The amblings, opinions and experiences of a workaday, garden-variety pastor that, I hope, will give insight into the world of scripture and the life of faith. The first posts below related to the 2019 special session of the United Methodist General Conference (2/23 - 2/26); newer posts comprise sermons, sermon notes, thoughts-at-large, reflections. Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment.
These and other articles are everywhere among us. Lots of folks reading and sharing.
I will say that it is sad, to me, that Mr. Renfroe suggests that we are in a cage
match (NYT article), with the loser unable to stand and the winner bloodied and
battered. That may be an apt metaphor, but if so, we have all already lost. For...
Jesus suggested “They (the world) will know we are Christians
by our love.”
This gray afternoon I ventured out
into the cold wind (meteorology as group psychology!) to meet a friend for
lunch, who is the assistant to the bishop of one of our conferences.
We ate lasagna at Caleco’s, a St.
Louis land-mark, where the “lunch portions” are three times larger than the dinner
portions at Paoletti’s.
I asked her how she was feeling
about it. She said, “Sad.” We talked for a while and she recounted how the
delegation of which she is apart has not had a meeting since the fall, and even
then they didn’t really talk much, or discuss much. They just argued their
I told her that I have seen couples
who long-ago quit talking and discussing, and anymore were just advancing and
defending their point of view. Already ready for the divorce, without fighting
to keep what they have.
She said, “I left that meeting last
fall thinking, ‘We could have a conference call.’ When I realized that
conviction trumps covenant, I knew there was really no point it meeting.”
“A bad divorce,” I said, when there is no resolution, just
dissolution. When people haven’t even gone to counseling, or have used the
sessions as grinding stones for their particular axe. I just feel like we haven’t
Before I left I was made aware,
again, of the fact that many UM pastors have not said anything to their people;
that many UM people have no idea the General Conference is happening, much less
why. That of those who do, more than a few bring preconceptions with them and
are not listening to others who may not share their opinions, and certainly not
in a spirit of trust and good will.
I reminded her that Ephraim Radner,
a conservative Anglican scholar, has claimed that the questions before us have
not been settled, because they have not
been adequately discussed. They have not been discussed because people are arguing,
posturing, but no one is listening.
And I told her that what I felt was
missing was the kind of discussion that featured more than a selective reading
of the Bible on the one side and a sentimental appeal to experience on the
other, but a grappling with texts that takes seriously all of Scripture in light of reason and tradition and experience.
(see my “The Way I am Reading," as a very rudimentary experiment in such grappling). And
that I wish we could really talk, and not just break it off.
She and I agreed that it is too
late for such discussion now, or so it seems. At least at the General Church level.
These discussion may have to take place at the local church level, and I hope
we can have real discussion. But already, my friend said, she has gotten
letters from scores of churches who do not want to talk, among themselves or at
all, but are ready to bolt if the vote is anything other than a “traditional”
We walked together to the Dome. I
asked her why we didn’t go someplace warmer for this Conference. She had asked
her bishop. Turns out, because we got the whole convention center for real cheap (because it is off-season, duh) and in hopes of the other revenues that would be
generated in hotels and restaurants and such.
I registered. I am a credentialed
Observer. Huh? Huh? Pretty good, huh?
I saw a couple of our WNCC
delegates, and then ran into Bishop McCleskey. He is retired now, but all
bishops are invited to attend these conferences. I asked him how he felt about
it. He said, “I don’t know.” He had heard rumors about American percentages and
blocks of abstentions and this and that. He is very much for the One Church
Plan (see my Pre-Amblings #1), knowing as we all do that it is not perfect, but
in hopes of maintaining a united church.
I told him I was not sure I felt
good about trusting the future of the Church to the folks I could actually see
in the registration area, and we both laughed. God uses all sorts to effect the
We said we would get together for
coffee, and I hope we can. He was my District Superintendent when I came into the
United Methodist ministry, and made my first appointment. I asked after his
wife. “Margaret is great,” he said. “She is at home riding her horse.” He
sounded almost wistful. Or maybe that was just me!
Another of the delegates said she did not know what they (we) were doing tomorrow. It is a
day of Prayer and Preparation, but no one seems quite clear about whether the delegates are to pray at the Dome (where the Conference is being held) or as they are tramming-up the arch (that is where I plan to be!) or one of the local restaurant/watering holes. Or all the above.
Friends-- I promised several of you that I would try to have a good time while in St. Louis. As one of my coaches put it, All work and no play makes Tom a really dull boy. Got it. And this is only my second trip to St. Louis, ever, the first being when I was 10 or 11 and my sister Debs (quite a fine pianist back in the day) was doing some kind of piano something at Washington University. I remember we stayed in a hotel with a roof-top pool, but little else. The Arch may not have been completed when I was here before. So... I'm going out. Hope to tram to the top of the Arch. Hope for a tour of Busch Stadium. The Magnarini's tell me I have to go to The Hill for Italian food.
All that said… I have been studying and praying this morning, and wrote one more piece this morning. Do not miss the practical information I published earlier, but here is another entry, with several quotes by Rowan Williams from his 2017 book, Holy Living: The Christian tradition for today (Bloomsbury).
The quotes at the end are much better than anything I have to say about them, but I did try to suggest how certain lines are "speaking" to me, and may be God's voice if I can recognize it.
Peace of Christ and Pray for the General Conference.
+ + +
Betty, one of the wonderful senior members at the church I
serve, always asks me the same question—whether in a Wednesday morning Bible
study where is faithful to attend, or in the hallway before worship when she offers
me a suggestion for an upcoming sermon, and sometimes at the Wednesday night
dinner table, children running all-around in what we call “holy pandemonium.”
Betty says, “Tom, how do we know
when God is speaking to us?”
wish you would preach a sermon on how we can know when God is speaking to us.”
like to know how to recognize when God is speaking to us.”
I feel nonplussed. I mean, I think I have answered that question, multiple
times, or tried to answer that question, in lessons and sermons and
conversations. But if she is still asking chances are I have not answered her well
enough to settle the matter. Then again, is that matter ever settled? For any
How do we hear the voice of God, or
recognize the voice of God, or trust that what we are hearing is the voice of God and not another, smaller, lesser
voice. The voice of my own prejudice, for example, or the voice of my parents
Maybe there is no voice, no word to
hear. Some have suggested as much, that God may be done with us already.
I disagree. I believe that God is
present and will speak a recreating word; I believe that Jesus is present, too,
in all the ways he promised, and not least when there is conflict among
brothers and sisters (the context of Matthew 18:15-20, which is often quoted, has
to do with disagreements!); I believe the Spirit is brooding over this chaos to
bring about order and arrangement and fruitfulness…
Still, how do WE know when God is
speaking? Amidst all the noise that will crowd our ears these next days, will
we be able to hear a small, still voice? Or is still and small the way God’s
voice always comes?
only answer for myself, and even then in with caution, self-doubt, a certain
humble wariness. I think I recognize
God speaking to me when I “hear” two or more different or separate “witnesses”
or voices at the same time.
recently, last night before retiring, I was reading Rowan William’s new book, Holy Living: The Christian Tradition for
Today. I have already mentioned that
this book has a (for me) helpful chapter on issues of human sexuality and
marriage and the ways the New Testament might not be answering the questions we
want to ask of it…
last night I was reading further along in a chapter devoted to St. Teresa, a
sixteenth century nun and spiritual genius. A couple of lines from the chapter
just jumped-out at me. Williams writes:
accessibility to all is a constant theme, as is the wonder with which we should
think about our inclusion in the family of Christ’s brothers and sisters.” –p.
am hearing that If I spend more time considering, with wonder, that I am by grace a member of Christ’s
family, I will have less time to consider, with disdain, who I think is not.)
Teresa envisages for her communities, male and female (she helped reform the
Carmelite order—TRS), is a genuinely
apostolic plainness. And she sees this as the most effective response we can
make to a situation of deep crisis in the Christian world.” –126-127
I am hearing, in this time of deep crisis in the Christian world—Roman Catholic
scandals and enclaves; Southern Baptist #metoo revelations; special called
General Conferences in the UMC—that the most effective response I can make is
to maintain apostolic plainness: prayer, worship, study and holy fellowship. See
we are troubled by the conflicts and failures of the Church in our world, what
we need to do is not to panic, or freeze in defensive and angry posturing, but
to get on with the real work of opening a way for God’s transforming presence.”
–p. 127, emphasis mine.
what I heard was a reminder that what we are doing at Hawthorne Lane, as we can
by God’s grace, is “opening a way for God’s transforming presence” in our own
lives and the lives of others who come to us by God’s invitation. And yes, I
was convicted by that text… though I don’t think I have been frozen or in a
panic, or angry, I do think that I find myself not-quite-despairing about the
witness of the Church in the world.)
calling to be with Jesus as selflessly as possible—in the knowledge that the degree
to which we stay in his company is the degree to which we make the right kind
of difference in the world.” --p. 129
(I know I
heard this: that as I have been talking about Christians and Hawthorne Laners
being “uniquely loved and gathered, uniquely gifted and sent, to make a godly
difference in the ungodly world,” Williams reminds me that the way to make that
godly difference is to stay close to Jesus as selflessly as possible. But what a challenge, in that most of us
want Jesus selfishly.)
a time in Jesus’ ministry when a man stood up and said, “Tell my brother to
divide the inheritance with me!” (Luke 12:13ff). If one way to read General
Conference is like that, another way
to read it is as an unnamed quest for apostolic plainness—to get away from
nonessentials and back to the basics that help us open a way for God’s
transformation, in us and through us.
You will note that tomorrow is a day
of prayer and preparation (including, I suspect, a fair amount of caucusing
among the various supporters of the various plans). The actual business of the
meeting starts Sunday morning with a twenty-minute opening worship service. Then,
four hours in the morning, five in the afternoons, till “Final adjournment” on
Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. (I got a little shudder when I saw that terminology.)
This is kind of what it will look
like… a shot by Mike Dubose from UN News Service.
The bishops will be up on a dias in
rows in the front the floor area; a reminder, the bishops have no vote at all.
Only the delegates, almost 1000 of them from around the world, will be the
If you are interested in the “Advance
Edition of the Daily Christian Advocate,” which is 240 pages long but will give
you the real stuff in terms of organization, rules, and the means by which the
bishops will hope to keep the “conferencing holy,” as it were, you can download
if you go to www.umc.org anytime over the next
few days, and click on Special Session of the General Conference, you will find
MUCH material to help you see what is happening. Or, he said cynically, not