Seeking higher ground: Conversations in the UMC

As conversations around the future of the UMC heat up in this Annual Conference season, I hold a prayer that we will elevate our discourse above the level of emotion. Here are a few things I’d like to hear in discussions around what comes next:

Let’s talk Christologically. Does the conversation about the future of the UMC begin with Jesus? If my experience is any indication, then the Lordship of Jesus–the exclusive nature of Jesus–is where we in the United Methodist Church part ways long before we ever get to the topic of sexual ethics. In the UMC, there is a great divergence around the nature and role of Jesus Christ; yet, we spend all our energy on other things. We rarely acknowledge what is. What is, for those of us who embrace an orthodox understanding of faith and truth, is that Jesus is the most true being. Those of us who are committed to absolute truth (and that Jesus alone embodies that Truth) also believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are not the authors of our faith. The author of our faith is Jesus Christ. In other words, we have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith. Our conversations must reflect this “Kingdom down” perspective while resisting the urge of a “humanity up” perspective. If we start with Jesus Christ, I suspect we will find plenty to discuss and (grievously) much on which we fundamentally disagree.

Let’s talk biblically. Are our debates rooted in scripture? We all live under the same blue sky. Anyone who is practicing faith in Christ with love and integrity is in relationship with people … all kinds of people. We are all navigating all kinds of relationships and stories and we want God’s best for people we love. We who are pastors contend for souls daily. However, theological tents are not built on a foundation of who we know, love and want included. If we are going to talk about the future of the UMC, let’s talk biblically and not just anecdotally. When the Minnesota Annual Conference chooses to substitute the name for God in the Apostle’s Creed, that provides plenty of fodder for discussion. Does an official United Methodist entity have the right to change something as fundamental as the biblical terms of our creed? After all, Methodism is a defined theology. There are lines we can not cross while remaining true to our tradition.

Let’s talk globally. Do our discussions about unity take into account the global nature of the UMC? Let’s talk about John 3:16. Jesus told us that God so loved the world that he gave his Son. The world, not just our corner of it. Let’s discuss the values of the typical follower of Jesus anywhere on the African continent, or in the Philippines, or South America. Do we understand that a call to unity that doesn’t include them is not a call to unity at all in a global connection? Please understand that a decision to wrap ourselves around an American cultural ethic will alienate us from an African UMC. An American church that has separated from our global connection is far more detrimental to our personality and theology as a denomination than any decision to uphold our Book of Discipline as it stands. You and I are not the only ones deciding whether we stay or go. There are a world of people making that choice … literally. In fact, they are contending in ways we cannot fathom. One African brother told me, “I wake up every morning prepared to die.” I thank God we are a global connection and that my friend’s drive to wake up daily contending for the faith is part of who we are. But as I’ve said myself, anecdotes won’t win the day so let’s talk about Revelation 7:9. That’s how we’ll guard against cultural drift. If you want to talk about unity, make certain we include the global connection in that conversation.

Let’s talk systemically. Are we thinking centered sets or bounded sets? This would make for great conversation in this season. The concept of “centered sets” and “bounded sets” emerges from the mission field (you can read about it here or here), and it describes what happens when communities choose “bounded set,” “fuzzy set,” or “open set” thinking over “centered set” thinking. Bounded sets draw a line between the world and the congregation. Open sets have no boundaries at all. Fuzzy sets thrive on a lack of clarity. But centered sets cast a clear vision for a community’s values, then invite folks to orient toward those values.

Centered-set thinking reminds me that the responsibility for a person’s orientation toward the truth is theirs, not mine. Likewise, it is not for me to widen the tent pegs to make sure everyone is inside, never mind the direction they are pointed. I am responsible for pointing toward the center of my set; so are you. How far I am from that center is not the issue so much as whether I am pointed toward or away from the agreed-upon center. Centered-set communities allow adults to take responsibility for their choices as well as their spiritual progress. What it does not allow for is changing the center to suit your tastes. Be where you are, but don’t ask others to change direction so you don’t have to.

Let’s talk eschatologically. Do our discussions rest on the assurance that the Church of Jesus Christ will continue undeterred from its mission, whatever is decided by this denomination? Let’s talk about how our ecclesiology can be better rooted in our eschatology. Remember that the Church extends nearly 2000 years further back than the fifty-year history of the UMC. The next iteration of our tribe (whether it is some altered version of the UMC or something else) will be robust and hopeful. We know this, because we know how the story ends. Jesus wins. His Church (the Body of Christ on earth) can’t be killed. We may be rearranging chairs on a deck, but we are not on the Titanic. Methodist theology will continue (there are 80 million Methodists of varying flavors in the world and 279 million Pentecostals; our tribe is not going anywhere and in fact, is growing in other places). I am committed to the process of The Commission on a Way Forward and certainly to our brand of theology; but if our denomination makes a fundamental shift away from the values of historic Christianity, I am not fearful of what comes next. The gospel of Jesus Christ will keep right on rolling toward His second coming and I’ll do my best to keep pace because I  don’t want to get left behind.

Let’s talk health … not just survival. Being unequivocal about our beliefs and values is simply good relational work. We must all decide in these days where our boundaries are; to have none is simply not Methodist. Nor is it healthy. This is the fundamental problem with the “one church” proposal. It may support survival, but for all the reasons above it isn’t healthy. I contend it isn’t even Methodist. My friends in Christ, sound theology is worth the fight. Setting clear values and making a firm statement about what they are does not mean giving up; it means we care. What progress we could make if we choose to elevate our conversations to the level of theology over institutionalism or emotionalism, respecting each other even as we expect folks who commit to a covenant to keep it. Without that expectation, there can be no health.

As I head to Annual Conference this week, I’m looking forward to robust conversations and pray that we will all seek higher ground.

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What God looks like

Let’s talk about the nature of God.

Elohim is the name used for God in Genesis 1:1, making his very name our earliest glimpse of the nature of God in scripture.

This Hebrew term is plural; because we believe every word of the Bible is inspired, we trust this is not a coincidence. From the very first words of God’s story, He shows up as Trinity. And in that first scene of creation, He is all there: the Father creates; the Spirit hovers; the Word speaks.

Elohim.

The Hebrew letter that represents Elohim is shin, the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (see the image above). Meditate on that image for a moment. Take it in. What do you see?

Isn’t it interesting that in this one letter, representing the earliest name for God, we find this three-pronged image on a single foundation? It is as if the letter itself calls us toward Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. — a three-in-one wholeness and complex simplicity. Such a beautiful symbol for our three-person God! Some have even seen the floating dot above the third prong as a dove, suggesting the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, or as the fire of Pentecost. Because I believe God is just that creative, I am prone to believe he hand-picked this image.

Here in this symbol and name, we encounter God as community. He exists in three parts and demonstrates within Himself the very nature of complete sanctification—pure love encountered without flaw within community. The essence of the Trinity is deeply embedded in the story of God and the love of God is deeply rooted in the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in perfect harmony, perfectly loving within the Godhead. Our Father is both big and bighearted! This is what the Trinity (the tri-unity) teaches us about God. At His core, our Father is loving and that ought to change everything. When we hear that he is for us, we can believe it fully. His motives are holy, pure, self-giving.

Truly, our God is an awesome God. He is Elohim. All we need. Hallelujah!

Has your teaching on the nature of God given you a balance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If not, which understanding is weakest? Confess that aloud, and ask God to help you know Him in His fullness even as He knows you fully.

 

(This excerpt was taken from a six-week Bible study called Encounter the Father, published by Seedbed and found here.)

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The Methodist Middle or the Global Center?

On any given Sunday, United Methodist churches gather to worship God in nearly 60 nations around the globe. Across multiple time zones, languages and cultures, our tribe attempts to be a witness to Christ in a hurting world. The one entity – and the only entity — that speaks for that international witness is the General Conference, a global body. It is smack dab in the center of what it means to be United Methodist.

Regrettably, that body — and our United Methodist Church — is in a season of crisis. The Greek word krisis means “to separate, distinguish, judge,” and can apply to both positive and negative experiences. A crisis can be an opportunity to shake loose the needless and redeem the needful. I am convinced that all of us in the UM Church, no matter what theological position we take, are hoping for a positive end to a crisis-heavy season.

A group of clergy within our denomination have recently organized themselves under the banner of the Methodist Middle. For those of us supportive of the global Methodist center, we welcome these voices. This is a big denomination and everyone should have an opportunity to be heard.

It is charitably fair to assume that the Methodist Middle was not looking for a crisis. Who would? While they’ve been more hopeful, progressives and conservatives (or traditionalists or orthodox believers), have felt the pressure of a growing tension. Truth be told, those in the Middle have felt it, too, though in a different way. They’ve struggled to hold the tensions together in one hand and may even consider themselves the voice of tempered reason in a world of extremes. It must be frustrating to find themselves now — after years of asking us not to take sides — creating a “side.” As the Middle organizes and communicates with the average layperson, allow me to make a few observations and one appeal.

Unity can’t be the goal. 

First, it seems as if the Middle is asking the people in the pews to make theology less important than unity. To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the Middle wants the entire global denomination to adopt and/or accept a liberal position on human sexuality. In exchange, it seems, United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, the Middle seems to be reducing the crisis down to one issue — a mistake that would take us backward by several decades.

This kind of proposal turns a blind eye to the widening and pervasive theological gap that has been developing over decades. To say that orthodox believers only want to “win” on this one issue is to vastly over-simplify a long history of the erosion of our values. Likewise, to say that progressives are defined by this one issue alone is to ignore the depth and breadth of progressive theology — a worldview that influences how one views the Bible, humanity and even Divinity Itself, especially the divinity of Jesus as it pertains to his birth, death, resurrection and ascension.

For theologians — and all pastors are theologians — these distinctions matter, and not just to conservatives. They matter to anyone who has given their life and vocation to the work of caring for souls. It is damaging to everyone and to the work we take so seriously if we minimize all the theological differences and decide instead that for the sake of unity, we should reduce ourselves to a few simplistic and practical ideas.

Whether you are progressive, middle or conservative, what you believe matters. What you teach matters. Those things should not be minimized. This is the essence of our faith.

Whose Bible is it?

Second, my friends in the Middle are missing the opportunity to challenge the average layperson to really think about how they read the Bible. For instance, the Upper New York Annual Conference floated a resolution this year* condemning the work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (of which I’m a member). Whatever their motivation, the statement they produced was actually very helpful in drawing the distinctions that exist among us. In their document they noted: “progressives/ liberals/ reconciling United Methodists use a faith paradigm that utilizes historical-critical biblical analysis, recognizes the Bible and the gospels as human products that are the result of historical processes, views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning (a surplus of meaning) and looks to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate … ” Many progressives would go further to say that God’s revelation is not fixed but “progressive” — still unfolding and not bound by the tenets of scripture.

Upper New York had a point to make in their disapproval of the WCA, but let’s be clear: their take on the Bible does not speak for United Methodists worshipping in 60 nations around the globe. Their voice should not be dismissed; to the contrary, it needs to be placed in context. The Upper New York clergy who signed that statement have invested themselves into a fundamentally different perspective from an orthodox understanding of Scripture which views all of Scripture as true, using a variety of literary styles to convey that truth. We believe the Bible includes an historic account of God’s work in the world (conservatives use “faithful” to characterize our reading, rather than “literal”), and that it is Living Word and contains all that is needed for faith and life. The current crisis in the UM Church is an opportunity to deeply examine how we read the Bible, how we understand what it calls us toward, the power it has to guide us.

And central to that reading is what we do with Jesus.

Which Jesus do we follow?

“All intersections point to Jesus. We don’t know about His personal life – I believe that Jesus was Queer, Black and Poor.” That was the declaration of a United Methodist youth pastor at a “Gather at the River” conference hosted by a progressive group within the UM Church.

Although my Methodist Middle friends would cringe at the use of such an extreme example, please hear me out. This statement exposes the gravity of difference between two world views. To minimize these differences or to assume we can duct-tape them together with polity is to miss the mark and disrespect those who give their lives for precisely these kinds of beliefs.

The man who made this statement calls himself Methodist. So do I. But our understanding of Jesus (and Methodism, I’m guessing) couldn’t be further apart if we tried. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a New Testament scholar anywhere on the spectrum who would define Jesus as Queer, Black and Poor. Actually, Jesus was a middle-eastern Jewish man, born into a specific context at a specific time in history. Orthodox believers assert that he came in order to do battle with the spiritual forces that created our fallenness. He is not a metaphor for all the good in the world. He was and is flesh-and-blood, mysteriously fully God and fully man. The resurrected and ascended Jesus — Son of the Living God — sits at the right hand of God the Father. He died and rose for the sake of breaking the power of sin and death. Sinless himself, he is on the side of the sinner – queer, straight, black, white, poor, rich. He has compassion for the one who is oppressed. He has a preference for the poor, but he is not some nebulous idea or Transformer toy who becomes who we need him to be, even when those needs are contradictory from person to person.

If we refuse to acknowledge these vast differences in belief, we are actually refusing to hear each other. We are the like the co-dependent mother who refuses to believe any of her children might do anything wrong. It simply isn’t healthy. The Middle may mean well, but good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that this crisis is more than just a struggle to agree on one issue or get along like children in the back seat of a car. They deserve a clear explanation of the deep theological differences so they can claim an educated spot on the spectrum and not just an emotional one.

To offer them anything less would be, in my estimation, irresponsible discipleship.

Whose fault is it? 

There is a misconception that the conservative wing is fixated on preserving the past but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that the past has been institutionalized and even petrified. Conservatives and progressives alike are hungry to move forward. It is which direction forward we’re debating. As we have come to realize, there is a tremendously important distinction between the global center of Methodism and the progressive-leaning Methodist Middle found regionally in the U.S.

So … do we change to accommodate a world no longer in step with many American United Methodists or with the American culture at large? Or do we commit to holding a theological line at our global center, refusing to cross over into territory not in keeping with historic Christianity, the theological principles of the Book of Discipline as they stand, or global, orthodox Christianity?

These questions shape our current crisis and are forcing us out of stagnation. It makes me wonder if God himself is the author of this crisis; if so, we ought not to avoid it.

But it seems so simple … 

Many will hear the voice of the Methodist Middle with a sigh of relief. It seems to make the issue so clear and simple. “Yes! Can’t we just agree to disagree on this one issue and still live together?” Those with that hope will gather in the Middle and wait for the storm to pass.

What those hopeful souls are missing is that their choice to place their confidence in this group will eventually lump them together with the vast majority of progressives in the United States who will also embrace the ethos of the Middle. The average Methodist who just wants their church to stay the same won’t see how their choice may send them over the edge into a progressive world they didn’t sign on for.

And this is my appeal to my friends in the Methodist Middle. It is a plea for full disclosure. In your conversations with local congregations, please don’t hold back from telling the whole story. Please don’t reduce our current crisis to something akin to a paper cut needing a bandaid when it is more like a canyon-sized gap. By minimizing the differences, we may stifle a crisis that is actually our opportunity — if we’re bold enough to accept change as a good thing — to give clearly unique theological positions a chance to live with more integrity and to prove themselves by their fruit.

According to the Scripture, after the ascension of Jesus, the disciples began to preach boldly this good news about the Messiah and it enraged the Pharisees. They decided they would stifle it by killing Jesus’ followers. They might have succeeded early on, but Gamaliel appealed to their higher nature. He reminded them of others who had popped up with innovative ideas, only to see them eventually fizzle out. Given those experiences, Gamaliel urged his colleagues to let the theology do its work. “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail,” he said. “But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38b-39).

My friends in the Methodist Middle, let the theology do its work. Let’s be honest about the diverse collection of differences we now share and consider the way forward that best preserves both the integrity of United Methodism and the freedom of those who no longer fit comfortably within this tradition.

Again I say, let the Holy Spirit do His work.

 

*An earlier version of this post stated that this resolution passed. That is my error. I understand it was narrowly defeated, replaced by a revised resolution denouncing schism. The point stands: there is a segment of United Methodist leaders who believe in the statement mentioned enough to promote it to their conference. Their resolve further illuminates the theological diversity.

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