Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

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.

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

Living the New Creation Reality

The Thursday before Easter I presided at a funeral of a man I did not really know.  I had presided over his grandson’s funeral several years ago.  I then had his daughter’s funeral (the mother of the boy who had died).  Three years ago, he put me down as the pastor to do his funeral.

At the graveside, among the scripture readings that I used, I read these words from 1 Corinthians: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam] so we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.”

Christians believe a really weird claim.  Not only did Jesus rise from the dead to live in a completely new order, a new creation, but so will his followers.  “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound…and we will be changed.”  

In John 20:19ff., the text says that the disciples were gathered together in the room and the door was locked for fear of what the religious authorities might do to them and (poof?) Jesus appears among them and says “Peace be with you.”  How did Jesus get in if the door was locked?  He just appeared.  

But not as a ghost or something; not a mere apparition.  The text then says that he showed them his hands and side, as if to say, “Yep, it’s really me.”  

Christians believe some weird stuff and the resurrection is probably the weirdest.  Maybe this is why, after we have had our nice little Easter celebrations, we go back to living and acting like nothing is different.  

I do it.  I sometimes refer to myself, somewhat disparagingly, as a “professional  Christian.”  In other words, it’s my job to pray (especially publicly at ceremonial gatherings) and to help lead a religious community in various ways.  It’s my job to have some kind of answer when spiritual or religious questions arise.  It’s my job to oversee certain ceremonies at certain times in people’s lives and deaths.  And I get paid to do these things.  I’m a professional Christian.  It’s easy, after Easter, to settle back into “normal.”  

But if am I a true believer, I can’t settle back into “normal.”  Am I a true believer?  When I say those words over the grave, words about rersurrection to new life, do I believe them?  

I do.  Still, sometimes I wonder, because belief in the resurrection is weird.  Sometimes I ask myself, “Do I really believe it?”  I do.  And I know that it’s weird.  

Therefore, I (we) do not have the luxury to live as if there is no new creation.  If I (we) believe in the resurrection of Jesus and that his resurrection is the first fruits of the New Creation, then today, tomorrow, and every day – then right now – we live in the New Creation.

As my Dad used to say, “I don’t understand all I know about this matter.”  The resurrection hope is just weird.  But I believe it.  And I want to see it and live it, daily.  

May Paul’s words set the course for us: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord [in the New Creation reality] your labor is not in vain.”  May we followers of Jesus demonstrate by our lives the New Creation reality.

April 17, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Easter Monday

Easter Monday.  The second day of the New Creation.  

Because I am again serving as pastor to two small congregations, I preached yesterday.   I followed the lectionary and used Mark 16:1-8 as the Gospel text.

Perhaps because of our circumstances, I was taken with how the story describes the response of the women to the news of Jesus’ resurrection.   “Terror and amazement seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Here the so-called shorter ending of Mark stops.  It is thus replete with ambiguity.  The scripture clearly states that Jesus is alive.  The women don’t know how to deal with this news, so they do nothing.

Their lack of action seems particularly relevant for the way many of us live today.  We Christians claim to be Easter people, but we live pretty much like Jesus were still dead.  It’s Easter Monday.  After the little bump of Easter festivities, what is different about today?  What is different about our vision?  Our witness?

As part of my personal prayer time, I have been reading through 1 Corinthians.  As you might imagine, chapter 15 has been holding my attention.  This morning I re-read verses 24-25: “Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”    

I found myself asking, “By what means is Christ now destroying every ruler, authority and power?”  Clearly Paul believes that God is the Lord of history, period.  We’ve all had our view about history distorted by learning that it involves (social history excepted) only major public events: governments and wars and world leaders and such.   Jesus doesn’t seem to fit very well in that picture, even for Christians.   

This historical myopia exposes a huge problem.  I think the answer to how Christ is destroying rulers and authorities is “by means of Christian witness,” not a comforting thought.  We (American) Christians are not doing too good a job in the witness department.  

We’ve gotten too cozy with rulers and powers.   Again I’m using terms I don’t like.  Conservative Christians have tried to use the levers of governmental power to legislate against abortion, homosexual practice, taxes, etc.  Liberals have taken the same tactic with a different view of the same issues.  Then the two groups argue about who is “more Christian,” as if advocating for legislation is Christian witness.  

Certainly we have a responsibility to act as good citizens, which means we should have opinions about such matters.  But we should also remember that this citizenship is double-edged, fraught with temptation.  And when we permit our witness to narrow to nothing more than expressing certain political opinions, even if couched in the rhetoric of morality, we should be ashamed.  I know it has been said a thousand times by people more eloquent than I: when Christians get too comfortable with worldly power, we forfeit our good witness.  We still have a witness.  It’s just a bad one.

It’s Easter Monday.  By God’s grace, let Jesus’ people make a good witness.

April 13, 2009 Posted by | Biblical Preaching/Teaching, Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | 1 Comment