pouring or immersion as initiation into the Church of Jesus Christ. Christians have fought one another over the wording of baptismal vows, and whether one must be of the age of consent in order to respond appropriately to the ritual.

However, what happens after the baptismal vows are pronounced gets much less attention from United Methodists and their Christian kindred. More clergy and laity today have become aware of this gap, and are embracing a deeper understanding of baptism’s nature and its daily application.

Baptism typically runs a distant second to Holy Communion in United Methodist sacramental esteem, despite the availability of the gracefully crafted theological statement, By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism. Since United Methodists practice infant baptism, the ritual often is seen as something performed primarily for babies. For example, those with little Christian education often to seek out United Methodist pastors in order to “get the baby done,” either in response to grandparents’ pleadings or as a kind of magical thinking, a superstitious protection for the child.

A more accurate understanding of baptism, however, emphasizes God’s grace active in human lives, humans’ response to the awareness of divine grace, and the faith community’s witness to God and service to the world. Ironically, one of the most impressive modern visual interpretations of baptism’s significance can be found in the dramatic climax of the now-classic film, “The Godfather.” Having been urged into the role of godfather by his sister, crime boss Michael Coreleone recites Catholic baptismal responses, pledging to renounce the works of Satan as intercut scenes show his minions assassinating the leaders of rival crime families. In less than two minutes, the sequence demonstrates not only Michael’s fall from grace, but also the nature of evil that Christians pledge to renounce, reject and resist.

“Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola clearly grasped a key element of Christian initiation often missing from today’s understanding: Baptism embraces both death and life. Just as those who bypass Crucifixion to savor Resurrection glory practice a truncated theology, baptism stresses that one cannot receive newness of life without simultaneously “dying” to death-dealing practices. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote in A.D. 352 of the “dying and living” aspects of early baptism, in which catechumens of all ages were immersed naked and then clothed with white robes to represent their new lives. (This tradition is now remembered liturgically in the garment known as an alb, a white robe without decoration suitable for any baptized Christian to wear when leading in worship).

Let’s consider our United Methodist baptismal vows in this light of dying and living:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

Look at the action verbs in this ritual, which reflects the form adopted in a 1982 World Council of Churches document, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. “Renounce, reject, repent, resist, confess, trust, accept, serve” constitutes a powerful set of marching orders for Jesus’ followers. Yet rare is the congregation where our baptismal vows are more than a footnote to other communal activities.

This year Discipleship Ministries (formerly known as the General Board of Discipleship) has been conducting two-day learning retreats throughout Texas to emphasize baptismal vows. I recently attended the North Texas session, “Leaders Living (and Dying) Baptismally.” While to date these sessions have drawn small groups of 15 to 20 participants, they have opened encouraging discussions on baptism’s potential to transform The United Methodist Church.

As our Discipleship Ministries session suggested, one way to restore baptism’s importance for United Methodists would be to develop more accountability through small groups. Called “class meetings” in the Wesleyan tradition, these gatherings of five to eight people are places where we make sure we fulfill the vows we’ve pledged. Current spiritual descendants of the historic Methodist class meeting include Covenant Discipleship, Companions in Christ, Walk to Emmaus’ 4th Day groups and the Order of Saint Luke.

Accountability groups such as these can improve individual spiritual practice and encourage congregations to deepen their baptismal understanding. For example, in order to “renounce the forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of … sin,” a local congregation would have to take a hard look at the world outside its sanctuary walls, asking questions such as:

  1. Who are our neighbors? Are they people who live closest to our church, or are we called to serve people beyond our local neighborhood?
  2. What do our neighbors tell us they need from us?
  3. How could we adapt our worship and activities to meet our neighbors’ spiritual needs rather than our own habits or desires?

If we intend to give more than lip service to our United Methodist mission – “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – then we must pay more attention to helping one another become the followers of Jesus that we pledge to be in baptism. By focusing on our baptismal vows to renounce evil, repent of our sin, and live like Jesus, we can indeed transform the world, starting where we need it most – with ourselves.

United Methodist laywoman Cynthia B. Astle of Dallas, TX, is an internationally recognized religion journalist, a certified spiritual director, and a member of the UMC-founded Order of Saint Luke, an ecumenical association of clergy and lay women and men devoted to liturgical scholarship. She currently coordinates United Methodist Insight, a collaborative website for leaders and influencers seeking God’s will for the future of The United Methodist Church.

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A Prayer for General Conference 2016

In June of 2009, I was ordained as an Elder in Full Connection in the United Methodist Church in the The Pontchartrain Center, Kenner, LA. All my family and friends came to see my ordination. I remember the event, but more than the event, I remember events around the event. That year, someone didn’t get ordained, so there was a protest during the ordination service where folks stood up and made loud noises to disrupt the service. For a moment in time the entire ordination service just stopped while people caused a ruckus in the room. Everyone looked at one another not knowing what to do. Do we keep going? Do we stop? Do we do something different? It was a confusing interruption for an otherwise solemn moment.

The next day, something else happened that made me even angrier than the interruption during the ordination service. We were voting on constitutional amendments that year, and right outside the doorway four people were handing out voting guides. The voting guides were printed to look official. There was no names printed on the voting guide, just which amendments to vote for any why. I quickly scanned the voting guide and noticed that all of the why part was from a conservative caucus group. I got so angry I stormed back out and confronted the pastor handing out these guides. I told him, “You can’t do this!” He was passing these voting guides out as “official UMC documents”. We had a heated discussion on why he could not pass this stuff out with no names attached to it. When our session started, we had to have multiple clarifications on how this caucus group’s voting guide was NOT official.

Why do I share these two moments with you? Because apparently a lot of folks care if GC2016 will be closed or open or closed or open or closed.

While this blog didn’t originate the idea, one of the contributors added to the idea. Personally, I don’t see the big deal or why it caused so much drama, but it definitely struck a nerve with a lot of people.

So I thought I might share my annual conference story with a reminder about what it is we do at General Conference. We have General Conference every four years to lead an entire world wide denomination. General Conference is responsible for everything from doctrine to hymnals! (Only General Conference can authorize a new hymnal.) They have huge tasks to undertake for two weeks every four years.

In one of Jeremy Smith’s best blog posts he reminds us of one of the most important things about General Conference. We elect delegates, NOT representatives.

That is a great distinction. A representative represents their constituency. So one would expect a representative to vote how their constituency would want them to. But a delegate has had authority delegated to them. They have been elected on their own character and bring only the good of the Church Universal to the table at General Conference.

We elected delegates at this past Annual Conference. Whether or not the person(s) I voted for got elected doesn’t change the fact that these are the people we are sending to discern what is best for the entire body of The United Methodist Church. It does not help for me to pester them with a thousand questions on which way they are going to vote and why and would they consider changing their minds. The best thing I can do for those who have been elected from my conference is pray for them, and that is what I have done since our Annual Conference. I have prayed for our delegates and the delegates from other Annual Conferences. No matter what I believe on this issue or that issue, these are the people have the responsibility to lead The United Methodist Church into the next four years.

I can honestly say I don’t want them to vote for me. I want them to vote for the entire church and God’s kingdom.

My hope and prayer for them is not that they vote the way that I want them to or the way that a caucus group wants them to or the way a voting guide wants them to or the way whoever yells the loudest wants them to or the way whoever gives them a cell phone wants them to.

I pray they engage in real holy conferencing with other delegates from across the world seeking God’s will.

I pray they worship with one another, eat with one another, discern with one another.

I pray they read scripture together and not voting guides.

I pray they can tune out all the noise and listen for the Holy Spirit.

I pray they can listen for that still small voice.

It is not found in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire.