#gc2019–The Monster Trucks Arrived Early…

…or at least, that’s what it felt like. It felt like everyone had been run over by a truck when General Conference 2019 ended yesterday. No one was celebrating. There was nothing to celebrate. Everyone was tired. Everyone was emotional. Everyone was grieving. Everyone!

I’ll only give a brief recap of what happened. For a fuller recap, you can click here, and here and here. Professionals do a much better job of recapping than I do.

Here’s a summary as I understand it:

  • The Traditional Plan (which retains the current language of the Discipline & attempts to strengthen enforcement) passed the General Conference.
  • A “Disaffiliation” petition (basically a “gracious exit” plan) passed the General Conference.
  • Addressed some pension issues requested by the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits in case clergy or churches leave the denomination.

That’s pretty much it, and all it took was four days, and all it cost was nearly $4 million dollars. We got our money’s worth in weariness and brokenness.

Of course, everything that was done was referred to the Judicial Council for review, so it remains to be seen if anything at all was accomplished. Some parts will be ruled constitutional. Others will not. Only after the Judicial Council rules will we know for sure. In a nutshell, what was done may end up being purely symbolic with nothing practical (except the pension resolutions) resulting.

Was the symbolism worth it? Probably not, except to quantify on record the divisions that exist within the UMC. That division could have been quantified at General Conference 2016, but the General Conference chose to delay it.

My heart hurts this morning for the United Methodist Church. My heart hurts for those in the LGBTQI+ community who feel threatened or harmed by the actions of the General Conference. My heart hurts for the clergy and lay persons who are in ministry to the entire hurting church, who themselves are hurting. My heart hurts for the many, many long-time relationships that seem so horribly broken in this moment. My heart hurts for these leaders in the UMC that now return to their local congregations and must interpret what happened while focusing on the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. My heart hurts that we are not of one mind as the body of Christ.

All week long, and in the week’s leading up to the gathering in St. Louis, we heard a lot about the Holy Spirit doing a new thing among the people called Methodist. The different groups within the UMC continued to call upon one another to listen for the Holy Spirit, surely it would be the Spirit who would unite us. We prayed. We fasted. We worshiped. We prayed some more. Yet, nobody moved. The percentages were pretty much the same as they were in 2016.

Were none of us attentive to the Holy Spirit? Perhaps the Holy Spirit really is wanting to do a new thing among people called Methodist. Perhaps nobody heard the Holy Spirit because we were praying for the wrong thing. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was trying to tell us all along that the unity we were seeking goes far beyond a denominational label…that the unity we seek is found in Jesus Christ alone…and that unity goes far beyond the denominational boundary of United Methodism. Perhaps, all along the Holy Spirit was trying to tell us that it’s time for a new birth of the Wesleyan movement, and the only way that can occur is through death and resurrection. Well, it is for certain that you do have to have a death before you can have a resurrection.

Please don’t take that sentiment as advocacy for a denominational split, but it is an admission that something new may be given life out of this desperate brokenness. Already, there are some in the UMC who are calling for a new expression of Methodism that is open and inclusive. Perhaps that’s what the Holy Spirit was after all along, and we had to come to the end of ourselves before we could realize the fact. It’s only when we’ve come to the end of ourselves that we’re able to meet Jesus. It’s only when we’ve come to the end of ourselves that Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is able to transform us into His likeness.

I was up early this morning, praying and drinking coffee (those two go together, by the way). In my reflections this morning, I attempted to recall an experience that I disliked more than I disliked this General Conference. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was not the worst experience of my life, but it is close. The time in St. Louis was emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting (and I am a supporter of the Traditional Plan). I can only imagine how supporters of the other plans must feel.

I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck. I know I’m not the only one. If you happen to be in the St. Louis airport this morning and you see a bunch of people with tread marks on their clothes, they’re United Methodists. Those monster trucks that were supposed to follow us in the Dome at America’s Center, well…they apparently arrived early.

Until next time, keep looking up…

 

#GC2019–Praying from the Cheap Seats, Part 2

The Dome at America’s Center set up for #gc2019.

Saturday was a day of prayer, but so was Sunday. When I tell you we’re in the cheap seats, I mean we’re a long way from the delegates on the floor, and an even longer way from the stage upon which the Council of Bishops sit and lead the General Conference. The Dome at America’s Center was designed and built for the St. Louis Rams (don’t get me started about the Rams!), so it’s designed to hold over 66,000 people. Believe me when I say it feels a bit cavernous with only a few thousand Methodists present.

I going out on a limb here to say the distance between the cheap seats and the stage where the Bishops preside might just be a metaphor. It might be a metaphor for how far removed our Council of Bishops seems to be from the “mainstream” of United Methodism. How so, you ask?

Much of yesterday was spent assigning priority to the legislation that would come before the GC. Delegates voted on each “batch” of petitions, assigning either a “high” priority or a “low” priority. The process was designed to help the delegates do the work that needs doing in such a short period of time. The vote was basically a way to rank the order in which petitions would be handled.

The results of the “ranking” were interesting (and I think telling). The Council of Bishops “overwhelmingly” support the One Church Plan, but in the General Conference, the OCP only garnered 48% of delegates who voted it “high priority.” Conversely, the Traditional Plan (which only received a passing nod from the Commission on a Way Forward) received over 55% of the delegates voting it “high priority.” Additionally, two plans for “disaffiliation” received more “high” priority votes than the OCP. At first glance…and this is only a first glance…it appears that the OCP will have a difficult time passing this General Conference.

Thanks to Rev. Chris Ritter for the photo of the ranking results.

You can read more about the process here.

There is still much to anticipate. Again, this vote was only a first glance. Legislative work continues today on the plans, and there will be opportunities to amend, substitute and table petitions. I suspect the supporters of the OCP have spent most of last night devising a strategy to advance their favored position, and I expect the parliamentary gymnastics will begin in earnest. It will be interesting, informative and educational to watch.

Here’s a video recap of the day produced by the LA Annual Conference:

Until next time, keep looking up…

#GC2019–Today is a Day of New Beginnings…

Though Saturday was a “Day of Prayer and Preparation” for #GC2019, the Conference doesn’t officially start until this morning at 7:30 a.m., which is a change that was made after arrival in St. Louis as the Conference was originally scheduled to open with worship at 8:00 a.m. I haven’t heard why the change, but things…they are a changin’ already.

You can read a recap of the Day of Prayer and Preparation here.

Another development yesterday was a request for a declaratory decision by the Council of Bishops in reference to two petitions regarding the Modified Traditional Plan. I would provide a link to the request, but for some reason that page has been taken down. You can see for yourself here. I wonder…oh, never mind.

Anyway, the Judicial Council did rule both petitions were unconstitutional. You can read more on the decision here. I’ll reserve judgment on the ruling, though I do think it was designed to encourage delegates to assign a “low priority” to the MTP legislation as that work begins later today. Speaking of which, the GC will assign either a “high priority” or a “low priority” to all legislation today. The ranking will determine the order in which legislation is dealt with in legislative committee (I think that’s how it works).

Please continue to pray for the Conference and the delegations as the work officially begins.

You can follow the events live here.

You can get updates from United Methodist News Service here.

You can find regular updates here.

I’ll post as time allows and offer (in most cases) my running commentary, so check back periodically.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Final Nail in the Mainline Coffin?

Let me say–“I am a traditionalist.” There. Now that’s out of the way. You know where I stand.

I have been reluctant to comment on the current state of affairs in the United Methodist Church as we head into the special called session of General Conference scheduled for St. Louis, February 23 – 26, 2019. The special session was called by the Council of Bishops after the 2016 General Conference for the purpose of dealing (definitively?) with the issue of “full inclusion” of LGBTQI+ individuals in the life of the church. The debate centers primarily on the issues of same-gender marriage and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.

There are several reasons I have not commented (at least not very publicly). For one, I serve a diverse congregation, and discretion being the better part of valor, I want to be able to be a pastor to everyone no matter where they lie along the spectrum from traditional to progressive.

Another reason I’ve been reluctant to comment is my own acknowledgement that I could be wrong. After all, I’m “Not the Perfect Pastor,” so my imperfections do tend to get in my way.

My prayer for 20+ years has been, “Lord, change my heart if I’m wrong.” Being the traditionalist I am, I believe God actually hears and answers prayer, so I continue to pray, but as of this writing, the Lord has not answered this prayer (at least in relation to the presenting issue facing the UMC). I also know that there is still more for me to learn. I take to heart the advice Jordan Peterson offers in his book 12 Rules for Life. Rule # 9 states, “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” If I offered too many comments, I might have to walk some of them back, and being of the male species, I don’t like to walk statements back.

Yet one more reason I’ve been reluctant to comment is the fact that there really hasn’t been enough information to have an informed conversation on the matters before us. Prior to July 8th about all one could say is “We really don’t know what the possibilities are at this point.” Everything until that point was pure speculation (although there is still much speculating to be done), and I figured why confuse the conversation or risk upsetting people dear to me if I couldn’t have an informed conversation. Besides, I have numerous colleagues with whom I disagree on the issue of same-gender marriage and the ordination of homosexuals, and I dearly love them. I have no desire to have our relationships broken because a speculative conversation devolved in to name-calling and accusations. Not worth it!

Then, of course, there is the issue of giving my focus to the work of the congregation I serve. As an alternate delegate to General Conference, it is very easy to get distracted by all the information, blogs, speculation and social media posts concerning the future of United Methodism. Yes, we are a connectional church, but at the end of the day, I’m appointed to a local congregation, and the mission of the United Methodist Church (to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world) gets carried out in the local congregation. People’s lives will be transformed in and through the local church. That is my primary focus.

Now that sufficient information has been made available and petitions filed with General Conference, it’s time for me to weigh in on the situation we United Methodists find ourselves in. Many people have asked my thoughts over the past few months, so I figured this medium is the best way to communicate to the broadest number of people.

I know a post such as this will get feedback, both positively and negatively, and I’ll probably get called a few names if I don’t take the position that someone thinks is the correct one. But, I suppose I will take that chance. February will soon be upon us and the conversation can no longer be avoided.

The Commission on the Way Forward

The Commission on the Way Forward

The Commission on a Way Forward was appointed by the Bishops subsequent to the 2016 General Conference to “do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.” The Commission completed its work and submitted its report to be translated for General Conference. The report includes three possible ways forward for the UMC. The Traditional Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan and the One Church Plan. I’ll unpack each later in the post.

The Council of Bishops has recommended adoption of the One Church Plan. That is their preferred future for the UMC. Initially, the bishops sought to direct the debate of General Conference, but after a challenge before the Judicial Council, the Judicial Council ruled that any United Methodist with standing could submit legislation to General Conference. That means, obviously, there will be a plethora of legislation presented to General Conference. As a side note, the bishop’s recommendation was moved to a footnote in the report.

General Conference, 2019

The General Conference is slated to last four days. With a plethora (I’ve used that word twice!) of legislation, the work will be daunting, and the reality is it may not get done at all. Historically, the work of the General Conference begins with adopting the rules of order. There may be a four-day fight on the rules and the Conference may never get around to doing the actual work. Can you imagine having two years of conversations and meetings, and spending millions of dollars to accomplish nothing? That’s exactly what could happen.

Other than a significant waste of time and money, nothing happening would not be the worst thing to happen (in my humble opinion). The status quo would remain, which means the Discipline would not change (of course, neither would the current lack of enforcement). The proverbial can would get kicked down the road to General Conference 2020. Speculation? There will be some laity, clergy and congregations who depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. It would also break my heart.

One thing that could happen even before February is the Judicial Council could rule one, two or all three plans included in the report as unconstitutional. The Council of Bishops has asked for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the three plans. If all three plans are declared unconstitutional, there would be no work for the Conference to complete. I suppose it would be cancelled, still costing an unknown amount of money and kicking the can down the road. There will be some laity, clergy and congregations who depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. It would also break my heart.

The Three Plans

The Traditional Plan

The Traditional Plan retains the current language in the Book of Discipline that states all persons are “of sacred worth, created in the image of God” and also states that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Traditional Plan dramatically enhances accountability to the church’s requirements and closes many of the loopholes currently being used to avoid accountability by those who, in practicing “biblical disobedience,” conduct same-gender weddings and ordain “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. At the same time, the Plan offers a gracious exit for annual conferences, congregations, bishops, and clergy who cannot in good conscience abide by the church’s historic standards. 

This plan has the best possibility of passing General Conference (again, in my humble opinion) simply based on the votes of previous General Conferences in similar matters.  It will likely be supported by evangelicals, southern delegates and the delegations from the Central Conferences (outside the U. S.). The groups together constitute a majority. I won’t bore you with every single detail of the Traditional Plan. For a more comprehensive treatment, my colleague Thomas Lambrecht has an article here, or you can read the legislation by clicking here.

I am a supporter of the Traditional plan because it maintains our current position which I believe is grace-filled even if it doesn’t sound like it in this 21st Century shifting culture. I believe it remains faithful to the biblical witness and to 2,000 years of church history and tradition. It also remains faithful to almost every cultural understanding in the world of marriage as being between one man and one woman.

There will likely be some people who depart the United Methodist Church should the Traditional Plan pass, but they would likely be fewer in number. Many of the most progressive leaders in our denomination have stated they will not depart under any circumstances. Of course, that means acts of disobedience would continue, so it is a realistic possibility that the Plan would ultimately be ineffective, in which case, laity, clergy and congregations would depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. That would break my heart.

The Connectional Conference Plan

The Connectional Conference Plan is perhaps the most confusing of the three. The plan as proposed would do away with our current five jurisdictions and replace them with three “Conferences” aligned along theological perspectives. There would be a traditional Conference (maintaining the current Disciplinary language), a progressive Conference (ordaining homosexual clergy and performing same-gender marriage) and a centrist Conference (each did what was right in their own eyes).

Each of the three conferences would continue to operate under the umbrella of the United Methodist Church, and as I understand the legislation, each Annual Conference would choose to align with one of the Conferences. Each would continue to share some doctrinal standards, missions work globally and administrative infrastructure (think General Boards and Agencies here).

If a local church did not want to affiliate with the Connectional Conference chosen by its Annual Conference, it could vote to become a member of one of the other Conferences. Clergy would have the same option, but would be obligated to abide by the standards of the chosen Conference. If I understand the legislation correctly, the Bishop and Cabinet of the Annual Conference will still control the appointive process. I’m not sure how that would work, but that’s what it says. Consideration for re-affiliation would be provided every four years.

As for bishops, the current Council of Bishops would be retained with each Connectional Conference having a College of Bishops composed of those bishops who chose to affiliate with each Conference. They would continue to lead in ecumenical relationships and in oversight of the administrative agencies of the Church. Funding for bishops inside the U. S. would be provided by each bishop’s respective Connectional Conference, and bishops outside the U. S. would be supported by the umbrella organization. Confusing, huh?

Each Connectional Conference would adopt its own Book of Discipline starting with the Articles of Religion, Doctrinal Standards, Confessions of Faith and General Rules. Everything else would be contextual to the particular Connectional Conference. Still confusing, huh?

Again, for the full plan you can click here and read the enabling legislation for yourself. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a legal nerd.

I believe this is the most impossible plan offered. It would take up to six years to implement and the passage of five constitutional amendments. Does anyone realize how hard it is to pass a constitutional amendment in the United Methodist Church? Each amendment requires a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a two-thirds vote of the aggregate members of each of the Annual Conferences voting. What it really means is this plan isn’t likely to gain any traction in 2019 (assuming that GC 2019 gets around to voting on any plan).

The confusion created should this plan be adopted would likely lead to many laity, clergy and congregations departing out of sheer frustration and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. Heart-breaking, no?

The One Church Plan

The One Church Plan as proposed would remove the “restrictive” language (some have called it “hurtful” language) in the Discipline as it refers to the practice of homosexuality, and would change the definition of marriage from “between one man and one woman” to being between “two adults.” Additionally, each Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry would be allowed to determine its own ordination standards as it relates to human sexuality.

Okay, this is where it gets sticky. Some have referred to this as the “local option” plan because individual clergy would not be compelled to violate conscience if he/she was opposed to same-gender marriage. The clergy would not be required to perform weddings in celebration of the aforementioned, nor would local congregations be compelled to host same-gender weddings in violation of its collective conscience. (Here’s why I don’t believe this plan would ever work.)

Likewise, bishops are not required to ordain or license homosexual persons in violation of their conscience, but it does make provision if the Annual Conference has opted to ordain, for another bishop to ordain the individual in that bishop’s stead. It does not, however, protect a bishop from having to appoint a clergy person that he/she believes to be unfit for ministry. The Plan does include provisions that prevent a bishop or District Superintendent from retaliating against a clergy who refuses to violate her/his conscience.

I’ll not go into greater detail about the One Church Plan. I’ve linked to the entire plan in a couple of different places already. Read it at your leisure (or at your peril!). I will tell you why I think this plan is untenable.

The Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church

Proponents of the One Church Plan (including the Council of Bishops–though not every Bishop agrees) believe it is possible for those who disagree on issues of human sexuality to peacefully coexist in one denomination. I think nearly 50 years of continuous debate over the issue proves that theory incorrect. Proponents of the plan see human sexuality as a non-essential. Opponents of the plan disagree greatly, and based on the conversations I’ve had, are not likely to change that understanding.

Adopting the One Church plan will accomplish one thing: It will remove the debate from the General Church level. What it will do, in the alternative, is take it down to the local church level where each local congregation will have to determine and debate its own understanding of human sexuality, thus increasing the conflict in the denomination rather than lessening it.

The One Church Plan would also weaken the understanding of what it means to be United Methodist. Well, it would just set up a situation where neighboring UM churches could have differing standards–UM churches in the same town…on the same street, for heaven’s sake! Talk about brand confusion (forgive the secular marketing reference, but…)! We can call it the One Church Plan, but it does, by default, create two (or more?) churches with its implementation. It is, at best, a false unity.

The One Church Plan makes me ask the question, “If we can choose our standards on human sexuality, why can’t each local congregation (or clergy) choose their own standards on baptism or communion?” Seems to me to be only one of the Pandora’s boxes we open with the passage of the One Church Plan.

Additionally, as a former District Superintendent, I can see the nightmare the appointive process would become under such a plan. It was difficult enough to connect clergy and congregations in a fruitful way without the One Church Plan, and for Annual Conferences with a shortage of clergy, the issue would be multiplied even more. I also envision a time in the not too distant future when bishops and cabinets would say, “Sexual preference is not a consideration in the appointment-making process.”

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this Plan disregards the historic, biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality, and puts the United Methodist Church firmly outside the broader global community of the body of Christ on the issues of marriage and human sexuality. Do we really want to do that?

If the One Church Plan passes GC 2019, it will precipitate the departure of many evangelical, traditional members (both lay and clergy) and congregations for whom the issue of human sexuality is a non-negotiable. Their departure will weaken the United Methodist Church, and that breaks my heart.

Other Considerations

This has become a long blog (I apologize), so I will only briefly mention a few other considerations involved in the debate. Bishop Bruce Ough has rightly discerned, “Let’s be clear, if we divide, nearly all our essential unifying institutional activities would be lost or severely diminished.” Our UM institutions will be harmed, and the future of many will be uncertain–some will, in fact, cease to exist. Our global mission partnerships will end or be financially limited. Pension obligations may go unmet (especially pre-1982 pensions [Methodist nerds will know what that is]), and that would be devastating to countless faithful clergy. Property fights would ensue, diverting precious resources away from the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I contend that each of those things will happen regardless of which plan is passed. Perhaps not on the scale of a full-blown dissolution, but harm will come nonetheless.

The Final Nail in the Mainline Coffin?

The decline of the mainline church in North America is well documented, and while our denomination is growing globally, membership and attendance continues to decline in the U. S., and has since I entered vocational ministry in 1991. Ed Stetzer wrote a piece in 2017 noting that unless something happen, mainline Protestantism has a mere 23 Easters left. My heart aches as I consider the possibility that General Conference 2019 will hasten that decline, and will serve as the final nail in the mainline coffin (at least in the U. S.).

United Methodism is still the largest of the remaining “mainline” Protestant denominations, and the singular one which has not yet embraced the ordination of LGBTQI+ persons or same-gender marriage. Only the Traditional Plan will (ostensibly) prevent this from happening, but even if it passes, the UMC is likely to come out bruised and weakened. Regardless of what happens February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, everything will be different in the UMC on February 27th. At least, that’s my speculation.

Alarmist, you say? Negativity? Hyperbole? Divisive? Well, I prefer the term realistic.  I don’t want our church divided. I don’t want to see our congregations diminished. I don’t want the United Methodist name to be tarnished. I don’t want to break fellowship with sisters and brothers with whom I’ve traversed the highway of ministry. Each of those possibilities break my heart.

Yet, I am not one who is without hope. I do believe in miracles, and I am praying for a miracle to happen in St. Louis. I believe God has the power to work a miracle among the people called United Methodist. The problem doesn’t lie with God’s ability, but rather with our openness to the move of the Holy Spirit among us as the work is done. So, I pray that all our hearts will be open to what the Holy Spirit desires to accomplish in us and through us during that time.

In the meantime, I’m going to focus as much effort as I’m able to reach the lost in the community around me. I’m going to look to the future with plans for continuing ministry to the broken among us. I’m going to do all I can do to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That mission hasn’t changed.

Even still, I’m not without hope. Should February 2019 drive the final nail in the mainline coffin, I am certain the work of the Kingdom will continue. God is in the resurrection business, and we all know there has to be a death before there can be a resurrection.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

On April 28, 2017, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church issued its ruling regarding the July 2016 election and consecration of Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as Bishop in the United Methodist Church. Almost everyone I know (from a Methodist perspective anyway) was waiting for this ruling, and many of them have asked me what I thought of the ruling. My answer has been: “I think it’s better than it could have been and worse than it should have been.”

BETTER THAN IT COULD HAVE BEEN

It’s better than it could have been because the Judicial Council could have decided it didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter. That is, in essence, what they ruled in part of the case. The Council concluded it did not have jurisdiction over the nomination, election and assignment as Bishop (you can read the entire decision here), but that it did have jurisdiction over the consecration of a homosexual bishop, and in that matter, the Western Jurisdiction violated church law. The decision goes on to say that any clergy who participated in the consecration are subject to a “chargeable offense.”

I’m not going to comment on the intricate details of the case because I’m not an attorney steeped in church law, but I will say that any intelligent person could read The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church and conclude that the consecration of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is a violation of church law. No matter how one parses the words, they say what they say, and no matter a person’s gifts and graces for ministry, the words say what they say. If we don’t like what the words say, then the words should be changed, but every four years for forty plus years, the wording has been reaffirmed by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

So, the ruling is better than it could have been. The Western Jurisdiction violated church law when it consecrated Rev. Dr. Oliveto bishop (although Oliveto was not specifically named in the petition). I believe it was the correct decision, and it helped to bring some clarity to the current debates within the United Methodist Church around human sexuality.

WORSE THAN IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN

But, the decision is worse than it should have been. I know many will disagree with that statement, and that’s perfectly okay with me (this is me assenting to your right to dissent–so please keep the nasty and snarky comments to a minimum). The decision left Oliveto in “good standing” in the office of Bishop, and remanded the case back to the Western Jurisdiction for what is called an “administrative process.”

Yes, others have asked what that means, too. Let me see if I can explain it briefly. Just like in the secular world, a person has a right to “due process,” so in the church a clergy person has the right to “due process” before any action can be taken against him/her (this is a good thing), so the ruling sends it back to the Western Jurisdiction for the process to play itself out.

So, while that’s good, it’s bad because the Western Jurisdiction is the entity that elected  and consecrated Oliveto in the first place, so I anticipate that nothing of substance will be done through the process, and when all is said and done, Oliveto will still be a Bishop in the United Methodist Church, and those of us who hold to the traditional biblical understanding of marriage will continue to be frustrated with the politics of it all (I’m speaking purely of church politics here). It’s also bad because it will continue to be a distraction from the mission of the church, and will continue to drain time, energy and resources away from the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.

WHAT NOW?

So, what do we do now? We wait…just like we’ve been doing. We’ll wait to see how the administrative process works itself out in the Western Jurisdiction. We’ll also continue to wait and see what the Commission on a Way Forward recommends when it completes its work, and we’ll wait to see what the special called session of General Conference does with that information when it meets in February of 2019, in St. Louis, MO.

In our waiting, we might discover that the Holy Spirit is prepared to do a new work with these people called United Methodist. The Holy Spirit could, in fact, be giving birth to a new Methodist movement. If we react now with frustration and anger (no matter which “side” of the debate we take), we might just miss the greatest move of the Holy Spirit in Methodism since John Wesley‘s heart was strangely warmed at a meeting on Aldersgate Street. Let’s all remain faithful with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness (those are the vows every person takes when she/he joins the United Methodist Church).

There is one thing we can do in the waiting, and that is to pray. We must pray for unity…but not unity for an institution…we must pray for unity in the body of Christ that goes far beyond any human institution. We must also pray for unity in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must also pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us with fire so that our singular purpose will be a people who have nothing to do but save souls.

More than waiting, though, is the necessity of work…the work of the Kingdom. We must continue to be in ministry to the least, the last and the lost. There are homeless people to feed. There are foster children to care for. There are churches to build. There are souls to save (there’s my evangelical bent coming through). There are people to love, there’s a God to worship and adore and there’s Jesus to follow. Nothing any Council (Judicial or otherwise) could ever do will change the commandment Jesus gave us to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 18-20 NLT).

So, I’ll wait, and pray and work. May I invite you to join me in that endeavor.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Lost Grace…

CHRISTIAN CONFERENCE

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, in his writings and teachings noted what he called the “means of grace.” By “means of grace,” Wesley meant those practices whereby the disciple of Jesus Christ could experience the grace of God in life-transforming ways. Wesley would say, “Do these practices on a regular basis, and watch the work of the Holy Spirit change you.” That’s the popular Lynn Malone paraphrase but you get the idea. Wesley would distinguish between what he termed the “instituted” means and the “ordinary” means by allowing that the “instituted” means were those given to the body of Christ directly by Jesus himself. Among those “instituted” means of grace were prayer, fasting, searching the Scriptures (we’d call that Bible study) and the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion), but he also lists a fifth that we’ve lost sight of in the 21st century. He called it “Christian conference.”

We hear “Christian conference,” and we think about going to a big gathering of Christians to hear preaching and teaching, worship and the like—think Promise Keeper’s or Women of Faith. Or, if we’re a good Methodist, we think about going to Annual Conference, which is the yearly gathering of Methodists from across the state where we worship and fellowship and conduct the business of the “Annual Conference,” which (for those of you not familiar with the Methodist tradition) is an institution in and of itself. None of those thoughts were on Wesley’s mind as he taught the practice of “Christian conference.” For Wesley, Christian Conference was honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness.

GRACE LOST

Why don’t we practice this habit more often, or at all? One reason is that we desire comfort and seek to avoid conflict. Confrontation is awkward, messy, and hard, so few do it. Additionally, churches and spiritual communities are intentional about creating a sense of peace, encouragement, happiness, and joy even if it’s a façade. Identifying sin, exposing immorality, admitting the truth, uncovering corruption, and acknowledging failure contradict the image many churches are trying to portray. Following Jesus was never meant to be comfortable or easy. To live a holy life requires accountability.

In a society obsessed with self-gratification, pleasure, and comfort, churches too easily succumb to an attitude of appeasement instead of responsibility and intervention. Unchecked sin causes havoc and devastation. And while accountability can be misused, not using it at all can cause widespread harm. Accountability goes both ways and isn’t exclusively meant for pastors or those in leadership to punish those “beneath” them. Everyone is responsible. Often it’s those in leadership who need accountability the most.

Another reason we don’t develop the habit of accountability is because we live in a culture of unlimited options and choices. The next sentence is going to hurt me more than it hurts you, but it is going to hurt, so prepare yourself. Churches (and pastors) emphasize comfort because discomfort causes people to leave congregations. There, I said it! In a world inundated with options, where endless venues vie to satisfy our every need, churches are no different, and if Christians become uncomfortable, upset or discouraged, they can simply pack up and go someplace else, and many of them do. It’s easier for a church to make everyone feel good, but it often comes at the cost of spiritual maturity.

Jesus faced the same problem, too. John’s Gospel records an incident in chapter six. Jesus had fed five thousand and walked on water. The next day, the crowds clamored to be around him. Jesus figured it was time for a little accountability, so he told them, “You just wanted me for what I could do for you. Don’t worry so much about what I can provide for you, but focus on the eternal matters of life” (John 6: 26 – 27). It turned out to be one of the most difficult conversations Jesus had with those who followed him as he tried to explain that He was the bread of life. The people began arguing among themselves, and when all was said and done, we find a revealing little passage in John 6:66—“At this point, many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” Difficult conversations cause discomfort, and with so many options, we choose not to be uncomfortable.

There is a danger in developing the habit of accountability, though, and that danger is another reason we don’t practice it much anymore. The danger is legalism. Sadly, many churches, both past and present, have wrongly implemented “accountability” to serve their own agendas. There are numerous accounts of using guilt, shame, fear, embarrassment, and terror to manipulate, abuse, control, hurt, and destroy the lives of countless victims. Church history has been stained by varying degrees of legalism, and today’s churches will do anything to avoid such labels, even if it means abandoning the practice of accountability altogether. It is sad that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

REDISCOVERING GRACE

The Apostle Paul encouraged the Galatian church to hold each other accountable, and reminded them of how to do it. Paul said that we should “gently” help a fellow traveler back on the path so that we don’t fall into the same ditch. The loss of accountability can lead to believers who are susceptible to self-righteousness and spiritual immaturity. Ironically, it can also result in Christians who are more judgmental towards those outside the faith. Instead of holding ourselves accountable, it’s much easier to point the finger at the rest of society, and to be the accuser instead of the accused. To avoid our own sins, we often distract ourselves by focusing on the sins of others.

Our challenge is to responsibly develop the habit of accountability without abusing it, to gracefully and lovingly help people grow in their faith without being legalistic or abusive or accusatory, to challenge and inspire people through relational support and encouragement instead of abandoning and isolating them. The grace of accountability is about building up, not tearing down. The grace in accountability is about encouragement, not discouragement. The grace in accountability is for prayer together and prayer for one another—it is, as Paul reminds the Galatians, about bearing one another’s burdens.

John Wesley would agree. In what are called Wesley’s “Large Minutes,” he writes in reference to Christian Conference: “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? It is always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?” For Wesley, it was always about building up the body—to help each other live holy lives.

Living holy lives is the end game. It’s not about church growth, it’s about spiritual growth. The church is the place we learn to practice the habits that promote spiritual growth that we can then take back to work, to school, home and to our communities so that God’s transformation takes place, not only in us, but in the world around us.

How do I begin to develop this habit, and discover its grace? It’s all about relationship! Transformation takes place in relationship—a relationship with Jesus Christ and a relationship with others who walk the journey. The imagery Paul uses in Galatians 6 of another believer being “overcome” by some sin, the language literally is of one who has slipped—like on an icy sidewalk, or on an uneven path. No one plans to slip on an icy sidewalk. No one plans a misstep on that path, but it happens, even when we’re being careful. Yes, we can many times pick ourselves up, but when someone else is there to help us, it makes it easier. Yes, it’s embarrassing to slip on that icy patch. We look around to see if anyone saw us, and we even try to resist the efforts of others who come along to help us. Paul’s point is we need someone to help us when we stumble over sin in our lives.

Wesley’s genius was his organization of converts into societies, classes and bands. Think congregation, small group, smaller group here. For early Methodists, these accountable relationships happened in the class meetings. Classes were groups of 10-12 persons who met weekly and focused on the details of individual’s lives, where they were experiencing God and growing in faith and holiness, and where they were not experiencing God or failing to grow in faith and holiness. They asked one simple question: “How is your life in God?” It was, in all its facets, a means of developing the habit of accountability, and for Wesley, it was grace.

Accountability can be grace to us, too, when we find a group, or even a person where we can ask and be asked the question, “How is your life in God?”

Don’t have a group? Ask your pastor. Or, ask me. I’ll be glad to help.

Until next time, keep looking up…

 

Keep it Simple…(Stupid?)

The Malones are HGTV junkies. From Island Life to Fixer Upper, from Property Brothers to House Hunters, you can find us many nights as the evening winds down sitting in front of the television decompressing in front of one of HGTV’s offerings. One of the lessons we’ve learned from HGTV is that when you’re trying to sell your home you have to de-clutter. De-cluttering is getting all the non-essential stuff out of the house so it presents better to potential buyers.

Developing the habit of simplicity is about de-cluttering. It is about practicing the art of letting go of the “things” that too possess us rather than us possessing them. When I say “things,” I’m not only talking about material possessions. I’m also talking about some spiritual issues that impact our lives in negative ways. We live cluttered lives not only materially, but emotionally and spiritually. Our homes are cluttered, our calendars are cluttered and our hearts are cluttered. We live in a cluttered age, and simplicity is a means of grace God gives us to free ourselves of all that hinders us from the holy lives He calls us to.

SIMPLY NOT!

I want us to understand, first, what simplicity is not. Simplicity is not getting rid of all our stuff, quitting everything we’re involved in and living the ascetic’s life. Ascetics are those who have renounced material possessions as evil. That’s not simplicity, at all! God desires that all His children should have adequate provision. A simple lack of provision in many places in this world creates great misery, and forced poverty (where it exists) should be denounced as evil. The bible is consistent that creation is good, and that we are to enjoy it. Developing the habit of simplicity does not denounce possessions. It sets them in proper perspective.

Richard Foster, to whom I’m greatly indebted for the foundation of this blog, says that simplicity is the only thing that reorients our lives so that we can graciously enjoy possessions so they don’t destroy us. It is the habit of simplicity that keeps us from “buying into” the culture’s values of owning, but it also keeps us from a form of legalism that says you shouldn’t buy “that” car, or own “that” house.

A “RICH FOOL”

Jesus addressed some of the underlying issues that keep us from living in simplicity. One of those occasions was an encounter in Luke 12. A man comes to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, please tell my brother to divide my father’s estate with me.” Seems like a fair request to us. We know how family squabbles can be after the death of a parent, don’t we? Jesus, as he often does, doesn’t answer the question directly. Rather he tells a story about a rich fool. “Rich fool” sounds like an oxymoron to us, sort of like “jumbo shrimp,” or “clearly confused.” Those words just don’t work together, but the story indicates that Jesus is saying the rich man was a fool for focusing his life on the wrong things. The point, too, would have been clear to the man who made the request.

Jesus was not addressing the issue of wealth with this story. Wealth is amoral. The person possessing the wealth defines its morality. The Bible is full of godly people who possessed wealth—Abraham, David, Job, et.al. Jesus was addressing the condition of the man’s heart. Simplicity is first and foremost a matter of the heart, and simplicity starts in a right relationship with God.

The spiritual discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style. The inward reality will always impact how we live. Sure, we can go sell all our stuff, pare down to the bare essentials, but unless the reason to do it comes from the heart, it will simply lead to legalism, and rather than becoming holy, we’ll become “holier-than-thou.” We first have to de-clutter our hearts. There are two places we need to start. There are probably more, but I note only two.

DE-CLUTTERING OUR HEARTS

First, we need de-clutter greed. That was the real issue behind the man’s initial request. The ancient law said the eldest son received 2/3 of a father’s estate, and 1/3 was divided among the rest. We don’t know how many siblings were involved in this estate. It doesn’t matter. The man making the request felt that whatever amount, it was unfair. He wanted more, even if the more was his just due.

Second, we need to de-clutter fear. Perhaps we should see that fear is what leads to covetousness. The rich fool in Jesus’ story was afraid…afraid he’d lose his abundance. He was afraid his barns weren’t big enough. His affluence made him anxious. Tell me something: What’s the difference in worrying about our possessions if we have an abundance and worrying because we don’t? Fear is fear, regardless.

Contemporary culture would leave us trapped in a maze of competing attachments. We fill our homes with “stuff” because we have the resources to do so. Advertisers tell us we need the latest, the best, the brightest, the newest. Culture tells us we need the latest fashions. Last year’s fashions simply won’t do. Oh, I’ve got 50,000 miles on my car. I need a new one.

We fill our calendars with activities, too. We run from event to event, afraid we might miss being seen in the right circles, with the right people. We’re afraid we might miss the one life-changing experience that’s waiting in the next conference, or the next job, or the next relationship. Or, we crowd our children’s schedules with activities because we’re afraid they won’t have every experience necessary to help them succeed in such a competitive world. Richard Foster says, “It’s time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.”

ONE LOVE

How do we break the cycle? How do we begin to live into this inward grace of simplicity? Jesus gives us the clue. Immediately after he told the story of the rich fool, he turns to his disciples and unpacks the dangers of fear and worry. He talks about ravens and flowers and God’s care for them. He talks about worry and its effect on life, and then he gives a summary statement in 12: 31—Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need.

Simplicity starts when the heart focuses on one thing alone—the Kingdom of God. everything hinges on maintaining the first priority of life. Nothing can come before the Kingdom of God. Not spouse, not children, not job, not recreation…not even the desire to live a simple life. Even that can become an idol. We’ve got to be like Cane’s Chicken—we must have “one love,” and that one love is God and God’s Kingdom. The rich fool never once mentioned God. Ten times he made a personal reference to himself, but never once thought of God.

THE RIGHT ATTITUDE

The inward reality of simplicity is reflected in three inner attitudes. First, to see everything we possess as a gift from God. Yes, we work, but God provides. We live by grace when it comes to air, water and sun. When we are tempted to think that what we own is the result of our personal efforts, the first drought or little accident shows us how utterly dependent we are for everything.

The second attitude that reflects inward simplicity is to know that it is God’s business to care for what He’s entrusted to us. God is able to protect what we possess. Yes, we put locks on the doors, but even then we are able to acknowledge that locks are for honest people. Precautions are necessary, but if we believe the precaution itself will protect us or our belongings, we will live in fear.

The third attitude that reflects inward simplicity is to have our possessions available to others. This is generosity. If we’re unwilling to make our resources available to the community when it is right and good, then Foster says we’re dealing in stolen goods. The rich fool was worried about tomorrow, so he thought he could build bigger barns. He never, ever considered giving the excess away.

Jesus lived and told this story in a fairly simple agrarian culture. If Jesus warned of the duplicity of the heart in such a simple time, how much more do we need to hear and heed his message in our complex culture?

MAKE IT REAL

I want to offer some practical ways we can begin to practice outwardly what God is doing inwardly. Remember, though, every attempt to give specific application to simplicity runs the risk of taking us from holy to “holier-than-thou.” It is a risk we must take, otherwise it all stays theoretical, and theory is great, but we need practical. Let me offer us five ways.

First, buy things for the usefulness, not their status. The question to ask is not, “Why am I buying a new car?” The question should be “Why am I buying THAT new car? Friends, we don’t need more clothes. Never buy new clothes without first getting rid of some older ones, or consider that last year’s styles are okay. John Wesley wrote, “As for apparel, I buy the most lasting and , in general, the plainest I can. I buy no furniture but what is necessary and cheap.” Buy for usefulness, not status.

Second, develop a habit of giving things away. Hey, if there’s something we’ve become desperately attached to, we need to seriously consider giving it away to someone who needs it. Have a yard sale, but not to take the proceeds and go buy more stuff. Take the proceeds and send them to a missionary, or give them to a project at the church. Generosity is at the heart of simplicity.

Third, resist the latest and greatest gadgets. Do we really need to run out and buy the iPhone 8 when our iPhone 7 still functions adequately?

Fourth, avoid as much credit as possible. Credit deepens our bondage. We know most people can’t save enough to buy a house, but we can save enough for a good down payment. Follow the Dave Ramsey philosophy of paying off debt as quickly as possible, and then building wealth so you can live generously. In the Dave Ramsey world, the paid-off home mortgage is the status symbol of choice.

Finally, shun anything that distracts us from the seeking first the Kingdom of God. The pursuit of good things can distract us from pursuit of great things, and pursuit of better things can distract us from the pursuit of the best thing. Jobs, position, status, family, security—these things, while all good, can too quickly become the center of our attention.

May God give us the courage, wisdom and strength to seek first His Kingdom—to keep the main thing the main thing. That is the essence of the habit of simplicity, and it is grace. By developing this habit of grace, may we grow in the likeness of Jesus Christ, and in so doing, become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Amen!

Until next time, keep looking up…