united methodists

I love the church! But I love my little tribe more.

Nancy Gibbs gave a wonderful speech which was adapted for TIME magazine titled How we Deserted Common Ground. The piece is directed to journalists but is worth reading because she is a very good writer and her insights are always helpful.

In Gibbs' article she cites Yale Law professor Dan Kahan who said, "What people 'believe' about global warming doesn't' reflect what they know, it expresses who they are." Clearly this is not limited to global warming. To make the case, Gibbs also cites a southern Democratic Senator who said the debate over gun control is "about who you are and who you aren't." 

When we are more concerned about our personal brand, our ratings, number of likes, and retweets, every issue is not about the issue but a proxy discussion for how we desire to be seen. It stands to reason that the debates in the United Methodist Church are also about "who you are and who you aren't." 

And therein lies the difficulty of the situation we are in. We are so insecure of who we are in Christ that we have to constantly define ourselves as something else. "We are orthodox Wesleyan." "We are the prophetic voices of God." We are arguing with others in order to show them who we are, all the while unaware that who we really feel we need to convince is is our own tribe.

A large reason we continue to be entrenched is because if we give the impression that we are not 100% with our tribe then we risk our tribe abandoning us. And hell hath no fury as a tribe who eats their own for not being pure enough for the tribe. So in order to avoid being cannibalized by our own tribe, we take steps to prove our tribal devotion which moves us farther away other non-tribe members. 

This is why we all have words and ideas that we don't like to use. Conservatives do not like to identify themselves as social justice advocates (even though they they are) because even as they believe in social justice they don't want to give the impression they are liberal. And Liberals don't want to talk about how they are orthodox (even thought they are) because to do so means they could give the impression they are conservative. 

Much of the arguing in the church that divides us farther apart is rooted in efforts to convince our own tribe of who we are. And there is no greater devotion to the little tribe than being willing to break the larger Church for the sake of the little tribe.


Uniting Methodists - Wheat and Weeds

The United Methodist Church is facing the reality of becoming a monoculture denomination. (Monoculture in the church is something that I have touched on before below are a few links to previous posts for reference).

A monoculture denomination is a denomination that is really good at making one type of thing. This efficiency means a monoculutre denomination may be able to grow in numbers, but like all other monocultures, it is very susceptible to sickness and unhealth. Nonetheless, when there is a lower "yield" than previous years and the numbers do not look good, monocultures are very attractive.

Jesus had a little parable about the kingdom of God and buried within it we can see the resistance Jesus has for the monoculture church. 

Even weeds have beauty

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ - Matt. 13: 24-30

Every side of the denomination feels like they are the wheat and others are the weeds. You know the arguments made by different field workers of today:

  • Traditionalists argue that Progressives are sowing seeds of disobedience and seek to uproot the entire orthodox tradition.
  • Progressives argue that Traditionalists are sowing seeds of contempt and seek to uproot justice for the sake of compliance.
  • Non-Compatibleists on both sides argue that those in the are sowing seeds of fear and seek to uproot the whole church for the sake of a Pollyannan idea of unity that is lukewarm at best. 
  • Compatibleists argue that the extremes are sowing seeds of anger and are determined to uproot the entire church out of their self-righteous peacocking. 

The reality is we all are convinced that we are the wheat and others are the weeds. We all are convinced that we are good enough at this thing called Christianity that we can remove the weeds without harming the wheat. 

Jesus says otherwise. 

Jesus reminds us all that we are not very good at all at discerning wheat from weeds and even if we could, we are so inept that we do much more harm than we realize.

I read this parable in part as a caution against the attraction to a monoculture denomination. In our efforts to be as faithful as possible (growing only wheat) we will always find things/people we believe are not faithful (weeds). The Uniting Methodists stand with those who heed the call of the master and, despite our frustration, let the wheat and the weeds grow together. The Uniting Methodist stand with the humble servants who were confronted with their own limitations. The Uniting Methodists stand with those who trust that the Master is okay with wheat and weeds in the field.

If we cannot live with the weeds in God's field, then perhaps our anger/frustration is less about the weeds and more about our own lack of faithful discipleship.

Uniting Methodist Conference - Not Letting Ourselves off the Hook


Among the many wonderful experiences at the Uniting Methodist Conference held in Atlanta, Georgia (November 13-14, 2017), I submit this post to share a few highlights. 

First, it has become a lazy argument that Unity and institutional survivability are interchangeable. Put another way, it is argued that if you desire for Unity then you really are driven by your fear of loosing pension, health care and salary. This misrepresents the Uniting Methodists in the same way it is said that the traditionalists hate LGBTQI+ community and that the progressives believe traditionalists are racist and homophobic. All of these lazy arguments are caricatures that do not represent reality. To continue to speak to one another as caricatures is not only un-Christ like but it is mean.

Rather, the Uniting Methodist feel God is calling the Church to uphold Jesus' great prayer in John 17:

"‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."

Jesus is not praying for an institution or a pension. He is upholding and elevating the value of unity in the face of pressure to easily dismiss and divide. Yes, centrists understand that those on the left see inclusion as a justice issue. Yes, centrists also understand that those on the right see the lack of following the Discipline as a justice issue. Yes, centrists also know that the both sides do not view these two justice issues as morally equivalent. Both sides view their justice issue as higher and thus morally more important. 

Just as the right and left each have a rooting in the Biblical text, so to do centrists. Everyone places a premium on the authority of scripture. To say your side values scripture more than the other side(s) is the church version of the kid saying his dad is stronger than your dad. Can we all grow up? The Uniting Methodists movement is standing up to stop dealing in absolutes

This leads me to say that one of the most heart stopping speeches that I heard at the Uniting Conference came from Rev. Vance Ross. Rev. Ross rose and stated that as an African American, he has witnessed years of systemic racism in the UMC. He cited two specific examples of how the structure of the UMC had been set up and continues to disenfranchise people of color.  Rev. Ross was quick to point out that he is not trying to equate the African American experience with the LGBTQI+ experience only to point out that he has seen how the Church has worked (intentionally and otherwise) to keep people of color in the margins of the Church. He then said that the people of color have chosen to remain in the broken Church in order to bear witness to Love.

I interpreted his comments in a few ways. First to leave the church is a position of privilege. If you can leave because you have another place to go, then you are privileged. People of color cannot even go to the store without being met with suspicion, and so their local church is a safe haven (even in a systemically racist church). Second, if people of color left then it lets us anglos off the hook to face our failures. If we don't see people of color then we can ignore them even more than we do now. To stay and bear witness to Love is to be a presence even if the system says you are unwanted. Bearing this loving witness is a position of strength that just knocked me to the floor.

Rev. Ross' comments not only deeply resonated with me but convicted me. It resonated in that his witness of Love speaks to the Jesus I know who continued to be in relationship with the ones who doubt, dismiss and abandon him. He bore witness to love in the face of accusations from those who could kill him by standing silent before them. Rev. Ross and people of color are not Jesus. However, Rev. Ross' comment hit a bass note of God in me. To break apart from others I disagree with mean that I will always be blind to large portions of my sin. And, if I separate from those I feel are doing wrong then I will not have opportunities to practice forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Rev. Ross reminded me once again of all that I need to learn and better understand in my own self. In order to become more like Christ, then I need to be in communion and relationship with those who expose in my the very things that I cannot see. Therefore, unity for the sake of unity is a shame, unity for the sake of Christ is the Church. But maybe I am remembering the song differently: 

I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we're the church together!

The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.

We're many kinds of people,
with many kinds of faces,
all colours and all ages, too
from all times and places.

Sometimes the church is marching;
sometimes it's bravely burning,
sometimes it's riding, sometimes hiding;
always it's learning.

And when the people gather,
there's singing and there's praying;
there's laughing and there's crying sometimes,
all of it saying:

At Pentecost some people
received the Holy Spirit
and told the Good News through the world
to all who would hear it.