Letters to the Editor, March/April 2012

Presence of Christ in a Wrecked World

I find it quite surprising that I am writing to Good News Magazine. I have read the magazine each time it comes across my desk, but am probably not a traditional “Good News” pastor. However, I have just read and thought about “Clergy Covenant” (Letter to the editor, January/February 2012 issue) and then been challenged by the Rev. Robert Refroe’s lead article from the same edition, “When Progress Isn’t.”

I write as a pastor in my forty-second year, and retiring this July from a life in ordained United Methodist ministry. From this perspective, I have observed the split in our covenant (Scott Campbell’s letter) and the struggle in our church to understand the biblical imperatives as the inspired word of God (Rob Renfroe).

From the Rev. Renfroe’s definition, I would think of myself as a “progressive” or “liberal” pastor. I don’t believe in abortion, accept in the danger of a mother’s life, or a violation of the woman by a man not her husband. To ask a woman to bear the child when victimized, is something I cannot ask. However, using abortion as birth control, or for convenience, I cannot accept either. As a progressive, I am not a pro-homosexual pastor either. However, I believe that mercy has been lost in orthodoxy, and witness to a loving God lost in a painful thirty year struggle by liberals and evangelicals to call the UM Church back to the Bible. As a progressive, I also believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and not one thing should be taken from it, nor added to it.

While I was at Evangelical Theological Seminary, in Naperville, Illinois, from 1969-1972, it was observed in many discussions that liberals were very caught up in social issues, while conservatives or evangelicals were caught up in saving souls for Jesus Christ. We often remarked, how great it would be if a little bit of both could rub off on the other. To their immense credit, in the past number of years, evangelicals have made great strides in developing their social gospel skills, feeding the homeless, caring for the sick (Nothing but Nets for control of Malaria) welcoming the stranger, developing clean water objectives in arid parts of the world, and evangelicals have always been good at visiting those who are in prison.

As I close my professional career, I have observed that liberals are beginning to focus on “red letter” passages in Scripture, meaning the words of Jesus. As many will remember, the 1970s were a time when the Bible seemingly disappeared from many United Methodist congregations. I observe this to be progress.

I also recognize that my Detroit Annual Conference has basically stopped the “blood-letting” over arguments regarding homosexuality during Annual Conference. Thank God. I appreciate Rob Renfroe’s challenging article regarding orthodoxy, and our Wesleyan traditions, and I believe his descriptors of the way liberals and evangelicals don’t talk together, but too often “at each other.” I have learned that labeling and stereotyping others in the church is seldom a good idea. In Rev. Renfroe’s article, he challenges stereotypes, listening to some United Methodists talk about changing with the times, to bring young people to the Gospel. Of course he is right — changing the way we share the gospel to reach new persons for Christ, doesn’t mean we should change the Gospel itself.

And here is where my progressive, or liberal side comes to the forefront. In the last 10 years, I have become friends with many homosexuals who love Jesus deeply. They don’t care much for His church, and they don’t much appreciate Jesus’ fan club, to quote a joke making the rounds. I believe we have a great responsibility to bring all people to Christ. Poor, homeless, people of color, people of different sexual orientations, Muslims, illegal aliens, militarists, peaceniks, old fashioned people, new age people, and any other way we care to think of other people. God loves them all, and wants more than anything to be in a healthy, wholesome relationship, built upon Jesus’ understanding of forgiveness and grace. I know, “by their fruits you will know them.” That’s fine, too. But when the Church makes orthodoxy more important than compassion, and “In your face” politics more important than healing the deep problems of our nation, we are lost.

I see Christ’s Church entering a new sense of division, much deeper than liberal or evangelical ever was or is. The new division is demonic — subtle and dangerous. This new division is born out of the need to “win at all costs” that has so invaded the political landscape of the nation. We are again wandering from the central task of the Church, to go into all the world and make disciples, because we would rather be right, than effective in sharing the Gospel.

As I retire from full-time ministry, I make this plea to my progressive and evangelical colleagues — be the embodiment of Jesus in all that we say and do. The great “what would Jesus do” idea is still relevant, and perhaps more important than ever in a divided, torn, stubborn nation where “we could stand nose to nose and never see eye to eye” (thank you, Meredith Wilson).

I am not asking anyone to change their values, or to concede any doctrine. I am inviting all of us to be Jesus in the moment. Whether we are talking to a homeless mother, a divorced man, a Muslim, a homosexual, a member of the NRA, a liberal Methodist or an Evangelical Methodist, or anyone else, be Jesus first. Let others see the imago dei in how you live, and what you say. There will come a time when distinctions of theology become important, and we will know when that is. But first let us be heirs of life eternal, inviting others to know Jesus the way we do. The debate from seminary days may have shifted some, but liberal or evangelical, we are called to be the Presence of Christ in a wrecked world. Seminary debates are for later. Love is for now.

Dennis Paulson

First UM Church

Warren, Michigan

 

A response to the Rev. Scott Campbell

I appreciate the Rev. Scott Campbell’s letter on “Clergy Covenant” in the January/February issue of Good News. As he pointed out in his letter, Scott and I had a chance to express our opposing viewpoints at the trial of the Rev. Amy DeLong. I served as counsel for the United Methodist Church and he served as counsel to Rev. DeLong.

Scott’s irenic way of expressing his disagreement with me in his letter to the editor is a positive example we can all follow. I welcome the opportunity to engage him on this issue.

Scott’s main point is that his definition of covenant “is grounded not in the decisions of a given General Conference, but in a mutual commitment to offer our lives in the service of all of God’s people as the Holy Spirit gives guidance.” I submit that is not a covenant, which involves promises and accountability on two sides, but a statement of intention by a single party. How is the commitment “mutual,” if we each operate only “as the Holy Spirit gives guidance?” Each person can have a different understanding of how the Holy Spirit is guiding them. One person cannot hold another person accountable for how the Holy Spirit may be guiding them at a particular point. This is a description of individualism and chaos, not covenant.

The United Methodist clergy covenant is far more concrete and definitive than Scott would allow. It is framed by Wesley’s questions asked to every person at the time of their ordination. “Do you know the General Rules of our Church?” “Will you keep the General Rules of our Church?” “Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?” “After full examination do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?” “Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?” “Do you approve our Church government and polity?” “Will you support and maintain them?”

Furthermore, in the service of ordination, the candidates answer this question, “Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?” Our covenant is a covenant of accountability to the doctrines and discipline of our church, not to the individualistic guidance of the Holy Spirit.

What happens when there is a conflict between our conscience, our understanding of God’s leading, and the covenant we have made with the church? John Wesley details his approach quite well in the sermon, “On Schism.” After speaking broadly of the evils of schism and separation, he says nevertheless, “if I was not permitted to remain therein [that is, in the church] without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet and right, and my bounden duty, to separate from it [the church] without delay.”

One must choose. If one cannot in good conscience fulfill the covenant of obedience to the doctrine and discipline of The United Methodist Church, according to Wesley, one must separate from it. This is a matter of integrity, and it is what we mean when we say that those who are advocating disobedience are fracturing the clergy covenant.

Thomas A. Lambrecht

Vice President

Good News

 

Enjoyed the last issue

I just had to write and tell you how much I enjoyed the latest issue of Good News. I just read it cover to cover and I think all the articles were very good, especially Thomas A. Lambrecht’s article on marriage and Stephen Seamand’s article on the Second Coming.

Karen Booth’s article on “outsider influence over homosexuality at General Conference” is an excellent reference piece documenting the connections between secular agendas and UM church policy and beliefs. Mary Lambrecht’s article on sacredness and sexuality demonstrated how greater systems and mediums can influence our daily lives. In making the connection to sexuality and sacredness, she shows how without God, sex is just an act not unlike animal reproduction. The good news of the Bible is that humans are more than carnal animals, we are people created in the image of God.

Steve Johnson’s article on fasting will be kept in my files as a primer on fasting. The articles by Heather Hahn on General Conference proposed changes and the article from the Wesley Fellowship in New York outlined some of the core issues at stake in our relationship as United Methodists. B.J. Funk’s article is a reminder that too often Christians let worldly labels blind their vision as to who they really are, and the power they have to change their lives and that of the world, to the glory of God.

Thank you again for the ministry of Good News.

Laverne Larson

via email

 

Jesus cares about faithfulness

The word progressive, (“When Progress Isn’t,” January/February 2012), has a long and unusual history in America. In his book Radical Son, David Horowitz talks about growing up in New York City in the 1940’s and 1950’s. His parents were school teachers and David was a red diaper baby. So were the children of his parents’ friends. These red diaper babies played together, went to school together, even went to summer camp together. The title red diaper baby was due to the fact that David’s parents were communists, members of the American Communist Party. But his parents always called themselves progressives, as did all their communist friends, so no one would know what they really were. His parents and their friends never admitted to being communists. David said his parents loyalty never wavered from communism. So were they progressive communists or communist progressives? No, they were just pure communists, who hid behind the name progressive.

Jesus, I believe, does not care what Christians call themselves. Jesus cares only about faithfulness, and what Christians do with their faith.

Douglas W. Rettig

Viola, Illinois