Dorothy was right, wasn’t she? There really is no place like home (a fact that becomes abundantly clear to me whenever I am called upon to spend some time far away from home).
First of all, allow me to go on record for the purpose of weighing in on the really important issue of the weekend:
“Iron Man” is a very well-made and entertaining film! Robert Downey Jr., no doubt channeling the gritty hardships of his troubled past, carries to the screen precisely the kind of charismatic intensity needed to bring roguish billionaire Tony Stark to life. The story is good without being unnecessarily cumbersome. The actors seem to be genuinely invested and engaged. The special effects are relentlessly impressive. And, if I may be completely honest, Iron Man’s armor is way cool.
If you see the film, don’t leave before the credits finish. That’s all I can say at this point.
Beyond my cinematic journey into the Marvel universe, I have also spent the weekend attempting to gain some perspective on my experience of General Conference. Here are some of my lingering reflections:
*There is a myriad of beautifully-gifted, abundantly creative, and impressively articulate souls in that portion of the church called United Methodism. The music, dancing, liturgy, and preaching that I experienced at General Conference were, by far, the richest portion of the entire experience for me.
*I’m really glad to be part of a denomination whose heritage has placed an emphasis upon BOTH personal piety AND social ministry and justice. Both points of emphasis regularly found expression in the work of the General Conference. A denomination that can, in the same breath, speak about both the centrality of prayer and the urgency of preventing malaria in Africa is doing something right.
*The pace and schedule of General Conference did not allow sufficient time for sleep, quiet reflection, and prayerful contemplation of the issues before us. It brought about an environment of weariness and frustration in which discernment was sometimes difficult to find. There must be a better way of streamlining petitions or altering our polity for the purpose of creating a more edifying experience of holy conferencing.
*It is impossible for a group of one thousand people to wordsmith legislation (although this fact does not prevent a number of people from trying).
*United Methodism is a truly global church, thanks be to God! In fact, the American United Methodist Church must now look to United Methodism in the African countries and Korea for guidance and leadership (since those are the places where United Methodism is flourishing). Hearing testimonies of the work of the church from some of the African and Korean delegates was nothing short of life-changing for me. God is powerfully at work in the denomination around the world.
*That said, I am brought to tears when I think about the decline of the United Methodist Church in America. In fact, one of the things that became clear to me at General Conference is that we plan our denominational budget assuming a continuing decline over the next quadrennium. Decline, in other words, is so much a part of the current American ecclesiastical ethos that we build it into our budgeting formula! I am wondering like never before why it is that we are missing what our African and Korean brothers and sisters seem to have found in abundance. Perhaps some of you have some ideas about this.
*We are a deeply divided denomination on a number of important levels. We are divided theologically (a division that becomes particularly clear when one compares the theological orthodoxy of our existing social creed to the praxis-oriented theology of the new litany that now accompanies the social creed). We are divided over the issue of homosexuality (which, of course, is an issue inseparably linked to differing interpretations of biblical authority and sexual purity, not to mention our church’s theology of marriage and ordination). We are divided in our ecclesiastical interpretation of the ministry of the General Church within United Methodism (with some seeing the General Boards and Agencies as being too liberal and too unfocused to redeem and others seeing them as one of the church’s best features). We are still divided by racism (which was made clear to me when I overheard a white delegate sitting behind me affirm his friend by saying “Thanks, friend, that was mighty white of you”). I do not highlight these divisions in order to convey as sense of pessimism. Too often, however, these divisions are ignored or sidestepped without being sufficiently named and owned. We may very well be able to stay at the table together (thanks to the unifying power of Jesus Christ), but genuine unity demands of us the hard work of acknowledging the specific divisions that can often break our hearts.
*The protest/witness offered by those in our denomination who are calling for the church to become more welcoming and affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people was an important but painfully difficult thing to experience. I am grateful that our bishop (Tom Bickerton) came to pray with the delegation during those challenging moments.
*My personal opinion is that United Methodism needs a new hymnal like it needs a hole in the head. Unfortunately, I’m a part of the minority! The General Conference approved the creation of a new hymnal, to be published by 2013. I’m sure that I’ll be on board with it by then.
*General Conference officially changed the mission of our church from “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ” to “Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” There was very little theological reflection about this matter. I am in agreement with some of my fellow-bloggers that this is not a helpful expansion. Making disciples is a thoroughly biblical concept, while transforming the world is not. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that we are to transform the world. In fact, the clear witness of Scripture is that the primary purpose of the church is to BE the church, rather than to convince the world to behave differently. Social transformation, as I see it, is not the church’s mission, but rather a byproduct of the church’s mission. All of my thoughts on the matter are inconsequential, of course, since the new mission statement was adopted by a majority vote. So get out there and change the world (and don’t forget your iPhone). By the way, please understand that I am not cynical about this issue. I simply long for a deeper theological conversation before we change something as important as our church’s mission statement.
*At General Conference, my personal opinion is that inclusiveness is championed at the expense of personal holiness and transformation. When one preacher spoke of the idolatry of our “right thinking and doctrine,” applause and cheers were offered. In the next section of his sermon, when he spoke of the “idolatry of hospitality that eliminates the urgency of personal repentance and transformation,” the people responded with silence (a “cue the crickets” kind of silence, in fact). Inclusiveness, among many, has become the only ecclesiastical criterion that matters. I heard very few references made to rebirth and sanctification, and even fewer to radical and sacrificial obedience. Again, I am not cynical about this, nor am I attempting to get you to jump on my personal bandwagon. I am simply calling it as I saw it.
*At times, I was overcome with a sense of spiritual schizophrenia at General Conference as I attempted to figure out where I fit in to the current United Methodist configuration. I am certainly not a theological liberal (a phrase that I prefer over “theological progressive” because of its neutrality). Nor do I feel comfortable aligning myself with those conservatives who are eager to demonize the other side and who are absolutely convinced that they have everything figured out. So where does that put me? Maybe I’m an evangelical liberal…or a liberal evangelical…or a regressive progressive…or a bilabial fricative!!!!!!!!
*I wonder who has the highest I.Q.–Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, Reed Richards, or Bruce Banner. I fear that many would eliminate Tony Stark too quickly from this competition because of his proclivities as a rapscallion. But give the guy some props, would you?! Creating that suit of armor is no small feat. Dr. Strange and The Martian Manhunter will have to judge the competition.
*Here’s my final thought, straight from our United Methodist liturgy: “The church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time…” I believe this with all of my heart. I simply wonder how it is and where it is that United Methodism will fit into the preserved Church.
I am grateful to all of you who blessed me with such kind and encouraging comments on this blog over the last couple of weeks. Your presence in my life means more to me than I could ever explain. Please be aware of my gratitude.