A Big Week for United Methodists

Some days, it is just good to be Methodist. This Friday will be one of those days.

In my (admittedly narrow) world, this is a big week. About 1,700 pastors and assorted others will gather in Chicago this Friday for the inaugural gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. This group has been in formation for about a year. Other groups preceded it but failed to gain momentum. The WCA seems to be the right response at the right time and it has gathered steam quickly since the announcement of its existence in mid-summer.

What most excites me about the WCA is that the leadership seems genuinely to be what it is — a diverse group of people transparently seeking a strong Spirit-infused movement within the Methodist tradition. I am part of that movement but I come to this rather late in the game. Many in the room have been working toward UMC renewal for years. I was mostly looking for a door out until General Conference this year convinced me I should be doing otherwise.

I like that our process has been thoughtful, prayerful and theological. We have not allowed ourselves to be “blown about by winds of doctrine,” nor have we succumbed to rash emotion. Our tenor in conversation has been gracious but firm; our by-laws are the product of much deliberation among pastors, theologians and elders in the UMC. Our singular purpose is the emergence of a more vibrant, warm-hearted, global, biblically-rooted Methodism that honors God and the traditions of the centuries.

Mostly, we want to see our denomination go someplace spiritually because if it doesn’t, what would make us any different than any other non-profit? I hear echoes of Moses’ question to the Lord in Exodus 33: “Is it not in your going with us … that we are distinct from all the other people on earth?”

Indeed, unless God is with us, none of this will matter. If he is, then what happens on Friday may well be history-making. Some have wanted a more solid prediction of just how all this will unfold as we go forward. The answer with the most integrity is: we don’t know. It would be unwise to prescribe a future with so many variables in play. This group hasn’t even met yet; we sure don’t want to get ahead of God by making predictions prematurely. Think of this as a more organic, less political process.

And of course, no one can predict what will happen with the Commission on a Way Forward but waiting for that group to convene is the right thing to do. We are grateful to hear that the appointments are being made to that group and a plan is in motion for them to begin deliberating. Praise God for progress. While we wait, the WCA will provide a voice and a place to land for faithful United Methodists. Friday’s gathering will be the beginning, and those who attend will help to shape its future.

What we know now is this: this is not a gathering of politicians, warriors or angry protestors.  This is a groundswell of genuine concern for the direction our church is taking. It is a strong but grace-filled response to the call of General Conference to think together about our best way forward. All of us who call ourselves Methodist should be praying this week that Friday’s gathering honors the very best in the Church of Jesus Christ.

I’m proud of those who are making this step together. It represents strength and leadership. In fact, I would say this gathering represents the best face of  Wesleyan orthodoxy. This Wesleyan Covenant is the kind of religion James talked about — faith married to action. It is a passion for serving others without letting the world get the best of us. It is about doing ministry and doing it better and doing it in ways that highlight our brand of theology, because that’s what we have to offer the Body of Christ.

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The Very Grown-up Work of Incarnation

Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is our head, into Christ. – Ephesians 4:15

Becky Stephen, Senior Director of Field Ministry at The Mission Society, tells a remarkable story of what it means to live as a mature follower of Jesus.

Julie and Mark, with whom Becky partners in ministry, are missionaries to India. Julie is an amazing woman. She is a gifted teacher and leader. Mark was a math teacher in the U.S. But then God called Julie and Mark to leave their work here to go live in north India to reach Muslims there. By all accounts, they were clearly called. God provided. He settled them in the perfect neighborhood and gave them strategies for becoming part of the Muslim community in that city. On the surface, everything seemed great.

It is great … for Mark, who daily takes his motorcycle down the Muslim alleyways, where he’s greeted by everyone, invited into shops for tea, who has now built enough trust with this community that the religious leaders are calling him to religious events and into spiritual conversations.

But it is a different story for Julie. She has also been called to live like Christ in that community, but for her that means wearing the headdress of a Muslim woman. She is mostly confined to her home. She has no status as a teacher or leader. In fact, in that society, she is not valued at all.

As she tells Julie’s story, Becky says, “Unless you’ve experienced it, it may be difficult to comprehend the deep identity crisis this evokes or the painful surrender this requires. It’s a struggle to daily accept the humiliation of the incarnation in this cultural context. But God continues to do His work in and through Julie in the invisible world that Indian women live in. And it’s in this humble, hidden place that Julie is experiencing Jesus as she gathers small groups of women together to study the Bible.”

These are women who get what it feels like to be invisible in a way I couldn’t even begin to fathom. Julie invites these women into her home and she shares her story and how Jesus has healed her and is healing her and her story is bringing healing to other women.

And her story stops me in my tracks. Because her life is not about building big things that draw big crowds. Her life isn’t even about doing things that make sense. The only way she can do this is because she knows who she is and whose she is.

This is very grown-up work, this work of being the incarnation. It isn’t for children. It isn’t work for people who’d rather focus on the gaps and use them as an excuse to avoid the work of sanctification.

Julie’s story inspires me. She has taken the frustration that breeds in that gap between who we are and who we want to be, and she has turned it into a holy frustration and a broken heart for those who don’t yet know. Rather than focusing on her own inconveniences, she has turned her frustration into a broken heart for the women of India who are not safe, known, heard.

This is what is means to be sanctified.

This is what it means to grow up in every way into Him.

This is how truth becomes love.

This is incarnation.

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