Thoughts on the way to Annual Conference

I practice ministry as a theologically conservative and socially engaged Methodist. I preach that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the universe — the way, the truth and the life, the exclusive path to God our Father. I believe these are the headwaters of orthodoxy and that unless we Methodists agree on that bedrock truth, subsequent conversations about the nature of salvation or holiness — or denominational unity, for that matter — are pointless. To proclaim the Kingdom is to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Wesleyan theology gave me a framework for loving God and others that is life-giving. Being settled in that theology has allowed me to practice this faith joyfully among the people God has sent into my spiritual care. Denominationally, however, holding a socially engaged, theologically conservative line inside the UMC has been a strain. Even if I am committed to grace-infused, love-filled ministry alongside the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, my position still seems intolerant or unkind to some. To maintain these doctrines in the face of others’ suffering draws up arguments about what love is and what justice means. I sense the tension. No genuinely loving person could avoid it. But I have settled in my own heart how loving God and loving others fits together in a theologically orthodox construct.

I remember talking years ago to someone who was once married to a rather grating celebrity, a person who created a lot of controversy. Over the years she’d heard all the disparaging comments and had become used to the kind of response I gave when she told me who she’d once been married to. I flinched. She’d obviously seen that flinch before because she was ready for it. She said, “I am not asking you to understand why I married him … but he was my husband, and I loved him.”

I was humbled by that. You don’t know another person’s story. You never know why people dedicate themselves as they do to their positions, long past what others would tolerate. In the case of conflicts within the UMC, we don’t know all there is to know about how any of us comes at social issues and Wesleyan theology. While we are called to listen and respect one another, we are not required to be without our own deeply held convictions.

This much I know: I (like all my United Methodist colleagues) have publicly and formally committed to preach and maintain a specific set of stated doctrines. Methodism is not an institutional brand, like McDonald’s (no offense to McDonald’s, which actually does a much better job of providing a consistent product). We are not defined by a logo or tagline. We are defined by our theological task. In other words, I don’t get to decide what it means to be Methodist. That has already been decided, and my part as an ordained clergy person is to embrace and live it out. Some have decided that for them, this isn’t possible any more; yet, they remain in our covenantal tribe. This is the rub.

Early on in this denominational debate, it was considered treasonous to express a hope for creative separation along theological lines. Some of us have privately expressed that hope for years. We believe that given our circumstances, it holds integrity to set folks free to explore their beliefs without angrily imposing undue financial burdens on those who simply cannot in good conscience remain in the UMC as it stands — conflicted, chaotic, theologically disconnected.

Today, we not only must take that hope seriously but must actively work toward it. At this point, to angrily persist in a “one church” spirit that is in no way loving or respectful of irreconcilable beliefs seems the least loving option of all. It is certainly the least faithful posture toward a free-will theology that is invitational at its core.

That said, these facts ought to guide every influential conversation between now and General Conference 2020:

  • Some believe deeply and unshakably in an orthodox interpretation of the Bible that encompasses both a high Christology and a traditional view of marriage and sexuality. Doing so does not necessarily imply a lack of love for people —ALL people — or a desire (and ability) to serve people where they are.
  • Some believe LGBTQ+ persons — even those actively engaged in same-sex relationships — are called by God to both marriage and ordained leadership and that the Church should be affirming of their position. Some in this camp (not all) also espouse a more progressive approach to salvation and holiness. Doing so does not necessarily imply a lack of love for the Bible or Jesus.
  • Some can sit in the tension between progressive, affirming-but-evangelical, and orthodox theologies and be completely at peace with asking even those who disagree to live under one banner. Doing so does not necessarily imply deafness toward the depth of conviction possessed by those on various sides.

I want to suggest that respecting these distinct positions as both realities (these camps exist) and radically distinct ecclesiologies (these camps are not compatible) is the only position that holds integrity at this point. Allowing these three positions space and definition to be lived out fully — with an open hand, under the gaze of God, without punitive punishment — is our only way beyond this impasse. It means separation, or division, or multiplication; call it what you will. But when all is said and done it means grieving the loss of the United Methodist Church as we currently know it. It means holding people with an open hand, which means trusting God more than ever before.

Ultimately, it means freeing the adherents of these radically different, theologically irreconcilable camps of Methodism to turn their backs on the denominational battlefield, to beat their verbal swords into ploughshares, TO GO THEIR SEPARATE WAYS IN PEACE, to return to the harvest fields of local and global ministry –and as the Spirit leads — to form new combinations and connections with theologically compatible partners.

Friends, as you pray toward, vote toward and live toward General Conference 2020, please give these opposing positions respect enough to set them free to prove themselves.

Allow me to return to my own confession as an encouragement to you: I am committed to preaching and maintaining a socially engaged, theologically conservative, spiritually vibrant Methodism. This is where my heart is. When I stand in this place — compassionate toward people and committed to orthodoxy — my internals match my externals. I wouldn’t want anything less for anyone, whether they agree or disagree with me. Any other option smacks of the politics of control. Surely we can do better than that.

My friends, I encourage you to find that place for yourself where your internals match your externals so you can preach the Word with passion and maintain the doctrines you’ve promised before God to maintain. It is time to put an end to these many years of painful strife within the UMC. It is time to part. Let’s bless each other to do so.

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Chosen: Julian’s Story

Julian Hutcheson shares the treasure of his salvation after living most of his life as a functional agnostic. For spouses praying for spouses, let this story be a word of hope.

I had some connection with Christ in my early teen years, but drifted away – for about 35 years. I could describe myself as being a semi-believer in God, but mostly was tangled up in objections to faith, on the sidelines with a very weak and strained experience of spirituality of any kind. Then I experienced a transforming time of reawakening, renewal, and regaining a connection with God.

For a couple of years I had been attending Mosaic occasionally just to pacify my wife and “support” her attendance. I attended the day she joined the church and I found that to be unexpectedly moving for me. Somewhere around that time I began to feel some deep emotional stirrings during the services. There were several times I thought I would cry during the singing. I clearly felt that my soul was kind of reaching up and pushing aside the entanglements, so I could connect with worship. I realized I needed to worship my God. It became clear to me that praising God is affirming the connection, just like saying “I love you” to another person. A powerful experience also came when one of my sons was baptized. I went out to our van afterwards and wept.

I met with Carolyn and told her what I had been experiencing, and she helped me understand this was the Holy Spirit working, kind of opening the “pores” of my spiritual membrane. She asked me if I would be willing to listen to the Holy Spirit and follow where God was leading me, and I said I was, not really knowing what that might mean. I was feeling more connected to God, but not yet a follower of Christ. That came a few months later.

Again taking the cue from my deeper self, I realized one day that my rational hesitations about being a Christian had essentially disappeared. I felt free to move toward Jesus, to include him. The transformation then went to another level as I opened up my heart to Christ. I had several more moving experiences that made it clear to me that I was a believer in Christ.

I met again with Carolyn, and after that joined the church and was baptized. I have increased my involvement in Mosaic, joining the worship team and attending the Men’s accountability group. I now see the fruit of many seeds planted from Sunday messages. One of the strongest themes that helped me was that God knows my real self, loves me for who I really am and is willing to meet me where I am. The worship music also played a strong role, almost as if the worship leader was reaching a hand out, pulling me up spiritually from the hole I was trapped in.

My wife Judy is continually doing a double-take. To hear me talk about my Bible readings or to see me moved to tears in worship and to proclaim my Christianity, this is all coming from a context of 29 years of marriage in which I have been a non-believer. My transformation is of course a great answer to her prayers. I am also comprehending, in stages, how much of a burden I was on Judy in pursuing her faith. I have had several powerful moments of repenting and asking her forgiveness and God’s, for so many years of turning away from Him, and so many years of being an obstacle for Judy’s relationship with God and in recent years, with Mosaic. I was lost for so many years! I now know what cleansing repentance is.

As for the worship team, it is an honor to be a part of it — learning these powerful songs and helping with the guitar playing. I sang the song “What can I do” for a Christmas eve service and was moved to tears several times when rehearsing it at home. “What can I do but give my life to you – Hallelujah!” Connecting with worship and helping others to connect with worship is a privilege. I have a lot to learn and a lot of catching up to do. I’m laying down my life for God’s service. What that means is not entirely clear but I will take it one step at a time.

I’ve reached a comfort level at Mosaic – comfortable being vulnerable in spiritual growth, knowing I’m surrounded by people who are striving for their own unique relationships with Christ. I’m continuing on the journey and I when I have challenges that pull me off track, I take them one at a time. I don’t want to go back. I want to keep going forward with Christ.

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Prayer and the Ministry of the Word

When I was five years old, my family changed churches. We were a family of eight, but my mother, sister and I were the only ones who went to church with any regularity. To be honest, I don’t know what was behind the decision to move. But for whatever reason, we left St. Mark’s and went to the big church on the hill. Funny, what memories stick with you. I remember the car ride on that first Sunday we went to the new church. My mother called to me in the back seat and said, “Carolyn, now this is a big, fancy church, and we have to be very quiet during the service. You can not talk during church.” I didn’t remember talking during church before, but I can tell you, I was very quiet at the new, fancy church.

We must have liked it there because we stayed and you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like at the other church, we were still among the last to leave every Sunday because my mother would not go home until she had spoken to everyone.

Maybe that’s why I liked communion Sundays so much. It gave me something to do while I waited for my mom. After church on communion Sundays, while my mother talked, I’d go up to the altar and play with all the little cups that were left there. Now, remember – I was five years old. Five year olds eat dirt at home, so church germs were certainly not a threat.

You know how there is always a little bit of grape juice left in the bottom of those little cups? Well, I could take the leavings from two or three little cups and just about fill up another one. And I could usually down three or four shots before my mother caught sight of me. “You cannot play with the little cups!” she’d say, as she drug me off by my arm.

So I find it ironic all these years later that I make my living talking during church and playing with those little cups (though now, they are big cups).

It is a good thing, too, because I didn’t have a lot of other options. I am not particularly musical, not athletic, not brilliant, artistic or technical. I know a little bit about a few things, but not a lot about anything. But I do have one passion. I love the church. I love it! I love the Lord. He is the reason I live. But I am a pastor because I love the church. It fascinates me that Almighty God, in all his wisdom, chose this organism as his medium for sharing His revelation of Jesus Christ. And my passion is for seeing that organism, the Church, work in the way God intended when he passed the Body of Christ from the person of Jesus to the people of God. I don’t claim to know God’s whole vision for that kind of church, but I do believe he is looking for more than just somebody to talk on Sundays who occasionally plays with those little cups. In fact, I believe he is crying out for the people of God to be the body of Christ.

The apostles themselves laid it out. Instead of allowing circumstances to take their eyes off what was most important, the apostles figured out what makes the church powerful. And they defined it with profound simplicity. “Prayer and the ministry of the word,” they said, “are the center of what we do. Nothing should stand in the way of that mission. And secondly, the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation” (Acts 6:1-7, my take).

Folks, that is powerful. This was long before Paul wrote those amazing analogies about the Body of Christ. There were no consultants, no books to read. But the disciples saw not only God’s vision, but the immense danger of taking their eyes off that vision because of some pressure by some group or another to fill some need.

“Prayer and the ministry of the word are the center of what we do. And the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation.”

That’s the Body of Christ. That’s the Church being the Church – not just talking on Sundays and playing with the little cups – but all of us together bearing the good news of Jesus Christ to a world hungry for a clear vision and the honest-to-goodness gospel truth.

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Chosen: Matthew’s Story

This is the fifth in a series of posts about people in our community who have experienced the gift of chosenness. This one is offered by Randy Henning, father of Matthew, who I consider to be a spiritual leader among us. Read on:

My wife Laura and I have two children, Ashlyn and Matthew. Our oldest, Ashlyn, lives in Waco, Texas. Matthew lives with us. Both our children are gifts from God. This story is about Matthew’s life and our church.

Matthew has Down Syndrome. The clinical name for it is Trisomy 21. Simply put, that means that instead of having two “number twenty-one” chromosomes, Matthew has three. I think it is amazing that the thing that makes Matthew different is so small you have to use a microscope to see it. But that tiny difference is profound. Raising a child with Down Syndrome has its challenges, but I can tell you without question that the good far outweighs the bad.

The most important thing to us is watching Matthew grow up in a church family. Watching his faith grow, hearing people say how much he has helped them. That has been priceless. I do not know the extent to which Matthew understands his faith, but what I do know is that he has faith and that God uses him in ways I cannot comprehend. His faith and how he uses it is obviously something pretty special between him and God. Matthew knows himself to be chosen, and it shows.

Before we started attending Mosaic, we didn’t attend church. What led us to start looking? I remember it like it was yesterday. One Sunday morning, my daughter Ashlyn (ten years old at the time) came up to me and asked, “Daddy, why don’t we go to church?” Wham! That question coming from a ten-year-old hit me like a two-by-four.

So we started looking.

For families of individuals with special needs, finding a church can be complicated. Studies say that about 90% of families like ours don’t attend church. Why? Some of us don’t want to burden a system that isn’t prepared for us. Sometimes we feel unwelcome. Many of us have been told that a church can’t serve us or meet the needs of our child. As a result, the special needs population is the most unreached, unevangelized people group in this country.

For us, it was easy to find a church that would let Matt sit in a pew or chair. But to find one that would let Matt participate? Not as easy as you might think. Then a reading tutor shared with us that her church had a desire to serve all individuals, including those with special needs. One Sunday, we visited. Thirteen years later, we’re still there.

I can honestly say that both our kids would not be who they are today without the people of Mosaic. You don’t know what it means to us that they let Matt be Matt. They let him worship how he feels led, even if that means taking a lap around the church or standing up front during worship. Matt has built relationships within the church. He feels welcomed to join in prayer with leaders (often, they ask him to lead those prayers). He finds his pastor every Sunday morning for a hug, and he always asks her to mark his Bible with the verse for the day’s message. Matthew has even been invited to serve communion. Matt has grown in his faith his way, and I’ll be honest … I wish my faith and relationship with the Lord was as strong as his.

Matt’s faith bears fruit. One of Matt’s teachers shared with us that on a day when her son was scheduled for a driving test, she was anxious and Matt responded not only with concern but with faith. He gave her a note that said, “Be happy. God loves you, and I love you, too.” He then proceeded to lay hands on her and prayed over her right in the middle of class! If he’d not had an accepting church family that let him grow in his faith, that may not have ever happened.

Another time, a student at Matt’s school shared with my wife that she was in the lunch room one day when some friends started to make fun of Matt. She spoke up to her friends and said, “You know, I go to church with Matthew and he’s a pretty cool kid. You should get to know him better.” That’s the fruit of authentic community. Made me proud of my church. If it takes a village to raise a child, our church has been our village.

As parents of a special needs child we want the same thing for our kids as other parents do. We want a place where they are welcome, safe, and accepted for who they are. The difference is, its a lot harder to find for us and you can’t imagine what a great gift it is when we do find that place. This month, our church will open its doors to a new ministry that offers therapy sessions for kids with special needs during the week. In August, we’re adding a once-a-month family night out for families with exceptional kids. We’re calling it Exceptional Circles.

One night a month for two or three hours might not sound like much to a typical family, but to a parent of a special needs child that can almost feel like a miracle. I’ll be honest: Matt is easy. We could leave him with just about anybody and he’s fine (most of the time he’d rather us not be there anyway!). But there are parents out there who never get a break. You can’t imagine what a gift a couple of hours a month can be. I know some parents that have taken advantage of something like this and you know what they did? They went home and slept.

Having a place like Mosaic, and ministry like Exceptional Circles could be a real blessing to a family with children with special needs. A place where they are not only welcome but accepted for who they are. We want everyone to have the blessing of a community like ours to share the load and offer Christ. For us, it has made all the difference.

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