Monday, February 25, 2008

Guest-Blogging: Wade Griffith

As part of our Conference-wide celebration of United Methodist believing, I've asked some of our pastors to contribute their thoughts on the joy of the Wesleyan way of Christianity. Today Wade Griffith, Sr. Pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Tuscaloosa, evaluates the recent movie, The Golden Compass based on Phillip Pullman's book, as he reflects on the hallmarks of Methodism.

Hallmarks of Methodism:
We are Free to Think and Engage the Culture as Ambassadors of Christ

Two weeks ago I preached a sermon that focused on the response we as Methodist Christians should have to elements of popular culture that appear to be attacking our faith. Having recently gotten an email insisting that all faithful Christians must boycott a film entitled, The Golden Compass, I was led to reconsider my position on how we relate and respond to the culture at large. To be honest, the email I received only succeeded in raising my curiosity about the movie. Shortly after getting it, I went and purchased the books so that I could find out what all the fuss was about. Turns out, the movie, The Golden Compass (TGC), was based on a book by the same name & that book is part of a trilogy of books by Phillip Pullman. The trilogy is ominously titled, His Dark Materials.

Over the Christmas holidays, I read the trilogy and found it to be an imaginative, page-turner of a tale, full of magic, adventure, love, loyalty, and of course, good versus evil. There are even talking animals in this story, which begins, oddly enough, with a girl in a wardrobe. Sound familiar? It is almost as if Pullman’s tale was designed to be a foil to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Like Lewis’ Chronicles, Pullman’s story is a fantasy tale about the struggle between good and evil. However, unlike Lewis’ work, in Pullman’s world the church is the villain. The church in HDM is a caricature of the medieval church. It is more political than spiritual, and in it, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been replaced by the Machiavellian ethics of institutional survival & the accumulation of power. Finally, the church in the trilogy exists only to control the lives of all people.

After reading the books, I was eager to share my thoughts with the congregation. In HDM, I saw what the church would be like without the Holy Spirit. I saw what the church would be like without Christ as its head, exemplar and Lord. I was also prodded by my reading to look at our church anew to see if we have strayed from the path of Christ. Where are we working to accumulate our own power and influence? Where have we forgotten to wash feet, to live as servants and to carry our own cross? Finally, I was given an insight into the head of a non-believer…not something we get very often! Be honest, how many conversations per year do you have with strident, well-educated and articulate atheists. Clearly, Christianity doesn’t always look from the outside like it does to us from the inside!

In the final analysis, the church I know is absent from the book! There is nothing in the book about compassion or helping the poor. There is nothing about grace, forgiveness or reconciliation. There is nothing about protecting human dignity and freedom. There is nothing about a life-changing relationship with a Lord who gave His only Son for us. There is certainly nothing about treating all people as children of God! Rather, the church in the book is a reactionary and power-hungry institution that ruthlessly attacks anything that challenges its power and influence. Hmmm, and my response to this portrait of the church (and our faith) is that I should angrily boycott it? (I wonder…did Pullman or the movie studio send out that email.) Seems like it encourages the kind of response that would only confirm Pullman’s picture of the church.

Surprisingly, the books left me feeling thankful. I am thankful to serve in a church where I can read what I like and have the freedom to make up my own mind! I am thankful that I worship in a church where I can disagree with the pastor and not get kicked out of the church. I am thankful to be in a denomination whose founder valued learning, dialogue and critical engagement with the culture. Most of all, I am thankful to love, serve and follow the God who created the multiverse. That being the case, why would some work of fiction or any work of fiction scare me or rattle my cage? Do we forget that we serve the CREATOR. Yahweh! The Lord of Lords! When we engage the culture from a posture of suspicion and hostility, the culture reads it as anxiety and fear. Maybe they are right. On some subconscious level, are we afraid that the right book, question, idea or discovery will pop the balloon that is God? If not, why are we so scared. Do we really think God needs our defense and protection?

Despite the atheistic views it subtly and not so subtly espouses, I am thankful for TGC. It has reminded me to be a spiritual leader, not a CEO. It has reminded me to appreciate my denomination and faith. It has reminded me to show the world what we as a church are really about. We are “about” sharing the love that God has so richly given us in Jesus Christ. We are about helping people meet God through a relationship with Christ. We are about working for a world that conforms to God’s loving will--a world where the last truly are first and where no one lives in despair. We are about responding with love to friend and foe alike. We are about loving care. We are about hope.

Thanks be to God not only for this faith, but for a faith tradition that allows me to, “reunite [ing] the two so long disjoined: knowledge and vital piety.” Thanks be to God for a founder who believed, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” As Methodists, we have the freedom to read what we will and to think as we will. Mr. Pullman, if you are listening, I guess the church isn’t all about control after all.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Guest-Blogging: Bill Brunson

As part of our Conference-wide celebration of United Methodist believing, I've asked some of our pastors to contribute their thoughts on the joy of the Wesleyan way of Christianity. Today Bill Brunson, pastor of our active and growing church at Trussville, testifies to one of his favorite aspects of United Methodist theology.

Thoughts on United Methodist Theology

I am one of those people who was raised as a United Methodist. My parents were in leadership roles in their local church. My paternal grandmother thought that there were two kinds of people in the world - those who are Methodist and those who wish they were. So my life has always been shaped by the preaching, teaching, theology and doctrine of our church. However, when asked to write about a part of Methodism that I deeply cherish - I have to say the first thing that came to mind is our belief in Christian Perfection.

For me, the idea of “going onto perfection” is a reminder that our relationship with God is a living thing. As Christians we are to be growing up in our love of God and our love of neighbor. That type of counter cultural transformation doesn’t happen over night or instantaneously. Instead, the process of maturing in our faith, and going onto perfection is one that happens every day for those of us who are being saved.

When I was in 6th grade and attending Confirmation Class, we typically closed each class session with questions and answers. I don’t remember who asked the question that day, or what the exact question happened to be, but I distinctly remember the answer that was given. The minister said, “Throughout our lives, as we live as faithful Christians, God never stops working in us, working on us, or working through us.” For me, that process and the depth of the relationship with God that he was describing have always been comforting, challenging, sometimes terrifying, and always exciting.

In his journal, John Wesley wrote, “By Christian Perfection, I mean, 1. Loving God with all our heart. Do you object to this? I mean, 2. A heart and life all devoted to God. Do you desire less? I mean, 3. Regaining the whole image of God. What objection to this? I mean, 4. Having all the mind that was in Christ. Is this going too far? I mean, 5. Walking uniformly as Christ walked. And this surely no Christian will object to. If anyone means any thing more, or anything else by Perfection, I have no concern with it.” Journal, Vol. 3, p.369

The Christian faith and discipleship are not defined solely by the work of Justifying Grace. The work of Sanctifying Grace and the process of Christian Perfection are the means by which we become the people that God called and created us to be. It is where we lay aside the old ways for the ways of God. It is where we learn to look at each other and see Christ rather than our prejudices and biases. It is where we learn to “seek first the kingdom of God” instead of our preferences, wishes and wants. It is leaning to think like Christ, act like Christ, and love like Christ. It doesn’t happen over night, but day by day and prayer by prayer we learn to love God and love our neighbor and follow Christ with all that we are.

The message of Christian Perfection is something that is central to who we are as United Methodist because it pulls together Wesley’s hope that Methodists would exhibit holiness of heart and life. That what we believe would transform how we live, and how we live would call others to believe. Lovett Weems, in his Pocket Guide to John Wesley’s Message Today, said that for Wesley the doctrine of Christian Perfection is “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.” For me, it is one of our doctrines that I cherish most, and it is the doctrine I hope we will preach, teach and share with each new generation.

Charles Wesley’s Hymn: Savior, the Worlds and Mine

To love is all my wish,
I only live for this:
Grant me, Lord, my heart’s
There by faith forever dwell.
This I always will require,
Thee, and only thee to feel.
Ah! Give me this to know,
With all thy
saints below;
Swells my soul to compass thee;
Gasps in thee to live and
Filled with all the Deity,
All immersed and lost in love!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Guest-Blogging: Julie Holly

Our Conference-wide celebration of United Methodist believing continues with some of our pastors contributing their thoughts on the joy of the Wesleyan way of Christian believing. This week we have thoughts by Julie Holly, Associate Pastor at Huffman United Methodist Church. Julie focuses upon the joy of United Methodist worship, particularly our stress upon the sacraments.

God's Grace through the Sacrament

Every time someone inquires about my interest in and love for United Methodist beliefs and practices, which for us Methodists go hand-in-hand, I immediately think of my experiences of God’s grace through the sacraments. 

My parents raised my sister and me outside the UMC for the first eleven or so years of my life, and those early experiences of church instilled in me a powerful fear of God and the punishment that surely awaited me and everyone else who had yet to decide to submit to the waters of baptism. I had been told in Sunday school that I was a child of God and was loved by Jesus, so I believed myself to be a Christian. As I grew older and started listening to some of what the preacher said in worship, I heard a different story. I heard that I was destined to suffer eternal punishment when I died because I had not been baptized. I learned of my further exclusion from the people of God—also due to my decision to post-pone baptism—when the plates carrying the wafers and tiny cups of grape juice were passed over me during The Lord’s Supper. I was an outsider and the only way for me to get in was to be baptized. As a ten-year-old girl, I wasn’t ready to face the potential risks of getting water up my nose when dunked and being humiliated when the congregation saw me soaking wet afterwards. 

My understanding and experience of God changed when my parents started taking us to the United Methodist Church down the road. There I was introduced in worship and Sunday school to the God of invitational grace. I learned that God is constantly working in me through the power of the Holy Spirit to grow me in love and discipleship. I was shocked and excited at the first Communion Service to hear the open invitation to the Lord’s Table. I finally got a taste of the wafers and juice, and though it didn’t taste nearly as good as I had imagined, it was a delicious experience of inclusion in the Body of Christ. After attending confirmation classes, I was baptized and confirmed in the UMC; and only a few years later as a teenager I was invited by the minister to help serve Communion. I couldn’t believe my ears! Me, a lowly, unworthy teenager allowed to serve the Lord’s Supper? I wondered to myself if this sort of thing was really permitted, but aloud I answered the minister, “Yes!” As I timidly handed out the tiny cups of juice to the kneeling people, I was so full of joy—and so thankful that no one stood up to protest my role in the service—that I couldn’t wait to do it again. I couldn’t wait to experience again the grace of a God who uses even me to share the gift of salvation through Christ!

It wasn’t long after we began attending the UMC that I witnessed my first infant baptism and I was struck by how much sense it made to me. I had believed and felt that I was a child of God long before my baptism so it was interesting to me to be in a church where babies were claimed by God and baptized into the church just a few months after being born. Instead of making children wait to grow up and decide to be baptized, the church claimed them for God first thing. For me, now serving in a local church as a probationary elder in the UMC, participating in the baptism of infants is one of the most powerful and grace-filled experiences of ministry. I love celebrating with the congregation the gift of God’s transforming grace that is at work in all of us as I sprinkle the waters of baptism over the precious head of a new life. Infant baptism reminds us all that life is a gift from God and that we completely belong to God even before we can say, “God”, let alone begin to understand anything about God. That is what I call amazing grace.

Julie Holly

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Duke Divinity School

On Tuesday, February 12th, three 2004 alumni of Duke Divinity School will be on campus to talk to current divinity students about ministry opportunities in North Alabama. You can Facebook the event here: Coffee and Conversation

Monday, February 04, 2008

Guest-Blogging: Michael Stewart

As part of our Conference-wide celebration of United Methodist believing, I've asked some of our pastors to contribute their thoughts on the joy of the Wesleyan way of Christianity. This week we begin with thoughts on United Methodist "specialness" by Dr. Michael Stewart. Michael is known as one of our outstanding preachers. He formerly directed our Connectional Ministries and is currently pastor of our Hazel Green United Methodist Church.


Perhaps what makes us Methodists special is that we do not believe we are all that special.

The Roman Catholic Church is older and bigger. Episcopalians and Eastern Orthodox do liturgy with more flair. Presbyterians are more focused on doctrine and scholarship. Quakers are the folks we go to for instruction in prayer. Disciples of Christ are more ecumenically minded. Pentecostals are more exuberant. Baptists are more democratic. The Salvation Army is better with the poor. The Amish are greener. Lutherans are better at pipe organs. The Assemblies of God are more adept at raising up large congregations. Mormons are uniquely American; holding that Jesus’ return will take place in Missouri.

We Methodists do not claim to have invented Christianity. With St. Paul, we simply pass along to others what we first received (I Cor.15: 3).

John Wesley said the Methodist way is nothing new. It is simply the old religion of the Bible: “the love of God and all mankind” and “loving God with all our heart, and soul and strength”.

While every third barbeque joint in the South claims to have “The World’s Best BBQ”, and every touchdown ignites the fans to chant, “We’re number one”; we Methodists are just happy to be here. We have neither an inferiority complex nor an exaggerated view of ourselves as the one true tribe of Christians. We are not offended by Jesus’ saying that he has other sheep not of our fold (John 10:16).

We do not believe for a minute God has to go through us to accomplish every godly thing done in the world. There is not a sectarian bone in our bodies. We are not offended that God’s love can be active in Syrian, Lebanese, or Samaritan pagans (Luke 4:25-27; 10:33). We believe that God can work through the Scouts, public schools, secular universities, politics, the United Way, the Red Cross, country music, and our enemies. Methodists do not retreat to a religious subculture; but take seriously the incarnation and immanence of God in the world, calling it prevenient grace.

At our best we are not anxious or fearful, but trust God. We believe as a denomination that we will be fine as long as we keep aiming to love God more, and extend concrete acts of mercy to more neighbors. John Wesley even gave us our own Serenity Prayer:

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message and author of The Jesus Way notes that America is a nation of consumers. Consequently, the quickest way to get Americans into congregations is to identify what people want, and offer it to them. He writes that the winning strategy is to “satisfy their fancies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, whatever.” The only problem is that this is not the way of Jesus.” (The Jesus Way, pg.6.)

Is it a coincidence that Methodists stopped growing numerically in the 1960’s when our national church leaders went against the grain of America and challenged racism and war? Telling people what they do not want to hear is probably not a great strategy for church growth in a consumer culture.

The good news is that our decline may finally put us in a place God can do something with us. As long as we imagined we must have been serving God because we were so special (“More Methodists serving in Congress than any other denomination!”) or because our success could be measured in our membership numbers or the height of our steeples, God could not do much with us. But perhaps in our weakness, and in the need to depend on God’s grace rather than our own performance, God can work with us. As it becomes less about us, it can become more about Jesus.

Consider the African-American Church in the mid 1960’s. It was not wealthy. Most of it buildings were modest. Its membership contained few corporate CEO’s, bank presidents, mayors, governors, or captains of industry. Nonetheless, in spite of statistical weakness, the Black church was the most faithful part of Christ’s church in America in that day. The little cinderblock and wood-frame Black churches rose higher than the big steepled churches, and made an astonishing kingdom witness. God can do mighty things through what the world counts as weakness. After all, God did his best work with some slaves in Egypt led by a tongue-tied shepherd, and with some fishermen in Galilee led by a tortured and executed criminal.

Perhaps the best way to serve a crucified and risen leader in an America addicted to Super-sizing and Superpower-ing is not to bemoan or resist diminishment, or frantically embrace every technique that works in selling products, making money, managing people, winning wars, or manipulating emotions. (Peterson, p. 8.). Rather, in following the way of the cross - being generous and forgiving even in our weakness - we might hear the dying cross-bearer say, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." And therefore, “we can boast all the more gladly about our weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on us.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Our neighbors across town and across the world are dying for a genuine, authentic, honest, humble, non-gimmicky, servant church that is in the process of giving itself away, just like its Lord. The world is dying for a church that knows it is not all that special, but that its Lord is the real deal.

And, who knows? God may then have in us something that is indeed special, and worth resurrecting.

Michael Stewart
January, 2008