Mike's Sunday Letter

--with personal notes
  • Jie arrived in China Thursday (Chinese time) and is enjoying her visit with her parents and other relatives.
  • Since I'm between preaching responsibilities this month and next, I'm taking the opportunity to worship with other congregations.  It's helpful for me to spend some time in the pew instead of the hot seat in the front of the church.  This weekend I'm at the Holy Wisdom Monastery, my home away from home.  Lilacs are still in bloom here.
  • Reading Karl Rove's book, The Triumph of William McKinley:  Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters.  The book interests me because (in my opinion) McKinley is one of the most underrated presidents in our history. Plus...sometimes its easier to read about an election from the 1800s than it is to read about the one going on this year!

May 22, 2016
Is There a Grandparent in the House?

I have only learned one thing (so far) about being a grandfather:  don't overreach.  I learned this the hard way, two visits ago, when I eagerly approached Sean, swooped him up in my arms, and expected him to be as happy about our reunion as I was.  He wasn't.  (See photo below for the results.) He's five month old now and has a mind of his own.  He's opinionated about who holds him, and how. 

So on my last visit I approached him slowly. I waited until we made eye contact, from about four feet away.  Then I began to sing, bobbing my head up and down, yet still standing at a distance.  At first he just stared at me.  But at least he didn't cry.  And he kept watching me.  His mom and I were getting ready to take him for a walk.  So she put him in his stroller and I pushed him along...still not getting too close.  During our stroll I did a little Shakespearian acting, misquoting the bard, but with dramatic flair.

We had a pretty good walk, mostly because I refrained from overreaching I reckon.  I held my ambition in check.  The reality of our relationship is this: he's a five month old who is cutting teeth...and he doesn't understand English...and the fact that I'm his grandpa means nothing to him yet.  I'm sure in time our relationship will get better, if we keep working at it...AND I don't overreach.
The reason I'm reflecting on this is because a few people are asking me for my opinions about the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which just ended two days ago.  This conference is the governing body of our denomination.  (United Methodists are one of the largest groups of Christians in the world, 12 million of us!) The top dogs (almost a thousand folks) meet every four years and set the rules and the directions for everybody else. 
Most people (even United Methodists) are indifferent about what the General Conference decides...except when it tries to make rules about stuff like slavery, drinking and smoking, or sexuality.  Such rules, of course, set off stink bombs, causing the rest of the world to raise eyebrows...and causing we United Methodists to weep and gnash our teeth. 
Over 150 years ago we tried to make rules about slavery.  But Americans had such deep felt differences over the subject that the Methodist Church simply split:  into the Methodist Episcopal Church (north) and the Methodist Episcopal Church South.  Methodism has been at the center of some other splits as well:  cf. African Methodist Episcopal, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, Free Methodists, etc.)  There is a chance we may split again in the near future, this time over the issue of homosexuality.
As I write this, I'm on retreat at the Benedictine Monastery in Middleton, Wisconsin.  The Benedictines have kept it together now for 1500 years.  So I'm wondering what they have that we United Methodists don't.  

And suddenly this thought comes to me:  it's what WE have that THEY don't.  Both religious groups have rules.  But their rules can be published in a 50-page book.  We have several thousand pages of rules, by the time you count our Book of Discipline, our Book of Resolutions, our Judicial Council decisions, the standing rules of our various annual conferences, and the various guideline books written by our general agencies.
The Book of Discipline alone gives each pastor a job description that exceeds 70 different distinct tasks. 

The Benedictines don't keep adding to their rules.  They trust that the sayings of Benedict are simple enough and humane enough...and the Holy Spirit is ALIVE enough, that a 50 page book is enough.  And sure enough, The Rule of Benedict is accepted around the world, by many different cultures, even today.  The Benedictines haven't overreached.  Their simple rules are honored, assimilated, distilled, and kept in ways that are loving and appropriate for each generation and culture.
Give an old woman too many prescriptions and it will kill her.  Give Methodists too many prescriptions and we will soon kill each other. 
I honor all these people who go to General Conference and wrestle with each other and try to lead our denomination.  Some of them are my good friends.  But most of them don't know each other, and they only meet every four years, and all thousand of them try to pack their diverse and often contradictory ambitions into whatever rules and resolutions and budgets can get passed, politically.  
Jonathan Haidt provides a little illumination about all this in his book, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  If I could recommend one book that would help us understand what is happening in our denomination...and in our country, it would be this.  He addresses why a single set of extensive moral prescriptions is unworkable in a multi-cultured organization.

Let's face it:  devoted followers of Jesus really can read the Bible and come up with different moral positions.  
So here is my solution:  Let us elect NON-AMBITIOUS people to a General Conference.  I'm thinking of the kind of people who would cut all the rules down to the essential ones...no more than 50 pages.
Or even better, let's ask Jesus what he'd do!   But be careful there:  he's likely to cut the rules down SO much that we could get them all on one side of a Post-it note.  "Love God.  Love your neighbor."  

Why don't we just tell our pastors and lay leaders to follow those two rules?  We could then help hold each other accountable for using the brains God gave us.  

If I didn't have to keep an eye on so many other rules, I would have more time to figure out how to love my neighbor: person by person, community by community.  Then I'll be so busy trying to figure out how to love the people around me that I won't have time to take the speck out of my brother's eye.

The General Conference adjourned by punting many decisions down the road:  we'll have a special commission study the rules about sex and get back to us...then maybe have a specially called General Conference.  But everything on the table now is complicated, complex, and ambitious.  

Any grandparent will tell you (even us new ones) that ambition will not work this time around...nor overreaching.  Is there a grandpa (or grandma) in the house?


 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS




J. Michael Smith | 2508 S. Cottage Grove | Urbana | IL | 61801