“Till Death Us Do Part”: A Call to Unity Offered the Sunday After SCOTUS Decision

umc-cross-and-flameThe following was given last Sunday as a preamble to worship at Spruce Pine UMC in the Western North Carolina Conference. We are grateful to its author, Rev. Jeremy Troxler, for letting us share this excellent reflection. Rev. Troxler is pastor of Spruce Pine UMC in Spruce Pine, NC, and former Director of the Thriving Rural Communities Initiative at Duke Divinity School.  He served in the WNCC delegation to the 2012 General Conference, and was recently elected to the 2016 delegation.  We also recommend this collection of responses and instructions by UM Bishops (courtesy Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards) following the SCOTUS decision.

Via Media Methodists is curated by Rev. Stephen Fife, Rev. Drew McIntyre, and Rev. Evan Rohrs-Dodge (visit the about page for more).  Via Media Methodists also produce the WesleyCast podcast, available on iTunes. 

“Till Death Us Do Part”:

A Preamble to Worship and a Call To Unity Offered at Spruce Pine UMC

the Sunday after SCOTUS Decision

June 28, 2015

Dear Church,

Unless you have been living in a cave in the woods for the past week, most of you know by now that on Friday the Supreme Court made a historic ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry in the United States.

Different folks in our congregation have had dramatically different responses to this decision.

Some of you celebrated with elation and even wept with joy, because to you Friday felt like a kind of divine miracle, because you believe the ruling was victory for civil rights and for equality among God’s children, because now either you, or your children, or your family members, or your friends who are gay or lesbian can have the opportunity to have their love for their partner formally recognized, because you feel grateful that all people can now share in the affirmation of dignity and the blessing of committed companionship that the status of legal marriage brings, because perhaps you feel that gay and lesbian human beings are finally accepted as full and equal citizens of our country.

Others of you viewed the Supreme Court’s decision Friday with great sadness or even anger, not because of any hatred in your heart, but because you believe the ruling to be a misguided over-reach of the courts, because you believe it to represent an example of how society is either ignoring or badly interpreting or even defying what you hold to be God’s clear commands in Scripture, because you believe that a sacred institution has been redefined in a way contrary to God’s will, because you believe the practice of homosexuality to be a sin incompatible with Christian teaching, and because you are concerned over whether now you can practice freedom of conscience in this regard.

Some of you feel anger rising within you that I have even mentioned the other side’s point of view here in worship, because it is just so obvious to you that you are on the right side and they aren’t, so why even talk about it?  You came here maybe expecting everybody else to be dancing in the aisles with you or you came here maybe expecting everybody else to be shaking their heads with you, and now you hear that’s not the case.  Others of you feel caught in the middle between people who feel so strongly:  you think it’s complicated and you don’t know exactly what to think, but it breaks your heart to see people in such conflict, and you just wish people could get along better.

I share this with you because even though the Supreme Court’s decision changes nothing about the formal stance of the United Methodist Church towards same-sex marriage – only our United Methodist General Conference next summer has the power to do that – the last few days have reminded many of us how divided we are as a United Methodist church and as a people over questions such as these.

The Bible says that in the church we are to “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice” – but what do you do when half of you are weeping and half of you are rejoicing?

One thing I might propose for us is that sometime before General Conference next spring, we hold a Bible Study and holy conferencing dialogue about this issue.  But in the meantime, another thing we can do is to remember what binds us together.

The Bible says that the church is like a family, where we are brothers and sisters with each other.  If your family is like mine, then there are a lot of important things that you and your family members disagree about or even fight about.  But at the end of the day you are still a family; you are still held together by something deeper than whether or not you agree.  You are held together by the fact that you have been made part of one another, and you are held together by stubborn, durable, steady love.

The church is a family like that.  We are a family that can disagree about important things, but at the end of the day we are held together by something deeper than the fact we agree about everything, or even about every important thing:  we are held together by the fact that God’s grace has rescued us and is remaking us and has made us a part of one another.

We are held together by love, the love of Christ.

That love does not banish disagreement, but it does join us in a oneness deeper than all difference, a fidelity more enduring than our fights, a reconciliation that outlasts our wrongs.

Perhaps we even need some level of disagreement for this love to grow among us.

In his 2nd Inaugural Address, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln meditated on the fact that both the North and the South prayed to the same God, and believed the same God was on their side, and trusted that the same God would grant their side victory, and yet the war just kept going on.  Lincoln said that the prayers of both could not be answered, and the prayers of neither were answered fully.  Clearly neither side could be wholly in the right, or God would have ended the bloodshed.  Lincoln speculated that perhaps in allowing the struggle to continue, God was accomplishing larger purposes that neither side had taken into account.

Perhaps God has God’s own purposes in putting us very different people, with our dueling facebook posts and our rival news sources, all together next to each other in the pew.  Perhaps one of those purposes is to learn the meaning of love.  Perhaps it is only by learning to love people we disagree with, only by learning to love people who we know are wrong, only by learning to love sinners that we learn what love, Christ-like love, even, yes, married love, really is.

Later this morning as we receive new members we will read words from I Corinthians 12, where the Apostle Paul writes to a divided church about how we are all part of the body of Christ, a body where the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor can the head say to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  We are a body, where, paraphrasing what the Bible says about marriage, the many become one flesh.

Here’s what I think that means:

If you celebrated on Friday, you belong here and are needed here.

If you were upset on Friday, you belong here and are needed here.

If you didn’t know how to feel on Friday, you belong here and are needed here.

If you think what I have said here is too wishy-washy,  and you wish your preacher took a stronger stand with your side today, you belong here and are needed here.

The only way you might not belong here is if you believe the body of Christ should be a place where everybody agrees with you 100%, and where what you hear from the pulpit every week should just confirm whatever you came here already believing; basically if you think the body should be made up of one part:  your brain.

I would say that if that’s what you want, the only way to get it is if you keep your own company.  But maybe you won’t find satisfaction even there:  I can’t get even the different sides of my own mind to agree with themselves half the time.

Perhaps if you searched hard enough you might finally be able to find another group of believers who agree with each other on things like this 100% – but if you do, whatever it is, it won’t be the church of Jesus Christ.

So I guess we’ll just have to accept God’s own mysterious purposes and continue struggling to seek God’s bigger-than-we-thought will with each other.

I guess we’ll have to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, even all at the same time, even if it means we try to force a smile through our tears because at least our friends are happy, of if it means we celebrate but with a catch in our throat because we can’t totally forget those who find it hard to rejoice with us because of conscience.

I guess we’ll have to stay together and try to respect and love each other and fail and ask forgiveness and forgive and then try again.

I guess we in the church will need to choose again

to have and to hold each other,

from this day forward,

for better or for worse,

for richer or for poorer,

in sickness and in health,

to love and to cherish,

in agreement and disagreement

until death us do part:

just like all married folks must do.

Now let us worship God together.

(I am indebted to Dr. James C. Howell of Myers Park UMC for having first articulated some of the ideas here.)

#UMC Unity Yes, “Centrist Movement” No

Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, just before becoming Two-Face in The Dark Knight. Courtesy Fansshare.com.

Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, just before becoming Two-Face in The Dark Knight. Courtesy Fansshare.com.

In this post, we will examine together the curious phenomenon calling itself the “United Methodist Centrist Movement.”  We begin with a thought experiment, then explore whether the UMCM lives up to its claims, and finally close with some thoughts about the unity to which God is calling the UMC at this time.

A Thought Experiment

Imagine a marriage on the rocks.  This couple has been drifting apart for quite some time.  Their friends notice it.  They are not very happy together.  Their vows and common history don’t seem like enough to hold them together.  Everything they do to come back to their first love seems to backfire.  It looks as if they are heading for a split.

Then, an idea comes.  At first it seems strange, even morally questionable.  It goes against their own inclinations and the expectations of their friends and family.  But desperate times call for desperate measures.  They try out something they’ve only seen on TV: an “open marriage.” Each partner can sleep with other people, as long as they are open about it with their spouse and with the other person.

A radical step? Yes.  But it just might preserve the institution.  The unity of the covenant can be maintained, it just takes a little negotiation of the boundaries.

The So-Called “Centrist” Movement

bankruptcy

There are at least two meanings. Read on.

If you aren’t familiar with the UM Centrist Movement, it’s likely because you don’t live in Ohio.  In some ways, it is the Holy Roman Empire of United Methodism.  Just as the Holy Roman Empire (in Voltaire’s words), was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” so the UMCM is not Methodist, not centrist, and not a movement. That is a bold claim, but one which I think is clearly justified by their written statements and actions.

  • Methodist? Under “Our Theological Foundation,” the UMCM lists works of piety and mercy as “the main connective links of our Wesleyan Theological Heritage.”  Of course, the problem with this is two-fold.  First, there is nothing unique about the emphasis on both works of piety and mercy (this remains true even if you add in their concocted neologism, “prophetic piety”).  Most of the great Christian traditions (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) would tell disciples of Jesus to live out the faith through piety, mercy, and prophetic action and speech.  Secondly, even if these were uniquely Wesleyan, they are far from our “main connective links.”  As I’ve said before, the main realities for Christians in the company of the Wesleys are relational: class, band, society, conference.  The soteriological and the relational are always found together for the people called Methodists, and it is this radical insistence on “social holiness” (rightly understood) that has made the Wesleyan way of discipleship both unique and effective.
  • IMG_3722Centrist? The UMCM was quite open that its recent success in terms of getting delegates elected to General Conference was the result of an alliance with West Ohio progressives.  On June 11, they posted to their Facebook page: “Final election results from the West Ohio Annual Conference. In a historic partnership with our progressive friends, we elected 12 of 16 clergy (all clergy elected to GC) and 7 of 16 lay delegates to General/Jurisdictional Conference.”  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize we’ve been had.  You cannot both claim the centrist moniker and ally with one “wing” of the church.  If I’m wrong, I’d invite someone from the UMCM to tell me a substantive difference between the goals of the UMCM and the goals of West Ohio Conference progressives.  This alone, to be blunt, showed the whole “Centrist” notion to be a ruse.
  • Movement? This is a pet peeve of mine, I’ll confess.  Just calling something a “movement” does not make it so.  In one of my favorite scenes from The Office, Michael Scott screams, “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!!”  He doesn’t realize there is more to it until someone gently reminds him that it takes more than verbalization.  Likewise, the UMCM, as best I can tell, does not represent a “movement,” but a very clever ploy to encourage the dominance of progressive views in the West Ohio Conference.  (And it certainly can’t be much of a movement until successes are repeated across the UMC, and not just in its home turf.)  I love to blog and chat and discuss with my fellow WesleyCast hosts and Via Media contributors, but we are realists enough to know that what we have is a blog and a podcast, and perhaps a budding community of similarly interested Wesleyans.  To call what we have a “movement” would be only slightly less laughable than applying the same term to the UMCM.

Unity – In What?

Francis Asbury is ordained at the famed

Francis Asbury is ordained at the famed “Christmas Conference” in Maryland, 1784. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The most grievous issue with the UMCM and similarly motivated groups is that the only unity envisioned is institutional in nature, which is to say it is superficial.  Like the hypothetical married couple in my opening paragraphs, those who want unity “at any cost,” or a unity in institution, are missing out on the biblical and Spirit-gifted reality to which the ekklesia of God is called.  To stay together for the sake of appearances, or pensions, or property, is not a unity worthy of the name church.  I fully agree with the UMCM that unity is Christ’s will for the church, and have written here and here to that effect, but the path unity they are currently offering is thin gruel: an institutional unity built on a barely-veiled progressive platform (their plan for “regional conferences” lines up nicely with what the Northeast Jurisdiction called for) relying on the fog of fear (“schism is coming!”) and the false piety of lowest common denominator agreement.  Christ has called us to do better.  As David Watson noted,

“Simply saying we want to “avoid schism” isn’t enough. The only real Christian unity is unity in the Holy Trinity, which means mutual love, mutual accountability, and the proclamation of the faith once delivered to the saints. Institutional commitments themselves cannot serve Christian unity unless they are visible expressions of our unity in God.”

Conclusion: We Can (and Must) Do Better

Superficial unity that maintains a connection while destroying Connectionalism is not God’s will for the United Methodist Church. That’s why the UMCM platform is bankrupt. Like the desperate married couple above shows us, not every method offered to save the institution is worthy of the institution itself.  Unity is a pneumatological reality, and to reduce it to vaguely-defined virtues and financial self-interest is to risk blaspheming the Spirit who makes the church possible.  And finally, no United Methodist should reward any movement that claims the center and subsequently aligns with one side to get elected.  Duplicity is a poor path the unity to which Jesus – as the way, the truth, and the life – has called us.

Unite the Two So Long Disjoined: Doctrine & #UMC Vitality

Courtesy Andrew Thompson.

Courtesy Andrew Thompson.

“No motif in the Wesleyan tradition has been more constant than the link between Christian doctrine and Christian living.” UMC.org

Lately, Western Christians have been asking something that puzzled ‘Papa’ John Wesley long ago: Why are we so ineffective? Reflecting on Jeremiah’s grief in looking for “a balm in Gilead,” Wesley asks about the effectiveness of the church in his day in Sermon 116, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity“:

“I would seriously inquire, Why has Christianity done so little good in the world? Is it not the balm, the outward means, which the great Physician has given to men, to restore their spiritual health? Why then is it not restored?”
From his perspective as leader of the Methodist movement, Wesley goes on to name three ways in which Christianity can self-destruct: First, a lack of doctrine, of basic Christian teaching; secondly, lack of discipline; finally, a lack of humility and self-denial.  For Wesley, if Christ is truly preached (doctrine), and the Christian life is ordered towards full salvation (discipline), the only hindrance to the church’s effectiveness is her refusal to take up the cross.  He is vexed at the state of his movement, for he believes they excel in the first two but have neglected the third:
“To bring the matter closer still. Is not scriptural Christianity [read: doctrine] preached and generally known among the people commonly called Methodists? Impartial persons allow it is. And have they not Christian discipline too, in all the essential branches of it, regularly and constantly exercised? Let those who think any essential part of it is wanting, point it out, and it shall not be wanting long. Why then are not these altogether Christians, who have both Christian doctrine and Christian discipline?”

This is a crucial point for two reasons.  First, this helps to explain why the recovery of a humble and irrelevant church is likely a key to renewal, as Evan Rohrs-Dodge has suggested.  Secondly, it shows the central position that Christian teaching (aka doctrine) had for John Wesley and the early Methodists.

To put it another way: we are beginning Annual Conference season in the United Methodist world.  Across the denomination, clergy and lay representatives will gather to do the work of the church: to vote on budgets and ordain, to celebrate, to equip, to worship, and fellowship together.  The first such Conference was held in 1744, and they determined to focus on three matters:

  1. What to teach
  2. How to teach
  3. How to regulate doctrine, discipline, and practice
Christian proclamation – what Wesley referred to as “offering Christ” – is central to the work of the Wesleyan revival and intimately connected to the whole of Christian living.  We are even told that Wesley and his fellow preachers spent two days of the first conference discussing doctrine:
“For two days they conversed on such vital doctrines as the Fall, the Work of Christ, Justification, Regeneration, Sanctification.”

It’s difficult to imagine a single Annual Conference session on doctrine these days, let alone one or two full days.

On my reading of John Wesley’s priorities, I find that difficult to defend.

At least in today’s UMC and most of the mainline (and I would add in most of Protestantism), the basics of Christian doctrine are little known and seldom taught. Most Methodists I know can’t even articulate grace as prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.  How can we neglect this?  It’s easy to dismiss doctrine as something not relevant to people’s lives; preaching doctrine doesn’t have the pizazz of a marriage series or something about raising children.  But how can we possibly know how to follow Jesus as a parent or spouse without knowing who Jesus is?  How can we justify ignoring doctrine if we don’t know what justification is? I see little reason to pursue brain surgery if we have yet to master the anatomy chart.

I realize doctrine isn’t everything.  Wesley didn’t think so, and neither do I.  However, doctrine – basic Christian teaching on who God is and what salvation looks like – has been so ignored that we can no longer pronounce that arena is taken care of, as John Wesley did, or assume it is old news and thus irrelevant.  In fact, to place the contemporary UMC in conversation with Sermon 116, we care little for doctrine, discipline is little more than a name on a book we sometimes read, and are so far from self-denial we are still clinging to the trappings of Christendom.

Doctrine is a necessary but not sufficient quality for any Wesleyan revival within the body called the United Methodist Church.  Then as now, the need is for us to articulate and hold to these central questions: What do we teach? How do we teach it? And how do hold each other accountable to Wesleyan doctrine, discipline, and practice?

Without such recovery, we will become more and more the “dead sect” that John Wesley feared, more akin to the church that the early Methodists left behind than the doctrinally sound, practically concerned, and holistically (but rigorously) disciplined movement known as the Wesleyan Revival.

The Pew Forum Report and Ordination in the Mainline

Father Henri Nouwen

Father Henri Nouwen

In one week, my bishop will place his hands on my head and invoke the Holy Spirit as he ordains me to the office and work of an Elder in The United Methodist Church. Those of you who are United Methodist clergy or working towards orders know that the process can be long, arduous, and at times overwhelming. While I can only speak to my experience, I have found the process to be an incredible, Spirit-filled journey, and as I reflect on my growth and development over these past 6 years (from declared candidacy to the present), the grace of God is clear. I began in spring 2009; during that time, I switched from Deacon to Elder track and even transferred my membership from the New England Conference to the Greater New Jersey Conference. Each step of the way, I have been surrounded by people who have loved me, nurtured me, and, at times, told me some hard truths. I have done my best to be open to the process, and the willingness to do what was required of me and my trust in the presence of the Holy Spirit has made all the difference.

Last month, those to be commissioned and ordained went on an overnight retreat with the Bishop. He gave each of us Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (Drew McIntyre has an excellent reflection on this book here). This small book could not be more timely. In light of the recent Pew Forum report that indicates certain expressions of Christianity (namely mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and, to a lesser extent, evangelicalism) are continuing to lose influence and that millennials are overwhelmingly not finding the spiritual food of these traditions nourishing, one might find this an anxious time to be in ministry. In light of the ongoing debates and disagreement over human sexuality in The United Methodist Church and numerous proposals to fundamentally alter our denomination over this, and in light of the denomination’s continual narrative of crisis, one might find this an anxious time to be in ministry. It might appear that ministry in The United Methodist Church — a mainline Protestant church — is an exercise in religious irrelevance.

Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, writing out of his experience of living and working with mentally and physically handicapped people at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Ontario, Canada, wrote:

The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.

As I prepare to enter a new phase of ministry that is the culmination of a long process, I believe now more than ever that leaders must refuse the temptation to be relevant. It would be easy to jump on the latest church fad wagon in pursuit of the glitter of religious success. Instead, we must claim the unfashionable radicalness of the Gospel that says that God loves us not because of what we have accomplished, but because we have been created in God’s image and redeemed by the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. Leaders that are rooted in this God-given identity and are committed to this proclamation and praxis by offering their own vulnerable, authentic selves with no conditions develop a Biblical relevance for which many are hungry, a relevance that seeks the face of God instead of the accolades of people. Institutional decline, denominational politics, and generation gaps offer leaders an opportunity to stand in the midst of all this with the Gospel message, to take risks to be the church in new ways, to develop a spiritual life that engages deeply with the hurt of the world. 

It might appear to many that mainline Protestantism is in its twilight.

However, embracing our irrelevance might lead to our renewal.

Lamentations-3_40

Lamentations and a Suggestion

Most of what I witness in my denomination gives me grief right now. The United Methodist Church seems to be insistent on pushing itself into a narrow trajectory of winners and losers. No matter what your belief is on the issues facing the church today we seem content on setting the stage for GC 2016 to be a battleground that leaves no one unscathed.

A lament is a passionate expression of grief and sorrow. The Bible is full of laments. For the Great 40 days I have been preaching through the Psalms. These hymns are filled with expressions lament. In Matthew 23:37-39 Jesus laments over all Jerusalem wanting to embrace the city as a mother hen embraces her young. There is an entire book in the Bible called Lamentations that is filled with laments. Laments are expressions of our faith.

The first lament I have is, we have traded real community for virtual community. I used to be addicted to World of Warcraft and would spend hour after hour playing online in a virtual world. We had a slang term for not being online: RL or IRL(Real Life or In Real Life). When someone wasn’t online in the virtual world they were operating in real life. The 16 year old movie, The Matrix, explores this concept brilliantly. When Neo is freed from the virtual world of The Matrix he has trouble believing the real world. Morpheus tells him, “We have a rule. We never free a mind once it’s reached a certain age. It’s dangerous, the mind has trouble letting go.” I can identify. Our minds have trouble letting go of selfie online hyper connected world of the internet. At a recent pastor’s gathering there were smart phones everywhere (myself included).   We have virtual relationships. If our pictures, selfies, and blog posts can get enough likes we are satisfied. It doesn’t matter who we have to step on to get there, only that we get there. Online relationships have become commodities that are bought and sold with each click. With the recent hoopla over online communion, drive thru ashes, and independent blogs from across the political spectrum (including this one) we no longer need real life relationships. We no longer need to share a common meal together. We can eat at home while tweeting away. Ashes become the same thing as a happy meal when they are stripped of the confession and peace. Blogs can continue to produce hit piece after hit piece for just a few more clicks. After all it doesn’t matter in the virtual world if that person on the other side is a real person or not.

The second lament I had is that we have traded our story for my story. One thing I have noticed with conversations among people from my neighborhood is that our culture is shaped by this myth of individualism. The grand narrative of God working in human history has been replaced by my own personal narrative. Instead of any type of grand meta narrative of us as a body of people, there are multiple narratives each with a different version of the truth. We can no longer identify with each other because they are so foreign to us. My own church is struggling with people of different races, cultures, and socio economic backgrounds encountering one another. It is amazing to witness, but it is difficult to be in the midst of. There is a lot of anxiety in encountering the other and building relationships with the other. In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I believe Paul was seeing this as a hoped for reality. One where all our stories could be joined together in God’s redeeming story.

Which brings me to my final lament, we have traded God for gods. It doesn’t matter if that god is the god of orthodoxy, fundamentalism, liberalism, evangelicalism, emergent, post liberalism, post modern, progressive, missional, or whatever term is next. We all have developed our own concept of god (who usually ends up being just like us or just like we imagine god to be). Our god talks like us, thinks like us, acts like us, and wants the same things we want. Our definition of justice becomes God’s definition of justice. Sin becomes a corporate only thing or an individual only thing. We cannot conceive of a God who might have different desires then we do. God then fits into whatever box we want god to fit in. Anslem’s ontological argument points out that God is above our own thought processes. Whenever my god becomes just like me, I think my conception of God is flawed.

Already I am beginning to see rhetoric lining up along the battle lines that seek to turn this battle into one that lays waste to a denomination. We call each other names, but we fail to see each other. So as we begin to ready our stones, swords, picket signs, and crosses
I want to offer a suggestion for finding a better way. Share a meal. Put down your phone and talk to the person you are eating with. Stop worrying about your number of hits if you don’t put out a blog on something controversial. Stop using rhetoric that defines the other as intolerant or theologically weak. Listen to their story, their hopes and dreams, their hurts, their joys. You might just find out something unexpected. Allow the other to challenge your preconceived notions of God, and vice versa. The ancient mystics Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross had spiritual mentors to talk stuff over with that would challenge them and keep them focused on deepening their relationship with Christ. We need one another to challenge us and keep us focused on Christ. Now I am not saying we will abandon our theological presuppositions for that of the other. I am saying that if we understand where the other person is coming from it might better inform our own thoughts.    Now is the time before the battle begins to take that pause and really talk about what is best for the body of Christ and the people called Methodists.

Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. – Proverbs 27:17

Guest Post: Itinerancy: A Response

Asbury statue

A statue of Francis Asbury at Drew University, Madison, NJ.

I appreciate the opportunity to offer a response to Drew’s article about the itinerancy. I find things I agree with, and things I disagree with. The dialogue keeps us all thinking about what could be best for the people called United Methodist. My words come from the viewpoint of one of the first group of district superintendents who has lived under the newer task of being a “chief missional strategist.” This is my 5th year appointed as a superintendent.

I will take Drew’s points one at a time:

1) Itinerancy is intended for a very different context than United Methodists (at least in the US) face today. I think it would be more accurate to say, itinerancy was originally designed for a different context. However, the philosophy behind the original context and the present context seems to be a good mix: what is the best strategy to (1) deploy clergy, (2) match giftedness of pastors to the needs of a congregation, and (3) can a third but involved and prayerful party (the cabinet) partner with clergy and congregations in discerning how we can best do evangelism and discipleship in a changing reality? While it is unfortunate that we have come full circle from Wesley’s desire to reform the Anglican Church, it seems that our present manner of supplying clergy to churches may be more appropriate than ever. While Asbury and Wesley might not recognize what itinerancy has morphed into, I believe they would certainly recognize the need for it, more than ever. The need to strategically match pastors and congregations is greater than ever.

2) Itinerancy primarily benefits single white men. I couldn’t disagree more. I doubt that we would have as many female clergy and people of color in pulpits were it not for the itinerancy. We are far, far from perfect in that area, and clergy couples and professional spouses are certainly a challenge. But I know from experience that many congregations would not “take” a woman or person of color as a pastor were it not for the system we presently have. And, I am happy to add, many churches have learned through the itinerancy to change their views regarding women and race. We still have work to do.

3) Itinerancy is designed for short-term service. Again, I think it is more accurate to say, “Itinerancy was originally designed for short-term service.” However, it changed as the church changed. Are there tweaks and adaptations that could make it better? Absolutely. But I know in my conversation with others in different traditions that many “envy” our way of providing pastoral leadership. There is certainly nothing “sacred” about the itinerancy, but I think the charge of “organizational habit that is no longer effective” discounts the ability for adaptability, and disregards the itinerancy’s main function: to deploy clergy who are missionally sent. It is also a reminder to churches and pastor that we are not self-made, but formed and transformed by a community of faith, yoked together with Christ. Together, let us try to perfect it, rather than do away with it.

The Rev’d Sky McCracken, OSL, is District Superintendent of the Purchase District of the Memphis Conference of The United Methodist Church.

3 Reasons Why Itinerancy is an Idea Whose Time Has Come…and Gone #UMC

asbury horse

Bishop Asbury struggling with his horse, courstesy Asbury Seminary. What if Asbury is the UMC and the horse is itinerancy?

Here are three reasons why the itinerancy (the United Methodist system of deploying clergy) should go.

1) Itinerancy is intended for a very different context than United Methodists (at least in the US) face today.  Originally, itinerancy emerged in a context where a large number of laity were being served by too few clergy.  Then, itinerancy strengthened the ministry of the laity, as preachers served a “circuit,” only visiting local parishes semi-regularly.  In their absence, a strong system of lay leadership maintained and grew Methodist communities.  The situation is now the opposite: the church has come to be a support network for a large number of clergy to hold down jobs, and lay leadership has suffered.  The Order of Elders functions more as a guild or union to protect clergy rather than a covenant community deployed for God’s mission.  What remains of itinerancy today is at best a husk; I daresay neither Wesley or Asbury would recognize much of the machine we call “itinerancy.”

2) Itinerancy primarily benefits single white men.  Itinerancy, as conceived by the early Methodists, was not designed to be a system for anything but single men.  Preachers who wanted to have families were “located,” that is, taken off of the circuit.  Itinerancy has not evolved to handle the realities of female clergy, clergy families, or clergy couples; despite the excellent service many of these clergy render, they are still considered a burden to a system that thus rewards men, unmarried clergy and clergy whose spouses do not work outside of the home.  Oh, and it’s (still) a system that rewards white men in particular.

3) Itinerancy is designed for short-term service.  The UMC is coming around to something that many other denominations and church networks have already figured out: longer appointments are better for churches and for clergy.  The old standard – a 3 or 4 year term – is now recognized as the bare minimum amount of time a pastor generally needs to start earning trust and be able to lead serious change.  Some conferences are now telling their clergy not to even request a move until 4 or 5 years in.  Yes, John Wesley did argue, “We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best.”  With all do regards to our denominational progenitor, we have found by longer experience that this is no longer the case.

The Bottom Line

There is nothing sacred about itinerancy, as best as I can tell.  It is an organizational habit that is no longer effective; like a post for tying up horses, it is frontier architecture to which the United Methodist Church of the 21st century has no need to retain.  That is not to say itinerancy is without any merit; Joel Watts raises an excellent point that itinerancy serves as a safeguard against cults of personality (a danger any alternative system would have to attend to, as well).  But there are plenty of communions that avoid this danger absent the itinerancy.  All in all, I think the picture above sums up itinerancy nicely: represented by the horse, itinerancy is a system designed before both cars and trains, which was effective for a time, but which is now a burden to accomplishing our mission.*

But What Alternative?

For more on this conversation, and what an alternative might look like, I recommend you check out the discussion on the latest episode of the WesleyCast, available here (and even if you aren’t interested in the itinerancy discussion, listen for the interview with Duke Divinity School’s Warren Smith).

*As I am not familiar with the realities on the ground outside of the US, I am open to suggestion as whether this is still an effective system for clergy deployment in other areas of the Connection.  The last thing we need is the US dictating policy to the rest of the world in yet another area.

Sanctification After Brené Brown

gifts of imperfection“There is scarce any expression in Holy Writ which has given more offense than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them.”

-John Wesley, Sermon 40, “Christian Perfection”

“Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect.”

-Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

A problem: I believe in the biblical, ancient view that salvation involves a radical transformation of character by the power of the Holy Spirit, a process named theosis by some and sanctification by others.  I also count myself a fan of sociologist and author Brené Brown.  This is particularly problematic because Wesleyan Christians (Methodists, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, etc.) believe that sanctification can be “entire,” or, as Wesley himself put it, that Christian Perfection is not only attainable in this life but is God’s will for all people.  But if Brown is correct that “perfectionism” is not not only a bad idea, but an addictive attitude that is immensely harmful, what do we do with the cherished Christian teaching that our goal and calling is to become like God?

Of course I realize that Dr. Brown’s research is secular in nature, and that her books are usually found in the section of the bookstore labelled “self-improvement” – a genre into which far too many preachers thoughtlessly venture.  I do believe, however, that it behooves those of us in the Wesleyan (and broader Christian) family to assess her work in light of our most sacred teachings, not just because of her popularity, but because Christians committed to authentic community and spiritual vitality cannot ignore either the classic teachings about holiness or Brown’s research into shame, vulnerability, and perfectionism.  Wesley himself was a voracious reader of the latest science of his day, and I believe he would appreciate the effort to bring Christian teaching into conversation with cutting-edge research.

An ancient Eastern dictum states the Biblical case succinctly: “God became human so that humans could become God.”  Many Christians today focus so much on justification (forgiveness, pardon), that sanctification is an afterthought at best.  But full-orbed Christian thinkers do otherwise, including prominent evangelicals such as C.S. Lewis:

“The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command….The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.” (Mere Christianity)

To be sure, this is a noble ideal, a beautiful picture of what full salvation can look like.  But what do we do with this if we’ve read Brown or (along with millions of others) watched one of her TED Talks?  She is blunt about trying to be perfect.  “Where perfectionism exists,” says Professor Brown, “shame is always lurking.”

Christian Perfection via Wesley is not about shame, but love.

Christian Perfection via Wesley is not about shame, but love.

Wesley holds the answer. Sanctification, even the language of entire sanctification or perfection, is too biblical to simply let go of it.  Were the Church only to promote doctrines which were immediately accessible and palatable to anyone and everyone, we would soon be left with a banal non-starter like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or worse, instead of the faith once and for all delivered.  As Wesley says,

“We may not, therefore, lay these expressions aside, seeing they are the words of God, and not of man. But we may and ought to explain the meaning of them…”

Wesley goes on to do just that in Sermon 40.  Christian Perfection is not a kind of angelic or gnostic state, free from error or temptation.  For Wesley, it is a perfection in love, in which our tempers, our habits of heart are fully conformed to God. “Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations,” says Wesley.  He adds, “Indeed, it is only another term for holiness.”  And what Christian would say we should not strive for holiness?

Likewise, while Brown rejections “perfectionism,” this does not mean she rejects a holistic vision of betterment.  She clarifies the difference thus:

  • “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame….”

  • “Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.  Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports)….we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.  Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – what will they think?”

So for Brown, there is a drive for improvement that is healthy, but short of “perfectionism.”  For Wesley, similarly, Christian perfection is not a mistake-free state that seeks to guard against disappointing others.  We would say that Christian perfection is other-focused, not on other people but on the One who is Wholly Other.  Viewed within the larger framework of Wesley’s teaching on grace, we can also add that this focus on God is not in search of approval (for prevenient grace already means God has reached out to us in love and compassion).  Sanctification viewed as Wesley intended and, I believe, in a manner that Brown would recognize as healthy is about striving to respond to God’s perfect, amazing, radical love in kind.

To conclude, Christian perfection or entire sanctification, thus rightly ordered, ought not to drive the perfectionism from which Brené Brown rightly seeks us to steer.  A church which teaches and prays for theosis is doing nothing more or less than equipping God’s people to be what God has declared them already in Christ: saints.  Event the most sanctified among us will not be “perfect,” at least in the usual sense of the term.  But they will have hearts renewed after the Image of God,  restored to the Love they were made to receive and to share.  As Charles Wesley envisioned it, this is a beautiful vision of

A heart in every thought renewed

and full of love divine,

perfect and right and pure and good,

a copy, Lord, of thine.

Source: Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center: Hazelden 2010), 55-57.

The Quadrilateral or the Word of God?

Portrait of John Wesley with his most favorite of books.

Portrait of John Wesley with his most favorite of books.

“My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible-bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small.”

-John Wesley

In too many UMC conversations, from worship to trustee meetings to bake sales, the Bible is little more than window dressing.  Rather than living under the authority of God’s Word, we use it for our own ends.  We piously reference Scripture, tacking it on to the end of this or that, when in truth neither this nor that have been informed by God or God’s story preserved in Scripture.  At our best, Christians live in, through, and by the narrative of God’s self-gift in Christ.  At our worst, we twist the story to make it serve our own purposes.  The Bible is used to justify war, poverty, wealth, homophobia, abortion, quietism, and every other sin or vice imaginable.  But, as Raneiro Cantalamessa suggests, our efforts to tame the text ultimately stand under the judgment of their Author:

“The Word of God revolts against being reduced to ideology. Ideology is what is left once the current from the Word of God has been cut off, once the word has been unplugged from the transcendent and personal reality of God, so that it is no longer the Word disposing of me and leading me where it chooses but I who am disposing of it and leading it where I choose. God will not tolerate his almighty Word being used to garnish a speech for this occasion or that, nor to cloak with divine authority speeches already composed and entirely human. In recent times we have seen where such tendency can lead. The gospel has been exploited in support of every kind of human project, from class war to the death of God. But this is all old hat…the gospel has been bent this way and that to say whatever happened to be socially fashionable at any given period.”

In United Methodist circles, it can be argued that the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral has contributed to this ‘bending’ of the gospel over the last several decades.  Opinions vary as to whether Outler’s construct was defunct from the beginning or misunderstood and misapplied, but the results are the same: Scripture, despite efforts to re-narrate the Quadrilateral to the contrary, has become just one of four implicitly equal sources from which we can draw on for theological truth.

The result is rather like what we’ve seen in the The Episcopal Church: though our official liturgies and doctrinal standards speak in accord with the Church across time and space about the Triunity of God and the centrality of Christ, it is quite possible that the presiding clergy and any number of congregants may actually be worshiping the Giant Spaghetti Monster.  God becomes whatever and wherever one finds meaning, and the only dogma recognized is that all dogma is stifling and harmful.  This is not how Wesley, the “man of one book,” did it.  His approach was much closer to what Cantalamessa, the official preacher to the Papal household, suggests:

“When dealing with the Church’s doctrinal and disciplinary problems, therefore, we need bravely to start out more often from the Word of God, especially as revealed in the New Testament, and stay bound to it, chained to it, certain that in this way we shall much more surely achieve our purpose, which is, in any question, to discover where the will of God lies.”

For too many, the Quadrilateral has meant (maybe) starting with Scripture and then going to to something a bit more flexible or likable.  Cantalamessa, though, invites us to consider the radical alternative: treating God’s Word as God’s Word.  We have traded true freedom for a bondage to our own fancies.  Only in binding ourselves to Scripture are we truly free to hear, discern, and live out God’s will.

Source: Cantalamessa, Raneiro. The Mystery of God’s Word (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press 1994), 49-50.

Is Sprinkling the Best Way to Baptize?

dropsHere in the Bible Belt, sacramental Christians sometimes feel like the nerdy kid on the playground when it comes to explaining our practices of baptism.  In many Baptist, Pentecostal, and non-denominational congregations, baptism is only done “like John the Baptist did it.” That means getting dunked like an early morning cruller in hot coffee. For many in my part of the world, baptism means one thing: immersion.

United Methodists actually aren’t against immersion (which is a common misconception).  We are people of the via media, after all, and we simply recognize that God’s grace, rather than the amount of water, is the most important agent of baptism.  Our official church teaching on baptism states,

“In United Methodist tradition, the water of baptism may be administered by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. However it is administered, water should be utilized with enough generosity to enhance our appreciation of its symbolic meanings.”

A “generosity” of water is encouraged, not because it makes the baptism more legitimate, but because it suggests symbolically what we proclaim in the liturgy: that God’s grace is abundant, free, and there is plenty to go around.  Thus, even when sprinkling, I will pour a large amount of water into the font, as noisily as possible.  I run my hands through the water for emphasis.  Sacraments rely on the reality of the Incarnation, after all, and best experienced through as many senses as possible.  But the effectiveness of the sacrament does not rely on getting as much of that water onto the newly minted Christian as possible.  In fact, God seems to relish in working powerfully through the small, the inferior, the minute, and the insufficient.  Consider:

  • Hebrew families are spared the death of their firstborn sons in Egypt by the blood of the lamb painted over their doorways.
  • Israel is sustained in the wilderness by manna, a heavenly bread, but they are only allowed to keep enough for each day, not store it in CostCo-sized jars.
  • Jesus feeds thousands with just a loaf of bread and two small fish.
  • Jesus compares both the faith that moves mountains and the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. (They are tiny.)

God, it seems, can do a lot with a little.

Hence the logic of baptism by sprinkling.  Because it is water that has been touched the Spirit which hovered over the waters at creation and over the Jordan at Jesus’ baptism as a dove, the amount is irrelevant.  Just a few drops are enough to make a Christian.  For Hebrew men, all that separated them from the covenant community was a little bit of skin.  For us, it is a little bit of water and some prayers.

We live in a consumer culture that constantly stresses more, and larger, and greater.  Why get the V-6 when the V-8 goes so much faster?  Surely you need the 50″ flatscreen because your 46″ has already become boring and your neighbors have a 56″!  Why settle for a standard cheeseburger when you can get two or three patties?

In such a world, I can think of few better witnesses to Kingdom of God than making a new Christian with just a few drops of water.  By sprinkling, the pilgrim church on earth dares to say that death and resurrection, new birth, and covenant identity in Christ Jesus can all be granted by the smallest of gifts from God’s abundant storehouse of grace.

Just a few droplets leave an indelible mark that cannot be removed.  Luther points out the power of sprinkled grace in his Large Catechism:

“Therefore our Baptism abides forever; and even though some one should fall from it and sin, nevertheless we always have access thereto, that we may again subdue the old man.  But we need not again be sprinkled with water; for though we were put under the water a hundred times, it would nevertheless be only one Baptism, although the operation and signification continue and remain.”

St. Paul told us, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, that “faith, hope, and love abide” but “the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)  One of the chief ways that these three, and chiefly God’s love, abide in us throughout our lives is by the gift of baptism.

All the more amazing, then, that God’s grace can mark, claim, save, and sustain us with only a few sprinkled drops.  In that sense, baptism by sprinkling is not just one of several “good” options.  Might it be that, of all the possible modes, baptism by sprinkling tells the good news (“gospel”) of God’s grace better than any other?