Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Recommended Reading: Harald Rückert on "Tension, Hesitation and Hope"

German United Methodist bishop Harald Rückert reports on the recent European meeting of United Methodist leaders. His remarks reflect his #MyHope4Methodism. The original German version of his report can be found here. What follows is an English translation from UM & Global blogmaster David Scott.

Harald Rückert – Tension, Hesitation, and Hope
Bishop Rückert reports on the European meeting of the leaders of the UMC. In addition to collaboration and preparation, it was also about a “hot potato.”

At the beginning of December, the four European bishops of the UMC and around 50 District Superintendents met in the Hessian city of Braunfels. Harald Rückert, the presiding bishop of the UMC in Germany, shared his impressions:

It was a “colorful” group of people who came together for our annual Europe-wide meeting: from Scandinavia and the Baltic, from Southeast Europe and Russia, from Kyrgyzstan and Algeria, from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. For a whole day, we heard and considered examples of communities that opened themselves to their surroundings and bravely dared to do something new. Although our church in Europe numerically belongs to the “small churches,” it is in many places vital and significant for its surroundings. What a motivational boost! Impressive also were various projects in which, for the sake of our mission, unity was lived out in the midst of great differences; for example, the peace conference between Russian and Ukrainian Methodists, whose relationship was heavily strained because of the political enmity between their countries; or the collaboration of an established community with people on the margins of society. We can learn so much from one another.

Unity is stronger than division
Our “hot potato” was also embedded in the meetings: How do we as a church deal with the questions surrounding the issue of homosexuality? Since we Methodists in Europe have just as widely divergent views as the church worldwide, I went to Braunfels with a fearful heart. The opposing convictions and understandings seem so strong and unshakeable, so fundamental and deep-seated. Will they tear us apart? Will we stay together despite these differences? Tension was in the air. Hesitation to approach one another was palpable. I am still moved by how, over the course of these days, the atmosphere changed hour by hour. By the end, this conviction was clear: We belong together. We can help each other invite people to follow Jesus Christ to transform our world that is ripped apart.

Hope and courage
After this meeting, we still were not of one mind on homosexuality – as also on other questions. But that is not necessary to be one in Christ. We have by not discussed everything by a long way. Many more discussions will follow. How far will the impressions of this conference take us? That is not yet fully determined, but certain first steps have been taken. We listened with the firm intention of understanding one another a little bit better. Yet we have also noticed our totally different political, social, cultural, and religious contexts. But most of all, we have always drawn closer to God’s presence, studied the Bible, sung, and prayed. We have celebrated worship, been invited to the table of the Lord, and experienced one another anew as brothers and sisters. Unity in Jesus Christ is strong than that which would separate us. That gives me hope and courage.

Harald Rückert has been bishop of the UMC in Germany since May 2017. His office is in Frankfurt am Main. His email is bischofsbuero (at) emk.de.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Darryl Stephens: #MyHope4Methodism

Today's post is the second in a series that features United Methodist scholars and leaders from around the world reflecting on their hope for the future of The United Methodist Church as a global movement within the larger context of worldwide Methodism as a whole. While the posts will not avoid issues related to the UMC’s debate on sexuality, the goals of the series are 1) to broaden the conversation about the future of Methodism as a global, missional movement concerned with a wide range of issues, not just a set of church institutions concerned with this one issue, and 2) to identify the bright spots of hope in the United Methodist tradition. Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens. Dr. Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference. He is author of Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness (University of Tennessee Press). It is timed to coincide with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Voicing hope for Methodism is no light task. I’m tempted to dream big. I want to believe that United Methodists can overcome their divisions of theology, race, class, sexuality, and politics. I’m drawn toward the eschatological visions of peace and righteousness of Isaiah and the new creation proclaimed by Paul. With the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoing in my head, I want to shout, “I have a dream, that one day United Methodists will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” I want to believe that our slavery to sin and death will be no more. I want to believe that, one day, we will be free of division and strife within this denomination. I want to believe that Jesus’ prayer, “that they may all be one . . . so that the world may believe,” is a divine promise of unity. If Jesus is praying for us, who can be against us?

Yet, in Jesus’ prayer, I also see a warning: that division sows disbelief. That our refusal to be one body, in love and service to the Three-in-One God and our neighbor, displays a counter-witness to the truth we would proclaim. Our very efforts to guard the church, to be on the “right” side of history and the right hand of God, reveal our stubborn pride and misplaced trust in ourselves. Out of our fiery passion for purity popped a golden calf! Blinded with holy ambition and puffed up with dogmatic confidence, we wrest the task of unity from God, attempting to mold this church in our own image.

“You faithless generation,” I can hear Jesus saying once again, “how much longer must I put up with you?” Like the boy with the spirit in Mark 9, Methodism has, from its childhood, foamed and ground its teeth, unable to speak to unity in Christ. Methodists have spread the gospel far and wide, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and strived for perfection. Yet, we repeatedly attempt to structure our church as if it were up to us to control where the Holy Spirit leads and who is included in the body of Christ. Jacob survived his wrestling match with a limp and a new name. May The United Methodist Church be so blessed! Far better than another declaration of right belief would be an honest supplication to our sovereign God: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

I believe that the gospel is Good News. I believe Jesus when he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Any so-called gospel message that does not serve the least of these, that does not prove abundantly life-giving to the poor, that does not scatter the proud or fill the hungry with good things is a curse against the gospel of Jesus Christ. True unity does not create scapegoats or countenance injustice for the sake of avoiding disruption. Embracing a cheap unity without justice is tantamount to saying, “‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” An abomination, says the Lord.

The unity for which I hope is not characterized by unanimity, sameness, or even shared mission. It is not the product of political compromise or doctrinal decree by a church council (no matter how “democratic” its representation). It does not replicate the tribalism, like-minded associations, and barriers to belonging that we hold so dearly in our finite hearts. It is not even the result of Christian conferencing, mutual recognition of baptism and ministry, or any other conciliatory or ecumenical effort. Unity in Methodism, and Christianity more broadly, is not something to be earned, deserved, or settled for. It is not of our own making.

I believe unity is a gift of God. The unity for which I hope is that of shared identity as disciples of Christ. It is with all of our differences that we encounter each other through Christ, answering his invitation to true communion. “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.” Only then can we recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Only then are we truly empowered to “welcome one another . . . just as Christ has welcomed” us. Our common identity in and through Christ gives us the kind of unity that boasts “a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit.” It is by the Holy Spirit that we find ourselves “many members, yet one body,” tasked with giving “greater honor to the inferior member.”

Unity—this divine, common identity as children of God—is our witness. I believe that “God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation,” also equips us for this ministry. I believe that in serving Christ, in seeking reconciliation and unity, we are empowered to fulfill his command to love one another, not simply tolerate each other. Is it too much to hope, as ambassadors for Christ, “that in him we might become the righteousness of God”? Not through our own righteousness but through the righteousness of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

My hope for Methodism is this unity. God, help our unbelief!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Recommended Reading: William Lawrence book on #MyHope4Methodism

Last week, UM & Global launched a new series, #MyHope4Methodism, that will feature United Methodist scholars and leaders from around the world reflecting on their hope for the future of The United Methodist Church as a global movement within the larger context of worldwide Methodism as a whole. I was pleased to see an announcement from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry the following day about a new book from Dr. William B. Lawrence entitled "A Methodist Requiem: Words of Hope and Resurrection for the Church." As the press release state, this book is another attempt to proclaim hope for United Methodism, even in a time of great tensions in the church.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

David Scott: #MyHope4Methodism

UM & Global is beginning a new series that will feature United Methodist scholars and leaders from around the world reflecting on their hope for the future of The United Methodist Church as a global movement within the larger context of worldwide Methodism as a whole. While the posts will not avoid issues related to the UMC’s debate on sexuality, the goals of the series are 1) to broaden the conversation about the future of Methodism as a global, missional movement concerned with a wide range of issues, not just a set of church institutions concerned with this one issue, and 2) to identify the bright spots of hope in the United Methodist tradition. Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster and Global Ministries Director of Mission Theology Dr. David W. Scott.

My hope for Methodism is that the best of our missional past will propel us into our future.

One project I have been working on lately has been coordinating the bicentennial celebration of the founding of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the earliest denomination-wide mission group in American Methodism. As part of that project, I am assembling a database of missionary biographies. (You can submit stories, too!) Certainly, Methodists have made many mistakes in our past mission. Yet, as I have read these stories, I have frequently been deeply inspired by the lives of faithful Methodists involved in mission. I hope that Methodists will continue to live out our faith in some of the same ways as these missionaries. In particular:

They loved Jesus. While missionaries operated with a variety of theologies, the best of them had a deep-seated spirituality fueled by their love of Jesus. In good Methodist fashion, that love motivated them to show their love through actions. Methodist missionaries worked hard, risked much, suffered and even died, opened themselves up to new places and new ways of seeing the world. All of this would not have been possible without a sustaining love of Jesus. I hope Methodists will continue to have such a sustaining, motivating love of Jesus.

They loved other people. The best Methodist missionaries were not only overflowing with love for Jesus, but love for the people with whom they worked, inside and outside the church. Whether that love was that of the privileged who came to understand, care for, and champion the causes of the oppressed with whom they worked or that of those who rose up from disadvantaged backgrounds to help their communities, no good mission was ever done without love. I hope Methodists will continue to love not just each other, but the individuals and the world outside their doors.

They broke barriers. There are so many inspiring stories of Methodist women and people of color from around the world who did things no woman or person of color had before because they were Methodist missionaries. They took authority from the Holy Spirit, did what others said they couldn't, went where others said they shouldn't, and accomplished what others said they wouldn't. In so doing, they proved that God was working through them, too. I hope that Methodist women and Methodists of color will continue to claim their equal part in the church and the world.

They tried new things. Methodist missionaries sought to be faithful to their Methodism. But they understood that doing so meant being willing to try new things - new forms of mission, new ways of organizing church, new activities in the broader society, new relationships, new ways of thinking, etc. They even tried new things, failed, and then went right on trying. They understood that faithfulness wasn't in tension with trying new things; it required it. Missionaries opened themselves up to change and were agents of change in the church and world. I hope that Methodists will continue to be open to being faithful in new ways.

They showed the breadth and strength of Methodism. Methodism is a big tradition. As a religious movement that has been around for 300 years, spans a multitude of countries and cultures, and currently includes over 80 million people, there are a lot of different ways, past and present, to be Methodist. Yet at the same time, there are also "family resemblances," if you will. Reading missionary biographies shows both the diversity and the resemblances within Methodism and the value of both. Methodist missionaries have inspired me by showing the many, many ways in which they brought God's love to the world. This dizzying, dazzling array of mission gives me not just one hope for Methodism, but a whole host of hopes, as vast as the night sky.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Recommended Reading: Hybrid Way Forward

The Commission on a Way Forward has their next meeting later this week, their first since releasing an interim report in November. That report laid out three possible structural models for addressing The United Methodist Church's long-standing debate over homosexuality. Even following that report, there are still many possible scenarios for a final recommendation to and response by the special called General Conference in 2019.

Yet as the Commission continues its work, others are also putting forward ideas that may affect which of these scenarios come to pass. Rev. Chris Ritter, for instance, has put forward what he calls a "Synthesis Model" or "Hybrid Way Forward," including proposed legislation. Rev. Rittter's model seeks to combine the three models mentioned by the Commission on a Way Forward in their report.

This mention of Rev. Ritter's model is not intended as a form of support for that model. Instead, I mention it as an example of how General Conference could end up adopting something other than what the bishops propose (response #4 on my list of possible responses by General Conference). There is not much precedent for General Conference adopting major restructure plans not backed by church leadership, but GC2019 will not be a typical General Conference.

Still, Rev. Ritter's model notwithstanding, all eyes remain on the Commission. UM & Global joins United Methodists around the world as we continue to pray for their work and await the bishops' final recommendation(s) based on that work.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: A Reflection on Costly Discipleship

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.

We are living in challenging times: we face the pros and cons of technological and scientific advancements, competing religious and political fundamentalisms, the rapid increase of secularisation, changing scenarios of immigration, consumerist cultural trends, nuclear and other war rhetoric, extreme social and economic marginalization – all these phenomena exist and function at the same time in tension and even lead to crises. Nations, churches, communities, families and we as persons are caught and called amid this mess and chaos.

The question arises: How can we be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in these rapidly changing times?

If the church is serious about discipleship in today’s context, then the church should renew her missional commitment to equipping and empowering disciples of Christ for costly discipleship in God’s world at all levels in the life of the church.

Jesus said: Follow Me
Let us reflect on Jesus’ call, “Follow Me,” according to the Gospel narratives.

Ο Ιησούς είπε ακολουθήστε με – Jesus said, “come and follow me”.

Matthew 8:22 – But Jesus said, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

Mark 10:21 – Jesus said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

John 1:43 – Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”

Luke 5:27 – After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi and he said to him, “Follow me.”

To understand the concept of discipleship we must comprehend two Greek words used in the Gospel narratives:

1.ἀκολουθέω (akolouthéō) This has several meanings: to follow one who precedes, join him as his attendant, accompany him, to join one as a disciple, become or be his disciple, join with his movement. Here the emphasis is on being a companion of Christ.

2.μαθητής (mathētēs) This has the meaning of pupil/learner; the Hebrew equivalent is Talmid – pupil/learner, derived from Lamad – to learn.

Master and followers as friends and mission companions:
The central point here is to answer the question of whom we are called to follow: It is Jesus the Master; learning at the foot of the Master, from the words and actions of the Master, from the whole being of the Master. Put another way, our calling is to follow the “THE WORD (Dharma) as teaching and THE WORD as person (the living Word). This we called as the Gurukul model in south Asian settings (Guru, the teacher as role model for the disciples). Jesus is the Guru.

In my own Sinhalese language, the word Shrawaka is used for the concept of disciple. It means the one who is called to hear the WORD and obey the WORD; hearing and obeying go together.

Dabar/Logos – the WORD in the scripture means “Burden of the heart of God.” So, we are called to discern and exposit the burdens of the heart of God to the people of God in our ministry. Thus we – the disciples of Jesus – must constantly listen to what Christ says and put that into action.

To sojourn with the Master is yet another dimension of our call, and this means becoming involved in the pains and agonies, joys and hopes of the community. It is a call to live in Christ with people. It is not an easy way and if we want to walk on the water, we must get out of our boats and comfort zones; it is a call to partake in real LIFE and its struggles.

Service of Christ is diakonic in nature and a call to serve one another. It requires an extraordinary humility, like that of our master-friend Jesus, who by washing the feet of his disciples transformed a Greco-Roman model of Master-Slave relationship into a Master-Friend relationship. Instead of slaves washing the feet of the Master, now the Master washes the feet of the disciples. By the visible sign of foot-washing Jesus made us part of his body – “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you” (John 15:15).

Contemporary discipleship thoughts
The martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, during the time of authoritarianism in Germany was tested in his witness and prophetically voiced how costly discipleship was. He denounced “cheap grace” and announced the cost of discipleship for those who want to follow Christ. By doing so Bonhoeffer and his companions affirmed that Jesus, not Hitler, is the Lord.

Elisabeth Fiorenza, a renowned feminist theologian and New Testament scholar, speaks of a discipleship of equals in the context of women and men, laity and priests, and affirms that we are called to a common and corporate discipleship in the ministry of Christ.

Fr. Michael Rodrigo, OMI, a Sri Lankan priest-martyr, describes the disciple as a living sacrifice and offertory for the people who are suffering. This is the ultimate Eucharistic offertory for God. For Rodrigo this is a progressive-ongoing Passover-Easter experience: a Passover from selfishness to selflessness, from individualism to community, from ignorance to wisdom, from death to life.

John Stott, another theologian, explains non-conformity in discipleship. We are called to live, serve and witness in the world but to avoid becoming contaminated by the world.

Tests of discipleship
Discipleship is tested in when we are faced with real LIFE. Discipleship is also tested when we encounter crisis and conflict situations. Our commitment to discipleship is critically tested when justice is challenged in the social order. Another test arises when we meet the LAST, the LEAST and the LOST in our communities (John Wesley’s favourite three L’s which are based on the Gospel). Finally, it is tested when we are faced with choices between the riches of the World and the blessings of God’s Reign. All these tests bring a qualitative maturity into discipleship.

My prayer is that the Church as a global community of Christ’s disciples today will be a discerning community and a responding community for the Mission of God in the world.

We must not lose hope at any cost, but rather be watchful, exemplifying hope in the context of the hopelessness and anxiety that prevails.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Recommended Readings on short-term mission

Two recent articles on short-term missions provide helpful conversation starters about missiological issues related to the practice of short-term missions.

United Methodist Communications published a piece by Rev. Dan Wunderlich entitled "How to do short-term missions the right way." The piece offers seven suggestions for those (Americans) planning short-term mission trips: learn the issues, check your perspective, do the research, pick the right project, consider not going, train your team, and tell a responsible story.

UM & Global contributor Rev. Lisa Beth White has written a response to Rev. Wunderlich's piece entitled "Balancing the why and the how of short-term missions." Rev. White adds another layer to Rev. Wunderlich's recommendations by raising the question of motivation in short-term missions and connecting it to The United Methodist Church's mission document, "Grace Upon Grace."

Both pieces are sure to be useful in local church settings, classrooms, and other arenas in which United Methodists are seeking to conduct mission in faithful, fair, and fruitful ways.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

2017/2018 year in (p)review

As 2017 ends and 2018 beginnings, it's time to engage in the annual tradition of looking back at what the top topics on UM & Global were in 2017 and looking forward to what they might be in 2018. To see what my guesses were for 2017 at the beginning of the year, see here.

The most popular post of 2017, and the most popular post ever on UM & Global, is "American UMC decline is a white people problem." This piece combined themes of race, church decline, and data analysis. All three of these themes have been important to UM & Global in the past.

The biggest foci for UM & Global in 2017, though, were undoubtedly church unity and our assessment of the draft UMC ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." Both topics took up a lot of blog posts over the year and included posts that were among the most-read of 2017.

UM & Global's treatment of "Wonder, Love and Praise" harkens back in some ways to our assessment of "Grace Upon Grace." Both series included multiple authors from across the connection reflecting upon important documents of the church. The comment collection process for "Wonder, Love and Praise" is now closed, and we will have to wait to see what the Committee on Faith and Order does with the comments submitted by our authors and others.

The focus on church unity is part of a larger complex of issues including, as I termed them at the beginning of 2017, General Conference, the Sexuality Debate, and Global Ecclesiology. In some ways, the sexuality debate in the UMC has become a black hole, sucking in all others issues that operate at a more than local level. UM & Global would not have spent so much time exploring the grounds for and challenges to church unity in 2017 without that backdrop. Questions of where the UMC will go in the future are important for a blog "dedicated to fostering conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church," but the challenge for 2018 will be to continue to engage with such questions without being consumed by them, while still having attention for other important missiological topics.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Recommended Viewing: I am a missionary series

Global Ministries has begun releasing two new series of short videos.

The first is entitled "I am a missionary." The videos include short interviews of Global Ministries missionaries taken during a recent gathering in Latin America. The missionaries speak about their motivations to enter missionary service and their experience as missionaries.

The second is entitled "Fearless Fellows." The videos include short interviews of Global Ministries' Global Mission Fellows, talking about their calling to mission work and what they've learned from their places of assignment.

The videos could be a good resource to use in classroom, Sunday School, or worship settings.