In the wake of General Conference: An examination of conscience in the midst of hard things

For United Methodists whose attentions have been turned this week to our called General Conference, I’d like to suggest an ancient practice. An examination of conscience is a powerful exercise in clarifying one’s place before God. Especially in the wake of this week’s proceedings, an examination of conscience might help some of us get honest about those places where we haven’t fully honored Kingdom values. An examination that sinks even to the level of how we think and love, not just externally but internally, can help us to recenter on the heart of God.

Wholeheartedness is a huge theme in the story of God. I notice lately that for myself, this practice of examining my heart for signs of division is especially helpful before I walk into a roomful of people whose hearts I may not yet know. When I have taken time to examine my own heart and recommit to the kind of transparent wholeheartedness prescribed in the Bible, I discover that I can move and relate with more integrity. Conversely, when I enter a room or conversation with distrust, anger or a need to be right (concerned more about what others are thinking/ feeling/ experiencing than what is in me) or with an unspoken agenda, I fall short of God’s best and rob the room or those conversations of progress.

Taking a cue from my friends in recovery who remind me that the only person I can change is myself, I woke up this morning with an overwhelming draw to examine my conscience. Many in my “tribe” will be making decisions in coming days as they process what happened this week. I want to make choices for myself and our church that reflect a wholehearted love for Christ and his good news. I want to make choices that reflect my deepest values — both theologically and relationally. I want to do for others what I would have them do for me. I want to hold people with an open hand and strike a note of grace even in the deepest parts of my being — not just when I’m talking, but when I’m not. And I want to walk in grace toward all that is unsolved in my heart (to borrow the spirit of Rilke’s poem), and in repentance toward all in me that is broken — even the parts I don’t know about. Maybe especially those.

I know that somewhere inside lurks a knee-jerk desire to run. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Nobody likes conflict. I appreciate Paul’s advice to “stand” but deep down, I’d rather just unhitch from the hard things. I need God to purify my motives so that whether I stand or move on, I am doing so under the cover of his care and not from a rebellious, wounded or fearful place. That pull to run can be rooted in shallow soil.

As I examine my own conscience, I’ve discovered a few wrong reasons to avoid pressing in to the hard things:

  • Losing relationships or ties with friends, colleagues or institutions — Any lifelong, itinerating Methodist knows the real friendships journey with us. And anyone who has ditched an addiction will tell you that when you get sober, you find out who your real friends are. I expect my good friends to remain good friends, whether we are on the same side of an issue or on opposing sides. Those friendships depend on us seeing each other as people, not opinions. And those friendships deepen as we discover that our love for one another spans the gap. As I examine myself, I am praying that I will prove true to those who want to call me friend.
  • Fear of criticism or judgment — Criticism and judgment happen … no matter what. Unless of course, you choose to be lukewarm about everything (spoiler alert: Jesus is not fond of lukewarm people). That, too, needs an honest examination. Denial, my recovery friends tell me, leads to spiritual dis-ease. Unless we are honest about all the parts of us and allow others to be honest with us, too, we will remain spiritually and relationally stunted. I must let myself become open to the honest evaluations of others so my heart doesn’t grow hard.
  • Fear of influencing (or losing trust with) those in my spiritual care — Whether it is my family, my church, or the larger community to which I’m tethered, I realize that I am an influence. We all are. Our lack of conviction influences just as surely as our strong convictions do. In fact, a lack of conviction may well be a stronger influence than we realize, and not in a way we’d prefer. An examination of conscience helps us clarify what matters most so we can voice those convictions not defensively (or even offensively) but courageously.

Maybe the hardest prayer to pray, when I am in the midst of a hard thing, is this one: “Lord, I surrender myself to you. If my heart is not as your heart, please change me.” To pray that prayer with all the conviction and energy with which I hold my current theologies, ideas and opinions is risky business. And yet, I suspect it is the most faithful and trusting prayer I can pray. In fact, the only reason I can think of to remain committed to my current, stated position is the conviction that by doing so, I’m being obedient to the call and Word of God. And even then, I must do so with a spirit of humility, recognizing that folks with whom I disagree are also clinging to their convictions out of what they believe to be obedience.

At the end of my own examination of conscience, I hope I can say that I have witnessed these days of deliberation from an honest and transparent place, free of anger, fear, condemnation or worst of all, lethargy. I also hope that in the days ahead, Christ himself will minister into my spirit and into those of my friends, healing what is wounded. We want whole hearts as we confess the faith.

I know in whom I believe, and I believe he has given me a charge to keep. My prayer now is that I will keep that charge in love, with a whole heart.

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A Layperson’s Primer (part two): The Choice

These posts are written especially for laypersons and those coming late to the conversation currently stirring within the UMC. Part one focuses on the heart of our current debate: connection. Is it the institutional values and structure that connect us, or is it our theological task? With that question in mind, this post reviews the four plans considered.

Three years ago, the United Methodist General Conference met in Portland, Oregon for its regularly scheduled quadrennial meeting. At that conference, our Bishops called into being a Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) to corporately study and debate our official position on human sexuality. Last summer, the COWF completed its work and made recommendations to the Council of Bishops and General Conference for how a deeply divided denomination might move forward. After a good bit of political wrangling and an internal judicial review, versions of three plans will be deliberated February 23-26 at a special session of General Conference.

A couple of things to note:

  • There are actually four plans being promoted by various groups and concerns within the UMC. Keep reading.
  • A provision for a gracious exit is currently attached to only one “official” plan, and that provision is so narrowly defined as to be unhelpful to those who want to move on after the vote.
  • Consequently, other petitions have been submitted asking the Conference to consider some kind of workable provision for a gracious exit for those who cannot abide whatever decision is made at General Conference.
  • Three of the four plans have been reviewed by the United Methodist Judicial Council (the fourth plan was not reviewed because it was not part of the Commission’s recommendation), which means we can hope a vote taken at General Conference will not be overturned.

As mentioned, three plans were recommended by the Commission on a Way Forward. A fourth plan, The Simple Plan, has also been submitted as a petition to be considered. Here’s a snapshot of each plan:

The One Church Plan removes language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, leaving it to churches to determine their own guidelines on issues like membership, marriage of same-sex couples, or ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan.

The Connectional Conference Plan divides United Methodists into three main “camps” — traditionalist, centrist and progressive. These three camps would share affiliated services while being otherwise autonomous though governed by one Council of Bishops. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan.

The Traditionalist Plan (now modified after action by the Judicial Council) maintains language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, calls for greater accountability, and provides a gracious (but narrowly defined) exit for those who cannot in good conscience abide by that language.

The Simple Plan — not crafted by the COWF but petitioned by United Methodists for the Simple Plan — removes all language from the Book of Discipline pertaining to human sexuality and gender, clearing the way for same-sex marriage ceremonies, the ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons, and their inclusion at every level in the life of the church.

Filter these four plans through the question posed in the opening paragraph of this post: What connects us — institutional values and structure, or our theological task? Both the One Church and Connectional Conference Plans focus more on institutional preservation at the expense of theological clarity. They call for United Methodists to set aside personal values for the sake of institutional unity, making our shared structure the foundation of our connection.

Ironically, the plans on either end of the spectrum have much in common in terms of what they represent. Both the Traditional and Simple Plans are crafted around the idea that what matters to a United Methodist is what we believe. Both plans emphasize a particular (though opposing) biblical interpretation. Both provide theological clarity on the other side of a vote. While I disagree with the theology around the Simple Plan, I have to respect the integrity of those who are committed to a clear theological position.

So I ask again: What connects us — institutional values and structure, or our theological task? I am convinced that it is our theological task that binds us together. Methodism’s great contribution to the world is our brand of systematic theology — our approach to grace, the spiritual disciplines, our classical interpretation of scripture, our gathering of souls into sanctifying communities (promoting the process of sanctification all the way through to being made perfect in love in this life), our insistence on personal and social holiness. This is our distinctive. This is what makes all the rest of it worth it.

What’s more, I believe theological clarity around this historical expression of faith can breed revival. This is not hopeful emotionalism. Look around the world. In those places where clarity of conviction has been demanded of those who follow Jesus, Christianity is growing. We praise God for the explosive growth of Methodism in Africa, for example. Meanwhile, in those places where moral relativism and pluralism are the prevailing culture, Christianity withers.

I am praying that at the end of the day, our General Conference body will hear that global resonance and choose a resounding and renewed commitment to our theological task. Those who cannot abide this task as it stands should be free to find or establish another tribe, so we can get back to the work of welcoming and advancing the Kingdom of God.

The world is waiting for a clear and fair account of the gospel, my friends. Let’s give the world nothing less.

(Part three of this series of blogs deals with the grace that needs to be attached to whatever decision is made at GC2019.)

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The DNA of the Church

In the final verses of Exodus, of all places, we find the first hints of Pentecost. The people have just pulled together all their resources to build a tabernacle for the Lord. They have detailed instructions for crafting this most holy of places, which would become a sign of God’s presence among them. The tabernacle would also be their launching pad, a place from which they would move out of the desert and into the promised land.

When this tabernacle was complete, the final verses of Exodus tell us that “a cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. … Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it. But if the cloud did not rise, they remained where they were until it lifted” (Exodus 40:34,36-37, NLT).

Depending on the translation, the word for “tabernacle” can mean a place to meet or a place that moves. That tells us that from the very beginning there has always been a relationship between the presence of God and the journey of faith. It also teaches us that God never meant for his tabernacle to get stuck in one place. It was built to move when God moves, always in the direction of his promises.

That scene from Exodus is our backdrop for Pentecost. The book of Acts begins with the resurrected Jesus telling his followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8, NLT). What God did first with the tabernacle in Exodus He is about to do with all believers, placing the laws and commandments of Moses into the person of Jesus Christ. Those who receive Christ into their hearts become God’s tabernacle. On that first Pentecost, this plan was confirmed with cloud and fire, just as with the Exodus tabernacle. And just like the first tabernacle, when he moves, we are invited to move with him.

Movement has been in the Church’s DNA from the beginning. The Kingdom of God is designed to move. It goes where God goes. He has no desire to make us comfortable out there in the desert. Nor does he intend to leave us to fend for ourselves.

Acts 1:8 promises power. “When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will receive power”—the same power the Israelites had who fought with enemies twice their size and won, who found food enough to feed hundreds of thousands of people, who received miracle after miracle of God’s provision. The power they had, we now have. When we accept the Holy Spirit into our lives we are no longer victims but people with power to move out of our bad circumstances and into better ones.

Of course, in Exodus it was not a person but a community that built the tabernacle and moved out of bondage and toward the promises of God. In Nehemiah it was a community that rebuilt the temple and restored the wall. In Acts, it was a community that received the Holy Spirit, then flowed out into the streets building that community from a couple-dozen to a few thousand in one day.

Clearly, the filling of the Holy Spirit is not first of all an individual, emotional experience but something given the community to strengthen and empower us for the work of the Kingdom. Paul asks the Corinthians, “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, NLT). He says to the Ephesians, “Together, we are his house … carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord” (Ephesians 2:20-21, NLT).

The tabernacle is where God meets us and how we know when to move. As William Temple says, no one who is filled with the Spirit of God can keep that Spirit to himself. “Where the Spirit is, he flows forth. And where there is no flowing forth, he is not there.”

Is there a flowing forth in your life? Are you going someplace spiritually? Are you closer to God’s promises for your life than you were a year ago? Five years ago? Or are you still out there in the desert of indecision, waiting for one more sign? 

Meanwhile, God is calling us forward and His design for His children is not to make us comfortable but to make us great. May you be filled with the Holy Spirit and placed in the path of his promises.

 

This post first appeared as a Seedbed article on June 12, 2012. It has since been published in Encounter the Spirit, a Bible study for individuals and groups (find it at seedbed.com).

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