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Beneath and Behind

Colleague and online friend Douglas Skinner recently wrote this, and has graciously given me permission to share it with you here —-

I flirted with the idea of becoming a Quaker about 10 years into my ministry. I had grown deeply discontent with the false-front Christianity of the institutional church that was demanding almost all my attention as an ordained minister in those days.

I had not gone to seminary and been ordained because I wanted to “run a church.” It was my hunger and thirst for God in Christ that had guided my every step up to that point (Psalm 63:1-5; Psalm 42:1-5; Matthew 4:1-4; Matthew 5:6), but this just didn’t seem to be biggest concern of the church.

It was easier to get people to a church softball game than to a prayer meeting. More people wanted to play “Bunco” than have a Bible Study. People were more interested in church being fun than in the church being faithful.

And all the while I was haunted by the warning in II Timothy 3:5 about how it’s possible to hold the form of religion while denying its power.

This is what compelled me to read Quaker theology and spirituality with the President of the Quaker Seminary in Houston for the better part of a year. I was drawn to them by their historic witness to the spiritual reality that’s beneath and behind all our ecclesiastical structures and systems, liturgies and rituals, creeds and confessions.

At a time when I was becoming disenchanted with the outward forms of religion, it was the Society of Friends who threw me a lifeline to the inward power of religion.

In the words of Sam Shoemaker that I often quote, I was looking for the fire that the fireplace of organized religion was built to serve. My spiritual life began as a response to a personal experience of the fire of the inner Christ, and my ministry was a commitment to keeping that fire burning so that others might be drawn to Christ by its light and warmth.

What I found in the Evangelical Quakers of Houston were fellow pilgrims on this journey of experiential Christianity, but at the end of my year of reading, thinking, and praying with them, I didn’t jump ship.

As frustrated as I was with the demands of outwardness, I just couldn’t let go of the fireplace. Christmas and Easter wouldn’t let me. The way that the outward and the inward cohere in the Incarnation of Christ (The Gospel’s Christmas truth) and in His bodily resurrection (The Gospel’s Easter truth) convinced me that jettisoning the outward in my decided preference for the inward would finally prove no less satisfying than the displacement of the inward by the demands of the outward that I was experiencing as the minister of a church. It was Calvin Miller in his 1984 book “The Table of Inwardness” (IVP) who helped me see this.

After singing the same tune that I knew by heart about the emptiness of the outward forms of Christianity “gone bad,” and the deadening demands of an institutional church that has become an end in itself, Calvin Miller went on to make the case for “outwardness.” He explained that “outwardness and inwardness are the poles of spirituality as north and south are poles of the earth’s geography,” and that while outwardness is “easily spoiled,” it still has its place. “We need to remember that the same Jesus who said, ‘Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them’ (Matthew 6:1),” Calvin Miller memorably wrote, “also said, ‘Everyone who acknowledges me before men I also will acknowledge before my Father’ (Matthew 10:12).” For every outward expression of the Christian faith that makes it observable there is an inward experience of an invisible reality to which it corresponds. This is the very definition of a sacrament – the outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace.

I finally came to terms with the fact that the outward forms of religion that I cherish and that my own particular spiritual tradition has historically promoted – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – are “built” for fire. They were given to us to be conduits of the Gospel’s power.

Alexander Campbell called the Gospel ordinances “pregnant institutions filled with the grace of God,” and he urged their use by Christians as a way of “impressing on one’s heart the central proposition of the Gospel that God is love.”

The outward forms are the ways we get to the inward realties.

“Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face;
Here faith can touch and handle things unseen;
Here would I grasp with firmer hand Thy grace,
And all my weariness upon Thee lean.

Too soon we rise; the symbols disappear;
The feast, though not the love, is past and gone;
The bread and wine remove, but Thou art here,
Nearer than ever still our Shield and Sun.”

—- As the previous version of our hymnal used to say, “Baptism is an outward sign of the inner working of God‘s grace.”

CLUB 444: “The Path of Division Remains a Zigzag”

Last week Mark Tooley wrote the following for the Institute for Religion and Democracy —

United Methodism’s formal schism began on May 1 with the conservative traditionalists launching the Global Methodist Church. But the split of the global denomination and its 13 million members will unfold haphazardly over the next few years as congregations and jurisdictions deliberate, one by one. Meanwhile, new data indicates that, for the first time, most of the denomination’s membership resides in Africa, as U.S. numbers plunge.

This summer, United Methodism’s quadrennial governing General Conference, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020, was expected to ratify a formal division of the denomination. But a church commission dominated by U.S. liberals postponed it until 2024, citing the pandemic and visa troubles for African delegates. Ironically, African commission members, anxious for the church to move forward and severely underrepresented given their continent’s majority status in the denomination, actually voted to meet this year. But they were outvoted. 

In early 2020, factions from across the theological spectrum agreed on a protocol to divide the denomination, with each congregation and local jurisdiction allowed to choose its way. The process would have taken several years. That agreement followed a special session of the General Conference in 2019 that defied liberal expectations by affirming and strengthening the church’s teachings and enforcement of traditional Christian views on sexuality. 

United Methodism has not followed other historically liberal U.S. mainline Protestant denominations in compromising its official position on sexuality because its membership is global, with millions of church members in Africa, where beliefs are very conservative. Same-sex rites are prohibited in United Methodism, where members of the clergy are required to be celibate if single and monogamous in a male-female marriage. However, most U.S. bishops and clergy are liberal, and some refuse to uphold church law. 

While its official position on homosexuality has not changed, United Methodism in the United States has liberalized over decades, along with the rest of mainline Protestantism. But the denomination’s growth in Africa has been dramatic over the same period. In 2020, U.S. church membership fell to under 6.3 million, down from 11 million when United Methodism was formed through the merger of two denominations in 1968. Not yet released figures for Africa show more than 7 million members. U.S. church membership dropped by 400,000 over two years while Africa’s grew by 800,000. 

Meeting after meeting, African delegates to the governing General Conference vote nearly unanimously against any acceptance of same-sex marriage or actively homosexual clergy. Seeing this obstacle and stunned by their 2019 defeat, church liberals accepted a negotiated split, which the 2020 General Conference certainly would have ratified had it met as scheduled. Conservatives believe liberals who supported a formal split are now equivocating, hoping the traditionalists will just go away.

But the pandemic postponed the gathering of delegates—three times. The latest postponement struck the traditionalists as odd since other denominations, including ones with overseas representatives, have successfully met. Moreoverconservatives believe liberals who supported a formal split are now equivocating, hoping the traditionalists will just go away.

But some conservative congregations in the United States are not waiting for 2024. Since the 2019 General Conference, more than 130 churches have used a new provision for congregations to leave with their property, which is owned by the denomination, if they dissent from church teachings on sexuality. And both conservative and liberal congregations have left, with the traditionalists objecting to ineffective enforcement. 

After this year’s General Conference postponement, a group of traditionalists unveiled May 1 the Global Methodist Church to receive churches that cannot and will not wait any longer. United Methodists of Bulgaria-Romania have already votedunanimously to join the GMC, defying their bishop’s objections. More than 100 congregations in Florida—20 percent of churches in that conference—announcedthey would join the new denomination. But the terms still must be negotiated with their bishop. The 2019 legislation requires departing churches to pay two years’ worth of expected payments to the denomination.

In January, amid denominational division, nearly 60 orthodox United Methodist scholars met near Washington, D.C., to craft a 24,000-word theological statement for the future of Methodism, which they will release later this month. Decades of theological and institutional decay have left many Methodists, even traditionalists, without a firm appreciation of Wesleyan doctrinal distinctives. Renewed catechesis is required throughout American Methodism.

While the new Global Methodism will need to address more than a half-century of United Methodism’s intellectual, spiritual, and demographic decline, the path of division remains a zigzag, not a straight line, because of the absence of a formal denominational vote. Some conservative congregations will make their move in the next couple of years. But many likely will stay in the denomination until the General Conference officially acts. Almost certainly the 7 million Africans will wait. 

Meanwhile, although it appears that U.S. liberals will not make it easy for U.S. conservatives to keep their church property when they leave, those liberals, anxious to adopt the LGBTQIA+ agenda after nearly a half-century of trying, do not want to wait much longer. But even if all U.S. traditionalists leave or quit, the African majority could block full liberalization. 

Within several years, most U.S. conservative traditionalists, along with churches in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines, will join the Global Methodist Church. U.S. liberals will be left with the unsustainable bureaucracy of a once strong denomination whose demographic future aligns with dying mainline Protestantism. They will have chosen to live in a disaster of their own making.

Christ Jesus, not Rudyard Kipling

“By this

all people will know

that you are my disciples,

if you have love for one another.”

—- John 13:35

If.

Painfully massive word with only two letters.

If.

How are we doing with that, Church?

If.

Going From: A Prayer Request

We know where we’re going

We know where we’re from

So wrote and sang Bob Marley, reggae superstar.

Can we say the same thing in Christ’s Holy Church?

Join me in praying for increasing clarity regarding both our history and our future.

And may they help us focus in the gift we call the present…and it doesn’t have to be tense.

CLUB 444: Still not just for United Methodists

Bet

Betzy Elifrits Warren wrote this two weeks ago, and I share it with her gracious permission

The United Methodist Church: ignoring the Bible by ordaining women since May 4, 1956…HAHAHAHA! I kid, I kid. I saw this YouTube video today, where this guy is all, “If you have a married couple as co-pastors at your church, leave now!” And all the comments were like, “He is such a biblical man and explains everything in such simple terms.” But he used the term “in church history” enough times that I’m pretty sure he doesn’t really know much about church history.

Anywho, the UMC is not a safe place for a lot of people, even with the exit of some GMCers…but it got one thing right on May 4, 1956, so I will give credit where it’s due. God calls us. All of us. Even *gasp* women!

– Whaddya say?

“I MAY NOT FEEL LIKE PRAYING” —- A United Methodist Bishop on Shootings

I repost this for any who need permission to cry without consolation. Yes, we are people of faith, and sometimes it just becomes overwhelming.

Buffalo, Irvine, Uvalde…

Sit with me while I cry
By LaTrelle Miller Easterling

Sit with me while I cry…just sit with me
Don’t attempt to hug me too tight
Or tell me everything will be all right
Or usher me out of the room as if my tears are perverse

Sit with me while I cry…just sit with me
Don’t try to quiet my wailing
Or ask me what’s wrong
Or grab me and start praying – I may not feel like praying right now
I may be angry at God – I may want to curse God – if you can’t take it, God can

Sit with me while I cry…just sit with me
Don’t back away as if my trembling body is a disease
That can be spread like a virus
Don’t look nervously around the room as if ashamed by my naked emotion

Sit with me while I cry…just sit with me
And if you feel like it, cry too

Class of 22 and Others

“Be very careful you live —

not as unwise but as wise,

making the most of every opportunity,

because the days are evil.”

Ephesians 5:15,16

“You’ll forever be the Zoom-groomed Corona crew,” Andy Kessler says to the Class of 2022 in an essay packed with advice for the Class of 2022. It was in The Wall Street Journal this weekend (Sunday’s digital and Monday’s print editions). Here are some excerpts that I enjoyed and am happy to share with you here today —

Life is like your college application on steroids.

You can lie to a customer any time but only once. And then word gets out, goes viral and everyone knows it. It’s a short walk from great rep to out of the business.

There are always shortcuts—maybe cut some corners, trade in a bit of integrity to move ahead. Don’t do it! In this ever-connected world, everyone will find out. Everyone. People will stop dealing with you, and you’ll never really know why. Bad reputations are hard to shake.

Take risks—but smart ones. You want a reputation as someone who is bold. Ambitious. Forward thinking. Trustworthy. And don’t forget appreciative, thanking those who help along the way. 

Success is not about money, it’s about respect from your peers. Everything else follows. You can stake your reputation on it.

— Simple. Serious.

And simply seriously good advice.

No matter our age or experience.

CLUB 444: “I Just Sent My Withdrawal”

Wally, a very long time real life friend and colleague, has graciously given me permission to share this with you – – –

I just sent my withdrawal from Conference Membership from the North Georgia Conference of the UMC where I have been a member since 1975.

I am now a clergy member (Elder) of the Global Methodist Church, serving as President of Venezuela Now, Inc.

I thank God for the opportunities the UMC gave me to serve.

I regret this change was necessary. However, in my 70th year, I am excited about the future.

My mission has always been to make disciples of Jesus Christ. That is unchanged.

—- How many more? A trickle, or the opening of a flood gate?

I look forward to hearing from you.

You and I Probably Know at Least One

Bear one another’s burdens,

and so fulfill the law of Christ.

—- Galatians 6:2

WARNING: This is a difficult read. And a difficult reality. I sourced it from The Addict’s Diary. It’s painfully honest. And it’s tragically true for someone in too many families and circles of friends —-

You put me anywhere in the world with a dope habit and I’ll find heroin—I’m a drug addict.

You put me anywhere on God’s green earth clean and sober with nothing to my name and I’ll build a whole new life for myself in 3 months—I’m a drug addict.

You give me 5,000 dollars, a cocaine dealer, and a pack of syringes and in four weeks I’ll come out of a motel room unrecognizable—I’m a drug addict.

You show me anyone who thinks we’re just some worthless junkies who can’t change and in 30 minutes I’ll make a believer out of them—I’m a drug addict.

You stick me in any bar give me one beer and in one hour I’ll be snorting cocaine. Two days later I’ll stop sniffing when I finally shoot heroin—I’m a drug addict.

You show me anyone on this planet who’s hopeless and in 30 minutes I’ll inspire them to change their life—I’m a drug addict.

You show me you love me, and I’ll make you hate me—I’m a drug addict.

I am an extremely talented living series of contradictions.

There’s actually two of me.

Which one you see depends entirely upon one thing—sobriety.

I’m a drug addict. (source: #TheAddictsDiary)

—- And you and I probably know at least one.

And probably love them.

That’s a good start.

Happy. Grown Up.

Lines from a conversation —-

It’s never too late to grow up.

There are happy grown ups.

I need one to be my sponsor.

— Maybe you and I’ll be by one in worship today.

Maybe you and I’ll be one in worship today.