Eating Spinach with Mr. Wesley

One of my great unfinished reading projects is The Works of John Wesley.  A long row of books from the series lines one of my shelves these days holding the collected works of the principal founder of Methodism including sermons, journal entries, and minutes of the first conferences.

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Mr. Wesley’s electrifying machine

This week I received Volume 32: Medical and Health Writings, edited by James G. Donat and Randy L. Maddox.  I doubt I’ll get through all 788 pages (!) and, truth be told, although Mr. Wesley on grace is a thing to hold dear, Mr. Wesley on health can be a little scary.  He was fascinated by the new science of electricity, for instance, and suggested its use to cure everything from leprosy to bruises!

But some of Wesley’s recommendations still ring true.  On June 5, 1778 he wrote to a correspondent:

“I advise you:

    1. Never sit up later than ten.

    2. Never rise later than six.

    3. Walk at least an hour daily in the open air; if it rains all day, in the dining room.

    4. Choose such diet, both for quantity and quality, as you find sits light upon your stomach… [He preferred mutton and beef to veal and chicken.]

    5. Eat as much spinach, cress, and summer fruits as agrees best with your stomach.” [659]

Bodily health, for Wesley was part of a more general dedication to spiritual holiness.  And if he couldn’t get his hearers all the way to God, he could at least get them close.  As when he advised one person interested in better health:

 “[E]very fair day walk to, if not round, the churchyard.  When you are a little hardened by this, you may venture at a convenient opportunity (suppose on a Sunday morning) to attend the public worship.  Till you do I cannot say you are in God’s way, and therefore I am not sure you will find his blessing.” [668]

Sneaky, that Mr. Wesley.  But on these latter points, absolutely right.

O the Stories We Could Tell!

What if we ran out of stories?  It doesn’t seem like we’re any danger of that.  Netflix announced earlier this year that it was going to spend $8 billion on original content in 2018.  Other media outlets are increasing their output.  Even amateurs with a smartphone are producing YouTube series.

Our appetite for stories doesn’t seem to be slowing either.  Streaming, from Netflix alone, accounts for 15% of all the online traffic worldwide.  Binging on a richly-textured series is a happy pastime for a lot of people.  (For me, too, truth be told.)

But what stories guide our common life?  It doesn’t seem that we can agree on a narrative that helps us understand the moment that we’re in.  Is it The Handmaid’s Tale? The Avengers? Game of Thrones?

One of Bishop Sharma Lewis’s key initiatives has been to encourage Virginia United Methodists to read through the Bible once a year.  Besides being a means of grace, immersing ourselves in Scripture gives us a chance to be formed by our most elemental stories.  They are by no means easy to read.  (Game of Thrones has nothing on some of the violent displays in Israel’s history!)  But they challenge us to see, behind every disturbing human episode, a divine hand and intention.

Television critics like to bemoan the fact that so many of the new TV offerings are retreads of old tales.  But here’s a basic plot that could illumine every story.  We say it every time we gather around the table.  Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

O the stories we could tell with that premise!

In Praise of Bad Writing: David Bentley Hart’s New Testament

The New Testament, as translated by the influential Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, is bad.  But that’s what makes it such a good read for Christians who need their settled understandings tweaked.

Hart’s new translation doesn’t strive for literary heights. He has an ear for beautiful language, something that comes through in all of his writing.  But here he aims for reproducing the feel and flavor of the original Greek texts and, sad to say, for all their influence, most of the original authors were not great writers.  

Hart allows that Luke and Hebrews show some elevated style, but don’t get him started on John, the author of Revelation.  In Hart’s translation, the sea of fire in Revelation 19:20 becomes a marsh.  An accompanying note contains a bit of uncharacteristic Hart-ian understatement: “In very antique usage (Homer, for instance), the term [translated as marsh] could be used as a poetic trope for the sea; but John does not give the impression of being someone possessed of a classical education.” (527)

If the marsh of fire sounds unusual, that’s kind of the point.  Hart says, “I would hope my translation would succeed, in many places, in making the familiar strange, novel, and perhaps newly compelling.” (xvii)  Of course, sometimes it only succeeds in making the familiar obscure, as when Hart turns Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9 for love overflowing “with knowledge and full insight” [NRSV] into love that abounds “in full knowledge and in all percipience.” Glad we cleared that up.

A “Concluding Scientific Postscript” helps explain some of the rationale for Hart’s approach.  Here you learn why ‘gehenna,’ often translated as ‘hell,’ has become the ‘Vale of Hinnom’ and why ‘eternity’ becomes, in places, “that Age.”  You also learn why the prologue to John is so difficult to render in English and what you can lose when you do.

Hart himself does not recommend his translation for liturgical use.  He knows it’s odd.  But he has aimed to communicate the strangeness and urgency of the early Christian community.  Hart knows the environment from which these texts emerge—the complex era of the Roman imperial age in which Jewish and Greek ideas were producing radical new religious movements.  And he feels, behind the imprecise and breathless texts of the early Church, the energy of converts eager to share a life-changing message at all costs.

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David Bentley Hart

Sure, he’s got his ongoing interests and projects that he brings to his work.  Every translator does and Hart is far more upfront about his than most.  That didn’t stop N.T. Wright from slagging Hart’s translation in a January Christian Century review. “[Hart’s] two main claims (to be “literal” and “undogmatic”) are not borne out,” the prolific former Bishop of Durham notes,  “and the promise of displaying the strangeness of early Christian life disappears behind different kinds of strangeness”—a strangeness that Wright attributes to Hart’s theological agenda of anti-Augustinianism and universalism.

Watching the resulting Wright-Hart dust-up has entertained many theologians who know that Hart has never met an intellectual dispute that he couldn’t milk for spectacle.  During the brief heyday of the New Atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, Hart wrote the most gleeful Christian apology I ever read—a book whose title betrayed its consistent tone: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.

In 2012 Wright published his own New Testament translation, and following the Christian Century review, Hart has now taken to accompanying his defense of his translation with an attack on Wright’s as “the single worst translation ever done of the New Testament.”  In a recent interview with Jason Micheli on the Crackers and Grape Juice podcast he denounced Wright’s habit of “writing down to the common Christian, whom he apparently thinks is a four-year-old recovering from a concussion.”

With his intemperate exuberance and keen intellect, Hart resembles no one more than the Apostle Paul, who once told a church, (as Hart translates it in Galatians 5:12), “Would that they who are causing you agitation might just castrate themselves!” It’s the language of people who have been converted into a new Kingdom.

“This extremism is not merely an occasional hyperbolic presence in the texts or an infrequent intonation sounded only in their most urgent moments; it is their entire cultural and spiritual atmosphere.  The New Testament emerges from a cosmos ruled by malign celestial principalities (conquered by Christ but powerful to the end) and torn between spirit and flesh (the one, according to Paul, longing for God, the other opposing him utterly).  There are no comfortable medians in these latitudes, no areas of shade.  Everything is cast in the harsh light of a final judgment that is both absolute and terrifyingly imminent.  In regard to all these texts, the qualified, moderate, commonsense interpretation is always false.” (xxvii)

If you see that in Hart’s translation, he will feel he has done his job. However bad it seems.

Bears and Birds and Cooperative Ministry

Loneliness is a bear.

No one wants to feel unsupported, unheard, or unloved. You would think, in a world of so many new ways to connect, that loneliness would not be a problem.  

But Instagram, it turns out, is no answer to the human condition.

Churches—especially churches in rural communities—often experience their own kind of loneliness crisis.  Remembering days gone by, watching bright-eyed young people go off to new futures “across the bay,” faced with the challenges of reorienting old buildings for new ministries, it’s easy to feel the same sense of being disconnected and unsupported.

That’s why the recent Cooperative Parish Day of Discernment held in Richmond was such an inspiring opportunity to say, “Maybe we don’t have to be alone.”  Cooperative parishes are a unique structure within United Methodism—bringing together churches in new relationships that allow them to envision a new common ministry.

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The Rev. Woody Woodin at the Upper Sand Mountain CP Ministry Center

What does that look like? We saw a lot of models at last Saturday’s event.  On the Eastern Shore, five churches on the Accomack Cooperative Parish are beginning with worship and exploring cross-cultural ministry.  A Danville area teaching parish is pairing a seasoned elder with other ministers who are new to the process.  And on the top of a mountain in Alabama, 9 small churches are continuing a nearly 50-year-old ministry of service and outreach in the Upper Sand Mountain Cooperative Parish.

The Rev. Beth Crissman, a DS in the Western North Carolina Conference appearing by video, said that the most important question any new effort must ask is the WHY question.  To answer that she suggests asking:

“Would forming a cooperative parish here OPTIMIZE our calling and capacity to make disciples of Jesus Christ in our communities SO THAT we become instruments of compassion and justice in our communities?”  

I hope more congregations will begin to ask that question as they look around at their field of service and see that, although they may feel alone, there are other churches out there with the same desire to be about the mission of God.  And what might they do together?  

Because loneliness is a bear, but unity is a singing bird of a thing.

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When Flo (and Other Storms of Life) are Raging

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

—Isaiah 43:2

As I write this, it looks like the Eastern Shore will be spared the worst of Hurricane Florence, (or Flo, as I’ve come to call her this week).  I’m praying for the people of the Carolinas who seem to be receiving that ‘worst.’  I’m expecting that the United Methodist disaster response efforts, through UMCOR (UM Committee on Relief) and UMVIM (UM Volunteers in Mission), which would have come here if Flo had turned our way, will now be headed south.  And I know that United Methodists here will be generous in their support of these efforts.  (Look for special giving opportunities in the next week.)

We did have an epic downpour on Sunday night here.  Roads in the Belle Haven area washed out.  Our camp director, Michael Henry, his wife, Alison, and son, Isaiah, had a harrowing, multi-hour trip back to Occohannock on the Bay that night through the pouring rain.  Also, high tides this week flooded Tangier, Wachapreague, and other low-lying areas.

IMG_7723Incidents like these remind us that we live on a small, strip of sand on the verge of a great, vast ocean.  Most days I don’t take the ground beneath my feet for granted, but when I see the power of the wind and water, I marvel that we can live so many days without thinking about whether the weather will threaten our lives and our homes.

There’s a measure of grace in each day.  There are things we can trust.  Most days we get to live without thinking about the dangers and we receive what we need.  God will provide and God does.

And when the hurricanes come, as they will…when the storms of life are raging…God will stand by us.  Islands may shift, property may be lost, but didn’t we get to discover again this week that we are bound together more in the face of such dangers?  And didn’t we lean into our prayers a little harder?

Whatever Flo may bring, I want to trust that the God who calmed the waters of Galilee and piled up the currents of the Jordan and the waves of the Red Sea is still present in the storm.  And I give thanks for the connection of United Methodists who answer the call when there is a need and remember the promise of Song of Songs: “Many waters cannot quench love, nor can floods drown it.” [8:7]

When Angels First Trod the Earth: A Review of Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith

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A Cave at Qumran

It was 113 degrees when I was at Qumran a few weeks ago.  Set up on a ridge near the Dead Sea, the site is unforgiving—no escape from the sun, salt flats and barren wilderness in every direction, a claustrophobic gift shop and lunch room packed with tourists who never seem to make it to the ruins.  One hour and a chicken schnitzel later and I was ready to go.

The folks who built Qumran?  They stayed for 200 years.

If you know Qumran at all, you’ve probably heard of it in connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in caves near this site beginning in 1947.  The scrolls revealed the presence of an ascetic, dissident sect of Jewish religious revolutionaries who made their home here during the volatile period from the mid-2nd century BCE to 68 CE.  A video at the visitor’s center suggests that John may have been a member here before becoming “the Baptist” and heading over to the Jordan River.  Whether he was or wasn’t, the scrolls show that the world in which John and Jesus operated was full of ferment and change and the ideas that we associate with later Christianity and Judaism were finding their first expression in places like Qumran.

Philip Jenkins, in his new book Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution that Made our Modern  Religious World, makes a sweeping claim in the opening pages:

During the two tempestuous centuries from 250 through 50 BCE, the Jewish and Jewish-derived world was a fiery crucible of values, faiths, and ideas, from which emerged wholly new religious syntheses. Such a sweeping transformation of religious thought in such a relatively brief period makes this one of the most revolutionary times in human culture. These years in effect created Western consciousness.

Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, has made a career out of helping us look at Christianity from new perspectives ever since he made a splash with his 2002 book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.  That book forced U.S. Christians who were mired in narratives of decline to grapple with the explosive growth of the faith that was taking place in the Southern hemisphere.  Maybe, Jenkins suggested, Christianity was just making one of its periodic, geographic shifts, this time from the West to the South.

In Crucible of Faith, Jenkins wants to lift up a period often neglected by biblical students—the so-called intertestamental period that is not reflected in most Protestant bibles.  For many Christians, the biblical story skips directly from the return of the exiles to Jerusalem in the 6th-century BCE to Jesus’s appearance in the city at the start of the Common Era.  Jenkins points out, however, that much of what we associate with the new Christian worldview, from angels to the role of Satan to apocalyptic expectations, was forming in this period, particularly the 200 year window that he calls the Crucible.

Jenkins doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground in this book. Scholars have been mining extrabiblical sources like 1 Enoch and Jubilees for many years now and have seen what Jenkins describes.  What Jenkins does effectively is to tell this story clearly and with an eye to a general readership.  The result is convincing, if a bit repetitious.  It also helps that figures like Judas Maccabees and Herod the Great make such great copy.

The kind of scholarship Jenkins does makes biblical literalists nervous. He dates biblical books long after the periods in which they are set, (such as Daniel, a putative narrative of the Babylonian Exile, which Jenkins (and many other scholars) date to the 2nd century BCE). He also finds major historical forces at work, influencing the development of religious thought, such as the cataclysmic entry of the Hellenistic world into the Middle East with the arrival of Alexander the Great.  For those who like their biblical inspiration unadulterated by current events, this can be distressing.

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Philip Jenkins

But Jenkins’ measured view and sturdy method are convincing and he forces the reader to look at old assumptions in new ways.  For instance, the story of early Christian church in the West is often told as an attempt to graft Greek philosophy onto Hebrew thought.  But Jenkins makes clear that that confrontation happened long before the Christian moment and the Judaism that Jesus’ disciples swam in was fully engaged with Greek ideas and a Greek cosmology and had been for some time.

Looking at the excavated ritual baths and scriptoriums of Qumran, it’s hard to imagine a revolution sprouting from this desert site.  But something big was happening that pushed this disaffected group out from Jerusalem.  They saw angels of light and darkness at work in the world.  The Roman legions may have eventually succeeded in reducing Qumran and Jerusalem to dust, but the religious dynamism unleashed in the Crucible years goes on.

Small Churches Can Plan for a Healthy Future

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I like my doctor.  Even with all the needles and probes, I trust that she’s using the information she gleans through my brief discomforts to tell me something I need to hear. But I don’t always pay attention.

For several years we had a little ritual over one persistent health issue:

“Your cholesterol is high.”

“Still?”

She gives me a wry smile.  “Yes, still. I think we ought to look at a treatment plan.”

“Didn’t you suggest that last year?”

“Yes, and we decided you would try controlling it through diet.”

“Because you wanted to put me on pills and I don’t like the idea of taking pills every day.”

“Right. But maybe you’d like to try them to see if it makes a difference. This is a long-term condition for you and it could be dangerous if you don’t lower your bad cholesterol levels.”

“Thanks, Doc, but I think I’ll try diet again.”

One year (and frequent slips involving BBQ beef brisket) later, we’d have the same conversation.  Until finally I realized that my doctor was trying to tell me something important.  I started on the pills.

Kay Kotan and Phil Schroeder, both directors of Congregational Development for United Methodist annual conferences, know the interplay we have with our doctors.  The ways we appreciate their knowledge and yet resist making the changes they recommend.  The ways we often come around when they can get us to face the facts.  That’s why Kotan and Schroeder use a medical metaphor to diagnose options in their new book Small Church Checkup: Assessing Your Church’s Health and Creating a Treatment Plan [Discipleship Resources, 2018].

Sometimes your doctor needs to shock you into recognition that there is a problem, and that’s where the authors of this book start on the first page.  Quoting Charita Goshay, they say, “an estimated 80 percent of churches are flat or declining; 5,600 close every year.” (15)  That’s the future for churches that believe that they can just get by on the way they’ve always done it before (weaknesses for BBQ brisket be damned!).  But Kotan and Schroeder want to offer a way forward:

“We can choose our story.  We do not have to allow our story to unfold without our intervention, intentionality, faithfulness, and prayer.  We can choose.” (15)

What follows over the course of the next brisk ten chapters is a practical guide to diagnosing your congregation’s condition and choosing a course towards a different future.

Kotan and Schroeder believe that most small churches (fewer than 100 in attendance) fall into one of three types:

  1. Not Yet Big Churches that are vital and growing and may move to becoming medium-sized or large churches.
  2. Stable Small Churches that have found a way to stay vital and to serve the community despite not growing numerically.
  3. and Smaller Churches, which are declining in numbers and face serious questions about their ongoing viability.

The authors provide “Lab and Test Results,” encouraging small church leaders to look at a number of measures to determine their congregation’s health.  For instance, mapping the membership of the church can indicate how well the congregation is connecting to its surrounding community.  What’s the state of the church reserves compared to five years ago? How much of the building is being used and who’s using it?

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Along with this, the authors advise having some field trips to other churches and crucial conversations as a church to acknowledge that ‘business as usual’ is not an option.  After doing this work, congregations should be able to identify their condition and review the appropriate treatment plans available in three chapters related to the three types of small churches.

The treatment plans are not easy. Some involve major reorganization of a congregation to focus on priority items.  For instance, one recommendation for ‘Not Yet Big Churches’ is to develop a signature ministry and to empty the church’s calendar to plan for it.  Using ‘zero-based calendaring’ the congregation should ask: “If we were to do nothing that we have ever done before, what is the one thing we must put on the calendar?” (86-7)

For other churches, the hard part is emotional.  When a congregation has determined that it’s future is discontinuance, there can be a range of options from denial (and continuing until the resources run out) to a planned closure (with acknowledged grief work and a legacy gift to other ministry) to death and rebirth as a new congregation.

A book alone cannot make the difference for a small church.  Kotan and Schroeder seem to recognize this when they conclude by saying, “If you are struggling to choose a treatment plan, please reach out.  Sometimes this road is just too hard to journey alone.” (121) My own experience is that churches need the prompt and coaching of outside help to navigate a real examination of their mission.

admin-ajax-cfp-120x120On the Eastern Shore District, where I serve, we have developed a Church Transformation Team with the help of Plowpoint Ministries that initiates a “health assessment” in churches through a 2-hour Bible Study and crucial conversation, inviting teams of church leaders into a more extended study that incorporates much of what Small Church Checkup recommends.  Our team uses an excellent resource by Beth Crissman and Nancy Rankin, Choosing the Faithful Path: A Bible Study for Discerning a Faithful Future

The unusual period that began after World War II and extended until about the turn of the millennium, obscured the reality that refocusing on mission is a perennial task of the church.  When the culture was supporting church life and financial resources were plentiful, most of the mainline churches coasted on that wave.  We are in a new day now and there are still opportunities for growth in small churches.  But we will need to remember why we’re here and heed the advice of those who care for our health.

By the way, I went back to the doctor last month for my annual physical.  Two years in to my treatment plan, she called my cholesterol level ‘excellent.’ Now about this weight thing…

Rescuing Hope: And Other Lessons From the Cave

unnamedTuesday the news was filled with the spectacle of reporters crying. They weren’t alone. Maybe you shed a few tears yourself when you heard that 12 boys and their coach had made their way out of a cave in Thailand.  “We can take a breath now,” a Miami diving instructor said on CNN before choking up.

Why did we get riveted to a spectacle on the other side of the world?  Why did people who can’t seem to agree on much of anything share a common greeting—‘Have you heard how many boys are out’?

Maybe it’s because we all feel like we’ve been trapped in a cave with rising waters and a hard rain ready to fall.

It’s not that there aren’t plenty of rescues needed in every neighborhood. Go to the summer program at Agape Christian Children’s Community Center in Horntown here on the Eastern Shore and you’ll see how God’s love is drawing together volunteers and children.  Or the Una Familia summer program where children whose families are often living on the margins get a chance to grow and play.  Opportunities abound.

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Summer Program – Una Familia

But there was something about the way the whole world came together to bring the boys out that showed us a thing we crave more than rescue—hope.  A team of people with a common purpose used their skills, even to the point of self-sacrifice, to reunite children with their families.  And no one questioned if it mattered or if it was possible.  Everyone gave their best.

Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”  There is much for our hands to do as the people of God and when we are in touch with the hope that is within us, we will find ourselves as motivated as the cave rescue team.  It’s a hope that found us when we were in darkness and despair and took on a treacherous journey through the waters to new life.

I’ll remember the faces of those boys for a long time.  And maybe I’ll also remember my baptism and be thankful, hopeful, and ready to put my hand to the work of the God who saves.

Who is This ‘We’?: Poetry for the ‘Families Belong Together’ Rally

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photo by FancyCrave via Unsplash

I’m not going to make the ‘Families Belong Together’ Rally in Onancock today (Saturday, June 30) from 11-12:30. And when asked for a statement, I couldn’t find the words.  So I contributed this poem to be read.  May we find the ‘we’ that is truly ‘us.’

Who is this ‘we’ into which I am enlisted?

What is this sweet land of liberty I invoke when I sing, “My country ’tis of Thee”?

What God do I invite to bless America?

Who are the ‘we’ who hear cries from the Valley of Texas

and wonder what ‘we’ we have become?

 

‘Our’ ancestor, we Christians say, was a wandering Aramean.

When we look to the Scriptures we hear Deuteronomy’s command

to look after ‘them’—the sojourners in our midst—

because ‘we’ were sojourners in other lands.

We are those who sing ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’

while motherless children in scattered camps feel it more.

We are those who have beaten our breasts (insufficiently)

and sought repentance (insufficiently)

and proclaimed (insufficiently)

that we see and deplore the excesses and the evils

of native peoples separated from their lands and kin

of enslaved peoples separated from their lands and kin

of Japanese American families detained with their kin.

The injury is not only to ‘them’

but to us.

 

When we use the rationale of deterrence to excuse cruelty,

we injure ‘us.’

When we meet those who have left troubled lands seeking asylum here

and offer them instead more trouble, more trauma, no room at the inn,

we injure ‘us.’

When we allow our immigration policy, debate, and system

to devolve into division and expressions of helplessness

we injure ‘us.’

 

“When was it that we saw you homeless, naked, hungry, imprisoned

and did not respond with the love you showed us

but instead with the inhumanity we know too well?,”

the separated goats asked Jesus.

“When you did not see me crying for my father, my mother, 

my daughter, my son.

“When you did not see.

“When the injury came to me,

it came to you.”

It comes to us.

 

Who is this ‘we’ into which we are enlisted?

It is you and me and them and us.

We are one people.

 

To call for a humane and fair immigration system is not a call

for the end of borders or law enforcement or thoughtful policy.

It is a call for the end of injury

…to all of us.

—29 June 2018

Jeff Sessions and the Things Church Trials Can’t Do

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Photo by Hayne Palmour IV

Church trials don’t create community; they create tribes.  And that’s got me concerned for The United Methodist Church.

Some 640 United Methodists recently lodged a formal complaint against the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, who is a United Methodist with membership in a Mobile, Alabama church.  Though it is almost so rare as to be unheard of, church trials for lay members  can happen for a range of offenses.  This complaint against Sessions alleges that his advocacy for and enforcement of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, which has led to family separations at the border, constitutes immorality, child abuse, racial discrimination, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the order and discipline” of the UMC [para. 2702.3, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016].

Those who brought the charges say they don’t really expect it to go to trial. The Book of Discipline outlines a process of just resolution that sees trials as a last resort. The Rev. David Wright, chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, told CNN:

“The goal is to hopefully get Attorney General Sessions to talk to his pastors and church leaders, bring his position in line with the church’s doctrines and social principles, and end the damage he is causing.”  

Church trials for lay members are extraordinary, but they have been used with increasing regularity for clergy members who have officiated at same-sex weddings, which is also a chargeable offense.  The trials have provided some level of accountability to The Book of Discipline, but they are expensive, divisive, and have had the effect of heightening tensions within the denomination over sexuality issues.

In Matthew 18:15-19, Jesus provides a model for restoring relationship when an offense has caused injury.  It begins with a conversation.  “Point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” Jesus says. “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” [NRSV]  It is only after these attempts at resolution that you institute a kind of separation.  As if to emphasize the importance of maintaining the bonds of Christian community, this passage is followed by a lesson on forgiveness.

What Jesus assumes is that there is a community holding together all the persons involved in the resolution.  When we use the media to shout at one another, even when it has the aim of beginning a Matthew 18 reconciliation, we are substituting a deeply flawed national mouthpiece for a church process that is too often atrophied and broken.  When we do so, we begin in a place where our moral objections can too easily be entwined with our partisan commitments.  And we invite the same behavior by those with differing partisan loyalties.

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photo by Heather Mount via Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong.  I feel like shouting, too.  There is injustice and injury that we should lift up, decry, and put our hands to ending.  Separating families is such a thing.

But there is injury in our churches and our communities that needs attention, too.  To have a “catholic spirit,” the openness of heart to fellow Christians to which John Wesley called his Methodists, requires that we tend to the essentials of our connection, that we are in close enough community that you might “provoke me to love and to good works,” that we attend to the means of grace.

A few days ago, the combination of local and national events prompted me to write a Letter to my Haitian Neighbor.  I was outraged, but looking for a way to ground that outrage in a larger picture than the one offered by the echo chambers of social media and cable news.  It seemed right that we bear witness to what is happening—to offer our hearts and our neighbors to God.

I don’t want to be distracted from that task by taking the Attorney General to church court.

The Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines, a friend and colleague, is pastor of Clarendon UMC in northern Virginia where Jeff Sessions often attends.  Last Sunday, in the wake of this story, she preached to a congregation that included Sessions’ wife, Mary.  In her sermon she said:

”I do have strong beliefs…I will work to let our government know how I feel and I will preach the gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday and pretty much every night at the dinner table, if you ask my family. But I will not dehumanize those who are not in harmony with my deeply, passionately held beliefs. I will not write them off as objects or obstacles, but I will remember that they are flesh-and-blood humans … and I am committed to listen to them.”

It’s hard to hold that space in these times, but Wines does it because she was formed by a United Methodist tradition that has taken this as a core value.  It is a tradition that believes in seeing people, all people, as distorted by sin, redeemed by grace, and capable of sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That’s an understanding best learned in Christian community—not on CNN.