Our Hope Was Never in General Conference, Part I

Perhaps like you, I’m trying to figure out what General Conference meant. One question for me is the question of how faithfully the Church is able to listen, to hear, and then to proclaim the voice of the God who speaks in our midst.

Every Council of the Church (or General Conference of the United Methodist Church) has been an attempt to hear the voice of God speaking among the people of God. The whole work of theology is not only words about God but a humble (and sometimes not-so-humble) attempt to speak to God’s people on behalf of God. Every sermon is attempting to do this same work. That is to say, today I’m certainly on-board with God still speaking. A whole lot of major life decisions rest on that conviction. A whole lot of every week of my life rests on that conviction.

I also have experienced the troubles of God speaking, or at least the troubles of the way God has chosen to speak. It’s Biblical. Moses meets with God on top of a mountain which God’s presence makes look like a volcano, and not only do the people not hear what God is saying up there, but they are so unconvinced that God might be speaking in the midst of all that fire, cloud, and noise, that they decide Moses is dead.

In the New Testament, at Jesus’ baptism, God says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” It couldn’t be clearer! Unless you were an onlooker who heard no words, just thunder. Adding to these difficulties, in Christian communities I have experienced firsthand that sometimes people speak for God, and it is a way to short-circuit communal discernment. It’s a trump card, ending all possibility of conversation, whether or not the person had good intentions in sharing what they believe God has spoken.

Wesley and the rest of the early Methodists practiced “holy conferencing” in recognition that God speaks through people to other people, that our understanding of God is clarified and refined by relationship and conversation with one another. It’s a beautiful insight, but it doesn’t make things easier. Over time, “holy conferencing” became Annual Conference, General Conference, Jurisdictional Conference. Not only did a lot of the holy go, but a whole lot of the actual conferring with one another did too.

The 39 Articles of Religion in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer had a nifty Article XXI, which both the American Methodists, by Wesley’s own choice, and the Episcopal Church left behind:

“General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.”

I don’t know enough about Wesley’s theology or internal deliberations to know why he removed Article XXI as he slimmed the 39 Articles down into the 24 Articles of his Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (1784). I at least know that revolutionary American Methodists and prospective Methodists didn’t want to be told anything about princes. I wish I knew if Wesley was so much of the Tradition that he couldn’t bear to question the teachings of the seven ecumenical councils (the seven meetings of the Church before East and West excommunicated each another), which this Article does.

In the wake of our General Council a week ago, I wonder what was lost with Article XXI. Practically, this article reminded us that when people get together to hear God, we don’t stop being people. Yes, God calls us to listen, to love, to be holy. But God knows we are going to miss the message sometimes. And still God chooses this way to speak.

Article XXI reminds us that the Creeds came from humans wrangling with what they believed God was speaking in their midst. I believe every word of the Nicene Creed, and I believe that God spoke to us and still speaks to us through the work of the church councils which crafted those words. We say it every week at some of our churches, but we have no clue about and give no thought to what arguments went into it, what punches were thrown, what swords were drawn, what relationships were broken by those arguments, and who gave up on the Church or its Lord altogether, because they could not take the way that Christians were warring with one another any longer.

If I’m not careful, I can find myself assuming that the Nicene Creed (and other dogmatic declarations of the Church over time) descended from Heaven on a cloud attended by an angelic choir. But the Son of God didn’t come to us except by becoming a human being. Scripture didn’t come to us except by human hands. Likewise our Councils and Creeds are products of divine and human cooperation.

To return to the language of Article XXI…If the men who made up the General Councils of the Church were not all governed by the Spirit and the Word of God, then General Conference delegates are not all governed by the Spirit and Word of God. If General Councils may err, then General Conferences may err too. If General Councils have erred, then General Conferences have erred in the past and will continue to err in the future.

The difficult part is not to admit that the process is human or to admit that we will sometimes get it wrong. The difficult part is to continue to Conference with one another when we know we will sometimes be wrong, sometimes deeply wrong, sometimes hurtfully wrong.

For me, that makes me hopeful, because it means General Conferences and their decisions are not our hope. It is not just wrong but idolatrous on our part to have ever made General Conference our hope. God is the only one who will ever remain faithful, no matter how faithful or unfaithful we are. That, after all, has always been the whole of the Gospel. God’s love has always been about God’s eternal choice to close the distance between us, to turn even the enemies of God into friends, by the Son’s free offer of his own death on the cross.

If we know that General Conference (or Annual Conference or Jurisdictional Conference or Charge Conference, for us conference-mad Methodists) is not our hope, then we can come together not seeking to control the proceedings, or one another, or God. Rather we come together most of all to learn of the love of the God which has been revealed in Jesus Christ, to experience the Spirit who keeps speaking to a people who are hard of hearing, hard of heart, and slow to respond.

And for those who come to this idealized end thinking that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for General Conference 2020 to be truly holy and truly a confer-ence, you’re right. But nothing is impossible for God.

[3/14/19 edit: There’s now a Part II.]

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How Do I Live If I Am Dust?

Some years I need Lent, and some years I want Lent. This year is both kinds. (See my post from yesterday afternoon, A Holy Lent After General Conference 2019.)

I am dust, and to dust I shall return. Why do I even find that to be a life-giving thought? For one, because it’s true. One minute a little over thirty-five years ago there was me, and the minute before that there was no me. A whole lot happened before me. The creation of at least one whole universe and probably more. The lives and deaths of an uncountable array of living things and non-living things too. And one day soon–and yes, even 60 years from now is soon–I’ll die. The world won’t stop turning to mark that moment any more that it stopped turning to mark my beginning.

How then do we live? No…How then do I live? If next-to-nothing that I build will have any quantifiable effect on any other thing 100 years from today, how then do I live?

Qohelet, that “Preacher” in Ecclesiastes, asks these questions, and I think he’s right to ask them. Jesus also asks these questions. He talks about that man that kept prospering and prospering, so he pulled out all the stops and built giant barns. And then he died before he could even use them. Yes, the message of Jesus is a warning to rich people, but not just to rich people, to anyone who tries to build anything in this life. A career, a retirement account, a credit history, a skill, a family, a friendship, a porch swing.

This is where Jesus comes back to the foreground. Life must be lived for life itself, and the Christian life is the grace-enabled response to Life’s open invitation to live in Life itself. Not to build a reputation. Not to build a church. Not to build a denomination. Not to build a kingdom, let alone rule it. But to live and to love and to be loved. And over time to become satisfied that Love and Life are enough, because that’s all that eternal Life is going to be anyway.

Why wait to start living it? Why wait to share our Love and Life with one another?

Hope Begins in the Dark

I have been reading Fleming Rutledge’s forthcoming Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Sometimes she wraps a sermon around a refrain. For instance: “Advent begins in the dark.” This is another way of saying, “Hope begins in the dark.”

I have also been reading Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele’s When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. (The book is a memoir of Khan-Cullors’ life, so I’m not clear totally clear how she and bandele co-wrote it.) Khan-Cullors is within a year or so of me in age. During the years I spent growing up in small-town central Illinois, Khan-Cullors was growing up in Van Nuys, California. She recounts a life lived in occupied territory in the United States, with the lines between the races drawn between Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks (the latter of which not coincidentally where the TV show black-ish is both filmed and set). Some of Fleming Rutledge’s sermons in her Advent collection are from that same period of time, and some of them reference apartheid in South Africa, as Khan-Cullors and bandele also do.

When They Call You a Terrorist is a memoir, but you don’t have to take Khan-Cullors word for how the “war on drugs” actually played out. There are plenty of historians and plenty of data to show us that police and the larger “justice” system inordinately targeted people of color, swelled prison populations, and were an essential part of the militarization of policing. (My past tense in the previous sentence doesn’t mean it’s over.) And for all that history we continue to have so much trouble with that other part of Khan-Cullors’ and bandele’s title: “Black Lives Matter.”

As I read their book, a phrase from Jesus keeps coming to mind. After Luke 20’s and Matthew 21’s recounting of this parable, Jesus speaks about himself, quoting Psalm 118:22-23 and naming himself as “the stone that the builders rejected [who] has become the chief cornerstone,” before adding, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” It’s a difficult word, a Jesus koan, but what it means is that all are broken by the Truth. All will be judged and found lacking. You might not always hear it from the Christians you know, but the New Testament says that Christians too (those who fall on the stone, Jesus) come under the judgment of God (1 Peter 4).

Jesus is “the Truth,” full stop. There are differences between “the Truth” and other truths. At the same time, the truth is stone wherever you find it. The reality in the world which requires “Black Lives Matter” to be said loudly and repeatedly and publicly in the United States is such a stone. Our current struggles and division are at least partially caused by how we engage that stone. All around people are deciding to fight that stone, and people are being crushed. But the other choice is not to side-step it. There are only two choices, and we who know the stone is true still must be broken. When They Call You a Terrorist is a call to fall on the truth and be broken. Healing begins in brokenness. Hope begins in the dark.

“Our hopes…have got to be supernatural.”

Body of Christ

On October 2, 1962, Thomas Merton wrote in his journal,

Today, the community begins the novena for the II Vatican Council…The Council is certainly a most momentous event. Much more than we realize, although we keep telling ourselves how important it is. Important not at all as window dressing or public relations, but as a supernatural event. I have no patience with the thesis that the main purpose of the Council is to show the rest of the world that the Catholic Church is united, coherent; articulate (indeed, there is talk of struggle and conflict)…Our hopes for the Council have got to be supernatural. What matters now is prayer.

I am a United Methodist pastor (a Provisional Elder, in UMCspeak, if you’re fluent). We too are in the midst of major church-changing events. As one official source frames it (more cordially than many of us are actually experiencing it), “The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition.”

Like Merton said of Vatican II, we’re in the midst of “a momentous event…more than we realize, even though we keep telling ourselves how important it is.” The biggest pieces right now are cases before our Judicial Council (with the majority of its April docket relating to human sexuality), The Commission on a Way Forward, and the presumptive special General Conference in 2019.

Perhaps especially if you understand all that church jargon above, it’s easy to lose sight of this main point: despite all the human trappings, this is a supernatural event. God is at work here. (Actually, if Jesus is fully man and fully God, then we shouldn’t be surprised at supernatural human events being the normal way God works.) And if it’s a supernatural event, then indeed “What matters now is prayer.”

The whole UMC has been called to pray, my bishop has called my Conference to pray, my District Superintendent has called me to pray, and I know I ought to be praying, but I rarely have. Merton’s clear-eyed diagnosis gives me the emotional shove I need (and perhaps channels the Holy Spirit’s shove) truly to commit to prayer in the midst of all this. I hope you’ll join me, that even if we United Methodists are not your tribe, you’ll recognize our connection to you within God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

——
Bonus: this is what a novena is.

The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams numbers not only among the most influential theologians in the world, but among the top living minds, period. His career is both impressive and praiseworthy—dedication over the course of his career to both local church ministry and the Christian academy, faithful leadership at the top of the Anglican Communion through its recent global rupture, and no hesitation to use his weight as a public theologian and political figure in the UK and beyond.

Williams also keeps writing lovely little books for the church, like The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection.

Rowan Williams Sign and the Sacrifice

This book is divided neatly in two. Part 1: The Meaning of the Cross is subdivided into “The sign,” “The sacrifice,” and “The victory.” Part 2: The Meaning of the Resurrection is split into “Christ’s resurrection—then” and “Christ resurrection—now.” Along the way Williams presents, analyzes, and invites us to contemplate just as wide of a swath through Christian history, theology, and practice as the book’s subtitle and organization suggest. Deep dives into Scripture and theology accompany references to literature as well as—in what turns out to be most distinctive in this book—the hymnody and prayers of the church.

The annoyance I have with this book is that points of theological argument and conversations in Biblical criticism are frustratingly lacking in footnotes. The bigger qualm I have is that in the second part of the book, I want Williams to unequivocally state, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and he never does. There are certainly statements that can be read that way, particularly a conversation on how Jewish conceptions of resurrection at the time of Jesus could not imagine a resurrection apart from this earth. In Part 2 as a whole, however, I find Williams to be equivocating on what the nature of Jesus’ resurrection is, and thus the nature of what our resurrection will be, although he certainly believes that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that it was the defining act of the new creation.

In terms of best audience and application, the book is successfully aimed at normal church folks. It is intellectually serious, but it isn’t unapproachable, and it even has helpful conversation questions at the end of each chapter. For me personally, I can think of several people to recommend it to, especially fellow pastors. It would be a tremendous book to plan a sermon series around, especially during Lent.

I’ll end with a longer quote to draw you in to take a chance on this excellent book:

Jesus’ death is not a ritual sacrifice. It doesn’t happen in a temple, it happens on a bleak hilltop on an execution ground. Jesus’ sacrifice is the sacrifice of obedience. At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. So even before his crucifixion we could say in Jewish terms that he was offering a sacrifice, giving his heart to God in such a way that God is pleased with his gift.

But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

HIllbilly Elegy covef

Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance’s first book, but it is not his first publication. He has had articles in National Review going back at least to 2013, and he was an editor at The Yale Law Journal (a publication run by Yale Law students) while a Yale Law student.

Vance’s personal story would be important to a book review even if this book were not a memoir. A child one generation out of Appalachian Kentucky, with family ties to the Hatfields (of the Hatfield-McCoy blood feud), Vance was raised in an environment of poverty, substance abuse, and family dysfunction. With the help of his “Mamaw” (his maternal grandmother) in particular, he was able to find a measure of stability in his life, enter the Marines out of high school, then go on to blaze through a degree at Ohio State University and excel at Yale Law School.

This is not only a brilliant and accomplished man, but he tells a good story. On the first page of chapter one, Vance describes Jackson, Kentucky, where his family roots remain even though he grew up 200 miles away in Middletown, Ohio:

Jacksonians say hello to everyone, willingly skip their favorite pastimes to dig a stranger’s car out of the snow, and—without exception—stop their cars, get out, and stand at attention every time a funeral motorcade drives by. It was that latter practice that made me aware of something special about Jackson and its people. Why, I’d ask my grandma—whom we all called Mamaw—did everyone stop for the passing hearse? “Because, honey, we’re hill people. And we respect our dead.”

For my own part, I was interested in how similar his experience might be to my own. Not only do I have plenty of Scotch-Irish roots, but I’ve never been very insulated from white working class poverty, family dysfunction, mental illness, and substance abuse. Vance may write that only in Appalachia do children have grandparents named “Mamaw” and “Papaw,” but I grew up with Mamaw, Papaw, Mamaw Mac (short for Maxedon, my great-grandmother), and Papaw Mac in central Illinois. My mom is “Mamaw” to my two sons and all my siblings’ children. Like Vance, multi-generational family networks of support—and like him, especially female family members–alongside formal education have made a tremendous difference in family outcomes.

On top of this, I am a United Methodist pastor who tomorrow could be reappointed to any of 800+ United Methodist Churches in the southern 3/4 of Illinois. Most of those areas are rural, and plenty are decades into the same loss of factories and community institutions that both Rust Belt Ohio and Appalachian Kentucky have experienced. In fact, both communities in which I currently serve exist because of coal mining, with all of their mines long dormant, and all their local properties requiring mine subsidence insurance for what may or may not be beneath them. (This reason enough for me to recommend it universally to pastors.)

Vance could not have picked a better time for his book to be published. When Hillbilly Elegy was released in June 2016, Donald Trump was headed for a victory at the July Republican National Convention. His strategy of massive rallies was well established, and he was clearly aiming at white voters who had felt economically and politically disenfranchised for decades.

Writing this review two days after President Trump’s inauguration, I think most of the analysis for how and why Trump was elected is premature. For instance, early claims that it was poor Americans voting for him simply turned out not to match the data. And this particular book, probably the most-mentioned this year for explaining that phenomenon, has been overhyped in that early, easy analysis as well.

For its own part, Hillbilly Elegy does not hesitate to refer widely to economists, sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists. Vance’s engagement is not only with popular regurgitations of various studies but with the studies and researchers themselves. But taken as a whole, the political diagnostic work forms the weakest portion of the book.

To be specific, Vance believes that his experience is unique, when it is actually quite widespread. Two generations of genealogical data in most families can uncover violence, substance abuse, poverty, family dysfunction, and lack of access to education. When Vance contemplates going to college, he feels he’s not ready and joins the military. This too is a common American story (albeit one with far more clear-sighted self-knowledge by the 18-year-old in question). Finally, Vance describes not knowing what to do with all the silverware on the table and not knowing how to order off of an extended wine list while being pursued by  employers as a Yale Law student. This experience would be alien in the exact same ways to most Americans in their mid-to-late twenties.

It is only in passing that Vance ever notes the problems of class inequality and its causes, which reads as an ideological blind spot given his regular publications in National Review. When he speaks of political and social solutions, it is both lovely to see how he holds up the need for strong communal institutions alongside strong families to create opportunities for people, but it is dismaying to not see him dig deeper into how institutions and government work together.

Even with these caveats, I won’t hesitate to recommend this book widely. I love memoirs, and this is easily among 2016’s best. Perhaps best of all, and not mentioned thus far, this is a book-length thank you to Vance’s Mamaw. The gratitude that flows for this woman—a foul-mouthed, quick-to-violence, idiosyncratically religious, and ultimately loving human being—is a grandson’s gift to her memory.

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Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall

Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers cover

How familiar am I with the Christians who lived before my time? Have I read their books and pondered their thoughts? Why or why not? How would I describe my theological and spiritual diet over the past ten years? Are the books that I have read still in print? Were they faddish or substantial, a light dessert or a substantial repast? If I were to list the ten books that have most significantly shaped my understanding of the Bible, what would they be?

(p. 179)

Christopher A. Hall is the associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, a professor at Eastern University, and the heir apparent to Thomas Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy project. In Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Hall has created a historical survey which then moves into practical ways of reading Scripture with the Fathers as part of contemporary exegetical work in the church. The heart of the book includes chapters on the four Doctors of the East, the four Doctors of the West, and the contrasting and complementary schools of the early Christian intellectual capitals, Alexandria and Antioch.

I never met the Church Fathers until seminary, where I met a whole lot of them and immediately fell in love during my first semester of Church History with Dr. Warren Smith. For a kid who grew up technically a United Methodist but basically a non-denominational evangelical, this was a big day. Ever since, I’ve had the desire to share the depth, beauty, and wisdom of the Tradition with others.

In a very trim 200 pages, Hall digests a huge amount of primary sources and standard secondary literature, and provides ample footnotes for further study. I would especially recommend it for preachers and other Bible teachers who long for deeper roots than contemporary conversations in Biblical studies. It could also make for a strong central text for a somewhat advanced reading group within a church.

It’s a great book.