Tag Archives: Methodist

The Pew Forum Obituary & the Good News of Powerlessness

“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -Lord ActonPewForum

 “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” -James 4:10 (NRSV)

If you’ve ever been to a Hospice House, you know that there is such a thing as holy dying.  Even in a film absurd enough to suggest that Tom Cruise could be a samurai, the viewer encountered the idea of a “good death.”  As Christians, death and resurrection are at the very heart of our faith.  Thus it is surprising to see the defensiveness, anger, fear, and finger-pointing among Christians that have accompanied the release of the recent Pew Forum obituary report sounding the death knell for most forms of Christianity in the US.  Evangelicals point to the attitudes and theologies of liberal Christians. Liberal/Progressive Christians point to the intolerance and judgmentalism of conservatives.  Decline is everyone else’s fault. And we’re pissed.

The Pew results are neither surprising nor encouraging, but I want to suggest they need not cause us to despair, either.  Most forms of Christianity are suffering because we have so accommodated to American culture (regardless of which side of the culture war battle lines one prefers) that we no longer offer a compelling alternative that is more interesting than a football game, yard sale, or an extra hour of sleep.  To make matters worse, many of the most ‘successful’ churches have bucked this trend not by offering a faithful alternative, but by doubling down and out-MTVing MTV.  Their end is destruction.

Instead, perhaps what we are experiencing is a necessary winnowing.  Elaine Heath has suggested the church is going through a “dark night of the soul,” a period of spiritual struggle from which we will emerge more vital and faithful.  I can’t help but think that the decline of Mainline Protestantism is overall a good thing.  The “Christian Century” was marked by the worst atrocities and wars humanity has ever concocted. We deserve to lose our prominence.  Maybe if we can embrace our newfound irrelevance, as my friend Evan suggests, we might find the only renewal worth having.

My own United Methodist tribe is marked by a sad compromise with the world that defines our history even today.  Scott Kisker reflects on the compromise that led early Methodists to abandon their anti-slavery stance in a devil’s bargain to win the frontier (and eventually become the “most successful” church in the newly united US):

“When Euro-Methodists abandoned some of our brothers and sisters to accept a place at America’s table, we were deceiving ourselves that we could use the power that went with the position to do good. We didn’t notice we were being changed by the power. We became worldly, not holy.” (1)

Christ Carrying the Cross, circa 1580, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Christ Carrying the Cross, circa 1580, by El Greco. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The story of American Methodism is mimicked heavily in US Protestantism more broadly; this is so whether we consider the Moral Majority, “Cross & Flag” triumphalism of the 1980’s or the gradual succumbing of denominations like the UCC to forms of liberal Religious Leftism that mirrored and thus could not critique politically compromised evangelicalism.  They were both Constantinian in approach: seeking power and influence on the world’s terms in the guise of the gospel.  Like Kisker notes in reference to Methodism, “we were deceiving ourselves that we could use the power” without being co-opted by it.  Lord Acton’s dictum remains true for all who are not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

That’s why the Pew Forum report gives me hope.  In our newfound (and uncomfortable) powerlessness, we just might recover the church of the apostles.  Our failure on the world’s terms just might lead to success on God’s terms.  Isn’t the direction of the gospel the story of downward mobility? Henri Nouwen thus reflects:

“The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record – that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame. The way of Jesus is radically different.  It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility.  It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place!  Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing?  Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life.” (2)

Jesus once told Peter (John 21:18) that when he was older, he would be taken where he did not want to go (this indicated Peter’s death by crucifixion, in imitation of Jesus).

Likewise, the church in North America is being led where it does not wish to go.

Jesus, though, has walked this lonesome valley before us. We journey towards a cross.

But after the cross…

Saints rising from the grave, plaque, circa 1250.  Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.
Saints rising from the grave, plaque, circa 1250. Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources:

1. Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist? (Nashville: Discipleship Resources 2008), 47.

2. Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey.

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Searching for Substance: Rachel Held Evans’ Decades-Old Prescription for Reaching Millennials

Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.
Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.

Everything old is new again.  It’s painful to watch a well-worn thesis go viral 30 years late and with someone else’s name attached.  Many folks have been talking about this self-aggrandizing piece by famous I-used-to-be-evangelical-but-now-I’m-enlightened blogger Rachel Held Evans (henceforth RHE).  Aside from seeing it all over Facebook and Twitter, I have unchurched friends sending me messages about it, I see some of my denominational supervisors writing about it, and I overhear colleagues talk about it at meetings. Thus it’s hard to argue that RHE is certainly an impressive trend in the progressive Christian blogosphere.  The problem is, her prescription for bringing millennials back to the church is at least 30 years old.  Robert Webber made this case just a couple of years after I was born.  The idea for which Evans is being lauded is literally as old as the millennials she intends to draw back.

RHE’s re-warmed argument runs as such:

“In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”

If young people don’t “simply want a better a better show,” don’t tell that to the fastest-growing megachurch in my state.  I may find the show aesthetically offensive, the methods manipulative, and the content lacking, but that doesn’t mean many churches have not found this prescription “successful.”  If it is now cliché to the sophisticated palate of RHE, it is only because this formula has been useful in many places and for many years.  Time will tell if young adults are now growing wise to the marketing.  In my own small town, the churches that are attracting millennials the fastest are still following the above formula that Evans finds passé.

That doesn’t mean she’s totally wrong, though.  What attracted RHE to sacramental Christianity includes many of the reasons I love and practice it:

“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”

The problem is that Evans’ solution is in danger of underwriting “the form of godliness without the power.” (2 Tim. 3:5) I would certainly agree that the aesthetics of Holy Communion or Ash Wednesday are far more powerful than a coffee bar or strobe lights.  But if these wonderful practices are divorced from their doctrinal content, they are little more than nice rituals and not a means of grace.

Which brings us to RHE’s solution: The Episcopal Church.  To be blunt, if the Episcopalians were drawing in millennials the way RHE’s analysis suggests they should be, then statistically TEC would not be dying out faster than Blockbuster. Evans does suggest one need not be a part of a denomination that is historically sacramental, but this is only to double down on the problem: going through the motions of ritual without the ecclesiology or doctrinal commitments which underlie them creates just another hip activity to do on Sunday.

Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.
Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.

Holy Communion serves as an example of why form and content must be in harmony. To name just three potential problems related to the Eucharist: absent (1) a sacramental theology capable of claiming that what happens at the table is something more than a snack, or (2) a Christology capable of handling the theological freight of the Great Thanksgiving, or  (3) a soteriology that recognizes the need to repent for sins of omission and sins of commission, this highest point of Christian worship becomes dead ritual, an aesthetic experience that pleases but does not transform.*

I don’t pretend to know what millennials want (even though I am one) because I don’t believe I can read a few polls, talk to my friends, and thereby understand everyone in my generation.  That said, I am quite sure that we should not design churches to fit the fancies of the same people who have made The Real World a successful franchise and the Kardashians famous.  Thus the appeal of the ancient forms of worship not designed by me or for me, an appeal which I gladly confess.

But the ancient forms demand substance to match the style.  I don’t know what millennials want, but what (read: Who) millennials need is the God revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds and liturgies of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  Mainline churches like TEC and my own United Methodist Church reflect that apostolic teaching and practice on paper, but on the ground our pastors and other leaders too often compromise core Trinitarian and Christological confessions which frame Christian life and practice.  (The story of two “bishops,” Sprague and Spong, is enough evidence to suffice here.)  When this happens, we are trying to plant heirloom roses in poisoned soil.

As much as anyone else, I want millennials (indeed, all people) to know fellowship with the Three-One God and life in the Body of Christ.   With the ancient church and the Reformers, I believe the sacraments are among the most wonderful gifts of God.  This remains the case whether a critical mass of millennials find them “relevant” or not.  Of course, catechesis (teaching) about Christian worship in general and the sacraments in particular is necessary to help any new Christians connect with liturgical practice, as with anything not immediately self-evident.

But let’s not forget that form needs power; Webber, who originated Evans’ thesis, was very aware of the necessity to maintain the Christian story.  The practices of Christian liturgy without the doctrinal and ethical content which undergird them are little more than mansions built on sand.  Ritual without substance won’t do anyone – millennial or otherwise – any good at all.

P.S. The impressive growth of the ACNA – not all of which can be attributed to schism and sheep stealing, but at least in part to church planting and doctrinal fidelity – serves as a useful foil to TEC’s statistics and an example of what happens when the ancient and apostolic form meets the content for which it was intended.

*This assumes, of course, a heart transformed by the love of God and a life of prayer, service, mercy, and justice. Doctrine and ethics, faith and practice, go together – they do not compete with each other.

Thomas Ogletree on Covenant

ogletree book

“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”

-St. Augustine

With increasing abandon, it is clear that United Methodists at all levels are shaped more by notions of the Enlightenment’s autonomous, free individual than a Biblical notion of persons in covenant community.  Though our constituent bodies have names like church, conference, and connection, these words seem to have little purchase on the decisions made from the local church to the Council of Bishops.

One manifestation of this abandonment of ecclesiology is the liberty taken by clergy and bishops to simply act of their own accord, regardless of personal vows made or communal integrity placed under duress.  In such an environs, it is helpful to remember what covenant is all about.  It is not without irony that I share some reflections on the moral life under Israel’s covenant from Thomas Ogletree, former professor of Christian ethics and Dean at Yale Divinity School and a UM elder.  Ogletree notes,

“…the covenant is broader and deeper than politics as such. it is certainly richer than the modern notion of a social contract among autonomous, self-interested, rational individuals! It embraces the whole complex fabric  of the people’s lives, their shared experiences and interactions over time. The substantive obligations of the people are not simply functions of a formal agreement; they are integral features of their concrete social and historical reality taken in its totality.”

Ogletree elaborates on this considerably; the thrust of this section in his book is that the multi-faceted moral obligations placed upon Israel are in the context of covenant, a relationship which, however difficult, is for the ultimate benefit of of God’s elect.  This moral code, says Oglegtree,

“…can become burdensome and demanding; it often involves suffering and anguish, sometimes even death; it frequently blocks and frustrates immediate wants; it continually puts people to the test, and it certainly stretches them. In its deepest meanings, however, it is wholly congruent with human reality and its potentialities. Moreover, its requirements are in principle within the reach of human powers and capacities. The possibility of infidelity is ever present, and temptations will surely come, but where the people are diligent, they can keep the covenant and its obligations, to their ultimate benefit.”

Covenant obligations as an ultimate benefit? It’s hard to imagine American Mainline Protestants in general, and Methodists in particular, agreeing to such a radically pre-modern notion.  And yet, it is a part of our DNA.  Look at these words from the Covenant Renewal Service, which many UMC congregations celebrated last week, hearkening back to Wesley’s own New Year’s practice:

Christ has many services to be done.
Some are more easy and honorable,
others are more difficult and disgraceful.
Some are suitable to our inclinations and interests,
others are contrary to both.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves.
But then there are other works where we cannot please Christ
except by denying ourselves.

As best as I can tell, we Methodists have eschewed any sense of self-denial, for Christ or covenant or anything.  The self is what is holy – perhaps the only entity recognized as true, good, and beautiful at all levels of the UMC.  Hosea’s stringent words befit us, though for me Augustine (as quoted at the top) still wins out:

“Rejoice not, O Israel! Exult not like the peoples; for you have played the whore, forsaking your God. “ (Hosea 9:1, ESV)

 

[Source: Thomas Ogletree, “Covenant and Commandment: The Old Testament Understandings of the Moral Life,” from The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1983), 50, 52.]

Pope Francis’ Address to the #UMC

His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a 'funeral face,' courtesy Wikipedia.
His Holiness Pope Francis showing off the exact opposite of a ‘funeral face,’ courtesy Wikipedia.

In, “Wow, he never ceases to amaze” news, Pope Francis just dropped a Petrine hammer on his own inner circle.  The Vatican Curia – the upper echelon leaders of the vast Vatican administrative machine – got some coal in their mitres during what is usually a pretty benign Christmas address.  The short version: he said the Curia was sick. Of the 15 ‘ailments’ he named that are harming the life of the Roman Catholic Church, I thought a few especially applied to my own communion, the United Methodist Church.  The full list, and the original numbering, is found here from the AP, from which the following selections are quoted.  The commentary attached is my own.  See if you think the Holy Father’s words are fitting for today’s UMC:

1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticize itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself is a sick body.”

Going on to perfection is kind of our thing, isn’t it?  In 2012, the UMC showed a remarkable ability to avoid self-improvement.  How can we become a healthy body instead of a sick body?

2) Working too hard. “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”

For too many Christians, lay and clergy alike, busyness has become a status symbol and an idol.  Why don’t our clergy preach sabbath? Why don’t our churches expect it of their pastors?

5) Working without coordination, like an orchestra that produces noise. “When the foot tells the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ or the hand tells the head ‘I’m in charge.'”

It is easy to look upon other corners of the church as backwards, our out there, or fruitless, or whatever.  But we are all in this together, folks. (By the by, Bishop Grant Hagiya recently had some great things to say about the Pacifict-Northwest, often dismissed by Methodists here in the Bible Belt, on episode #7 of the WesleyCast).  Moreover, coordination – aligning our ministries, resources, and energies – is critical to accomplishing our ministry.  See also #1.

6) Having ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’ “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias, in those who build walls around themselves and becomes enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

Ask about rescinding the Guaranteed Appointment and watch our clergy suddenly develop ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’

7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the color of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”

We are too damned competitive with each other.  The megachurch pastors all want the number one spot.  The mid-size church in town competes with the large downtown church.  On a charge, the smaller church or churches feel inferior to the larger.  Clergy boast about “God’s work” in their church, sharing posts on social media about all the amazing things going on but really we just want our colleagues and superiors to think better of us. In internet parlance, this is called a “humblebrag.” All of this is poison. Pure poison.

9) Committing the ‘terrorism of gossip.’ “It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”

Christians should not be gossips, and we in the UMC are as guilty as anyone. We talk behind the backs of our pastors, our lay leadership, our bishops, etc..  We of all people know the power of words to make and unmake lives, galaxies, families, and churches.  Clergy should take the lead in condemning gossip in all its forms.  Dave Ramsey’s (I know, I know) take is helpful.  If you think Ramsey is too strong on this, remember – the Pope just called this terrorism.

12) Having a ‘funeral face.’ “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”

The subtext for too many of our denominational gatherings – international, national, and local – is death.  We Methodists wear the funeral face well. We shouldn’t.  As another Bishop of Rome, John Paul II, said, “We are Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

14) Forming ‘closed circles’ that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad — scandals — especially to our younger brothers.”

If all or most of your friends are on the same side as you, in the church or in the world – you need to rid yourself of this sickness.  Caucuses (such as the IRD, RMN, Good News, and Love Prevails) have done the UMC precisely what some of the Founders – quite correctly – warned that parties would do the the US.  If you want to affiliate with some sub-group of the UMC, fine; but we are contributing to the dissolution of the church and our own spiritual myopia if we only associate with like-minded folk.

There’s my annotated, partial list of Pope Francis’ recommendations for United Methodists.  What do you think?  What should be added? Might the UMC benefit from a similar speech from one of our Bishops?

Barbarians at the Gate: Shock Politics, Civility, and the Demand for Total Surrender #UMC

Hadrian's Wall, built to keep out my ancestors. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Hadrian’s Wall, built to keep out my ancestors. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Historically, we build walls to keep out invasive forces.  For all the sentimental claptrap about “walls never stay standing,” the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall still stand as reminders that there is always a need to set limits between civil and uncivil forces.  There is a similar need now in the UMC.  The walls are metaphorical, of course, but no less important.

Some actions should simply be out of bounds, not just by all people of good will, but in particular by Christians ostensibly dedicated to a particular way of life called church.  As I’ve said before, one of those tactics is threatening schism, which is that much worse when it is claimed to be backed by anonymous minions.  Another is straight from the Howard Stern school of political engagement: the shock tactic.  In conservative Christian circles, one version of this is to show pictures of aborted babies as a way of convincing anyone in view of the horrors of the practice.  While I believe Christians should be concerned with the rights of the unborn, most people of faith agree that using dead babies to win political points in such a fashion is not becoming of ecclesial discourse.

But progressive Christians sometimes sink to the same level.  A video was recently made, occasioned by the Connectional Table’s request for input, that drew a straight line between a horrific, shaming event involving a youth pastor and the suicide of a young United Methodist college student.  Many pro-LGBT supporters shared and commented on this video, with little critical inquiry given as to whether or not the story of the young man’s suicide might be more complex than one (admittedly awful) incident.  Like pictures of aborted children, it is simply intended to shock into silence and consent.

Another problematic feature of the UMC conversation of late is the totalizing politics at play.  One of the great missteps of the 20th century was the Allies’ demand for total and unconditional surrender from Japan.  It is arguable that, had some negotiation been possible, the destruction wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have been necessary.  When one gives up on conversation and the only outcome one can live with is surrender, tragedy often ensues.

To observe this in the UMC, consider the recent witch hunt for Richard Hays, NT professor and Dean of Duke University Divinity School.  Andy Oliver, a staff member for RMN, posted a profoundly misguided article  calling for Hays’ capitulation on a number of fronts, even recanting parts of one of his most famous books.  Oliver posted this with the kind of totalizing, threatening language that would make Good News proud (promising legions of anonymous supporters ready to strike).  In a political world where everyone who does not fully support your agenda is a contemptible enemy, one need not take the time to make rational arguments or reasonable demands.  If total surrender is your only acceptable outcome, you’ve already decided that no amount of eggs is too great to get the omelette of your dreams.*

The recent CT-sponsored panel discussion. Photo credit: UM Communications.
The recent CT-sponsored panel discussion. Photo credit: UM Communications.

When the barbarians are near, it’s time to remember that fences make good neighbors.  One need look no further for this than the recent Connectional Table-sponsored panel discussion based on Finding Our Way.  The fruitful dialogue was made possible because a band of insurgents was not allowed in the room, likely because they had already promised to do what they always do: (d)isrupt the stated agenda.  Whether this show of intestinal fortitude was a one-time experiment or a sudden lapse into strong leadership  by the Connectional Table remains to be seen.

We have serious matters before us.  We should spend the lead-in to General Conference 2016 in prayer, fasting, and holy conferencing.  Shock tactics and the politics of total surrender have no place in the Body of Christ, and all of us, no matter what side we are on, should demand better of one another.  Our leaders, in particular, have duty to order the life of the church so that fear and intimidation do not replace prayer and discernment.  In the words of Bishop Ken Carter, this is a call to do the work of Christ in the way of Christ; the aggressive politics of Congressional filibuster and campus protest has no place among those whose life is defined by the cross and resurrection.

The barbarians are at the gate, friends.  They are left and right, Reconciling and Confessing (to name just two).  We will either build walls and set some healthy boundaries agains those who wish to tear us apart, or we will be overrun by malignant forces among us who demand total surrender.  The choice is ours.

*An excellent rebuttal from the Indiana RMN affiliate to the atrocious hatchet job about Dean Hays can be found here.

Welcome to the #UMC Straw Man Fighting Championships

Sure, you can beat up on them, but it doesn't really get you anywhere. Courtesy wikipedia.
Sure, you can beat up on them, but it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Courtesy wikipedia.

The Walk Out

In the world of combat sports, someone who pads their record by defeating unskilled opponents is said to be fighting “tomato cans.”  This is essentially what the crotchety trainer Mick says to Rocky in Rocky III: you’ve been fighting easy fights, and you’re not ready for Clubber Lang:

Rocky: What are you talkin’ about? I had ten title defenses.
Mickey: That was easy.
Rocky: What you mean, “easy”?
Mickey: They was hand-picked!
Rocky: Setups?
Mickey: Nah, they wasn’t setups. They was good fighters, but they wasn’t killers like this guy. He’ll knock you to tomorrow, Rock!

When our opponents are hand-picked to make us look good, there isn’t much glory in victory.  The academic parallel to picking easy fights is the logical fallacy known as a straw man.  When you engage in a straw man attack, you are misrepresenting an interlocutor’s position, offering a counter-argument to that misidentified position, and summarily declaring victory.  But in reality, you have dodged your opponent, and you become what Clubber Lang called a “paper champion.”

The following are two examples of the straw man fallacy at its strawiest.

Round 1

In a recent series of blogs, a few people have suggested closing the floor to all but delegates, bishops, and essential personnel at the UMC General Conference in 2016.  There have been many helpful critiques, corrections, and questions about these proposals along the way, and for those I am appreciative.  But not all of them have been so thoughtful.

Jeremy Smith over at Hack[ing] Christianity dismissed many of the critics to his analysis by pointing to their gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.  In a follow-up, he essentially declared victory on the grounds that his only pushback was from straight white men who were less enlightened than he, as a straight white man 2.0 (note that, as far as Adam West’s Batman is removed from Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, so is Smith removed from all straight, WASP-y men who might dare to question his insights):

There was significant online critique from straight white men who felt strongly that pointing to their common social location was unfair–and it was quite confrontational!

The problem is that this was a straw man, because he did indeed get feedback from people who were not SWM, which he ignored.  Comments at David Watson’s blog included well-reasoned perspectives from women and African-American men.  This part of the former comment especially (but not strangely) warmed my heart, since I was one of the people “hacked” by Rev. Smith:

All three people you “engaged” in your post, who come from very different places theologically, reacted to your post by insisting that you distorted what they themselves thought was at stake. This is intellectual vice. You also, despite their diversity of theological perspectives, lumped them in together and acted as if they were all the same because of their race, gender, and marital status.

While Jeremy responded to several folks on that thread, he did not respond to either of the comments above, perhaps because they did not fit the narrative around which he had built his straw man argument.

Round 2:

Another recent post by former Methodist seminary president Philip Amerson similarly jams together all of those who’ve suggested closing the GC2016 floor with this epic straw man:

Recently, some traditionalists have suggested that our General Conference should become a closed-door meeting that would allow only delegates to participate.

On an outlet featuring almost exclusively progressive voices like UMC Lead, the casual label “traditionalist” is more than enough to have an argument dismissed with no further adieu.  Sadly, it mirrors almost exactly an experience about which Stephen Rankin recently wrote.   Even worse, had Amerson done a bare minimum of homework, he would have known that at least 2 out of 3 of the folks he labelled “traditionalists” are anything but – including yours truly! – and spend as much of their time critiquing the UMC right as they do the UMC left.  Instead, he lumps all of us in with the far right of the church (with whom I would not identify Watson) and delves into deep psychoanalysis to suggest this proposal is really offered “out of a need control the outcome.”

This neglects two very important points: 1) The proposals have not been targeted at any particular groups, but at anyone who is not a delegate, bishop, or necessary personnel; 2) Don’t those who want the floor to be open actually want to “control the outcome” by interfering with the process we have?

Amerson has also set up a straw man, in naming all of those who are interested in this particular proposal control-mad traditionalists and assuming within them the worst possible motives.  Like Smith, his critique is really little more than shadow-boxing, because the boogeyman he’s fighting simply doesn’t exist.

The Judges’ Decision

The Straw Man Fighting Championship will not move us toward any desirable outcome as a church.  I am well aware that I’ve never written anything that is above critique, and I truly enjoy all kinds of healthy dialogue and pushback.  I have thick skin.  I was a Just War advocate at Duke Divinity School, for Augustine’s sake! (For those unfamiliar with my alma mater, it would be like walking across the OSU campus in a Michigan sweatshirt.)

I love a good argument.  But I can’t stand being misrepresented, and then watching others claim trophies for defeating a phantasm.  I can’t say this emphatically enough: we must do better.

As David Watson has suggested in the piece I mentioned above,

How we argue matters. I can’t emphasize this enough. The way in which we engage one another, the motives we attribute to one another, and the rigor with which we engage one another’s arguments–these all matter.

A good argument can accomplish much.  But lazy, fallacious, dismissive, and surface-level arguments like we’ve been having will not take us anywhere we want to be.

The choice is ours, church.

 

P.S. For the sake of consistency, I fully expect progressive UMC critics of the proposal in question to begin a letter-writing campaign to their elected officials to ensure that the floor of Congress is opened to the Tea Party, Code Pink, the KKK, the Nation of Islam, and any other group who might feel a need to be heard in that venue.

Temper-Tantrums or Conversation? #UMC

quarrel

Healthy discourse is hard to come by, especially in contemporary forms of media in which the best way to get attention is through insult, rant, and hyperbole.  We all say we hate sensationalism, but the ugly truth is we are far less likely to read something that doesn’t make a shocking or outrageous claim.  Much of the Christian blogosphere, as reliant as it is on idol-worship and idol-busting, is rife with this sort of madness.

After all, it is much easier to dismiss an interlocutor with insinuation, ad-hominem, or labeling than to actually engage ideas with which we disagree.  That is because, in our infinite capacity for self-deception, we easily keep exclusively to the self-licking ice cream cone of our own ideological outhouses.   We  too often succumb to the temptation of intellectual comfort by surrounding ourselves with those who agree with us, who confirm all our biases, and then proceed to shout down in the most dishonest and uncharitable fashion possible any criticism we receive.

Welcome to the internet.  Welcome to our polarized society and church.

But there are some different voices, and they are worth highlighting because change will only occur if we reward people for writing with sense and sensitivity, with passion and restraint.  Here are three examples, all with similar stories to tell, and all people of intellectual rigor and genuine caritas.

  • David Watson from United Theological Seminary reminds us that how we argue is as important, if not more so, than the truth for which we argue.  Ends and means both matter.
  • Stephen Rankin from Southern Methodist University tells a personal story about how his own sincere, bridge-building effort to move a difficult conversation forward was dismissed out of hand with a simple label.  A sad, all too common story.
  • Evan Rohrs-Dodge, a UM pastor and fellow curator over at Via Media Methodists, uses Aragorn to remind us how important it is to actually listen to one another.  Listening is harder, but the only way to actually get anywhere.

As Chesterton asserted, it is easier to quarrel than to argue.  A quality argument can do much to bring needed change to couples, families, churches, and whole societies.  But petty tempter-tantrums and name-calling will only dissolve our bonds and harm whatever efforts there are to produce genuine conversation.

USA and #UMC, take heed.

How not to move the conversation forward.  Courtesy freeimages.com.
How not to move the conversation forward. Courtesy freeimages.com.

 

Heroism, Martyrdom, and Suicide: Thoughts on Self-Immolation

polycarp
Polycarp, the martyred bishop of Smyrna. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The suicide by self-immolation of Rev. Charles Moore, a retired UMC pastor from Texas, has inspired a host of responses by those troubled by his startling death.  Unfortunately, his suicide has been turned into a call to arms by many, and even an instance of hero worship or martyrological fascination by others.  With due respect for his lifetime of ministry and his family, I believe some clarification is in order.

Martyrdom is Not Sought Out

Many commenters have hinted at Rev. Moore’s status as a martyr, and at least one blogger was bold enough to outright assert it.  The problem is that martyrdom is never something that, according to Scripture and our earliest witnesses, is ever supposed to be sought out.  Take, for instance, the comment about Quintus, a Christian who handed himself over to the authorities, seeking the glory of a martyr’s death from The Martyrdom of Polycarp:

“But a certain man named Quintus…when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was he who constrained himself and others to come in of their own accord. This man, the proconsul, with much importunity, persuaded to swear and to sacrifice. On this account, brethren, we praise not them that give themselves up, since the gospel doth not so teach.”

This is contrasted with the approach of Polycarp, who did all in his power to avoid martyrdom, and who blessed his persecutors even as they came to arrest him.  Martyrdom is not to be sought intentionally, and nor is it something that is self-inflicted.

Heroism is a Communal Achievement

‘Heroism’ is one of those words that has become flattened through overuse.  We apply it too easily, and thus have cheapened the ambitious call to excellence that the heroic label entails.  Many who commented on Rev. Moore’s suicide implied he was a hero, if not for the way he died, for the causes which drove him to self-immolate.  A Reconciling Ministries Network article likened him to Jesus but quickly tried to distance from that analogy:

“Even Jesus, who led a parade from the east of Jerusalem on a colt the same day that Pilate led his Roman legion on a white stallion from the west, knew that such an act would lead to his arrest and likely execution as an insurrectionist against Rome. However, placing yourself in harm’s way out of conviction is still very different from taking one’s own life. If we had had the opportunity to talk to Charles before he took this drastic step, we most certainly would have tried to talk him out of it.”

In their marvelous book Heroism and the Christian Life, Brian Hook and R.R. Reno  seek to reclaim a particularly Christian vision of heroism by examining the gospel narratives, the ancient views of heroism, and the critiques of Christianity’s greatest critic, Nietzsche.  Part of their argument is that heroism entails both recognition (by a community) and imitation (it is worthy of repetition):

“Starved for ‘real heroes’, we latch onto the extraordinary and elevate the agent to the stage of hero.  The problem is that heroes are people who possess remarkable virtues and abilities, and are not unique acts.  Since true heroism entails recognition and emulation, the incidental hero fails. ” (12)

The hero is formed, recognized, and imitated over the course of a lifetime; in short, one incident does not a hero make, let alone an act neither condoned nor imitated by one’s community.

Naming the Silence

Many, myself included, were and are disturbed by Rev. Moore’s death.  I would posit that the best name for the resulting silence is tragedy.  Note the first two definitions listed by Merriam-Webster:

: a very bad event that causes great sadness and often involves someone’s death

: a very sad, unfortunate, or upsetting situation : something that causes strong feelings of sadness or regret

We can, and should, respect that Rev. Moore lived out his convictions with such boldness – regardless of whether we share them.  An encounter with the living Lord should call us to solidarity with the widow, alien, and orphan – and all who are forgotten, abused, and oppressed.  For the dedication to that Kingdom work I give thanks.  How then, might we best remember Rev. Moore?

I’m reminded of a movie scene.  At the end of The Last Samurai, the young emperor asks Captain Algren how his mentor and friend died.  In the closing line of the film, Algren replies, “I would tell you how he lived.”

I would suggest we honor Rev. Moore’s memory by remembering how he lived, and for what he lived.  From what I have gleaned, he had a lasting impact on the church in Texas and the communities he served.  That he felt his work inadequate or unsuccessful, such that self-immolation was a necessary or desirable end to fulfill his vocation, is a tragedy.

My prayers are with Rev. Moore, his family, and his loved ones.  May we all turn our dreams, our desires, and our hopes over to the one in whom no work is wasted, and no life or ministry, however great or small, is worthless.  I rejoice that Rev. Moore is at peace. Let us who remain tarry on, in hope that “the one who began a good work among [us] will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:16, NRSV)

#UMC Victories, Vicarious and Pyrrhic

sparta siege
The Siege of Sparta by Pyrrhus, courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Do not gloat when your enemy falls;
                           when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice
.”                              -Proverbs 24:17 (NIV)

I had a feeling this might be coming.  Last Friday night I listened in to Frank Schaefer on what was basically a conference call with the Reconciling Ministries Network community of my conference (WNCCUMC) during a worship service that they hosted.  When he said that he felt good about his chances of being reinstated – the church’s representation seemed unprepared, he noted – the congregation erupted in applause.  Today that applause is surely redoubled, as Frank’s defrocking has been reversed on appeal.

But to be clear, this is not a clear victory for anyone, which may the best possible outcome.  The court did not say  the church was wrong to punish Frank.  It said the mix-and-match penalties – a suspension and defrocking contingent on his unwillingness to promise future compliance – was inappropriate.  The appellate court upheld the suspension, but reversed the defrocking (thus, refrocking?).  So while some might say “he got away with it!” and others will cry “justice has been done!” neither is exactly correct.

The progressives are clearly taking this as a victory, though, which is understandable.  I wonder what kind of victory it really is, however?  It is certainly a vicarious victory, not unlike the relief that many felt when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in his initial criminal trial.  Millions who were actually unaffected took it, nonetheless, as a victory for “us.”  As Chris Rock later said, sarcastically, “Every day I look in the mail for my O.J. prize, and nothing!”  Thus many are taking this as a victory for LGBT “inclusion” advocates, even though the decision actually is not a rebuttal of the UMC’s official position.

It could also be a pyrrhic victory.  A pyrrhic victory is one in which the victory gained is overshadowed by the costs inflicted.  Think of Lee near the end of the Civil War; he was beating Grant with superior generalship, but Grant could afford the losses he was incurring and Lee could not – despite winning many engagements.  The symbolic victory that Schaefer’s refrocking is for the progressives pales in comparison to the problem of yet another occurrence that will up the temperature in our wider denominational divides, when we already have conservatives looking for excuses to bolt.  And before you say Schaeffer’s victory is more than symbolic, bear in mind that he’s become a minor celebrity since the trial, busy with the lecture circuit and entertaining offers from schismatic bishops like Carcano.  Whether one agrees with today’s outcome or not, from all appearances Frank was not suffering in exile.

So whether you think today was a great victory or a great defeat, do not be too quick to celebrate or mourn.  Neither “side” won here, though the outcome may be to take us ever closer to the precipice that most of us do not want to reach.  As Proverbs 24 reminds us, do not gloat, whether you wish to to transform the church or break away.

And for those of us left somewhere in the middle – neither celebrating or grieving, but concerned for the future – take heart.  God is still with all of us: left, right, and the wide middle.  There seems to be more energy directed now to staying together rather than rending our communion.  The tail need not always wag the dog.  God may yet surprise us.  In the words of T.S. Eliot, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

I’ll close these reflections with some lines from S.J. Stone, which describe vividly the strife in our church and the hope that we yet hold.  Easter people know that the night of weeping does not last.  May the God in whom there is true justice, peace, mercy, and holiness hear this prayer:

Though with a scornful wonder
we  see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;
their cry goes up: “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.

Update: Just a few hours after this blog was published, it was announced that the refrocked Schaefer has been appointed to the Cal-Pac Conference to a serve in a student ministry appointment.  Especially interesting is Bishop Carcano’s distinctly un-prophetic praise of Disciplinary procedure in her letter.