Lamentations and a Suggestion

Most of what I witness in my denomination gives me grief right now. The United Methodist Church seems to be insistent on pushing itself into a narrow trajectory of winners and losers. No matter what your belief is on the issues facing the church today we seem content on setting the stage for GC 2016 to be a battleground that leaves no one unscathed.

A lament is a passionate expression of grief and sorrow. The Bible is full of laments. For the Great 40 days I have been preaching through the Psalms. These hymns are filled with expressions lament. In Matthew 23:37-39 Jesus laments over all Jerusalem wanting to embrace the city as a mother hen embraces her young. There is an entire book in the Bible called Lamentations that is filled with laments. Laments are expressions of our faith.

The first lament I have is, we have traded real community for virtual community. I used to be addicted to World of Warcraft and would spend hour after hour playing online in a virtual world. We had a slang term for not being online: RL or IRL(Real Life or In Real Life). When someone wasn’t online in the virtual world they were operating in real life. The 16 year old movie, The Matrix, explores this concept brilliantly. When Neo is freed from the virtual world of The Matrix he has trouble believing the real world. Morpheus tells him, “We have a rule. We never free a mind once it’s reached a certain age. It’s dangerous, the mind has trouble letting go.” I can identify. Our minds have trouble letting go of selfie online hyper connected world of the internet. At a recent pastor’s gathering there were smart phones everywhere (myself included).   We have virtual relationships. If our pictures, selfies, and blog posts can get enough likes we are satisfied. It doesn’t matter who we have to step on to get there, only that we get there. Online relationships have become commodities that are bought and sold with each click. With the recent hoopla over online communion, drive thru ashes, and independent blogs from across the political spectrum (including this one) we no longer need real life relationships. We no longer need to share a common meal together. We can eat at home while tweeting away. Ashes become the same thing as a happy meal when they are stripped of the confession and peace. Blogs can continue to produce hit piece after hit piece for just a few more clicks. After all it doesn’t matter in the virtual world if that person on the other side is a real person or not.

The second lament I had is that we have traded our story for my story. One thing I have noticed with conversations among people from my neighborhood is that our culture is shaped by this myth of individualism. The grand narrative of God working in human history has been replaced by my own personal narrative. Instead of any type of grand meta narrative of us as a body of people, there are multiple narratives each with a different version of the truth. We can no longer identify with each other because they are so foreign to us. My own church is struggling with people of different races, cultures, and socio economic backgrounds encountering one another. It is amazing to witness, but it is difficult to be in the midst of. There is a lot of anxiety in encountering the other and building relationships with the other. In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I believe Paul was seeing this as a hoped for reality. One where all our stories could be joined together in God’s redeeming story.

Which brings me to my final lament, we have traded God for gods. It doesn’t matter if that god is the god of orthodoxy, fundamentalism, liberalism, evangelicalism, emergent, post liberalism, post modern, progressive, missional, or whatever term is next. We all have developed our own concept of god (who usually ends up being just like us or just like we imagine god to be). Our god talks like us, thinks like us, acts like us, and wants the same things we want. Our definition of justice becomes God’s definition of justice. Sin becomes a corporate only thing or an individual only thing. We cannot conceive of a God who might have different desires then we do. God then fits into whatever box we want god to fit in. Anslem’s ontological argument points out that God is above our own thought processes. Whenever my god becomes just like me, I think my conception of God is flawed.

Already I am beginning to see rhetoric lining up along the battle lines that seek to turn this battle into one that lays waste to a denomination. We call each other names, but we fail to see each other. So as we begin to ready our stones, swords, picket signs, and crosses
I want to offer a suggestion for finding a better way. Share a meal. Put down your phone and talk to the person you are eating with. Stop worrying about your number of hits if you don’t put out a blog on something controversial. Stop using rhetoric that defines the other as intolerant or theologically weak. Listen to their story, their hopes and dreams, their hurts, their joys. You might just find out something unexpected. Allow the other to challenge your preconceived notions of God, and vice versa. The ancient mystics Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross had spiritual mentors to talk stuff over with that would challenge them and keep them focused on deepening their relationship with Christ. We need one another to challenge us and keep us focused on Christ. Now I am not saying we will abandon our theological presuppositions for that of the other. I am saying that if we understand where the other person is coming from it might better inform our own thoughts.    Now is the time before the battle begins to take that pause and really talk about what is best for the body of Christ and the people called Methodists.

Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. – Proverbs 27:17


  1. I agree with almost everything you usually write, Stephen. But I have two thoughts on this one: 1) Over the last two years I have developed many MORE UMC friendships via social media than I would have otherwise. You included! So in some ways the virtual community has enabled a real community that wasn’t existing previously. 2) What if after the table talk you prescribe in the final paragraph, the differences are still so great they can be bridged. What if some won’t live with the redefinition of what’s not ours to redefine and others can’t live with an injustice that’s written into our covenant? Talbot Davis

    1. Agreed Talbot. I think we might actually be able to say to one another fare thee well and mean it. We might discover a inward split or outward split works better. Yet surely even you think this is better than the constant debate over it without actually talking about the real differences.

      1. Did you really just use an “even you” with me?!?! I retract point one of my original post!

        I guess I would also add that what if the debate IS over real differences which are deep and substantive? I personally don’t find much of the online debate to be full of name calling or vitriol, but instead reflecting positions that can’t be reconciled. Twitter is an exception, only because you can’t win or lose a debate on there, you can only prove snarkiness. But most blogs are thoughtful, including those that betray thoughts that I disagree with completely.

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