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!

The Morning After Ash Wednesday 2018

Ash Wed Kids_Moment

As part of our Ash Wednesday observance last evening, I read the following passage from 2 Corinthians 6. Although I used a different version during the service, The Message  spoke to me on the morning after:

“People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly…in hard times, tough times, bad time; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.”

When I arrived to prepare for the service, I noticed that our children and youth, who usually meet on Wednesday evening for lessons in discipleship of one type or another, were gathering in the building as well. I then learned that both groups would be attending the Ash Wednesday service. I loved the thought of having their energy, their wide-eyed faith being among us as we observed this holy day. As they gathered, I heard one little girl excitedly tell her friend how “Pastor Scott was going to put a cross on our foreheads tonight.” I chuckled as I listened.

I sat on the front pew at the start of the service and little Owen sat beside me. We had words flashing on the screen to help people “set the tone” for the service. I asked him if he needed help reading any of them. He stumbled on “Scripture” and had no idea what “Fasting” meant, although he did a great job reading it. He got “Deny Yourself” and “Pray” very easily as well as “Kneel Now”. It was a good conversation when a great kid. One of a dozen or so young ones…along with the dozen or so youth.

Lord, did it hit me while I was reading that passage above.

I was so joyful just to be in worship with the younger ones that I hadn’t forgotten briefly about the big news of the day. I forgot that there were parents and children in Florida who were dead or severely traumatized by our lack of ability to balance safety and rights once again. I was struck while reading this passage that our witness in the face of such tragedy is to go on as people of hope, to keep showing the love of God even as we fight the good fight of doing what was right.

I was reading the passage and I knew that in just a few minutes, Owen and many other children and youth I have grown to love even as my own would soon join the line of people that walk up to their pastor and have me mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross as I said, “You are dust and to dust you will return.”

There are times that I wonder about Jesus’ words of taking his “easy yoke” upon ourselves. This didn’t feel easy at all. With every wide eyed child and every interested teen that came to me last night, I choked just a little more. I didn’t cry. I don’t think any tears escaped, but they wanted flow like rivers.

And then this morning, I came across this poem by Mary Oliver (from a book I’m reading for Lent) and I was struck with the enormity of the creation God has made in us:

We Shake with Joy
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

I leave with you a brief image, in video form, of what God might have seen last night…Faithful children…a pastor shaking with joy and grief…the people “immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy.”

To all God’s children in Florida struggling with the unspeakable…
my heart goes out to you in love…
my mind fills with thoughts of prayer for you…
and my spirit longs for hope for us all.

Pruning

The surgeon wielded a chainsaw
Strapped to his hip
a low hanging gun.
Vines of artificial hemp lifted and held fast to the surgeon
as spiked heels dug into the patient’s flesh.

The mechanical, maniacal roar of the scalpel
would cut and prune
in a effort to bring the patient
to a place of acceptance.
Acceptance by those who occupied the structures
made of relatives long ago murdered.
Correction brought with
sharpened teeth,
anointed bar,
and a single finger that gripped and pointed,
pointed and gripped.

From time to time a telling thump
could be heard as branch or limb
fell to sun hardened earth.

Could anyone hear the cries of the patient?
“You cut too deep!”
“You pruned too much!”

Sap spilled over the skin from open wounds
tears not unlike those shed
by a jilted lover
a shamed child.
Silent, yet filled with experiences unshared,
unknown by any other.

Over time the20160617_151424 patient slept
and attempted to recover from correction
as sunshine teased wounded limbs
to bring forth life again.
Water sprinkled wound and ground –
for life?
for death?
or just to say the healing ritual had be done?

Yet, the surgeon cut too deep.
The patient, now a victim,
silently
rots within.

 

 

Indeed this piece is about the loss of a tree in my  front yard. At the same time, this tree and its loss has become something of a metaphor to me of battles I am seeing fought all to often.

Take A Breath: Reflecting on Two Conferences (Guest Post)

The following post is by my daughter Erin Sears. Erin just completed her sophomore year at Marshall University. She is spending this week at the West Virginia Annual Conference both as a member of our General Conference delegation and a member of the communications team. Although the feelings and opinions are hers, I just happen to agree with them. She has a good message here.

Erin pauseOn Tuesday of this week, overwhelmed with preparations for Annual Conference, I set out for an afternoon walk around the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College. A rain storm changed my plans, and I shortly found myself nestled in the quiet of the Meditation Chapel. For the first time all week, I allowed my mind to wander and settle into the familiar thoughts that seemed to consume me these days.

The thoughts began a year ago this week when the 2015 West Virginia Annual Conference elected me as a part of the delegation to General Conference. As I sat in the Meditation Chapel, I remembered those moments as if they were yesterday. I had been filled with awe at first because the people of West Virginia had affirmed the calling I felt from God last year at Annual Conference. However, the awe was tainted ever so slightly with fear. I wondered if I would be able to handle the enormous responsibility of being a delegate to General Conference.

The emotions of last year’s Annual Conference faded away.

My mind jumped to this past January, when I held the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, the workbook for General Conference, in my hands for the first time. I was oddly giddy for a college student who had just received an additional thousand-page reading assignment for the spring semester.

The work of General Conference seemed real for the first time. It was not just talking anymore. That first night I spent hours skimming through the various petitions and resolutions. My excitement faded, and anxiety crept back into place, again. The deadline that once seemed so far off started rapidly approaching.

As I digested petitions and resolutions, I began to worry I lacked all the knowledge I needed to make the right decisions for the global church. I felt backbreaking pressure about the importance of each decision.

The anxiety and pressure remained with me when I arrived in Portland, Ore., for General Conference. The time was now for the United Methodist Church to show its true self. Each decision we the delegates made could define us, the church.

My mind raced through the events that unfolded over the course of General Conference. I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I did not know what I felt. Each day was an emotional rollercoaster. One moment I experienced pure joy. The next, devastating sadness.

Fast forward to this week.

I could not focus on my emotions anymore. Instead, my mind turned toward the decisions that the delegation was preparing to report at Annual Conference. A long list scrolled through my mind – the bishops’ proposal, episcopal tenure, Imagine Abundant Health, withdrawal from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice – and anxiety overtook my confused emotions. I wondered how the Annual Conference would handle the news of all the decisions from General Conference and how they would see me afterward.

Would the Annual Conference, still see me as a young lady called by God?

As I wondered, I looked around the Meditation Chapel. My eyes drifted towards the stained glass window beside my seat. I was taken back by the sight in front of me. I had placed my full water bottle in window sill when I had walked into the room. Etched across the tumbler was the General Conference logo “Therefore Go.” The logo pointed directly to the cross.

Then I realized that I must go and set aside my anxiety and be filled with the living water Christ offers.

That living water began to flow through me as glimmers of hope from General Conference emerged in my mind.

After one intense session, I walked into the hallway on the brink of tears. Someone gently ushered me toward Bishop Larry Goodpaster, one of the several bishops offering prayer outside the plenary hall in the Oregon Convention Center. As Bishop Goodpaster poured out a prayer, I felt God’s presence enfolding me and filling me with love and hope.

Another glimmer of hope: During legislative committee, my group spent time seeking to understand one another and the various contexts of our ministries. The dynamic of our conversations about petitions changed because of this process. Although we did not all agree, we worked respectfully with one another and left continuing to develop relationships with one another in spite of our division.

Yet another glimmer of hope: One morning, I met a fellow delegate while in line at the coffee shop inside the convention center. As we worked our way up to the front of the line, we shared a little bit about ourselves. He offered up encouragement that I needed to hear that morning and graciously bought my coffee.

Even in the mess of emotions of General Conference, God kept showing up like a breath of fresh air.

However, my anxiety had covered up those movements of the Spirit. I allowed something other than Christ to consume me. When I laid that down at the cross, I was refilled with something greater and more satisfying than that which consumed me – the living water of Christ.

May it be so with us.

 

On Unity


Do the actions of a few United Methodists threaten the entire denomination?

 

(A note to my readers: I have recently been engaging in quite a bit of debate with another United Methodist brother and blogger, Joel Watts, at unsettledchristianity.com over many of the events taking place in the UMC. After a protracted conversation over our first posts carried out on Facebook, we agreed to each write a post on “unity” and what that entails. I often say to Joel that I am not the theologian that he is. I am a pastor first and my theology grows from that work as a pastor. Like I say in the introduction to my blog, “Grace leads and I stumble along.”)

 

We can read about it in both national news and denominational resources. The United Methodist Church is struggling in the midst of learning how to be in ministry with people who are already in our fellowship. I refuse to say that we are struggling with the issues surrounding LGBTQ people because in my heart that reduces people to an issue. People are never an issue. People are children of God. As a church that affirms the sacred value of all persons, we recognize LGBTQ Christians as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

At the very same time, during a period when our denomination prepares for our quadrennial global gathering to work
on church doctrine and polity (re-write our Book of Discipline), there are events taking place among our churches, and by our clergy and bishops that some believe threaten the very unity of the church. In the last decade, a growing number of churches have become Reconciling Congregations. Lay people and pastors, such as myself, are joining support groups to understand how to best minister with this new community of believers and to become fully inclusive in our ministry. Some Clergy and Bishops are going against church polity by performing same gender weddings.[1] In other places, entire Boards of Ordained Ministries are ignoring the prohibition in our shared Book of Discipline prohibiting the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” In recent days, fifteen current or soon to be ordained clergy have proclaimed that they are homosexual and seeking continued appointment with the United Methodist Church.[2] Some Bishops and episcopal candidates are saying in “somewhat nuanced” ways that they are not going to uphold the Discipline in all cases.[3]

I have proba
bly not even come close to listing all the recent developments in our denomination concerning our relationships with LGBTQ people. But it gives us a place to start.

Some people believe that all of these actions, actions which some claim belittle our Book of Discipline and break the very vows that certain people made to uphold said Discipline, show that we are far from the “United” Methodist Church. A better name for us could be the Untied Methodist Church.

I graciously disagree.

Maintaining ou
r vows before God at baptism, confirmation, holy matrimony and/or ordination are an extremely important part of living our lives as Christians. However, I am yet to meet one Christian – even in the mirror – who has managed to keep those vows perfectly and without fail.

Does the parent who fails to bring up their baptized infant in the church show such brokenness that the unity of the church is called into question? Does the young adult who lays aside their vow to reject evil in all forms while they buy a pair of tennis shoes made with child labor show such brokenness in our Discipline and vow keeping that the entire unity of the Church is called into question? Does an adulterer who divorces one spouse and marries another so disgrace the body with their broken vow that our church lo longer hosts the presence of Christ? Does an Elder who lays aside the vow to keep the Discipline of the Church in order to pastorally proclaim Good News to a same sex couple sow such brokenness into the body of Christ that our very existence as a church is called into question?

No. No. No. And, no again – with all the grace I can muster.

I think we are better served to look at what it is that unites us in the first place – our first love, Jesus Christ. If you like the book of Revelation, read the letter to the church of Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7). This congregation was in danger of losing the very presence of Christ from their midst because they forgot their first love – the grace that Jesus had given them. Sure, they were facing terrible persecution at the hands of the Romans and could easily survive by “turning coats.” This historical church in Asia Minor gives us a great hint as to what it takes to completely lose the light of Christ within a body of believers. It is not lack of discipline, the loss of a Temple, broken vows, or even smashed tablets of stones. It is forgetting what unites us in the first place – Jesus!

Rev. Wesley, one of the founders of our movement known as United Methodism, said in his sermon “Cathol
ic Spirit”:

Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.[4]

Rev. Wesley realized that we may never be of one opinion despite the fact that he worked hard to make sure that the “people called Methodist” shared in some common doctrine, polity, and worship even as they existed in the break-away or shunned Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. He provided this group with “The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America” which included Rev. Wesley’s “revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, ‘rectified’ and reduced to twenty-four in number.”[5] Did Rev. Wesley somehow break his vow as an Anglican Priest by providing these “rectified” Articles to the new congregations forming apart from the Church of England? That argument could be made, however, it would not reduce for one moment what truly made the Methodists in the North America a body of unity. That was due to the love and presence of Christ in their midst and in the midst of the Church of England. Rev. Wesley’s ability to maintain his Church of England ordination and help establish this new denomination shows that shared “discipline” has little to do with the unity of the body of Christ.

A further look into Rev. Wesley’s life and advice to the Methodists under his care in England gives to me the hope I think we need to weather the storm that we are in right now. Throughout England there were priests who were so hopelessly corrupt and such terrible preachers that Wesley would often recommend that they be avoided – except when it came to receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

…people should not hesitate to take the Sacrament, even if administered by a wicked minister. He pointed out, from a practical point of view, that many (if not most) of the minister
s in his acquaintance for the last half century did not measure up to his basic criteria; they had ‘not been eminent either in knowledge or piety’ (Sermons, 3:471). But his principle in the matter is clear: ‘The unworthiness of the minister doth not hinder the efficacy of God’s ordinance. The reason is plain; because the efficacy is derived, not from him (sic) that administers, but from him that ordains it” (Sermons, 3:475). This statement was not only in keeping with Article XXVI of his own Church, but also had been fixed in Western Christendom as early as Augustine’s response to the Donatists.[6]

The presenc71761641_e5f3a60973e of Christ unites us. And that has not left the building, the gathering of delegates at General Conference in Portland or the denomination that is known as United Methodist. The one who ordained the Sacrament of Holy Communion still presents His body in one
piece and then offers it to us, broken, just as we are broken. Does the fact that we all receive just a part of this offering destroy the unity of the symbol of Christ’s Body that is presented in the Eucharist? No.

And neither does the brokenness that embodies the congregations called United Methodist. We will continue to receive the grace of Jesus and offer that grace to others just as scandalously as it has been given to me, to you, to all who have received Christ.

[1] I think it is important to note that our current Discipline prohibits our clergy from participating in ceremonies that celebrate same-sex unions or holding such ceremonies in our churches. However, this prohibition says nothing of weddings and marriages between same-sex couples. Some may think this is “splitting hairs,” however, many believe that there are great differences between the two.

[2] http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/15-united-methodist-clergy-candidates-come-out-as-gay1

[3] http://revjameshowell.blogspot.com/2016/04/our-united-methodist-book-of-discipline.html

[4] “Catholic Spirit” by Rev. John Wesley as found in John Wesley’s Sermons, An Anthology edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, page 301.

[5] Wesley and the People Called Methodist, Richard P. Heitzenrater, proof copy, Abingdon Press, 1993, page 289.

[6] Ibid, pp. 296-297.