Category Archives: Methodists

Dragging Fosdick Into the Present

While preparing for an upcoming sermon series that deals with the cultural polarization that has infected our churches, I reread Harry Emerson Fosdick’s famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”  I found the following sentences as applicable today, in our current controversies, as they were in the 1920’s.

Here in the Christian churches are these two groups of people and the question which the Fundamentalists raise is this – shall one of them throw the other out? Has intolerance any contribution to make to this situation? Will it persuade anybody of anything? Is not the Christian Church large enough to hold within her hospitable fellowship people who differ on points like this and agree to differ until the fuller truth be manifested?  The Fundamentalists say not.  They say the liberals must go.  Well, if the fundamentalists should succeed, then out of the Christian Church would go some of the best Christian life and consecration of this generation – multitudes of men and women, devout and reverent Christians, who need the church and whom the church needs.

Within my own denomination, all inclinations are that we are becoming incapable of staying at the table with those with whom we disagree.  We are talking, but at one another and past one another, not to one another.  We have fallen into camps that are little more than a sad mime of cable news.  As Adam Hamilton asks in Seeing Gray, “Are Jerry Falwell and John Shelby Spong our only options?”

The Funniest Thing I’ve Read Lately

Bishop Jones has described Methodism as “The Extreme Center,” but but I’m not sure this is what he meant:

 

The Methodists are sort of the in-between church – not as formal as Episcopalians, yet not as rollicking as Baptists.  “Methodists are frustrated Baptists who’d like to be Episcopalians,” said Lucy Mattie Trigg.  That is: they’d like to whoop and holler, but they are  not deaf to the clarion call of upward mobility.

-From Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies’ Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral

 

Don’t make fun of me, this was read to me by my mother, who (as an ex-cemeterian) was given this as a gift.  Hysterical.  It hits a little close to home, too.  At my seminary, there were a good number of Methodists who ended up Episcopalian (and a good number of Episcopalians who could out-Rome all but the most ardent Catholics).

On another note, I really enjoyed Annual Conference this week.  Bishop Palmer is an astounding preacher.

Can a pastor commit adultery with culture?

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A British Methodist pastor plans to tweet Holy Communion to his flock.

Social media, as Steve Thorngate points out, has its uses.  But this is ridiculous.

Pastors get defrocked for adultery, theft, and all other manner of crimes against civic order.  What about crimes against Church?  Abuse of the sacrament?  Can culture be considered a mistress?

Says the pastor:

“The perception of church is often that it is rusting away in antiquated buildings and not in touch with the world around us, but this is a statement that we’re prepared to embrace the technological revolution.”

This is offensive on a number of levels, least of all its fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the sacrament itself.  And he’s a Methodist!  Evangelical though he was, John Wesley would not stoop to the level of compromising the dignity and beauty of the sacrament to “reach” people.

May God make us all Catholic or Orthodox if we keep abusing His Church in this manner.

And tell me, would the man who penned these words condone such an abuse of the Eucharist?

As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection. If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, then we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper; then we must never turn our backs on the feast which our Lord has prepared for us. We must neglect no occasion which the good providence of God affords us for this purpose. This is the true rule: So often are we to receive as God gives us opportunity. Whoever, therefore, does not receive, but goes from the holy table, when all things are prepared, either does not understand his duty, or does not care for the dying command of his Saviour, the forgiveness of his sins, the strengthening of his soul, and the refreshing it with the hope of glory.

-From “The Duty of Constant Communion,” by John Wesley

The 4th and the Lord’s Table

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Like many other United Methodist churches, we will celebrate Communion on this first Sunday of the month.  Of course, it is also the 4th of July, a time for many Americans to drape themselves in the red, white, and blue, enjoy small explosives (called fireworks), and sing songs about their love of America.

Christian pastors and theologians disagree over what kind of challenge the 4th of July and the celebration of Christian worship represents.  Is it a conflict of competing political orders? Is it “The Kingdom” vs “The Flag”?  In North American evangelical circles, a renewed interest in Anabaptist ecclesiology has led many to see this – rather simple – bifurcation as the story of this Sunday.

I don’t buy this though.  Augustine spoke of natural forces by which our “bonds of affection” would create earthly loyalties in the civic arena.  The City of Man is not to be confused with the City of God, but it too, has its place.  For me, then, the issue becomes one of rightly ordering our loyalties.  And granted, in the modern West, this is a difficult task.  One reason I am wary of those who worship government authority is a theological conviction that we should not expect from the State what God alone can provide (for instance, eternal security, comfort, and peace).  The goods of the state are always contingent and apt to fail, and we should treat the state as such.

The details of this, when it comes to doing church, are where the devil lies.  Some churches turn their Sunday morning into a full-scale patriotic celebration (and think nothing of it).  Others will make a point to do nothing remotely patriotic in the interest of loyalty to Jesus or love of being counter-cultural (some think that these are the same things).  I’m trying to trod a middle path…though I like to think I’m being a bit ironic by using a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer on a day when we celebrate our independence from Britain.  I think we can and should recognize what the people in the pews are celebrating, join with them when we can, criticize it when we should, but all the while try to keep it about Jesus.

The peaceful life of families and communities that we all appreciate would not be possible without the political “sword” that Paul speaks of in Romans 13.  At the end of the day, the sword of order that is a gift of God’s love is wielded by flesh and blood, men and women who have made and continue to make great sacrfices so that we might be able to worship, love, party, sleep, and die in peace.  People like my friends George, David, Alicia, and Trish.  Their service, and that of our forebears, deserves praise – but not the same praise that is reserved for God alone.

I think an example of this “middle way” is found in the communion liturgy for tomorrow that has been suggested by the United Methodist Church.  Perhaps this makes me a “company man,” but I think they struck the right tone and balance here.  What do you think?

A Great Thanksgiving for Independence Day

Hoyt Hickman and Taylor Burton-Edwards

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Almighty God, Creator of the universe,
Ruler of all nations, Judge of all flesh,
you have placed us, your people, in this land made rich
with rivers, forests, mountains, and creatures great and small.
Here, you set before the founders and pioneers of this nation
an opportunity beyond measure
to build a realm of justice, peace, and freedom.
Here you continue to call your people,
freed from the law and baptized into Christ Jesus,
to be a sign of your reign in all the world.
For such a place, such a vision
and such a calling we give you thanks,
praying we may ever join afresh the dreams you set before us
as we join with your people in every land on earth
and with all the company of heaven
in your unceasing praise:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Above all we give you thanks
for the gift of your Son Jesus Christ,
who sends us into the world
to declare the good news of your kingdom
to every creature:
Justice to all peoples,
good news to the poor,
release for prisoners,
sight for the blind,
and freedom for the oppressed.

On the night before he was arrested and sentenced to death
by the authorities of his own nation,
he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to his disciples,
and said: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.”

When supper was over,
he took the cup, gave thanks, gave it to his disciples,
and said, “Drink from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the covenant
poured out for you and for many,
for the forgiveness of sins.”

And so we remember and proclaim the mystery of faith.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

We pour ourselves out before you in praise and thanksgiving,
a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us.

So pour out your Spirit
on us and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make Christ known to us in the breaking of this bread,
and the sharing of this cup.
Renew our fellowship in him,
that we may be for the world his body
poured out for the world
at this time in this nation,
and at that great banquet in the fullness of your new creation
where justice flows like rivers,
righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,
where none shall hunger or thirst,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

By him, with him, and in him,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor is yours, almighty God,
now and ever. Amen.


Copyright General Board of Discipleship. www.GBOD.org Used by permission.

Our Odd (Methodist) System…

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Soon, I will be comissioned as a probationary elder/associate member of my Annual Conference.  What this means, practically, is that in a few years with good behavior and successful interviews I may be fully ordained as an Elder with all the rights and privileges of conference membership.

But what does this mean theologically and ecclessiologically? I don’t know.  No other system – really, none other – allows the non-ordained to celebrate the sacraments.  Under the old system, ministry candidates were ordained Deacons and then Elders.  But we changed all that.

So I’m honored, but when my non-Methodist (or even, really, Methodist) friends ask me, “What is commissioning?” I have to say, “Umm…”  The best I can come up with is ‘ordination lite’.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m humbled and honored.  I’m also worried though, because ecumenically, I’m a problem.  Perhaps, as some say, “It’s all about the mission, and the orders and structures really don’t matter otherwise.”  But I want my church to, as much as possible, represent the norms and practices of the church catholic.  In this respect, we are not.

Here are two divergent views on the matter.  One in favor of the current system, and one critical.  To God be the glory.

“If You’re Green and You Know it…”

If you’re green and you know it, plant a tree.
If you’re green and you know it, plant a tree.
If you’re green and you know it,
Then your life will surely show it.
If you’re green and you know it, plant a tree.

This atrocious piece of environmental propaganda was actually put out in some official capacity by the United Methodist Church.  This song was released as a liturgical recommendation for children to coincide with the Council of Bishops’ initiative  “God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope & Action.”

The prime piece of this initiative was a pastoral letter written by the bishops which we pastors were asked to share with our congregations.

I didn’t.  I wonder how many did?  I don’t think it was many, at least in my part of the country. 

Perhaps we’d prefer our bishops to exercise their authority in different ways and on different issues.  For instance, I’d love some episcopal direction on what constitutes true worship; I find that more vital to the life of the church than their environmental opinions.

Oh well. For more details, check out this analysis from the IRD

And before you freak out at the mere mention of the IRD, no, I don’t like everything they do either, and no, I don’t want to hear about it.

Some Help From St. Augustine

But God made you without you.  You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you.  How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist?  So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you.  So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying… (Augustine, Sermon 169.13)

John Wesley quotes this passage from Augustine in his sermon entitled, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” itself based on St. Paul’s admonishion in Phil. 2 to “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”  In the he explores the connection between God’s work of salvation and our own effort to make that real in our lived existence; biblically, this comes from the dual convictions (both from Paul) that God works in us towards salvation but that we, too are expected to play a part.

This whole notion, of course, is anathema for the hard-core Reformed folks.  (Incidentally, does anyone know what Calvin said about this verse from Philippians?)  For the double predestination gang, God wills us from the foundation of the world either to damnation or salvation.  We don’t get a hand in it; it is totally and completely a work of God upon us.  As Jonathan Edwards wrote, most terrifyingly, we are all stretched out over the abyss of Hell, the wrath of God raging against us, and only his unmerited grace will save a few of us from this fiery pit.  Awesome.

For Arminians like myself, though, this is problematic.  We see God’s grace, the enactment of His love that works for our salvation, not as “irresistible” (as the Synod of Dort put it) but as a gift.  Certainly, it is a gift that must be received with joy, unwrapped, and used, but an undeserved gift nonetheless.

In some ways, this concept bears a closer family resemblance to the Orthodox spiritual tradition than the Western.  The Eastern notion of theosis, of becoming God-like, is quite akin to the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness/sanctification and our somewhat unique doctrine of Christian perfection.  The East tells us, “God became man so that man might become God.”  This is stronger than, say, John Wesley would put it, but expresses essentially the same activity.

But then I’ve been reading Barth, and Barth, with the Reformed tradition from which he came, emphasizes the initiative of God over the work of humanity.  Known for his rabid christocentrism, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, is not friendly to the pietist tradition (kissing cousins to us Wesleyans) which he sees as a kind of semi-Pelagianism.  I love Barth’s project (though I am an amateur Barthian), but I’ve been concerned over how to gel this with Methodist theology.

Only an intellectually restless recent seminary grad like myself would worry about this, but, well, it drives me crazy when things don’t fit together.  So I’m working on it.  They say “build a bridge and get over it.”  I think this Augustine quote is a step in that direction, a good sized piece of that bridge.  I find it profoundly helpful for Augustine, the (perhaps misused) great-granddaddy of Reformed theology, to be expressing so clearly a sense of grace that works with us rather than arbitrarily on us.

Wesleyans would call this “cooperative grace.”  In other words, grace that must be enacted, lived; it is essentially the act of receiving a gift (the giver of the gift is the prime actor, and the gift cannot come from oneself – but still, the gift can be rejected).  Gifts, afterall, can be abused, forgotten, tossed aside, or trampled upon.

So it is with grace.  God will not save us against our will; He loves us enough to let us have our way, even if it is harmful to us.  (Think of God’s “hardening the hearts” of various characters throughout the Scripture.)  No, “God doesn’t justify you without you.”  Randy Maddox, probably the greatest Methodist theologian working today – and one of my teachers – calls this “Responsible Grace.”  The response matters.  It is a small part – but it is our portion.
Thank you, Augustine.  Bite me, John Piper.  Amen.

Would John Wesley Watch Jon Stewart?

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Examining John Wesley for contemporary answers is a difficult task.  He was a highly-educated member of the upper crust of British society, who became known for preaching, teaching, and generally ministering to the dregs of society.  He defended the British empire to the hilt (citing 1 Peter 2:17’s admonition to “fear God, honor the emperor” when considering the question of the American revoltion; yet near the end of his life he supported the anti-slavery work of Wilberforce and his allies.  He was a moral elitist, expecting extreme piety from his followers, but wrote and preached of a God of grace and love.

This was not a one-dimensional man.  Much like Jesus, contemporary interpretations of Wesley tend to tell us more about the interpreters than the subject of study.

Wesley’s disciples are a diverse lot; if all you knew about Methodists’ political beliefs came from the General Board of Church and Society, you would think we were a left-of-center gang.  But Methodists and other Wesleyans run the gamut, from left to center to right, to those with Anabaptist sympathies (think followers of Hauerwas) who don’t give a damn about politics in the usual sense.  This political variance is also liturgical; walk into UMC or AME Church on a Sunday morning, and you could think you are in a Catholic, Southern Baptist, or charismatic church.  Because our Bishops and Discipline do not regulate our worship in any meaningful way (despite the presence of an excellent Book of Worship), you really never know what you are going to get going into any church in the Wesleyan tradition, and especially in the UMC.  But I digress.

Was Wesley a radical?  Many pastors and other theologians since the 1960’s (and with renewed vigor following the Bush/Obama turn) have tried to make Wesley into a champion for any host of social causes.  We love our “prophetic” religion so long as “prophetic” easily translates into the categories of contemporary politics; “speaking truth to power” is a phrase so vastly overused by puerile master’s students it should cause one’s bile to rise.  In fact, many seem to think that being “prophetic” just means being “against,” against what is established, against anything and everything – but especially politics and politicians. Many Methodists fall into this pseudo-theology quite happily.  But was Wesley much of a radical? Like my entire generation, would he go gaga for the reflections of Jon “I’m a comedian so I can say whatever I want and claim nobody should take me seriously even though half of young people get all their news from me” Stewart?

Researching last week’s sermon gave me pause.  Consider this reflection on Luke 13:32, in which Jesus calls the corrupt Herod a “fox”:

32. ‘And he said, Go and tell that fox’ – With great propriety so called, for his subtilty and cowardice. ….But let us carefully distinguish between those things wherein Christ is our pattern, and those which were peculiar to his office. His extraordinary office justified him in using that severity of language, when speaking of wicked princes, and corrupt teachers, to which we have no call; and by which we should only bring scandal on religion, and ruin on ourselves, while we irritated rather than convinced or reformed those whom we so indecently rebuked. (Emphasis added)

Thinking about the lack of decent discourse in American politics today, I found Wesley profoundly helpful.  As Christians, even at our most prophetic, our goal should be to “convince or reform” those with whom we disagree, not simply make them a mockery.  The hatemongering we saw for years in response to W’s presidency, and now with Obama, should be enough for anyone to see to need for Wesley’s approach to how we speak of and to our ‘princes’.  Was Wesley a radical? Look at the man’s portrait! (Translation: probably not.)  Would Wesley drool for the observations of Jon Stewart?  Doubtful.  But he should give us pause as pastors, theologians, and – dare I say! – bloggers.  Christ certainly had business rebuking, mocking, and talking down to rulers and authorities.  Is that our vocation?