Archives For Methodism

Portrait Karl BarthReading Karl Barth is like chewing sunflower seeds. It’s salty and hard and it cuts you in little ways that hurt and linger for days. The past couple of weeks I’ve posted some critical reflections on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. The church that first made me a Christian was Wesleyan, United Methodist. The theologian who made me a nominally interesting Christian, however, was not John Wesley but Karl Barth.

I’ve taken some shit for those previous posts from other Methodists wondering why I’m exalting Barth at Wesley’s expense. It’s true they make queer (don’t worry, I don’t mean gay!) theological bedfellows; in fact, Barth had Methodism particularly in mind when he brutally attacked the pietism of his day. Nonetheless, I think Barth is a helpful voice for Methodists in the 21st century as Barth’s eyewitness stand, in both World Wars, against the dangers of cultural Christianity makes him a prescient guide in post Christendom. What’s more, Wesley himself looked well outside of his own Enlightenment Anglican tradition. Those of us who just parrot Wesleyan theology and stay within our particular denominational stream are doing something very un-Wesleyan.

Still, if there’s a discontinuity between Barth and Wesley on anything it’s the fourth vantage point of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Experience. I hardly need to link to any stories about the issues presently dividing the larger church and point out how Experience is given a priority in negotiating those debates. Experience is often the primary perspective at odds with Scripture and Tradition. Beyond these debates, for many in our post-everything world our personal experience is the only authority to which we’ll submit. The primacy of Experience is undisputed in our world today and in Wesleyan theology it’s validity is unquestioned. Barth however would challenge us to consider whether our Quadrilateral should not instead be a Triangle, doubting that our personal experience is even an appropriate vantage point from which to receive revelation, the Word of God.

Barth takes a dim view of Experience in general, believing that the subjective turn to the individual’s experience of God obscures the objective, once-for-all, reality of Christ. We believe in Jesus Christ, Barth says over and again, not in our experience of Christ. Our experience is not salvation; salvation has been achieved through cross and resurrection quite apart from any experience we may have of it. It’s true- you’re saved, in other words, whether you ever believe it and experience it personally or not. This, I digress, is what allowed Barth to have such a hospitable and non-anxious presence towards unbelievers.

Barth does not share the sunny Wesleyan assessment of Experience, for it implies, more generally, that an encounter of God is somehow given in human nature, that we are, as creatures, wired to apprehend our Creator. For Barth, it’s true we’re predisposed to long for and apprehend the divine and, to him, nothing could be more idolatrous. Barth nods along to Fuerbach’s critique that most of our theology is only anthropology. Our ‘experience’ of God, Barth judges, is most often only an experience of ourselves projected onto god; therefore, the only true experience we can have of God is the experience God gives to us. Experience of God is received it is not self-derived.

And this is where it gets tricky for the Quadrilateral because, as scripture attests abundantly, the experience God gives us of God frequently contradicts our personal experience of the world.

Think Saul on the way to Damascus or Peter receiving a mystical Spirit-given dream that upends his religious categories.

Our experience in and of the world is not a reliable means of discerning and illumining revelation because revelation is most often received as an intrusion upon our world. Grace does not confirm our experience of the world; it disrupts our experience of the world, and because we’ve made a world that pretends Jesus is not King that grace is most often felt as a kind of violence to our world and our experience of it.

The Spirt seldom confirms our personal experience of the world; it instead convicts it and sometimes condemns it.

For Barth, any appeals to ‘the Spirit led me to…’ should be met with skepticism if they do not lead the led to tears.

13TIMMETRODCbwThis past Saturday I spoke at the TIM Talks at Virginia Theological Seminary, a TED Talks homage sponsored by the Metro DC Synod of the Lutheran Church.

I haven’t been surrounded by that many reformed people since seminary. It turned out to be great day. Mike Gutzler and Kate Davidson, both young Lutheran pastors, organized and staged a provocative slate of speakers (myself excluded).

My contribution for ‘Ideas for 21st Century Ministry:’ The Priesthood of All Believers. I’ll post that presentation when it’s available.

Here are my three quick-ish takeaways from my experience:

  1. Theology Matters (to Lutherans):

Speaker after speaker, lay and cleric alike, on topics as diverse as glitter (seriously), elder care, chili-making and sexuality, repeatedly echoed the distinguishing feature of Luther’s theology:

Simul justus et peccator

‘at once justified and a sinner’

Each of us is simultaneously a woe-begotten sinner and justified by the grace of God offered in Jesus Christ. Each of us has within us an enormous capacity for (self) destruction and an enormous capacity for love. Each of us is always, at the same time, both sinner and saint.

Not one of us is earning our way into God’s good favor. Not one of us is climbing the spiritual ladder. Not one of us is ‘improving’ in any way that’s meaningful from infinity’s perch.

We’re all accepted just as we are by the grace of God in Christ. Sheer gift.

And the only way to respond to a gift is…gratitude.

In its worst forms, Luther’s theology can lead to a ‘it doesn’t matter’ attitude towards the virtues, spiritual life and lived faith.

In its best forms, on display this Saturday, it leads to Christ-centered humility, radical hospitality and parable-like inclusivity.

This single event is hardly an objective survey, but I did also spend 3 years of seminary with Calvinists, which leads me to this conclusion:

Theology matters to Reformed Christians in a way that it does not to Methodists.

This could be explained by the fact that John Wesley never set out to deviate from Anglicanism in any meaningful way or to the fact that he wrote only occasional, ‘practical,’ works and never sat down to compose a thoroughgoing systematic theology. But then, Martin Luther wasn’t really a systematic theologian either.

Whatever the reasons, the TIM Talks on Saturday couldn’t have been more different than most United Methodist conferences and the like which I’ve attended.

For Lutherans, their core theological convictions really do guide and inform their worldview. Typically at United Methodist gatherings what’s emphasized is not our theological identity.

Instead what you’re likely to hear emphasized is our ‘connectional system,’ the administrative structure which yokes all individual congregations together to accomplish the ‘big C’ Church’s mission- an administrative structure, it should be noted, that is shared by all traditions save Baptists and Pentecostals.

You’ll also hear themes of social justice lauded as distinctively Wesleyan which is demonstrably not true. To think Methodists have the corner on living out our faith is silly.

In our worst times, United Methodist gatherings will praise the itinerancy, the system by which pastors are sent (not hired or called by) to local congregations. I don’t disagree with itinerancy, but the TIM Talks on Saturday reaffirm my fears that we Methodists have made our methods of administration more determinative for our identity than our founding, core convictions.

2. German is Cooler:

Every denomination has its birth stories, its insider jargon and lame, churchy humor.

Methodists make jokes about circuit-riders and 3-point charges and ‘moving day’ (see above: itinerancy). Sophisticated Methodists might lampoon our belief in perfection.

The problem: all those insider jokes are in everyday, pedestrian English.

I recall enough high school German to think all of the above would sound infinitely more sophisticated in Deutsch.

Saturday, surrounded by Lutherans, I was also surrounded by insider jokes- particularly in reference to Martin’s famed constipation-induced, Reformation-provoking epiphany.

But in German…it all sounds cooler.

Plus, there’s the whole teetotaling (thank you United Methodist Women…not) vs. bier-drinking tradition.

3. The Gay (non) Issue:

No speaker wants to go last in a long line of speakers, and no speaker wants to follow a dynamite, creative speaker.

That’s what happened to me, but I’m grateful nonetheless.

The speaker before me was Rev. Megan Rohrer, the first openly gay clergywoman in the Lutheran Church. She works in San Francisco with the homeless. Again and again in her 18 minutes talk it was clear: she’s just an ordinary Christian doing ordinary ministry as an ordinary pastor. She doesn’t want or seek anything but the recognition given to every other ordinary person. Megan-Rohrer

My friend Morgan Guyton recently wrote that his experience in the ordination process gives him hope that the Church will be okay despite our differences.

My time on Saturday, especially listening to Megan and watching the reception to her, also gives me hope.

I had friends in seminary who were gay and whose call to ministry was clear but whose eventual ordination, at the time, was highly in doubt.

I have Methodist friends in seminary who are gay and whose call to ministry is clear but whose eventual ordination, at this time, is in doubt.

What I do not presently have are clergy colleagues who happen to be (openly) gay. I’ve long believed that any Church that baptizes gay Christians into should be prepared to ordain them for ministry.

In my own denomination, the debate over sexuality continues all the while beset by a ‘what will come of the church’ hand-wringing.

Gay clergy strikes the majority of Methodist-casters as an extraordinary impossibility. Indeed ours is a denomination where even a vote aimed at acknowledging our denominational divide on the issue failed for fear of appearing to placate the ‘pro-gay’ agenda.

By contrast, the TIM Talks on Saturday were my first experience of a clergy gathering with gay clergy in attendance and other clergy who saw them only as colleagues and a bishop who thought their sexuality not worth even commenting upon.

Though the quality of her presentation was worth noting.

I’m under no illusions about how painful, difficult and costly was the path the Lutheran Church chose, but I can say that what’s on the other side of that decision isn’t extraordinary at all.

It’s very, very ordinary.

And that is exactly how they would like it.







priest_collarOkay, so some of you give me crap about always being snarky, sarcastic and cynical. So, I thought I’d do a decidedly uncynical series of posts: Top Ten Things About Being A Pastor.

#1: Grace Happens

Before I graduated from Princeton, Dr Robert Dyksta, my theological Jedi master, lamented that I was about to serve in a denomination whose system of appointing pastors ‘contradicts everything we know about psychology.’

I asked what he meant and he replied by explaining how it’s a given that people in congregations wear masks, keep up pretenses and are reluctant to let others see what’s behind the curtain of the self they show others.

He then offered me this wisdom: ‘If you’re going to stay a Methodist, then you should tell your bishop you’ll serve wherever they send you so long as they’re willing to leave you there for at least seven years. It takes that long for people to reveal who they are behind their masks, warts and all.’

In other words, it takes time and patience to see notice grace at work in people’s lives.

But seen it I have and that, by a long shot and then some, is the best thing about ministry.

I could tell you about the woman whom I’ve known these past 7 1/2 years, who seems a completely different person these last few years than the  one I knew the previous years. To be honest, our relationship back then was often marked by mutual frustration. Today I think of her as something of a cross between a friend and a surrogate grandmother. What accounts for the change in her? She credits it with a spiritual discipline she started practicing a couple of years ago, intentionally praying the shema every day and daily committing herself to loving Christ and through him, others.

Grace has changed her.

Maybe that doesn’t strike you as a Road to Damascus type of story but it’s real and it’s just one example of many I could give.

I could tell you about the woman who, having been cared for tenderly by a black nurse, at the end of her life confessed and repented of her racism.

I could tell you about husbands and wives who, after much painful work, have forgiven one another of adultery, abuse, addiction. You name it.

I could tell you about prodigals who’ve come home, mothers and fathers who’ve worked at welcoming them and elder brothers who’ve looked themselves in the mirror to finally confront the nasty self-righteousness in them.

I could tell you about people who’ve come to faith by dirtying their hands serving the poor, and I can tell you about individuals who’ve given over hundreds of thousands of dollars for the poor because God Christ has been generous to them.

I could tell you about people who’ve lost a child.

And lost their faith.

And found it again.

Even then I’d only be scratching the surface of what I could tell you.

Not only was Dr Dykstra right. His point has turned out to be the best thing about being a pastor. If you give it time, you get to see.

I can’t prove God exists, and there are those dark days and dark moods when I wrestle with my doubts and fear I’ve given my life to a fool’s errand.

But what I can prove, what I can point to and say ‘See, there it is,’ what I know without ever a day of doubt, is that grace is real.

It happens.




As some of you may know, HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED is the moniker I sometimes use in sermons to protect the anonymity of a certain short-red-faced-bushy-eyebrowed-falls- asleep- before -the- doxology-generous- with- his- money- and- his- criticisms- parishioner (bless his heart).

Hilariously, now, one of YOU has taken this mantle and taken to emailing me cryptic, quasi-threatening emails from- yup-

Here is an example:

Rev. Micheli,

In the most recent posting on your “website” I have found issue with your claim regarding church signs.  First of all, if you truly do no like these signs STOP going past them so frequently.  Second, these signs are EXACTLY what the church needs.  We need to show the godless generation (those young adults you want us to reach out to) that the church has a sense of humor.  
We cannot rely on our pastors to provide the comic relief needed during a boring service to attract this crowd that YOU say we need to attract.  These signs serve a purpose.  Maybe Aldersgate needs to reexamine our sign humor.  Do we really need to advertise for the youth group on them or our children’s activities.  
If they want to come to those programs people will figure out when it is, and if they can’t do it without a sign then its not MY problem.
Be careful young man, you never know, we might just put one of these signs in our pastors front yards!
In the Peace of Christ,

There’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.” Despite how often people quote this, it’s stupid.

It’s attributed to St Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, points out that ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

But that’s not the Gospel. 

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do.

The Gospel’s a message about what we could /can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident. 

The Gospel requires preaching or, rather, proclamation. As scripture says, salvation comes by ‘hearing.’ Good works are the fruit of hearing the Gospel; they are not the Gospel.

Part of me fears Francis’ quote is so popular in the Methodist world because we’ve lost the ability and the boldness to proclaim, in pulpits and in every day speech, the Gospel. The cliche has become, for us, an excuse. (And part of me wonders if our denominational inability to communicate the Gospel is what has led to us being behind the curve in communicating via social media.)

But with all due respect to Francis, the message about the Word become flesh very definitely and even primarily requires words.

It’s nearly a week since election day. Most of us have settled back into our lives and Facebook is no longer a minefield of incivility.

In the past week there’s been considerable analysis of the Republican’s demographic problems. Politicos point out how the Republicans will prove incapable of winning national elections if they continue to rely on the vote of white Protestants, an increasingly shrinking piece of the electoral pie. Only 1/5 voters last Tuesday so identified themselves. If Republicans want to put together a national, majority coalition, observers have said often since Tuesday night, they need to adapt and reach younger voters, more diverse voters and religiously unaffiliated voters.

Some Republicans in the press have embraced this reality- always the first step to change- while others have denied it and posited other explanations for their defeat Tuesday.

Here’s the truly sobering data from Tuesday night. The Republican Party’s problems is the same problem the Church faces.

According to the Pew Trust Survey, released last month, nearly 20% of Americans identify themselves as ‘religiously unaffiliated.’

The stigma against religious ambivalence that was once so strong among the greatest generation, and even their children- which, no doubt, led to a degree of shallow, cultural Christianity off of which the Church has been subsisting decades- is no longer. People today feel free to identify themselves as unbelievers without concern that someone will look down their nose at them.

No surprise: many of the religiously unaffiliated are my age and younger and they’re diverse.

In a nutshell, the Church is facing the future holding Mitt Romney’s electoral strategy, which a week’s hindsight demonstrates is a losing bet.

And just as Republicans have been doing this week past, some Christians are willing to face the reality (and the challenge) and vision for the future while other Christians seem determined to deny reality or, worse, blame the culture, turn their backs on it and jettison the universal implications of their beliefs.

Interestingly (tragically), the convergence between the Pew Trust survey and Tuesday night’s results goes deeper. The Pew results found that very many of those who identify as religiously unaffiliated do so because they perceive Christianity to be “deeply entangled with conservative politics and do not want to have any association with it. As a result, many young Americans view religion as judgmental, hypocritical, homophobic, and too political.”

What’s more, 2/3 of the unaffiliated say the Church is too concerned with money and power (70%) and too involved in politics (67%).

In other words, the ’80’s and ’90’s may have been good for the Christian Coalition but the fruit they’ve reaped has not been good for Christians.

As Mitt Romney found out Tuesday, the college students who voted for Obama this time around aren’t the same college students who voted in 2008. Meaning, the trends are only going to continue and get worse for the Church unless we face facts.

The bad news in the data is that the Church has allowed our infatuation with the trappings of Empire to define how many perceive us.

The good news in the data is that most of the unaffiliated have bowed out for good reasons and not- thank God- because they’re not open to Jesus.