Youth Questions: Why Doesn’t the Methodist Church Modernize its Thinking?


 Question: Why Doesn’t the Methodist Church Modernize its Thinking?

    I’m not exactly sure what the questioner had in mind when they wrote this, but the short answer is that we do, regularly, change the way that our church works.  The longer answer will take a little while.
    First, there are some things that we can’t change.  If we believe that the Bible is true and was given to us by God, then we must be formed and shaped by what it says and it is not for us to rewrite the Bible so that it says what we think it should.
    Second, as United Methodists, our organization, structure and doctrine all flow out of “The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.”  It is not the Bishops who speak for us, nor the Council of Bishops (we don’t have a Pope), but the Book of Discipline.  This book is revised every four years during our General Conference.  The General Conference is a democratic body of delegates who are elected by each geographical area (called Annual Conferences) and each area sends a delegation based on the number of church members in that area, much like we, in the United States, elect members to the House of Representatives.  Because The United Methodist Church is a global church, representatives come from around the globe from every continent except Antarctica. 
    Almost everything is up for grabs when the General Conference meets.  Nearly every page of the Book of Discipline may be amended or even completely replaced with only a small section that is unchanging.  In the beginning of the Discipline is a set of Restrictive Rules that specify those sections that cannot be amended.  These sections include the fundamental doctrine of our church that defines who we are, our basic confession of faith, a few rules regarding bishops, the right of clergy to trial by committee, and how we are able to spend the money earned by through publishing.  In all, from a book with nearly 900 pages, less than twenty are unchanging.  The rest are available for revision every four years.
    Who can suggest or propose a change?  You can.  Any member, or clergyperson, from any United Methodist Church, can write a proposal to the General Conference to amend or replace any section of the Discipline.  And to be sure that your opinion matters, the Discipline requires that the General Conference consider every single proposal that is submitted.  Many of these will be similar or propose changes to the same sections, and these will be read, and incorporated into a single proposal by working groups of conference delegates.  Every delegate belongs to one of these working groups and each group is responsible for a working out the proposed changes to a particular section.  Once the working groups are done, these proposals go before the entire General Conference for a vote.  The exception to this are those changes that are editorial or are so totally uncontroversial, that no one feels the need to vote on them, these are passed, as a group, by the consent of the conference.  But if any delegate feels that any particular proposal should be voted on individually, they can ask that that proposal be moved off of the “consent calendar” and brought to the floor for a vote.
    So, while we maintain core beliefs that are unchanging, there is much of our “thinking” that is being “modernized” on a regular basis.  Among these things that are being revised is the Social Principles, which is a separate publication from the Book of Discipline, but which contains the official position of the church on social issues from abortion and adoption, to the rights of women and youth and everything in between.  It is here, in the Social Principles, that you will find the official church position on divorce, the death penalty, population control, racial and ethnic rights, collective bargaining, sustainable agriculture and a great many other things. 
    Keep in mind that The United Methodist Church is a church made up of individuals that are very different, who come from very different places and different cultures.  Our church has members from nearly every political affiliation you can imagine and we don’t always agree.  Although I admit that politics are sometimes played in the writing of changes to the Discipline and the Social Principles, I appreciate that we are trying to do theology together.   
    We are not a North American church that is writing “rules” that must be followed by people thousands of miles away, but we are one, global, church that is trying to discern, together, what God is saying, and where he is leading us.   
That process can be a little messy, but we are working it out, together.
 Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general.  This is a part of that series.

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Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor

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Trust is a Big Deal


    Have you ever had one of those “Duh!” moments when things start to make sense for the first time? But there are also moments when we read scripture and we completely miss important things because we assume that the people in the Bible were just like us.  In our scripture lesson this week, we read the story of Moses leading the people of Israel through the dry path God had created in the depths of the Red Sea.  But after the chariots, horsemen and soldiers of Egypt’s army are drowned, we read these verses in Exodus 14:30-31:
That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore.  And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.
    Most of us read this and think, “So what? They trusted God. God is trustworthy. Duh.”  And, because we assume that the people of Israel were just like us, we completely miss what a big deal this really was.
    We have lived our lives in possession of the entire Old Testament as well as the New Testament.  For many of us, there has never really been much doubt that God was trustworthy, even when we weren’t sure that God was real.  But the people of the Exodus did not know what we know.  The world that they lived in, and the gods that they knew, were very different.
    In the story of the Exodus, despite coming from the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Israelites had lived in the land of Egypt for 400 years.  At that time, they did not have a formal system of worship, or priesthood, they had stories.  The stories of their forefathers had been passed down to them from generation to generation, and even though the stories were magnificent, they lived in a world with very different stories.
    The Egyptians, like the Romans and the Greeks of the New Testament, were polytheists.  They believed, not in the one God of Israel, but in a collection of gods that were far from trustworthy.  The gods warred with one another through human agents and tens of thousands died for their amusement.  The gods of the Egyptians were capricious; they did what they wanted, when they wanted, often without any guiding morality.  To the gods, humans were little more than playthings and to humans, the gods were to be feared and not trusted.
    And so when the people of Israel saw that the God of Abraham had used his great power, not only to provide a means for them to escape their slavery, but to destroy those who sought to kill them, they saw, many for the first time, that their God was different.  Finally, the stories began to make sense.  They realized that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph was different than the gods of the Egyptians. 
They realized that the God of Israel could be trusted.
And trust really is a big deal.

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Who Watches the Supplies? – A Football Meditation


    In the books of first and second Samuel we read the story of King David.  Many of us have heard stories about David, but there is at least one that we don’t often remember.  In 1 Samuel 30, we find David and 600 men who had just returned from fighting alongside Achish the king of the Philistines.  As they return home they discover that the Amalekites had raided their town, captured their wives (including two of David’s wives), their children, their livestock, as well as anything of value.  After consulting with their priest to find the will of God, David pursues the Amalekite raiding party.
    As they hurry to catch up to the raiders however, David finds that two hundred of his men are too exhausted to continue and so he leaves them behind with all their gear, supplies and what is left of their town.  David and the four hundred remaining men pursue the Amalekite raiding party and find them celebrating over all the loot that they had plundered.  David and his men attack and fight with the Amalekites from dusk that day, until the end of the following day, defeat them, and recapture every single animal, personal belonging, wife and family member.
    But when they return to their camp, the troublemakers began to stir things up.  They argued with David that the two hundred men who were left behind should not receive any of the plunder because they didn’t fight to get it.  They argued that these men should get their families back, but receive no share of the loot and plunder that they had taken from the Amalekites.
    David fights back.  David makes an argument that is important to every single one of us and one that is important to each of you on the football field.  David said:
“No, my brothers, you must not do that with what the Lord has given us. He has protected us and delivered into our hands the raiding party that came against us. 24 Who will listen to what you say? The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.” 25 David made this a statute and ordinance for Israel from that day to this.
    It is important to remember that when you win, it isn’t just the superstars and the heroes that win the game.  Every member of your team had a part, Every coach, every water boy, every trainer, every teacher you ever had who helped you to earn the grades you needed to play ball, it took the guy on the sidelines who sprained his ankle before the season started, every football booster, every friend who gave you a ride home from practice, every relative, every parent, and every brother or sister that comes to watch you play.  As David said, these are the people who “watch the supplies” for you. 
    When you win, it isn’t just because of the guy who threw the touchdown pass, or who caught the interception, or who made the big tackle.  Your victory didn’t come because of the superstars; it took every single one of you. 
And that includes the people who just watch the supplies.

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One Small Act Can Change the World


    Every day we make thousands of choices.  We go to the grocery store. We choose to stop at a traffic light.  Some decisions are so small that we don’t give them a second thought, but even the smallest of choices can make a world of difference.
    Captain Edward Smith chose to ignore warnings about ice in the path of the Titanic.  That one decision changed everything.
    In 1955, a seamstress at a local department store was riding the bus to work.  As the bus filled, she refused to give up her seat to another customer.  It seems like such a small thing, but with that one small choice, Rosa Parks changed the course of civil rights and American history.
    In 1989 a column of tanks descended on Tiananmen Square to crush the ongoing student.  As they did, one man stepped in front of the lead tank.  By doing so, he compelled the driver of the tank to choose.  Because of one man, the entire column of tanks came to a halt. Photographs of that moment appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world.  With one act of defiance, one man captures the imagination of the world.
    Last week (April 9, 2014), a student armed with knives entered the high school in Murrysville, Pennsylvania and attacked other students and a security guard.  Amid the mayhem, Nate Scimio, a student and one of the wounded, reached out and pulled the nearest fire alarm.  His quick thinking is saved lives and helped to evacuate the school.
    Even the most simple and mundane choices have the power to make a gigantic difference.  This is exactly what we find in the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Two of Jesus’ friends are asked to do something so remarkably simple that we are stunned to discover how important their contribution becomes. 
Jesus tells his friends to go into town, find a donkey that he knows is there, untie it, and bring it back. 
How much easier could that be?
    What Jesus did was like asking someone to pick up a prescription.  We’ve already phoned ahead, we already know that it’s ready, all they have to do is show up, get it, and bring it back. 
And yet, as simple as it is, the task that these followers perform is significant.
    As simple as it was, the disciples did as they were asked.  As simple as it was, this act makes it possible for Jesus to arrive the way that the Kings of Israel had arrived.  One small choice transforms an ordinary arrival into an historic event. 
I want you to imagine what that might look like in your life.
Because God is the architect of our lives, he already has the big things all planned out. 
    God doesn’t ask us to build a multi-national pharmaceutical conglomerate, but simply to pick up a prescription.    Go, get it, and come back.
    A story, originally told by Loren Eiseley, tells of a man walking along a beach the night after an enormous storm.  The beach was littered with starfish which had been washed ashore and as he walked, the man came across a child who was picking up starfish, one at a time, and throwing them back into the sea.  After watching the child for some time the man said, “Why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. There are thousands of them.  You can’t begin to make a difference!”
    But after thinking about it for a moment, the child continued to throw starfish back into the ocean.  Each time saying, “I made a difference to thatone… I made a difference to that one…”
    Before God asks you to do something big, I can guarantee that God will ask you to do something small.  Be ready.  Do not hesitate because the thing that God asks is small. 
In the hands of God, one small act can change the world.
    Volunteer an hour of your time to visit someone who is lonely.  Buy an extra can of food for someone that is hungry.   
Smile.  A kind word or a friendly face can change the course of an entire day.   
Donate blood.  
Cry with a friend, or offer a shoulder to cry on.   
Share Jesus with a neighbor.   
Take a casserole to a neighbor who has health problems.   
    Offer to watch the children of a young family that can’t afford a baby sitter.  This may sound small, but others did this for us when our children were small and trust me, this was a generous and amazing gift.   
    Invite a single friend to dinner.  Did you know that for singles away from home, as well as for widows and widowers, family holidays like Christmas and Easter are the hardest to get through?  What’s one more chair at the table?   
    Buy a box of diapers or a can of formula for a single parent.  Do you know how expensive that stuff can be?  
Offer to wash an elderly neighbor’s car or shovel their walk in the winter.
You can make a difference but you have to do something.
One.
Small.
Thing.
It doesn’t have to be a big thing to make a big difference.
But in the hands of God, one small act can change the world.