Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Collision of Theology and Ideology

One of the great joys I have in my journey with God is to be a part of this things called the United Methodist Church. While there are others out there who see it as the most troubling of denominations, thanks Tony Jones, I find the amazing complexity and diversity that can gather under the banner of United Methodist. It is true this complex diversity comes with some challenges and some downright ugly times in the life of the church. Reality check, whenever human beings are entangled with the works of a Holy God, things are going to get messy.

Nonetheless, here I find myself in a denomination where many are focused on making sure the way they see God will be the dominate view.This has caused me to wonder if the tension at hand is about theology as has been put forward, or if it has more to do with ideology. At first blush contrasting the two might seem like an exercise in splitting hairs. There is much in common between the two, however I think there is a vast difference.

Over the past few years I have decided to go from being vocal about any of the positions available to spending more time listening to all. Through this process I have found some things that might be helpful to highlight. The following are the common points I have heard from many in the conversations:

  • God of love. No matter what angle is being taken to which discussion point I have heard people talking about how loving God is. Further I hear in the conversation that God has unending love for humanity.
  • God of grace. Through it all I hear folks not only taking about the grace of God but they are excited about the access we as humanity we have to the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Like with the love of God, I find across the board the grace of God is available to all humanity.
  • Celebration of community. Another common thread to in the conversation is the importance of the community of God, the church. In the complex diversity I have not found voices ready to abandon the community, rather voices longing for the community to be whole.
  • Justice. In all the listening I have yet to find a voice claiming God's support of injustice. It seems apparent to those I have listened to the Scriptures call for the people of God to be Holy and walking in justice.
  • Christ Centered. The pursuit of a Christlike life is what I have heard in all the narratives as I have slowed down enough to listen. There is an earnest effort underway to embody the way of Jesus by all. 
There were other common points, however these were the ones that were the most prevalent. It is important to get clear each of these common points were carried out differently by different people. Yet at the heart of the different actions there is a common quest at the center. This difference in action and core is the place where theology and ideology meet. Contrary to what I have heard many suggest there is actually a very small theological difference in this glorious mystery called the United Methodist Church. There is however, a significant difference in ideology. This is not new to the Church, not just the UMC. Since the day Christ empowered humanity to carry out the community of God, there has been a clash of ideology. Whether it was when Peter had the vision in Acts 10, or the debate about circumcision in Acts 15. We find over and over in the Scriptures people who remain focused on God, and the ways God is at work in the lives of humanity, yet they embody this in different ways. Still here in 2012 there is a prevailing thought in the UMC that we need to all think, act and believe exactly the same way. As I am fond of telling my congregation, when a group of people think, act and believe exactly the same claiming God at the center and on their side it is called a cult not the church of Jesus Christ. Even the people Jesus called around him during his earthly pilgrimage were very different people. Jesus called together a vast diversity that thought differently, acted differently and even believed differently. Yet at the center was not getting one ideology to win over the others, it was the pursuit of embodying the community of God here on earth as we ready for the return of Christ setting all things are God designed. 

So church, UMC and others, the time for repentance has come. For far too long we have chased ideology more than we have chased God. For far too long we have tried to get the rest of the world to see things the way we see them instead of seeking the face of God above all other things. Many of  the things that divide us   are things that are not of the highest level of importance. Is there injustice in the world, you bet, just remember yours is not the only way to address it. Is the Church of Jesus Christ broken, absolutely, again remember there is more than one way to get us back to focusing on Jesus. Anytime we think our way is the only way of following God we have lost sight of our theology and settled for ideology. May we be a people who focus more on God and the ways God is in relationship with all creation, than on how we think this ought to look.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sex, Money and Power in The Church

Last week mercifully the General Conference on the United Methodist Church finished its two week meeting. For those who are not familiar with General Conference it is a gathering held every four years for the United Methodist Church. The design is to be a time of worship and community where the delegates define the parameters by which we will live together as Followers of Jesus in the United Methodist tradition. What actually happens, well that is a different story all together.

In my short time with the United Methodist I have followed a handful of General Conference sessions. Each time I have heard with great passion that the world is watching. First, I am not sure that much of society really cares about what we as Methodists decide, could be due to our irrelevance for too long. Second I wonder if the people making the passionate claim of the world watching have processed that in light of the words they are speaking. As I have reflected and prayed about the happenings of General Conference, I wondered what is it the world would see as the people gathered?

My thoughts are tragic in some ways. The casual observer could think the church is all about sex, money and power. Hours were spend in formal and informal settings on the battle around these three things. I do mean battle, as there were sides chosen, a game plan put forward, and a hope there would be winners and losers. There were impassioned speeches saying that unless the church changes the way it relates to people living a homosexual lifestyle we are not being faithful to Jesus. At the same time there are those who say if we change the way the church relates to homosexuals we are not being faithful. What if neither side of the issue is being faithful? Jesus never directly addresses homosexuality, however Jesus does address matters of sex. He has a call for purity, never fully defining what that means. The focus for Jesus is not the sexual relationships, rather it is the purity in our relationship with God and letting that guide all of our earthly relationships.

Nonetheless, from the outside looking in, it might be seen that winning the battle about sex is more important than letting Jesus lead our lives. I wonder what it would be like for the watching world to see Jesus before they see the argument about sexuality? I wonder what would happen if the watching world could see a people who were madly in love with Jesus Christ and still did not agree how that gets lived out?

Sex was not the only hotly debated issue of General Conference. There was a whole lot of discussion about money. Where it comes from and who gets to spend it on what. Just like any other multi-national business the church was seen to be arguing over money that is not theirs, it all belongs to God, while the people of most need are ignored. I wonder about all the money spend on the battle mentioned above regarding sexuality. There were millions of dollars spent to print material, have  people present at the write times and to make sure people knew the right way to vote. More of God's money spent on a church squabble. What would happen if the same people who spent all the propaganda money matched it dollar for dollar with fighting malaria? Or taking on the challenges of indigenous people around the world being displaced for economic gain of a few? No, the question is which agency of an inward turned institution would get the money.

So we have covered sex and money, now we move to the root of it all, power. As I tuned in the the slow motion train wreck called General Conference what I witnessed was the battle for power. Who would be the ones who controlled what happened in the church. There were the voting blocks where people we demanded to vote the same, not because it was best for the Church of Jesus Christ, but so those who hold the power could maintain that power. No matter how many times it was proclaimed to the contrary, it was a two week turf war with the extremes looking to claim more ground from the other. Again the losers were not the people present at the meeting, rather the people in the churches across the world and more importantly, the people who desperately need the church to be about the work and mission that is Jesus Christ while we are busy claiming power.

So as the world is watching I think they could see how broken the church is. They could see the focus on sex, money and power. However, this is not what the church really looks like. There are extremes on either end of the spectrum. As is often the case the extremes get the most press and air time. Also no surprise the two extremes tend to talk passed each other in an effort to win the debate. If I had to put a percentage on this I would say each end of the spectrum is 10-15 percent of the church. That means there is 70-80 percent of the church that lives somewhere in the middle trying to keep the focus on being the church of Jesus Christ.

So how do we move past the extremes being the voice of the church? How do we get passed the issues of sex, money and power no longer controlling the efforts of the church? Where is the middle ground? Here is an idea that may seem radical or undesirable to some. What if the extreme ends of the church simple went their own way to have their own denominations? I have become convinced there is no middle ground where the two extremes will sit together in harmony and unity. If the extremes would go do their thing, server God as best they feel they can around their special interests, the rest of us could be about the work of Jesus free of all the rhetoric and propaganda. It is hard enough to journey together as the community of the church, but it might be a little more possible if the extremes allowed for a middle majority to have room to move. This is not about power to the majority or any of that. Simply, I think most people are more interested in following Jesus above the issues of sex, money and power. There are a majority of people who look to live in the state of grace that keeps in proper alignment personal holiness and social holiness. There are a majority of people who want to see scriptural holiness lead to more than arguments about who loves Jesus more.

There is no doubt the world is watching. Further the watching world is only seeing a church that fights over its own self interest. I wonder what might happen if a watching world looked at the church and saw the very face of Jesus? What would  happen if the watching world looked at the church and saw the followers of Jesus focus on life more than being right or winning the battle?

So, perhaps it is time for some to go their way and follow Jesus as best they can in other expressions. Perhaps the path of most integrity is to stop trying to get the other extreme to follow Jesus the way we want them to, and get about the business of following Jesus as best we can where God has placed us. I hope, pray and dream of a church that is not so focused on sex, money and power. I hope and dream of a church that is focused on connecting people with Jesus Christ, even when that means we sacrifice ourselves. I believe this dream and hope can be a reality and I invite others to join the prayer and journey.