Thursday, November 16, 2017

Report on GBHEM Colloquy on Missio Dei and the United States

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

I had the honor of participating earlier this week in the Colloquy event organized by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The colloquy was a meeting of United Methodist seminary professors and bishops (and me). The theme for this event was "Missio Dei and the United States: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness." I will provide some reflections on the colloquy as I experienced it. These, of course, will not reflect the experiences of all others at the event.

As the colloquy began, there was confusion about the purpose of the event. The stated goal of the colloquy was "to engage United Methodist scholars and bishops in constructive dialogue that will open new pathways in our understanding and faithful practice of the Missio Dei. During the colloquy, participants will explore the future of the church from a missional perspective, and examine how to reengage our Wesleyan heritage to participate in the Missio Dei."

Because of the phrase "the future of the church" and because the first GBHEM colloquy in the spring was directly tied to the work of the Commission on A Way Forward, many participants and attendees assumed that this colloquy was also intended to be directly tied to the Commission's work and the status of LGBTQ+ persons in the church. GBHEM staff clarified that this colloquy was not designed to feed into the work of the Commission; the bishops had asked for it as a separate resource for the UMC in the US.

In part because of this confusion, there were at least four different conversations happening within the colloquy: a conversation about the status of LGBTQ+ persons, a conversation about decline and pathways to revitalization in the denomination, a conversation about the general theological content of missio Dei as a term, and a conversation about specific practices of mission and ministry or specific applications of the concept of missio Dei. These four conversations frequently intersected but were nonetheless to some extent distinct.

Moreover, within these four conversations, participants spoke with a wide variety of voices based on their social location, theological presuppositions, contexts of ministry, racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and personal scholarly interests. Again, there were intersections, but participants at times seemed to struggle in articulating convergences among the many voices.

What emerged instead were three broad areas of concern, articulated by Dr. Anne Wimberly: polity, especially as it relates to the roles of LGBTQ+ persons in the church; theology; and practices of ministry. While GBHEM will continue to process the insights shared around these three points, there did not seem to be overriding consensus on what the missio Dei meant for the future of The United Methodist Church within these three areas.

Two other points of convergence did, however, emerge, though not around the meaning of missio Dei or a shared vision for the future of the church.

The first point of convergence was an appreciation to GBHEM for having brought together this group of scholars and bishops for conversation, even if those conversations were at times difficult and painful. Many participants affirmed the need for the academy and the church to be in deeper relationship and more frequent conversation with each other.

The second point of convergence was around a spiritual posture implied by missio Dei, one of humility and listening. These two points came up frequently in discussions around all three broad topic areas: polity, theology, and practices of ministry. Humility and listening are not a program in any of these three areas, but they are perhaps an important prerequisite for hearing and responding to the missio Dei.

Relationship, humility, and listening may not seem like much, and for those who were hoping for specific programmatic recommendations or a shared theological framework to come out of the colloquy, it may have seemed like a failure. Yet we should not scorn such elements of deepened spirituality. They may indeed be exactly where God is leading us in God's mission.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Want a more united church? Make some friends.

This is the tenth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

This blog is the latest in a long series of posts discussing the problem of unity in The United Methodist Church. How do we stay together and stay talking to and working with each other when we’re so divided by theology, politics, race, ethnicity, class, culture, and a whole host of other characteristics? I think figuring out how to balance diversity and unity or diversity and cooperation is one of the foremost challenges of the church and the world.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us offers an answer to the problem of disunity. Putnam is worried about social disunity. As a political scientist, he’s worried about Americans becoming divided and atomized in ways that cause the civic arena to suffer.

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell set out to answer a question: How are Americans able to be so religiously devout and religiously diverse, while avoiding large-scale religious conflict? Sure, there are tensions around religion, as reflected in many of the culture war issues. But religion is not the source of violence in this country in the way it is in many places around the world. Putnam and Campbell set out to figure out why.

The main answer that they provide is that we’re able to tolerate religious diversity despite being serious about religion because we know people of other religious backgrounds who are part of our friends and our family. Putnam and Campbell talk about “Aunt Sue” and “My Pal Al,” both of whom are hypothetical people of other religious traditions who are nonetheless good people and important parts of our social networks. Because we’re willing to accept Sue and Al, we’re more willing to accept people of other religious convictions in general.

Thus, it turns out that the solution to the problem of balancing diversity and cooperation may be simple: making friends. If you want the church to be more united, make friends with someone who understands the church differently than you do. If you want the world to be a better, more tolerant place, make friends with someone who is not exactly like you.

This finding of Putnam and Campbell’s is entirely consistent with the aggregate model of unity I have been discussing. I noted the importance of bridge-builders in this model. Another way of thinking about bridge-builders might be to see them as those with a diverse set of friends.

Of course, friendships work better when people have something in common, but friends need not have everything in common. Indeed, it may be a good source of personal and spiritual growth to learn from a friend who is different from you, in addition to facilitating unity.

This prescription to make friends also highlights one of the dangers of contemporary American society. As algorithmic newsfeeds, niche marketing, exclusive neighborhoods, and social sorting of all sorts proliferate, it becomes ever more possible for us to be friends only with those who are already like us.

There is a real danger in this, as well as a loss. The loss is a personal one, that we may miss out on knowing wonderful people who nonetheless differ from us in some regards and that we may miss out on learning from them.

The danger is religious, social, and political – that if we do not learn to get along with others who are different from us as friends, it will make it more difficult for us to get along with them as neighbors, co-workers, fellow association members, fellow citizens, and ultimately as fellow Christians.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Jerome Sahabandhu: Mission of a Wounded Healer

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:7-9)

‘Woundedness’ A reflection on the peace of God may commence with the concept of ‘woundedness’.

I come from a wounded society – Sri Lanka. Over three decades of war and violence in post-colonial Sri Lanka has severely affected our psychology, social fabric and ecology. In 2009 the war came to an end, yet peace has not come to my country. The end of the war has not brought peace or prosperity. We as a nation remain a wounded community. People’s lives need to be re-built, healed and reconciled.

Reconciliation is what is not happening. The state seems to think that the building of the infrastructure would bring normalcy to the community. But people’s lives have not been touched or moved. The woundedness remains as a daily matter. There is no clear approach to truth and reconciliation except for a few isolated yet significant cases initiated by some good and concerned persons. Such reconciliation efforts are very vulnerable and are even misunderstood most of the time.

In the Theological College of Lanka where I served nearly for nearly 15 years, we make an intentional effort to be a reconciled community where Sinhalese and Tamil theological students live together for three to four years in a residential community in Pilimatalawa, Sri Lanka. We try to create a ‘safe space’ to share our stories – stories of pain and agony, stories of hopes and dreams for a better world.

In a certain way, we all are wounded.

Look at the world! We are a broken community: see our own broken selves, wounded families, wounded communities, wounded academies, broken and divided churches, wounded nations, and the wounded international community. There is a global woundedness and most surely, we know that God’s creation is heavily wounded.

Mission of peace and healing
Paul’s exposition to the Philippians expounds what is required for peace and healing. First, we must understand what peace is not: the world says not to worry, there is peace – “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).

There was a bogus and false peace at the time when Paul spoke to the Philippians. It was called the ‘Pax Romana’ – the peace of the empire, peace that had been obtained by the victories of war, military power that kept order and made sure that countries gave no trouble, there were no riots, and no uprisings … so they called it peace. In today’s context we can reflect on the ‘Pax of modern empires’ (you name it!)

Over against this Pax Romana Paul suggests another kind of peace – the ‘peace of God’, the only peace that Paul knew. The world did not know this peace.

‘Peace of God’
This peace in the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition is called ‘Shalom’. Shalom means wholeness, fullness, and it is life-giving and life-enhancing. Shalom includes the whole person and the community, humanity and creation, little life to all life.

Let me share three important aspects of God’s peace (Shalom).

The first aspect speaks of evenness of heart and mind, an unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by worldly gains and losses, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. It is indifferent only to the demands of the self with its craving for pleasure and position, not the well-being of one's fellow human beings. In Buddhist spirituality this aspect of peace is called upekkha (equanimity) that includes boundless loving-kindness, compassion, and altruistic joy.

Secondly, the peace of God essentially involves justice: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). There is no peace without justice. “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10). In other words, the peace of God means nothing but the justice of God. Paul speaks of a different culture based on justice.

The fundamental cause of most of the conflicts and violence that we experienced in the last century and through the beginning of the first two decades of the 21st century is the quest for justice. Without addressing the root causes of injustice and wickedness, there cannot be peace in the society, nor peace in the hearts of the peoples.

The third dimension of God’s peace is reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation go together. Forgiveness is not forgetting everything. Forgiveness means that we remember the past but yet we will have a new life that is forgiven and forgiving. This is a hard task. That is why reconciliation always becomes a costly affair.

Peace in the heart, justice and reconciliation – all at the same time – is called God’s Shalom. God is creating this Shalom, and “blessed are the artisans of peace, for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Paul speaks of that peace of God that surpasses all human understanding and keeps our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7). This is a prayer. It means that the Shalom of God should guard our hearts and minds. This is related to formation – formation of our character, formation of our communities. And while this is happening, Paul wishes that the God of Peace be with us always.

God of Peace – as we continue this reflection we can think of the characteristics of God. God is self-giving, self-emptying and self-sacrificing. We cannot think of a God who empowers unless we think of a God of Justice. We always think of a God who is ever reconciling.

Wounded Healers
We are wounded but we are also the healers. Our mission is to be wounded healers and broken reconcilers in the world. This is the hope. While recognizing that we are wounded persons and communities, we cannot stop there, but we must go beyond that and become engaged with the woundedness in the world. We are called to be wounded healers for ourselves, for communities and for nations to bring healing, reconciliation and wholeness of life.

The God of Peace empowers all of us to bring the peace of God wherever we are called to serve.

Christian communities and Christin missions certainly can play a leading role in peace, healing and reconciliation.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Connectionalism as basis for United Methodist unity

This is the ninth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

For the last several weeks, I’ve been taking a rather long detour from what had been my topic for the past couple of months, the sources of unity in The United Methodist Church, to talk about a related but still somewhat tangential topic: the aggregate model of unity I’ve introduced. Today, I’m finally going to connect that topic thread back into my discussion of The United Methodist Church in specific ways.

I would like to propose one more possible source of unity for The United Methodist Church, one with long historical roots, one which can encompass the other sources of unity I’ve mentioned, and one which I think holds the most hope for the future: connectionalism.

What is connectionalism? It’s a peculiarly Methodist understanding of what it means to be the church. According to connectionalism, the church is defined not by formal structures or doctrine or lines of authority. It’s defined by connections between people: connections between pastor and pastor, between pastor and laity, and between laity and laity. When The United Methodist Church claims to be a connectional church, that means that we hold such interpersonal connections in so high a regard that we understand them as the essence of the church.

At the beginning of Methodism, connectionalism meant connection to John Wesley. After Wesley, though, there was no one person who defined connectionalism. Even Francis Asbury, who had a central role in shaping Methodism in America, saw the connection of Methodism as being between the preachers and each other, not between the preachers and him. Thus, connectionalism has become not a hub and spokes model of relationship, but a network.

For those of you who read last week’s post, this talk of network should sound familiar. I claimed that the aggregate model of unity is a network model of unity. Therefore, connectionalism can be thought of as an instance of the aggregate model of unity. Connectionalism takes a whole bunch of smaller social groups, be they congregations, annual conferences, jurisdictions/central conferences, caucuses, ministry networks, or other groups, and ties them all together into a denomination through a network of relationships.

The test for connectionalism is always two-fold.

First, are these relationships strong enough to hold when tensions come? Can we maintain our relationships with one another, even when we disagree or feel hurt or wronged?
Second, are we willing to extend our sense of connection beyond just those with whom we have a direct, personal relationship into second-, third- or even more degrees of connection? Are we willing to recognize ourselves as in connection with not just those to whom we are directly connected, but also those people to whom our connections are connected (and their connections, too, and so on)?

The first of these challenges is a perpetual one. Since sanctification seems to be a gift given to few, we can expect that church people will remain people, which means that they’ll occasionally disagree or hurt each other or fear each other, and such instances will test their relationships.

The second challenge becomes increasingly difficult, however, as the church grows in membership, expands into new geographical areas, and lives in an individualistic culture. When there are too many people to know personally, even at one or two degrees of remove, and when distance (not to mention many of the other challenges of modern life) make it difficult to establish and maintain relationships, our sense of connection to others in the denomination suffers. When we are content to be individuals independent of community, we care less that our connections to others are not what they could be.

There’s not much we can do about the first beyond praying that God will continue to give us sanctifying grace and then trying to cooperate with what is given.

There may, however, be ways in which we can try to overcome the second and third challenges. Can new theologies re-emphasize community and connection? Can new technologies facilitate those connections? Can structures emphasize relationship rather than business? If United Methodists want to remain united, these are questions worth asking ourselves.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Recommended readings: Filipino UMC and violence in the Philippines

The United Methodist Church in the Philippines has often had a prophetic stance toward social issues, along with an evangelical emphasis on revival.

Perhaps the most significant social/political issue in the Philippines currently is the government's use of "extra-judicial killings" as part of a war on drugs. The phrase indicates the killing of Filipinos by police and military units without a trial. The United Methodist Church, along with other Christian groups in the Philippines, has criticized these killings as a means to target the poor and indigenous groups, whether or not they are involved in drug use or the drug trade.

The issue is also connected to larger issues of the treatment of indigenous people, the implementation of martial law, and violent conflict in the Philippines. A related story is violence against Lumad indigenous people, an issue which United Methodists have also been involved in addressing.

To get a sense of how significant this issue is for the Philippines and the Filipino UMC, here's a rundown of articles about the Filipino UMC protesting government actions in the last six months:

July 11, 2017: Filipino deaconess: 'Resistance is a gift'
July 27, 2017: United Methodists decry Mindanao martial law
August 30, 2017: Filipino United Methodists protest teen's death
September 7, 2017: UM deaconess responds to Philippine extrajudicial killing crisis
September 15, 2017: Filipino United Methodists help refugees fleeing violence
September 22, 2017: Filipinos protest on martial law anniversary
October 12, 2017: Philippines United Methodists decry government killings

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Networks and bridge-builders in the making of unity

This is the eighth in a series of posts on unity in the United Methodist Church. This series of blog posts originally appeared on David W. Scott’s personal blog, Posts from the Frontier. The posts have been lightly edited and are being republished here.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been talking about something I’ve called the aggregate model of unity: a model of unity that depends not upon some characteristic shared by all as the basis of unity, but rather sees unity as being built up through a bunch of overlapping social circles. Today, I want to talk about the role of networks and bridge-builders in this model of unity.

The diagram of this model I’ve presented before is below:

Here, the overlapping smaller circles are social groups (or other relevant, relational groups), and the heavy black circle is the organizational boundary of the overall group.

There’s another diagram which could be drawn, though. It would look something like this:

This diagram looks not like a bunch of circles but rather a network, a series of connected points. Each point is a different social group or relevant, relational group that makes up part of the overall group. Hence, the aggregate model of unity is also a networked model of unity. Not every point in the network is connected to every other point, but to be part of the network, each point must be connected to some other point, and preferably to several other points.

What are these connections? They’re the same thing as the overlaps in the circle diagram: people who are part of more than one group. These individuals, whom we might call go-betweens, cross-cultural agents, or simply bridge-builders, are what hold the various points of the network together. They are what provide the unity in this model.

To be a true bridge-builder, though, a person must do more than just have membership in two different groups. They must work to connect these groups to each other in some way, whether that be by elaborating shared values, projects, language, goals, or just some sense of affinity. Establishing such connections requires a variety of skills and characteristics on the part of the bridge-builder: trust from both groups, an aptitude for understanding each group, the ability to translate between groups, and a knack for building relationships.

Bridge-builders then are crucial to having unity within larger societal groups, be they The United Methodist Church, the United States of America, or some other group.

Unfortunately, they also seem to be in short supply nowadays. We hear more and more about the polarization of the church and American political society. In the church, liberal and evangelical groups have distinct and usually non-overlapping memberships. In American politics, the most conservative Democrat and the most liberal Republican no longer overlap, as they used to do.

Without any overlap, without any bridge-builders, there is no sense of unity. We become a polarized people. We are left to fight about the money and power involved in the formal structures that hold us together, be that denominational structures or governmental structures, without any sense that this money and power could be used in ways which can benefit all.

If we want to be able to hold together and work together as a larger group, we desperately need people who can be bridge-builders, who can act as go-betweens between different groups. We need them in the church, and we need them in the broader society. Let us pray that there will be some who will answer this call.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

How united is African United Methodism?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

UMNS recently published a story indicating that the United Methodist African College of Bishops has recommended increasing the number of African central conferences from three to seven. This recommendation builds on previous recommendations and comes at a time when United Methodists are also increasing the number of bishops on the continent.

In all likelihood, this recommendation is a solid one that will improve the functioning of central conferences. As this blog has indicated before, the Africa Central Conference in particular is not a particularly coherent or functional unit currently. The goal for increasing the number of central conferences is greater contextualization, which is a worthy goal.

The news story, however, resonated with a question that has been brewing in my mind recently: How united is African United Methodism?

Currently, in addition to the African College of Bishops, which brings together all United Methodist bishops across the continent, African United Methodists mainly come together around issues of higher education, whether that's for meetings of the African Association of United Methodist Theological Institutes (AAUMTI) and African Association of Methodist Institutes of Higher Education (AAMIHE), or through networks centering around Africa University. The UMC Africa Initiative has also tried to link Africans across the continent. Central Conferences bring together Africans from portions, but not the entirety, of the continent.

All of the meetings mentioned above, however, are largely underwritten by American United Methodist dollars. Costs for the Africa College of Bishops come from the Episcopal Fund. AAUMTI and AAMIHE are sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The UMC Africa Initiative is funded by American donors. Africa University is also largely supported by American donors.

This financial situation has its pros and cons, but it is worth pointing out because the continued flow of US dollars to support pan-African initiatives is not guaranteed in the future, especially at current levels. The recommendations the Commission on a Way Forward makes and the subsequent actions of called General Conference in 2019 could significantly alter these economic flows.

If there is less American money available for pan-African initiatives post-2019, the question then will become what value such initiatives have in the eyes of Africans themselves. Will Africans still be willing to pay for some or all of these initiatives, especially in the light of limited resources, overwhelming needs, and the high cost of travel among African countries? Or will Sierra Leonean, Congolese, Zimbabwean, Angolan, and other African United Methodist groups go their own ways and dispense with the fiction of pan-African United Methodism?

If individual groups do decide to go their own ways, that will not necessarily be a bad thing. First, it's their decision, and they have the right to make that decision. Second, Africa is not a country. It's a lot of different countries with numerous different contexts between and within those countries. A more local focus could pay dividends with regards to developing successful ministries. Formerly British-affiliated but now separate and autonomous Methodist Churches in Africa do not seek to collaborate in the same ways the UMC does, and they may actually be growing faster.

If different groups go their own way and dispense with the notion of pan-African United Methodism, it will demonstrate one thing, though. It will demonstrate just how colonial The United Methodist Church is. A colonial system is dependent on the imperial center to connect the various parts of the periphery. The only reason there were connections between India and Guyana or Fiji, for instance, is because they were both part of the British Empire. If it turns out that the US was keeping pan-African United Methodism together, we will better understand the US's role as imperial center in our own peculiar religious empire.

And African United Methodists may yet affirm the value they see in connecting with one another. There are some real and significant bonds of fellowship and support between African United Methodists across the continent. I do not mean to disparage these. Ultimately, though, the question will be for Africans to decide for themselves the value they see in such connections.