Photo Courtesy of Inflecto Vita
Exploding Head 2
While teaching at Mississippi’s 2012 Annual Conference, Adam Hamilton, described what it mean to be the church in the language of United Methodism. Hamilton said, “I am a conservative liberal and a liberal conservative. I am a United Methodist. This is what it means to be a United Methodist.” At that time, I was standing behind the Annual Conference stage, and I’m pretty sure my brain blew up. What does this mean?! What is he saying?! While I’m sure that my sleepless nights aided in my grey matter’s detonation, it’s a loaded statement to say the least.
The history of Methodism, as started by John Wesley and his brother Charles, was an attempt to reform the Church of England that was started by King Henry VIII as an affront to Catholicism’s stance on marriage and divorce. The many splits of the church at that time were not numerous as they are today, but they were enough to cause the Wesley brothers to want to come back to the middle way – the via media – that appreciated both the wisdom of the heart and the reason of the head in practices of Christian discipleship. What we got: Methodism…an eventual denomination that, against Wesley’s vision, split from his Anglican roots. We Methodists are people of the via media – the middle way. We hold, in tension, the roots of our biblical heritage and theology (conservatism) whilst addressing the needs of our neighbors in the world in theological fluidity (liberalism). In other words, we use the Bible’s consistent truth(s) to speak to the ever changing, desperate needs of the world; we live lives of personal and social holiness, a holiness of heart and life…or, at least we try to.
It is a difficult thing to live into these differing tensions, because we live in a world that craves concreteness even in the ambiguity of our relationships with God and one another. In his book, United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center, Bishop Scott J. Jones of the Kansas Conferences writes that,
“What matters in such relationships is, first of all, mutual love. Each one should admit that on these matters of opinion, each might wrong and the other side might be right. Commitment to truth requires spending significant time ascertaining what the truth is. Christians should be indifferent to it. But at the end of the search they should admit that they know of such matters only in part, and perhaps those who differ have a better understanding than they have.” (90)
As we come in to communion with each other, we recognize the holy Other in our lives; we come acknowledging that we may be wrong in the attempt to come to the truth of God as instilled in us by God’s Spirit. We know that even when we don’t want to admit it, we could be wrong, and that the one person that we couldn’t stand being right may actually hold the key to our understanding of who God is and how God works in the world. It’s a difficult place to stand, but we maintain our ground.
We, as United Methodists, have a peppered past of conflict and tension, but we also have a heritage of mutual love and affection. In his sermon, On a Catholic Spirit (2 Kings 10.15), John Wesley wrote,
But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works. Surely in this respect the example of Jehu himself, as mixed a character as he was of, is well worthy both the attention and imitation of every serious Christian. “And when he was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him; and he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab answered, It is. If it be, give me thine hand.” (bolded emphasis mine)
We Methodist folk strive to have a spirit of the catholic (universal) church; we strive to put aside the small differences, and celebrate our oneness in Christ. It is a life that is commonly lost in this generation of leaders that caused my exploding-brain-ah-ha-moment upon hearing Adam’s words at Annual Conference. As leaders of the church, specifically in the tribe of United Methodists, we have to rekindle the fire of conservative liberalism and liberal conservatism. We have to keep the main thing the main thing: that is, Christ as the liberating expression of God’s love for the world that is emblazoned upon our hearts by God’s Spirit.
I confess that I often times hold doctrine above palliative needs, that “being right” is more important that the relationship in God that draws us together. There are times that I’d rather argue over the minutia of Scripture and theology than actually live out my faith. I fail, epically, at being a Christian.
I confess that God’s Spirit continues to work in and through me, despite my explicit and implicit attempts to do otherwise. God knows that I will fail at loving because God has seen the repeated history of humanity many times, and yet God still pursues a relationship of sacrificial love with me. I confess that if I but take one step towards loving my neighbor and God, it is only taken because God has caused my foot to move in that direction; I cannot love on my own.