Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Don’t Make Me Make that Choice

With everything in me, I don’t want to write this post.  But given the Chik-Fil-A controversy and, more broadly, the constant attention to same-sex-related topics in the news, on Facebook, and basically everywhere I turn in daily life, I feel I must.  Fair warning: there is more heat in this post than I’d like.  And my words won’t be as “worked out” as I’d like.  But I am pleading for a little bit of sanity and charity.  So I’m sticking my neck out and my nose in.

To try to keep the aim of my post in focus, let me lay down a couple of qualifications.  Right now, my attention is on the so-called progressive anger at Chik-Fil-A and at the unwise, unguarded and foolish statements of people like Rahm Emanuel.  I want anyone who might wonder about my intentions, however, to understand that I’m not any happier with the way the conservative culture warriors go at this issue, either.  When First Baptist Church, Dallas, puts “Gay is not OK” on the sign out in front of their building, they are contributing to the problem rather than the solution.  They made a political statement, not a pastoral one.  It was a slogan, a sound bite.  I’m not saying that people at First Baptist are horrible, awful people.  They are my brothers and sisters in Christ.  I’m just trying to say that putting a slogan on a church sign on such a sensitive topic is a foolish and clumsy and potentially (at the very least) cruel way of operating.

But as I said, I’m more concerned at this moment with the either-or thinking that attends the Chik-Fil-A controversy.  Apparently, we -the public – have two options.  We can either get on board with full, unqualified approval of same-sex activity, including and especially gay marriage or we can be smoked out into the bright light of day as the bigots and haters that we evidently are.

Are these my only options?  Really?  Don’t make me make that choice.

Please don’t set up the false dichotomy, the “either-or” of unreserved approval or unqualified condemnation.  These are not the only two choices.

The truth is, most of us don’t know exactly what we think about same sex attraction, sexual identity, same sex marriage and any other of the numerous related topics.  We have opinions, yes, but we’re not 100% sure of our opinions.  Most people just want to get along, be good neighbors.  Most people don’t want anyone to suffer.  We want people to lead good and productive lives.  Gay, bi-, trans-, straight, whoever.   We can’t stand slurs, sick jokes, or bullying.  Whatever we think about moral questions and policy matters, we want peaceful relations and fairness for all.  Our hearts are torn.  We have opinions and we know those opinions in some ways “go against” people we love.

If you call yourself a progressive and you simply cannot possibly understand why anyone like a Dan Cathy (or me) might think the way he does, then instead of calling for his head, listen.  You may think you have science and rationality on your side.  And you may.  You may think that you understand civil and human rights better than the rest of us.  And you may.  But you also may not. You may not know everything there is to know about sexuality.  Or morality.  Or how to think about them.  You might actually learn something by listening to your opponents.  (I know, conservatives need to do the same thing.  But stay on point here for a minute.)  It’s time for a little epistemic humility from the progressives – the noisy ones, at least.

I deplore and repudiate hatred toward anyone.  But I also do not believe that the only compassionate conclusion regarding same sex activity is unqualified approval.  That very thought puts me at ideological odds with people whom I love deeply, closely.  But don’t you dare say that I’m homophobic, or that I’m guilty of bad motive, or that I’m just not well-informed enough.

Do not patronize, demonize or politicize.  Don’t make me make a dangerous and false choice between two phoney options.  Don’t make me make that choice.  I won’t do it.

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August 3, 2012 Posted by | General, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | 2 Comments

The Clumsiness of Categories

Today, I worry about  sounding downright ungenerous and small-souled.  Even more, I worry because the topic I’m about to join cuts a little too close to the bone for me personally.  I’m going to try to use parts of my life experience as a means of illustrating a problem in our church (United Methodist) that looms ever larger.  Doing so touches a nerve.

Having attended two annual conferences, as well as following tweets, blogs and news pieces on General Conference, I have noticed how much we talk about people by reference to the categories they fit – or don’t.  My category: a 57 year old, well-educated, white male, who enjoys a comfortable income.  White, male, 50s, middle class.  Privileged.  Too many of my type still holding power.

Race, gender, age: these are the categories of reference most often put to use in our opinion-making about how things go in the church.  (Notice how they come from social science and not from theology or the language of the church.  But that thought will have to wait for another time.)

I have long understood the subtleties of race bias even when overt racism has curtailed some.  I remember a former colleague – African-American woman, a professional in higher education with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university – once telling me how she had been shadowed in the local iteration of a national discount store.  She had been working in the yard and was in her grubbies and looking a little scruffy.  African-American, a little dirty (it was a sweaty summer day) and voila, you just might be a shoplifter.  So an employee, pretending to be a shopper, hangs around and watches you.    When I think of her experience, I remember why we need to continue to pay attention to race.

Likewise with the category of age.  I work with university students.  I love talking to them, listening to them, hanging out with them, mentoring them, teaching them.  I am an advocate for young people in the church.  But I’m starting to worry and even, I admit, feel a little resentful.  During these recent conference sessions near and far, I have heard both old and young make repeated reference to how we don’t listen to young people, it’s time to listen to young people, it’s time for some of us old folk to get out of the way and make room for young people.  Older people are hogging the power and clogging the church’s vitality with worn-out, dull, irrelevant ideas and concerns.

I want to make clear, my problem is not with young people.  In fact, I have made my own criticisms of how we treat young people in the church.  The problem lies not with young people or old people.  The problem lies in the way we think and talk – in categories!  In the heat of trying to get things done and make things better, we United Methodists lapse into “category-think,” a version of “group-think.”

And so, by way of personal illustration, I want to show why I worry about over-using categories, why I don’t like categories so much.  Here is what the categories don’t tell you about me.

I’m well-educated and live comfortably now, but I grew up poor.  Not destitute poor, just always tight, going-without, worried-about-money poor.  We always had plenty to eat, but partly that depended on good church folks “pounding” the preacher (my dad), or a local farmer butchering a steer or hog and sharing some meat with us.  I also always had decent, clean clothes to wear, but from the bargain rack.  We didn’t buy if it wasn’t on sale.  No shame in that, but, as a kid, I lived with that constant feeling of financial tightness.  And of not being able to do what others were doing.  Of being different.  I know how it feels to be different.

After chasing one job after another, my father finally said yes to a call to preach that he had felt for a long time.  At age 50 and with only a high school diploma, he entered (then) Methodist pastoral ministry.  His first year in this role (1962), he made $2,700.  For the whole year.  The church provided housing, of course, so $2,700 could stretch a little further, but not much.  Median household income at that time approached $6,000.  According to 1962 standards, we lived right at the poverty level.

I also grew up a transient.  Back then, Dad would go off to annual conference in September (after the school year started) and we would not know till he came home whether we were moving or staying.  I remember the announcement, “We’re moving,” and in a matter of a couple of weeks, we’d be packed up and gone to the new appointment.  We moved 4 times in 4 years during the middle school phase of my childhood.  The longest I ever lived in one place – before going off to college – was 3 years.  I went to two high schools.  I was always “the new kid” where new kids stood out.  And I knew we’d be leaving soon.

Was my life as transient as some of the field workers picking cotton in Texas or vegetables on truck farms in Colorado?  Of course not.  But it was more like their life than you could ever imagine if you look at me only through the category I now fit.  And that’s the problem with categories.  Categories hide people.

I thus have two strong and offsetting opinions about the categories we use over-much in the United Methodist Church.  I am very sympathetic to people who find themselves disadvantaged, on the margins.  I have some sense of what it’s like to be in that condition.  But on the other hand, I feel more resentment than I’d like to admit when people stick me in a category and make easy, breezy generalizations about me.  And I’ve heard a few over the years.  (I once was called a “pretty little white boy” by a seminary classmate.)  They distort and hide as much as they reveal.

Some of the big troubles we are now facing in the United Methodist Church stem precisely from thinking too much in categories.  They work well when we are generalizing and they are far too clumsy when we need to pay attention to on-the-ground circumstances.  When we use them wrongly, we are like a surgeon wearing boxing gloves while trying to perform a delicate operation.

Categories tell us something we need to know, but, honestly, they don’t tell us much.  Especially in the church, we should be very careful how we use them.

June 7, 2012 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Should GC Delegates Have to Demonstrate Theological Qualifications Beforehand?

People who seek to become naturalized citizens of the United States must pass a test to qualify for the privilege of reciting the citizenship oath.  And it’s an oral test (see http://www.uscis.gov).  No guessing on multiple choice questions.

Still worrying about the fallout from the 2012 United Methodist General Conference: what if potential delegates had to pass a test to qualify for election?  Has someone already thought of this?  One answer might be, “Yes, preparation for church membership and/or ordination should qualify a person.”  Oh, would that it were so!

A quick narrative detour: years ago I was invited to collaborate with another pastor on a “What United Methodists Believe” class in our local congregation.  We expected a handful of people and we agreed to go for 4 weeks.  We had more than 50 people (a right good number for our community) and we extended the 4 weeks to 6 in order to accommodate people’s questions and interest.  We had a lively time.

At the end of the study a dear sister in Christ approached me and said (I quote), “I’ve been a Methodist for more than 50 years and I didn’t know any of this stuff.”

She was a member in good standing.  She could have been elected a delegate to GC.  How many delegates go with lots of experience in the UM system but little to no awareness of our theological tradition?  Shouldn’t we be at least  somewhat unsettled by this state of affairs?

I can imagine two questions raised in protest:

1.  Just what is “United Methodist” theology?  Good question.  Could we start with the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and have people study “Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task?” (Book of Discipline)?  And could we finally make somebody show us how to use the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral?”

But I digress…

2. Could we not just as well say that there are “United Methodist” theologies?  Of course, but simply asserting the fact does not move us toward resolving any of the issues rending our ecclesial fabric.

If General Conference – as the only body that speaks officially for the entire denomination – is going to function properly, should we not demand that people who serve as delegates be at least minimally theologically qualified to do so?  Notice how the pragmatic (a well-functioning General Conference) is affected by seemingly unrelated academic content.  Notice the link between doing and thinking.  Much thinking goes on before and at General Conference.  But are enough people able to think with the the necessary theological tools in order to fulfill their obligations as delegates?

We don’t have to draw “theology” here too narrowly.  Some people worry that when others – in other words, academics like me – start making references to theology, hair-splitting obfuscations follow that lead to more division rather than less.  But honestly, could we be any more divided than we are short of actually dividing?

Maybe it’s time to try theology!   I have to wonder if we could not avoid some of the problems bedeviling us if delegates had an adequate knowledge of the implications of their decisions relative to basic Christian and United Methodist beliefs.

So I entertain what likely seems to many United Methodists a ridiculous question: Shouldn’t we make our delegates pass a basic theology test in order to qualify?  If you think it preposterous, I refer you back to the narrative detour.

May 16, 2012 Posted by | Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

General Conference (Slightly Proleptic) Postmortem

I’m not a fan of punditry, even of the ecclesial kind, but I guess I’ll set aside scruples and weigh in on the United Methodist General Conference as it presses toward the finish.  One question once again stands out: just how badly divided are we?  I think, pretty badly.

A Facebook friend posted the proposed Disciplinary amendment by Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter on our deep differences over homosexuality.  It was thoughtful, irenic, well-worded.  It holds to the church’s traditional stance on the matter.  I agree with its sentiment and I wish it had passed.

But I also read the reason for voting it down, that we don’t acknowledge our divisions on other issues, so we shouldn’t on this one.  That’s true.  We don’t.  But what if we did?  What would we actually have to face about our beloved denomination, if sprinkled all through our Book of Discipline we actually saw the numbers that represent our divided mind?

Let’s try a little thought experiment. What if every General Conference vote that changes the wording of the Book of Discipline also had to include (in the BofD) the split?  You know, 55% yea and 45% nay, etc.?  In other words, what if we actually had to see, in our Book of Discipline, how often and on which issues we get close to splitting 50-50?

What if we voted on doctrinal standards?  What if we went down each statement in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and asked delegates to say “yea” or “nay?”  Now, before we get trapped in cautions about metaphorical readings, etc., let’s keep in mind that those doctrinal statements are meant to be taken as actual propositions.  (I know that we cannot dispense with metaphor, nor do I want to.  Let’s just try the thought experiment.)

How about Article 2, which reads in part, “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s [sic] nature…”  Yea?  Nay?

Some of us might want to update the language of this claim, but, again, let’s focus on the main question: do we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus?  What would a vote of General Conference delegates reveal?  And why does it matter?

My point here is not to go on a doctrinal witch hunt.  My point is to imagine just how divided we actually are.

Years ago – and I mean, like 20 – in the midst of the same controversy roiling us now, about ten of us UM clergy got together – all members of the same annual conference (remember the covenant?) to see if we could find any doctrinal statements that we could all agree on.  We intentionally made the group diverse.  After a couple of hours debate, we found near complete disagreement except on one slim point.  We could all say yes to the belief that something happened on the first Easter morning.  But we could not affirm as a group the proposition found in Article 2.  To be sure, some of us in the group did affirm it.  But some didn’t.  In other words, we were not “of the same mind.”

We could not find agreement on any other topic we discussed.

I believe this sort of disagreement has very practical implications.  Our theological convictions show us what we care about.  If we don’t care about at least some of the same things, we have no core, doctrinally or missionally, that holds us together.

I think this is what General Conference teaches us every four years.

May 4, 2012 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Cost of Failing to Think

A news item about Shorter University, a Baptist school associated with the Georgia Baptist Convention, has given me another opportunity to worry about the way we talk to one another about contentious matters.  The school apparently has made a policy that all employees will sign and adhere to a personal lifestyle statement, thereby creating another barrage of online commentary.  (See http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/12/01.)

I’ll leave the facts of the case aside to focus on the comments that illustrate my concern.  To get right to it, the most heated criticism depends on a moral tradition that stands outside the one it is criticizing.  (This problem Alisdair MacIntyre has described in his book, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.)  Taking the policy at face value, for the moment, Shorter University is seeking to apply a set of practices faithful to their view of Christian discipleship.  Some of the most critical comments seem oblivious to this intention.  In the name of a certain view of individual freedom that Shorter U. has offended, some commenters offer censure and condemnation.

I am not bothered by competing moral visions.  They exhibit the simple fact of human diversity.  I am worried, rather, by the lack of  self-awareness associated with the inability to have a serious, productive conversation.  That ignorance inevitably leads to some form of ad hominem attack on any person or group that would deign disagree.

This problem has become appallingly prominent in the blogosphere, ironically, as often as not among those of us who consider ourselves well-educated.  I’m distressed, for example, at the snippy, censorious, presumptuous, comments regularly posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s pages.  To overstate the problem only slightly: too often one finds there an assertion followed by a counter-assertion, followed in turn by a more pointed counter to the counter and the slight hint of the opponent’s ignorance or bad motive. And on it goes.

We thus live in a society in which, in far too many venues, ad hominems supersede respectful, even if pointed, debate, even while we continue to talk about tolerance and respect.  What are we to do if the rising generation as a whole (again, acknowledging the hopeful, if comparatively rare, counterexamples) cannot tell the difference between serious debate and rhetorical violence?  This is a critical moral, educational question.

Which brings me back to the work of higher education.  I have blogged recently about how we use the term “critical thinking,” while largely failing to help students recognize and practice it.  Parker Palmer calls us out: “In my judgment, one of the saddest and most self-contradictory features of academic culture is the way it tends to run away from criticism.  Academic culture celebrates ‘critical thinking’…but is sometimes dominated by orthodoxy as profoundly as any church I know,” (Palmer and Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education, 23).  In another place he calls this view “pedagogical fundamentalism.”

The “orthodoxy” to which he refers has become so self-evident to many in higher education that dissidents are sometimes looked at as if they had come from another planet.  As one who readily identifies with theological and moral beliefs considered orthodox or traditional or (sometimes) conservative, I find this scenario (sometimes) humorously ironic.

However we describe ourselves on any ideological spectrum, we need to care about this problem.  Our lack of awareness about how we argue runs the risk of pulling the house down around us.

December 2, 2011 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Greensburg Teaches Me

In this virtual world that is the Internet, physical location often seems increasingly irrelevant.  Today, however, on this day after Thanksgiving, 2011, my physical location is significant.  It offers a poignant context for my thoughts.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop, Green Bean Coffee Company, in Greensburg, Kansas. It’s at the corner of Main Street and Federal Highway 54 (http://www.notyourmommascoffee.com/).

Greensburg was all but completely destroyed by a massive tornado in May, 2007.  The entire business district was leveled.  Every tree was completely denuded, with only trunks and major branches still standing.  About 2/3 to 3/4 of the entire town of roughly 1200 people blew away.  Among the buildings destroyed was the United Methodist Church.

About a month after the tornado, I had the awesome (and I do mean awesome, literally) privilege and challenge of preaching on the site where the church building was.  We met in a tent, on a corner of the property, using hymnbooks salvaged from the wreckage.  There were about 50 people there, as I now recall it.  Many of the church members were living elsewhere, since nearly everyone’s home had been destroyed, so the congregation was some diminished from what they generally knew.

What would I have to say to people who had lost all their material possessions?  One of the amazing facts about the tornado’s destructiveness is that so few people were injured and only one or two (again, going on faulty memory) died.  Any death is tragic, but given the magnitude of this tornado, it’s truly a wonder that not more perished.  Still, these dear folk were devastated.

Yes, so, what would I have to say that might be of help?  I didn’t have to worry.  What I said was largely irrelevant.  The people gathered in that tent were so thankful just to be together,  just to have community intact though buildings were gone; thankful that so few had lost their lives; thankful that God’s presence was and is ever near and especially so now as they worked on cleaning up and rebuilding.  I will never forget listening to them pray that day.

Now, four years later, I am, for just a moment, back in Greensburg.  I haven’t been here, I think, since moving to Texas and I am amazed at the changes.  There is a new hospital, a new complex of school buildings, a new downtown (it looks like what suburban folk might think of as a smallish shopping area in their neighborhood), and lots of new houses.  One still sees plenty of empty lots and naked foundations left over from the storm.  I know this town has suffered many difficulties in rebuilding, including being scammed by dishonest “builders.”  I cannot imagine all the challenges they have faced and I am confident there are more to come.

But here I am, in a town that is rebuilding.  I cry fairly easily, anyway, and when I pulled into town, I started.  It is inspiring.

By the way, here’s a photo of the United Methodist Church that now stands on the same spot as before.

And now for what Greensburg teaches me.  I am deeply troubled by the gap between the biblical vision of the Christian life and the reality many of us (most?) experience.  I have recently published on this matter and I have much more to attempt. ( If you’re interested, go to (https://wipfandstock.com/store/Aiming_at_Maturity_The_Goal_of_the_Christian_Life).  I feel a parallel concern about church-related higher education, our UM colleges and universities.  I love the academy.  I love the church.  But I have some bones to pick and I’ve started picking them.  Stay tuned.

Today, though, sitting in Greensburg, KS, I ponder what this town teaches.  It does not matter how big the challenge is.  God’s grace is sufficient.  We can rebuild.  And we can rebuild better than what we were and had.  (Greensburg has received national attention because of its commitment to environmentally sustainable construction.)  We can change.

Yes, we can change.  And the world – at least those parts of it where we live and work – will be better for our trying.

November 25, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Ministry, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Pony Excess” Forgot Part of the Story

It is the morning of the Lord’s Day and my mind ought to aim elsewhere, hence I’m feeling a little sheepish about this blog.  But last night’s ESPN 30-30 documentary about SMU, called “Pony Excess,” is still on my mind.

I’m a relative newcomer to SMU, but have quickly become a fan.  I had read, when I first came to campus a year and a half ago, of the excesses of the ’80s and the so-called death penalty.  As I got acquainted with campus, I bumped into people here and there who were witnesses of this great tragedy.

So, I watched, last night, feeling the pathos, especially for all the people affected by the NCAA judgment who had nothing to do with causing the problems.  Whatever else may be wrong with college athletics (especially football), I hope the NCAA never, ever, makes such a draconian decision again.

Fortunately, “Pony Excess” ended on a hopeful note.  The Mustangs are winning again.  I’m confident that the program is run with integrity.  I’ve been privileged to chat with a few of the people who appeared in last night’s program.  SMU has a good team, from the coaches to the administration and, while nobody’s perfect and we can find fault with any system, I’d bet that SMU’s football program is as clean or cleaner than any in the land. 

But the story told last night missed one important piece – the role of United Methodist bishops in helping to right the SMU ship.  In the wake of the scandal, a football coach, an athletic director and a university president resigned.  The documentary made an allusion or two to the school’s board of governors.  A very important part of the story attaches to the overhaul of the school’s governance structures.   

Southern Methodist University belongs to the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.   In terms of how the school runs day-to-day or how professors teach their courses or what kind of students come to SMU (all kinds), this fact means little.  I am employed at SMU because of this church relationship and I hope the presence of religious life organizations makes the school better than it would be without us.  But that’s not the point here. 

The bishops had a significant hand in helping to reorganize the school’s governance.  No more figurehead board while the good ole’ boys pulled the strings from the back room.  And yes, the Christian commitment to equity, integrity and transparency did, in fact, guide the values that helped to put SMU organizationally back on the road toward a vision of its better corporate self.  The church – through its episcopal leaders – stepped in and did the right thing.  And today’s SMU is much the better for it.      

None of this was mentioned in last night’s documentary.  Just a sentence or two in the narrative of the aftermath of the death penalty, in the changes that took place, would have satisfied me.  

Since religion is one of those topics that we’re not supposed to discuss in polite company and because religion has been relegated to the realm of private opinion, I understand why people don’t think of it as having anything to do with matters like college sports.  But it did.  And it does.  And we should notice.

December 12, 2010 Posted by | Pop Culture, Religion, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bane of Religion: Evil Speaking

From John Wesley’s Journal – “November 5, 1747: I began examining the classes, and every person severally, touching that bane of religion, evil speaking; as well as touching their manner of life before they heard this preaching; and by comparing what they were with what they are now (emphasis added), we found more abundant cause to praise God.

“That bane of religion…”  “Bane” is no longer a common word, so, just in case we don’t know the meaning, it refers to that which spoils or destroys something.  The bane of religion, according to Wesley is “evil speaking.”  Evil speaking destroys Christian life.  When was the last time someone asked you to evaluate your growth and/or progress in the Christian life on the basis of how you spoke about others?  Imagine getting kicked out of the society for habitually speaking evil of others.  Imagine getting kicked out of anything for any reason.

Pretty commonly, we recognize the corroding influence of the kind of talk we call “gossip.”  But, if I get Wesley, evil speaking extends much further.  I’m thinking about how Christians cut each other up across political lines, just for starters.  It doesn’t matter if it’s church politics or national.  For example, I know people who qualify as “Bush haters” (as in, they can’t stand “W”).  I’ve heard them say awful, cutting things about him.  I also know people who feel exactly the same way about President Obama, with similar hateful comments.  And in both cases I’m referring to United Methodists!

Now, I’m not calling for us to make nice and pretend we don’t have differences.  If you know me at all, you know that I’m no fan of making nice.  I think we should have open, pointed, honest conversations.  Loving someone means taking that person seriously enough to admit questions and disagreement.  I have opinions galore.  Sooner or later, you and I will most likely disagree on something.  Obviously, we can agree to disagree on most things and not worry.  However, sometimes we’re going to have it out, because we care about matters intensely.

But when we do have it out, can we not continue to love each other and talk to and about one another in love?  Clearly, I’m using “having it out” in an overstated way.  Yelling matches do no one any good.  But neither does making nice.

I’m thinking a lot about spiritual maturity these days and feeling the pinch of Wesley’s analysis with regard to evil speaking.  No one has asked me (in a long time, if ever) if I’ve engaged in evil speaking, but Mr. Wesley would.  And I’d have to tell him the truth.  And then I’d have to repent and do differently.  Or I’d get kicked out of the society.

Speaking the truth in love and avoiding evil speaking takes practice.  And sensitivity.  And awareness.  And practice.  We United Methodists need to work on it.  Big time.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , | 1 Comment

What My “Crazy” Charismatic Friends Always Teach Me

Over the past weekend, I made a quick trip to Kentucky to spend some time with dear friends who work together in a mission organization.  For many years I worked with them until I felt like my new job at SMU necessitated resigning from the board of trustees.  But these friends and Gospel co-workers are truly like family, so I made the trip in order just to be with them, if only briefly.

As usual, I heard the amazing things God is doing through people whose hearts are broken for the suffering and the lost. I heard prophetic words from scripture, and visions.  As usual, this experience made me think of something I’ve been reading…in John Wesley’s journal.

A couple of examples:

October 13, 1749: “At the meeting of the [select] society such a flame broke out as was never there before.  We felt such a love to each other as we could not express: such a spirit of supplication, and such a glad acquiescence in all the providences of God, and confidence that he would withhold from us no good thing.”

(United Methodists, when was the last time you felt like this in a small group, a  prayer group, or a church meeting of any kind?)

December 11, 1749: “I read, to my no small amazement, the account given by Monsieur Montgeron both of his own conversion and of the other miracles wrought at the tomb of Abbe Paris.  I had always looked upon the whole affair as mere legend…but I see no possible way to deny these facts without invalidating all human testimony.”

(Miracles?)

I like to tease my “crazy” charismatic friends about some of their ways.  In truth, I am only teasing, because in so many respects, they live closer to the experience of a John Wesley than most modern United Methodists, including myself.  Just look at the comments from his Journal: both the miraculous and the sheer, undignified, emotion-filled basking in God’s love.

So, I’m paying attention to Wesley’s journal and thinking about these friends and pondering as well my experiences with other heirs of Wesley in our United Methodist denomination.  I feel like I’m visiting two different countries.  Actually, two different worlds.   One world is infused with the direct experience of God.  The other, having many reasons to commend it, nonetheless seems trapped in a different dimension.

I want both.  Can I have both?  Can I have the serious, careful, scholarly work of the academic and the honest, open-faced, unabashed love for a God who can do literally anything according to his own purposes?

Maybe this is a wanting to have my cake and to eat it, too.  I don’t think so and I hope not.  I don’t want to live in the eighteenth century.  I don’t want to be overly-credulous.  But when I look at Wesley’s life – as well as my friends in KY – I come again and again to the conclusion that I’d rather be like them than the kind of Christian who doubts more than he/she believes.  And in the denomination that I love, there’s far too much of the latter.

July 12, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Discerning Our Desires

People who read John Wesley and study early Methodism know quite well that the only criterion for joining a Methodist society was “the desire to flee the wrath to come.”  Sometimes this statement is used as an argument against doctrinal debate, i.e. Methodists shouldn’t argue about doctrinal differences because the ground of our unity lies elsewhere.  I’ve been mulling over what “the desire to flee the wrath to come” actually entails and it is stirring the waters of my soul.

Immediately, I notice that Wesley is using the language of John the Baptist: “Who warned you [brood of vipers] to flee the wrath to come?”  (See, e.g. Matthew 3:7.)  In the biblical context, it has an eschatological tone.  It points to the ultimate purposes of God loosed in the world and to a particularly definitive moment in history – the appearance of the Messiah.  In other words, we’re not just talking “revival” in the bland, presumptive sense we often use the word.  John the Baptist isn’t leading a “revival.”  He is evidence of the day of the Lord.  The more I read Wesley’s journal, the more I think he felt similarly about the Methodist movement.  In one sense, I just stated the obvious, but I think we’re not paying sufficient attention to this particular feature.

Next, I notice the word “desire.”  “Desire” suggests a positive pull of the heart toward an object that produces intentional action in order to realize the desire.  People did not get into Methodist society without actually desiring to do so.  Compare this thought with the tradition of “joining the church” so common to us now.  I’ve heard it said – and I’m inclined to agree more and more – that it should be a lot harder to join the church than it is.  It’s not too much of an overstatement to say that today’s version of church membership in generally meaningless.  I know some glorious exceptions, of course.  But not many.

Finally,  the desire is “to flee the wrath…”  Admittedly, Wesley’s journal is biased.  It’s aimed toward presenting certain features of Methodism, partly to disprove the charges leveled against Methodism and to make a defense of their legitimacy, and partly to instruct Methodists on how to perceive and feel their Christian experience.  But, even with these biases shaping the journal, we still read what people actually thought and felt.  They had a sense of God’s holiness that has almost totally vanished in our day and time.  Oh, we can pick up a stray reference to “justice” in various circles or to “morality” in others, particularly when someone is advocating a cause.   I’m talking about the awful, aching personal, heartfelt awareness of God’s purity and power.  We think too much of God as “our ever present help in time of need” and not nearly enough of God as “a consuming fire.”

And the words we use repeatedly; the concepts that dominate our thinking about God will shape our emotional lives.  “Desire” has emotional tonality.  In other words, the words that we use to describe our spiritual lives shape our hearts.

Those early Methodists wanted to flee the wrath to come.  What do we want?

June 25, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments