The Ordinary Work of the Spirit and the Way Forward

IMG_4576Holy Spirit Come! That is at the heart of my prayer as General Conference approaches. To understand the meaning of this prayer, my go-to source is John Wesley.  From a big-picture perspective, Wesley’s focus was on the way the Holy Spirit works through ordinary means and basic virtues, rather than extraordinary signs and wonder. The witness of the Holy Spirit is best revealed when we come together in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, all wrapped up in the word “love.”  The Spirit is revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions. In my mind, we could use a lot more of our energy being open to this witness of the Holy Spirit rather than expecting something extraordinary.

In his sermon “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley calls us to the “middle way.”  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or beliefs; he is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, faithfulness calls us to “behave” in the middle.  For Wesley, the “worst kind of enthusiasm” is where we are so convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense and actually create division.  In contrast to this kind of “enthusiasm,” the Holy Spirit leads us to “steer a middle course.” On this way, to draw upon the scriptures, we work to break down dividing walls of hostility and seek unity in the One who not only brings peace but is our peace (Eph 2:14).  This way is defined by an eagerness “to maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). To draw lines in the sand, and promote division is to be “devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 1:19).

After seeing this phrase in Jude, I had to do a little research. Sodom is used as an example. (We have seen this before in this series). As is often the case in the New Testament, the word “pornia” is used as a general term, often translated as “fornication” and here as “immorality.” It can be defined as objectifying others and using them only for our pleasure.  There is no doubt that this is against God’s will for us, but it is far from Jude’s main point (and that is important for our current debate). When Jude outlines “unnatural lust” he focuses on the way we use words to harm others and to get an advantage over others. To do this is to be “devoid of the Spirit.” In contrast, those who are with the Spirit keep themselves in the love of God and focus on sharing the mercy and peace of the Lord.  These virtues work only when we meet in the middle where we can then engage in the greatest challenge we are given, and that is to learn how to love one another.

To build upon Wesley’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, it is possible that God might come and give some extraordinary sign, but we have little reason to think that God will.  The Holy Spirit is already at work in the everyday and universal call to “steer a middle course.”  This cannot happen when we are intent on using scripture as a weapon to belittle faithful interpretations that differ from what we believe is the only right way. It cannot happen when we use good words – orthodox, evangelical, Jesus-loving, traditional, progressive, inclusive, gracious — as code words to create an “us and them.” Rather, God will be glorified in the way we love one another in our difference – with patience and kindness, without arrogance or envy, and never insisting on our own way. What a word! (I Cor 13:4-8).  If we were able to practice this faith, then I guess we could say that it would be extraordinary indeed.  Come Holy Spirit!

Way Forward Bible Study Notes – Session 3

For the next two weeks we are going to address some of the more controversial passages that get used frequently in the midst of this struggle.  Sometimes these passages are called “clobber texts,” because they are used to “clobber” people – to judge them or call them to true righteousness as we see it.  And then, there are those who interpret these passages differently and use them to “clobber” back – and back and forth it goes.  I am absolutely convinced (and convicted) that there is a more faithful and fruitful way to read these passages. These words are not weapons. So, we are going to see if we can read them to help us build up rather than tear down, unite rather than divide, and heal rather than harm – as God intends.

We will start with Romans 1:18-2:1. I’m going to read the whole passage, then make a few comments about how this passage is used and sometimes abused, and then invite you into a conversation.

Commentary: 

This passage is part of a larger discourse, where Paul argues that we are all guilty, none are righteous, “not even one,” he says.  Here is a key verse: “Since we all fall short of the glory of God, we are now justified by his grace, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  (Rom 3:23). And then Paul goes on to reveal this grace.  He makes the case that to grasp God’s life-giving amazing grace, we first must see our need for it. We can’t measure up to God’s love by our own work; we cannot justify or save ourselves.  To try is to only bring God down to ourselves.  If it is up to us to align ourselves to God, then our only option is to bring God down to our level…

In these verses, the clear backdrop is some kind of idolatrous worship practices. Idolatry (or the worship of idols) is defined as the worshiping of the creature or creation rather than the creator.  It is exchanging the truth for lies.  Perhaps one way to explain Idolatry is to note that it starts with “I.” Idolatry is the effort to manipulate spiritual forces to get our own way.  That’s what Paul is talking about here.

Idolatry is an “abomination.”  And that’s an important biblical word here.  An abomination is something that is unnatural – like the abominable snowman.  An abomination is something unnatural and offensive.  And this brings us to the verses that are most often used in the struggle to discern matters of human sexuality.

Our exchanging truth for lies and devotion to God for devotion to the world is as unnatural for us as exchanging what is natural for us when it comes to sexual attraction with what would be unnatural, and yet, because of sin, we do this so easily.

It is an illustration, not the point.  But many make it the point.  They stop here and say, “See, same-sex intimacy, in any form, is a distortion of God’s purpose and design for us.  It is an abomination.  End of story.”  And then, others will say “See. Paul didn’t understand same-sex attraction in the way we do today.  It is not a choice, and Paul is right, none of us should exchange what is natural for us and engage in behaviors that are unnatural for us.  That would be wrong.”  On this side, it is pointed out that the assumption here is that heterosexuals are exchanging what is natural for them for something unnatural, and that the context is probably some kind of pagan ritual to appease the gods.  So, we have two sides focused on these few verses to make a point, or to “clobber” the other side.

Paul’s whole point is that this is not the point. We can’t stop here. Paul gives a long list of “unnatural” acts (abominations) that are against the will of God — envy, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, insolence (or being disrespectful), boastfulness (arrogance where we build ourselves up by putting others down), foolishness, disobedience, and “all manner of wickedness” or “etc” (v.28-31). All of these acts and attitudes point to a disorientation of life and lead us into lies.  The big point is that no one has escaped the reality of sin.  We are all in need of grace.  And so, Paul concludes this section by saying, “Therefore you (earlier he said “they;” now we know that we are included in the “they”) have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing.” (2:1).

For our purposes here, we must conclude that using this passage to judge others is to totally pervert God’s word.  This is an example of exchanging truth for a lie.  This is an example of us creating God in our image and using God to justify our own prejudices and desires.  We are all called into a bigger reality where we can all be transformed by grace.

Holy Conversation

So, now I want to read it again, and then have you discuss around the tables, with these questions to spark your conversation.  Where do we see ourselves in this passage? What are we really not supposed to do?  And how might we turn that into a statement about what we should do as people of faith and as the church? (If you need help re-read Eph 4:1-6, or Romans 12:9-18, or Gal 5:22-23, or Col 3:12-14, for starters).

A Report of Conversations

As a report, there were rich conversations around the tables and then in the larger group.  One of our youth asked about free-will, referencing how God allows all this to happen.  I responded with an affirmation that God does allow us to try out forms of idolatry, but never abandoned us and is able to use even our sinfulness to bring us back into grace.

One table turned to Colossians 3 to help answer the questions.  Here we see back to back lists of what not to do and what to do.  The list of “don’t” is similar to the list in Romans – anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, lying.  We are then invited to “clothe ourselves,” as God’s beloved, with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and above all love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  Note how similar this is to the list we used from Ephesians 4.  Our calling is to behave in holy ways, more than it is to believe certain things about how others should live.

Many have used this passage to define sin for others in an effort to uphold God’s standard and combat immorality in the world.  I would agree that this passage helps us in this effort, but only as we look at the whole and at ourselves as well.  It does not serve the cause of Christ well – to pick out verses to use as weapons in defense or condemnation of an “agenda” or “lifestyle” of others.  Our concern is how to respond faithfully to anyone who comes and says, “I want to live in relationship with Christ, and practice faithfulness and commitment even when sacrifice is required. I want to live in a relationship where I can cultivate the love of Christ. Will the church help me do that?”  That’s our “agenda.” Perhaps if we focused more on promoting this life-giving way of relating to one another, we might get a lot more interest from people who are searching for something more.   I believe that would glorify God.

A Way Forward Bible Study and Holy Conversation – Session 2, Interpreting Scripture

Here are notes from our second session where we focused less on General Conference and more on who we are called to be as a congregation as we look beyond General Conference.

How many of you have had an experience like this, where you wanted to know God’s will for your life, or to be inspired in some way, so you opened the Bible and tried to find something, but ended up more frustrated than inspired?  Or you made a commitment to read through the Bible, but had trouble understanding what you were reading or found yourself stuck in some way? That’s because this book is complex and difficult to understand as a whole without understanding certain rules for interpretation.  This book is a collection of  history, poetry, prophecy, song , letters, laws, arguments over laws, differing opinions, parables, stories, with some passages that are straightforward, and many that are highly symbolic, all taking place in a culture that is ancient and foreign to us…AND, on the other side, it is experienced as the Word of God, as divinely inspired, as transformative and so we find it extremely and even eternally valuable.  It is so worth the effort and the internal struggle that it creates.  And so, we keep coming back.

Before we look at some key scriptures, I want to talk some about methods for interpreting the scriptures.  The big, seminary-level, word for this is hermeneutics (on screen).  This word describes the systems we use to interpret scripture and draw our conclusions. When we do not have some clarity about what we are reading and how to read it, that’s when we get lost or come to decisions that may not be the most faithful and fruitful.  Here are a couple of popular hermeneutical methods.

Proof-Texting.” Have you heard this term?  This is a very common method for interpreting scripture.  Proof-texting is when we search for scriptures to prove an opinion.

The next one is a more positive variation of this method. I call it a focus on Devotional Verses.  This is where we focus on key verses for inspiration and guidance.  Employing this method, we focus on parts not the whole – key verses that speak to us.  This method can be very helpful.  At the same time, some caution is in order. Concerning our topic, a version of this method can be used to say that something is right or wrong.   Someone might say, “The Bible says,” and then quote a verse as if that settles it.  Then, perhaps, they can walk away feeling righteous without noticing how hurt others might be, or without dealing with all the other verses that might lead to a different or transformed perspective.  We might think that we are glorifying God by upholding some ideal, and in reality, cause deep hurt to individuals and to the body of Christ.

To avoid this kind of harm, and to open ourselves up to true inspiration, we need a deeper hermeneutic or method of interpretation.  Here are some key principles of what I call a Wesleyan Hermeneutic:

  1. All Scriptures are Inspired. We proclaim that all scriptures are inspired and contain all that is necessary for growth in salvation. The Bible is our primary source for understanding who we are called to be.
  2. There are Scriptural Keys to Help us to Interpret the Whole. There are key scriptures that help us interpret all other scriptures. We can call these “Master Texts” or Hermeneutical “Keys” that open up meaning within the scripture – and help us make determinations about what might be historically conditioned, or how to discern deeper truths beyond the words, or how to make decisions between different perspectives within the scriptures themselves (and yes, the scriptures are full of different perspectives). It is worth noting that Jesus used this principle when he summarized all of the law and prophets with the Great Commandment – Love God and Love your neighbor as a part of yourself.  Wesley, following Jesus’ lead, called this love the “royal law.”  So, for example, Jesus could fulfill the law, even as he broke the law or rebelled against the way the law had been applied around issues related to the Sabbath, to diet, to healing, to who could or could not be touched, to who to include.  His guiding light was the “royal law of love.” And we could list other passages that serve as keys for us.  Last week we looked, for example, at Ephesians 4:1-6 and I Corinthians 13: 1-8. (See Authority of Scripture, A Wesleyan Hermeneutic, and the Way Forward, for a deeper explanation).
  3. Read with Resources. Resources are needed and helpful — commentaries, language studies, interpretations from the tradition. As Methodists we “believe that the living core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture, illuminated by Tradition, vivified in personal Experience, and confirmed by Reason.”  We call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  To make a connection with our topic, we might use this principle to ponder a distinction between marriage and unions/covenants. Would it be possible to honor and bless unions of anyone who desires to practice faithfulness and grow in the virtues of love, while also honoring the historic meaning of the term marriage?  How might we apply scriptures to honor the diverse perspective within the body of Christ and actually grow in our ability to love one another?  There are so many resources to help us.
  4. Behavior over Beliefs. Beliefs are so important, but the Holy Spirit is more concerned with behavior and using scriptures as a guide for how we treat one another. In the midst of our denominational struggle, I have heard many say that they have not made a decision because they are hoping for the Holy Spirit to show up and guide us into the right policy or plan.  I see this a bit differently.  As a Wesleyan, I am not focused on the Holy Spirit showing up with some extraordinary sign (Wesley talked a lot about this).  I am interested in the ordinary everyday calling to represent God with patience, gentleness, humility, bearing one another in love, and being eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.  I might say that the Holy Spirit enjoys our variety of perspectives and is likely to not give us a uniformed perspective, because the point of it all is how we love one another.  The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  Even in the scriptures we see so much diversity of perspective.  The scriptures do not give us uniform opinions but does give us a common calling.  We need to be the church that focuses on that.  Applying this principle, we could focus on behaviors around issues of human sexuality and give priority to the virtues that we want to promote – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, treating others with honor without objectifying them or using them only for our pleasure, and all the virtues of love. This level of consideration gets lost in the debate because the focus is on the physical dimension of sexual practice.
  5. Here are a couple of other principles, (briefly): “Discernment happens best in Community.” We engage in life together, not to come to agreement but to learn how to live as the body of Christ with all its blessed diversity. And for one more, “Our Calling is to Self-Examination over Judgement of Others.”  Often when we engage the scriptures and truly practice holy conversation with others, we learn a lot more about our own prejudices and need for transformation than we do about what others might need or about how they should live.

At our tables, I want us to have some conversation around these principles using three passages that are not directly connected to the issue but speak to who we are called to be.  I will read them with some commentary and then we will discuss them at tables and as a larger group, asking: Why is this in the Bible? What are some different ways to interpret this passage? How can we apply it today?  What does this passage say about who we are?”

Genesis 11:1-9 – The Tower of Babel

  • This passage is given the context of God calling the people to scatter and fill the earth…
  • They want uniformity and safety, and it leads them to do some stupid things…
  • Note their use of inadequate resources – baked mud and tar, instead of stone and mortar.
  • Note their arrogance, believing that they made it to heaven and how God has to come down to see this tower.

Luke 4: 16-30 – Jesus in his Home Town

  • Highlight dimensions of purpose he is given.
  • The people are pleased, until he mentions God’s work through foreigners. With this they are enraged…

Ephesians 2: 14-22 – Christ is our Peace

  • The word peace or shalom is about coming together and practicing faith together.
  • Here God’s people are called back together, to give witness to God in a new way…

As a report, the conversation of the 80 people in the room was lively and inspiring.  When we came back together, one of our youth acknowledged the diversity of views within the room, even on the issues at hand, and called us to stay united around something bigger. Another highlighted how stupid we can act when there isn’t someone to say, “Hey, maybe there’s another way to do this.”  One pointed out how diversity is healthy in all ecosystems.  One reflected on how hard it is to change – to “scatter,” to appreciate new “languages” — and yet that is what we are called to do.  One reflected on how Jesus walked away and how he might do that with us if we fail to listen or become enraged by his challenge.  In our current political climate, the need to break down walls and build diverse communities of peace did not go unnoticed, although when I picked the scriptures I was narrowly focused on issues within the church and did not make this connection.  Maybe that was the Holy Spirit at work.

Next week we will apply these methods to some of the texts that are used in the debate before us, with emphasis on Romans 1. 

A Way Forward: Bible Study and Holy Conversation – Session 1

Last nway forwardight we started an eight-session gathering at the Well (our Wednesday Night Program) leading up to General Conference.  Here are my notes for session one, which was intended to set the tone and give an update on where we are at this point. The big goal for this process is clarity about who we are as a congregation, regardless of what happens in St. Louis…

I want to invite all of you into a vision.  In a very real sense I want you to envision this place in 100 years.  Picture our spiritual grandchildren (and some biological grandchildren) worshiping here and gathering here to grow in a relationship with a living Lord.  In 100 years from now they may come in flying cars, or beam in, or have mini interactive screens projecting from their eyes –who knows — but they will be here – and I believe will be worshiping in the Wesleyan tradition in some way.

What does that mean? What does it mean to envision a congregation worshiping here in the Wesleyan tradition in one hundred years? Here are a few summary statements:

  • It means that they will err towards grace over judgement.
  • They will be open to people who are different.
  • They will see that our primary task on this earth is to learn how to love more fully and grow in the virtues of patience, kindness, forgiveness, humility, generosity and gracefulness. In Wesleyan language, this is called Holiness.
  • They will hold fast to the core truths of the faith (as outlined in the creeds we say every week) and beyond that they will “think and let think.” (How many of you have heard that?)
  • They will see salvation as more than a decision about the future, but a present reality connecting us to eternity. (This is from Wesley’s first sermon in the standard sermons).

Can you envision this kind of congregation here in the future?  During these next few weeks, I want to invite you into this vision. And I will be bold to say that this is a calling from God.  I do want you to trust me on that, but not totally take my word for it. I don’t have the whole answer. We’ve got to figure that out together.  And, to do so, we must stay connected to God’s inspiration and guidance, in two essential ways – through the Holy Spirit and through the Scriptures. We need to plant this vision into the scriptures, prayer, and tradition of the church and see if this vision can grow from there.

With that hope, I’ll start with a passage that we will use to frame this whole conversation.  (On screen) The Apostle Paul says, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…” (Eph 4:1-6).  We will look at this text, and several others, as we journey together these next few weeks.  Tonight, I want to focus briefly on a couple of words. The first one is “beg.”  The Apostle Paul is doing more than “inviting” us into a vision.  Inviting is a bit soft. Paul is begging, urging, pleading with us to live into the calling of God upon our lives. And here is an important thing to note.  This calling is not rooted in doctrine or policies – these are important as resources and guides – but are not at the core of this calling– this is not about defending doctrine — at the core of our calling is to a particular way of behaving; it is about how we treat one another.  Paul begs us to give a particular kind of witness to the world in how we love one another.

There is one other word that I want to highlight tonight — Unity (as a preview).  The normative function of the Spirit is to lead us into unity – with synonym like reconciliation, community, and harmony. I suppose the Spirit could lead to division and divorce in some circumstances, but that would be very rare.  I don’t think we are that special – that we are above or beyond the calling to engage in the hard work of loving one another. Therefore, we can presume that the work of the Holy Spirit in all of this is to lead us into unity.  (We will see this through many passages).

And so, if we can start with this premise, then we need to understand what this unity is and is not.  Here are a few summary statements that will guide us:

  • Biblical unity is not defined by uniformity. These are not the same thing. In fact, a great case can be made that biblical unity is actually found in the opposite of uniformity.
  • Unity is found in the body of Christ with many and diverse parts, gifts, perspectives.
  • Unity is found in a community where virtues like patience, kindness, and humility are required. These virtues are not needed in a community where everyone is the same.
  • Unity is found in love that “never insists on its own way.” That is our challenge.

We are called to give witness to this kind of unity or community.   That has always been a part of who we are as United Methodist Christians.

With that I want to get to our purpose tonight and that is to give an overview and update on the Way Forward at the denominational level.  (Go to onechurchplan.org and show the Countdown to General Conference in February and talk a little about this) At this special called session of General Conference there will be 3 proposals that have come from the Bishops and the Way Forward Commission. The charge of this commission and to the bishops was to work towards unity and help us find a way forward together.  (We have given this background before and it is available). Tonight, I want to focus on an updated versions of the plans — and my impressions.

I will start with the plan that has gotten the least attention until this week when our Bishop came out with his call for us to give this plan a new look…

 The Connectional Conference Plan. 

(for details see the Bishop’s Reflections at arumc.org or the ARUMC Facebook page)

In brief, this plan does call us to unity in a higher way than our opinions on the issues at hand, while at the same time protects convictions around these issues.  Through a series of complicated legislative moves, this plan would create one church with three branches – progressive, traditional and unity, all around one issue — and conferences, congregations, and clergy could vote to align themselves with a particular branch. This plan would require the passing of multiple constitutional amendments (elaborate a bit).  For a few impressions that might fit with other plans as well, I personally don’t like the labels.  Such labels can imprison us and lock us out of our own growth.  I don’t want to be a part of a church where everyone is expected to think the same way.  That takes away possibilities for transformation, which comes, most often in my experience, when we are free to question and seek and be challenged by others.  Withdrawing into like-minded camps may be comfortable but it is not healthy for the Body of Christ. Then I ask, “what about the next issue?” Are we going to create more branches?   And finally, I must ask why this proposal is getting renewed attention at this point.  Many are speculating that three options make it harder for anything to pass.

The Traditional Plan

This plan is built around the firm conviction that the church cannot allow or bless any covenant relationship where sex might be involved that is not between a biological male and female.  In addition, no one can serve in ordained leadership who have relationships outside of this same arrangement. Within this plan, a person’s sexuality takes precedence over calling, gifts, faithfulness, character, and fruitfulness.  This plan not only keeps all restrictive language around homosexuality within the Book of Discipline, but it also strengthens ways to enforce all prohibitions that are currently there.  In its original form, this plan sets up a structure for the bishops to enforce these restrictions.  The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church (a body like the Supreme Court) ruled that many parts of this plan were unconstitutional, including a section that said that bishops were never intended to be an “inquisitional court.”  With this ruling, the plan was modified to ask General Conference to form a separate body which would serve this function of policing and enforcing around this one issue.  This plan would possibility lead to an increase in church trials and hard decisions.  One way that this plan mitigates this possibility is by offering, what is called, a “gracious exit” for all who do not want to live by this strict standard and who believe that there are other ways to faithfully interpret scripture and live together as the Body of Christ.

The One Church Plan 

(See onechurchplan.org and my blog, connectedinchrist.net. I have written a lot on this and thus makes it hard to summary)

This plan removes language that calls the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teachings.  It does not, however, add any language that says it is compatible. In many places, it adds language to protect convictions and religious freedoms of all in various contexts and cultures.  No conference, congregation, or clergy would ever be compelled to act contrary to their convictions.  This plan defaults to a traditional understanding of marriage, while offering congregations the opportunity to change their wedding policies to allow for same-sex unions or marriage. This is the only time a vote would be needed within this plan.  In addition, a pastor could not perform (or offer the vows) for such a union at the church without this direct consent by the congregation.  (Even now, pastors can participate in such ceremonies short of leading the vows).  This plan would also allow boards of ordained ministry to develop their own evaluation systems for who they would ordain around issues of sexuality.  With that said, it is also important to note that this plan clearly upholds biblical values of monogamy, faithfulness, and relationships where people can truly grow in the love of God. The plan even strengthens a commitment to these values.  These values would be the primary criteria for evaluating candidates for ministry, while still allowing conferences to include the same restrictions that are currently in place if that was the will of the body.  This plan provides “a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context without disbanding the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church.”  To explain this, I did write one piece where I called this the “Very Traditional One Church Plan.”

Another Option is that nothing passes.  This is a real possibility.  It is one of the reasons that I want to spend the next few weeks, not talking directly about General Conference and what might happen, but about who we are as a congregation regardless of what happens.  What do we represent?  How are we to live as a witness to the love of God?  How will we love one another and give witness to true unity in the midst of whatever happens or doesn’t happen?

Table Discussion:

We had around 70 in the room, gathering around tables.  We invited them to reflect together on this initial question: “what questions do you bring to this conversation, to become a part of our conversation the next few weeks?” Here are the questions reported back from the tables:

  • Are same-sex couples welcomed to be full participating members of our church? Depending on which plan is passed, would they feel welcomed? What can we do to encourage them to remain a part of the church?
  • What can pastors do, or not do, now? What freedom do you have now to marry or not marry couples?
  • What are the values we want to promote in covenant relationships and marriages? Monogamy, faithfulness, etc., or focus primarily on sexuality?  Are there different values for different people?
  • What happens to gay clergy who are in the closet? What about those who come out or already have in the hope of change?
  • Would the Conference be able to ordain a gay pastor?
  • If and when a vote happens at the church, with the youth get to participate in the vote?
  • How will we support one another post decision? If a majority likes the decision, how do we support the minority?  How do we stay Conway FUMC once a decision for one side or the other is made?
  • What are the financial implications? If we lose people, we lose money as well?
  • How do we draw more people into this conversation so that people aren’t just waiting for a decision to be made and then decision whether to stay or go?
  • How do any of these plans bring about unity? Why is unity important?
  • How can I “defend” my opinion, with good theological and biblical grounding, with family members who have a very different perspective?
  • What glorifies God? To hold true to traditional views?  To support marriages?  To turn people away who want to live in committed relationship that honor God and helps them to grow in God’s love? Does that glorify God?
  • What if nothing changes? Or what if we come together around a witness and nothing changes at General Conference?

Our Unified Witness and the Way Forward

IMG_4577Another popular argument against the One Church Plan involves the fact that different churches would have different policies on gay marriages or unions.  A pastor might have to say to a visitor that some churches have voted to change the default policy of the church (which according to the plan is the traditional view). The concern is that we would not have a unified witness as a denomination.

This argument would carry more weight for me if we were uniform in other ways.  I could go to the five United Methodist Churches in our city and would probably experience communion is five different ways. The liturgy and style of worship would be different.  Some would say a creed, for example, and in others some may have never heard a creed. Different versions of the bible would be read.  The Sunday School curriculum would be different – some of it not United Methodist.  And, there would be wide theological and political differences on many issues.

This does beg the question, “so how are we united?”  This is a question worthy of our coming to the table together.  At this table I suspect we would find much common ground in key doctrines. We could point, for example, to Wesley’s first sermon in the standard sermons where he outlines salvation by grace through faith.  Here we learn that salvation for us is more than a decision and more than a future reality for us; it is a present reality and involves our growing into all that God has created us to be. At this table, we would find unity in the word love, which is the concept Wesley used to point to a higher unity than any theological opinion.  We would find unity in our calling to “steer a middle course,” to use Wesley’s language, and to grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, and never in terms of judgement and self-righteousness. I do believe that we would be able to affirm a theological spirit that binds us together.  We would find our unity under the “canopy of cosmic grace” (to build upon a phrase from both John and Charles Wesley).

Perhaps this conversation with a hypothetical visitor would lead to an opportunity to share Wesley’s timely work, “The Character of a Methodist.”  Here Wesley repeats a theological position that he shares consistently, where he affirms core affirmations of faith such as our belief that Christ is the eternal love of God incarnate in the world, but beyond these core affirmations (“as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity”) “we think and let think.”  To paraphrase, “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not found in any theological opinion or style of worship or system of religion. All of this is ‘quite wide of the point.’”  Our unity is found in the love of God that fills our hearts (Romans 5:5) and in our desire to share this love with one another.

With this “character,” we accept people wherever they are on their faith-journey and believe that a variety of perspectives helps all of us to grow. We come together, not to agree on everything, but to learn how to forgive, bless, and honor one another.  In this way we practice for our place as citizens of God’s expansive kingdom which is always bigger than our finite perspectives.  While we proclaim the core doctrines of the Christian faith as given to us through the scriptures and historic creeds, we are also willing to ask questions of interpretation, to struggle with difficult issues, and to engage one another with respect and compassion.  It is the kind of “character” and “unity” that this world needs.

In sum, our unity is beyond uniformity.  It is a harmonious unity.  As Paul exhorts, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:14). By having churches with different programs, personalities, and perspectives we only expand our witness and extend God’s love to a world in need.  This kind of diversity can be seen as a great blessing.

A Way Forward through Psalm 85:10

IMG_4577To build upon a Jewish Midrash (an art form that Jesus regularly used through parables) there is a story that tries to make sense of the verse saying, “Mercy and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:10). In the story, the angels of heaven are debating about whether or not humans should ever have been created. This debate quickly broke into two general camps.  Those on the side of righteousness, justice, and faithfulness to the law argued that humans should never have been created because all they do is pervert God’s law, engaged in self-justification, and turn God’s truth into lies.  In contrast, those on the side of mercy and peace said, “But they are so beautiful. They sing lullabies to their children; they care for one another with such compassion. We are glad they were created because we want to see how the stories they tell are going to end.”  Both sides were adamant, so God got involved. God tells them that one of the reasons for the creation of humans was to bring them together.  Since both sides truly loved God and wanted to do God’s will, they met in the middle, embraced, and kissed.

Maybe that’s a parable for us today.   God’s desire is for righteousness and peace to kiss, and mercy and faithfulness to embrace, but nobody – especially God – discounts the tension that comes with this uniting.  Israel was born in this struggle.  The name Israel means to wrestle and struggle and this carries over to the church as well.  It is only in the struggle, and in the commitment to work together, that we are able to find a faithful way forward.  These two sides, joined together, provide the energy needed to light the way.  And if this is true then withdrawing into like-minded camps only produces spiritual darkness.

In our church today, leaders from multiple perspectives are looking for a solution.  The options are not really new.  One option is schism – to leave and form a new denomination.  In my opinion, this option will not make the issues go away but will only multiply the pain. This is not a viable option in the 21st century.  Another option from the past is to “play nice” at church, to stay together but keep our interactions (and maybe our faith) at a nominal and surface level.  There is evidence of this old option going back to Constantine.  Another option, perhaps, is found in this verse.  In the midst of our struggle, could God be calling us to meet in the middle and embraced, to work together to forge a higher sense of unity, to cultivate a community where we can truly learn how to love one another and practice the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility (virtues not really needed in likeminded camps),  where righteousness and peace kiss one another, or in Wesleyan language where grace and holiness meet, where we honor knowledge and vital piety, head and heart, evangelism and social justice, traditional and progressive perspectives…where unity is not rooted in uniformity of opinions but in the call to love in the midst of diversity of opinions, in discerning core doctrines together rather than dividing over things that do not “strike at the root of Christianity.”  Who is up for this kind of embrace, this wholeness?  What if this were our witness to the world?

 

The Foundation of Methodism (A timely paraphrase of Wesley’s sermon “On Laying the Foundation”

IMG_1851 (2)_LIHere is a paraphrase of the sermon John Wesley preached as the foundation was laid for a new chapel in London in 1778. It gives a powerful and timely summary of what methodism is all about. I visited Wesley Chapel in London last week and was moved, once again, by John Wesley’s consistent call to a higher unity within the church. Often the church has fallen short of this calling, but Wesley never gave up on the vision.  What might we learn from this commitment?

Number 23:23 –  “See what God has done!”

At the risk of appearing ostentatious or being called an enthusiast who confuses the Holy Spirit with their own ego, I want to give an account of the rise of Methodism from my personal perspective.

I start 1725, when a young student at Oxford was very much affected by Kempis’s “Christian Pattern,” and Bishop Taylor’s “Rules of Holy Living and Dying.” He was inspired to live by these rules and let them guide him. In time, others joined in this desire. Together we read scripture, prayed, and provoked one another to engage in good works. On this journey, we were orthodox in every way, firmly committed to the creeds and to the doctrines of the Church, as contained in the Articles and Homilies. The regularity of our gatherings led others to call us names. “Methodist” was at the top of the list.  It was an allusion to physicians who once flourished in Rome and, for us, was used as a term of derision and ridicule. In time, we embraced the term. But in the moment, we have no conception that this would become a movement.

The next key turn came in 1735 when my brother Charles, Mr. Ingham, and I were led to travel to the new colony of Georgia. Our purpose was to preach to the natives, but we found ourselves primarily attending to the spiritual needs of colonists in Savannah and modeling methodism for them.  While there, I was totally committed to the Church and to orthodoxy.  I even turned away a Lutheran pastor because he was not “episcopally ordained” and called on him to be “re-baptized” into the true church. Thankfully I have been delivered from this misguided zeal, where people are turned away from God so that we can feel good about our own faithfulness.

I returned to England in 1738, content to study in Oxford and bury myself in “beloved obscurity.”  But then God awakened my soul.  Along with others, I began to preach what some called an “unfashionable doctrine.” And yet, people came! Many were “cut to the heart.” Some came to me in tears inquiring what was needed to be saved.  I asked them to meet with me, and, without plan or design, the Methodist society was born. These societies, as renewal groups within the church, became places where people could help one another “work out their own salvation.”

That’s how Methodism began. But what is this movement about? What is methodism? We need to be continually reminded. Methodism is not a new religion. In fact, at its heart, it is nothing other than the religion of the primitive church, the religion of the Bible, and, I am confident, the religion of the Church of England.  It is the true religion rooted in love – the love that first comes to us from God, and so fills our hearts that we are then empowered to love others.

This love is the great medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world.  Wherever this love reigns, virtue and true happiness come; there is humility, gentleness, patience, peace beyond human understanding, and joy unspeakable. This is the religion of the Bible, as no one can deny who reads it with any attention.  Jesus declares this love to be the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets. It is at the heart of all we call “true religion.”

And yes, this love is at the heart of our Church. It is found in the liturgies and homilies. It is found in our prayers, so beautifully summed up in that one comprehensive petition that is said so often: “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, O God, and worthily magnify your holy name.” As long as we hold to this love we can faithfully address all extraneous issues and varying perspectives within the larger church. Our diversity of perspectives keeps us humble and trusting in the real presence of the Holy Spirit to sort it all out. This sorting is not our work, but God’s work. In God’s love there is room for all, and together, and only together, are we able to practice the virtues of true holiness and grow in the grace of true religion.

In our beloved Church, many have been called, in this time, to preach repentance to sinners. Thousands have come to hear this word.   Many have been deeply convinced of their sins, their evil tempers, their inability to help themselves, and of the ineffectiveness of their outward religious practices. The love of God has filled their hearts and they have been led to love others with this same holy love.  God has called us to give witness to this work. May nothing else distract us.

This love that we preach must be free from enthusiasm – that zeal for our own opinions about things beyond the core of faith. Often in renewal movements, this misguided zeal finds its way into the body.  May this not happen among us. We do not put our stress on anything, as necessary for salvation, other than what is plainly contained in the word of God.  And of all things contained within the scriptures, we assess them in relationship to what Jesus calls the sum of it all – love of God and of our neighbor as a part of ourselves. (This is the chief among the “master-texts” by which we evaluate all revelatory claims, even those in scripture).

Likewise, this love must be free of bigotry. We refrain from all party zeal where our own opinions and allegiances to particular branches within the church cloud the call to unity and to bearing one another in love. We contend for nothing circumstantial as if it were essential to a relationship with God.  We do not seek to build “our” church by relying on violence and division.  We rely on no method other than reason and persuasion, while giving witness to the virtues of holiness – patience, kindness, and humility – and believing that the Holy Spirit really is at work.

No doubt, there have been other revivals that have led to division and polarization in the church. We have seen this among the Presbyterians, the Independents, the Anabaptists, and the Quakers. And after this separation they did little good except to their own little body. Bigotry grew between parties. And as a result of this lack of a higher sense of unity, the hope of general reform suffered.

And yes, there have been Methodist (so-called) who have gone this way as well, with Whitefield and Ingham among them. But, I want to be clear, this move toward division is a move away from the vision of methodism. When true to our calling, we will never form a separate sect but, in principle, always stay connected together within the Church.  When societies leave the church, our observation is that they swiftly crumble into nothing, having been uprooted from the good soil and nourishment of the larger community and from being a part of something bigger than themselves and their opinions about what is right. When we are planted in this rich soil of the larger faith, we are then able to bear good fruit – fruit that will last.

Therefore, whoever you are, I invite you to examine your own heart before God, rather than to occupy your time in judging others. Are you rooted in the love of God? Does your heart glow with gratitude to the God who loves you and gave his Son so that you “might not perish but have eternal life?” Are you bearing the fruit of this love? If so, then let us come together and magnify the Lord by establishing peace and good-will among us.   IF YOUR HEART IS AS MY HEART, GIVE ME YOUR HAND. Let us unite together in our desire for the restoration of the image of God in every soul.  Let us all give ourselves, not to contention, but to love and to good works; always remembering those deep words, (as God engraves them on our hearts!) “God is love; and those who dwell in love, dwell in God, and God in them.”  Amen.

Michael Roberts