A Methodist Requiem – A Review

RequiemI set out to read this book for two main reasons. First, the author had a major influence on me during my time in seminary at Duke Divinity School. I respected what he taught me then and looked forward to learning something new from him. Second, the subject matter of the book, the future of the People Called Methodists, especially in light of their current battles over how to deal with human sexuality is a subject that is on my mind a lot these days. The subtitle of the book, “Words of Hope and Resurrection for the Church”, piqued my interest even more since I too believe that the greatest need our denomination has at this moment in time is for an infusion of Hope.

I’m a coal country guy. I have lived in several areas of the the state of West Virginia but all of them have been effected in some ways by the changing nature of the coal business. My paternal grandfather was a railroader in the Central Mountains of WV and my maternal grandfather was a low seam coal minor in Northern WV. Although the generations that followed them managed to avoid the coal/railroad business – with the exception of one uncle who worked as a railroad dispatcher – there is something about the rise and fall of this industry that speaks well to the topic Lawrence addresses in his book. Although his focus is upon the Eastern Pennsylvania coal history, I couldn’t help but think of the hollows, mountains, and now broken down tipples that dot the landscape of Southern WV where I live and minister. It is also a very helpful starting place for the topic of “uncertainty” that truly underlies the writing of A Methodist Requiem. So many towns in these coal areas are recovering from the rape and pillage of an industry that does so much good when it is around but leaves less than what they have taken. In fact, they leave a vast swath of hopelessness that is now being filled by the growing problem of addiction and depression.

I am fortunate. I live in a town that refuses to be defined by “what has been.” The people of Princeton are looking for a new day. They are not victims of some outsider stealing their natural resource nor do they wish to hang on to someone’s invented “war on coal” so that they can be a victim. They are waiting for the Pheonix to rise from the ashes and bring a new day to their home. In this way, our town, and perhaps even our little part of the Methodist connection can connect with the words of Lawrence as he describes the need for a resurgence of the rite of Requiem, where all can face death unafraid and proclaim the new hope of Resurrection. I appreciate the setting of this book in that framework.

However, the stronger parts of this book can be found in Lawrence’s description of the history and entanglement of resources that exist in a global church such as the United Methodist Church. I learned new things as I read through his sections on how different part of the connection could be effected by possible schisms. I’m almost afraid to admit that I did not know that “local church” is a rather new nomenclature for United Methodism and one that points out just how much we are willing to grab hold of cultural definitions IF those definitions fit our desired outcomes. It saddens me to know that we are looking to greatly redefine the power of connectionalism that is found in the United Methodist movement for the cultural pablum of having the freedom for local church decisions on matters. The greater freedom is probably to found in celebrating a connection that exists with so much diversity that it hurts at times to be together because then we must acknowledge the need for the Cross of Christ to bring together such diverse people. Lawrence tackles this history and entanglement much more eloquently than I can in this review.

The greatest strength of this book is the theological work that Lawrence does in the final section of the book where he ties together the story of a “wandering Aramean” and the system work of a Jewish Rabbi. I don’t want to say too much here, but I will say that I have read and studied Edwin Friedman for decades now and the treatment Dr. William Lawrence gives to the idea of self differentiation, especially within a system s connected as the United Methodist Church should be is by far the best I have read.

If you are a United Methodist preparing for the reports from the Commission on the Way Forward and our Council of Bishops…If you are a United Methodist preparing yourself for the work that will take place at the Special General Conference in 2019…If you are a United Methodist wondering why we should even be talking about issues of sexuality at all…Hell, if you are a United Methodist, READ THIS BOOK. You will not be disappointed. You will find yourself awash in hope and ready to celebrate the new day about to come to our little corner of God’s Kingdom.

Thank you again, Dr. Lawrence, for sharing your wisdom. May I say to you the very words you shared with your classes and I share with my congregation each week:

Wherever you go, may God go with you;
Whatever you need, may God provide;
Whenever you stumble, may God lift you.
And when, at the end of your days, when you lay yourself down for the last time –
May God raise you up for all time.

I expect nothing less for the people called Methodist!

“What Are We Fighting For?” A Book Review

WAWFF Tom BickertonHow many LGBTQ people are in the interesting photograph depicting the church on the cover of “What Are We Fighting For? Coming Together Around What Matters Most” by Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton? Seriously, I included an image of the cover. Take a look and count them.

Trick question. You can’t.

Because if they are there, they are people mixed in with the rest of the “motley crew” that makes up the church.

Then again, how many times does Bishop Bickerton (a Bishop in the United Methodist Church) mention the issues around LGBTQ people, facing his (and my) denomination?

Another trick question because unless I really, really missed it, these issues are not referenced in this book. The title alone was enough to make this reader think that these things would be mentioned. It seems to be one of the main issues our branch of Christianity is in conflict about these days. Like I said, I thought it would be mentioned. But it is not.

And truthfully, I’m glad. That is probably the most genuine and genius accomplishment of “What Are We Fighting For.” The author manages to talk about what lies behind or underneath the issues that are causing conflict rather than the specific issues. (Yes, he does bring up a few specifics, but I will let the reader get to those and make their own judgement about how it fits into the rest of his argument.) The author is then able to call us as United Methodist Christians to a higher place of talking about what threatens the unity of the church – our loss of the primary vision of being a people who can “restore order and focus in the church and throughout the world with a faith that many call naïve and out of touch.” (page 133)

In the days of Trump v. Cruz v. Kasich and Clinton v. Sanders (along with inevitable sequel); In the days of ISIS v. the western world; in the days of environmentalists v. coal industry; in the days of…well, I hope you get the picture. In these days of division and heated division, this Bishop calls us to take a journey that few want to travel. He calls us to a journey with one another as “Children of God” rather than any other label we would like to place on others or ourselves. Children of God…working together for Jesus’ Kingdom…that is the calling Bishop Bickerton brings to our memory.

Some will probably want to digitally or otherwise crucify the author for failing to speak boldly about their cause. I have a feeling that will be just fine – the One the author call us to follow on the journey had a similar problem.

I won’t spoil your journey with this book more than that by quoting or giving more examples. I do, however, encourage you to read it. (I even recommend it to other Children of God not of the branch of United Methodism.)

Bishop Bickerton’s ability to use scripture, story, history, theology and nuance of language so well, makes this a clever and enjoyable journey to a better place.