This is not that: Glide and the UMC

To my friends beyond the United Methodist Church, thanks for your patience while I dig a little today into an issue currently circulating in my denomination. This post falls into that category of “UMC insider news.”

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church is a high-profile congregation and non-profit ministry in San Francisco. From what I gather it has a creative structure that allows the church maximum exposure to the community through a non-profit side that has operated since the 1960s. That side of their ministry doesn’t seem to be part of the present debate. The issue seems to be with Glide as a UM church. Recent communication between Bishop Minerva Carcaño and Glide representatives indicate a growing concern over ministry practices that Carcaño believes fall outside the purview of mainline Methodism. Representatives of Glide have responded to her concerns by questioning its future with the UMC.

My intention here is not to weigh in on this debate but to draw some broader conclusions that surface because of this story. It raises lessons and cautions as the whole church continues to wrestle with whether there is a way forward that keeps all local churches in the denomination.

Methodists are not universalists. This has been a recurring theme for me, so I’m interested to note that this is where Bishop Carcaño’s concern is focused. She has said that Glide’s Sunday celebrations are not United Methodist services. She cites the varied faiths represented in their Sunday celebrations (Hindu, Buddhist, etc), and notes that this theological diversity has gone beyond hospitality to theological pluralism. Meanwhile, representatives from Glide have made much of the day they took the cross out of their sanctuary.

To welcome folks from any faith into our worship services is commendable; to exclude Christ for the sake of including everyone else does not support our stated mission. This is precisely why I have contended that the future of the UMC begins not with human sexuality but with Jesus. What we do with the nature of Jesus Christ — this is the headwaters of our current conflict. If we differ on the nature of Jesus and the means of salvation, we might as well end our conversation there. The classic, orthodox understanding of Jesus, supported by our United Methodist Articles of Religion and the historic creeds, is that Jesus is the exclusive way to the Father. From our own Articles of Religion: “The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone” (Article XX). Our mission as United Methodists is to preach the gospel given us by eye-witness disciples of Christ himself.

Incarnational ministry is not the same as contextualization. My concern lately has been the misuse of the term “contextualization,” especially in the service of the proposed One Church Model. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Now, let me say clearly that I’m all about contextualizing the message so it connects with the people, but contextualizing is not the same as “gutting” the message, any more than changing the wrapping paper is the same as changing the gift inside. When some use the term contextualization as the argument, they would have us believe the only way forward is to minimize basic beliefs. In other words, we’re being asked not just to change the wrapping paper, but to remove the gift inside, allowing for outright contradictions to exist among us for the sake of being all things to all people. This misuse of the term will only serve to remove the theological  center of our tradition in the name of preserving the institution.

In the world of missions and evangelism, this is not what contextualization means at all. We might benefit from remembering a few definitions:

Syncretism is the attempt to blend different religions or world views together. Think “melting pot.” That is often the “feel” of universalism, and it sounds very much like Bishop Carcaño’s concern with Glide. Pluralism is about coexistence of principles or groups in a common space. Think “quilt.” Methodists are not syncretists, pluralists or universalists. This isn’t just an assumption; in 1972, we added the word “pluralism” to our Book of Discipline. In 1988 we removed it, having endured years a failed experiment.

Contextualization is the expression of a message in ways that make sense to the local culture using appropriate cultural forms. Think “parable.” Incarnation is about the posture of the person who takes a message into a cultural context in a way that serves both the message and the people hearing it. Think “Jesus.”

Contextualization in the missional sense of the term means making the good news about Jesus Christ accessible. It does not mean changing the message to make it more palatable. As a friend in the mission world says, “Contextualism without the centrality of Christ and the authority of Scripture dissolves into plain relativism and your truth is as good as mine.”

In other words, contextualization without incarnation will not produce transformation. In our conversations about the way forward, we must be careful about our use of terms so as not to make the idea of a watered-down gospel more appealing for the sake of institutional preservation. In that equation, no one wins — certainly not the one waiting to open a gift of good news.

A gracious exit is not the same as giving up. I have read Glide’s recent public letters and sympathize with the struggle of their leadership. They are asking good questions. Are they still United Methodist in their approach to ministry? Is this partnership still productive for them? Glide President and CEO Karen Hanrahan says, “The reality is that over the past decades, we’ve evolved so that about 95 percent of what we do is programs and services and about five percent is as a church.” And now, they have to ask themselves, “Does the five percent actually inform, in any meaningful way, the other 95 percent?” From what I’ve read, I would think not. So what they need are options that don’t destroy what they’ve built and truly invested themselves in.

And this is where their situation intersects with an important piece of our denominational debate. How do we provide a gracious way out for those who simply cannot abide the prevalent values of the UMC? Friends, an exit ramp is important … for all of us. After months of discussion within the Commission on a Way Forward, this was clearly their conclusion. Without an exit ramp, we will inevitably hold some section of our denomination hostage. And for what?

An exit ramp would allow local churches who find themselves unable to support United Methodist teaching and polity to leave the denomination with all their property and assets in tact. Rather than removing our theological center for the sake of preserving the institution, let’s remove the restrictions that bind unwilling churches to a system they can no longer, in good conscience, support. This is the spirit of the freedom we espouse as followers of Jesus. The role of the denomination should be to guard and promote its mission, not control the assets of local churches. We are not in the real estate business, nor are we designed for vindictiveness or control. By providing a gracious exit, we support viable ministry and offer a solid witness while maintaining a clear theological center. This, folks, is how love wins.

I hope and trust Bishop Carcaño and the people of Glide Memorial set an example for all of us in this contentious and uncertain season. If necessary, let us give congregations the grace and space to honestly and prayerfully discern whether they can continue to walk forward with the United Methodist Church. If they cannot, let us wish them well as they attempt to discern what God is doing in their midst.

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Thank you, Jesus.

“The word became flesh,” John wrote, “and lived among us and we beheld his glory.”

God — perfect in every detail — decided to be normal and called it glorious. He gave himself the powerlessness of an infant. He needed diapers. And milk. And comfort. He cried.

(Never mind what the Christmas carol says: “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”  Its a sweet thought, but really? Of course he cried! That was his glory — that he was willing to experience fully what we know as life.)

He had birthdays and good days and sick days and down days. He did boy things, like wrestle and throw rocks and run. He laughed and cried and got angry and tired and hungry. He made friends. And when he grew up, he looked like a man and acted like a man … so completely … that almost nobody knew he was God. John the Baptist had to point him out to us. He looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold!  The Lamb of God!”

And even then, no one took that seriously. Or almost no one.

For the sake of Jesus being everything God intended, he set aside all the authority of a god and  experienced the world he created by becoming small enough to walk through it. The one thing that transferred from heaven to earth was love. Jesus loved people the way only God can.

He took on our limitations so he could experience pain as we do and show us how to be unafraid of it. Love came down to walk with us through our worst, to grieve our limits and weaknesses with us so he could restore our stories.

At just the right time, the Bible says the Word became flesh. And in light of that grace-soaked truth, the only holiday greeting that makes sense is, “Thank you.”

Safiyah Fosua, who has a book of meditations called Mother Wit has a wonderful bit about this idea of God with us:

“What must it have been like, Jesus, to leave your home in glory to come to a place like this? … What must it have been like, Jesus, to limit yourself to flesh? After being Spirit for all of that time, how did it feel to hunger, to weep, to plead, to bleed? You walked up and down dusty roads, slept on the ground, and prayed all night long for me. I thank you for tasting a multitude of miseries so that you could really understand my petty moans and complaints.

“Thank you, Jesus, for enduring a family that often did not understand you, and for enduring the rejection of hometowns. I even thank you for letting them call you crazy! Now, I don’t feel so alone. Lord, thank you for loving Peter, and reclaiming Mary of Magdalene. In them I am reassured of your love for me. Thank you for opening eyes that had been sightless, and for restoring the sick to their families. Thank you for raising dead folks like me. Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us on that first Christmas morning.”

For showing us how to overcome … thank you, Jesus.

For being the perfect servant of God … thank you, Jesus.

For bringing justice to the nations … thank you, Jesus.

For being a visible sign of God’s grace … thank you, Jesus.

For being our hope … thank you, Jesus.

For being God’s promise for the people … thank you, Jesus.

For being a light in this dark world … thank you, Jesus.

For being King of Kings and Lord of Lords … thank you, Jesus.

Thank you.

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The only reason to believe

Lee Strobel’s masterful book, The Case For Christmas, tells of his journey from atheism to Christianity while investigating the claims of Christ.

He tells the story of interviewing a guy named Louis Lapides, a Jew who had almost no exposure to Christianity. In fact, the only thing he “knew” (or thought he knew) about Christians was that they didn’t like Jews. That distorted belief didn’t endear him to our scriptures.

When Louis was seventeen his parents divorced, and for him the God who was already distant became pretty much non-existent. He went to Viet Nam, got into drugs, got depressed. He ended up one day on a sidewalk in California arguing with a group of Christians about the existence of God and the reality of Jesus. When all his other arguments failed, he told them he couldn’t believe in Jesus because he was Jewish.

One of them asked him, “Do you know of the prophecies about the Messiah?” Louis had never heard about the prophecies — the ones in our Old Testament, his Jewish scriptures — that pointed to Jesus as Messiah. That was astonishing information to him. This was the first he’d heard that there might be a connection between his Jewish faith and this Jesus. The guy on the sidewalk offered him a Bible and said, “Read the Old Testament and ask the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God of Israel – to show you if Jesus is the Messiah. Because he is your Messiah. He came to the Jewish people initially, and then he was also the Savior of the world.”

Louis said, “Fine, I’ll read the Old Testament part, but I won’t open up the New Testament.”

He went home and started with Genesis. To his amazement, as he read he found one prophecy after the next (more than four dozen major ones) pointing to a prophet who was greater than Moses. Strobel says Louis was stopped cold at Isaiah 53, a prophecy written more than 700 years before Jesus.

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected – a man of sorrows, acquainted with the bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him, and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped, and we were healed! All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the guilt and sins of us all.

This was the Jesus those sidewalk prophets had been talking about! This revelation left Louis with the only conclusion he considered reasonable: Christians must have altered the Old Testament to make all those prophecies sound like Jesus!

Louis knew how to verify his suspicion. He called his grandmother and asked her to send him a copy of her Jewish Scripture. When he read it and found that it matched the Christian scriptures … well, that’s when he started running out of arguments.

And that’s when he decided to turn the last page of the Old Testament and read the first page of the New Testament. For the first time in his life he read the first words of Matthew:

“A record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham.”

The more he read the more it all fit together. He realized this was a conspiracy; it was a story about Jewish people for Jewish people. “I couldn’t put it down, Louis said. “I read through the rest of the gospels, and I realized this was not a handbook for the American Nazi party; it was an interaction between Jesus and the Jewish community.”

A few days later, before his life was all cleaned up, he told God, “I have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is the Messiah. I need to know that you, as the God of Israel, want me to believe this.” Louis says that in the next moment, somehow, experientially, God convinced him that he exists and Louis became a follower of Jesus. God didn’t give Louis one more answer. He gave him himself.

“The Lord himself will give you a sign …”

The Lord himself. This is the glory and truth of Christmas: The Lord himself. We believe, because he is true.

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The most profound theological truth you’ll hear this Christmas …

I’m thinking about the two sides of me. There is the person I am and the person I want to be. Those two people are always at war with each other inside my brain. On my good days, I somehow manage to act like the person I want to be, but have a little stress seep into my life or a conflict with someone, and the person I actually am shows up. I turn into something I don’t like. When the me that I actually am shows up and shows out … well, few things are more frustrating or disappointing.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. The fact is, we all live divided lives. We all know that deep pain and disappointment of finding out all over again that we are really two people fighting inside the same body for control. Knowing what we know about ourselves, we ought to be all the more awe-struck by the glorious theology beneath the Christmas story.

What we celebrate at Christmas is the fact that God came to us in human form. Theologically, this goes much deeper than a picture of a baby in a manger. The technical term — hypostatic union — wipes away the warmth of that image but invites us to consider the incredible gift of this cosmic reality.

The hypostatic union. Brothers and sisters, this is good theology. This is the term for the perfect melding of divinity with humanity. He who was fully God became fully human — two distinct natures in one Person. Jesus Christ held together both the power of his divinity and the experience of his humanity … perfectly. He entered in, in order to fully identify with us and became the first of a new humanity, something completely different that made everything new for everyone else.

His birth did not erase the fact that he was the Word who spoke all creation into existence in Genesis chapter 1. His death did not negate the fact that he was the Warrior who battled with death and won in Revelation chapter 19.

Fully God, fully man. If you slight him on the God side, you’re a liberal who tends to focus on his teachings and example without embracing his cosmic power. If you slight him on the human side, you’re in danger of unitarianism — unable to accept the unique nature of the Son or his humanity in the temptations, his frustration with fallenness, his suffering on the cross. Jesus resisted sin, because he felt it. He loved his enemies as enemies because he sensed their opposition. He forgave people because he experienced the grief of their sins against God. He experienced life as a human, but perfectly.

And because he has made perfect peace with these two parts of himself, he is able — Spirit-Man — to offer us both pattern and permission to find peace with our two halves. Jesus has accomplished in his body through the perfect union of divinity and humanity what we all long for most: peace.

In other words, Jesus is the answer to that fight that goes on inside us. The one answer with power to speak peace into the divided mess that is us is the perfect union of Father with Son — of deity with humanity. Because he has broken through that barrier for us and now lives in perfect unity within himself, Jesus — fully God, fully man — has carved out our pathway to peace.

So what do we do with this bit of theology? We use it. We trust it and then we live it. We start acting as if Christ’s work is sufficient to heal our divided selves. Even if we don’t feel it we can “act as if.” We can begin to practice the peace that Jesus has shown us in himself. We can act as if our biggest internal battles are won. Act as if our recovery is complete, even if we’re still on the journey. Act as if our relationships are healed, even if they are still in process. Act as if our physical health is improving, as if our depression is healing, as if our finances are stabilizing. Act as if we care, as if we need community, as if we have a heart for others … even if we are still under construction.

This is the gift of good theology. It teaches us who we are, and then it shows us how to act.

And that makes Jesus — Word Become Flesh — all the more worthy of our worship.

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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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