I’m tired of pretending (and of conferencing) – #WJUMC

I’m not a big fan of pretending.

We all do it of course. We pretend to be happy when we aren’t. We pretend to like dinner when we didn’t. We have dedicated entire genres to the art of pretending; some of our favorite things are born in these worlds of science fiction and fantasy.

Pretending has an undeniable value. Pretending plays an important role in child development fostering social and cognitive skills and igniting creativity. Adults can use role-playing and other forms of pretending to spark their own creativity and to troubleshoot challenges they face.

But there is also a time when pretending ceases to be helpful.

There is a lot to love about our Methodist practice of conferencing. Together, Methodists have done good work together saving lives and committing resources to greater efficiency. I’ve seen relationships develop across divides, and there is most certainly value in knowing that we are not alone in this big world.

What I don’t appreciate about our practice of conferencing is all the misdirected pretending.

It has long been acknowledged that many churches struggle to create safe places for authenticity. Where we ought to be able to bring our struggles and troubles, instead, we often feel we need to dress them up with fine clothes and fake smiles. Building real Christian community is hard, time consuming, work.

Some churches have found that small groups help because they allow folks to more easily get beyond pretense to intimacy. Trust is hard earned in these days of political polarization, quick judgment and superficiality. Where a hard truth might easily be discarded as a harsh judgment coming from an acquaintance or even from the pulpit, in relationship the same words might take root leading toward transformation – or they may never be spoken because relationships help us all to understand context and appreciate nuance.

Still we come together at our annual, jurisdictional, and general conferences and spend a lot of time (and money) pretending that the Spirit is with us absent the love, grace, and trust we may once have had for each other. We imagine good preaching and excellence in music can erase ugly words and cynical politicking. We pretend that we are looking to our bishops for leadership but really we just want them to take our side.

Perhaps Jesus never intended for us to build such ziggurats of institutionalized religiosity. Maybe they just don’t work as well today as they did in the past.

Perhaps uniformity fit better when missional context was just a rough edge to sand away. Maybe things were easier when we didn’t have the Internet around to expose how love often allowed for divine deviation.

I mentioned earlier that pretending can actually serve a positive purpose. Perhaps we are just pretending in the wrong direction.

Imagine for a moment that you are a little boy playing with his Star Wars figures. You have a choice of playmates this afternoon and your mother wants to know which friend you wish to visit.

Your first friend is a delight to play with. Together you dream up new worlds to save from the evil clutches of the Galactic empire. You aren’t thoroughly convinced that her Care Bears are “the same as Ewoks” but you roll with it anyway. Your mother always seems to pick you up too early.

Your second friend is a little different. Whenever your Luke Skywalker figure determines the best path to victory, this friend quickly presents a reason why Luke can’t do what you need him to do. And before you know it, his Darth Vader is force choking your doll. End of story.

If you are looking at these options as a reasonable adult, it’s very likely that you would choose to play with the first friend. If you really got into role-playing as a little boy, you may have made a different, poorer, choice. How little kids develop gender-bias is a conversation for another day.

What I would put before you, as I end this post, is the choice we never seem to make as a larger church. When we come together for our Connectional playdates, we most often choose the second friend’s form of pretending, that is pretending in the negative. We spend hours defining what we can’t do, obsessively limiting the possibilities of our Methodist sisters and brothers, and thus, potentially quenching the Spirit that moves is ways we can’t predict (John 3:8).

Instead, we could choose to pretend together as this little boy does when he visits his first friend. This positive pretending would allow us to dream together about what God is calling us to. We might have to overlook the fact that our playmate has brought Care Bears to a Star Wars battle, but the energy lost obsessing over those details, trying to deliver what we may believe to be a hard truth, is more than we frankly have.

So as we head into this final conference of the quadrennium, I am tired of pretending and looking forward to a day where we might dream up new possibilities together again. I hope I am not alone in this.


Image Credit: Composite image from source files by Flickr user JD Hancock.

What the Hell are we doing on Sunday Mornings?

Guest Post by the Rev. Kathy Neary

Christianity is bracing for the Big One.  We are waiting with anxious hearts to see what cataclysmic change is bearing down on us from history. Phyllis Tickle popularized the theory that every 500 years a great, mind-blowing transformation occurs within Christianity, and we are due. The last major shift in the way we theologized and practiced Christianity occurred during the Protestant Reformation, marked by Martin Luther posting his debate invitation on the Wittenberg Church doors in 1517.

martin-luther
A depiction of Martin Luther’s legendary nailing of his 95 Theses to the doors of the Wittenberg Castle church.

We’re due.  We may be past due.

I think the next major shift involves the end of Christian worship. I’m not referring to the style of benedictions, which is what I found when I Googled “the end of Christian worship.” I’m saying that Christians will no longer gather on a weekly basis to worship God. Of course, that type of practice will continue in small pockets of Christian communities, but it will not be the central identifying mark of Christian life. This change in Christian practice has been coming for some time now, but we just haven’t recognized the seismic shifts sending tremors up through our souls. Now it’s time to face this possibility.

#UMCGC

Our Connectional Game of Thrones

A couple of weeks before United Methodists gather in Portland, Oregon for their General Conference, the highly anticipated sixth season of Game of Thrones will debut on HBO. This will be the first season to leapfrog its source material, A Song of Ice and Fire, the popular fantasy series by George R. R. Martin. The second promotional trailer for this season, released just a week ago, already has 14 million views.

Game of Thrones logoWhile Game of Thrones is a cultural phenomenon, it is also very clearly intended for a mature audience. Even though the show’s fandom assuredly includes some Methodists, there have been moments throughout that have rightly given viewers, religious or not, pause.

Of course, the same might be said of the quadrennial meeting United Methodists call General Conference. Billed as a “global church gathering” accompanied with celebratory displays of worship and recognitions of Connectional work, this meeting of the denomination’s “top legislative body” can also be a babelesque confusion of cultures, values, and theology. The $10.5 million price tag for this church gathering, given the elusiveness of substantive results, also gives many pause.

Mission Accomplished and a Savior that Knows Better

Does the image accompanying this post disturb you a little? I hope it does. The juxtaposition of this dubious image of American power with the work of Christ is intentional. Despite the misguided efforts of much of the modern Church, these things are like oil and water.

Holy Week provides us an opportunity to repent and cleanse a Church that has been unfaithful in its presentation of the Gospel and in its acclimation to a culture obsessed with celebrity, success, and power.

The Church has a Jessica Alba-sized Problem

Jessica Alba’s Honest Company has a problem. It’s a problem many churches can relate to.

Founded by Alba and Christopher Gavigan, Honest Co. has built its brand on the promise of delivering environmentally-friendly personal care items for the home. It has also effectively capitalized upon America’s fixation and trust in its celebrities and our tendency to believe that we can do social good by spending money on ourselves. In a few short years, this young company has minted a “$1.7 billion private evaluation” off of their promises and artful sales of simple products at a premium.

The Honest Co. has built a strong brand around doing what is right and being, for lack of a better word, honest. And that is why The Wall Street Journal’s expose revealing the use of sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) in their laundry detergent product is so damning.  This chemical, commonly found in the products of their reviled (by them) competitors, is defined by Honest Co. as a “known irritant,” and is clearly marked as a chemical their products are “Honestly Made Without.”

Independent studies commissioned by the WSJ to verify The Honesty Co. truthiness found SLS in their laundry detergent (the one product they tested) in amounts comparable to Tide.

So much for honesty…

Jesus or Trump. Who will you follow?

Donald Trump or Jesus Christ. Who should we follow?

  • One promises to make America great again; the other rejected the Satanic temptation to rule.
  • One promises a wall and false security; the other demands hospitality for the refugee and tells us to “fear not.”
  • One dismisses his competitors calling them “Losers”; the other calls us to love and respect our enemies.

And this list could go on and on.

No politician is perfect. And a vote for one is rarely an act of devotion. Our salvation is never to be found in a Democrat or a Republican.

Still, if a religious life is to have meaning, if faith is to have some purpose, it ought to drive us toward our better angels. Discipleship calls us to discern; it begs us to choose.

  • Where the evil one tempts us with “winning,” we are called to care for those who are losing.
  • In moments where fear rises, we follow faithfully in seeking hope.
  • When empire offers its faith promises, we resist knowing that our Kin(g)dom is not of this Earth.

Jesus or Trump. Who will you follow? 

It’s Not Trendy, but Fasting Could Save the Church

Disclaimer. I’m not the most disciplined person, just ask my wife who has been tasked by the Almighty to block every unnecessary tech purchase I can imagine. Still, I am still shocked by the relative dearth of resources for so fundamental a spiritual practice as fasting. With the exception of what amounts to a name drop on some denominational websites and a blip here or there in the Christian media, fasting is persona non grata in much of our conversations and resourcing on faith today.

While fasting may not be widespread in contemporary Christian culture, the practice has deep roots in the Judeo Christian tradition we have received.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, fasted two days a week as a young man and continued the practice, in a moderated way, into his later years. He considered fasting an act of piety and went so far as to describe it as “a means which God himself has ordained.”