In conversations with the Florida Conference cabinet and later with a small team of persons on the Commission on a Way Forward, we sought to gain more clarity and definition of what is at the core of who we are as United Methodist Christians.
A Simple, Sturdy Core
In a cabinet conversation last summer, our facilitator Bishop Janice Huie noted that we need to define a "simple, sturdy core." Later I asked the cabinet to reflect in small groups about the question-"what is our core?"-and number of images were lifted up, including:
- being sent in mission
- the resurrection
- the church as a body
- the living word of scripture
In the denominational reflection, we acknowledged that, in practice, the Book of Discipline is not a shared core document, and we went more directly to the teaching of Jesus in John 15. Jesus describes himself as the vine in that passage, and so we searched for ways that the practices of our tradition connect us with him.
Could the vine in John 15 be one way of describing our core, our center?
In a cabinet retreat in December, 2013, Susan Jones guided us in a contemplative reading of Psalm 46, using the spiritual practice of Lectio Divina. After we had completed the exercise I wrote, in the margins of my Bible:
"I sense God's invitation to find my core in the stillness
and not to focus so much on the storms."
My experience in thirty-five years of ministry, from a very small rural parish to a large and complex annual conference and a global denomination, is that leadership must be grounded in the core of who we are. We cannot please or meet the needs of every person we encounter; in fact, we cannot fully discern or comprehend their desires or interests. Leadership is about being set apart to listen for the will of God and then to walk in paths of righteousness (Psalm 23). To be authentic, our leadership must arise out of our own stories and narratives.
Claiming Our Identity
The words spoken to us when we are commissioned, ordained or consecrated are intended to ground us in the larger narratives of scripture and tradition. Over the years I would often attend the ordination service in my annual conference as way of recommitting to the vows I had made. As a pastor (for twenty-eight years) I would lead the congregation each January (Baptism of the Lord) in a service of remembering their (our) baptismal promises or the promises made on our behalf at our baptisms.
These were rituals that helped us to stay connected to the core of who we were and are. When a leader or a congregation or a denomination cannot locate the core, we become confused and disoriented. We sing about this experience in the hymn:
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
When we cannot locate the core, we do not remember who we are.
When we cannot locate the core, we neglect our birthright gifts.
When we cannot locate the core, we experience mission drift.
Our Spiritual Practices
One way of describing what it means to follow Jesus is to be Christ-centered. How would we define the very center or core of a life in Christ? We might say that the different denominations at their best articulate a path toward the Christ-centered life. For Roman Catholics this is very much shaped by the sacraments. For Baptists, there is a centrality of the word and preaching.
How does United Methodism lead us to the center, which is Jesus Christ? These are some of the resources that define this core for me:
- We learn the scriptures and read them each day;
- We say the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds;
- Our beliefs are guided by the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith;
- Our behaviors are governed by the General Rules;
- We receive the prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace of God;
- We sing the Wesley Hymns (for example, "And Can It Be" and "A Charge to Keep" and "O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing" and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling");
- We are willing to be accountable to and supported in small groups of a few trusted friends (Class and Band Meetings);
- We participate in services of Baptism and Eucharist;
- We engaged in works of Piety, Mercy and Justice;
- We share in a common ministry exercised by clergy and laity, and we recognize the orders of clergy in the Pan-Methodist family (AME, AME Zion, CME);
- We remember this shared Methodist/Wesleyan history, even with our divisions and yes, our failures;
- In shared mission work we are sent from everywhere to everywhere;
- Our connectional way of life includes forms of 1) superintendency for the purpose of accountability to the mission, 2) itineracy for the purpose of multiplication of mission and 3) conferencing for the purpose of inspiration, support and governance.
- We assume that theology has practical (moral) implications, i.e., "practical divinity" or "lived theology" or "faith working through love."
- We desire to share our faith in healthy and positive ways; as Wesleyans, we speak more of the love than the wrath of God.
The Streams That Flow Into Methodism
The Methodist Revival, which would become first a movement and then a church, did not begin for doctrinal reasons. Wesley synthesized the elements of Lutheran, Moravian and Anglican traditions in his life and thought. The revival asked its participants to rediscover the practices of scriptural Christianity. From each of these streams his life and thought grew deeper:
- From the Lutherans, that justification is by faith alone;
- From the Moravians, that there is an assurance of salvation;
- From the Anglicans, that there is an ordered life guided by the prayer book.
And this group of spiritual convictions and practices led to a way of life. Methodists were mocked because of their disciplined lives; and, yet, they had a simple, sturdy core, which grew strong as they read scripture, shared in Holy Communion, sang of the rich and profound grace that united them, shared the testimony of where they saw God at work in their lives, were generously present with the poor and watched over one another in love.
When we exercise our bodies, we develop a strong, sturdy core. And this is true for the church. At our best, our healthiest, we are centered. So what if our core as the United Methodist Church is...
- The connection;
- A deep trust in the saving grace of Jesus Christ;
- A need to grow in this grace;
- A responsibility to share this grace in tangible ways, and
- A desire to bear witness to what this means.
Questions for Reflection:
How would you describe your core, your center?
How would you describe the core, the center of your local church?
And how would you name the core of who we are as United Methodist Christians?
How do you practice your faith?
Do any of these practices give you a stronger, more steady faith?
What practices are at the heart of our local church's life?
Can you imagine the shift from a local church that hosts activities and programs to one that teaches people to develop spiritual practices?
(This is the first in a series titled: Remembering Who We Are. Next: Where Covenant, Justice and Unity Meet.)