Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Annual Conference

Warning: if you're not Methodist, you may not 'get' this.

It’s that time of year. Annual Conference rolls around the first week of June every year. It’s that time of year when the pastor and the lay delegate pack their bags and head to the mountains of Lake Junaluska for four days of meeting, greeting, and eating. Actually, there’s not that much eating (any more than we would do at home). And the greeting (seeing old friends from other parts of the annual conference) is limited. So, mainly there is just meeting. And boy, will we meet!

In particular this year, the annual conference is making some important decisions about how we will fund various parts of the annual conference budget at a time when money is very tight at the annual conference level. As you may know, the NC Christian Advocate ceased to exist this year, primarily because there were not sufficient funds to continue its publication. If serious changes are not made at the annual conference level, other ministries will have to be eliminated or seriously reduced.

There are three main sources of the connection that a local church has with the Annual Conference:

#1. The annual conference (through the office of the bishop and cabinet) appoints the pastor to a local church.
#2. The local church pays conference askings, which enable the conference to support things like:
a. missions around the world,
b. United Methodist institutions like the children’s home , retirement home and camps and retreat centers.
c. United Methodist colleges in our geographical area
d. other ministries for youth, children and adults
#3. There is a spiritual and theological connection that we have to the annual conference, which is partially expressed in numbers one and two above.

The idea of an annual conference was something we inherited from John Wesley (a priest in the Church of England who launched an evangelical revival in the 18th century that became known as Methodism). Father John had the idea that all the preachers in the Methodist connection should get together once a year, not so that they could have dialogue or exchange ideas, or take votes, but simply so that they could listen to John Wesley tell them what Methodist doctrine was. It worked great, as long as John Wesley was alive. People would sit and listen to him explain Methodist doctrine for days (no one dared interrupt him as he was explaining the subtle differences between justification and sanctification)! Unfortunately, John Wesley died in 1791, and we haven’t been quite sure what to do with annual conference since then.

Since we didn’t have another John Wesley (the Lord only made one of him), we developed a system of bishops and committees and board and other leaders in our annual conferences. These leaders did not have the authoritarian power that John Wesley wielded, so we had to start taking votes in order to make decisions. Hence, the long process of voting by parliamentary procedure that goes on for days at Junaluska the first week of June every year.

But I sometimes get concerned that in our emphasis on numbers one and two in the list above, we lose our appreciation for number three. We need to remember that we have a spiritual and theological connection with the United Methodist Church in our Annual Conference. That is, we are about more than shoveling papers around and lifting our hands for votes and passing resolutions and allocating money. We are united by our faith in Jesus Christ, our baptism into His church, our communing at His table, and our commitment to make disciples in His name. It is these core elements that are at the heart of being Methodist, that connect us with the Body of Christ around the world, and that give us a reason to hold Annual Conference in the first place.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Great New Blog: Christian Conversations

I highly recommend this blog, called "Christian Conversations," by Kevin Baker. It is a provacative mix of faith, politics, cultural criticism, and wit. I've added it to my blog roll. He comments on some familiar topics, but he always brings a fresh perspective. Lots of nuance.

Friday, May 19, 2006

My girls jumping on trampoline

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

no more worship wars

I used to get stressed out insisting on "traditional" instead of "contemporary" worship, but I don't any more. I liked these reflections from Bear Witness to the Love of God in this World.

Friday, May 12, 2006

My two cents on DaVinci and Judas

This is what I wrote for my church newsletter in May:

Strong Medicine, The Gospel of Judas, and The Da Vinci Code
Jonathan’s Journals

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not an easy message to hear. It is not like sweet-tasting medicine. It requires us to look squarely and plainly at reality, which in a world of fantasy and illusion, can be painful. The gospel requires us to look at ourselves as we truly are: as the good creation of God who have turned inward on ourselves and thus distorted the image of God which we were originally created to bear. In other words: we are broken sinners- in need of God’s redemption. In order for sinners like you and me to be redeemed, we need to acknowledge our sin, repent (that is, turn our lives around), and throw ourselves on the mercy of God, trusting Christ to deliver us. It’s pretty strong medicine, but unlike some medicines, it is free, available to all, and it really works.

So, I’m not too surprised that this gospel should prove itself to be too strong a medicine for all of us to stomach. From the very beginning of the church, there have been those who have wanted to replace this gospel with something a little easier to handle. One such alternative gospel was called gnosticism, and it has resurfaced lately in the form of the so-called “gospel of Judas.” Gnosticism, of which the gospel of Judas is merely one example, is based on the belief that we are saved not by grace through faith, but by “gnosis,” which is translated as “knowledge.” And it is not a knowledge available to all, it is a secret knowledge available only to a select few: thus the opening line in the gospel of Judas: "The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot."

In the world of gnosticism, the physical world is bad, and only the spiritual world is good. Jesus “saves us” by giving us the secret knowledge to know how to escape this bad physical world, and enter a spiritual world. (In contrast to this, orthodox Christianity has always taught that the physical world is God’s good creation, as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth”). So, Judas does Jesus a favor by turning him over to the Romans, so that he can die (be delivered from the physical body) and enter a spiritual realm with no body. In contrast to this, orthodox Christianity insisted that our bodies are good, and so Jesus’ bodily resurrection is essential, as is a belief in a general resurrection for all of us some day.

In the world of gnosticism, there is no sin, and thus no need for repentance. There is only ignorance, and the need for secret knowledge. If you can just find out the ‘secret,’ about how to escape the bad physical world and enter the good spiritual world, everything will be ok. In this way, the gospel of Judas has a lot in common with The Da Vinci Code, even though the gospel of Judas dates from the 2nd Century, and The Da Vinci Code is a modern invention. What they have in common is the belief that Jesus kept lots of secrets, and the church has been trying to ‘cover up’ these secrets for centuries. In particular, The Da Vinci code speculates that there were secrets associated with Mary Magdalene. We know from the New Testament gospels that Mary Magdalene was very important, that she was the first Christian preacher, the first Apostle sent by Jesus to bear witness to the resurrection. As such, she is a hugely important figure in the entire New Testament and in the church. The Da Vinci Code diminishes the role of Mary Magdalene by saying that she is important only because she is Jesus’ secret girlfriend, that she doesn’t have any meaningful identity apart from that. In contrast, the New Testament elevates Mary Magdalene to the place of Apostle to the Apostles, as someone who is commissioned by Jesus to keep no secrets, but to tell everyone about the glorious resurrection of his body.

Of course, the media is currently saturated with stories about the Gospel of Judas and The Da Vinci Code. I don’t blame the media, they are only giving the public what it wants: theological candy. But for those who want to be cured, or at least healed, there is no avoiding the strong medicine of the gospel. It may not be as sweet as candy, but it gives life.


ps: I plan to see the Da Vinci Code movie. It’s supposed to be pretty good as far as entertainment goes. And it may be a bridge for us to talk with people about Jesus.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

In Dialogue with St. Phransus

Recently at Wesley Blog, Shane Raynor was talking, once again, about Soul Force. In an interesting comment, St. Phransus (Jonathon Norman - please note he spells Jonathon with an o) made the folliwng insightful comment:

"If you don't like what soulforce is doing- open up dialog with homosexuals and listen to their concerns without condemning or excluding them and then ask for space for them to hear your concerns and allow space for both sides to be candid and frank. Then simply allow space for God to be in the midst and see where it goes- NO AGENDAS, NO POWER TRIPS, NO "I'M IN YOU'RE OUT"- simply listening to one another."

As I read this comment, I was thinking, Jonathon is excatly right about this. Instead of being eager to tell others that we are right and they are wrong, let's just listen to one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and see what happens. I myself have been persuaded by scholars like Richard Hays and N. T. Wright that our Discipline is correct, that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. But I am glad to put that opinion on hold and really listen to those who have a different view and see what we can learn from one another. So, I think Jonathon Norman's proposal contains much wisdom.

But contrast this way of looking at the matter, with what Stanley Hauerwas said in a radio broadcast recently posted on the blog of St. Phransus. Hauerwas was discussing how Christians should be pacifists, and that we should "fire our bishops" if they don't teach that Christians have a big problem with war. One caller pointed out that Abraham once assembled a small army to attack someone who had attacked his family. Hauerwas said, "if you think you're Abraham, then go ahead and use violence." The caller was about to say that if your family or nation is attacked, then you are like Abraham, but Hauerwas said, "but you're not Abraham; you're not the Promised people - you're not Jewish, you're American! The analogy doesn't work!" The caller said, "well I guess we'll just have to disagree." And Hauerwas said, "NO WE DON'T! YOU'RE WRONG!"

No dialogue. No opening up enough space to see what happens. No listening to others. Just matter of fact: You are Wrong! Period.

Now I think Hauerwas is right in the conversation. The analogy from Israel in the OT to American in modernity is a very bad analogy. Hauerwas was right to tell the caller that he was wrong. But what I want to point out is the way Hauerwas dealt with the caller: abrupt, direct, confrontational, in your face.

As I listened to Hauerwas, I thought: he's right! The caller should be told point blank that he is wrong.

But I am being inconsistent. Why should we carefully listen to one another about homosexuality, but trumpet the truth of pacifism when it comes to war? These are two fundamentally different approaches. I believe there are times to be open to dialogue, and then there are times to lay it on the line with as much gusto as possible. There are times for dialogue and there are times for proclamation and "thus saith the Lord..." Am I being inconsistent? If so, is that ok? And if so, what are the criteria we use for discerning which time is which? Wesley would say, As to whatever does not strike at the root of Christinity, we think and let think. According to that view, we should adopt a "thus saith the Lord" atttitude in matters directly relating to articles of faith such as the Apostles' Creed, but we could be lattitudinarians when it comes to opinions not addressed in the creed, such as homosexuality, for example. But then again, pacifism is not an article of the creed, so maybe we cannot be so dogmatic on that either. Just thinking out loud here, but I'm wondering how to reconcile these two fundamentally different approaches, both of which I intuitively think are appropriate.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Why the Casket Should Always be Closed at a Funeral, or My Favorite Monk Moment

Click here to see my favorite Monk moment. Look under season one, and click where it says, "Monk's keys land in final resting place." It is also a reminder that caskets should always be closed at funerals. I think I have never laughed so hard as when I first saw this on TV. One of these days, I am going to blog on the theological dimensions of Monk. Note, Camassia, that I am not saying Monk is an allegory of Christianity, just that it has certain theological dimensions.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Brian McLaren on local radio station

On the way to church this morning, I had a pleasant surprise: a local radio station was interviewing Brian McLarren, who is my favorite person involved in the Emergent Church Movement. Click here to listen. Fast forward past the first 5:30 minutes, which are mostly commercials. He introduces the Emergent church movement, talks about his distinction as one of the 25 most influential Christians in America (according to Time), and his latest book The Secret Message of Jesus. I don't particularly like the title of this latest book, as it sounds almost gnostic. But as always, Brian McLaren provokes and stretches. Enjoy!