Posts Tagged ‘View from Here’

 

Emory - Brent Strawn

Brent Strawn ~ Candler School of Theology

Brent Strawn, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, posted the following article on MinistryMatters.com. It also appears in the Justice in the Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2012) issue of Circuit Rider. It’s an excellent reflection…

 

When God Seems Unjust

I make my living teaching the Old Testament, so I’m quite aware of its “problems.” You might say it’s a job hazard in my line of work. Even if people can’t cite chapter and verse, they often have a strong feeling that things in the first half (actually, the first seventy-eight percent) of the Bible aren’t quite right—that there are some disturbing things over there if you ever bother to read it (most don’t), and many of them have to do with God.

Just a week ago I was called in for something of an emergency “Save the Old Testament!” session for a Disciple Bible Study group at my own local congregation. There I heard yet again what seems to have become the standard interpretation among far too many Christians: “God is mean in the Old Testament, but everything changes with Jesus and the New Testament. What gives?”

This is a big question connected to a large number of others. I can’t solve the first, let alone the rest, not even if I had many times the space I have here, because the “best questions,” or in this case, the most difficult ones, simply don’t have any easy answers. That doesn’t mean we are relieved of having to try, however. The Mishnah has a famous saying to this effect: “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it” (Abot 2.21). So, here are four thoughts on the matter.

1. It’s Not Just an Old Testament Problem

The problem is not just an “Old Testament” one. It is, through and through, from top to bottom, a biblical problem in at least two ways:

(1) The New Testament also has its share of violence and wrath—“mean God” kind of stuff for short. One need only think of the Book of Revelation, or the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), or sayings of Jesus that are far from “meek and mild” to get this point clearly (e.g., Matt 5:25-26; 10:34-36; 16:2-3; 23:1-36; Mark 10:38; Luke 12:49-53; 13:3, 5; 14:25-33; etc.).

(2) The Old Testament has just as much “nice God” kind of stuff as the New Testament. Indeed, much of the New Testament’s “niceness” comes directly from the Old Testament: The Great Commandment concerning the love of God and love of neighbor, for instance (Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18), but also love for immigrants (Lev 19:34) and good deeds for one’s enemies (e.g., Prov 25:21; cf. Matt 5:39; Rom 12:20). Or, more directly to God’s wrath, consider Isaiah 54:7-10, which acknowledges God’s abandonment and anger “for a moment,” but now promises great compassion and everlasting love (vv. 7-8). It culminates in the statement that God will never be angry with Israel again—never, just as God will never flood the earth again (v. 9)! Then:

“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” (v. 10)

What text anywhere else in the Bible could rival this one in raw mercy and unbounded grace?

Christians who advocate the “standard interpretation” mentioned above are revealing nothing so much as their ignorance on two fronts: (1) their lack of knowledge of the entirety of the Old Testament, including its many “good parts”; and (2) their lack of knowledge of the entirety of the New Testament, including its many “bad parts.” Once again, the problem of God’s violence or wrath is thoroughly a biblical one—not just an Old Testament one.

This means, in turn, that the solution to the problem cannot be only a New Testament one, since the New Testament itself has the same blemishes. The fact that so many Christians don’t know either side of this equation reveals profound biblical illiteracy. That problem, in turn, is especially acute because it prevents Christians from findingbiblical solutions to the very real difficulties posed by biblical texts concerning violence and wrath.

2. There Are Biblical Solutions

Happily, there are solutions to the problems of violence and wrath posed by the Old and New Testaments. Let it be underscored that these are biblical solutions, not restricted to one testament (invariably the New) over the other (inevitably the Old). These solutions will not satisfy everyone, and each difficult text deserves separate, case-by-case attention. It must suffice here, and speaking only of the Old Testament, to again highlight that it knows as much grace as the New Testament (recall Isaiah 54), and that it built into it what might be called “strategies of containment.”

One example: the problem of the conquest and settling of Canaan, and thus the problem of Holy War, bothers modern sensibilities. How could this be part of God’s purposes and plans in the world? Here again is a serious issue; it cannot be addressed simply or simplistically. That granted, it is worth noting that the Old Testament does not repeatedly enjoin this kind of military activity on subsequent generations of Israelites. Nor does it continually evoke the conquest as a metaphor for faithful life with God.

This should be quickly contrasted with the exodus, which is everywhere mentioned and used as a way to describe even much later acts of God, such as the return from exile. The point of comparison is that, in the very way the Old Testament speaks of these things, it suggests that the conquest of Canaan is a limited, time-bound phenomenon never to be repeated; the exodus, however, is the way God works, period (cf. Amos 9:7). That doesn’t fix all the problems with the conquest, but it is a start.

3. It’s Not a New Problem

The problems of violence, wrath, and the like—as well as the “standard interpretation” of these—are nothing new. They are very old indeed, running back at least to the arch-heretic Marcion in the second century.

Marcion was the first to articulate the standard interpretation in full-blown fashion and he ended up throwing the entirety of the Old Testament out (interestingly enough, his position also required jettisoning a good bit of the New Testament!). Marcion’s theology was predicated precisely on antitheses like evil/good, judgmental/merciful, old/new. The church declared Marcion a heretic and resolutely retained the Old Testament (and a fuller New Testament).

The early church father, Tertullian (ca. 160-225), wrote five books against Marcion. Among other things, Tertullian said that a God who disapproves of nothing (that is, who lacks the capacity or disposition to judge or discipline), is unable to approve of anything and thus cannot save or deliver those who experience injustice. Marcion’s “god” may be unambiguously “good” but this goodness makes no (biblical) sense and cannot provide justice for those who suffer. One must be very careful to define what one means by the word “good”—and it should take more than a sentence or two! Moreover, robust Trinitarian theology means the Three are One. To say that one (the Father) is mean with the other (the Son) nice is to introduce unorthodox distinctions into the Godhead. Anyone who believes that a “mean God” inhabits the Old Testament and a “nice God” lives in the New, is making divisions that are not only uninformed, biblically-speaking, but also far too simplistic—even, dare one say, heretical.

4. There Is No Simple Solution

Finally, the previous point means we must steward ourselves to prevent any speech or thinking about God that is too simplistic. God, the Infinite, can never “get said” quite right—not even with many words or even all the books in the world. If we can imagine a situation in which God appears to be as dumb as one of the Three Stooges, we aren’t thinking about God or the problem with sufficient complexity. It would be a mistake to think that we are smarter than God, or the book about God.

Again, that is not to say that the problems of wrath, violence, and so forth (and there are many of the latter!) aren’t real or significant. They are both, and just as they admit of no easy solution, they are not easily understood. Then again, maybe they aren’t meant to be solved or understood. St. Augustine said the following in a sermon:

“[Scripture] can only be understood in ways beyond words; human words cannot suffice for understanding the Word of God. What we are discussing and stating is why it is not understood. I am not speaking in order that it may be understood, but telling you what prevents it being understood. . . What I am saying is how incomprehensible is the passage that was read to us. But in any case, it wasn’t read in order to be understood, but in order to make us mere human beings grieve because we don’t understand it, and make us try to discover what prevents our understanding, and so move it out of the way, and hunger to grasp the unchangeable Word, ourselves thereby being changed from worse to better.”

Augustine wrote that about John 1:1-3! If it holds true for that text, then certainly it holds true for even more perplexing texts. And so it is that one finds a rich history of interpretation in both Jewish and Christian circles about the most difficult of texts—including and especially ones concerning God’s wrath and violence.

Much more could be said. Much more should be said. But this is a beginning. Perhaps if ministers spoke more about these texts, addressing them in ways like I have done here but adding to that and expounding upon it, the “intractable” problems of the Old Testament would suddenly become tractable after all, and people would find themselves confronted afresh and anew with the whole counsel of God, not just the last 22 percent of it. That would be a victory in more ways than one!

 

 

2012 IN AC logoAt the Celebration of Ministry Service at Annual Conference in Indianapolis last week, I was struck again by how we in the Methodist tradition continually strive to invoke the Holy Spirit upon the life of the church and upon those who are to order and lead it: in the midst of conference and bishop, in the call to itinerant forms of ministry and accountability, we confess how dependent we are upon the Spirit to share in the mission of the whole church. I was struck by the way we are to order our lives not simply toward God but toward one another, and by the way our guiding vision always takes a particular shape during a particular time regardless of the challenges. It was a grace-filled moment, to be sure, but also a reminder of the true end to which Christ calls each of us.

In a letter to John Smith on June 25, 1746, John Wesley, in reflecting on the Methodist movement, wrote, “What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God? And to build them in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not it is worth nothing.”

Wesley’s quote captures the deeply missional thrust of the people called Methodists: a church’s pattern of organization and authority – or polity – must be oriented toward the church’s mission of saving souls or making disciples. How we order our lives must somehow support that basic mission. As Wesley would say elsewhere:  if we can’t find ways to organize the church toward these ends, then we might as well let the devil win!

As United Methodists we have spent a great deal of energy over the years trying to align our organization more purposefully with our mission. As historian Russell Richey of Emory University has stated, Methodists have always tried to develop appropriate structures that would sustain and nourish their mission depending on the era. What have remained constant over time are those elements that have been distinctive to Methodists from early on: conference, episcopacy, itinerant ministry, and forms of accountability. While these aspects do not provide a full account of Methodist polity, the loss of any of them would diminish something unique to the Methodist way of sharing in God’s mission.

To be sure, it’s a tall order to keep these four elements together, especially during a time of historic transition. It would be easy, for example, to fall into the trap of wanting to do away with one of these principles at the expense of another. It would also be tempting to see the role of the Holy Spirit as only working in our individual lives or congregations as against the structures of the wider church as an institution. And yet, as our history indicates, our polity has persisted through time not just because we have the right structures but because we are actively seeking to respond to what the Spirit is doing.

Such characteristics, of course, are not unique to United Methodists. Other Pan-Methodists and Wesleyan Holiness churches have also struggled with matters of discipline and order – African Methodist Episcopal and Free Methodists come to mind. They are reminders that questions of mission and polity go hand-in-hand in the Wesleyan tradition.

Andy Kinsey

Andy Kinsey

Celebrating in worship at Annual Conference, and praying for those who were being commissioned and ordained, I was moved at how Methodism seeks to order its life as a mission-driven community of faith. Again and again, we invoked God’s Spirit as we sent out those who will serve among us, sharing in ministries of mutual accountability, and renewing our covenant to be faithful to the example of Christ. It was a hope-filled moment, to say the least.

However, as we think about the future of the United Methodist Church, we may also want to ask ourselves why these four elements in our polity have persisted throughout our history. We may want to ask what these may mean in light of our present challenges. As General Conference in Tampa revealed we have much work to do.

 

 

Andy Kinsey serves as the Wesleyan Theologian on the Leadership Table of the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church and as pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Franklin, Indiana.

 

Matrix Mentor, Maxie D. Dunnam

Maxie D. Dunnam - Kingdom Catalysts

The heat is rising in United Methodism since General Conference. Retired Bishop Mel Talbert poured fuel on what have been dying embers only hours after the adjournment of the conference. He urged ministers to disregard the church’s position on human sexuality and perform same sex weddings if the laws of their state allowed it. A number of bishops, some retired but others who are active, stood with him as he made his passionate appeal to what he believes is a justice issue being violated by the church.

Minerva Carcano

Bishop Minerva Carcano

Within a month, Arizona Bishop Minerva Carcaño appealed to our African brothers and sisters to “grow up”…not a very polite, much less Christian, way to talk about the segment of our movement that is growing and impacting a continent for Christ. Carcaño’s thoughtlessness obviously flowed from the fact that the Africans have found their voice and are expressing an understanding and commitment to the Gospel that differs from hers.

The latest as of this writing is the New England Conference General Conference delegation’s claim that we must recognize and affirm our differences and that all the structures of the church (including bishops and the General Conference) must be ordered in a way to support but not control the local expression of the faithful.

New England ACThat sounds a bit like having your cake and eating it too! No accountability defined by the “whole community.” On the contrary, they suggest that the majority bodies of the church might need to be guided by the minority, though funding would still come from the majority.

The New England Annual Conference is not large nor is it growing. Numbers are not the ultimate measure but it may be worth something to ask if there are reasons growth is taking place in some areas and not in others.

Significantly, I did agree with one position of the New Englanders. They contended that strength and vitality will not be found in structures but in our identity as a spiritual movement, grounded in the grace of God and linked by common practices of personal and social holiness.

I agree; but I would invite them to consider that Jesus not only incarnated grace, he incarnated and called for truth. His followers have truth/authority, which is not relative. In the church, truth is posited in what we designate as “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” That truth can’t casually be altered by cultural norm.

Human sexuality is the issue that is tearing our church apart. Scripture, the church through the ages, and our present UM Church believes the practice of homosexuality violates the call both to personal and social holiness. It is impossible for me to imagine that we can grant the desire of a small segment of the church that they have support and freedom to deal with this issue as they please.

The Second Need of Leadership: Wisdom

(This is installment 3 of Leadership Lessons from the Kings)

Now, O Lord my God, you have made me king instead of my father David, but I am like a little child who doesn’t know his way around.  And here I am in the midst of your own chosen people, a nation so great and numerous they cannot be counted! Give me an understanding heart so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong…(1 Kings 3:7-9)

Solomon, the boy king, was offered a “blank check” by God and instead of cashing it on material possessions, fame or power he asks God for wisdom.  I am not sure that Solomon at his age knew what he was asking for.  In fact it was likely out of desperation that made his request.  No doubt, his court was full of advisers and wise men who would have gladly filled the request.  For some reason, Solomon did not think their wisdom sufficient and so he asks God for it for himself.

If the first need of a leader is a relationship with God, the second need of a leader is the wisdom that comes from God.  There will always be plenty of people who offer their opinion and call it wisdom, but the leader has to be able to discern what is foolishness, what is worldly wisdom and what is God’s wisdom on the matter.  Leaders often find themselves surrounded by people who want what they want for the leader or they want what the leader wants for the leader, but finding people who want what God wants for the leader even thought it may cost them is a rare thing.  The leader who can claim such an adviser can certainly count themselves as blessed.

However, there is another level of wisdom that cannot be assigned to advisers.  When decisions come, surveying the data is important, listening to wise counsel is equally important—but seeking God’s wisdom is the key to leading wisely.  Sometimes the data and counsel both point to something that make sense in the moment, but only God can see clearly the outcomes.

Bryan Collier

Bryan Collier

The Israelites, under Joshua’s command found themselves in this position when they made a peace treaty with the Gibeonites (9:14).  The Israelites examined the “data” and did what seemed right and faithful, but the telling words are “…but they did not consult the Lord.”  The consequences of what seemed like a wise decision were substantial.

Solomon asked for godly wisdom, for a constant consultative relationship on the front end of his tenure.  He didn’t wait for a crisis or for a specific incident in which he needed God’s wisdom.  He knew given his task and responsibility that his need for godly wisdom was going to be a constant.

The godly leader understands the need for wisdom beyond the data, and beyond wise counsel…it is a wisdom that only comes from God.  Blessed is the godly leader who asks for it before they need it.

 

 

A word from Mr. Wesley as we come to General Conference…

Wesley statue - Asbury Seminary

John Wesley ~ Asbury Theological Seminary

In the quad at Asbury Seminary, we have a statue of John Wesley preaching in the public market. There is a plaque on the statue with some words of Wesley. I had these words put there because I wanted our students to be constantly reminded of the peril in which we stand in the United Methodist Church. I encouraged our students read that plaque and pause often there in the presence of Mr. Wesley, and pay attention to what he said:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

These words have special meaning as we participate in the upcoming United Methodist General Conference (April 24-May 3). It is clear that we are not holding fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which the Methodist movement first set out.

Another word from Mr. Wesley is our challenge:

If you preach doctrine only, the people will become antinomians; and if you preach experience only, they will become enthusiasts; and if you preach practice only, they will become Pharisees. But if you preach all these and do not enforce discipline, Methodism will become like a highly cultivated garden without a fence, exposed to the ravages of the wild boar of the forest.

We are seeing it happen. The wild boar of the forest has been loosed not only in the highly cultivated garden of the Wesleyan movement, but in all mainline churches. So there is,

  • experimenting with pagan ritual and practice
  • consuming the world’s goods without regard for the poor
  • accommodating the prevailing patterns of sexual promiscuity, serial marriage, and divorce
  • resigning ourselves to the injustices of racial and gender prejudice
  • condoning homosexual practice
  • ignoring the historic Church’s long-standing protection of the unborn and the mother… nearly 50 million abortions in the last 3 decades
Matrix Mentor, Maxie D. Dunnam

Maxie D. Dunnam - Kingdom Catalysts

God called Israel to be “God’s own people…a holy nation.”  The church, as the “new Israel,” is to function in the same fashion. So God’s call to us is, “Be holy as I am holy.”  While we will spend a great deal of time dealing with structural issues, which is essential, my prayer is that we will not compromise on the critical social issues: care for the unborn, attention to the “strangers in our midst” (immigration), the practice of homosexuality (same sex unions, ordination of avowed homosexual persons), what merits a supposed Christian nation to initiate war, and peace in Jerusalem and care for Palestinians – particularly recognizing how we have given far more attention to Jews than to our Christian brothers and sisters in that “Holy Land.”

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we would discipline ourselves to spend as much time strategizing on how to live out our mission – “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – as we do on how we will structure the governance of the church?

 

 

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

 

Jason Vickers wide

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.

 

Matrix Mentor, Maxie D. Dunnam

Maxie D. Dunnam - Kingdom Catalysts

A while back I visited the Lewis Grizzard museum in Moreland, Georgia. Lewis died in 1994, and I miss him. He was a writer and humorist. He communicated helpful wisdom with humor and a proud redneck.

He also wrote books. One of his book titles says a lot about him: IF LOVE WERE OIL, I’D BE A QUART LOW.

That’s our problem, isn’t it? As individuals and in our community life. We are a couple of quarts low of the oil of love.

Every great religion teaches it. Love is our deepest human need. Love begets compassion. Compassion acted out is essential for healthy living.

Love is essential for reconciliation. Reconciliation is essential for community. Creating and claiming community is the core need of every city. I live in Memphis. There’s plenty of love in here. We simply need to find ways to express it. I imagine that’s true of where you live too. How are you expressing love in your community? How might you better express it? Find those ways and claim this word of HOPE.

Betsy’s Story

John Meunier

A United Methodist lay woman recently shared a story with me about her experiences in the church. She discovered after many decades in the church that something had been missing from her faith experience. I’ll share her words directly:

As a life long Methodist, I have struggled with “something is missing.” However, being extremely loyal to the Methodist Church I had not seriously questioned any deficiencies. However, I went through a series of events that left me at rock bottom, and with a very strong urge to understand what was missing/what went wrong. I recently read Donald Haynes On the Threshold of Grace and he gave this take on Methodism that spoke to what I was feeling and has rocked my world; the title of the section is “From a ‘conversion theology’ to ‘gradualism’”; immediately prior to this he dealt with Wesley’s encounter with Bohler and Aldersgate: “Actually a different faith journey began in Methodism as long ago as the 1880′s. Methodist Sunday School literature began to emphasize the stories of the Old and New Testament and almost censored any references to the Cross and experential conversion. The philosophy of the religious education movement replaced conversion with ‘gradualism’.”

The concept of “almost censored” hit me hard–that is what I experienced growing up in the Methodist Church in the 1960′s. Experential conversion was a definite “no-no”. The crucifixion was “there” but never addressed head on. We always went from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Resurrection of Easter. For me, Good Friday remained something of a mystery. Finally in the mid- 1990′s we had a pastor who introduced the Tennebrae service and that was my first experience of going through the crucifrixion of Good Friday to get to Easter–it made a huge difference. It was during his tenure that I got to the point of “Jesus did die for our sins”–this is after a lifetime in the church! I was in my early 40′s! Unfortunately, before I could internalize all that, we had a change in pastors that was absolutely disastous for me and the wheels started coming off.
I am at the point I am tired of “gradualism” and randomness in my faith walk. I actually believed I was on a “path somewhere”–I was, but it certainly was not where I expected. After reading Haynes’ summation of “what went wrong” with the church, it feels like I was destined for a “crash and burn”: “While the church is God’s mission to the world, we err to see it as an end in itself. The sad mistake of the 20th century was to develop a sophisitcated ‘church-ianity’ that was not synonymous with ‘Christianity. We developed ‘churchmanship’ (male and female) rather than discipleship. We assimilated new members by placing them on finance committees and program teams when they were babes in Christ looking for soul nourishment.”

Haynes’ book was not the first thing I have read about “what’s wrong with the UMC,” his mode of expression spoke to me on a personal level. I am the living walking proof “gradualism” is not the way to go. I also suspect, reflecting back prior to the “crash and burn” that is why people just “wander away”– they get stalled in their faith walk.

 

 

A FASCINATION WITH SHORTCUTS

 

Matrix Mentor, Maxie D. Dunnam

Maxie D. Dunnam - Kingdom Catalysts

The bulk of the products in our grocery stores were not there ten years ago. The majority of these new goods are in the frozen and instant food departments. We have instant puddings, instant rice, instant coffee. No wonder we are fascinated with shortcuts. We don’t want to know if it will work, but if it will work now…quickly.

There is a severe fallacy in this mindset. Charles Kettering put it memorably: “If you buy a fiddle today, you can’t expect to give a concert in Carnegie Hall tomorrow” Jesus expressed it differently. “Do you pick a bunch of grapes from a thorn bush or figs from a clump of thistles?”

There is no instant wholeness for us as persons…

No instant reconciliation for our divided relationships, cities and nations.

Even Jesus had to walk the entire road to the cross – no instant resurrection, no skipping to Easter.

We need commitment and perseverance, but I promise: God will honor our faithfulness.

 

 

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?

Jason Vickers wide

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.