“The Family that Prays Together…” (Thoughts on Schism, Part 3)

So far in this series, I’ve been using the metaphor of a couple whose relationship has hit the rocks in order to talk about the difficult issue of the possibility of schism in my beloved United Methodist Church.  If you’re just now coming into this discussion—welcome!  You can catch up with what’s going on by reading this synopsis from the Religion News Service about the current situation.  And, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 of my thoughts on the situation, if you like.  Now, to continue the saga…

By our third session, it has become clear to me that this couple I’ve been meeting with has some serious issues, most of which are much deeper than the issues that have been presented in our previous meetings.  By now, I know them well enough that I feel a little more comfortable asking questions about their faith.

“What kind of shared faith do you two have?  Do you go to church together, pray together, talk about God at all?”

Because I am primarily a spiritual director and not a counselor, this is territory that I find fascinating.  As the old adage goes, “the family that prays together, stays together.”  It’s corny, but I think it’s true.  Couples and families that have a shared faith, in my anecdotal experience, have stronger and deeper relationships that those that do not share a common faith.  This is not to say that it would be impossible for people of two different faiths to be married, or that people who have no religious faith are doomed to divorce (the statistics about divorce are pretty universal, regardless of faith or lack thereof).  Instead, I usually advise that a shared faith is one of the tools that can help a couple deal with issues that come along in a relationship.  And, it can help a couple to identify when the issues they are having are of a spiritual nature.

If we extend the metaphor to The United Methodist Church, you might be able to see where I am going with this.  Take, for example, my own dear East Ohio United Methodists.  We are a sometimes cantankerous lot, and we love to get all argy-bargy about the hot-button issues that seem to consume a lot of time at U.M.C. conferences.  But one difference I’ve noticed about East Ohio (the same might be said about West Ohio, but I don’t have as much experience there yet!) is that we hold annual conference in a very different way than most.  East (and West) Ohio holds its annual conference at Lakeside on Lake Erie, which is a United Methodist-related Chautauqua community located, as the name suggests, on Lake Erie.  In the center of Lakeside is Hoover Auditorium, which is the site of concerts and art events throughout the summer season, but  for two weeks in the summer becomes the center of Ohio Methodism.  It is in this sacred building where we hold our conference plenary sessions, honor our dead, partake in the sacrament of Holy Communion, listen to great preachers, debate resolutions, pass budgets, ordain our clergy, and say goodbye to those who are retiring, among other things.  Around Hoover are the cottages and shops that make up the Lakeside community.  During annual conference, families and individuals rent cottages, hotel rooms, and any other available space in order to be “on the grounds” during the week.  As one of my colleagues once said, “East Ohio is like a combination annual conference and camp meeting.”  Many pastors and lay members of the conference bring their entire families to conference—it’s the highlight of our family’s summer!

The unique thing about doing conference in this way is that it’s awfully hard to argue with someone, or call them a heretic, or dismiss their claims to truth, when you’ve spent time sitting on their front porch, or sharing a meal, or passing the bread and cup.  It’s even harder to do so when you have just spent an hour or so sharing with someone in the park about the ups and downs of parenting, while your kids play with their kids on the playground.  When we confront one another and interact in such ways, it is difficult to maintain an “Us vs. Them” mentality for very long.  Unless you don’t interact that much, that is.

At some point along the road, some people in our conference decided that it would be a good thing to cram all of the special interest group meetings, luncheons, and awards banquets into the week of annual conference.  Makes sense—after all, we’re all there, right?  Why not get it all done at the same time.  So, you have your MFSA luncheon and speaker, your Evangelical Fellowship banquet and speaker, your vespers and communion held by the Order of St. Luke, morning watch sponsored by the evangelicals, yoga and meditation from the counseling center—you name it, if there’s a group organized around it in The UMC, we’ll have a meeting about it at annual conference.  Over time, it’s become easier and easier to ignore people with whom we disagree, and we have surrounded ourselves with people with whom we already agree.  So, instead of worshipping with a person from another caucus, getting to know them and their family on a hard-to-ignore basis, we simply walk past one another on our way to meet with our established friends and contacts.  Annual conference done in such a way is more of a cluster of networking events than what John Wesley would call “holy conferencing.”  Multiply that atmosphere by at least a hundredfold, and you’ve got General Conference as well.

“Do you pray together?”

“When was the last time you two had a quiet dinner together with no distractions?”

“How often do you go to worship as a family?”

These are good questions that any pastor or chaplain might ask a couple in trouble, but they’re also questions we need to be asking within the Church.  Do we really pray together, or just pray near one another?  (Or, as has happened to me, do we pray “at” one another?)  Do we Methodists know how to share a meal with someone with whom we deeply disagree?  Can we unite around the spiritual malaise that seems to exist in so many of our local congregations?  Can we talk about how our debates about issues that are not considered central to our mission have derailed us from having an effective witness?

My suggestion?

Let’s spend more time praying together, and less time arguing at one another.

Let’s meet at the table of Communion, and not worry about who’s in and who’s out for once.

Let’s sit in the park while our kids play on the playground and get to know each other.

Let’s sing the hymns and songs of our common faith.

Let’s rub shoulders, and sit side by side as we listen to great preaching that feeds our souls.

Let’s go out to lunch together, and have dinner together, and sit one each other’s porches again.

Christians, if we can do that, then this marriage might just be worth saving.

I pray it will be so.

 

How Did You Two Meet? (Thoughts on Schism, Part Two)

“How did you two meet?”

I usually ask this question after we’ve gotten past the heart of why a couple has come to my office for advice or counseling.

Looking at the beginnings (foundations) of a relationship can often lead to a deeper discussion about how that relationship got to the point where the couple felt they needed help from their chaplain or pastor.  Most relationships don’t start off poorly–in fact, sometimes all it takes is a reminder of how a couple met for them to remember why they fell in love in the first place, and their problems (which were on the surface anyway), eventually dissipate.  Sometimes, though, an issue arises in the story of how a couple came together that raises a red flag–it’s usually an issue or argument that arose early on that never got resolved, or got glossed over in the “honeymoon” period of the relationship.  Often, when we’re head-over-heels in love with someone, we don’t notice the things that annoy us about them, or we’re willing to easily forgive something that might cause trouble down the road, in order to maintain the high we get when we’re around this new and adorable person.  If such issues are not addressed at some point, you can guarantee that the couple will probably end up sitting across from a counselor, a pastor, or a chaplain, talking about their issues.  (We hope–some people sadly skip this step and go right for the break-up.  But let’s pretend that this couple has at least some hope for the survival of their relationship!)

Remember–we’re still talking about the Church, here.

I once served a small two-point charge in the East Ohio conference.  Interestingly, one of the two churches had once been an “E” (Evangelical Church), and the other had been a “UB” (United Brethren).  At the time of the union between those two denominations in 1946, the two churches were put together on one charge.  As one old fella put it when I met him the first time, “I went to bed an E, and I woke up the next morning an EUB.”  (He said the same thing about the merger between the EUB and The Methodist Church that happened a mere 22 years after he became and EUB.)

While I recognize that the above is completely anecdotal, I also have a strange suspicion that such a story could be heard in many churches, from the various break-ups and mergers that have twisted their way through the history of The United Methodist Church.  I am the child of a congregation that was formed either shortly before or shortly after the big EUB/M merger of ’68, depending on who you talk to.  It was a merger of two congregations of those venerable denominations, and was happening because of the growing decline in the urban centers of America during the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s.  As the rubber factories began reducing their work forces in Akron, or closed altogether, churches which had once been filled to capacity were suddenly in decline, and mergers like the one that formed my home congregation were not uncommon.  (By the way, replace “rubber factories” with “steel plants” or “glass factories,” or some other manufacturing industry, and replace “Akron” with “Youngstown” or “Toledo,” and you’ve got pretty much the same story.)

In 1946, when the E’s and the UB’s came together, it seemed natural that two denominations which had been founded for German-speaking folk, had similar structures and practices, and existed within the same general geographic regions, would come together.  The Evangelical Association never ordained women, while the United Brethren had been doing so since 1889. As a compromise at the time of merger, the UB churches accepted the Evangelical practice, and women in the EUB lost the right to ordination. The first woman preacher in one of my former congregations was barred from entering her own church building on her first Sunday by parishioners who disagreed with the denomination’s decision to allow her to be ordained!  Historically and linguistically, the two denominations were similar; politically and culturally, they had some significant differences.

In 1939, after 95 years apart, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church merged into The Methodist Church.  Despite significant differences in polity, practice, and culture that had developed over almost a century, these three denominations decided that their common ancestry in Methodism were more important, and they came together.  The Methodist Protestants, by far the smallest of the three, had significant misgivings about the episcopal system of governance adopted by the other two Methodist bodies–in fact, it had been one of the issues that had led to their splitting from the fold in the first place.  Nevertheless, an episcopal system was adopted in the new denominational structure.  The Methodists in the South did not want integrated churches or conferences (and quite a few Northern conferences probably agreed, in private if not in public).  So, a system of jurisdictions was created, and bishops were only to be elected and serve within a particular jurisdiction.  Five of these jurisdictions were geographical.  The sixth, the euphemistically-titled “Central Jurisdiction,” was only for African-American congregations, regardless of where they were located throughout the country.  This system would be abolished at the creation of The UMC in 1968, but it represented a compromise that did everything but address the issue of racial segregation head-on.

On April 22, 1968, in Dallas Texas, The Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church shook hands and became one.  Our “marriage ceremony,” the very first general conference of The United Methodist Church, was a celebration of our common mission as Christians–and a giant papering-over of our differences.  I contend that the unresolved issues of 1968–racial segregation, women’s ordination, the Evangelical-Social Gospel theological divide, and regionalism (to name a few)–are at the very heart of our relationship issues as a denomination today.

Am I sorry that The UMC was formed?  By no means!  I am a proud member of The United Methodist Church, the first generation in my home congregation to be considered only UMC, not former EUB or Methodist.  I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained in this denomination, and it is my rightful home.  And that is exactly why I feel we need to go back and look at some of our unresolved issues as a denomination before we even consider breaking apart.  We need marriage counseling, and we need someone to say, “So, how did you two meet?”

In a later post, I want to address the issue of regionalism, particularly how we ought to structure ourselves as a global church in the 21st Century.  What I’d like to touch on today is an issue of theology, or approaches to seeing God’s action in the world, that lie at the heart of some of our differences today.

By the time of the ME/ME,South merger in 1939, it was pretty widely acknowledged that the many of the Northern churches, conferences, and seminaries had adopted a more liberal/progressive theology, while the Southern Methodists had developed a much more evangelical/conservative stance on many theological issues.  These are gross overgeneralizations, to be sure, but I think they hold pretty well even today, where the Northeast and Western jurisdictions tend to be more liberal, and the Southeast and South Central jurisdictions are much more conservative.  In the vast middle of the U.S. lies the North Central jurisdiction, which is an odd mixture of the two, and often serves as the “bellwether” of The United Methodist church. While the EUB churches may have had similar differences that could be geographically charted, the largest concentration of EUBs were in the North Central region anyway.   Rather than deal with our theological differences at the time of union, we decided instead to isolate these positions within jurisdictions, and allow seminaries to continue to train pastors and church leaders as if the theological differences didn’t exist.  After all, if you went to Emory, Duke, or Asbury, you were likely to continue to serve in the Southeast, so why bother?  And, if you went to Illif, Drew, or Boston, you were pretty much going to be a Westerner or Northeasterner anyway.  General Conference, that great Methodist melting pot, was the site of many a battle over an emerging set of issues that highlighted our theological divides–abortion, homosexuality, the death penalty, and war are just a few of the most well-highlighted examples, with the first two being the primary issues over which we have skirmished.  Increasingly, the theological divide became a chasm, as the Book of Discipline became a tool for each side of every issue to gain ground, win points, and build power in the quadrennia between General Conferences.  At an event that I attended for a particular “unofficial caucus” in the 1990’s, one speaker, when asked how to make sure The UMC was shaped into the kind of church the caucus wanted, replied, “The answer is simple…we’ve got to get more delegates elected to General Conference than they do.”  This “we vs. they” language lies at the heart of our problem today.  Instead of both sides acknowledging that they might be wrong about some things, both sides assert that they are right, and the other side is completely wrong.  There is no room for living together when each side believes that the other is essentially wrong.  (I mean this in the original meaning of “essentially,” that each side believes the other side is wrong within its very essence, or being.)

So, if we disagree on some things, we should break up.  That’s the reasoning I’ve heard from both sides.

Malarkey.

You know who else disagrees, but yet stays together?  My wife and I.  My parents.  My wife’s parents.  Every healthy couple I’ve ever met.  No one totally agrees all the time with the person they choose to love.  Sometimes, you wake up in the morning, and you look at your partner lying there in bed next to you, and you think, “What did I get myself into?”  But despite the differences, we continue to love that person, because he or she is the person we’ve chosen.  Through thick and thin, when the going gets tough, and through a host of other cliched situations, we stay with them.  Not because we always agree on everything, but because of the one thing we can always agree on–that we love each other.  So, I guess the question The United Methodist Church needs to ask is, “Do you love each other enough to stick with it?”  If love isn’t part of the equation, then maybe we are doomed to break apart.

Our love for each other is a sign of our spiritual health–which is the subject of next week’s blog.

Blessings and Peace,

David

 

Breaking Up? (Some Thoughts on Schism)

Imagine with me, if you will, a scene from the Chaplain’s office:

A young couple walks into my office, and I can immediately tell that there is trouble—you can cut the tension in the air with the proverbial knife.  I ask them to sit down, and as they do so, I think I catch a glimpse of one of the two glaring at the other.  Perhaps I imagine it, or perhaps it is a reminder from one to another of some prior slight, or an argument that had taken place earlier in the morning. 

“What’s up?” I ask.  (This is my usual opening line in such situations—it allows the other a chance to define the topic of conversation, even when I know exactly why they are in my office.)

“You tell him,” one says.  “You’re the one who dragged me in here.”  (I can tell already that this is going to be a fun session!)

“We’re having some problems,” the other says.  “We’ve been fighting pretty much since we got together, and it just seems to get worse.  We pick up on the little, irritating things, but also on the bigger issues.  We don’t seem to agree on much, and even when we do agree, we fight over how to express it.  Sometimes, we realize that we’re saying the same thing, but using different language or worse yet, we’ll use the same language, but each of us has a different meaning for the words!  It’s hopeless, isn’t it?”

(Well, that’s a loaded question, if I’ve ever heard one!  They seem to both be sure that there is no saving this relationship, no matter what I have to say.  To be honest, I’ve been wondering for some time now why they’re still together, and I’m not really surprised that it’s come to this.)

“Well, is that an accurate portrayal of what’s going on?” I ask the one who has been quiet so far, who doesn’t seem to want to be here at all.”

“Yeah, I guess so.  We just don’t seem to understand each other, you know?  I try, but I don’t think I’m ever heard.  I have needs and issues that I want to discuss, but I’m never allowed to speak my mind…”

“That’s not true!” says the other.  “I always give you a chance to speak!  I just feel like I need to let you know when you’ve done or said something wrong!  I do it to make you a better person, you know.”

As I lean over to get my mug of tea, which I prepared beforehand, knowing this would be a long session, I realize that the issues being discussed by these two are not going to be solved in one session with the Chaplain.  Neither of these two will be able to reach a point where they can feel genuine love toward the other again unless we address some of the underlying issues that each brings to the relationship.  And of course, there is the issue of whether or not staying in this relationship is the best course for either of them, or for the potential children they may have down the road. 

If you are a pastor, a counselor, or a concerned friend or parent, you might recognize a situation like the one I’ve just described.  It is not uncommon for people who love one another very deeply to find themselves at a place where they just can’t communicate anymore, and the relationship just isn’t working out like they thought it would.  All of us probably have a few words of advice for this couple, and would be willing to offer it, especially if it was a couple whom we knew and loved personally.

What if I told you that this couple is really a representation of The United Methodist Church?

Those of us who know and love that venerable movement of “the people called Methodist” are increasingly frustrated and fearful as we hear more of our colleagues, friends, and family talk about the possibility of schism within the denomination.  Issues such as abortion and homosexuality (but mostly homosexuality) have long divided our dear church.  In many ways, the problems we have as a denomination are very much like those of the couple described above, and they go back to the very foundations of our young fellowship, which turned 46 this April.  Like the couple in my scenario above, we will not be able to move on or thrive as a covenantal community unless we begin to get at the underlying issues within our various factions and cliques.  Only by re-discovering our love for one another, which is based on the love of God through Jesus Christ, will we be able to truly mend our brokenness and repair the breach that exists across political and ecclesiastical lines. 

As a concerned member of The United Methodist Church, as an ordained elder, and as a person serving as an extension of the church into the world of academia, I offer a few thoughts about all the talk around schism.  I pray that they may be one small part of the greater movement to plot a bold new direction for our church in the future, as we make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As I see it, our problems are four-fold:  First, we need to deal with the issues that are unresolved from our founding as a denomination in 1968.  Second, we need to examine our spiritual health.  Third, we must grapple with what it means to be connectional in the global church of the 21st century.  Finally, we as a denomination and as a movement need to reinterpret our Wesleyan heritage and theology so that both are relevant for ministry in Methodism’s third century.  Over the next several blog posts, I plan to address each of these issues in turn, and I encourage those of you who read this blog to post your comments (respect all opinions, but be clear of where you stand), and interact as I propose a way forward. 

Consider it a group spiritual direction session for a troubled church.  Come on into the office, grab a mug, and let’s chat. What’s up?  

Have a Good Summer!

One of the greatest joys of campus ministry is the opportunity to work with students.  Some people (not naming any names!) rejoice when the students leave town, but as a pastor and chaplain, it’s always a bittersweet moment for me, because my congregation essentially leaves town for three months!  Don’t get me wrong, as a resident of Ada, i reeeeeeeaaaaalllllly like the quiet that descends on the town about mid-May.  I look forward to driving my little golf cart around town, or riding my bike, without having to weave in and out of all the cars parked on Gilbert.  At the same time, I miss the youthful enthusiasm of the students, and the cheerful banter and laughter that fills the Chaplain’s office during the school year.  While there is always plenty to do in the Chapel during the summer, it does get quiet, and I eventually begin to long for the time when the students will return–weaving in and out of traffic and all!

There is a cycle to all of life–like the tide that washes in and out, and waves on sand–seasons come and go, and times change.  The beauty of the passage of time is that it reminds us that we are constantly moving.  No one gets to escape the passage of time–just as no one gets to escape turning around the earth’s axis each day, or orbiting the sun once a year.

As students leave campus, I have been saying over and over, “Have a good summer!”  I could just as easily be saying, “Have a good life!” as I try to impress upon them that every moment of life is the fullness of life itself.  Live like this moment is THE MOMENT, and life will always be good.

Have a good summer!

–David

An Order for Prayer for Final Exams (Re-Posted from December 2012)

The following is an order for prayer during Finals Week that I posted in December of 2012.  Feel free to use it if this sort of thing helps you get through…I know it certainly helps me!  Say it alone before an exam, or with a group of friends.  May your spirit be filled with the Spirit of blessing and peace during Finals season.

Prayers,

David

An Order of Prayer During Final Exams

O Lord, open our minds.
And our pens shall show forth knowledge and praise.

The Collect (In unison)
Almighty God, giver of all Knowledge and Wisdom,
we have come to a place where our knowledge must be tested
to prove that we have learned all we can.
Grant us the strength to endure long essay questions,
the clear thinking to tackle tough problems and formulae,
and the wisdom to rest between periods of intense activity.
As you led the people of Israel through the desert, show us a way
through this time of academic intensity,
that we may emerge on the other side, singing and dancing
your praises, all the days of our lives.
Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Psalm 34
I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
   let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
   and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
   and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
   happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
for those who fear him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
   but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
Come, O children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
Which of you desires life,
   and covets many days to enjoy good?
Keep your tongue from evil,
and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good;
   seek peace, and pursue it.
The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their cry.
The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
   to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,
and rescues them from all their troubles.
The Lord is near to the broken-hearted,
   and saves the crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord rescues them from them all.
He keeps all their bones;
   not one of them will be broken.
Evil brings death to the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
   none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

The Song of Zechariah
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Gospel Reading:  Luke 4:1-13 (Jesus is Tested by Satan)

The Word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.

Prayers

Together, let us pray:
For those who have exams in subjects they love, related to their major…
For those who have exams in subjects they loathe, unrelated to their interests..
For unfinished or poorly finished work…
For the grace to accept when we have completed our tasks…
For the strength to carry on and do what needs to be done…
For professors and instructors, who must grade our exams and papers…
For our families and friends, and stresses they may be going through…
For those who are not privileged enough to have the opportunity to attend college or university…
For the Church and the World…

Lord’s Prayer

Closing
Go now in peace, and as you learn more and more, may you be blessed to know that you understand less and less, and be comfortable knowing that God is in it all.  And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and always.  Amen.

Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.