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?

A Holy Lent After General Conference 2019

In three hours, General Conference ends. It appears to be the case that, just as I had said to anybody that directly asked two weeks ago, nothing will be passed, and everyone will go home to re-legislate it all again in 2020 in Minneapolis. What I had not anticipated was how much grief there would be even if nothing changed.

Psychologists call this “denial.”

What I had not anticipated was how much grief I myself would feel, even though I am entirely insulated from any outcome–progressive, traditional, or status quo–of General Conference as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual male who has already made it through the fiery gauntlet that United Methodists have welded together into an ordination process. Today I almost got in a car accident because I was just in my own thoughts about it all.

All this is preamble to say this: I have nothing at stake personally, and still I am distracted, anxious, and grieving. There are those for whom all this is entirely personal, and I can’t imagine what they’re going through. And I pray we each reach out to those others in our lives who are in that place. If there is ever a time for grieving, it is now. If there is ever a time for embracing, it is now. (Okay, yes, I may be currently leading a Bible study on Ecclesiastes.)

This Sunday, I’m preaching from Mark 10:32-45. The passage begins with Jesus and the disciples on the road to Jerusalem (and the Cross) once again, with Jesus out in front, on his own. The disciples are all hanging back, some out of amazement and some out of fear (and presumably some out of both amazement and fear). Jesus has had his face set on Jerusalem for a long time already, and now in verse 33 he gives the disciples a very specific prediction of exactly how it will happen.

As soon as Jesus finishes telling of his imminent arrest, trials, mocking, torture, crucifixion, and resurrection, this is when James and John decide they want to break away from the pack and draw near to him. Why? Because they want power in his kingdom. Their hearts skipped all the suffering and have jumped straight to the glory. They haven’t yet understood, even as he has told them and showed them and told them and showed them again and again the whole time they have known him, that the Kingdom he has come to bring good news about is upside down and sideways from the kingdoms of the world. It is not the same old kingdom now under new management

In verse 41, the disciples get mad at James and John for their requests, but their anger does not seem to be, “Haven’t you heard the good news of the Kingdom of Peace?” Instead, their anger is more, “No, that’s my seat!” Or at least that’s my assumption, because Jesus doesn’t direct his teaching to just James and John, but rather to the whole group. The rulers of the nations of the earth lord it over one another, and lords higher in the hierarchy lord it over lesser lords below. Jesus concludes: “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

If the first disciples didn’t hear Jesus the Son of God, when the literal sound waves from his human vocal chords vibrated the literal bones in their skulls, then we disciples are surely going to sometimes–even often–miss his voice. We’re even more certainly going to miss one another’s voices.

I am so grateful this year that Lent follows so close after General Conference. The discipline of Lent takes different forms. I know for myself that I need a time to be silent as ashes, silent as dust, silent so I can hear someone else’s voice who is currently hearing the call of God to give up silence for Lent.

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.

Pungent Savior

https://www.wikihow.com/images/thumb/9/9a/Make-Mustard-from-Scratch-Step-4.jpg/aid62057-v4-728px-Make-Mustard-from-Scratch-Step-4.jpg

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

(Mark 4:30-32)

It is up to us to sow this mustard seeds in our minds and let it grow within us into a great tree of understanding reaching up to heaven and elevating all our faculties; then it will spread out branches of knowledge, the pungent savor of its fruit will make our mouths burn, its fiery kernel will kindle a blaze within us inflaming our hearts, and the taste of it will dispel our unenlightened repugnance. Yes, it is true: a mustard seed is indeed an image of the kingdom of God. Christ is the kingdom of heaven. Sown like a mustard seed in the garden of the virgin’s womb, he grew up into the tree of the cross whose branches stretch across the world. Crushed in the mortar of the passion, its fruit has produced seasoning enough for the flavoring and preservation of every living creature with which it comes in contact. As long as a mustard seed remains intact, its properties lie dormant; but when it is crushed they are exceedingly evident. So it was with Christ; he chose to have his body crushed, because he would not have his power concealed…Christ became all things in order to restore all of us in himself.

(Peter Chrysologus, Sermons 17)

Faithfulness in Scenes of Complete Abandonment

It was already after Sunday worship before I heard word of the mass shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX. On Tuesday, at a Bible study, we talked about wounds that may not be healed in this life, perhaps like wounds in that ravaged community. This morning I listened to the latest episode of the Replacing Church Podcast, “#81 Soong-Chan Rah on the Prophetic Act of Lament,” in which he speaks about the need for prophetic lament in our worship. This afternoon, I continued reading in Walter Brueggeman’s seminal The Message of the Psalms, and he arrived at one of the most difficult psalms, the lament that goes down and down and down, but never comes back up: Psalm 88.

Here is almost every word he wrote about it in this book:

Psalm 88 is an embarrassment to conventional faith. It is the cry of a believer (who sounds like Job) whose life has gone awry, who desperately seeks contact with Yahweh, but who is unable to evoke a response from God. This is indeed “the dark night of the soul,” when the troubled person must be and must stay in the darkness of abandonment, utterly alone.

1. The psalm opens with an urgent appeal to Yahweh (vv. 1-2). The initial address is one of intimacy, already suggesting what is needed and expected. The verses are dominated by this desperate speech: “I cry…my prayer…my cry.” The appeal is reiterated in verse 9b, “I call upon thee…I spread out my hands.” And again in verse 13: “I…cry to thee…my prayer comes before thee.” This three fold cry (vv.1-2, 9b, 13) forms the structure of the psalm. Characteristically when Israel cries, Yahweh hears and answers (cf. Exod. 2:23-35; Ps. 107:6, 13, 19, 28). Indeed it is anticipated that a time will come when the answer will precede the cry (Isa. 65:24). But not yet, not here. Psalm 88 is adamant in its insistence, and it is harsh on Yahweh’s unresponsiveness. The truth of this psalm is that Israel lives in a world where there is no answer. We are not offered any speculative answer. Perhaps God is silent because the guilt of the speaker has driven Yahweh away, but we are not told that. Or one might take it to be a statement of God’s transcendent freedom, so that God is not always on call (cf. Jer. 23:23). But that is not suggested either. The psalm is not interested in any theological reason Yahweh may have. The psalm is from Israel’s side. It engages in no speculation. It asks no theological question. It simply reports on how it is to be a partner of Yahweh in Yahweh’s inexplicable absence. We may imagine that the situation is so desperate that even if a reason could be offered, the speaker would have no interest in it, nor would it help, because the needfulness of the moment supersedes any reasonable conversation.

2. The unanswered plea does not silence the speaker. Perhaps the speaker is in fact speaking to the empty sky, but that does not deter the speaker. The faith of Israel is like that. The failure of God to respond does not lead to atheism or doubt in God or rejection of God. It leads to more intense address. This psalm, like the faith of Israel, is utterly contained in the notion that Yahweh is there and must be addressed. Yahweh must be addressed, even if Yahweh never answers.

In verses 3-9a, the speaker addresses a barrage at Yahweh. The speaker is not very cunning or calculating. The speech is not deliberately presented in order to evoke an answer. There is no playing up to God. There is only anger. If one wanted to tease or persuade Yahweh to answer, this is not the way to go about it, but this speaker has no leisure for such niceties. Yahweh should not need persuasion, for he is expected to answer.

Verses 3-4 are a standard complaint with reference to “the Pit” and to “Sheol.” This is the voice of a dying one crying out to the only source of life. “The Pit” is not final judgment or fiery place of punishment. It is only beyond the range of communion. For this speaker, communion with God is clearly everything. The notion of “cutting off” is expressed in verse 5 with three metaphors and a fourth climactic line: “dead…grave…remember no more…cut off.”

But then in verses 6-9a, the stakes are upped. This is an incredibly audacious speaker. Not only does death come, but Yahweh causes it:

Thou has put me…
Thy wrath lies heavy…
Thou dost overwhelm…
Thou hast caused…
Thou has made me…

The speaker is utterly helpless. The fault is firmly fixed. In Job-like fashion, the speaker may hope that such an assault will evoke a response. But it does not—only more silence.

3. After the second cry in verse 9b, verses 10-12 offer a series of six rhetorical questions, or at least four questions, two of which have two parts. But the dramatic effect is six questions. All of them ask about Yahweh’s capacity to work his sovereign way in death. We have “dead/shades/grave/abandon/darkness/land of forgetfulness.” That is the situation into which the speaker has fallen. The speaker will surely fall further if Yahweh does not act soon. And we are given six corresponding words that characterize Yahweh’s usual action: “wonders…praise…steadfast love…faithfulness…wonders…saving help.”

The pattern of two sets of words shows the incongruity between where the speaker is and what Yahweh does. The obvious response to the rhetorical question is “no.” Yahweh does not do his typical action in death, so, if it is to make any difference, what Yahweh does will have to be done prior to death (which is very near). The urgency of the speech is that at this moment Yahweh can still do his life-giving work, but not for long. If Yahweh does not act soon, the chance will be lost, preempted by the power of death. The speaker will be utterly lost, because the power of Yahweh has failed. But this is still no answer—only waiting. We may imagine a long dramatic, not very patient pause after verse 12. But there is no answer, and so the cry is resumed.

4. The final assault in verses 14-18 comes after the third appeal of verse 13. Now the poet moves to direct, unambiguous accusation. In verse 14, two questions place the blame frontally. Verse 15 describes the situation one more time, in case Yahweh did not hear it in verses 3-8, 10-12. And then the poem culminates in its harshest statement: “thy wrath has swept…thy dread assaults…thou hast caused.”

Finally, the speaker is shunned and in darkness. The last word in the psalm is darkness. The last word is darkness. The last theological word here is darkness. Nothing works. Nothing is changed. Nothing is resolved. All things deny life. And worst of all is the “shunning.” It is twice articulated…so that the blame is fixed on Yahweh.

So what is one to do about that? Wait. That is what Israel has been doing for a very long time. I suspect that practically and dramatically, what one must do is say it over again, until the speech and the speaker have genuinely reached the bottom. One has two options: either to wait in silence, or to speak it again. What one may not do is to rush to an easier psalm, or to give up on Yahweh.

What is a psalm like that doing in our Bible? Two things suggest themselves. First, life is like that, and these poems intend to speak of all of life, not just the good parts. Here, more than anywhere else, faith faces life as it is. Second, we observe that this psalm is not a psalm of mute depression. It is still speech. It is still addressed. In the bottom of the Pit, Israel still knows it has to do with Yahweh. It cannot be otherwise. Yahweh may not have to do with Israel. That is a problem for Yahweh, not for Israel or Israel’s theologians. Israel has no option but to deal with Yahweh. That belongs to Israel’s identity and character in the world. Israel must deal with Yahweh in his life-giving speech and answer. But Israel must also deal with Yahweh in the silence, in God’s blank absence as in the saving presence. Israel has no choice but to speak to this one, or to cease to be Israel. To be Israel means to address God, even in God’s unresponsive absence.

This psalm accords well with Luther’s theology of the cross. It certainly militates against every theology of glory, against every theology that imagines that things can be resolved, that there are answers, and that we go from “strength to strength.” Psalm 88 shows us what the cross is about: faithfulness in scenes of complete abandonment

One might wish the assertion were from on high. Then it would be less tenuous.  But when that voice from on high is silent, Israel must decide if a feeble line can be established from this side. We never know. The speaker does not know. But it is speech against the darkness. It is not cowed, but insistent, determined that if the Holy One chooses to answer, that answer must not be weak or trivial. When God next speaks, God must answer this charge. No doubt that is why God is not yet prepared to answer by the end of this psalm.

Psalm 88 stands as a mark of realism for biblical faith. It has its pastoral use, because there are situations in which easy, cheap talk of resolution must be avoided. Here are words not to be used frequently, but for the limited experiences when words must be honest and not claim too much.

Jesus Lament

Psalm 88

“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.