Monday, May 7, 2012

Dancing with General Conference

Is there anyone who is satisfied with General Conference?

I spent much of those 10 days watching, either in person or by live streaming, and I feel as if I was witnessing the rise of a disappointing new dance: The Backslide. Akin to the Moonwalk, it seems to slide endlessly backward, all the while going nowhere.

Those who know Wesleyan theology recognize backsliding as the condition of sin in which believers forget to rely on grace (and the Means of Grace), failing to listen for and respond to the gentle leading of the Spirit, moving not toward perfection in love, but away from that desired state.

In a real sense, we could not agree on anything: restructuring, sexuality, how to be a global church. We couldn't even agree to disagree, which is thoroughly Wesleyan (yes, I know, unless its an "essential"). Like the U.S. society -- and perhaps the global village -- we are polarized. Or that's how it appears.

Most everyone comes to General Conference with an agenda -- both literally and figuratively. Delegates and interested or invested bystanders have studied the legislation in depth and are ready to decide, to move their position forward. Many delegates arrive exhausted, amid the whirlwind of busyness, consumed by the details of this great event. Many come tied to their iPhones, Blackberries, iPads, laptops, constantly checking in with their lives beyond the convention center walls or letting the rest of the world know their every thought, sometimes unfiltered by common sense or civility (UM Communications: Please, I beg you, no more Twitter streams next to the live streaming.). Many come with plans for petitions, protest, or principled pronouncements. We've got to get this thing right! The church is dying! The church is dying!

Theologically, of course, the institution may be in its death throes, but the church which is the Body of Christ  will continue to participate in God's mission in the world, with or without The United Methodist Church. Indeed, it's possible that the church as a spiritual reality has already left the building. I don't really think so, but my point is that we spend far too much time worrying about the institutional church and its demise. And, of course, we debate who is the right person or group with the right program to provide CPR (Church Preliminary Resuscitation).

Yet, those of us who study the writings and practices of John Wesley can't help but be reminded of those prophetic words near the end of his life: "I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out." ("Thoughts Upon Methodism," 1786) Have we, The United Methodist Church, officially become Wesley's Church of England? Or is it the UMC in the United States that is fulfilling Wesley's prophetic concern? Worrying endlessly about the form of our religion, while neglecting the power of Grace? Have we, indeed, let loose of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of our tradition? (And I don't mean the Wesleyan tradition as projected by one side or the other in this debate or that one, but the whole lot in all its messiness; both personal and social holiness, social holiness and personal holiness. Nor do I suggest that somehow we can go backward and reclaim the original movement. We can't.)

Yet, I suspect, there are many United Methodists who, like me, find themselves among the muddled middle.  Don't get me wrong, I can be as polarizing as the next person. Anyone who knows me, knows that I can be opinionated and often passionately obstinate. I confess my failure, in this regard. I seek to do better, by the leading of Grace. Even so, as I watched General Conference (thankfully not a delegate), I was keenly aware of both sides of most positions. I could see the value in both sides (and often the theological basis for both sides). What I couldn't see very often was the willingness of the "poles" -- or those who argued most vehemently for a position -- to listen and, perhaps, even change their minds. Or at the very least, nuance their position.

Our lay leader here in Oklahoma (who served on the Connectional Table), Judy Benson, when asked by the United Methodist News Service about the Call to Action and restructuring said this: “My opinion is the problem is not with the size of the general boards. The problem is we haven’t been able to figure out a way to work together towards the common goal of making disciples."  Our church, as it currently exists, seems unwilling to compromise, to listen, to track the Spirit's movement. We are in a rowboat on a turbulent sea, and find ourselves unwilling to row together toward a distant horizon. So we go in circles. Or drift backwards. Hopefully, Jesus is in prayer on the shore and will soon come walking toward us on these same waters.

I don't have the answer to what ails us as a church. I'm not sure anyone does. But this semester, I have been teaching a course in John Wesley's theology, specifically focused on sanctification and holy living. In the early annual conferences of the Methodist movement (well before any such gargantuan as General Conference emerged), they began the conference "after some time spent in prayer." (See the Minutes of the First Annual Conference) We do have worship at General Conference, sometimes very meaningful worship. I wonder what might happen, though, if we spent the first 24 hours gathered in prayer, silent prayer especially, and listening for God? No politicking or maneuvering allowed! Can we expect holy conferencing to be holy if we haven't quieted ourselves to listen for God?

But mostly I am concerned about how we learn to be a global church which respects vastly different cultural viewpoints. (Did anyone else notice that it was halfway through General Conference before the voting screen added other languages to "1- yes" and "2- no"?) Can we be one body? I think this may be the most urgent question we face, at least those of us in the Muddled Middle.

In the end, I believe the Spirit is still dancing and inviting us to join in, following some new steps that don't fit anyone's expectations. Especially mine.

What do you think? I'd love to hear from you, either on this blog or by email at  I'd especially like to hear from others in the middle. If you join in this conversation, I'll try to recollect some of the best thoughts from far and wide in my next post.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Why Wesley?

Sometime ago, I was leading a district clergy workshop on theology and preaching. At one point I mentioned that we should keep our United Methodist doctrines and Wesleyan theology in mind when we step into the pulpit. One pastor challenged me, "Why Wesley?"

Why, indeed, should we care about John Wesley's teachings in 2010? After all, our world differs dramatically from the one in which Wesley lived and preached. Wesley knew little of the industrial revolution and nothing of the technological, digital revolution so central to our lives today. Capitalism was on the rise, but Wesley never experienced the middle class and consumerism as we know them. And, though Wesley lived at the onset of the Enlightenment, he could never have predicted the ways in which reason, science, and factual proof would come to dominate our lives. There can be little doubt that our world today differs dramatically from Wesley's.

So, then, why Wesley? First, we have to keep in mind that we have chosen to be part of the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. Those who are ordained stand before their annual conference as the resident bishop asks them the historic Wesley questions. The Bishop inquires of those to be ordained Elders, "Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church? After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? Will you preach and maintain them?" (2008 BOD Para. 336) Inevitably, the answer is yes. [I can't help but note that candidates for Full Connection as Deacons are not asked the third question, thereby suggesting they might not have to preach and maintain them (2008 BOD Para. 330 (5) d).]

I haven't polled the church's bishops, but I suspect that for many of them those questions are more than a ritual. They are a source of our identity, communal values, and our life together as an expression of the Body of Christ in the world. They help us understand who we are as United Methodists.

But I'm also the first to acknowledge that in our context, where the vestiges of the modern "self" -- with its emphasis on the individual and individual choice -- continue to have a firm grip upon us, the answer "because the rules say so," isn't a very compelling one.

A more compelling response to "Why Wesley?" (and one that applies to clergy and laity alike) is scripturally based: "You will know them by their fruits" (Matt 7:16). In other words, Wesley's Methodist way of living out the gospel caught fire in the British Isles, spread across the Atlantic, and then around the globe. People are still drawn to the Methodist way. Even if we are declining in the West, Methodism continues to change lives in the Southern hemisphere. There was and is something about Wesley's way of interpreting and expressing the gospel message and the Christian life that rings true to people. Today, we can still count some 8 million United Methodists in the U.S. and 11.5 million around the globe. If we added in the other denominations with roots in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, these numbers would be even larger.

There is something about the Wesleyan way of living the gospel that really makes sense of our lives and our lives in Christ. So I would suggest that, perhaps, it’s not a matter of the Methodist way being out of touch with today’s world; rather, it’s that we have forgotten the Methodist way of being disciples or haven’t given it enough attention and we need to reclaim those roots.

This blog is dedicated to exploring the Wesleyan/Methodist way of living the gospel. I hope you'll join me on this journey "In Wesley's Footsteps."

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Almost Almost Christian

John Wesley's 1741 Sermon, "The Almost Christian," offers some food for thought to anyone who is interested in renewing the church. Wesley, of course, never intended to start a new denomination; he only wanted to revitalize the Church of England which seemed to have the form of godliness without its power. We might say, the Church of England was going through the motions, but not really transforming lives with the Gospel. In some ways, today's United Methodist Church may more closely resemble Wesley's Church of England than it does his Methodist movement. That's a topic for another day.

Wesley's sermon, preached at Oxford in July 1741, sets out to describe the difference between an "Almost" and "Altogether" Christian. There are three basic characteristics of the Almost Christian: Doing good, avoiding evil, and using the means of grace. Yes, these three things would soon become the General Rules of the societies. But in this earlier version, Wesley suggests the Almost Christian doesn't gossip, doesn't lie, doesn't eat or drink in excess. The Almost Christian tries to live a moral life, doing good at every opportunity. The Almost Christian attends worship, reads scripture, prays, partakes of Holy Communion. And Wesley argues that the Almost Christian is even sincere. He or she "has a real design to serve God, a hearty desire to do his will."

But the Almost Christian lacks love, the love of God and the love of neighbor (what Wesley would also call "personal and social holiness"). And one more thing is missing in the Almost Christian: Faith, by which Wesley means not only a head faith that believes, but a heart faith that trusts in God.

The question this sermon raises today is: How many people in our churches are even Almost Christians, let alone Altogether ones? How many people in the pews regularly use the means of grace (or, for that matter, even know what they are)? How many really try to do good and avoid evil? How many are sincere in the desire to serve God? If Wesley were preaching the sermon today, he might be compelled to add another category: the Almost Almost Christian or the Hardly Barely Not Quite a Christian.

It seems to me that if we can encourage people to move, by grace!, from the Almost Almost Christian to the Almost Christian, we can help to point them toward the love and faith that will lead them to the fullness of life in God.