Rediscovering First Things
Recently my husband and I remodeled our kitchen. Since I tend to be the one who can envision how I want things to look, before we began the project I sketched out a plan on graph paper. I understood the concept of weight-bearing walls and knew that would figure into the project, so I called a draftsman to make sure my idea was doable. Although I knew a little about weight bearing in construction, what I didn’t realize was that there would be one point that would be crucial to the whole endeavor. I discovered that I could bump out the back wall of my kitchen as I planned and a large beam could be put in its place to compensate; but if I left that one particular point without support, the house would collapse. One point. One point was crucial in bearing the weight of my entire house.
Renewal is a popular thing to talk about these days, primarily because we long for it so deeply in the UM church in the US. As I reflect on the concept, I am continually reminded that though renewal is sometimes connected to the discovery of new things, more often, it is a rediscovery of first things – a rediscovery of those foundational things that have proven to be strong enough to bear the weight of life and faith.
For United Methodists, those first things are our doctrines – those foundational things that bind us together with Christians across the world and throughout the ages, as well as things that define us as a community of Christians with our own unique place in the body of Christ. Like that one point in my house, these things are necessary to bear the weight of our UM “house.” They are the very things that have born the weight of 2000 years of Christians continually seeking to live into the kingdom of God unfolding in their midst. Renewal for the UM Church then, is intimately tied to a rediscovery of our first things, our doctrines.
Sadly, many people have no idea what UM doctrines are. We have, over the years, preferred the ease of open-ended musings to the much more challenging, but also more rewarding task of “faith seeking understanding.” In this way we have unwittingly placed the wondrous mysteries of Christian faith that are contained in our doctrines at a safe distance. Rather than reflecting on them and allowing them to become real for us, our doctrines remain vague and therefore make few intellectual and moral demands. That vagueness lulls us into thinking we can mold our doctrines into whatever shape we choose, turning them “into mirrors for our spiritual needs, real or imagined, rather than allowing ourselves to be reformed by them.”
But this will not lead to renewal. Renewal is not born out of vagueness and ambiguity. Renewal is unleashed when people discover or rediscover what they truly believe, when they actually have something clear and substantial to become passionate about.
We must open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit to draw us close to the mysteries of God contained in our doctrines. Not doing so doesn’t mean that we will find other ways to approach the mysteries of faith; it means we won’t approach them at all, and thus have nothing of substance to become passionate about and nothing unique to offer the world.
It appears that much of the UMC in the US has lost the ability to clearly state what we believe and why, as well as what should be believed and why. This is painfully true in our common life together and sadly, often even more so when we relate to outsiders whom we hope to invite in. However, when we rediscover the power of our interior life, when we drink deeply at the well of the mysteries of God contained in our doctrines, our communal and institutional life is enriched, we are able as individuals and as a church to articulate the meaning and content of our faith in specific and persuasive ways, and the Holy Spirit is unleashed to move us toward renewal.
 Bruce D. Marshall, “Renewing Dogmatic Theology,” First Things, May, 2012.