Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Darkness Shall Turn To Dawning

We've a story to tell to the nations,
that shall turn their hearts to the right,
a story of truth and mercy,
a story of peace and light,
a story of peace and light.
H. Ernest Nichol, "We've A Story To Tell To The Nations"
Last night I was talking to Lisa about my many frustrations with our current moment in the life of the Christian Churches. I realize my view is limited, my position colored by my exposure to particular points-of-view, and to the sinkhole of nonsense that is so much of the Internet, whether discussing religion or anything else. All the same, I cannot help but feel the mainline churches actually want to die. Oh, I realize there are vibrant congregations and faithful witnesses in all our pews. I get that denominational institutions and structures have their role to perform. I understand that some of our old-line churches are dragging themselves kicking and screaming in to the 21st century.

All the same, and I reiterate, I cannot help but feel the mainline churches want to die. Perhaps I generalize far too much from my experience with my own United Methodist Church. Perhaps, following the train-wreck that was General Conference back in April, I considered that an object-lesson in how to commit institutional suicide as the world watches. I gazed in wonder as nearly one thousand delegates from around the world flounced and flailed, trying with equal parts desperation and cluelessness, to find a way to mend the many ways our denomination is broken. In the process, we managed, as a group, to display our preference for a status quo that is untenable while actively ignoring our heritage, our specific gifts, and the grace that calls us to live for the world.

At one point, an amendment was offered to change the wording of the preamble to our Social Principles, part of our heritage as a community of believers who hear in the gospel Good News for the poor, release to the captives, freedom for those in all sorts of chains. The change was the addition of a single sentence: “We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

Forty-four percent of the delegates voted against the addition. Nearly half of the delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, a Church built upon the solid foundation of John Wesley's mission and ministry to the poor and excluded, a ministry rooted precisely in this faith, did not want us as a Body to declare our faith in the ubiquity and prevenience of God's grace.

At some later point, the delegate declared their intention to work harder to bring more youth and young adults in to the Church. Bewailing the on-going trend, not just with us but in all Churches and religious groups as a whole in the United States, of people no longer finding religious practice and observance relevant, General Conference dedicated itself to work over the next four years to try to buck this trend.

Cluelessness, thy name is General Conference 2012.

Ours is a world filled with pain and fear. We know that because we live it. We feel it. We see it in the faces of our friends and co-workers, our family and those on the street. We see the worry lines grow in the mirror. If we United Methodists cannot even support the Biblical proposition that God's grace in Jesus Christ is available to all persons, how in the world can we convince the world we have anything worth saying or doing to alleviate the pain and suffering all around all of us?

I am a United Methodist because John Wesley's message of grace, lived out in disciplined mutual accountability, is a verse in that story we have to tell to the nations. I am a United Methodist because we declare that ours is a life of discipleship for the world. These are beautiful, Spirit-filled, life-affirming verses in the song we have to sing to the nations.

I am saddened beyond belief by our simple-mindedness, our pandering to cultural norms that have nothing to do with the Gospel of grace and peace and reconciliation. I am angered by our pettiness, the smallness of heart and life so evident in our General Conference. There have been many times I have wanted to give it all up for lost because it seems we no longer really believe what we say we believe. When we no longer live out the possibility of a life perfected in love, how can we declare our allegiance to it?

I told Lisa last night we United Methodists still have a story to tell to the nations. I told her that I still believe it is possible to breathe life in to the dry bones of the United Methodist Church. The first thing we need to do is stop trying to be something other than the bearers of the Gospel in Wesley's particular idiom. We need to stop trying to be proper. We need to stop trying to be doctrinally upright, theologically correct, socially acceptable. We need to be fearless, as Wesley was when he stood at the mouths of mines preaching a word of grace that many if not most of those working there had never heard. The United Methodist Church, in many ways, is lost but not without hope. We are divided not in vision but because we have none.

I am and will be a United Methodist because I believe our specific difference lies in our practicality. We are a people who have always been defined less by our adeptness at theological disputation and doctrinal adroitness, but rather more our dedication and devotion to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. When we forget that, distracted by the controversies of any particular moment, we can find ourselves, as we do now, flailing around in search of an identity. We already have an identity, however. We need to be about living that out.

Virtual Tin Cup

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