Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

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.

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

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

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

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

In a Sea of Gray Hair

These days I am near-obsessed by two constants: (1) in church gatherings, young people make up the tiniest sliver of the whole group.  I get invited a fair amount to preach here and there and the experience is always the same: a bare few young people in an ocean of gray hair and wrinkled faces.  I mean no offense.  I have plenty of gray hair and some sagging flesh myself.   (2)  Young people really do feel judged and rejected by church people.  I’m genuinely puzzled, because I’m around church folk who truly are kind, gentle, friendly people.  And then I hear another mind-boggling, gut-twisting account from a college student who was told not to come back to church until (s)he straightens out a drinking problem.  I don’t know whether to cry or cuss.  Sometimes I do both.  

Did the student misunderstand?  Maybe.  We’d love to think so.  But I’ve heard stories like this one too often to explain it away as youthful misunderstanding.  Maybe it happens because we’re still “reading” young people through the tumults of the’60s.  Many churches who should be joyfully interacting with young people let this memory dictate their vision and their attitude.  

We mistakenly think of college students as 21st century versions of what we (Baby Boomers) were.  We helped to institutionalize the generation gap.  When we were college students, we felt deceived and angry.  We had discovered the deep hypocrises of “the Establishment,” which included churches and denominations.  

Today’s college students feel excluded and hurt, not deceived and angry. Church leaders, pay attention!   Woundedness can certainly manifest in angry words.  The attitudes of today’s college students can remind us of the ’60s, but let’s take care not to miss the critical difference.  

As a number of studies have pointed out, young people today are knee-jerk individualists.  It’s what they know.  It’s the language they use.  But we should not be fooled by the language and we most certainly should not mistake it for some kind of generation gap.  Under the confident exterior (which is sincere), many college students are scared to death to mess up.  They want to know if we’ll still love them if we discover they’re not perfect.    

I’ve said in other posts that I have little interest in rescuing a denomination, although I love The United Methodist Church.  But I have to say, there is something quite bizarre, even grotesque, about large gatherings of Christians that involve so few young people.

How do we take a collective look in the mirror and get concerned enough actually to do something more than talk?

April 6, 2009 Posted by | Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments