Monday, May 21, 2018

Could Ben Franklin Save Our General Conference?


     Question: might God’s church we call United Methodist be rescued by Benjamin Franklin? During these gloomy days when many of us are pondering the likelihood of an impending split in the denomination we love, I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography of Franklin. It had not occurred to me how his life paralleled John Wesley’s, born just two years apart, and dying just one year apart, both pragmatic populizers of complex thought, spanning a revolutionary century.

     Isaacson reveals how we are mistaken if we think of Franklin as a jolly, playful tinkerer. He was brilliant, friends with and admired by the greatest minds of his day: Joseph Priestley, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke; and in politics, he led and mentored the brightest lights of early America: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

    Here’s how he reaches out to us. When the Constitutional Convention was at a total impasse, when none of the delegates would budge on their irreconcilable differences over how to be a nation, or if to be a nation at all, Franklin tried two last-ditch ploys to save the day. The first didn’t work; but the second did.

     First: he made the startling, wise suggestion that they pray: “With this convention groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, how has it happened that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probably that an empire can rise without his aid?” Although many prize the piety of the Founding Fathers so highly, the fact is that idea was quickly shelved. Some offered testy rationales of why they should not have such prayer, and then others pointed out they had no budget to pay a chaplain – as if they could not pray themselves?

    But second: the esteemed Franklin, older by 15 years than the next oldest delegate, his age double the average age of all the others, rose to make an impassioned speech to the congress bent on going home the next day with no consent to the proposed constitution: “I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”

     Why should others doubt their own infallibility? “I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution. But having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subject, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error.” Then, with his usual wry humor, he told of “a certain French lady who, in a little dispute with her sister, said: ‘I don’t know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.’”

     This humility, jocular and yet wise, could conceive of voting for something flawed – which, of course, all human institutions and arrangements, including our church, are. Interestingly, they were at loggerheads over whether you could have a large body (like a nation), yet with smaller, empowered decision-making entities (like states) within that larger body.

     Franklin's motives intrigue me. Yes, he wanted to craft a unified nation for its own sake. But having served abroad in France and England as an ambassador for many years, he was grieved by the reaction failure and division would spark overseas: “I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the builders of Babel, and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats.”


    The world may not care what we Methodists do in February, 2019, but if they pay attention, our cutthroat, Babel-like division will provide yet more cause for cynicism, apathy and atheism. And are we as infallible, are we as supremely right as we imagine – so very right that we simply must divide God’s church?

     Perhaps the trouble is that we have not yet prayed. Yes, we’ve prayed for victory for our side, and we’ve prayed for enlightenment to dawn on the others who are so very wrong. But have we prayed as Jesus prayed, not seeking my will, but what will actually cause me discomfort and even suffering? I wonder what would unfold if we could welcome a time-travelling Franklin to the mic at General Conference to suggest we doubt our infallibility and pray? Would he be shouted down or ruled out of order? Or might we hear the wisdom, and pray, and surprise ourselves, as the Constitutional Convention did, with the birth of something new, unanticipated, and lovely?

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Tracy Kidder on Writing (and for me, on Preaching)

     My preaching has been blessed, over many years, by books I have read about writing.  Mind you, I constantly remind preachers I teach or just know (and myself!) that a sermon isn’t an essay to be read or semi-read or memorized even.  It’s an oral event, spoken words, eye to eye contact, conversational in ways that lead us to use incomplete sentences, or fumblings and pausing, and even the marvelous and useful word Um… (which similarly can be grossly misused; I love Michael Erard’s book on this word).

     At the same time, reading great writers explaining their craft can refine, retool, and re-envision how we approach crafting a sermon, how our phrases and sentence actually happen, and some big goofs we should avoid.  My favorites? 
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is brief, packed with wisdom, and humbling in a way that helps me feel better about my struggles to get the Gospel (which she never mentions) onto paper and then voiced out loud.  Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (which is the origin of the much-quoted and misquoted “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans”) similarly delves into the whole thought process, which is really a life process, a learning to observe, being attentive to and reflective on your life and the world swirling around you.  Stephen King’s On Writing is a happy jaunt through the habits and principles of what it is to think and write.  And there are more.

     Recently I stumbled across a relatively new one I’d missed somehow, just five years old: Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd.  It’s mostly Kidder, whom I have admired so much for several things, especially his riveting retelling of how Paul Farmer became Paul Farmer (in Mountains Beyond Mountains).  Todd served for years as Kidder’s editor, and contributes a bit to the book.  As I read Kidder’s recollection of how he has labored to write well, and his wisdom and counsel for other writers, I kept scribbling in the margin “Preaching!”  Let me share some of his most provocative insights.

    See why page 1 grabbed my attention: “To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them – by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself. No doubt you know some things that the reader does not know, but it helps to grant that the reader has knowledge unavailable to you.”

     Wow. Preaching is all about trust – and involves us trusting them, believing they know plenty we don’t know.  I was taught you know way more, and preaching is an attempt to download into them.  Kidder explains how great writing creates a dialogue, in which you expect, anticipate and even articulate their questions, critique, and maybe their assent.

     I remember Frederick Buechner’s fascinating riff (in Telling the Truth) on that pregnant moment just before the first word of a sermon – how the preacher notices his mouth is dry, and the people are settling into their seats, worried about their issues and secrets, and so how crucial is that very first sentence.  Kidder feels the start is overrated.  Start slow and soft, he advises – and yet it can’t be awful or confusing: “You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away.”

     You can lose the people out there in many ways.  One is what Kidder calls the “desire to impress” – which he believes emerges from a terror that you might bore the reader.  “Much overstuffed prose reflects a desire to bully, to impress, or to hide… Inflation of language is sometimes not a boast but cosmetic for insecurity.”  Kidder believes that what the reader wants is simpler – to believe that you are “trying.”  I love that.  Pew-sitters want to sense you’re trying to speak a word from God.  Again, it’s all about trust.  If you get that trust, Kidder believe, “trust and disagreement can coexist.”  Too many preachers fear or hope to squash disagreement.  Kidder invites it.

     I was struck by Kidder’s obsession with factuality.  Check dates, people, quotes (who really said that? and do I have it down right?).  There are facts – and Kidder pleads with writers never to slide down into the abyss of subjectivity, suggesting things like “If it’s true for you, then it’s true,” which he calls “the quagmire of postmodern nihilism,” and noticing how “subjectivity absolves people of responsibility for action.”  If this is true for a nonfiction essayist, a journalist, or a novelist, how much more is this true for a preacher?  And yet Kidder shudders over the notion of dogmatic absolutism – which gives the reader no space to disagree or respond.  This fine balance must be learned, tested and honed by the preacher, week after week.

     Kidder speaks of preparing to write – and the key is always in the posture of “a willingness to be surprised.”  Preachers don’t buckle down and figure out how to drill what the preacher has known forever into others; the preacher prepares in a way that is open to, ready for and delighted by surprises in the text, the world, and the people.  Writing, for Kidder, is lots and lots of revision, throwing away some of what you thought and still think is really good (but it just doesn’t fit the finished product).  He has a strong preference for shorter sentences: “Sometimes longer is shorter.”  And don’t get fixated on your writing (or preaching) technique, “which can be the same as concentrating on yourself.”  I love that, and notice often how skill, talent and inventiveness draws attention to the preacher more than to the text or to God.

     Good Prose has a terrific section on storytelling and character development – how you imagine the readers in their chairs, giving them not all there is to the story, but “telling details” to draw them in, making them wonder what will happen next, inviting them to insert their own “Oh no, don’t…” or “Oh God, that could be me.”  To me, there’s no better way to improve our skill at this in preaching than to read people who do characters and stories well.  Stephen King’s constant counsel in On Writing is to read, read in a waiting room, at a stoplight, on the toilet.

     At the end of his book, Kidder proves to be a man after my own heart with a simple, funny and challenging section on “usage” and “grammar.”  This matters so much in preaching: there’s always an old English teacher out there sighing over your split infinitive.  But it’s also about clarity – and how we honor God by our words.  Kidder warns writer about the perils of hackneyed terms and incorrect usages (“enormity” means something horrible, not something big, and “disinterested” means impartial, not bored), phrases from pop culture (like “I’m just sayin’,” or “Make my day”), and flat out grammatical errors (“Between you and I” should be “Between you and me,” getting who and whom straight, and also lie, lay, lain… “Samuel lay down to sleep” not “laid”). 

     Once again, I have learned new ways to improve my preaching, my expression of what I’ve apprehended of God, and my connection with my people.  We find help any and everywhere – and now from Tracy Kidder.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Life-Changing Experience?

      I heard myself say it: “It was a life-changing experience.”  Everyone in front of me nodded – but a question jabbed me in the side of my head: “Yeah, well if so, why am I not more… changed?”  We were in Assisi, a dramatic place where I take pilgrims fascinated by St. Francis.  I told them about my first visit there in 1984, and how I was transformed.  Their appetites were whetted.  Over two days, we visited key places where pivotal moments of Francis's life happened - and then as the climax, we climbed to the top of Eremo delle Carceri, a beautiful mountaintop refuge, and shared in Holy Communion. 
Quite a few said, "That was life-changing."

In the rush of the moment, you feel like nothing will ever be the same.  But then you’re back at work, stress mounts, your back hurts, you’re running late, disappointments or failures bedevil you – and you succumb to the same old, nasty habits you’ve always had.  What’s the point of the “life-changing experience” if life isn’t really changed so much?  I mean, I’ve had plenty of them by now, at the ripe age of 62.  A retreat at Windy Gap in college, a silent clergy retreat with Roman Catholics near Durham, a flat out amazingly successful revival series a few years back, my daughter’s ordination – the list goes on.  With a several dozen life-changing experiences, I should be brazenly holy, having shed most of my earthly addictions, perhaps even like St. Teresa 
clinging to the altar rail so as not to float up to the ceiling during prayers.  If anything, the gravity of my fallen nature is heavier than ever.

     I could trot out that old “I’m not who I ought to be; I’m not who I should be; but thank God, I’m not who I used to be.”  Perhaps the way you can’t perceive a child’s growth day by day, but then one day she’s 5’7”, maybe I have grown.  Or, maybe it’s a Cappadocian kind of thing:  my growth, my learning is a real thing, but only opens a door that shows me how much further I have to go; each question answered births three new questions, and I’m more confused than ever about God and this Christian life.  I have changed my approaches to mission, and I emphasize mercy way more than I did decades ago.

     Probably we don’t reckon with the inevitable slippage in the soul, that danged second law of thermodynamics in the heart – that things tend toward disorder and chaos.  I see this in preaching.  I tell people anything really – that God doesn’t cause car accidents or sow cancer cells in their beloved.  They nod – but then a few weeks later one is phoning me to ask why God gave his wife cancer.  Or, caught up in worship, someone resolves to be holy, or not so materialistic – and by 2pm the experiment has blown up.

     Maybe we focus too much on the emotion, on the drama of the moment.  I find most pilgrims who travel with me are seeking just that:  the riveting, knee-buckling moment – even better if captured by a photo on Facebook.  Two years ago I took a group to Qasr el-Yehud, a pretty cool spot on the Jordan river where Jesus might have been baptized.  On the way I told my group how amazing it was, how peaceful and moving our service of baptismal renewal – in the Jordan no less! – would be.  When we arrived, a veritable Egyptian plague of gnats and flies had swarmed all over the place, as had huge groups of robed people chanting, shouting, and singing loudly the kind of Christian music I frankly don’t care for.  We wedged our way to the water, waving off the bugs, I hollered a prayer, and we scrambled back to the bus.

     Massive disappointment.  But then it dawned on me – and I told them – that we crave the drama more than concrete, sustainable reality.  As Maggie Ross put it, there are always those who prefer their experience of God to God himself.  Baptism, as in the gift of God’s Spirit and our place in the Body, is a fact, not remotely dependent on mood, or dramatic setting, or shimmering emotion.  In fact, the point of baptism is that you are baptized even in the ugly, awkward, dull and banal moments.  Flabby Christians see an orange sunset or snow on a mountain peak and say Ahh, God does great work!  The mature see God in more places – and the saints understand God is in the storm, the places nobody photographs, the prison cell, the heartbreak and all other not-ready-for-Facebook locales and events.

     Certainly our life with God and in the Body is won or lost, not in moutaintop retreat moments, but in the daily exercise of spiritual disciplines, in what Kathleen Norris described as “repetition as saving grace.”  And yet, we might be wise to seek out special moments, some high drama in this long life of faith.  Without them, we might be like the foolish husband who, on his 31st anniversary, when asked by his wife if he remembered, responded, “Honey, don’t you remember that great overnight trip we had on our 5th anniversary?  Wasn’t that enough?”  No one anniversary junket is enough, just as no towering spiritual high moment is enough.  It will never be enough, at least on this side of eternity – which will finally, and thankfully, be a thoroughly and permanently life-changing experience.

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My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is out - a very different book about leadership, for church leaders but also leaders in business, community and even family.
 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Jesus' Summertime Parables & the Fate of the United Methodist Church

     During these long, sweltering summer days, when the pace of church life is a bit slower for me, I find my mind wandering from here to there, and I start to connect some dots I wouldn’t if I were busier. 

     Like the Gospel lectionary texts for the past two Sundays, and what will eventually happen to us United Methodists in the aftermath of years of wrangling over homosexuality.  On July 16, we were dazzled and confounded by Jesus’ story about the crazed sower who tossed his precious seed, not just on the fertile, plowed soil, but right on the road, over where it was rocky, and even in that thorn-infested place over there.  In my sermon, I actually threw handfuls of seed all over my sanctuary (shocking at my place, maybe the norm where you are) and asked not What kind of soil are you?  Go be fertile soil! – but instead, What kind of sower is this?  God wants God’s goodness, life, blessing to go all over the place, no matter how much gets wasted. 

     So then you have to ask, What kind of church will we be, this church that follows the crazed sower?  Will we be careful, getting bang for the buck, not taking chances?  Or do we fling it all over the place, willing and even eager to fail? 

     I hope for the latter – but then, since it’s summertime, I ventured to ask if this applies in any way to our church and what to do about LGBTQ people.  The seed should go here – but not over there?  Doesn’t Jesus’ story invite us to err on the side of flinging it any and everywhere – and let the seed do what it will, grow where it might, instead of limiting where God gets sown?  Maybe these are not connected, or maybe I misconstrue how they are connected.  But you never know.  Seems to me Jesus longs for risk-taking more than drawing firm lines.

     Then on July 23, Jesus took us back into a field where seed has actually sprung – but in the thick of the wheat there are weeds.  Robert Farrar Capon said Jesus was a way better carpenter than gardener, since all farmers and gardeners know you can't tolerate weeds.  But Jesus says Let them beClearly the story implies there’s evil growing right in the same field as the good – and it’s a story about how to be God’s people, how to be Church.  We want wheat in our church, not those dastardly weeds! – but then everybody defines what’s wheat and what’s weed in very different ways; wheat to me is a weed to the other guy.  Jesus seems to imply he’s not all that interested in whether we get that identification right or not.  He says Let them grow together.

     In my sermon, I recalled a passage in a novel I read years ago (Stephen Bransford's Riders of the Long Road) about a circuit rider who was trying to explain God and evil to a young man with hard questions – including Why won’t God finish evil off right now?  The preacher pointed to some grass where they were sitting.  See this good grass? But then, see there’s pennyroyal – like the weeds in Jesus’ story.  He grabbed a stem of the pennyroyal and yanked it out of the ground.  Dirt went flying – and so did the good grass.  You see, the roots of the grass and of the pennyroyal are all tangled under the ground.  Just like us.  We are a tangle of good and bad, all of us.  If God destroyed evil, if God uprooted all that is sinful, God would destroy all of us.

     Does Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds have anything to say to us?  In our church, at times there are those we just want to be rid of.  We want an 100% all-wheat church!  But I’m a tangle of wheat and weeds, and so are all the others.  Isn’t Jesus telling us, through this parable, that he wants us to let all that is growing in this field of Methodism just keep growing together, even though we are pretty sure others must have been sown by the enemy?  Progressives think they are wheat and conservatives are weeds; conservatives feel they're the wheat and the progressive are the tares.  Seems to me Jesus loves sticking together, we wheat and weeds.

     But maybe I’m just connecting random dots, and Jesus’ parables don’t have anything to say to the church during these stifling summer days.  Or maybe I misinterpret.  The perspiration gets in my eyes sometimes.

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{ I put out a weekly preaching blog, http://jameshowellsweeeklypreachingnotions.blogspot.com }

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   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.  

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Jesus' Prayer for Unity & the UMC: Some Things We May Not Have Considered

     As we pray for our Commission on a Way Forward, which meets this week, I'm reminded of a friend who will occasionally post a photo of a boring conference session, or a budget committee report, or a church sign advertising a big bake sale, and he adds the caption, “An unintended consequence of the resurrection.”  Surely one of the unintended consequences of the resurrection would be the United Methodist divide over homosexuality.  When Jesus rose, did he think, “I so hope that, because I am risen, those Methodists will split up one day”?
     I’ve written often in defense of unity – and am typing this as something of a final resort.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, not about Methodism, but about all sorts of things, and I want to share those reflections - on some things I worry we've missed.  For starters, the indefatigable, conservative and brilliant scholar Peter Leithart has a book that came out in October about Christian unity called The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church.  His manifesto, urging the creation of a single worldwide church, exposes the absurdity of our splintered efforts for Jesus, the consumerist inclinations of our people and leaders, the laughable Americanism of so much of our religious practice, and more. 

     Most importantly, he begins his book about the unity of the Church by explaining quite clearly that this unity is God’s will.  Jesus prayed for it.  Jesus clearly wants unity.  When we divide, we grieve the heart of Jesus.  And let’s be clear: one day, we will be one.  “The Father loves the Son and will give him what he asks… The Father will give the Son a unified church, and the Son will unify the church by his Spirit.  This is what the church will be.”

     This reality, that while we argue and reckon with ways to split up, Jesus is praying for us to be one:  this moves me, and should be the starting point of any talk about possible division.  Jesus is praying for something else.  So why would we attempt anything that would violate the heart of Jesus’ own prayer for us?

     In this blog I want to explore other things I’ve read, and reflect on compelling reasons we have not to split up.  I will look at (1) our witness to the world, (2) the fact that we haven’t yet gone through what a couple should go through before they divorce, (3) the embarrassing truth that we haven’t fully acknowledged why we in fact disagree, (4) why in Christ’s Body, we need even people who are dreadfully wrong, and (5) that simple question of whether what we are splitting up over is central enough to our faith to warrant a divide.  Stay with me through all five, if you will.

     (1) Witness to the world.  Recently I reread an astonishing, short but impactful book by Francis Schaeffer, the intellectual godfather of modern evangelicalism:  The Mark of the Christian.  As Christians, we wear or display many symbols.  Schaeffer notes that when Jesus was about to leave earth, “He made clear what will be the distinguishing mark of the Christian: ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another.’”  Interestingly, he says “it is possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.”  He calls this “the final apologetic.”

     Expanding on Jesus’ thought that “by this shall all men know you are my disciples,” he claims something that should make us shudder:  “In the midst of our present dying culture, Jesus is giving a right to the world.  Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians.”  Amazing: we are not to judge one another; but God gives the world the right to judge us.

     The world’s verdict is often, and quite rightly, negative.  Schaeffer observes how Christians “rush in, being very, very pleased to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down.”  We are to exercise love in even the toughest situations – the obligation of “loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see.”

     Of course, we say, we love those guys.  But do we?  And if we split, will the world say, as even the critics of the Christians of the early centuries couldn’t help but notice, “See how they love!”  No, the world will say They are just like the rest of us – and therefore they have nothing to offer us we don’t already have. 

     Love isn’t winning and then showing the loser how he was wrong.  Ephraim Radner, in his brilliant, theologically profound A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, joins two moments in our history.  Assessing various struggles the church somehow survived during the Middle Ages, he says “What they achieve is not so much agreement as an act that allows members to be joined to the figure of Christ.”  Perhaps the goal isn’t agreement but allowing all of us to be joined to Christ? 

     Radner continues by reminding us that when the church was most intimately joined to Christ, when the church most assuredly was one, “it was when Jesus was walking around with his disciples – and yet they were confused, mistaken, and Jesus quite deliberately included Judas, and even washed his feet and ate and drank at table with him.  The thief was already thieving, and the greed was already growing, and the disappointment in Jesus’ claims was already gnawing.  This was always a part of their unity.”  Such inept, broken people managed to succeed as God’s laborers, not so much because they were right and proved others wrong.  Tertullian noted how foes of Christianity had to admit, “See how they love.” 

     (2) Marital counseling. God says “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16), and yet God (through Moses) permits it, although Jesus clarifies that this is “because your hearts are hard” (Matthew 19:8).  If a couple comes to a pastor and says We’ve fought for years, it’s irreconcilable, we’re divorcing, the pastor is bound to ask Have you gone through counseling?  A time of unscrambling feelings and motivations, hearing what’s gone unheard, exposing underlying wounds and fears, devising new strategies for understanding and living together:  counseling may or may not rescue a marriage, but you don’t end the marriage without doing the work.

     Our denomination is pondering a divorce, but we’ve not undergone the intensive work of figuring out why we’re where we are, and what’s in the heart of those other people.  As Atticus Finch famously said in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  I am shellshocked when I ask proponents of one side or the other on homosexuality if they have had any long conversations with someone who disagrees – not the hurling invective at one another pseudo-conversations, but asking, listening, empathizing, the kinds of conversations Jesus had with people.

     David Wilcox, the clever singer-songwriter, does this funny and hopeful piece about a couple about to split up.  The man says “Sometimes we’re arguing and it’s taking her forever to see she’s wrong.”  But then an alternative approach presents itself:  instead of making his own case, and dismantling hers, he – for the sake of the love – makes her case for her as best he’s able, and she makes her case for him.  As he puts it, “Instead of getting an attorney, be the other person’s attorney.”  Understanding and peace happen.

     I lean progressive on homosexuality, or at least I acknowledge and embrace our disagreement.  But I have on several occasions tried to help the anti-gay side make their best possible case – which is what progressives would really want after all, right?  No one on the right, to my knowledge, has utilized the shrewdest, wisest, most compelling case against homosexuality – that offered by Ephraim Radner in his genius of a book, A Time to Keep: Theology,Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life.  And the left would be wise to turn to Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People.

     And then there’s this.  In counseling, I ask divided couples to list positives about the other person, which they are surprised to learn they actually can do.  In a letter John Wesley wrote to dozens of clergy in 1764, in his final effort to bring unity to splintering evangelicals, challenged them all to “speak respectfully, honourably, kind of each other; defend each other’s character; speak all the good we can of each others; recommend each other where we have influence, and to help each other on in his work and enlarge his influence by all the honest means he can.”

     Oneness of mind is always being joined to and enacting the humility of Jesus.  We are to “count others as better than yourselves… looking not to your own interests” (Philippians 2:3).  These are the “consistent postures” of church people toward one another, and we are to be this way not at a distance, but up close, in personal engagement.  Can we divorce without having gone through the real, arduous labor of striving for reconciliation with real people?

     (3) Why we really disagree.  I love what Frances Kissling said when interviewed by Krista Tippett recently: “The pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other.”  I think we United Methodists fight for a solution or vote on whether we agree or not – but we really have never done very much to understand each other, which only happens over time and with much curiosity, hospitality, genuine questions and empathetic listening.

     We think it’s Scripture people versus Experience people, or Orthodox people versus Progressive people.  But there is so much out there now about why we are divided on politics, moral issues, public opinion and so much more.  Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, demonstrates how our political leanings are deeply implanted intuitions, gut emotional dispositions we came by mostly in early childhood.  We have our allegedly rational, factual, logical arguments.  But they are “mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly.”  Our arguments, the cases we build and expect others to yield to, are no more than the proverbial tail wagged by the intuitive dog.  These deep emotional preferences are fossilized in us, rendering us incapable of hearing arguments from another side.  This happens to both conservatives and progressives in all political matters.  Could the same thing happen when Methodists try to talk about homosexuality?  Does the Bible, or reason, or tradition or experience really drive us?  Or is there something more subliminal we are hardly aware of?

     Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land (and this lovely podcast about why we disagree – and why people vote against their own morals and preferences!) Robert Jones, The End of White Christian America (which documents rapid demographic changes that create nostalgia, fear or delight – and how our basic posture toward these shifts spills over into moral and religious areas), and J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy have explained why many people in our culture grieve cultural change of all sorts, and feel resentful by the new and different who seem to gain preference.  Might the church mirror this same kind of fearful wariness of what is different and unknown?  And then there are the largely urban people who giddily embrace anything that is new; but while much that is new is lovely, not everything new is of God.  Christians are by nature conservative; we hold to what is old and time-tested; so are we clinging to the core of our faith or are we, like so many in our culture, yearning for a nostalgic world that seems to be slipping away? 

     Christena Cleveland, in her terrific Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep us Apart, shows how sociology understands that we clump together with people who think like we do, only reinforcing our viewpoints.  But what we wind up buttressing isn’t holiness, morality or God, but our own insecurities.  Only with “cognitive generosity,” only by expanding our circle of friends, can we test our own thoughts, discover where we are biased more than insightful, and make peace in God’s church.

     So we are divided.  But doesn’t our division mimic the very divisions in our society that would be there if Jesus and the Bible had never come to be?  If we were holy, wouldn’t we split (if we just had to split) along very different lines from the fracture lines along which secular society is splitting?  Isn’t this a sorry admission – and yet the beginning of a turn to life, healing and hope?

     We are not divided primarily for theological reasons, although we’d like to think we are, and wish we were.  A few fascinating studies assessed people’s high or low view of Scripture, and then compared this with whether they were opposed to homosexuality or accepting of it.  The survey expected those with a high view of Scripture would be opposed, while those with a low view would be accepting.  But it turned out there was no measurable difference.  Many with a high view do oppose homosexuality, but others are accepting; and plenty of people with low views of Scripture either oppose or condone homosexuality (which isn’t surprising at all).

     Humbly realizing these things, we can resonate happily to Ephraim Radner’s reminder that division happens when we forget that we all are sinners, and that the church itself is “sinner,” plagued by “the insistence that only others fail in their duties and squander their gifts.”  No one is right and holy; and we are most bedeviled by our unacknowledged and unintentional sins, our blind spots precisely where we think we see clearly.  And yet we broken people have hope.  Jesus kept Judas as close as possible instead of banishing him.  The unity he insisted on paradoxically achieved his own betrayal and sacrifice for the sins of all of them.

     (4) What the Body needs.  The psychiatrist Scott Peck once asked a woman why she stayed in a difficult marriage.  She replied, “For the friction.”  A lovely answer: friction is hard, and sparks fly; but friction smooths rough edges, and polishes.  Church friction, if we can stay with it, might help us mirror God’s love to a cynical world.

     We have a God-given, theological need for each other.  Slogans like “Stronger together!” are easy.  But have we examined why we in fact need one another?  Hans Urs von Balthasar, toward the end of his lovely Does Jesus Know Us – Do We Know Him?, assuming we are eager for the fullest possible understanding of God, says, “We cannot find the dimensions of Christ’s love other than in the community of the church, where the vocations and charisms distributed by the Spirit are shared: each person must tell the others what special knowledge of the Lord has been shown to him.  For no one can tread simultaneously all the paths of the love given to the saints: while one explores the heights, another experiences the depths and a third the breadth.  No one is alone under the banner of the Spirit, the Son and the Father; only the whole Church is the Bride of Christ, and that only as a vessel shaped by him to receive his fullness.”

     If we split, we will forsake voices we need to hear to know the fullness of Christ.  I love what Peter Leithart, in his book about unity, predicts:  in the unified church he believes God is calling us toward, “there will be not fewer but more theological battles – which are good, not to be avoided or definitively resolved.”  Through history, the Church has been blessed by theological controversy.  The debate has pressed us to answer newer and harder questions, and so in turn we are compelled to dig deeper and understand more than we would if everyone had always said Amen.

     In thinking toward unity, Ephraim Radner invites us to think about “solidarity” movements and how they work:  “Solidarity is about giving oneself over to another across an otherwise entrenched and immovable boundary… In doing this, we confront the ‘otherness’ of God even in the otherness of” the one from whom we are separated.”  We join hands for the sake of confronting a common threat; we stand with others because God calls us to stand with them, even as they differ from us.

     And then Radner shrewdly asks, “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say?  How did he contribute?  When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind?  They led him to Pilate’s bar, and e never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word.”  Indeed, “Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him.  So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.”  It is in this way, Jesus’ way, that we need each other.

     (5) The Center of our Faith.  I have said many times that there are conceivable reasons why Christians should by all means separate, and quickly and definitively.  If a General Conference declared Jesus was only a man, and wasn’t raised from the dead, if United Methodism adopted salvation by works instead of grace, if we determined never to baptize or eat and drink at the Lord’s table, I would exit, and encourage you to come with me.  Through history, Christians have sadly but quite rightly divided when the absolute core of the faith is in peril.

     But is human sexuality in this category?  My friend Talbot Davis posted a blog in October in Ministry Matters entitled “The Top 5 Hills I’ll Die On.”  His picks?  The literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus; Jesus alone, not Jesus among; authority and inspiration of the Scriptures; the reality of heaven and hell; the historic, global Christian understanding of sexuality.  In the words of the old standardized test question: which one doesn’t fit?

     It is the sexuality stance that does not fit.  Human sexuality is enormously important – obviously, which is why we’re talking about it now.  Holiness, understanding that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, being pure and consecrating our sexual selves to God:  these are incumbent upon all Christians.  But is it a central pillar?  Is it, to use Wesley’s language, an “essential”?

     To review: in 1770, at the death of George Whitefield (sermon 53), Wesley famous said, “There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God (such is the present weakness of human understanding) are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’  But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials of ‘the faith which was once delivered to the saints’; and which this champion of God so strongly insisted on, at all times, and in all places!”  His fundamental guidance was, “In the business of salvation, set Christ as high and man as low as possible.”

     Our cardinal doctrines are about God, about Christ, and not about us.  The foundational bedrock of our faith are those things we believe about God, and are essential to salvation.  Who the triune God is, the confession of God as Creator, Jesus as God incarnate, his crucifixion and resurrection for the redemption of the world, the Holy Spirit dawning on and thus creating the church.  Our doctrines of justification and sanctification, our need for and the assurance of divine mercy, the authority of the Scriptures, the centrality of faith in God.

     The Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith and the General Rules, our constitutionally protected doctrinal standards, do not mention sexuality.  Billy Abraham and David Watson, in their excellent Key United Methodist Beliefs, spend 150 pages exploring Key United Methodist Beliefs – and homosexuality, or sexuality period, is not mentioned.  Again, this does not mean sexuality is unimportant.  It is hugely important, a focal point, especially in our pleasure-fixated boundary-less culture.  But it is not a sine qua non.  We are not saved because we think rightly about sexual orientation, or because we behave in pure and holy ways with our bodies and minds.

     We might also look to Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit,” in which he memorably said “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”  Methodists have applied this to all manner of nonsense.  Wesley himself was talking about worship – which is something we do, not something about God – and goes on to explain why we should expect “variety of practice.”  When he cuts to the chase on what we must agree upon, it’s all about God:  “Do you believe His being and His perfections? His eternity, wisdom, power, justice, mercy and truth? That He governs to His own glory? Have you a supernatural conviction of the things of God? Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?”  All that he lists on the human side are these:  “Do you love God, do you magnify the Lord and rejoice in him?  Is your heart right toward your neighbor?  Do you do good to all men?”  Only after these assertions and queries does he offer “If it be so, give me thy hand.”  This is the basis upon which we can stay hand in hand today.

     Here’s how I was trained as a United Methodist:  Tom Langford explained that “Wesleyan theology, as it advanced beyond Wesley, has exhibited characteristic qualities of his thought more than it has adhered to distinctive doctrines.”  What we have is a vital tradition, with an inclusive, living history:  “The Wesleyan tradition is most true to its character when it is open and responsive to both its past and its future… New interpretation for a new generation may be an act of faithfulness to be viewed positively.”  Langford spoke of “center and circumference,” and that our “creative center” is the grace of Jesus Christ – and it is a creative center.

     At General Conference in 2012, I spoke on the floor urging us to acknowledge that we disagree on the matter of homosexuality.  I pointed to Acts 15, when the church could not get on the same page regarding what to do with the private parts of the human body:  to circumcise or not?  For the sake of the mission, they stuck with Christ and embraced dual ways of reaching different people for Christ. 
My friend Bill Arnold of Asbury seminary wrote a brilliant, extensive exploration of Acts 15’s role in this debate, raising serious questions about whether it can be used in this way.  I learned much, and have altered my thinking, which is as it should be in the Body of Christ.  Bill and I, who think differently, are very much beloved by Jesus, Christians in good standing, and still duly ordained United Methodists.  We agree on the essentials.

     An appeal:  this unintended consequence of the resurrection, the warring couple that is the United Methodist Church find themselves in the counselor’s office.  We are thinking divorce is the only way to live on.  But the counselor asks if we’ve done the work, if we’ve understood our own private selves and why we’re the way we are, if we’ve tried to get deeply inside the other person, if we’ve made their case, if you remember how much you and the kids really need one another – and what were you splitting up over in the first place?  Something big or who cooks dinner or gets to hang the pictures?

     The homework we would be assigned would be hard, long-term, regular, daily labor.  How foolish are we, to think we can meet every four years for a few days, with translation through headphones, and engage in anything but superficial debate (even if you dare to call it “holy conferencing,” which isn’t just a misnomer, but an impossibility in such a setting)?  The church where I worship (and work) has debated the issue of homosexuality – but over many months and years, in countless one on one conversations and classroom discussions, with much prayer and a real determination to stick together – which is what we have done.  We love each other and don’t wish to divorce; and we are focused on the real essentials of our faith, the goodness of God in creation and in Christ Jesus, salvation by grace through faith, and the hope of the Spirit’s redemption of us and all of creation.

     The way to unity is what God requires of us, even if we aren’t bound and determined to have unity.  Ephraim Radner put it so wisely:  “To live is to give up and give away parts of ourselves, and to live fully is to give ourselves away fully.  To be ‘one Church’ is to be joined to the unity of the Son to the Father, who, in the Spirit, gives himself away to and for the sake of his enemies.”


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