Facing the Un-Tied Methodist Church

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Ignorance is not bliss. It’s not good to be unaware of what is happening.

That’s why I’m going to be blitzing you with information over the next few weeks about the General Conference of the United Methodist Church which is meeting in St. Louis from Feb. 23-26.

This could be an historic conference, a moment in which the United Methodist Church (UMC) as we have known it for fifty years will cease to be, or change in significant ways, or descend into further certainty.

The presenting issue is, of course, the church’s official stance on the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the full ministry of the church. According to the UMC’s Book of Discipline, our primary book of law, homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and therefore, same-sex weddings may not be performed by UM clergy nor take place in UM churches. Furthermore, “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained.

Several years ago, Kessler Park UMC voted to align with the Reconciling Ministries Network and register its complaint with the church’s stance, though we have continued to live under, and abide by, the denomination’s rules.

At the church’s last big global gathering, the 2016 General Conference, attempts to change the language in the Discipline failed (again), and delegates began to talk openly of schism. In a desperate attempt to keep that from happening, delegates pleaded with the bishops to take an active role in leading the denomination forward. The bishops responded by proposing to form a commission with the sole task of exploring and recommending a plan to hold the denomination together in spite of the division.

This plan was adopted, the commission formed, the plan recommended, and now the church will meet to hear it and decide if it is truly the way forward for United Methodists. 

Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. For one, the commission forwarded three different plans to the bishops. The bishops ultimately chose one called the “One Church Plan,” but included in their report the other two plans. A number of dissenting bishops argued that all three plans ought to be considered by the General Conference, and their argument was upheld by the Judicial Council.

Here is a (too) brief summary of plans being presented to General Conference, including one which didn’t come from the bishops:

One Church Plan: This plan would allow local churches and clergy to decide for themselves whether they will perform same-sex weddings, and would allow annual conferences to decide whether they will ordained LGBTQ people, and would not impose penalties on either.

Connectional Conferences Plan: This plan would create three different large all-encompassing “connectional conferences” in the United States: a traditionalist conference, a moderate conference, and a progressive conference. Each local church and clergy person would decide in which conference they wanted to be included. 

Traditionalist Plan/Modified Traditionalist Plan: These plans would maintain the prohibitive language against homosexuality and put severe penalties in place for churches, clergy, and bishops who do not comply. All conferences, bishops and clergy would have to certify their adherence to the Book of Discipline or face expulsion.

Simple Plan: This plan removes all prohibitive language against homosexuality from the Book of Discipline. Simple! But unlikely to pass.

Last Monday night, I gave a more comprehensive summary of the plans, as well as a preview of the upcoming General Conference in my Facebook Live appearance. It’s still available for viewing on the Kessler Park UMC Facebook page.

I will be appearing on Facebook Live each of the next two Monday nights at 9 pm with updates and analysis of the General Conference. You’re invited to join me to hear what’s happening.

Also, I have added a new page on the church website with information about General Conference, including links to groups connected to each plan, and sources of news throughout Conference. I’ve also posted a link to the live stream so you can watch what happens in real time.

We’ll have the live stream broadcast in the Fellowship Hall on Tuesday all day, so you can come and watch with staff and other church members. Together we can watch, pray, and celebrate or mourn the proceedings.

On the Sunday after General Conference, you’re invited to stay after worship for lunch during which I will do an extended presentation on what happened and what it means for Kessler Park UMC. We might even be joined by a delegate who attended the meeting; stay tuned for details!

Finally, I want to sincerely ask that we engage in serious and intentional prayer before and during the conference. That’s why we have decided to have a prayer vigil; the meeting will last for a total of 82 hours across four days. We’re looking for people to sign up to pray for a total of 82 hours during that same time period. You don’t need to pray at the church; you can pray in the privacy of your own home at any time which is most convenient. But we do want to make sure that we have people praying for a total of 82 hours. To sign up for the vigil, click here

If you don’t know how to pray for an hour, or would like some guidance, Ken Kelley has prepared a guide to prayer which will be available this Sunday at worship, and will be posted to the website this weekend.

This is not a time to panic or become anxious; it’s a time to pray and to wait to see what God will do through the people called United Methodists, and through those of us who are part of Kessler Park UMC.

God Has No Point System

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The opening scene of the pilot episode of one of my current fave TV shows finds Eleanor (Kristen Bell) sitting on a couch in a waiting room staring at the words “Welcome! Everything is fine” painted on the wall opposite her.

A door to an inner office opens and a man in a blazer (Ted Danson) invites her in. They sit across a desk from each other, and he introduces himself as Michael. She responds by asking, “Where am I?”

Michael says that she is dead. “Your life on earth has ended, and you are now in the next phase of your existence in the universe.”

Eleanor answers, “Cool, cool. I have some questions … Am I … (pointing upwards) or is this … (pointing downwards)?”

“It’s not the heaven-or-hell idea that you were raised on,” Michael says. “But generally speaking, in the afterlife, there’s a Good Place and there’s a Bad Place. You’re … in the Good Place.”

Did I mention this is a comedy?

It doesn’t take long before the show’s central conflict reveals itself — Eleanor shouldn’t have been sent to the Good Place; she was actually a pretty terrible person on earth, and the only way to get to the Good Place is by accumulating a net positive amount of points. She is the first to realize this problem, and tries her hardest to keep from being “outed.”

What plays out over the next three years of NBC’s “The Good Place” is a hearty dose of ethics, smart metaphysical humor, and a sassy robot girl named Janet. Except she’s not really a robot, but … it’s complicated.

One of my favorite scenes is the orientation video produced for new arrivals to the Good Place. You can watch it above. I’m especially fascinated by the point system that the Good and Bad Places are based upon.

In the video, Michael explains:

During your time on earth, every one of your actions had a positive or a negative value depending on how much good or bad that action put into the universe. Every sandwich you ate, every time you bought a magazine, every single thing you did had an effect that rippled out over time and ultimately created some amount of good or bad … When your time on earth has ended, we calculate the total value of your life using our perfectly accurate measuring system. Only the people with the very highest scores, the true cream of the crop, get to come here, to the Good Place.

In “The Good Place,” going to heaven or hell depends on one’s final “score.” That might sound amusing, but it absolutely amazes me how many people live their real lives according to this reasoning. This kind of moral reckoning likely makes sense to lots of people. In fact, I would guess that a large percentage of Americans believe in heaven and hell, and most of them probably believe that the way to get to heaven is to accumulate more good actions than bad.

What shocks me even more is that so many Christians live this way, too. Throughout my career as a pastor, I have visited more than one person on their deathbed who has said to me, “I’m not worried about going to heaven. I know I’ve been a good person.”

I want to say to them, though I usually don’t say it as bluntly as this, that BEING A GOOD PERSON HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HEAVEN OR HELL.

In fact, that’s the exact opposite of the good news of Jesus Christ. The core gospel message is that God loves us — period. We are all sinners, all flawed and broken, but God forgives us anyway, and not because of anything we have done, but on the merit of Jesus Christ’s advocacy on our behalf.

This was the central theological point of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther protested the clergymen who were traveling the countryside selling “good points” to folks to boost their chances of gaining heaven. Luther insisted that God didn’t work this way; we couldn’t earn our way to heaven, but could only rely on grace to get us there.

In other words, God has no point system.

Paul put it like this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:8-10).

The good news is that we are saved by grace, not by good works, but that we are created to be people who do good works. The good works are not a means to an end; they are the end themselves. They are what constitute a meaningful, purposeful life.

You are already loved, already saved, already held in the arms of God. Nothing can tear you from God’s arms, nothing can separate you from God’s love. You are secure.

You will be in the Good Place one day, along with everyone else.

But until then, let’s do everything in our power to make this planet, this earth, this nation, this neighborhood, God’s Good Place.

Join us at our next Faith on Tap session, Feb. 12, 7 pm at 723 Ft Worth Ave, as we take a deeper dive into “The Good Place” and what it means to be good.

Spirituality and Physicality

Picture: The well where Jesus met the Samarian Woman (John 4:1-42)

Picture: The well where Jesus met the Samarian Woman (John 4:1-42)

by Kurt Maerschel

Two weeks ago I returned from a 16 day tour of the Holy Land. This trip was through my pastoral education at SMU. Our group was made up of approximately 15 students and 10 lay people from various Dallas congregations who joined us on our trip.

Needless to say this was the experience of a lifetime. Before the trip I was so excited to see places of relevance mentioned in the New and Old Testament. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and to get a feel for the locations themselves. My expectations were not disappointed. I felt I got a comprehensive overview of the sites. I was able to “touch and feel” the land.

What I wanted to write about today was this aspect of touching and feeling our faith. As Protestants and especially as Methodist Protestants, we are very heavily focused on the intellectual and abstract spiritual aspects of our faith. In Methodist tradition this has not always been that way. As you might know, Methodism is an offshoot of the Church of England, which itself is basically Catholic without the Pope. I know this simplifies everything to an extreme, but my point is that Methodism traditionally shared many physical practices as they are still common in the Church of England or the Catholic Church today. Such physical practices include the use of incense, anointing oil, and bells during the Eucharist.

I am not saying that one practice is better than the other; all I am saying is that while travelling the Holy Land, I was constantly confronted with the physical aspects of our faith. For us living in a country that is by all measures very new to this world, it is difficult to take in the historical depth of a place like Jerusalem. Not only are there layers over layers of historically significant sites, but it is also the stories and traditions which have been passed down over centuries and in some cases millennia (!!!!!) which hover over every inch of this city. Many of the places we know today as Golgotha or Jesus’s tomb or the Garden of Gethsemane, are places which have been passed down to us through tradition, from generation to generation. Almost all of these places match the biblical description of where they ought to be or what they ought to look like, but some places are in dispute. In Bethlehem for example there is the field where the Catholic shepherds saw the angels announcing the birth of Jesus Christ and there is also the field where the Greek Orthodox shepherds were made aware of the incarnation.

Our guide responded to this problem with “If you believe it, it’s true.” And I think this attitude settles these issues – at least for me – perfectly. But there is a deeper physical spirituality in this place that one can only experience over there. Faith is visible and touchable everywhere. Not only do Jews and Muslims dress up in specific outfits to make their faith known to others, but also certain Christian denominations leave no doubt to the outside world which faith they follow based on their clothing. If that were not enough, there are synagogues, mosques and churches everywhere. The houses of worship also don’t simply rest silently in their existence, as they do here for most of the time, but the Muezzin calls the Muslim faithful to prayer five times a day (starting before sunrise I may add), and the Christians are not very shy either by making the mass and Holy Communion times known to the world by the frequent use of their church bells. Day to day interactions with others might also be influenced by the faith of the other. Some people might refuse to touch a woman (such as shaking hands), some people might refuse to touch objects which might have been touched by a menstruating woman such as a shekel bill (the local currency) or a seat in public transport. Starting Friday evening everything shuts down for the beginning of Sabbath. Merchants hastily pack up their stores since they have to be closed before sundown, which occurs in the winter already at 4 pm. A holy veil of silence descends on the land. The traveler can sense that there is something “special in the air.” Even if one does not realize it is Sabbath, one senses that “something is off.” Our senses of smelling, hearing and seeing notice less movement, less exhaust fumes, and less noise throughout the city.

The craziest thing of course is when one visits the sites where Jesus walked by and taught. It is hard for me to describe the feeling when one stands in the actual synagogue where Jesus taught. There is a sudden realization “this is real!” Obviously we ought to know that it is real, but being there imbues an additional dimension of experienced faith.

Now I know that it is not possible for everyone to get to go on this trip/pilgrimage of this sort, so the question arises: “How can we experience this added dimension of physical faith in our lives here in Dallas?” This is where our Christian heritage as Methodists comes into play. John Wesley pointed out that humans not only perceive reality through their physical senses, but that we also perceive reality through our spiritual senses. The human being however is one –not two split in body and soul, but one as body and soul together. The interaction between physical and spiritual senses leads us into fulfilling our God given purpose as God created beings. Thereby the physical reality can stimulate our spiritual reality and vice versa.

For this reason I encourage you to deliberately light a candle from time to time throughout your prayer time. The adventurous among you might experiment with incense (which is available at any Catholic store). Incense has been used since ancient times as a representation of prayers rising to the heavens. Their smell and the visible smoke alter the reality around us and draw us in. If you are suffering ask someone to anoint you with oil. Sit deliberately in your garden and enjoy the sounds of nature in silence as a concert of praise for the glory of God. Sing in the church choir and let the air you release though your vocal cords become a pleasant fragrance in the sight of the Lord thereby contributing to your own and your Christian family’s edification.

If you questions about this article please feel free to talk to me in person, by email or by phone. Kurt Maerschel kurt@kpumc.org 972-835-1909.