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!

A Journey Toward the Trinity? Searching for Sunday (A Review)

I am not a millennial. I live with two of them in my home – well, one is part time now that she has gone to college. However, I have always had a difficult time figuring out which group I truly relate to the most. I could be a “Boomer”. No doubt my bowing to the god of consumerism labels me this way many times. I could be a “Gen-X” or “Buster”. God, my supervisors and my colleagues in ministry know that I have spent more than my fair share of time calling things into question. I enjoy upsetting the status quo just a little too much at times. Although my age would allow me to fit into either of these two groups – I was born in 1965 – I truly think of myself as part of the “Bridge” generation. (We have no “one” identity but find our tribe among many.) Perhaps that is why, even today, I find myself longing to listen more and more to voices of the “millennials” who have a relationship with doubt and questioning that I find exciting and fascinating, if not, at times, downright frightening.

SFS BookIt is because of this desire to hear the voices of millennials that I first started reading Rachel Held Evans’ work. It is why I have listened to her speak. It is why I am honored to be able to recommend her latest work, Searching for Sunday.

When I received my copy of Searching for Sunday, I immediately scanned the table of contents for the section on Communion. I knew the book was going to be organized around the Sacraments and the Eucharist has special appeal to me because I have learned so much about following Christ by being on both sides of “the Table.” It was in serving communion that I learned what a bold-faced judgmental hypocrite I was when I chose not to partake of Christ’s meal with a congregation I was serving because I felt their sin of racism somehow tainted the meal. It was in receiving communion that I learned what a beggar for grace I am and now only approach the Table with my hands held out. Sometimes, I will sit through a whole worship service with my hands cupped just so I can remember that grace is a gift.

So I decided to read that chapter first and then go back and read the whole book. Perhaps I wanted to take the book for a test drive around a topic that is near and dear to me. Perhaps I wanted to see if the part of the book which would be most important to me would live up to my expectations. I don’t know. I just wanted to read that section first.

I was not disappointed. My expectations were not only met, they were exceeded. Ms. Evans echoed the feeling I learned at that table in North Carolina when I thought I was too good to eat with certain people: “At Eagle Eyrie I learned why it’s so important for pastors to serve communion. It’s important because it steals the show. It’s important because it shoves you and your ego and your expectations out of the way so Jesus can do his thing. It reminds you that grace is as abundant as tears and faith as simple as food.”[1]

The power in telling any story, I believe, is as that story invites the reader in and allows them to find themselves somewhere in the narrative. This happened to me in a powerful way as I read “Communion” and happened again and again throughout the book. I am not a child of the evangelical church, I am and always have been part of a mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church. But still, I found myself in Evans’ narrative over and over and over again. As powerful as this connection to the story was around “Communion” it paled in comparison to how I felt the “guilt of silence” as I read the section “Vote Yes on One.” Silence seems to be the only way to survive in the UM Church these days.

I simply cannot tell you how great this book is for anyone searching for a reason to find faith again, or those who are sometimes wondering about the faith they have in the tradition they hold. Evans’ story of her journey shows how one can embrace evangelical, progressive and sacramental traditions as they follow Jesus. And this is a story for our time.

Recently, I read an article by Steve Harper where he said, “Staying together is a sacred act – a holy experience. We have become patterned to disagree and divide. But the witness in the Trinity is to unite and to be one.”[2] Evans poignantly tells us the sometimes tortured path that she took to get to that unity of past, present and future in her theology. Evans gives us the hope that we might one day do the same.

Read Searching for Sunday. Start your journey as well.

[1] Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans, Nelson Publishing, 2015, page 140

[2] “No More Sides”, Steve Harper, Circuit Rider Magazine, Feb/March 2015, The United Methodist Publishing House, page 27

“Torn” – A Book Review

It is not very often that I come across a book that I feel compelled to both recommend and talk about, however, “Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gay v. Christian Debate” is one of those books.

I wrote my review on Goodreads…You are free to read it there if you so desire or just read it below.

I encourage your comments about the book and the topic, but please know that I will be moderating them to make sure they maintain a level of “love for neighbor” that comes close to Jesus’ love for us.

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians DebateTorn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are very few books on “current” theological debates that I have read in the last decade that have the power that this particular book brings. I truly believe that this one is a “world” changer.

Justin Lee enters into the fray of the most fractious debate among Christians from a narrative standpoint – his narrative. He openly shares his story, his struggles and his ultimate quiet triumph.

I do not believe Lee set out with an agenda in telling this story any more than he set out in life to be the person that he became. Therein lies the power of this book. He shares. He simply shares his story. The reader can respond but will have a very difficult time dismissing what Lee has to say. He is a person who has wrestled with his faith, his church and his Bible and came out of the struggle still able to love and be loved by God, still be in touch with a community of believers and above all else love those around him who will no doubt disagree with him and use that disagreement to fuel the fires of this debate.

As a United Methodist Elder, I know what my limits are and will uphold them based on our Book of Discipline, however, I do believe that this writer has brought us new light to shed upon the debate. The greatest part of that light I would paraphrase by saying, “Stop fighting and start loving one another as Jesus loves you.” It is an incredibly simple sentence but given the “heat” of the Gay v. Christian debate, it will be a very difficult task to carry out. Interestingly enough, this “light” does not, as far as I can tell, go against anything in our Discipline whatsoever.

If there is any one book I would recommend my friends to read…it is this one. Enjoy!

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