"Open"... to what?

Have you seen those United Methodist Church (UMC) commercials on TV? I never have. But I have watched most all of them online. With a couple of exceptions ("Letter from God" or "follow the signs") I really loathe them. I think it has more to do with our "motto" than anything else: "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors." Not that I am against any of those things, but as a blanket statement, I really don't know what it means, and am disturbed at what it could mean. I guess this is designed to sound enticing to "seekers" and not actually to describe our churches? Because if it is supposed to be descriptive of us, this raises all sorts of problems.

First of all, it seems like it can mean pretty much anything. We are "open." Open to what? To homosexual practice? Not according to the Book of Discipline (our "canon law"), which is one reason that some liberals complain that our "motto" isn't even true. Are we open to pedophilia? What about greed as a way of life? Racism? Nope, we are not open to these practices. We don't practice absolute inclusivity. We call these and other practices "incompatible with Christian teachings" which is just a polite and fancy way to say "sinful" without using the "S-word" (apparently, we'll leave that to the televangelists). So it sounds like we have a case of false advertising (literally). We may as well run commercials claiming the people of the UMC have all been to outer space. It simply isn't the case.

This issue has been on my mind for a long time. A while back I read a critical commentary for UMNexus (an independent church news group) by the well known and respected Wesley-historian, Richard Heitzenrater, who teaches up at Duke Divinity School, one of our seminaries.

Heitzenrater sees the adds as a symptom of a larger loss of theological identity among the Methodists. He notes having a conversation with someone who had seen the commercials who said essentially, "It's really neat that you don't have to believe anything to be a Methodist." Now there may be some who rejoice at this (though, I doubt it). I do not. For one I have been told time and again that it is the churches that expect much out of their members that are growing churches. Low expectations is a huge problem in the UMC in terms of beliefs and in terms of personal and social holiness. We too often expect little and get just that. We aren't too likely to capture anyone's passion by simply being 'open' to everything, with a low bar of membership for inclusion's sake.

A related problem with the "slogan" that Heitzenreiter also hits on is that it implies a disregard of sound doctrine. I strongly suspect that a church that is undecided about EVERYTHING (that is, open to anything, since to make a decision is to be less open to other possibilities) will be most easily "tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine and deceitful scheme of men" (see. Eph. 4.14).

This issue came back to my attention a week or so ago when I read another commentary, this time for the UM Reporter from a young pastor, Andrew Thompson of http://www.genxrising.com/, that I actually met that same weekend in Texas (he was performing a wedding).

Rev. Thompson argues that the "Open" motto may (or may not) be good advertising, but it is not good theology, and was probably designed to please the marketing department, not the theologians. How about something more theologically sound - how about something that actually HAS some theological content at all? After all, our media motto could be as easily - or more easily - adopted by an atheistic group, as by a church.

So as we begin to ponder how to reassert our own theological identity and raise the bar of discipleship in our churches - please everyone: let's change the basically terrible "motto"! How about something that at least mentions God or something intrensically religious, or (gasp!) that mentions Jesus?

On my link to the UMC website (on the right sidebar) I replaced the motto with "Loving God's world in the Spirit of Jesus." This seems to me vague and happy-sounding enough to be acceptable as a motto and, (depending on how it is interpreted) could be embraced by an Orthodox Trinitarian on the one hand or Joseph Sprague on the other (it kinda depends on what "in" and "of" mean - those elusive English prepositions, bane of Reformed theologians!).

Labels: ,


Wesley addresses the Clergy: Pt. 2

Above all the things that a minster should learn, says father Wesley, the intention or motivation in executing the ministry is of utmost importance:

"As to his intention...ought it not to be singly this: to glorify God, and to save souls from death? Is not this absolutely and indispensibly necessary, before all and above all things? 'If his eye is single, his whole body' his whole soul, his whole work, 'will be full of light." (WW, x, 486).

This is above all other things for John Wesley. This is significant, I think, because John is sometimes quoted as if the only thing he cared or talked about how people who disagree can get along together. That is important, especially for our contemporary situation both in Church and society, but it is not for John Wesley the most important. The most important is saving souls from death. To understand John's ideas about how this salvation takes place read The Scripture Way of Salvation.

He goes on to say a minister must have love and affection for people, as well as for God. Then he says something very interesting: "And is not even this degree of love to God and man utterly inconsistent with the love of the world; with the love of money or praise; with the very lowest degree of either ambition or sensuality? How much less can it consist with that poor, low, irrational, childish principle: the love of diversions? Not only this, but the love of pleasure...(WW, x, 487)" I really wonder what diversions he is speaking of. As someone who lives in a culture that basically believes the purpose of life is to be entertained (or so our activity would suggest), I wonder if Wesley would see something fundamentally wrong, and therefore de-humanizing, about a culture structured around Getting and Enjoying. I wonder if he would see whole theological movements and church 'marketing strategies' as buying into a lie. I wonder what counsel he might offer to his preachers in such a situation - not only about what to say, but also about how to live.

I've only covered 7 pages of what is (in my edition) a 20 page address. As you can see there is food for thought on every page. I'll leave this here with no promises as to whether I may or may not return to it.

Labels: ,


John Wesley Addresses the Clergy: Highlights pt. 1

My brother and I were talking about and reading parts of John Wesley's "Address to the Clergy" the other day, so I thought I might go back and re-read the whole thing. When I first started seminary at SMU, I decided to read this Address to help set some direction for what I was doing in such a place. Now that I've finished and been sent by the bishop to be a pastor, it is well worth the re-read.

The address was originally given to all of John's fellow Anglican clergy in the Church of England, though as he says, he is just as happy to address "any, of whatsoever denomination, whom God has called to watch over the souls of others, as they that must give account." (Works of Wesley [or, WW], 3rd edition, published by Baker, vol. x, p.481).

One important thing for a clergyman (whether "he" [as it is styled in classic English] be male or female in our context) to posses is a quick mind, "Or, how will he be able, when need requires, to answer a fool according to his folly? How frequent is the need!"(WW, x, 482). This I thought was funny at first, but I wonder how well we do this today (if we attempt it at all)?

He must have a thorough and complete knowledge of the Scripture: "of all the Scriptures; seeing scripture interprets scripture; one part fixing the sense of another. So that whether it be true or not, that every good textuary is a good Divine (i.e. everyone who has knowledge of scripture is a good theologian), it is certain that none can be a good Divine who is not a good textuary." (WW, x, 482). And how far short are we Christians and "mainliners" in particular here? Not only the fundamentalists, but also the rabbis and Islamic Imams put us to shame in their sheer knowledge of the sacred texts next to our relative ignorance.

"But can he do this, in the most effectual manner, without a knowledge of the original tounges?" (WW, x, 483). The implied answer: No. Ironically and sadly, unlike Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Baptists - the Methodist ministers are not required to take any biblical language classes to get an MDiv (though many of us did).

He goes on to say that a minister must have some knowledge of logic, philosophy, and geometry, in order to learn to think and speak in a coherent and connected fashion. As people who believe in Scripture, Tradition, REASON, and experience, it is truly a deficiency that no basic course in logical reasoning was required to graduate our seminaries (though, those who had taken such courses had an edge in the curriculum). But the curriculum is already quite full.

He goes on: "Can any [who have a university education for ministry] be excused if they do not add to all that...the knowledge of the Fathers? the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given. It will be easily percieved that I speak cheifly of those who wrote before the Council of Nicea. But who would not likewise desire to have some aquaintance with those that followed them: with St. Chrysostom, Basil, Jerome, Augustine, and, above all...Ephraim Syrus?" (WW, x, 484). Here is a theme that I have been emphasizing pretty consistently over the last couple years (see especially here), and here we see Wesley's own catholicity and continuity with major Anglican Divines: the Early Church Fathers are the most helpful and recognizably authoritative interpreters of Scripture for the Church of Christ. I am excited to have recently unpacked my 38 volume set of the Fathers' works.

There are lots of resources available to get to know the Fathers, and happily, more are becoming available all the time. In addition to the big sets of collected works, there are daily and weekly devotion readers available now for getting to know them in more manageable doses, and Tom Oden's extremely ambitious Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture for a more direct commenatry. So this is a huge part of Wesley's call to all ministers: like St. Augustine before you, 'take and read' - read the Bible and read the Fathers, that you may know the will of God, and lead others to it. This is a good stopping place for now.

Labels: , , ,


Trip to England

At the beginning of this summer I took a trip to England with a handful of young adults who were loosely connected with Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas. Our trip was a bit of an historical tour and pilgrimage (one of the ancient and medieval spiritual practices that I, as an avid traveller anyway, am always enthusiastic about) on which we saw the places associated with the lives of Charles and John Wesley (and we saw York Minster for good measure).

One on our trip was a writer for the United Methodist Reporter, and this is my first experience of being quoted in a national publication (so far as I can now recall). Check out the article.



Latin Mass faces fewer restrictions

On Saturday Pope Benedict XVI issued a document, Summorum Pontificum, which eases restrictions on the use of the Latin liturgy of the 1962 missal (its usage has been rare and somewhat restricted since the Vatican II reforms; now permission will not be needed for such a celebration in many situations). The move was no doubt intended to accomodate traditionalist Catholics who insist upon a Latin Mass (some of whom have even broken relations with the Vatican in recent decades), as well as the growing number of young Catholics who are interested in more traditional forms of piety and worship. The resurgance of more traditional beliefs and practices among young people is explored in Colleen Carroll's book, The New Faithful.

Though some were no doubt glad to see the change, many also reacted with skepticism. The Anti-Defamation League declared that the new guidelines would pave the way for anti-semitism because of certain prayers that were aimed specifically at Jewish people and considered anti-semitic. Roman Catholic leaders, however have pointed out that these prayers were not included in the revised liturgy and that the ADL should have read it before mustering their righteous indignation (one is reminded of the accusations of various rabbis associated with the ADL before the release of "The Passion of the Christ" to theaters; yet their predictions that the streets would run red with the blood of Jews apparently came to naught). There are, however, prayers that Jews, schismatics (i.e. Protestants and Orthodox) and pagans and basically everyone in the world would convert to Roman Catholicism.

Regarding these prayers, Rabbi Michael Lerner said that "You cannot respect another religion if you teach that those who are a part of it must convert to your own religion." Now this is a very common sentiment among Westerners of our day. In keeping with the spirit of our age, it subordinates the question of truth to that of respect ("tolerance" or "inclusion" or whatever). The assumption must be that if any of the religions are true, there is really no way of knowing which one, so why worry about it (with regards to our own life or that of others). There is a sort of intellectual despair underneath all our calls for respect and tolerance. As a civilization, we've lost faith in the possibility of knowing the truth - of having true knowledge at all about the most important and fundamental things. This lurks behind the continual assertions of reletivism. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, like all forms of Christianity, claims to actually bring people to know and share in the very life of the living God - the only true and Creator God, the Holy Trinity, and claims to do so through Jesus Christ who is the Truth that makes this true knowledge possible. It is a much more optimistic worldview.

Whether or not it is true is another question entirely and one worthy of the most scrutinizing investigation. Such an investigation might begin with the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and N.T. Wright's book The Resurrection of the Son of God is one of the best on the subject.

I'm not much personally offended that the Catholics are praying for my salvation.

Even while easing the restrictions on the use of the Latin Mass, the pope said that the celebration of the Latin mass should nevertheless remain "extraordinary" and the post-Vatican II vernacular should be the ordinary approach.

Labels: ,