The Rise of the “Methodist Middle”

Surprised in Portland 

According to the New Testament book of Acts, surprising the Church is the Holy Spirit’s idea of a good time.

When the leaders of the early Church thought they had figured everything out or when they were at loggerheads and didn’t know where to turn, the Spirit would suddenly surprise them with a new way forward that they never expected.

My consistent prayer for our General Conference has been that the Spirit would once again surprise the Church by opening a new or unexpected way through the conflicting convictions about same-sex relations that have divided our denomination for four decades.  I described my hope for that surprise in an interview with  MinistryMatters. 

The Methodist Middle

The irony is that Methodists have historically been people of the via media, the “middle way.”  Not a mushy middle, but what Bishop Scott Jones calls “the extreme center.”  It’s a clearly defined core of faith that allows space around the circumference for a variety of convictions as to how the faith is lived out.

In Portland, I experienced the Holy Spirit surprising the church in what one friend described as “the rise of the Methodist middle.” Magrey deVega described it as the parents in the front seat telling the squabbling children in the back seat to calm down. My experience at General Conference is consistent with Adam Hamilton’s description of  “A Hopeful Way Forward”.

I was surprised…

  • When the General Conference voted to ask the Council of Bishops to lead us in finding a way to unity through our division;
  • When the Bishops offered a wise option for a Commission that would not simply kick the can down the road, but would offer a specific plan for a way through our division into a new way of being together;
  • When I observed that the current and successive Presidents of the Council of Bishops are very wise people with exceptional gifts for leading with a non-anxious, moderating presence;
  • When the GC finally adopted the Bishop’s proposal and held to it in spite of attempts by the folks on the extreme ends of the continuum to scuttle it.

My hope and prayer is that the Spirit will continue to surprise us by drawing together a Commission that will clearly define the center of our life together that will include grace-filled ways for those who find that center to be either too conservative or too progressive to find their way into other ways of ministry.

As I wrote this I remembered an 18th Century Anglican hymn says:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

I was surprised when I found it set to a new tune here, which only demonstrates that the Spirit still has surprises for all of us!

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Portland, Poet & Pentecost

On the Oregon Trail 

I fly to Portland on Monday to look in on the UMC General Conference.  Having been a delegate to these quadrennial events every time since 1980, I’ve enjoyed looking in online this time without doing all the homework or enduring the sometimes endless debates over details of parliamentary procedure.  It will be good to visit with friends from around the world and to see how the Spirit is moving among “the people called Methodist.”

General Conference is an utterly-unique, globally-diverse, spiritually-uplifting, legislatively-tedious, linguistically-challenging, organizationally-dysfunctional and physically-exhausting experience in denominational life that could fit Winston Churchill’s description of democracy as being the worst form of government except for everything else. With all of its strengths and weaknesses, it’s a living body that represents who we are as a global church family.  Tom Berlin offered an accurate description of it in his blog.

The Poet of Pentecost 

Providentially, this Sunday mid-way through the Conference is Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended like flames of fire on the first disciples and the Church was born (Acts 2:1-21).  It’s worth hoping that just as people from all around the world were gathered in Jerusalem that day, that the global family gathered in Portland will once again experience the fire of the Spirit energizing us to passionately and powerfully fulfill our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The Pentecost story reminded me of these lines from T.S. Eliot.  They are worth reading several times.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

 Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

Both in the church and in the world, these are critical days to be reminded that we will be “consumed by either fire or fire.”

I take that to mean that we get to choose the fires of selfishness, anger, hostility, division, meanness, envy and greed, or the fire of the Holy Spirit which the New Testament defines as “love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:16-25) Our only hope lies in the choice “to be redeemed from fire by fire.”

May God’s people everywhere experience a fiery Pentecost.

Grace and peace,

Jim

Mom Is a Coal Miner’s Daughter

A Coal Miner’s Daughter

Like most coal miner’s daughters, my Mom was made of strong stuff. I guess she had to be.

Born in 1921, she and her five siblings grew up on a small farm in the hills of Western Pennsylvania in a frame house without indoor plumbing. (I remember when they put it in.) They really did walk a mile through the snow to the little one-room schoolhouse through sixth grade. After that, they road the “jitney” on the railroad tracks to get into Brookville for high school.

They walked a mile in the other direction to the little, white frame, one-room church where Mom first learned what it means to follow Christ.

Mom says they didn’t know they were poor, because everyone around them was just like they were. My grandfather worked in the coal mines and my grandmother canned vegetables from the garden to see them through the winter. My brother now weaves rugs on the century-old loom that they used. He does it as a hobby, but they did it to keep food on the table during the Depression.

Mom was always grateful for Mr. and Mrs. Davis who took her as a live-in housekeeper so she get through college and become a school teacher.

A Woman of “The Greatest Generation” 

Like so many women of her generation, she married Dad just before he and his brothers went off to war. Three of them came back. Jim, who by all accounts was the joy-bringer in a family infected by Germanic seriousness and burdened with hard work, was in a B-17 that was shot down over Holland. My brother visited there and saw where the farmers buried him until the war was over and they brought him home. My parents promised to name their first-born son (who happened to be me) in memory of him.

In ’47 she gave birth to the set of twins my Dad had predicted before he came home from the war. She still introduces me as “one of my twins.” Another brother arrived eight years later. All three of us would agree that being our Mom was just about the most important thing in her life.

If truth be told, there were times when her love smothered and over-protected us. But now that I’m a parent and grandparent, I am in awe of the way she loved us enough to let us go. I came to Florida, my twin brother went to Michigan, and our younger brother to California – all of which are about as far away from Western Pennsylvania as you can get. It had to be painful for her, but she wanted us to find the life we were called to live.

Her life wasn’t always easy. There was the fire that destroyed my father’s business, going back to teaching to put us through college, the cardiac surgery from which my Dad recovered and the cancer from which he didn’t. She was only 59 when he died, an age that seems younger to me every year. But the strength that was her birthright and the God in whom she trusted saw her through. She was determined to live on, and she did. Before she turned 90, she faced the death of two more husbands.

We celebrated her 95th birthday last week. She’s not as strong as she used to be. The legs that carried her to that one-room schoolhouse are immobile. The fingers that played hymns on the piano are gnarled. The voice that sang in church choirs is softer. Big chunks of her memory have faded away. thumb_IMG_2643_1024

Strength in What Remains 

What remains is the smile on her face, the strength of her love and the depth of her faith. We’ve never doubted her love for us, for our wives, our children and grandchildren. We’ve never questioned her faith in Christ. Her life of prayer continues to be her source of strength and a model for all of us. She loved us enough to let us go, and when the time comes, we pray that we will love her enough to let her go as well.

I’m grateful that years ago she made the plans for her death. She requested that at her memorial service we sing “Abide with Me” with that beautiful last verse:

Hold thou the cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

As Mother’s Day approaches, I give thanks for this strong woman, for the indomitable strength of her love and for her unwavering faith in Christ. She has abided in Christ and Christ’s love abides in her (John 15:4-5).  That’s about as good as it gets.

Grace and peace,

Jim