The Shape of Our Lives

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I love the KPUMC sanctuary for many reasons, but my favorite feature of our worship space is its cruciform shape, meaning the ground plan is in the shape of a cross.

While it is common for Catholic and Anglican/Episcopalian churches to be built in this shape, it’s rare in the United Methodist denomination, particularly in the south.

The shape of our church is not just an architectural feature; it’s not only a nod to the most recognizable symbol of Christianity.

It also makes a statement about the shape of our lives together — the life of a Christian disciple is supposed to be cruciform.

What does that mean?

This is metaphorical language, of course. But it means that, in some sense, as we follow Jesus, we will also experience suffering and crucifixion. Our lives will mirror Jesus’ life; the contours of our faith journey will resemble the ebb and flow of Christ’s journey.

Jesus himself mentioned this when he said, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Obviously, Jesus didn’t mean that we should all be dragging wooden crosses behind us everywhere we go; he meant instead that the experience of following him involved hard choices and difficult challenges. There is a necessary struggle that we must each embrace if we are going to be God’s people in the world.

I reflected on this truth as I walked the Stations of the Cross in our sanctuary this week. The Stations of the Cross are a cruciform spiritual discipline; not only do we literally walk in the shape of the cross while meditating and praying, but we read through the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion as we go.

We don’t do this only to commemorate or remember what Jesus went through; we do this because we are called to a life which will resemble his.

This doesn’t necessarily mean our individual lives will resemble each other’s, or that we are called to the same kind of choices in life. To paraphrase the opening lines of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Each cruciform disciple is cruciform in its own way.”

“Taking up the cross” will mean one thing for me, and another thing for you . “Saying no to yourself” will challenge my behavior in a certain way, but perhaps another way for you.

Lent is a season in which we must check ourselves and ask if our lives are actually cruciform, or whether they take a different shape. What about you?

Don't Skip to the End!

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Are you one of those people who reads the last couple of pages before starting a book? Or do you fast forward to the last couple of minutes of a movie before watching the whole thing? Do you need to know how something ends in order to decide to commit?

If so, I’ve never understood that impulse. The fun of reading a novel or watching a film is sustaining the mystery of how things will end. The narrative or plot is what matters, the flow of events from one to the next.

In the same way, I don’t understand people who attend only Christmas and Easter services. Essentially, these folks are cutting out the entire life, ministry, teaching, miracles, and crucifixion of Christ in order to focus merely on his birth and resurrection.

I feel the same way about those of you who only attend the Sunday services of Holy Week. If you skip directly from Palm Sunday to Easter, you’re missing some important pieces of the narrative. To go from the celebratory mood of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem directly to the glory and majesty of Jesus’ resurrection is to skip directly to the ending!

The faith which we share and call “Christian” is really nothing but a story, a narrative of how God has worked in the world to bring salvation to all people. It’s tempting to focus entirely on the end; yes, it’s great news that we are saved by grace, forgiven of our sins, and raised to new life.

But the whole story matters. We need to know how God accomplished this salvation, because it tells us something important about God and God’s nature. Put simply, the fact that God in Jesus embraced the suffering of the cross should assure us that none of us are truly alone in our suffering. Jesus Christ embraced the entirety of what it means to be human in order to unite us to him. We are never separated from God, because God consented to be with us in our humanity.

Nowhere does this become so clear as in the story of Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday. We will celebrate Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem this Sunday by waving palm branches and singing songs of praise. 

In our Maundy Thursday service, we will remember and reenact the Last Supper, in which Jesus left his disciples the example of his servanthood in washing their feet, and instituted a ritual meal in which his ongoing presence is celebrated.

And of course, on Good Friday, we will hear the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion. None of it is pretty, but the details are important. We need to peer closely, to pay attention to what happened.

All of this sets the stage for what happens on Easter morning. The Easter story simply doesn’t have the same weight unless you are clear on what came before. Easter doesn’t matter unless Maundy Thursday and Good Friday happened. 

For that reason, I hope you make plans to attend our extra Holy Week services. Even if you already know how it ends.

Options Among the Ruins of the UMC

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The shockwaves from General Conference 2019 continue to reverberate across the church landscape. If you pay attention to social media, you have noticed that a number of churches and conferences across the country have issued statements of resistance to the Traditionalist Plan (see Jeremy Smith’s blog Hacking Christianity for a complete list of resisting churches, conferences, and regional bodies).

But the question that remains hanging in the air has to do with the future: What next for the United Methodists who can’t live in a Traditionalist denomination?

One significant possibility emerged in a Washington Post article that appeared March 29, centering on the activities of megachurch UM pastor Adam Hamilton, as well as North Texas’ own bishop. See the following relevant paragraphs:

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, who is the pastor of the largest Methodist church in the country, with 20,000 members in his Kansas City congregation, is organizing with Haupert-Johnson, Texas’s Bishop Michael McKee and a few others.

Their group has a methodical, political-organizing-style plan for drawing others into their fight: meetings this week and next week in Dallas and Atlanta, each with 30 handpicked clergy and leaders, including seven LGBT leaders. Then a meeting at Hamilton’s church in May for 500 leaders. Then another meeting in the fall, where they aim to draw 3,000 leaders of Methodist churches.

“I’ve been astounded at the number of emails, phone calls, text messages I’m receiving from churches across the country saying we can’t live like this,” Hamilton said. “These churches, they’re centrist. But they’re saying this doesn’t feel like the United Methodism that we have always known and loved. To be in a church that will be in the future led by the most conservative caucus in our denomination feels untenable for them.”

Hamilton said that before his group’s first meetings in Atlanta and Dallas, he envisions two possibly viable paths: splitting and resistance.

If the group opts for resistance, it would probably be financial, he said. Numerous large American churches like his would stop contributing their customary funds to the denomination, in the hope that delegates from Africa and Russia — who led the successful push at last month’s meeting to block same-sex marriage and gay clergy — would agree to a new vote at the 2020 meeting on LGBT issues, to preserve funding for their mission projects.

His second option would involve persuading all parts of the American church — both progressives and centrists who want same-sex marriage, as well as conservatives who want to separate and be done with the debate — to pool their voting power in favor of a split into separate denominations. American churches that favor same-sex marriage would opt into one denomination; most African and Russian churches as well as American churches that oppose same-sex marriage would be in the other one.

A vision for a new denomination will be a major topic at the under-the-radar meetings this week and next: both practical questions, like how a split church could share existing institutions such as schools and hospitals, and religious ones.

I don’t know anything more than what appears in this article. But I am heartened to see Bishop McKee’s name at the center of these happenings.

I disagree with Adam Hamilton’s suggestion that one option at the General Conference 2020 is sustained financial resistance. That’s a viable action in the meantime as a stopgap measure, but it’s cynical to think that the African and Russian delegates would change their votes “to preserve funding for their mission projects.” That’s just another form of bribery, of buying votes, which progressives have condemned conservatives for doing for years now.

Personally, I believe that the energy needs to be focused on the second option — separation. Since the conservative voting bloc will not decrease anytime soon, it’s best to concentrate on the opportunities that a church split would provide.

But there’s another problem looming in the discussions of what’s next. For one, Adam Hamilton himself has received the brunt of a great deal of criticism among progressives, because of what he himself represents. He’s white, male, middle-aged, heterosexual, and centrist. In other words, he’s pretty much UM status quo.

Lots of newly-energized progressives are raising the question, “Why should we listen to UM status quo? Where are the people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and why aren’t we following them instead of the same-old, same-old?”

To make things worse, the article suggests that Hamilton gathered together a small group of “handpicked” clergy and leaders. Lots of people want to know who they are; who hand-picked them? and on what basis? It sounds as if, once again, important decisions in the UMC are being made in a back room with cigar smoke lingering overhead.

In other words, there is an argument to be made that, as we struggle for the next Methodism, shouldn’t we try to do things differently? Shouldn’t we aim to build a more perfect institution, one that is not only LGBTQ-inclusive and affirming, but also racially-equitable, gender-equitable, more democratic, and less colonial?

Perhaps in the end, there will be three separate and distinct denominations that emerge from the ruins of the United Methodist Church: a conservative church that embraces the Traditionalist Plan, a centrist church that lives in a One Church Plan, and a progressive church that more energetically and actively pursues progressive values.

I would prefer the progressive denomination; but what about you?