Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

From One Heart to Another

In 2 Corinthians, Paul is put in the position of defending his ministry.  “Are we beginning to commend ourselves?” he asks the Corinthians.  “You are our letters [of commendation],” he reminds them.  Paul’s “defense” of the authenticity of his work is the strong, open, vulnerable witness he has lived amont these people.  “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves…” (4:2)  

The open statement of the truth is delivered by means of a transparent witness, by the work of Christ in the hearts of the ministers.  Paul says that the light of God has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” (4:6)  This treasure is carried about in jars of clay, so that the glory may redound to God and not to the vessel (4:7).  

The Gospel goes from one heart to another.  The transparent witness of one Christ-follower lights up the knowledge of God in another person.  Grace “extends to more and more people…” (4:15)  

I’m struck by the lack of standard supports for ministerial authority in Paul’s situation.  I just re-read John Wesley’s sermon entitled, “The Ministerial Office,” which serves as an apologia for Methodism and an exhortation for Methodists to keep to their station.  He upholds lay preaching, for example, but he criticizes Methodist preachers for trying to administer the sacraments.  The purpose of lay preaching was evangelism, which does not need the standard support of ordination.  The purpose of Methodism was spiritual renewal – for the light and love of Jesus Christ to shine in the hearts of Methodists so that others could see the glory of God.  

I find here an irreducible core to Christian ministry.  Ultimately, ministry is not training or skill, though both are crucially important.  Ministry is heart to heart, whether lay or ordained.  In some fundamental sense, ministry is nothing more than witness.  And “witness” means that something is happening to me, to my heart, which becomes visible in my actions.

I don’t know about you, but as United Methodist annual conferences meet and tally the votes on the Constitutional amendments, these thoughts keep me oriented.  I am not pitting “heart” against external, organizational matters, as if the organization does not matter.  It does.  And people in favor of and against the structual changes care deeply about mission.  

But the ground of confidence in Methodism or any other church or movement ultimately is not in the structures.  It is not in the various kinds of standard supports we build to enhance the organization’s effectiveness.  The ground of our confidence lies in the glory of God shining in our faces; the grace of Christ extending to more and more people; the treasure of the Gospel embodied in these earthen vessels.  

I take comfort in these thoughts.  When I had to vote at annual conference last week, I struggled with the pros and cons of opinions about the amendments.  I voted my conscience.  At the end of the day, however, no matter how the structure changes or remains the same,  the Gospel still goes from one heart to another.   I need always to remember this one thing.

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May 28, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Double-Edged Nature of Denominational Control

So, here is how things stand in United Methodist world:

1.  People are still weighing in on the video wars between Bishop Scott Jones and Maxie Dunnam, et. al., on the “worldwide nature of the church” amendments.  Good News’ “Perspective” has provided the relevant links, including the Reconciling Ministries Network’s contribution.  Despite Jones’ plain assertion that homosexuality is not an issue that would be left to regional conferences, a significant number of commenters on these various sites are suspicious that it will.  

2.  The United Methodist Judicial Council has ruled recently (UM New Service, April 27) that clergy may not perform same gender marriages even in States where such marriages are now legal.   There was one dissenting voice on the Council.  The decision overturned a ruling from the California-Pacific Conference and Bishop Mary Ann Sweson, who argued that clergy have “pastoral and prophetic authority” in such matters.    

We are fighting for control of an organization, albeit an important and beloved one.  Americans are good at fighting for control.    

At the local level, long-time church members are paradoxically dependent on the pastor for some things and determined to control the pastor and the rest of the church in others.  Worship is still the biggest bone of contention, but there are others.  The people who give the money think they ought to get to call the shots.

At the general church level, well, we know what the control issues are.  

Control per se is not at all a bad thing.  I often tell people in ministry that there is a direct link between responsibility and authority.  If one is responsible for some program or task, then one needs proportional authority to make sure things are done well.  There’s almost nothing worse in ministry than being responsible for something that you don’t (and can’t) control.  

We fight for control because we feel strongly about and seek to uphold certain values.  Control is secondary, perhaps, to those values, but when the future of the organization is involved, people who love the organization will fight for control.  This is what is happening in United Methodism and there’s nothing new here, only the issues are different from earlier times.  

Whereas I understand that people who are invested in and committed to the organization are advocating for legitimate concerns in our control struggles, I’m worried about how often we wind up looking a lot more like the world than the Kingdom of God.  We need some collective self-awareness: while we are fighting about how to organize the UM Church, non-Christians are watching and, I think, surely wondering, “Why in the world would I want to join something like that?” 

Even if we are kind to one another in our denominational arguing, we are still fighting about control.  And people notice.  We are dealing with far more than “upholding biblical values” or “making sure that ‘all’ really means ‘all.'”  The struggle for control tempts us to reduce complex matters to quick, easy summaries (yes, “sound bites”).  Christians should never make decisions this way – about anything.

May 8, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , | 2 Comments

A Follow-Up to Duct Tape

I’m still trying to untangle my tangled thoughts about United Methodism, denominational controversies, and real Christian witness.  “Real Christian” was a term John Wesley used fairly often, as noted by Ken Collins in his biography of Wesley by that name.  I want to be a real Christian.

As well, I want to be a loyal United Methodist Christian.  I’m a committed Wesleyan.  I think doctrine matters.  I think life flows from shared vision and that vision is shaped by sound doctrine.  There’s a mysterious interchange at work in these ideas, motives and practices.  I don’t want to be a something else other than United Methodist.

I also don’t want to confuse witnessing for Jesus and the Kingdom with getting the right structure in place.  I’m thus torn.  I know Maxie Dunnam’s witness, as well as Eddie Fox’s.  I’ve heard them preach.  I’ve read their books.  They are men of God.  I trust their perspectives.  

What I don’t think I share with them is a commitment to keeping a certain set of structures in place, structures that supposedly act as proper boundaries for the church’s witness.  I think ideological boundaries have been breached already, even though the structural boundaries are in place.  So, how do I witness to Christ in a denomination that is badly divided?    

These thoughts prompt me to ponder how to be a real Christian without any institutional power.  Can I, by my transparent witness, embody and speak the truth as it is in Jesus without recourse to denominational levers?  Can we?  

I know that we need structures.  Every group has to be organized.  I just don’t want to confuse upholding certain structures with faithful witness.  Structures support faithful witness, to be sure, but I’m afraid that too many people will somehow feel as if we’ve been faithful to Jesus by making sure we vote the right way on constutional amendments.

May 1, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , | Leave a comment

Denominational Duct Tape?

The current debate over United Methodist constitutional amendments reminds me of a standard joke in the rural State where I live.  Farmers quip about holding things together with bailing wire and duct tape.   Throw in a pair of pliers and you’ve got a farmer well-equpped to keep any piece of machinery running awhile longer.  

Our United Methodist structures are starting to look more like bailing wire and duct tape all the time.   They’ll hold the denominational machinery together, and we’ll keep sputtering along for another season.  But the wise old farmer knows that the thing is going to wear out and quit eventually.  

The talk about denominational unity symbolized by the current General Conference structure is unconvincing to me.  Yes, I watched Maxie Dunnam’s YouTube appeal.  I have loads of respect for Maxie.  If my ministry could be half as fruitful as his, I’d feel like I’d done something.  I also admire and respect Eddie Fox and I’ve read his comments about the implications of going to this new structure.  But in the end, I really cannot see how having a global super-structure with regional conferences  is all that bothersome.   

Does the current General Conference demonstrate any sort of denominational unity?  I have witnesssed the appearance of deep suspicions between, say, delegates from New England and delegates from North Georgia, over proportional representation.  I’d be hard-pressed to say with a straight face that, with what I saw, those people actually felt like they’re truly part of the same team working for the same ends.  I heard the tongue-lashing we got for not voting the right way on church membership at the most recent General Conference.  We are not unified and never have been (remember 1844?), since maybe 1784.  Remember, we began arguing over slavery very early on.  

I think I believe that the constitutional amendments, then, are proper and good.  They attempt to reflect the global nature of the UM Church.  To be sure, we Americans at regional conference would lose the voice of the Africans and Latin Americans and Asians and Europeans and that loss would be sad for us.  But their representation at the new General Conference level would be more proportional to the way United Methodism actually is.  And that would be a good thing, no?  

But notice, any position you take on this matter, we’re still talking about structure, not actual mission.  We’re talking about control of an organization.   I don’t mean to trivialize anything, but I have to admit, it sounds like we’re talking about bailing wire and duct tape.

In the end, then, I don’t see how voting for or against the constitutional amendments is going to matter one whit in helping to renew a dying American United Methodism.  (See my post,  “In a Sea of Gray Hair.”)  It just means that the power center will shift at the general level to non-American countries, as it should.  

Please remember: I’m still not suggesting an end to our denomination.  I’m suggesting we quit worrying so much about structure and figure out how to be the Body of Christ on the ground where most people actually live.

May 1, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 6 Comments