Archive for the ‘Jason Vickers’ Category

 

 

O For a Thousand Dollars to Save: A Lament on the Eve of General Conference

 

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Jason Vickers

I have no illusions. I get that the United Methodist Church has money problems. Moreover, I get that money problems need money solutions. Nor am I reluctant to talk openly with friends and strangers about money. If anything, I am convinced that we have a money problem in America and in United Methodism in part because, along with sex, we have made money a taboo topic for polite conversation. So let’s talk about money. And let’s talk about sex. I’m game.

I am more troubled by what United Methodists will not be talking about at General Conference. For example, what are the odds that United Methodists at General Conference will have a lively conversation about the Holy Trinity or about the need to recover a more prominent role for Mary in United Methodist beliefs and practices? And what are the chances that we will have an animated conversation about the nature of holiness or about whether two sacraments are really sufficient?

What troubles me most, however, is that we don’t seem to realize that these things are related to one another – that our money problems and even our sex problems are largely a function of the utter staleness of our theological life together. Just now, the world around us is awakening from its dogmatic slumbers, which is to say, from the long sleep of Enlightenment. People everywhere are increasingly curious about God. Even Hollywood is once again making movies with plots driven by theological questions (see the Oscar-nominated Tree of Life). At such a time as this, I have yet to hear one good theological question set for debate at General Conference.

So what questions would I set before General Conference? Before taking up (again) the matter of whether two people of the same sex can be married, I would like to see us (just once) take up the more theologically profound question of whether we should add marriage to the list of sacraments. Similarly, before taking up (again) the matter of whether gays and lesbians can be ordained, I would like to see us (just once) entertain the theologically tantalizing questions of whether ordination itself is a sacrament and whether Mary might be a better model for the ordained life than Peter. And before we decide whether to downsize or to restructure, I would love to see us tackle the question of what it would mean to think about church polity and organization in a decidedly Trinitarian way.

 

 

Giving Up General Conference: A Call to Prayer

UMCGC 2012 logo

UMC General Conference 2012

In the last two weeks, I have given lectures at conferences and retreats and preached at churches in three different United Methodist Conferences. I have spoken with the General Secretary of one of our General Boards, with three district superintendents, and with dozens of clergy and laity. In all of these conversations, one theme occurred again and again, namely, the upcoming General Conference.  Sadly, no one expressed anything approaching optimism or enthusiasm about what many believe is the most important gathering of the people called United Methodists. On the contrary, most expressed something bordering on dread.

At this stage, I must confess that I am tempted to give up on General Conference.  As a theologian, it is difficult not to fall back on the notion that the local church simply is the church; that what happens at General Conference is theologically and sacramentally meaningless. I am tempted to believe that the body that will gather in Tampa is not a divine body, but a merely human body bound together by what may well be the most telling sign of our sinful condition – our need for enemies.

I am also tempted to give up on General Conference on pragmatic grounds. Why not simply split into two or three churches based on theological and political sensibilities? Amid the seemingly endless number of Protestant denominations in America, what would a few more hurt? Besides, when it comes to the issues that divide us most deeply, I simply don’t anticipate any solutions that will satisfy everyone. Would we not get more done for the Kingdom of God if we went our separate ways?

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Jason Vickers

Despite how much I would like to give up on General Conference, I cannot do so. As a Trinitarian theologian, I am especially fond of Jesus’ farewell discourse in the Gospel of John. It is here that Jesus promises that he will send the Holy Spirit. It is here that Jesus speaks of his unity with God the Father. And it is here that Jesus prays for his disciples and for those who will come after them.

What does this have to do with not giving up on General Conference? In Jesus’ prayer in John 17, he asks his heavenly Father to make us one, even as the Father and the Son are one. Indeed, no theme is more prominent in Jesus’ prayer than the theme of unity, both God’s unity and ours.

Under the weight of this passage, I simply cannot regard “amicable separation” as a serious option. On the contrary, I believe that we should not settle for anything less than the unity about which our Lord speaks. At the same time, my doctrine of sin is sufficiently robust that I have very low expectations that anything resembling the unity that Jesus has with God the Father will result from the upcoming General Conference. If anything, like so many people I have spoken with in recent weeks, I will not be surprised in the least if we leave Tampa more deeply divided than when we arrived.

What, then, should we do? I suggest that we should not so much give up on General Conference as we should give up General Conference to God in prayer. In other words, I think that the time has come not solely for a Call to Action but also for a Call to Prayer. More specifically, I believe that we should pray that God would help us to follow our Lord in making unity our first priority. Having said this, I have no illusions about how deep our divisions are. But I also believe that Jesus has not left us to our own devices, political or otherwise. I believe that he has made good on his promise.  I believe that, with the Father, he has sent the Holy Spirit into the world precisely so that we might be one, even as they are one. Even so, come, Holy Spirit. Make us one.

Jason Vickers

Jason Vickers

I have been thinking a lot lately about Methodism. What made Methodism so attractive? Why did so many people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries join the Methodist movement? What did Methodists say that people found compelling? What, if anything, constituted the heart of the Methodist message? I believe these questions can be answered in one word: transformation.

At our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists proclaimed to anyone who would listen that real change was possible, both in our personal lives and in society. We insisted that it did not matter what side of the tracks people were from. We taught that it did not matter how much money or education people had. We believed that, in Christ, there was no longer male or female, rich or poor, black or white. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was truly for everyone – for the wealthy attorney and the cotton mill worker. And it was absolutely life-changing.

At our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists believed, taught and confessed that people were not doomed to repeat their sins. On the contrary, we told people that they really could come to know and love God because God was eager to know and love them. And we insisted that loving God and being loved by God was truly transforming. Indeed, loving God and being loved by God led directly to loving our neighbors as ourselves.

At our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists taught people about the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and invited them to join us on a journey to perfection. We told people that the Holy Spirit was ready and able to form the mind of Christ in all who would humble themselves, confess their sins, and attend to the means of grace. In Scripture, preaching, various small group initiatives, and in baptism and Eucharist, we believed that the Holy Spirit had blessed us with powerful medicine for the healing of the world. We believed, taught and confessed that, through these things, the Holy Spirit brought about spiritual fruits in our lives, transforming us into a people characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, and self-control.

At our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists believed that, with God’s help, the church could make a real difference in society. We believed that we could help the poor and the disenfranchised among us. We believed that we could work for and help to bring about more just working conditions. We believed that we could combat societal problems like alcoholism, poverty, criminality, racism, sexism, and spousal and child abuse.

Holy Spirit filledAt our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists were confident. We were not confident in our schemes or devices. We were confident in the power of God to change us from within and then to work through us to bring about the transformation of society. In other words, at our Spirit-filled best, we Methodists believed in and proclaimed the God of Holy Scripture and the great ecumenical Creeds, which is to say, the divine Trinity. We believed, taught and confessed that, unlike the God worshipped by Deists, the Christian God is a God who really does get neck deep in the muck and mire of creation. We proclaimed the audacious message that, in the Incarnation, God really did become human in order that we might be healed. In our asceticism, we pointed with the whole of our lives to Christ crucified. And with glad and joyous hearts we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit to live within and among us.

All of this, of course, raises a question. What happened? Did people cease to be attracted to our message, or did we cease to believe in it? Did people become hardened secularists incapable of hearing and responding to the Methodist message, or did we Methodists become functional Deists? My hunch is that, somewhere along the way, we Methodists are the ones who changed, forfeiting the energizing and utterly compelling vision of God contained in Holy Scripture and the great ecumenical Creeds for the impotent and ultimately uninspiring god of Deism (along with a host of other lesser deities). If I am right about this, then the road to renewal for us Methodists must begin with repentance for our unbelief and our idolatry.

 

Jason Vickers

The most frequent question I get from seminary students these days goes something like this: what is emerging worship, and why are so many folks making such a fuss over it? Like so many other movements in theology or worship, emerging worship can be a little difficult to define.  Indeed, what counts as emerging worship can vary from place to place. So in what follows, I don’t so much want to define emerging worship as to make some general observations about what gave rise to it and about the ways in which some people are reacting to it. Insofar as people’s negative reaction has to do with the media or forms used in emerging worship, I want to issue a reminder: we Christians have used an amazing diversity of media and forms to worship our God across the centuries. In other words, I think it is important to locate our conversations about emerging worship against the long horizon that is the history of Christian worship.

 

One way to think about emerging worship is to see it as a response to two of the chief criticisms of contemporary worship. First, critics of contemporary worship often argue that contemporary worship is theologically shallow. Second, critics of contemporary worship often observe that the use of digital media and technology in contemporary worship means that there are few discernible differences between the church’s worship and life outside of worship. For example, the music in worship is not discernibly different than secular music. Similarly, the power point presentation accompanying the service resembles the power point presentations taking place in the corporate boardrooms in which so many people are stuck during the week.

 

In response to these criticisms, architects of emerging worship are seeking to recover more traditional theological language and to create a worship ethos that is noticeably different from secular concerts and corporate boardrooms. Thus, while they still encourage casual dress, they are dialing back on the use of technology, and they are replacing high voltage spotlights with the dim light of candles. They are also developing more theologically sophisticated music, and they are working to recover lost liturgical practices from the ancient church, including the liturgical calendar, confession of the ancient creeds, prayers of repentance, the stations of the cross, and the like. Many emerging churches are emphasizing natural symbols and images over all things digital. They are using wood panel icons, a common wood or clay cup for communion, and ashes to make the sign of the cross on their foreheads during Ash Wednesday services.

 

The backlash against emerging worship is hardly surprising. In the turn to symbols, to “ritual,” and to ancient liturgical practices, many people see a turn to something else altogether, namely, Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. In other words, they see an abandoning of what they regard as classical Protestantism. Others see in the dim, candle-lit worship spaces something sinister and evil, a kind of dark or “new age” spirituality. They are sure that the emerging church is actually the undoing of the church, the proverbial last nail in the Western church’s coffin.

 

We need to notice what is happening here. We are spending a great deal of energy these days worrying about the forms and media of worship. We are wrestling with whether one type of music is more appropriate than another for worship. We are debating the merits of liturgical dance. We aren’t sure what to do if our church substitutes candle light for electricity. We are questioning whether Protestants can make use of iconography without giving way to idolatry. And on and on it goes.

 

In the midst of all our anxiety, we need to stand back and recall that we Christians have been worshipping our God for a very, very long time. Across the centuries and throughout the world, we have employed an amazing diversity of forms and media in our worship. We have employed every musical instrument imaginable, from organs and pianos, to harps, bagpipes, drums, and a variety of horns and stringed instruments. We have used an astonishing array of music styles, ranging from chant to drumming, classical music, hymns, southern gospel, black gospel, and hip-hop. We have used an amazing variety of sacred art, including sculpture, wood panel paintings, frescoes, and kitsch. We have worshipped our God in bright, sun-lit sanctuaries and in mysterious, dark spaces. We have celebrated and praised our God in everything from caves to cathedrals. We have worshipped our God at midnight and in the wee hours of the morning. We have used the lectionary, and we have preached extemporaneously. We have worn every conceivable kind of clothing, and we have stripped naked for our baptism.

 

In the light of the history of Christian worship, we need to make a very simple decision. We need to decide whether we are going to operate with a miserly or a generous Pneumatology. Like prayer, all true worship originates with the Holy Spirit. Thus we must decide whether we really want to confine the work of the Holy Spirit to favored liturgical forms and media or whether we are going to confess together that the Holy Spirit is free to work or not to work, to speak or not to speak, to be present or not to be present regardless of the forms or media that we choose to employ. We must decide whether we really want to confine the Spirit to hymns, or whether we will be open to the presence and work of the Spirit through gospel songs, praise choruses, or Byzantine chant. We must decide whether we really want to claim that the Holy Spirit is afraid of the dark, or whether we will be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit in dimly lit worship spaces.