Monday, May 20, 2013

The miracle of Pentecost

Yesterday, the Church celebrated Pentecost, the day in which the Holy Spirit came and set the world ablaze. It is a custom, in some congregations, to sing Happy Birthday Dear Church, as it was the day of Pentecost that led to the church, all over the world, serving as the Body of Christ. Pentecost is a reminder that this church business is wholly different from a social club, or a humanitarian organization, or a community center. It is all of these things, in some ways, but it is much more.

On Pentecost, we celebrate the Holy Spirit, but we're not quite sure what to make of this Spirit, so we talk about flames and doves and such. Metaphors are much easier to swallow than the implications of the event itself. The Holy Spirit came with a violent wind and led the disciples to speak in such a way that they sounded drunk. I don't know about you, but it seems easier to me to preach a sermon about metaphor than it is to invoke the presence of a Spirit so powerful that it fills the room with sound and manifests itself in fire.

Or we focus on the miracle, the flames, the sudden rush of wind that turned even the densest of the disciples into a polyglot. That's a neat story, isn't it? And we leave it there.

To me, here's the miracle of Pentecost. God so trusted our species that God sent a divine wind to continually be at our backs. God sees our best offerings and gifts and buildings, and God chooses to be with us anyways. We are given a sacred promise, that though the church is frustrating and difficult and, at times, slow as molasses, the work of being the church is not in vain, for it is, in the final analysis, the most important work in the whole world.

I see it every time I show up for church: people who are so dedicated to their faith that they do extraordinary things. Children get fed, the sick are healed, the lonely are comforted. This is not the work of a social club. It is work created by God, blessed by Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

To me, this is the real promise of Pentecost. Miracles need not involve seven seals, or burning bushes, or rainbows. Miracles are just as likely to put on skin and show up for church.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Let's Stay Together #DreamUMC

Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the DreamUMC conversation that originated from the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Bloggers across the UMC have been invited to answer the question: "Is schism the best future for the UMC?" You can learn more by following the hashtag #DreamUMC on Twitter or visiting the DreamUMC Facebook page.
I deeply love the United Methodist Church. I did not grow up in this tradition, so entering it was a conscious choice. I find the UMC to be among the most faithful expressions of Christian community I've found anywhere. Our polity largely matches with my understanding of how God wants the church to be. This conversation, for me, is certainly important. I believe very strongly that criticism ought not be left to the cynics, but to those with skin in the game. I love the UMC. I want it to thrive. I want it to survive: whole, not split into some fragmentary version of itself.

I should note that the conversation surrounding the topic of schism in the United Methodist Church seems to center on one issue: human sexuality. I'd argue that sexuality is less the issue than the clearest way in which the real issues play themselves out for a variety of cultural reasons.

So before I get to whether the church ought to split, let me briefly deal with what I see as the two real issues that, in my mind, under-gird the schism argument. The two issues are Biblical interpretation and the ways in which we do decision-making as a global church. Perhaps this is a rudimentary discussion, but these basic dynamics seem to drive the whole conversation, so I believe they are worth evaluating.

1. Biblical Interpretation

I do not want to spend too much time on the issue of Biblical interpretation, because the differences in the way we interpret the Bible as a diverse church are pretty clear. But I do want to note that I largely reject the classic "literal-metaphorical" dichotomy we often hear about surrounding matters of Biblical interpretation. After all, the Bible is too complicated to take entirely literally, and it is too full of truth to take entirely metaphorically. There are those who consider themselves to be Biblical conservatives who are in favor of marriage equality, and there are those (fewer, perhaps) who consider themselves to be Biblical liberals who do not feel the need to expand the current definition of marriage.

Still, this issue of Biblical interpretation divides us pretty deeply, and while I don't always think the divide is as big as we make it, we ought to acknowledge it is there. Pretending otherwise does not do us much good. There is a fairly wide spectrum of Biblical interpretation in the United Methodist Church. The differences we have are real.

As it relates to the issue of human sexuality, obviously, the turf has been mostly unmoved for some time. Those who argue for a more literal interpretation believe that human sexuality is to be expressed in a male-female marriage relationship, for (they contend) God set this pattern for humanity. All other expressions of practiced sexuality are incompatible with Christian teaching.

Those who argue for a more metaphorical interpretation believe that the covenant of marriage is less about male-female relations than it is a loving covenant between two people and God. There are multiple expressions of practiced sexuality which are compatible with Christian teaching. I should add, though, that this "camp" would disagree among its members about how many expressions are, indeed faithful. As something of a conservative member of this camp (whatever that means), I would argue that a marriage covenant between two people and God means an exclusive covenant, and that while God may have more in mind for marriage than a legal contract between a man and a woman, there are expressions of sexuality which are, by their nature, unfitting of the Christian witness.

Perhaps I am not being entirely fair to both sides of this argument--I've laid my cards on the table, for what it is worth--but I think this is a reasonable description of the problem of Biblical interpretation. There's a divide. We understand scripture differently. This leads us to the second issue.

2. Decision-making

Different understandings of scripture lead to different understandings of church, which should come as no surprise. Our expressions of church are influenced by our worldviews, and our worldviews are influenced by scripture.

The issue as it relates to schism surrounds how we can authentically live out a scriptural worldview in a church with multiple scriptural worldviews. The church has always acknowledged, of course, that not everyone believes exactly alike. One thing I have always appreciated about the United Methodist Church--indeed, one reason I chose to become a United Methodist--is that we acknowledge that we are allowed to disagree, if charitably.

The problem is not that we cannot disagree. It is that we (those churches in the United States) believe we are the standard against which others can disagree. In other words, we are being gracious with others but becoming hamstrung in our own privilege.

I have written before of the ridiculous ways in which the US churches allow other churches to deviate from the United Methodist Book of Discipline, all the while allowing those deviating churches to constrain churches in the United States who do not have an option to deviate. I do not mean to use this language of deviation perjoratively; it is important that churches in different cultural areas be able to adapt to their cultural contexts. The Book of Acts is full of examples of the early disciples allowing for such deviation.

The problem is that we assume everyone else has a cultural context, but that we (the United States churches) are the be-all, end-all of Methodist Christendom. We are the context from which everyone else deviates, at least in terms of the way we see ourselves (and the way in which our polity behaves).

Basically, everyone else has a culture. We do not. How progressive of us.

You see the issue. In the name of openness, we're privileging ourselves.

Here's the solution: give the US, with its unique cultural heritage and needs, the same abilities the conferences outside the US have. Let the US make room for cultural differences: in polity, in social standard, in praxis.

We've got to, well, decide, one way or another, about how we're going to decide before we can resolve the schism issue. Right now, we seem to be living into an unsustainable system of decision making that exists for a whole host of ideological reasons but no good theological or practical reasons. We're afraid to give the US the same courtesy to deviate that we give the rest of the world, because we are afraid of what the US will do with such a privilege. But part of growing up is offering new responsibility in the hope that, the foundation having been laid, good (if difficult) choices will come.

So do I believe schism is the best future for the UMC? No. The church is too important, and living into Global Christianity is too important. We must, however, figure out how to live together in a way that is fair to everyone and that does justice to the promise that all people are God's children.

Nor do I believe that schism is coming regardless of whether it is the best future. I believe we are headed for one of two futures. Either

1. The church allows for cultural differences, even in the USA, and we actually do the difficult work of figuring out how to be a global church (instead of a church that talks about how wonderful it is that we bend over backwards for all those other people on other continents),
2. We'll continue on an unsustainable course, built on an outdated model of cultural sensitivity which is in fact predicated upon cultural bias and ideological warfare, and, like a top-heavy tower, we'll topple.

It is my prayer, of course, that we are headed towards the first future. I actually believe this future is not only possible, but probable. There will be some pain--there is no such thing as an ecclesiological epidural--but if we decided to put in the work, I believe we will find ourselves working toward a more faithful version of church all over the world. The DreamUMC conversation has been a good launching point, but it is merely a conversation. Let's now do the difficult work of figuring out how to continue to become the church, even in this brave new post-Christendom, globalized, twenty-first century world.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Art. Beauty. God.

We had the great pleasure of seeing Andy Offutt Irwin and Rose Cousins last night at the Red Clay Theater in downtown Duluth. Andy Offutt Irwin, for the uninitiated, is a storyteller/singer/songwriter/human-Gumby who tells stories that come deep from within the well of his spiritual tradition and which point, frequently, to the heart of God.

Rose Cousins, a singer/songwriter who was new to me, sings about pain, and loss, and other deeply human events which, at their heart, are not merely human events after all, for there is something deeper. I was reminded, as she sang, of Howard Thurman's quote which inspires the title of this blog: "If I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and you see the genuine in you, I can go down in myself and end up in you."

In many ways, this is what we talk about when we talk about God as love. God is the deepest, the most basic, that which is at the root and that which is the sum total. I do not mean to offer some panthesitic bromide, but rather to acknowledge that when we talk about God, too often we speak as if we are describing a scientific theorem, as if the only thing to do is to spend enough time trying to understand it, and then you will have the whole thing licked.

God's presence is much deeper, revealed in beauty and laughter and justice. God's presence is with us, and yet it is something to chase, to search for: not in order to get away from other people, but with the acknowledgement that in the final analysis, you can no more separate loving God from loving people than you can separate your own head from your heart.

We seem to have come to a place, as a Christian culture, where we are certain that the life of faith is about understanding more than it is about anything else, so that if we simply understand, if we simply collect enough sermons, we can trade in those tickets for a fulfilled life, or for entrance into Heaven. Faith is much deeper, much more beautiful, much more wonder-full.

Rose Cousins, the singer last night, sings this in her song, The Darkness: "To take a light into the dark is to know the light. To know the dark, go into the dark."

It is easier to go about things simply trying to understand. But--and this is just a suggested assignment--try riding the pail down into the well of beauty sometime and sit awhile. I will acknowledge that it is dark, and sometimes dangerous, but it is a deep well, and you will find that you are not alone.