Friday, February 22, 2019

A trinity of articles...

People are watching…
Note well, if you will, the article from the United Methodist News Service, which suggests that sometimes the "consequences" of splits are overstated.




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.”


Cold and Gray (and not just the day)

We’re here, and we’re unclear.

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 points.

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 talked, really.

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” one.

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 Divine Will.
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.
February 22, 2019. 5:30 local


Last Thoughts for the Morning: How Do We Recognize the Voice of God?

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?”
              “Tom, I wish you would preach a sermon on how we can know when God is speaking to us.”
              “I would like to know how to recognize when God is speaking to us.”
              Occasionally 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 of us?  
              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 or teachers.
I find myself asking Betty’s question today, in view of the weekend, for myself and for the delegates—how will we know when God is speaking? If God is speaking? Perhaps you remember that terrifying warning from the prophet Amos 8: “’Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. People will stagger from sea to sea and roam from north to east, seeking the word of the LORD, but they will not find it.’”
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?
              I can 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.
              Most 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…
              Anyway, 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:
              “Jesus’ 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. 126
              (Perhaps I 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.)
              “What 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
              (Perhaps 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 Acts 2:42)
              “And if 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.
              (Perhaps 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.)
              “…the 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.)
              There was 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.
February 22, 2019

Blog #1 (No, really)

              I am calling this blog #1 because by the time you read it I will be registered (as an “observer”) and will have gotten the final schedule for the Conference. The basic schedule is here:

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 deciders.

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 it here:

              Once the conference starts, there will be live-streaming, of course, at:

              Interestingly, there will be interviews with leaders, delegates, etc, available for watching both live and in archival form. Just hit the tab under the multimedia link.

After each day’s session a “Daily Christian Advocate,” will summarize in journalistic form the happenings of that day. You may find those links at

              In fact, if you go to 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 happening.

Friday, 11:09 a.m.

Stout, Willing, Believing... and Churchilling

I am Churchilling this morning. My term. A new spiritual practice.     For those of you who saw Darkest Hour , a scene you may have f...