Thursday, June 17, 2010

Western PA Annual Conference 2010
in Review

We had a tremendous Annual Conference last week! From June 10-13, the people called United Methodist in western Pennsylvania gathered at Grove City College in Grove City, PA for our annual gathering. It was a time filled with grace, peace, and joy. For me, it was a time of challenge, renewal, and great affirmation. The "best" Annual Conference session in which I've been a participant was likely 2005, our first with Bishop Thomas Bickerton. This year will rank for me as a close second.

Some highlights for me:
(Pictures courtesy of Richard Pearson)

The pre-Conference healing service was wonderfully affirming (and healing!) for me as I saw and connected with several folks I've met in my ministry journey who have gone on to great ministries. If I share in the smallest part of their own journeys, I am thankful and thrilled. It was great to worship Almighty God led by Jeff Painter, an outstanding musician who was a vital part of my initial commitment to Jesus in 1980s at Jumonville.

It may have been the best, most positive Clergy Session in which I've ever participated. The 2010 Class of the Order of Elder is one of the finest I've seen, and, having worked with them as a retreat leader for the provisional program, I was very, very proud of them. They are an oustanding bunch.

We also nominated folks from among us to serve as candidates for election to the 2012 General & Jurisdictional Conferences. While I was honored to be one of 41 nominees, I was even more proud when every eligible Elder was nominated by motion from the floor. I love these people!

Additionally, there was a "painful moment of grace" when a former Elder, who had resigned due to legal trouble stemming from inappropriate conduct, joined us to apologize for his behavior. We prayed for forgiveness and healing; may that continue to be our prayer.

Annual Conference then started in earnest with prayer, worship, and work. The signing of a covenant between our Conference and the two Annual Conferences in Zimbabwe was a beautiful highlight of the week. Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa of Zimbabwe was a powerful, inspiring speaker. This relationship will, in my opinion, bear great fruit for the Kingdom of God. We will help Zimbabwe with material goods and resources; they have much to offer us in terms of mission and renewal. Kudos to Bishop Bickerton and all who helped put this agreement together; it's a great thing.

Each morning, we started with Bible study as Rev. Steve Cordle took us through some of Luke's Gospel. Steve serves as senior pastor at Crossroads UM Church, a multi-site community of faith which Steve started in 1991. Steve, his associate pastor Rev. Jonathan Fehl, and their team are doing phenomenal, transformative work throughout the Pittsburgh area (and the world), and it was fantastic to hear from one of our own who is doing things well. The Bible studies challenged me a great deal. I can't wait to take my family to worship the Lord at Crossroads in a few weeks when we're on vacation!

There were, of course, many other highlights...connecting with sisters & brothers I don't see often enough...three youth pages from JUMC, all of whom did a terrific job...enjoying the USA vs. England World Cup soccer game @ a local tavern with some friends...challenging speakers...a good bit of "down time" to enjoy fellowship...praying for folks and being prayed for...budget discussion that was murky at times but ultimately fruit-bearing...the always amazing Youth Ministry Team...some good legislation passed...keeping pension benefits for clergy widows, largely thanks to Youth delegate Joel Peterson...on and on and on.

Like every Conference, this one had its moments of chaos, confusion, and concern, such as the bizarre new security procedures, too much on the "Imagine No Malaria" campaign (it's a good thing, but it's just become such a dominant part of our conversations, sometimes at the expense of other urgent issues...overkill is not far away), a grotesque rewrite of the Drifters' classic "Under the Boardwalk" which ably demonstrated all that is wrong about "contemporary worship", and the completely out-of-touch "Rethink Church" commercial, which sounded like a lost cut from Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em (I kept waiting for my brother Greg Cox to hold up his uninjured hand and yell, "Stop! Rethink time!").

But, all in all, our gathering in Grove City was a great gathering; I was extraordinarily blessed. May the positive spirit we enjoyed last week carry us through the year ahead, which holds many challenges and opportunities. Thanks to Bishop Bickerton and our Conference Sessions Team for a job very well done. Annual Conference 2010 was certainly a means of grace.

Monday, June 07, 2010

William Abraham on the Importance of Doctrine

"In the end, the church cannot endure without a body of systematic and coherent doctrine. This was not the problem Wesley faced two centuries ago. His challenge was to take the doctrine the church already possessed in her canonical traditions and make it accessible to the masses of his day. Hence, he did not make doctrine a high priority in his efforts to renew the church of his day.

"Two hundred years later, the situation is radically reversed. We have become so doctrinally indifferent and illiterate that the church is starved of intellectual content. Indeed in many quarters the church has become internally secularized. It has no shared public discourse of its own, other than that borrowed from the secular world, to think through its pastoral care, its mission in the world, its evangelism, and its internal administration. Hence pastoral care is reduced to therapy, mission to sociopolitical action, evangelism to church growth, academic theology to amateur philosophical inquiry, and church administration to total quality management.

"To be sure, only a fool would claim that we cannot learn from the best secular inquiries of our day...Yet it is patently obvious that the Christian tradition has its own special way of thinking about its healing care, its mission, its evangelism, its internal structures, and the like. That special way of thinking is inescapably doctrinal...

"The recovery of doctrinal identity is not then some abstract exercise in constitutional archaeology; it is integral to the deep renewal of the life and work of the church in the current generation."
(William Abraham in Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing
of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church
, pp. 104-105)

thx to Jonathan Marlowe

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Scandal That Doesn't Need to Be

The recent news that the Obama White House may have offered jobs to Democrat candidates Joe Sestak and Andrew Romanoff if they chose not to run for office against fellow party opponents seems to be gaining steam. Almost every day, a new bit of information is revealed, and it's looking more ugly.

In my opinion, however, this does not (or did not) have to be a major scandal. It may well be that folks in the White House were simply not aware of a law that, while important, is relatively obscure (at least to the public-at-large). Frankly, I'd never heard of this law, which prohibits job offers to potential candidates (considered institutional interference in democracy), prior to the Joe Sestak story. I assumed that this sort of thing happened a lot in BOTH parties, regardless of how dirty it looks.

True, ignorance of the law is no excuse, especially from the branch of government which exists to enforce the law. But I sincerely doubt that President Obama meant to do anything illegal in this instance; my gut feeling is that the people around him failed to act and advise appropriately. The president seems to have surrounded himself with some pretty mistake-prone people, in my opinion, and they've often given him some bad advice.

But the incident has been handled poorly from Day 1. I wish the President would simply have pulled a mea culpa, admitting that something inappropriate had occurred and that he was holding the proper folks accountable. A few firings could then have stopped the story dead in its tracks. Instead, we've gotten mysterious denials, incomplete statements, and a total lack of clarity. This relatively minor issue did not have to become a major scandal, but it is becoming such because of poor handling.

The other thing that bothers me about this story is the assumption that a political opponent is involved in scandal. Not every President is personally corrupt a la Nixon or Clinton. Bush and Obama, for instance, seem to be two decent men with whom I have disagreements, and who both have made mistakes. Both, however, have seen their opponents assuming the worst. The constant search in Washington for "the next scandal", the presumption that one's opponent is also one's enemy and that he/she must be up to no good is no way to run a nation. I pray we get to the point where we can disagree without assuming our opponent is evil or their administration scandal-ridden rather than simply wrong.

Thomas Oden on Inclusivity & Christian Tradition

"That word ('inclusive') remains the key shibboleth of my hyper-liberated generation. We sought to be inclusive but managed to be so only within the strict limits of modern ideologies trapped in secular premises. In this captivity we systematically excluded most premodern wisdom. Now I experience a gracious sense of multigenerational inclusion in the communion of saints. Those saints precede and transcend modern life and will survive its death. The faithful belong to a much more inclusive communion than is even conceivable within the limits of modern ideologies...

"Now I revel in the very premises I once carefully learned to set aside: the triune mystery, the preexistent Logos, the radical depth of sin passing through the generations, the risen Lord, the grace of baptism...

"Rather than interpreting the texts, I found the text interpreting me...

"It is the winter season for rigorous Christian teaching. Modernity is a winter season for classical Christianity. Spring will come, but only to those who have survived the winter."
(quotes taken from various places in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy
Agenda for Theology, both by Thomas C. Oden)