Fear

Special General Conference

Fear

This is it.

As I write this, the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church will begin its session at the end of this week.  Delegates from around the world have already begun their journeys to St. Louis for their deliberations.  This appears to be a great watershed moment and the future of the United Methodist Church will be forever changed.

We worry.

Some of us may even experience fear.

I admit to being concerned.  Many of the proposals specifically designed to hold our church together will instead drive the church apart or accelerate its decline. 

So, what will we do?

My advice, to those who have asked me, is to relax (a little).  There are many proposals that the General Conference will consider but they are not obligated to pass any of them.  They might choose one, but it is more likely that they will craft something new from pieces taken from among the various proposals or, at the very least, modify one of those proposals before passing it.  There is also a reasonable chance that they won’t pass anything at all and decide that the best way to keep us together, however unhappily, is not to change anything.  And finally, there is a chance that some elements of whatever may get “kicked down the road” for debate at the regular General Conference in 2020.

But, assuming that the General Conference passes something, then what?

Still, my advice is that we should still not get excited too quickly.

Some proposed changes may require ratification by the annual conferences and that would take a year before the results were known.  But even if a major change were to be passed by the Special General Conference, many of those changes would require Annual Conference action.  And, since our Annual Conference doesn’t meet until June, nothing could happen until then, and understanding the difficulty of preparing that legislation for the Annual Conference, there is a fair chance that we wouldn’t take any action as a conference until June of 2020.  Other actions that are being proposed would open a window for churches to decide and in most cases, we would have a year or so to choose a path forward.

Are you confused?  Of course, you are.

At this point the road ahead looks like a bowl of spaghetti, or a road map of the Los Angeles freeways.  That is precisely why I have been advising folks not to get too excited.  The path ahead, for now, is confusing and unknown.  But, once the General Conference passes something, whether that is next month or in 2020, then the path ahead, and our options, will become much clearer.

And until it does, we will continue to be in ministry to the people around us as Christ Church has for over a hundred years.  For now, we should continue to pray for all of the General Conference delegates.

Trust that God knows what is going to happen.

Have faith that God is in control.

Try not to worry.

And fear not.

 

“So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

– Isaiah 41:10

 


Did you enjoy reading this?

Click here if you would like to subscribe to Pastor John’s weekly messages.

Click here to subscribe to Pastor John’s blog.

Click here to visit Pastor John’s YouTube channel.


 

Methodists vs. Catholics? (Part 2)

Question: Methodists vs. Catholics? (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a two part series answering two separate but similar questions, “What is so different about the Catholic Church?” and, “Why is there so much tension between the Methodist and the Catholic Church?”

Part one can be found here: Methodist vs. Catholics? (Part 1)

—-

    Since there were already hundreds of Methodist lay preachers in the colonies, John Wesley begged his bishop to ordain some of them so that the members of the church could have access to communion. 
The bishop refused.
    Eventually, John Wesley took it upon himself to ordain Thomas Coke as a bishop (even though he technically did not have that authority), who then travelled to the colonies and ordained Francis Asbury.  In this way, the Methodist Church was born.  No one intended for the Methodist movement to become a church, but it did.  As a result, the Methodist Church structure, belief and doctrine are similar to the Church of England (which today is known as the Episcopal Church in the United States).  We are not a congregational organization, but an ecclesiastical one, which means we have a hierarchy where pastors answer to a bishop. 
    Because of the way that our church has separated from the Catholic Church, our structures and beliefs, although quite different, are also sometimes strikingly similar.  Even so, there was a lot of bad blood between the reformers (like Martin Luther) and the Popes.  Remember that in that era, the Pope controlled the Holy Roman Emperor who, in turn, controlled the Army. 
    In those days, there was no separation of church and state.  For generations, anyone who even hinted at problems within the church could be arrested, their property seized, they could be tortured or even put to death for believing anything different than what they were told.  Nations who chose (actually their kings chose) to become Protestant, were attacked by the Empire’s Army.  For hundreds of years, wears were fought between Catholics and Protestants.  In the 30 Years War (1618-1648), part of Germany fought against other parts of Germany with support thrown in from the kings of France and Spain, as well as from the Empire.  During that time, 25-40% of the entire German population was killed.
    There was also much bloodshed in England.  Although Catholics and Protestants often got along with one another, their rulers were not so kind.  As England’s Kings and Queens changed from Catholic to Protestant and back again, everyone, including the priests, were forced to convert.  Those who did not, were forced from their homes or worse.  There was much bloodshed on all sides.
    In any case, by the time of John Wesley, there were bad feelings between the Church of England and the Catholic Church.  This is evident in John Wesley’s writings as well as Catholic writings of the time.  But today, 200 years later, those bad feelings have faded and Catholics and Protestants get along quite well (particularly here in the United States).  Technically, according to some Catholic doctrine, anyone who is not a part of the “official” church of Saint Peter is going to hell.  For our part, we deny several key Catholic doctrines and emphasize that salvation if through grace alone where the Catholic Church believes that both grace and works are required.
    Despite our differences, we there are a great many similarities.  We have a similar structure (although we do not have any “rank” higher than bishop and we do not have a Pope).  We have bishops who are in charge of particular geographical areas, and we have one set of rules that govern all of our churches. 
    Today the “bad blood’ that once existed isn’t what it used to be.  Most of us have both Catholics and Protestants mixed among our families and our friends and many Catholics and Protestants are married to one another.  I had a professor in seminary that did his doctoral studies in a Catholic University.  There have even been times that modern theologians, now having the benefit of being a few hundred years distant, suggest that Protestants might reconsider some of the Catholic teachings that were thrown out during the Reformation.  Recently, the Pope has invited evangelical leaders to be his guests in Rome to discuss how we might work together. 
    During my last pastorate, I became friends with Monsignor Mark Froelich who was the local parish priest.  He and I were the only people in town who were members of both the Kiwanis and the Rotary clubs and so we had lunch together twice each week (and it didn’t hurt that he was a Cleveland Indians fan).  I think we are finding that our differences may now be less than they were when our churches split during the Reformation.
    In the end when we consider what the differences are between the Methodist Church and the Catholic Church, the answer is both, “A lot” and, “Not much.”

 

Part One of this series can be found here: Methodist vs. Catholics? (Part 1)

 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.

—————————————————————————————————

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

To have Crossfusion delivered directly to your email, click here.

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.

—————————————————————————————————

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

To have Crossfusion delivered directly to your email, click here.

Ten (or more) Lessons from Ferguson


    Recently I read an article by Jeremy Smith, in United Methodist Insight, in which he wondered why more  clergy did not speak out on the events of Ferguson, Missouri.  In the article, Smith insists that when we don’t speak out about injustice, we make it seem that we aren’t responsible for things that happen far away from us.  In his words, “When I don’t speak up, I help turn the response into a pocket and not a whole garment of the human experience crying out for justice. “  He’s right of course, but I have a hard time speaking out about events like those in Ferguson because I am so personally ignorant, confused and conflicted by them.
    I’m a white guy and I grew up with the privileges that come with that.  Our family was far from wealthy, but I haven’t suffered from the subtle or overt discrimination that my non-white friends did.  I have not been pulled over by the police for “Driving While Black.”  I have no idea what that must be like. 
    I know that because I am white I do not fully appreciate all of the issues in play in the mess that is Ferguson, MO nor do I feel the impact of those events personally, as people of color undoubtedly do.  I know that anything I say about these events will lack understanding.   But Jeremy Smith is right, keeping silent allows injustice to continue and so I feel like I have to say something. 
    As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to stand against injustice, and there has been plenty on every side.  Not long ago, a colleague of mine posted a link to an article (to which I will not provide a link) that was so filled with hatred of hate and racism that it became hateful and racist itself.  In opposing racism, it named anyone who disagreed, for any reason, or for any principle, as a racist.  That sort of language is unhelpful and it doesn’t help any of us to think clearly.

    So here are ten lessons that we can learn from the mess that is sorting itself out (and will be for years) in Ferguson, MO:

1)      There is never an excuse to hate someone whose skin is a different color, simply because their skin is different color.  It isn’t okay to hate someone because they are black but neither is it okay to hate someone because they are not.
2)      In a town that has a population with a majority of African Americans, it is inconceivable that the police department can’t find African American recruits or that the imbalance should be so substantial.  As I understand it, the federal government is investigating this disparity, and they should.
3)      When there is injustice it should be okay to protest that injustice. Peacefully.

4)       Protests about injustice should not devolve into riots in which property is destroyed and innocents are put in the hospital, and worse.
5)      It’s not okay to use injustice as an excuse to cause injustice.
6)      It’s not okay to hurt someone who is on your side, just because they are the wrong color.
7)      It’s not okay (nor is it helpful) to destroy the businesses that have supported an abused community to make the point that the community has been abused.
8)      To say that it’s NOT okay doesn’t go far enough, it is flat out wrong, offensive, and even criminal, for the police department to try to disperse a riot by showing up dressed and equipped for a war.  Uniforms and weapons of war have no place on our streets.  I have no idea why anyone thought that showing up with M-16’s and armored personnel carriers was going to bring peace.
9)      While it is important, even necessary, for the media to have access to the story and for the story to get a wide distribution, there is a point at which the media becomesthe story.  From several stories that I read, from several very different media outlets, a point was reached when most citizens had gone home and rioters appeared, many from out of town, simply because the media was there.  I don’t know how we could, and we probably can’t and shouldn’t place restrictions on media access, but when the media’s presence makes the violence worse, something needs to be done.  Perhaps the media outlets themselves can agree on some sort of code of conduct, or organize a media pool as is often done in wartime, to share stories and prevent an area from being mobbed by reporters.
10)   As to who is guilty in the original event that triggered this mess, I have to admit that the conflicting reports in the media make me unsure.  A young man is dead and shouldn’t be.  I don’t know who is at fault, but I am sure that a careful investigation is needed.  I am also sure that the Ferguson Police are not the ones who should do the investigating.  In Ohio, it is standard procedure for accusations against social workers to be investigated by a neighboring (outside) social service agency.  Perhaps police departments ought to do the same with any officer involved shooting.
    Ultimately, there is plenty of fault to go around.  Ferguson may not be a “Perfect Storm” where everything went wrong, but a whole lot still went wrong.  The police got it wrong, the protestors got it wrong, the media got it wrong, and probably a few others as well.  But in every case, we, the people of God, the church, need to find a way to fight against injustice. 
All injustice. 
    We need to speak up against institutional racism.  We need to speak out against a police force that is preparing and equipping to fight a war against its own citizens.  We need to speak out against rioters who overshadow legitimate protestors and also against a media machine that makes problems worse instead of better.
    As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be salt and light to the world.  We are called to stand against injustice.  We are supposed to be doing all we can to make things better.
    The events of Ferguson, MO make it clear that no matter where we live, regardless of our race, we have a LOT of work to do.

—————————————————————————————————

To have Crossfusion delivered directly to your email, click here.

We *Are* Making a Difference


    I have friends who like to say that the world would be better off without the church.  Today, 2,400,000 Africans would disagree with them.  If it had not been for the United Methodist Church (and her partners) many of those 2.4 million people, most of them children…

…would be dead.
    In 2010, children in sub-Saharan Africa were dying from malaria at a rate of one every 30 seconds.  Today that rate has dropped to one every 60 seconds.  The difference?  Our church’s campaign to eliminate malaria.  In 2008, we had “Nothing but Nets” which partnered with the NBA as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Then in 2010 this effort became “Imagine No Malaria.”  Imagine No Malaria still has the support of the Gates Foundation but also the World Health Organization, The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the United Nations Foundation.  Since 2008, The United Methodist Church has raised $40 million dollars toward our goal of $75 million.  Together, we have distributed 1.2 million insecticide treated bed nets and trained 5400 community health workers to distribute bed nets, train families in their use, and track usage rates.  The results are obvious.  In the last three years we have reduced the childhood death rate (from malaria) by half.
    Why us?  Why is the church important if the NBA, Bill Gates, the UN, and these other big names are already involved?  Is it just because eleven million United Methodists can raise money?  That is undeniably a part of it, but helping the poor has been a part of our United Methodist DNA from the very beginning.  For 200 years we have built and maintained hospitals and schools all across the continent of Africa.  When this project was conceived, everyone knew that while Americans can often be generous, and some are great at publicity, someone had to be the “boots on the ground.”  United Methodists were already there, all across the continent of Africa.  Over two centuries we have built relationships with governments, leaders and decision makers in many of those nations and we established a reputation as being genuinely interested in the welfare of their people, as well as trustworthy.
    Of course, we can’t rest yet.  The job isn’t done.  We haven’t reached our goals and one child every sixty seconds is still way too many.  The goal of Imagine No Malaria is the total elimination and eradication of malaria from the face of the earth.  That’s a long way off, but we’re headed in the right direction.
    I don’t pretend that United Methodists have a monopoly on compassion.  Clearly our story is just one of many.  Imagine No Malaria is just one way, that one church, is making a difference.  And so, to all those who think we would be better off without the church, I say this:
The people of Africa would like to disagree with you…
…because today their children are not dead.

Top Ten 2012 Blog Posts


    As promised, here are my top ten blog posts of 2012.  There are a few interesting points that I will note along the way, but among these is just the growth of this blog.  While it is still pitifully small compared to some of the mainstream “big name” bloggers with tens of thousands of subscribers (I have five), there is a marked difference between 2011 and 2012.  In the last year, the number of readers has grown enough that of all the posts included in last year’s list, only the number one post from 2011 would have made this list and even then at number eight. Hey, while you’re here, why don’t you click on the “Subscribe to Blog Updates” link in the right hand column?
    In any case, the readership of this blog, however small, has doubled in one year, and for that, I am both humble and grateful.  I hope that my musings make you think, regardless of whether we agree or not.  This year’s list is reversed, David Letterman style, with number ten presented first, so that you have to scan the whole list to see the most popular.
10) As was the case in other multi-part blogs I have written, “Part 2, Politicians, Rape and Bad Theology”, was less popular than Part 1 (which comes in at number 7).
9) In, “Is It Time to End Spousal Benefits?” I pondered the injustices of the way that many employee benefits as well as Social Security and other Federal benefits are calculated.  Several comments showed me that that my thinking was not as clear as I would have liked and made me think that I may need to think this through a bit more and revisit the subject sometime down the road.
8) “Why I Stand With the Catholic Church” discusses why I agree that our federal government is overreaching in its demand that church agencies be compelled to pay for contraception and abortion inducing drugs despite in a clear violation of their religious beliefs.
7) Politicians, Rape and Bad Theology (Part 1) is the first, and most popular, of my reaction to some seriously dumb things that were said by politicians.  Honestly, I sometimes think that this happens every day, but when these same politicians begin to justify their dumb stuff by saying that it’s God’s fault, I have to say something.
6) In John Wesley’s Crazy Rules?, I list the rules that the early Methodists had agreed to live by.  Today, most all have been abandoned and most church members would panic if we even suggested bringing them back.  On the other hand, under these rules the church grew and under ours we’re shrinking.  Perhaps something in this list we ought to learn from?
5) Why is Homosexuality an Argument Instead of a Discussion? Isn’t even my blog post, but a link to a post by Dr. John Byron, one of my seminary professors.  Here we wonder why everyone wants to demonstrate and shout from their polarized positions, but not have an honest discussion about the issues.
4) The blog entitled, “Just How Many Homosexuals Are There?” was taken, by some, as a political post even though I made some effort to deliberately distance myself from making any overt political statements.  The unfortunate truth, as we’ve seen in other posts, is that anything regarding abortion, homosexuality and a few other topics automatically become argumentative instead of the opening of a discussion.  Here, I simply found statistics that indicated that nearly everyone has a dramatically wrong idea of what we are talking about whenever we begin such an argument.
3) What’s the Big Deal About Sex? was written after it was discovered that several Secret Service agents and military personnel had been cavorting with prostitutes during a trip in which they were to be guarding President Obama.  While what they did was immoral, I wonder why all the fuss?  These folks aren’t monks?  Clearly there are national security concerns, but otherwise, in a culture that values sex and money above all else, what do you expect?
2) Censorship is never the answer.  The beauty of our freedom of speech here in the United States is that it allows atheists to blaspheme my religion and my God, but it also allows me to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  In Christians are Wrong; Atheists are Right I argue that when Christians lobby for censorship to protect them, they really undermine the most important protection of all.
1) This is the one that makes me smile.  I first wrote, Ahimaaz – Patron Saint of Cross Country Running? , about a man known to King David who loved to run.  When it was written, almost no one read it.  For months afterward… almost no one read it.  And then something interesting happened.  Because I suggested that Ahimaaz ought to be a patron saint of long distance runners (clearly, being Methodist, I have no inside track on this), this blog started to turn up in Internet searches for patron saint of cross country and track.  As track season came closer it began to get a few, but regular, hits each week.  By the end of the year, just like the story of the tortoise and the hare, slowly but surely, this blog had become the most popular of the year (and continues to grow).

The Church vs. Education?


    I have a few atheist friends who seem fond of bashing religion on their Facebook pages.  While their attacks most often reflect a pitiable ignorance of what religion, specifically Christianity, is about, one meme that is often repeated irritates me more than most of the others.  The theme of these irritating (and wrongheaded) attacks revolves around a perception that religion and education are mutually exclusive or, that somehow, religion is opposed to “real” education.  Not only is this way of thinking just wrong, both historically and in a contemporary setting, but,  I find this accusation particularly offensive as a United Methodist, a church whose core DNA has always included support and encouragement of education.

    Obviously, a blog is not the place for a lengthy treatise on education, but let’s look at a few facts.  Two thousand years ago when education belonged to the rich, it was the Jewish high priest who mandated that schools should be opened (in 64 AD) because the Torah required literacy and study.  These schools were not particularly successful, but the literacy rate was still triple that of neighboring Egypt (3% vs. 1%).[1]   A thousand years after that, it was again the church, this time the Roman Catholic Church, which, in 1179 mandated that free education be provided for the poor.  In fact, until 1600 nearly all universities in Europe were built, taught, and funded by the church and, during the “Dark Ages” it was the monasteries that preserved the wisdom and knowledge of the ancient world.  Had it not been for the church, what we know of Socrates, Plato and many others would have been lost.   In the Islamic world, education was supported and funded by the government, but, Islam being a theocratic system of government, this too was, essentially the church.  Throughout the Reformation, the majority of universities remained church supported organizations.
    In the American Colonies, and then the newly birthed United States, there was little or no opportunity for higher education unless one returned to Europe.  When it became obvious that institutions of higher learning should be built, who do you suppose it was who raised the money and built them?  The church.  What schools did the church build?  You might have heard of some of them: Harvard, William & Mary, Yale, College of New Jersey (which is now Princeton), Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Oberlin, Fordham, Duke and host of others.  In fact, between 1636 and 1861 nearly 800 colleges were founded, and of these, 182 still survive.  Of the 182 surviving colleges and universities, only 21 were built by states or municipalities, the rest were built by the church through a variety of denominations. [2]
    As for us United Methodists, our founder, John Wesley, started building schools in 1739 in Bristol for the children of coal miners and in the United States we authorized the construction of our first college in 1784, eight years before we even held our first General Conference in 1792.  In 1820 and again in 1824 our General Conference instructed each Annual Conference to establish schools, literary institutions and colleges and they did.  By the time of the American Civil War, the Methodist Church had established over 200 such institutions.  Our Evangelical United Brethren brothers were a smaller church but they still managed to build eight colleges by the middle of the twentieth century.[3]  In 1968 these two churches merged to form The United Methodist Church and together we are now connected to 122 colleges and universities in the Untied States including research universities, seminaries, historically Black colleges and universities (including a medical school), and two-year colleges, as well as 358 post-secondary institutions outside the United States.  If we were to include elementary schools and others, this number would be absolutely astounding.
    I’m sorry friends, if you think that people of faith don’t believe in education you’re ignoring the facts.  But if you think that atheists can do better, I invite you to go ahead and prove it. 
But first, you have a whole lot of catching up to do.


[3]Robert A. Williams, From the Beginning: a School-Related Church, Interpreter Magazine, March/April 2013