Understanding Our Perspective

A few days ago I went to a lecture by John Pavlovitz. He spoke passionately about the church’s need to embrace an expansive hope, to keep extending the table, because the table belongs to Christ, not to us. I think a lot about extending the table, in part because I drive past a restaurant renovation every day on my way to and from town. The restaurant will be called “Sawhorse” because the new owners grew up in a family that used sawhorses to expand the table, to welcome guests for any meal. It’s an approach to hospitality and abundance that is inspiring. After the recent General Conference vote to add more punitive measures to LGBTQ exclusion in the UMC and the mosque shootings in Christchurch, NZ, I needed to hear words of hope and inspiration to continue living into the way of Christ the peacemaker. I’m grateful for the work and ministry that John is doing.

One thing he said caught my mission-oriented ear however, and it is an all-too-common thing I hear from people who have been on mission trips. “They had nothing.”

Pavlovitz was describing the joy and warmth of the young people at a school in Kenya, where he and his wife were visiting. By the way he described it, the village must have been in a rural area and likely one struggling with poverty. It is shocking to US citizens who travel to discover the depths of poverty that affect the majority of the world’s citizens. It is shocking for US citizens to discover that poverty affects so many people right here in our own country. Sometimes it takes a short-term mission trip to push us beyond our familiar streets, neighborhoods and stores to see the reality of poverty and how it affects our neighbors. Yet, we can be restricted in how we view our neighbors because of our perspective.

Our perspective is the set of unconscious lenses we wear when we look at the world. Dr. Cate Denial is a historian who recently described an exercise she used to help her students understand the perspectives they bring to the study of history. She had students pair up, with one describing a set of objects to another whose back was turned away from the objects while they drew what was described to them. Student pairs were scattered around the room, with the objects on the desk at the front of the room. They shared their drawings and discussed the differences between them. Great questions were raised about primary sources (the persons who were describing the objects) and perspective. The students began to consider other lenses that affect our perspective - cultural background, education, ideology.

In short-term mission, our perspective is impacted by the unconscious lenses we wear. Our cultural background affects how we think about money. Our education colors how we think about other people and governmental systems. Our own political views are a lens. When we travel, we bring our perspectives with us, and these affect how we think about and talk about our neighbors in other places. The common phrase “they had so little” or “they had nothing” can be a perspective that comes from our affluence. We may not realize that we understand “what we have” in material terms, while the people who are welcoming us understand “what we have” in terms of hospitality.

When Pavlovitz visited Kenya, the young people who greeted him likely welcomed him with joyful songs and cheerful smiles. Their perspective was that they offered him their best hospitality, which is what they had in abundance. What if when we return home from mission trips we talked about our hosts in terms of what they had instead of what they lacked, which came from not unpacking our perspective? What if we took off our lens of materialism and consumerism to see that our humanity is what we share and judge people from a perspective of hospitable generosity? Then we can say “they gave us their very best”.

Unpacking our perspective and understanding the unconscious lenses that we wear on mission trips is important, because how we talk about our neighbors matters. How we talk with them matters. How we talk about them when we return home matters. The concept of Ubuntu means “I am because We are.” I am more fully human, more fully who God created me to be because we are in relationship. I am, because we are. How we talk about our neighbors matters, to us and to our shared humanity in Christ.

Asking For a Seat at the UMC Table

The United Methodist Church is in the news.  NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, and many others.  They have been meeting in General Conference, where elected delegates from the global church debated whether to maintain prohibitions on LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church, or to eliminate some of those prohibitions, or to put into place further restrictions and prohibitions.  By a slim margin the further restrictions and prohibitions ruled the day. 

This morning I awoke to a message from a family whose children were in the Christian education program I led several years ago.  When the news came late yesterday about the UMC General Conference decision, they called their local church and withdrew their names from the membership.  They refuse to be part of a church that excludes people.  They want to be part of a church that invites everyone to the table, that embodies grace for all people.

I was raised in the United Methodist Church.  I remember clearly my baptism in 1969, just a year after the denomination was formed through the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.  I remember clearly my Confirmation classes.  I remember clearly the Sunday school teachers and choir directors who taught me the songs and scriptures of the faith.  I remember the mission projects of the United Methodist Women and our youth group.  I remember worship with the Spanish language congregation in our town.  I remember hearing the words of resurrection hope at my father's funeral in the same United Methodist Church, his coffin at the rail where I knelt to be baptized, where I knelt for communion, where I first heard the call of God into ministry.

Bible studies with diverse groups of people have played a key role in my ongoing formation as a disciple.  More times than I can count, I have been in studies on the book of Acts.  Always we ponder the diversity and differences in the early church, and how the church began to understand itself and its mission.  In Acts 10 there is the story of Cornelius, a Gentile who worshiped God.  His prayers open him up to receiving a vision, in which he is told to send for Simon Peter.  Peter meanwhile, has a vision of his own, in which all kinds of food are lowered by a sheet before him.  He refuses to eat, citing his adherence to Jewish purity laws.  A voice from heaven said: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."  Before he can puzzle out the meaning of this vision, he gets the call from Cornelius.  When he enters Cornelius' house, full of Gentiles worshiping and praying, Peter tells them that it is unlawful for a Jew to visit or even associate with a Gentile, "but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean."

Every time I study the book of Acts, this passage causes me to ask myself - who have I put into that category of profane?  Who am I refusing to associate with or visit?  Who do I refuse to invite to sit next to me at the table?  Examination of my own heart is an essential practice, a way to open my heart to the work of sanctifying grace, the movement of the Holy Spirit.

God's table is open to all.  When LGBTQIA+ persons call to the church, they are like Cornelius, faithful in their prayers and asking to have a seat at the table.  When the church refuses to recognize them, they are closing a door that the Spirit holds open.  The church throughout history has often closed doors, treated people as less-than, ignored the cries of those who want to be welcomed around the table.

At the World Missionary Conference of 1910, the majority of the delegates were men from Western Hemisphere nations, men who controlled the missionary agencies.  Of the 1,215 delegates only 19 represented non-western countries.  One was Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah.  V.S. Azariah was one of the founders of the National Missionary Society in India.  Azariah was one of the few non-western speakers at the Conference.  His words have proven to be a conviction of the missionary movement, and its inability to see where it ignored the cries of those who wanted to be welcomed as equals around God's table. Azariah's words regarding racism in the missionary movement still call the church today to examine itself, to see where it does not invite everyone to sit at the table.

"The exceeding riches of the glory of Christ can be fully realised not by the Englishman, the American, and the Continental alone, nor by the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Indians by themselves - but by all working together, worshipping together, and learning together the Perfect Image of our Lord and Christ.  It is only 'with all the Saints' that we can 'comprehend the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.' This will be possible only from spiritual friendships between the two races.  We ought to be willing to learn form one another and to help one another.  Through all the ages to come the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest to the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body.  You have given your goods to feed the poor.  You have given your bodies to be burned.  We also ask for love.  Give us FRIENDS!"

Dr. Brian Stanley comments on Azariah's speech:  "...the riches of the glory of God will be appropriated by the Church only if all the saints inter-relate in Christian fellowship.  No one ethnic group acting in isolation from other Christians can discover the full riches of Christ.  If the church is not multi-racial, its Christology will actually be distorted."

No one group acting in isolation from other Christians can discover the full riches of Christ.  By cutting out a group of people who are begging to be given a seat at the table in the UMC, we are distorting our image of Christ.  We are denying ourselves the opportunity to discover more deeply the glory of God.  We are cutting off the opportunity to learn together, to make room for the Spirit to move in our hearts as sanctifying grace.

If the political structure of the UMC closes a door, then it is time for the missional movement of the UMC to open more doors.  Through prayer, we can be open to the leading of the Spirit, we can be ready like Cornelius and Peter to see and hear where God is calling us to meet with others, to form Christian friendships.  It is time for the mission-minded people of the UMC to seek out diverse ways in which to pray together, sing together, worship together, work for justice together.  It is time for the mission-minded people of the UMC to be the church that Azariah calls us to be, united in Christian fellowship, offering space at the table to all people, listening and learning from each other, looking for the glory of God.  It is time, mission-minded United Methodists.  It is time. 

 

Stanley, Brian. The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids. 2009.

Quotations from page 125

John Allen Chau and the Assumptions We Carry

Today as I sat down to write about John Allen Chau and the distance between opposing viewpoints, I realized that the moment to comment on this subject passed back in early December.  Many articles and posts were written just after the news hit that Chau had been killed as he tried to land on North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal.  I wanted to write in mid-December, but it felt reactionary.  Reflection and careful thinking take time.  That time means that jumping on the bandwagon while the topic is hot is not an option.  While I may be late to the subject, it is still important to consider what happened between Chau and the people he attempted to reach, and what happened between those who saw him as reckless and those who saw him as a martyr.

In last week’s post, I argued for love as our guiding ethic.  Looking at the conflict between the Covington Catholic School boys and the Indigenous Peoples’ March, I suggested that the entire situation could have looked very different if the boys’ chaperones had guided them to listen to the people they disagreed with, to hear what Nathan Phillips and the other Indigenous Peoples’ marchers were communicating with their songs and drumming.  What would that situation have looked like if everyone in that situation held space for questions, listening and learning from each other?

 The Obligation of Christians

In that same vein, I printed out two articles regarding the actions of John Allen Chau.  One was an opinion piece by a professor of religious studies posted at Religion News.  The other was a piece posted by The New Yorker.  Dr. John Stackhouse argues that how a person thinks about the actions of Chau depends upon how one understands the obligation of Christians to fulfill the Great Commandment – Jesus’ parting words to the disciples in the gospel of Matthew to “go, therefore” and make disciples of all nations.  The New Yorker article describes the conversation amongst missionaries and mission agencies regarding the approach taken by Chau – direct proselytizing – in contrast to relief and development work.

Dr. Stackhouse presents the case for proselytizing in stark terms.  Chau believed that the people of North Sentinel Island were in imminent danger of losing their eternal lives, as though an asteroid was approaching their homes and his faith required him to preach Jesus to them.  Despite Chau’s study of linguistics and missionary anthropology, and despite not knowing the language of the Sentinelese people, Chau “contravened the express wishes of the islanders” and attempted to land on their island.  Chau would have learned through his study that gaining the trust of people in order to show respect for their culture and to learn their language takes time.  The people he was attempting to reach have no immunity from modern diseases, and despite his efforts to quarantine himself he would have presented an infectious risk to the very people he wanted to reach with a message of salvation.

 The Assumptions We Carry Into Mission Work

The assumption behind Dr. Stackhouse’s argument is that without verbal proclamation by a Christian the Sentinelese people can never know God.  If people have not heard about Jesus from a Christian or had the Bible preached to them, then God cannot have revealed God’s self to them. 

The assumption that God cannot save God’s own creation without human intervention is one that needs unpacking.  The assumptions we bring to any mission work should be examined.  Dr. Stackhouse asserts that Christians simply have to decide if they believe those persons who have not heard a verbal proclamation of Christ are going to hell or not.  If you agree, then Chau is a martyr, and if you don’t, well then let’s just “agree to disagree on this basic point”.  Further, he asserts that Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the time of Christ, so it’s all good if we disagree.

 Not Agreeing to Disagree

My argument is that if we simply “agree to disagree” then we are not unpacking the assumptions and biases we bring to our mission work.  Holding space for each other, listening to each other, asking ourselves difficult questions, these are the ways in which we dismantle our own prejudices and cultural blinders.  We may continue to disagree, but without listening to each other and continuing the conversation, we will not learn from each other.    An ethic of love guides us to listen to each other and work through our difficult questions.

The New Yorker article quotes Dr. Ed Stetzer, professor of mission and evangelism at Wheaton College: “The history of [mission] is filled with stories of bravery, martyrdom, and positive change – but also filled with mistakes, colonialism, and cultural errors.”  Dr. Stetzer’s description of mission history reveals that scholars of mission have examined assumptions and biases, working through difficult questions and learning from the past. 

Wycliffe Bible Translators is mentioned in the New Yorker article as well, due to their policy of only sending translators when they are invited.  This is also the policy of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission.  An invitation from a presiding bishop of an area is required for a team of volunteers to go to a mission project.  Policies like this have developed after mission sending agencies carefully considered difficult questions and listened to those they aimed to serve.  Waiting for an invitation means that a volunteer team is not in charge of the mission project.  The host country or church decides when or if they want outsiders to come. 

 Building Bridges of Understanding

So this brings us back to learning how to listen.  As I’ve said before, learning how to listen requires vulnerability and willingness to change.  Rather than simply agreeing to disagree, which means we do not have to face our vulnerability or change, Christian love makes it possible for us to hold space for each other.  Christian love is the guiding ethic which makes it possible for us to hear each other and build bridges of understanding.  When our brothers and sisters in countries that had received missionaries during colonialism spoke out against the assumptions underneath decisions by mission agencies or denominational leadership, it took Christian love to guide those mission and denominational leaders so that they could change.  Through listening and building bridges of understanding, we have an opportunity today to improve our mission practices.

I don’t have an easy solution for the conversation about John Allen Chau’s approach to the Sentinelese people.  I would defer to those with experience in the region, both local church leaders and mission organizations that work in the region.  I firmly believe in and trust the work of the Holy Spirit.  I believe that God can work in ways well beyond my imagination.  I believe we are better when we pray, think, and work together.  May we all continue to hold space, listen, learn, and build bridges of understanding and grace. 

Love Is Our Guiding Ethic

When I was young, I read to my little brother.  We had an extensive collection of children’s books, but as children often do, we read our favorites over and over.  One of them was a collection of Dr. Seuss stories.  I was always puzzled by the story of The Zax.  The north-going Zax walks straight into the south-going Zax and there they argue.  Each one demands the other move aside, and each one refuses to budge.  So there they stay, through wind, rain, snow, and eventually a city grows up around them and they stand, refusing to budge, under a freeway interchange.

The Zax is a story about not listening to each other, about refusing to learn or change.

 Outrage and Refusal To Budge

A friend of mine shared a blog post about the exchange between Omaha Nation elder Nathan Philips and a group from a Covington Catholic School in Kentucky.  The blog post suggested that the high school boys should return to school and “be educated” about why their actions were viewed as disrespectful to a Native American elder and Marine Corps veteran.  Education efforts are to be commended, but they are a minority voice among all the shouting and outrage since videos of the exchange hit social media.

This incident follows another one just a month ago, in which a young American man persisted in traveling to visit the Sentinelese people despite Indian laws forbidding any outside contact with these people.  The laws exist to protect the Sentinelese from the risk of contracting modern disease, and to protect visitors from the violent response of the Sentinelese which meets anyone who tries to cross their shores.  This exchange also caused an immediate reaction on social media, again resulting in strident voices standing firm in their opinions.

They were racist.  They weren’t racist.  They were provoked.  They weren’t provoked.  They should be punished.  They were just kids.  They were victims.  They were mocking.  He was wrong.  He was faithful.  Mission is colonialism.  Mission is a calling.  He broke the law.  He was a martyr.  North-going Zax refusing to budge.  South-going Zax refusing to budge.

 Holding Space For Listening and Learning

While the full range of reactions to these incidents included moderate voices, those who were angered and those who were defensive were the loudest.  In such an exchange – outrage or indignation followed by defensiveness – there is not room for listening and learning.  What is critical is to hold space in which people involved can reflect upon what happened, listen to each other, and learn new ways of living out our call to be people who are known by our love.

The person who wrote that the Covington Catholic School boys should be taught history, sociology, cultural intelligence and morality has the right idea, but the process of education takes more than stating “people should learn”, and more than just a classroom.  The process of education requires that we stop shouting past each other as though we are the Zax, refusing to budge.  Listening to each other and learning from each other requires that we set aside outrage and defensiveness.  This is not easy.

What the exchange between the Catholic high school students and the Native Americans at the Indigenous Peoples March shows us is that humans tend to stand firm in their opinions rather than listening to each other.  Dr. Seuss was really on to something about our human tendency to refuse to budge rather than listen.  Jesus told his disciples that people would know them simply by the witness of their love for others.  Love is the guiding ethic that drives all of our encounters with others.  Love requires that we set aside our self-defenses and listen to each other.  Love requires that we learn from those we meet – and in mission love means that we learn from those we hope to serve.

 Love Is Our Guiding Ethic

The exchange between Nathan Phillips and the Covington Catholic School students could have been quite different.  What would it have looked like if teachers, parents, mentors, chaplains and chaperones had instilled in the students the guiding ethic that love guides every encounter with another person?  What if the students had simply walked a short distance away from another group of protestors who were yelling at them?  What if love had determined how the school viewed student chants at athletic events?  What if love was the fundamental ethic that guided discussions about other cultures?  About our history?

Learning takes time and it takes vulnerability.  Learning requires that we ask hard questions and listen to the answers.  Learning requires that we open ourselves to the possibility that we need to change.  Consider how I learned about a particular racial slur.  My high school French teacher was near retirement age and often drifted off topic.  When he taught a lesson on the French national anthem, he went off topic and discussed his experience as a soldier in World War II, culminating in a brief and muttered commentary about Japanese people.  He used the word “Japs”.  I’d forgotten this incident until I turned on a classic movie channel a few days ago and Clark Gable appeared on the screen using the same word.  The movie must have been filmed around the same time as my teacher was enlisted in the war.  The term was in common use, no one thought anything wrong with it.  But to my ears in the early 1980s, it was shocking (as it was again this week).  I asked my older brother’s best friend about it.  His father was American and his mother was Japanese.  My brother’s friend was over at our house quite often and I thought of him as another brother, so I asked the difficult questions – and listened.  Yes, he said, that’s a racial slur.  Don’t repeat it.  After all these years I don’t remember all the details of our conversation, but what I remember is that we held space for each other to listen and to learn.  It was uncomfortable.  A bit like a Zax stepping to the side.  But worth it.

Learning how to listen requires vulnerability and willingness to change.  With Christian love as our guiding ethic, we can admit when we need to change and build bridges of understanding.

I’ll write more about the young missionary and his encounter with the people of North Sentinel Island soon, and how listening to each other is what is needed at this moment in mission practice.

Training Season

 

Last Sunday my town was hit by an ice storm.  The weather forecast had called for some snow, but all we got was rain, sleet and freezing temps.  That added up to a layer of ice on trees, power lines and roadways.  Many area churches canceled their regular services or moved them to a later time.  For large churches, a notice on the local TV station got the word out.  Others used Facebook.  My congregation includes many folks who don’t have computers or smart phones, so we relied on our landline phone list and prayer chain. 

Sometimes things are as simple as A plus B plus C equals success.  Other times things are R plus S plus F equals Sunday morning scrambling around coming up with alternative plans. 

A friend of mine asked last week if I had any information for his new leadership position at his church.  I found an old copy of a booklet from the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship that had information for his job in his church.  While I was looking, I remembered that January is a time when many United Methodist districts will offer leadership training.  Last week I saw that there was a training session happening in my annual conference for mission volunteers.  It seems that January is “training season” for volunteers of many kinds in the church.

My friend had a look at the information booklet and said “there’s a lot there”.  It can be overwhelming when you’re suddenly in charge, and you know that the church is important to people so you want to get it right.  In fact, the information booklet for leaders in charge of mission at their church has this interesting quote:  “There is no magic formula for a perfect mission program.  Don’t think that 2 mission trips + 50 UMCOR Health Kits + 1 mission study = success!”

That is SO right.  There is no formula for a perfect mission program or a perfect mission trip.  I’ve been on mission teams that used the pre-trip team meetings to decide the schedule, the vacation activities, and who would bring the Vacation Bible School project supplies in their second suitcases.  However, those meetings didn’t spend any time on learning the language our hosts would speak, learning about our destination’s history and current context, or considering what problems we might encounter on our trip.  There are always problems to encounter on a mission trip.  The group might have had a better experience if we’d been a little prepared for difficulties – or at least hadn’t expected perfection.

My work as a mission consultant would be a snap if I could advertise it as “Four Easy Steps To The Perfect Mission Trip!” or “Three Easy Steps To Revitalizing Your Mission Outreach!”.  Truth is, there is no magic formula.  But there is joy in the journey.  Each mission team or outreach committee is made up of dedicated people who are ready to put their hands and hearts to work, to be involved in disciple-making for the transformation of the world.  When they feel a bit overwhelmed like my friend, then I’m ready to come alongside and guide the mission team or outreach committee through the work of discerning their particular goals, to help them prepare for their trip, or to have a post-trip retreat to unpack all their feelings and questions about their experience.  It really helps to have someone walk with you through your work in local church missions, beyond a booklet or an hour-long workshop at the district training session. 

If you are new to mission team preparation or you’ve just accepted a role on your church’s outreach team and you’re not sure what to do, contact me for a phone consultation or a video consultation.  We can create a plan to help your team be ready for missions and avoid the last-minute scramble.

Waters of Baptism

This week as I’ve been preparing for Baptism of the Lord Sunday in my local churches, I’ve been reading a lot about water, about Methodist understanding of baptism, and as always, mission. What does mission have to do with our baptism?

Baptism is one of my earliest memories, watching my brothers being baptized in our childhood church. What I didn’t realize as a child was that being baptized meant that we were being incorporated into the body of Christ. A four-year old child has a limited capacity to understand such an abstract concept. To be honest, most of us no matter our age, struggle to really, deeply understand what it means to be incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation, which is the body of Christ for the world.

In the United Methodist liturgy for baptism, these are the words the congregation says to the newly baptized person. “Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as members of the family of Christ.” This is the thing that we all work to understand as disciples. Our experience of baptism is not private. It is personal, but it moves us beyond our selfish interests and helps us to become part of the body of Christ, given for the sake of the world. We are saved, not for ourselves, but for others.

This brings us to mission. When we go out on a short-term mission trip, we likely have been moved by empathy and compassion for those who struggle and suffer. We want to help! This is clear by the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission response to the needs in Puerto Rico. Devastated by hurricanes, the people of Puerto Rico need help to recover. The Methodist Church in Puerto Rico reports that there are already 125 teams signed up to work there in 2019 - that’s more than two teams of volunteers per week on average. Our baptism means that if our brothers and sisters are suffering, so we suffer with them, and some folks are able to travel and put their compassion into sweat and work.

For our worship on Sunday, we’ll use water imagery. We’ll sing about baptism, we’ll talk about baptism, and we’ll dip our fingers in water to remember our baptisms. A clergy friend of mine has a family coming to be baptized on this special Sunday. I love water imagery. But everyone has a different experience of water, and for me, this includes growing up on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes were an annual threat. I’ve lived through several hurricanes, some with rain and wind, and some with flooding. Water is a powerful image and it is helpful to remember that although we have the water of baptism as one of our sacraments, we need to remember that water imagery can be helpful or painful for people.

I worshiped with a group once that loved to sing a contemporary worship song that talks about God’s love being like a hurricane. The first time I heard it, I was stunned into silence. That song did NOT help me to sing praise to God or to consider more deeply God’s love for me. All I could think about was the destructive power of hurricanes. Surely the songwriter did not know what it was like to live through a hurricane, right? And then I learned that the song was written by a Houston-based Christian band leader. Is it possible that a person living in Houston would not know the destructive power of hurricanes? Yes, it’s possible.

This is the point at which we find the opportunity to learn together through mission projects. All those United Methodist volunteers going from the US to Puerto Rico to help with hurricane recovery have the opportunity to worship with their Methodist brothers and sisters, to listen to their stories, to learn about their faith, and how their faith has sustained them through it all. While the work projects are critically needed, so are the connections and relationships between people. All those mission teams have the opportunity to listen to the faith of the people of Puerto Rico. It can take a lifetime to understand what it really means to be incorporated by the Holy Spirit and to share in Christ’s royal priesthood.

If you have a mission team heading out on a hurricane recovery trip this year and you are interested in having a post-trip team retreat to debrief and talk about how baptism shapes our mission work, contact me! Dates are open now for summer and fall 2019 retreats and workshops.

A Mission for the Methodists

Happy New Year!  2019 is underway!  I love fresh starts, new calendars, and looking ahead to good things to come.

I started this year by reading a book by Dr. William B. Lawrence, who serves as professor of American Church History at Perkins School of Theology and is a research fellow at Duke Divinity School.  The book is A Methodist Requiem: Words of hope and resurrection for the church, and was published just last year.  Because I'm a United Methodist, I read a lot about our denomination and our upcoming special General Conference on human sexuality.  I think some of the best wisdom is from our church historians, who put our current crisis into perspective.  Dr. Lawrence and Dr. Ted Campbell are two of my favorites, probably because they are also pastors, and their dual lenses offer a great deal of hope for the future of the United Methodist Church, as opposed to the cynicism I see in so many of the online articles and commentary. 

Dr. Lawrence asserts that while the United Methodist Church may be working through conflict and considering various options for division, hope for the future actually lies in a refreshed vision for mission as a church.  Rather than each individual person having a mission, or each individual congregation having a mission, Dr. Lawrence suggests that Methodists have in the past understood themselves to be a people who are connected globally through a shared vision for mission. 

In this understanding of the United Methodist Church, hope for the future comes not through our rules and structure, not through sending pastors to only the right seminaries, not through a formula for church growth, but through a shared vision for mission.  What is that mission?  Proclaiming the good news of the grace of God.  Here's how Lawrence states it:

"The answer...is that we Methodists are a body of Christians who insist that the message of salvation applies as fully to this life as it does to the life to come.  We celebrate the gospel of Jesus Christ as a message of death and life.  We offer good news in confronting death, whether that is the biological death that comes to all God's creatures or other forces of death such as the suffering, hunger, injustice, hatred, and slavery that deprive human beings of the freedom for which Christ has set us free.  We proclaim the good news that death - in all of its forms - has been overcome by the power of God.  In this age and for the age to come, Methodism's mission is to proclaim the good news as a matter of death and life.  And we have the theological perspective to do it."

This missional vision for the church - to proclaim the good news of grace for all people, that no matter what kind of death is holding us back we are freed to life in Christ - this is the vision that drives my passion, drives my work and my ministry.  What I love more than anything is to be with a group of people who are out in the world doing good work so that others will know the grace of God.  I love to listen to folks who are sharing breakfast, dressed in work clothes and ready to head out to work on a porch, to build a classroom, to make lunch for the community, to worship in a language other than the one they grew up speaking.  I love to sit in a classroom with folks who have just come back from a mission trip, hearing their deep joy, listening to their questions, studying the scriptures together.  Dr. Lawrence is correct that it is in a vision for mission that there is hope for the people called Methodist, and I plan to be part of that mission!

 

Quote from page 115; A Methodist Requiem is published by Wesley's Foundery Books, an imprint of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, The United Methodist Church.