Can We Affirm A Common Core?

Can We Affirm A Common Core?

The “Common Core” refers to an often controversial set of state standards for education that was enacted a few years ago and is still supported in most states. The Common Core is knowledge that students should know by the end of a particular grade. The goal for the Common Core is to prepare students for success in post-secondary education. If all students possess similar levels of educational expertise, the pedagogical playing field should be more level, and there should be less need for remediation. At least that’s the theory.

When I go to our Arkansas Annual Conference, it reminds me of the Common Core of Methodism in our home state. I’ve been a Methodist all my life and a pastor all my adult life—“deeply ingrained” would be an understatement. At Annual Conference I experience worship and business the way we do them. I renew relationships with long-time, well-beloved colleagues and friends. I am reminded of our Wesleyan theology and our practices of faith that are uniquely Methodist. I would be so out of place at a Southern Baptist convention or an Assembly of God conference. I am Methodist to the core.

Although I am writing this before Annual Conference, I am anticipating the presentation of a letter that will affirm our common core as Wesleyan Methodists. There is deep division within our denomination, made deeper by the General Conference of last February. As members of the Arkansas United Methodist family, several of us (of different perspectives on human sexuality) were invited by our bishop to have dialog about what unites us. We quickly came to affirm what we share in common, because what we share is broader, deeper, and perhaps more important than what divides us. The letter shared at Annual Conference included these points of commonality:

  1. We believe in the Triune God, salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, in the unconditional love of God, and in God’s grace sufficient for every need. We believe in the faith delivered to the church in the historic creeds.
  2. We cling to our Wesleyan heritage as Christians of a Methodist tribe. This includes:
    a. A Wesleyan understanding of grace—prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.
    b. Theological and social discourse grounded first in Scripture, informed by tradition, experienced in personal and corporate dimensions, and articulated with the best of human reason.
    c. Christian discipleship consisting of both vital piety and social action.
    d. Adherence to the General Rules given by John Wesley:
    1) Do no harm.
    2) Do good.
    3) Attend upon the ordinances of God.
  3. We believe the mission of the church is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We affirm the trajectory of the Arkansas Annual Conference “to make disciples who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities, and the world.”
  4. We believe that whatever happens to the structure of the United Methodist Church, we will respect our fellow Methodists, and our interactions will be characterized by:
    a. Listening well. We invite the members of Annual Conference to truly listen to one another as we share in conversation.
    b. Loving well. As disciples of Jesus Christ, love is at the center of who we are and what we are about. Jesus tells us, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35)
  5. We believe we are stronger and will accomplish more working together in our social witness. We commit to support our Annual Conference initiatives: 200,000 Reasons to stop childhood hunger in Arkansas, UMCOR, Volunteers in Mission, and disaster response initiatives.

This common core is often referred to as our “Methodist DNA.” (I’m no geneticist, so cut me some slack for the sake of analogy.) Each organism in God’s vast creation carries a genetic code made up of DNA, which is enclosed in chromosomes. Every cell in an organism carries this unique genetic code. But the slightest variation in composition introduces mutations into the organism. Human beings have 46 chromosomes, but the mutation of even one of those chromosomes can produce a substantially different organism.

In 1972, a mutation was introduced into the Methodist DNA with the “incompatibility” language inserted into the Book of Discipline. Mutations can be good or bad, and opinion is certainly divided on the character of that mutation. But mutations are part of the process of evolution.

The “incompatibility” mutation and its subsequent reinforcement may indeed produce a different organism in the Methodist family. It has happened before. The species methodista pluralis has continued to evolve. My point is that most of our DNA is still intact. We share a common core. My hope for the future is that whatever organisms evolve, we can affirm that we have more in common than what divides us. We can coexist in peace, and perhaps even cooperate. We can all make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

At least that’s the theory.

What do we do now?

What do we do now?

I have been trying, in the days since the end of General Conference, to respond instead of react. I’ve seen many reactions on electronic and print media. It’s been hard.

As the late Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” I believe we have been here before. By a margin of 50-something to 40-something, the coalition of American and Central Conference traditionalists upheld and attempted to strengthen the 47-year-old statement of “incompatible with Christian teaching” as well as the subsequent prohibitions against gay marriage and ordination. Déjà vu.

For some, this felt like a great victory. For others, it was a devastating disappointment. I understand both. Ironically, for many years I breathed a sigh of relief and a prayer of thanksgiving when the established principles of the church squeaked by once again. I wrote about it in this publication. I was happy that the words of Scripture and the long tradition of Christianity had been vindicated.

Then I changed. I began to understand the deeper spirit of Scripture and the faulty exegesis of exclusion. I looked at the way the church had interpreted the Scriptures around slavery, divorce, and women in leadership. I got to know gay people and gay couples who were loving, faithful, stable, and deeply Christian. I learned that science had pretty much ruled out sexual orientation as a choice. I experienced a divorce and discovered how healing grace and acceptance could be.

So now I understand the pain that the General Conference has caused. I have friends who are rejoicing, and I have friends who are weeping and gnashing teeth. And we’re all in the same church—for now.

What can we do? Where do we go from here?

As followers of Christ, we have to love one another. As a friend of mine said, there’s a reason why, when asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus didn’t say, “Oh, they’re all pretty much the same.” Love is the key. Love is the foundation. “Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.” Those who rejoice at General Conference shouldn’t gloat in their victory. Those who were hurt shouldn’t hate those who voted their beliefs. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and that is a deeper connection even than our strongest convictions.

As local churches, we have to unite around faith and mission. We are deeply divided about gay marriage and ordination. Every church is, if everybody talked about it honestly. But we are united in our basic beliefs. We believe in the authority of the Bible, even if we interpret it differently. Jesus is the Lord over all of us. We want to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. That’s not a problem. This greater unity can be a way we can survive and even thrive together. In my church, the people know there are those who disagree on sexuality issues. It may matter, but it doesn’t come up when they are singing a hymn or kneeling at the communion rail or helping with Vacation Bible School or feeding the hungry. Our unity is not based on uniformity of thought, and issues of church polity are not the priority.

I think it’s providential that the season of Lent comes on the heels of General Conference. For me, Lent is the holiest time of year, as we prepare for the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord. It is not an easy season, as it involves prayer, sacrifice, and repentance. But it is the deepest time of year as we focus on the awesome act of God that changed history, defeated evil, and made eternal life available.

After this General Conference, we need us some Lent. John Wesley’s first General Rule was, “Do no harm.” We blew that big time, on both sides. Our continued divisions are a stench in the nostrils of God. We are far short of the Kingdom potential in our lives, our churches, and our denomination. We need to repent of our sins.

But in a positive way, following General Conference with Lent reminds us of our core identity. God’s plan of salvation does not depend on getting our church organization right, even if the issues are very important, as they are. We are all people Jesus died for on the cross. We are blood-related through Jesus. We are all hopeful in the resurrection. We are one family. And our mission includes everyone.

This conversation is not over. For my two cents, the Wesleyan way is still the best approach to Jesus. We just need to keep talking until we can form a more perfect union of justice and love. We need to unite around faith and mission. God is not through with the United Methodist Church. Neither am I.

Starting not so fresh

New Year’s resolutions have gone out of style.

Nobody keeps them anyway. The average New Year’s resolution lasts until the second week of February; only 10% last six months. We have a hard time starting over.

Still, there is something about the New Year that calls us to take stock, assess, evaluate, and resolve to do better about some aspects of our lives. We would like to think the New Year gives us a clean slate to leave the past behind and stride confidently into the future. It doesn’t; the baggage and consequences of the past do not magically fall away and disappear.

As I write, our government is close to a week in partial shutdown mode. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are temporarily out of work. The intransigent leadership, continuing division, animosity, and gridlock of our political system will not disappear when the ball descends on Times Square.

Our United Methodist Church will not magically get unified in the New Year. No matter what happens at the special General Conference in February, we will need to keep praying, keep reading and thinking, and most of all keep talking as we try to be faithful to God’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Those pesky personal problems won’t go away just because the number on the calendar is different. Family conflicts and dysfunctional relationships take time and toil and tears to resolve. We can’t just put them away like we do the Christmas decorations. And our weaknesses and sins are harder to eradicate than a New Year’s resolution can conquer. Why do we keep doing the things we know are wrong and destructive? Even St. Paul couldn’t figure that one out. (See Romans 7)

So what’s the point? Is renewal a pipe dream, progress an impossibility? Can the New Year actually be a time of starting over in a meaningful way? I think it can.

In the New Year, we can accept forgiveness for the past. So many things went wrong last year; so many times we fell short. But grace means forgiveness. We know God forgives us. That was the whole point of the cross. Forgiving ourselves can be harder to do, but we have to find a way if we hope to move forward. And if someone we have hurt offers us forgiveness, take it like a kid grabbing candy. There’s nothing sweeter.

In the New Year, we can generate new resolve. The human process involves many new starts; why not let one of them be right now? You’ll probably need another new start by April and July and October. But don’t let that stop you from starting over today. One thing is for sure: you won’t do any better unless you decide to. We Wesleyans believe free will is a gift of God, and progress, while not inevitable, is not impossible either.

In the pursuit of personal progress, we have the encouragement of God. Our Creator wants us to leave the past behind, walk the narrow path that leads to righteousness, and become the person we were created to be. Paul, who struggled so mightily with his sin, gave witness to this encouragement in Philippians (“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”) and Ephesians (“Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”) Scripture is replete with encouraging words from God.

In the New Year, we can also find encouragement in the community. There are many reasons people pack the churches for Christmas Eve services—the music, the story, the threats of family matriarchs. But I’m convinced that one of the reasons we gather is that at some significant level, we acknowledge that we are part of a community of faith, and it does our soul good to be in a church full of people who share our spiritual foundation. Yeah, we may neglect our faith 50 weeks of the year, but a couple of times a year, we can’t escape our Christian DNA.

Christmas Eve and Easter only happen twice a year. What if in this New Year we re-engaged with the community of faith and rediscovered the encouragement of like-minded pilgrims on the journey? Every week isn’t a high holy day. The sermon may be a snoozer, or half the Sunday School class may be absent. But little by little we grow in Christ. Inch by inch, we make progress toward the goal. We will find it helps to feel accountable to someone else traveling beside us.

Renewal is an ongoing process. We could start just as well on March 2 or June 23 or September 16. But we probably won’t. There is something about the New Year that calls us to a new day. Let me encourage you: Engage the process. Take some baby steps. Trust in God. Find community. Soon you will look back and discover how far you have come. The goal of perfection in Christ will be nearer than ever before. Happy New Year!

Generating Gratitude

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

Do you ever have a hard time feeling grateful? Maybe it’s the age I am—I’m entering my “curmudgeonly years.” Or maybe it’s the age we live in. But some days it’s just hard to give thanks.

  • The political chaos of our country and the world is so disheartening. I still read a daily newspaper, but I’ve taken to calling it “my daily outrage.”
  • Our denominational future is at best uncertain; I vacillate daily between hope and despair.
  • People are hurting everywhere I turn: sick, dying, hungry, poor, lonely, dealing with grief, divorce, mental illness, and dementia. I hurt for them, and sometimes for myself.
  • I worry about the future of our church, our nation, our planet, and my children and grandchildren.

Some days I find it hard not to live with a “bunker mentality”—hunkered down, drawn inward, just trying to protect myself and my loved ones and hang on as we slide down the tubes.

That’s no way for a disciple of Jesus Christ to live! We are called to “give thanks in all circumstances.” (I Thessalonians 5:18) How do we generate an attitude of gratitude? In this season of Thanksgiving, how do we give thanks?

I remember the Cokesbury hymnal song from days gone by: “Count your blessings, name them one by one; count your blessings, see what God has done.” When we think about it, we really can.

  • God has brought us through tumultuous times before, both in our country and in our church. Our “better angels” have always prevailed.
  • In our personal struggles, sometimes a time of trial turns out to be a time of great spiritual growth. “In all things, God works for good.” (Romans 8:28) Through my worst times, I have still grown and learned. Even death is not the final answer; we have eternal life in Jesus.
  • The Word of God assures us, over and over, that we need not fear; God is ultimately in charge, and we can trust in God’s providence. Scripture gives us reasons to be thankful.
  • If we can get quiet before God, we can hear the “still, small voice” say “peace,” and in our hearts we know it’s true.

Of all the saints I have known—men and women, clergy and laity, young and old—the one universal quality of character I have seen is gratitude. To a person, the saints are thankful. I don’t think that’s an accident.

Gratitude generates stewardship. When we realize that everything we have is a gift of God, we strive to take care of what we have been given.

  • Thankful for creation, we care for the planet, from individual acts of conservation to advocacy for the big issues of recycling, climate change, and responsible development.
  • Thankful for our country, we participate in the process. We get informed; we vote; we engage in dialog for our best values.
  • Thankful for our church, we serve with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.” Regardless of what happens with our denominational structure, we have a vital mission to make disciples and transform the world.

When we stop and think, God has been gracious to us in so many ways. So, in return, “like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. …Whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” (I Peter 4:10)

I think I’ll put up my bad attitude, put down my “daily outrage,” pick up my Cokesbury hymnal, and sing!

Conference Voices: It takes a church to raise a village

If I might be forgiven of the sin of pride, I’d like to brag a little bit. Recently the chair of the team that oversees our mission ministry reported to one of our Sunday School classes that our church sponsors eleven different mission projects throughout the year, some annually, but some as often as weekly, mostly local, but some international. In addition, we are involved in 23 mission partnerships with projects and non-profits in our community. If something good is happening in our town, there are probably some Methodists at work. Finally, we have two church-wide mission activities each year, both of which support our conference initiative, 200,000 Reasons, to end children’s hunger.

I can be proud of the involvement of the church because I have very little responsibility for it. Most of it was happening before I became their pastor. I do encourage a missional spirit, but then I just get out of the way and let the lay people work. It’s pretty amazing.

In this issue of the Arkansas United Methodist, you can see several examples of lay folk in ministry. Lay ministry is the key to vitality in the church now and our hope for the future. Historically, the ministry of the church was in the hands of the laity. In the 20th century, as the ministry became more “professional,” clergy began to dominate, and churches began hiring staff to do ministry. As the church began to decline 40 years ago, the paradigm began to shift back to our historic roots, and the empowerment of lay ministry became a critical component of church growth. Nowadays, vital churches have abandoned the “attractional” model of the past century and adopted a “missional” model that reaches outside the church, mostly through lay people, to transform lives, communities, and the world. (Does that phrase sound familiar?)

Lay ministry is a response to a CALL. We all have a call from God to be in ministry, and God has given each person gifts to perform ministry. (See Romans 12:3-8 and I Corinthians 12:4-27) Some are called to representative ministry as pastors or full-time Christian workers. Most of us are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our everyday lives, in our workplace, school, and home. God does amazing work through ordinary folks who actually have more contact with the lost, broken, hurting people of the world than those of us who spend most of our time inside our ecclesiastical walls.

Lay ministry can be so much more FRUITFUL than professionalized ministry. Remember when Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38) One professional scythe-slinger can only cut so much grain, but put 200 workers in the field, and they are through before lunch. One pastor in a church can work herself to exhaustion and still not get everything done. If 20 or 200 lay people serve the Lord only two or three hours a week, it exponentially multiplies the ministry. The Kingdom work bears more fruit.

Lay ministry can be more EFFECTIVE. I was called and gifted to be in ordained ministry; hopefully I have been effective at the tasks I do. But my church would not be effective if they had to rely only on the things I’m good at. I have seen people do amazing works of God in areas that are beyond my capability. I have seen people spend hours, days, even weeks caring for broken souls in times of sickness and grief. I’m not as good at children’s and youth work as I once was. I cannot lead a choir, play the piano, produce a spreadsheet, or build a wheelchair ramp as well as some of my lay people can.

I don’t need to, because they can! And so the church is more effective.

Lay ministry brings its own REWARD. Service to God does not escape our Master’s notice. Jesus said, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42) This is not the reward of salvation; we are saved by faith, not by works. But it is the reward of satisfaction and joy at making a difference in the lives of others and in the Kingdom of God. Deep down, I think we all long to hear those words from Jesus at the end: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Master!” (Matthew 25:23)

The vitality of the church now and forever belongs to the vast majority of disciples of Christ who are not ordained, professional Christians. For almost four decades I have been privileged to serve in ordained ministry. But it would have been a long, hard, lonely and unproductive road without the dedicated and effective lay ministers who have walked the path with me. Thanks be to God for that incredible gift! If you are a lay person and have persevered to the end of this column, I encourage you to be that gift to your pastor, your church, and your Lord.