Category Archives: GC2012

Some Wesleyan Advice for When We Disagree

During the last two weeks the sound and fury that was General Conference 2012 stormed and echoed around our United Methodist connexion. As bishops presided over parliamentary procedure, and delegates rose to speak at microphone regarding the many political or theological issues being addressed, I was struck by how counter to the words of John Wesley our witness seemed.

Over and over, whether it be through discussion in committee or by putting items up for a vote on the floor, various delegates and leaders of our Church put forth theological assertions for all to assent. And, of course, never did all agree on anything (10% even voted not to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. among the list of “modern martyrs”). In so many words, leaders declared to one another that they were mistaken. And in the midst of our disagreements we shifted into what some referred to as “unholy conversation” rather than the true act of communicating and communing with one another in love. We broke our first rule, “do no harm,” and we did it amongst ourselves!

Which brings me back to Wesley. In his preface to his first collected series of sermons his own request for when someone felt he was mistaken:

“some may say, I have mistaken the way myself, although I take upon me to teach it to others. It is probable many will think this, and it is very possible that I have. But I trust, whereinsoever I have mistaken, my mind is open to conviction. I sincerely desire to be better informed. I say to God and man, “What I know not, teach thou me!”

“Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof of Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace: I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then, I should not be able to go at all. May I not request of you, further, not to give me hard names in order to bring me into the right way. Suppose I were ever so much in the wrong, I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you, and so get more and more out of the way.

“Nay, perhaps, if you are angry, so shall I be too; and then there will be small hopes of finding the truth. If once anger arise, Eute kapnos, (as Homer somewhere expresses it,) this smoke will so dim the eyes of my soul, that I shall be able to see nothing clearly. For God’s sake, if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke one another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell; much less blow it up into a flame. If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be loss, rather than gain? For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love!”

How far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love!

I pray that in the future we may find ways to better live out the humble example of Mr. Wesley.


Looking back, to move forward…

As I continue to monitor Facebook, Twitter, and other more “official” coverage of our United Methodist General Conference, I’m struck by some comments that talk about “looking back to Egypt,” about wanting to return to the halcyon days of the 1950s of the Church, and otherwise denigrate anyone looking to the past.

Well, I suppose that I should confess: lately I’ve been looking back a lot.

Now, I’ve heard the metaphorical comparisons. I know that in driving this is not always the best idea. And I’ve heard it said that we should be more focused on forward vision than wistful and nostalgic glimpses at our rear-view mirror. But, personally, I find myself looking back in order to more clearly move forward.

To wit, I was recently asked if I would be the new chairperson of our annual conference’s Board of Camping. Before you get the idea that this is an accolade or something I should be excited about, I should share that the camping ministries of the Desert Southwest Conference are struggling. You could describe it as a crisis, even. For over a decade, the ministry has required far greater funding to maintain than it engenders, and in the same period of time the number of children and youth ministered to via this ministry has declined by 50%. So as I take on leadership of a Board ostensibly responsible for the health and vitality of the camping and retreat ministries, I do so with the reservations and obvious recognition that it cannot continue as it has. (And since I’m naturally impatient, I’m not willing to allow change to be slow or gradual. As some of you might have seen on Facebook, I’ve already initiated conversations on how we might re-envision and radically re-develop our camping ministry… or decommission it completely, if necessary.)

One of the steps I have taken of late is to “look back” at the elements of successful camping ministries of the past; to consider some of the aspects that went in to a ministry that actively engaged children and youth in Christian faith and discipleship. Not because we can simply repeat it – I fully recognize that the world is radically different and requires different means of ministry! – but because I do believe that we can learn what was successful in one ministry to meeting humans needs as a way of better identifying what might be successful in a new setting.

In addition, like many clergy in a local congregation, I find that I look back to the wisdom of others’ experience to help guide me in daily ministry. I engage in conversation with others who have “been there, and done that,” to learn from their experiences. Even our Church Council has asked, after some of our own conversation and reflection on making the transition from a pastoral-sized church to a “program sized” one, to invite some leaders who have led through the transition to come and share their thoughts and experiences with us. They, too, articulated it is not to duplicate what they did in a different community, but to process and learn from their past experience.

And I should also confess: in my own personal spiritual journey, I’m looking back. Specifically, I’ve been returning to the sermons, journal, and notes on the New Testament authored by our movement’s founder, John Wesley. Granted, without sufficient context I get lost in John’s Journal – just why did so many people so adamantly and antagonistically oppose him? – but still, here and there are words of wisdom that motivate and inspire me.

I would counter those that suggest that anyone who is “looking back” is simply wishing for days gone by and unwilling to muster the courage and energy to make necessary changes. Looking back does not always equate to Pollyanish nostalgia. I believe that we can experience anew the best inspirational and transformational elements of past events and movements and re-capture them for today.

Delegates from our local churches and annual conferences continue meeting in Tampa, Florida, for our quadrennial General Conference. They are considering some significant and sweeping changes to our organizational structure, the “Call to Action” report that has been commented on by others far wiser (and better informed) than I, as well as at least two organized alternatives to this plan. By the time the gathering ends on May 4, these delegates will have had several uplifting worship experiences and multiple difficult conversations; there are bound to be some hearts uplifted by the conversation and events while other hearts are disillusioned and hurt; our Discipline and Book of Resolutions will be edited and changed to reflect approved changes; new ideas and methods for being the Church will be initiated and experimented with.

And I continue to cling to the hope that in the midst of it all, we will hear the voices encouraging us to worry less about the institution and focus more on growth and service as disciples. I hope that we can move forward with the inspiration of what has happened before; whether we look only as far back as the Wesley brothers and the movement they began – a movement whose founders did not mean to create a new institution, but rather intended to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land” while maintaining involvement in the Anglican Church – or as far back as the disciples hiding out in Jerusalem – a motley group who were so open to the movement of God’s Spirit that they were radically empowered on that day of Pentecost to spread the movement far and wide. Or maybe we can draw inspiration by looking further back, drawing new insights for the future from the faithful obedience and leadership Moses provided as God worked through him to lead the Israelites out of their own bondage, through their own trying wilderness, and into the new future promised to them.

As I embark on new methods of ministry and camping, and as our tribe seeks new means of being the Church in the contemporary world, I pray that we may look back for inspiration, wisdom and guidance, and not just momentary jolts of nostalgic “remember whens?” I hope and pray that we’ll hear the rush of a great wind, that we’ll feel our hearts strangely warmed, and that new truths will lead us into new places to help new people develop as followers of Jesus Christ.

A Critical Question for Us All

My tribe continues to meet in Tampa, Florida, this morning, in the quadrennial “General Conference” that serves as the body officially responsible for creating and updating policy and polity (and, unofficially, polarity) for The United Methodist Church. In day 2, and as seems to always happen in large gatherings – I’ve seen the same kind of slow-down in groups from Church Councils to annual conferences – the group is bogged down in details. Specifically, at this time, they are still debating the rules for the General Conference…

With great grace, Rev. Adam Hamilton, of The Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City – a pastor who I look to as mentor and sage despite only meeting him a few times – Tweeted last night: “Debate about the standing rules – undoubtedly important but these matters wear me out. Anyone else?”

I’ve been in various meetings where things have to be talked about over and over before any movement occurs, and in my experience the debate tends to wear me down. Thankfully, I’m not a GC delegate, so I can tune in or out as I choose. I appreciate all of our representatives who are gathering to do the important work of evaluating and re-envisioning our movement. But at the same time, as debate rages about rules, I feel like we’re missing the point, delaying the conversation, and negatively impacting the energy we might have to focus on “the main thing.”

Thankfully, social media allows for concurrent communication. Already I see various Twitter and Facebook posts about what is going on, about what the delegates see as important, and so forth. And so I would ask, not knowing who might visit here or respond, the critical question I would like to hear more about:

How do you serve God to help people be and live more like Jesus? (Or how would you like to?)

I would love any and all responses, whether you are a GC delegate, part of the UMC, or not. At the heart of Methodism was the Wesley brother’s mission to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land” – in essence, to help people to be and live more like Jesus. That is what I most want to know and reclaim, so I yearn to hear how others are doing it.

Last Words, General Conference, and Dry Bones…

This past Sunday was April 22, Earth Day. It was also the birthday of a dear friend who just turned 70 (happy [belated but public] birthday greetings, Carolyn!). And it would have also been my own father’s 70th birthday.

April 22 was also just a few days before representatives of my “tribe” – The United Methodist Church – began to gather in Tampa, Florida, for our quadrennial General Conference. Now, as social media begins to bring me news, updates, ideas, inspirations, and snarkisms from those attending General Conference, I’m sitting here pondering my father’s last words and their poignant meaning for our Church.

Another blogger pointed out that in their new book Jesus Insurgency, Rudy Rasmus and Dottie Escobedo-Frank point out early on that the Church has been lingering at the “crossroads of Graveyard and Decision Street for a few decades.” That image lingered with me, if only because we personally were there so recently; struggling through a significant pneumonia infection, my father had to choose whether to be intubated a third time in two weeks or transfer to hospice care. I had sat with him for weeks in hospital ICU rooms, and now sat and walked with him through his last few hours as he transferred on a Thursday afternoon and passed away on a Friday evening.

I try to hope that he kept the events of Thursday evening in his mind through his final hours on Friday. Lynn brought our two children up that evening – they had only been able to Skype into his hospital room the weeks before – and the five of us were all together for a while. Lynn and my father sat together and talked – briefly, as weeks of infection and intubation had left him barely audible – while the kids and I sat and read and played at the foot of his bed. That evening, for the first time in a very long time, my father smiled. Watching his grandchildren, there was a look of contentment on his face. I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I had actually seen him happy and smiling in the last several months, as the life he had built crumbled around him, many of his greatest fears coming to pass: divorce, financial distress, abandonment.

My brothers and mother were there some that evening, and would return late in the morning the next day, too. And so we were all together for a time, but the only moments in those last few days where I saw even the glimmer of joy on dad’s face were when Will and Kate were rampaging around the room and lounge chair. He smiled then, and for that I am immensely grateful.

When I returned early the next morning, dad’s condition had already quickly deteriorated. And that morning he spoke the only words he would speak that day. As he looked at me and clasped my hand his last words, said three times before additional medication helped ease him into a fitful sleep, were simply “it hurts…” I’ve never felt so impotent, unable to do anything or help beyond just sitting with his hand in mine. Dad didn’t wake or smile again that day, but even so I was again touched when, as my son was leaving grandpa for the final time that morning, he said his own last words to my father: “I love you grandpa.”

It is hard even to retell that story in print today – almost five months later – but the images and events of those last few days with dad have been coming to mind as metaphor for what our Church is experiencing as we enter our General Conference. (Other churches are facing crises, too, but here I’ll just reflect on what I know about our tribe.)

First, I don’t want to overly push the idea or metaphor that we are dying. Many would argue that the Church is on life-support; yet, even if our denomination is struggling in some ways, in other ways – and particularly other areas of the world – there is great life and vitality. But there is a strong sense of imminent death, many have used the metaphor, and the very term is even used in reference to the upcoming “death tsunami” that the church is about to experience. I don’t know whether our current situation is terminal or not, but it is clear that it is untenable to continue what we’ve been doing institutionally…

As it was happening to my father, so to our tribe and her churches are many of our “fears” are coming to pass. The buildings and legacies that many of our older, existing congregations have striven to secure and maintain are facing their end. The financial support of our general agencies and the ministries and missions they accomplish throughout the world have been faced with great crisis in recent years. And what some would call “denominational loyalty” has waned so greatly in recent decades that most mainline or Protestant Christians today easily shift from one tribe to another without pause. The same emotional responses one might feel related to divorce or abandonment are real experiences for our brothers and sisters: some clergy, members, or even local churches feel abandoned and/or driven away by the actions of their general agencies, annual conferences, clergy, or church leaders.

We vacillate between moments of hope and joy – celebrating the birth of new churches, the missional success of conferences in other parts of the world, the rise of young leadership in our local congregations – and the pain that our current situation seems to cause our beloved Church. At times we are looking at the world hopeful and with contentment that the ministry of Christ and our heritage will continue to make an impact for generations; and at others we feel as though we’re bedside, unable to do much more than commiserate with the Church in its pain.

And – in different words and ways – I’ve heard others wonder, question, or outright suggest that one day some progeny or legacy of ours will say to us, “I love you,” but then move off into the world to live it’s own life for Christ.

Unlike the events of this December past in my own life, I do not believe the crises we face as a United Methodist Church need be terminal. Even if it might be, I am reminded of the story of Ezekial in the valley (Ezekial 37:1-14). Ezekial was a mighty prophet, and responded to God’s call. He prophesied to those bones, and they were raised up; but that was only one step. At God’s direction, he also had to prophesy to the breath to enter those bones. I like to think that if we are on the way to being “dry bones” – or already there, as some might suggest – we can listen for God’s direction, and heed the steps toward new life. And I’m no prophet, but maybe those two steps are already before us.

I do believe radical change is necessary, and I would suggest such changes need to be the most radical in our hierarchical structure. The annual conference may be the “basic unit” of The United Methodist Church, but our conferences or agencies do not do much to make disciples; I believe it is through the arena of local churches/groups where we will have our lasting impact. We need to encourage, equip, and then free our clergy, laity, and churches from the despair of idly sitting by the dying Body. We need to inspire and enable one another so to live that the “scriptural holiness” that was once our rallying cry might begin to soften hearts and transform communities. Although it may be true that our organization/institution needs radical reform, our local churches need saints more than we need reformers. We need individuals so touched by and committed to the love and grace of God that they are seeking to “live missionally” (as the Inspire network would encourage us!); we need to love of God once again to so fill us that it spills out to bless others.

My hope as our brothers and sisters meet in Tampa for General Conference 2012 is not that any specific legislation or action will be approved. My greatest hope is that we will in some prophetic way recapture the spirit that drove John and Charles Wesley as they led a movement (not a church!) of people to live after the example of the earliest (“primitive”) church. My hope is that rather than continuing to feel as though we are at the bedside of a dying Body we love, we can hear the voices sharing God’s word and direction that will truly revive that Body. My hope is that my son, nurtured within the Church, will not one day feel the need to say “I love you” and then move off to be closer to Jesus in some other arena; but that he will know a vital Body that is actively connected to and moving with Jesus.