The Heart of Methodism...
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
Sawasdee from Chiang Mai, Thailand! And Sabaidee from sisters and brothers in Christ here from United Methodist mission churches in Laos. I'm here from GBOD as part of a multi-agency training partnership spearheaded by GBGM and also including GCFA.
For those of you unfamiliar with the United Methodist alphabet soup, GBOD is The General Board of Discipleship (where I work). GBGM is the General Board of Global Mission. GCFA is the General Council on Finance and Accountability.
A great blessing here is to teach the heart of Methodism with no compromises such as we often make in the US and elsewhere where United Methodists have more presence and where Christianity is still a more dominant religious influence. By stark contrast, in Thailand, just about 0.7% of the country is Christian, a bit over 4% are Muslim, and nearly everyone else is Buddhist. The metrics are similar in Laos.
A great blessing for the laity and clergy we are working with over these two weeks is that they really are in an apostolic situation. Christianity has NOT become an establishment religion here, ever, even in places where Christians have been around for several centuries. Being a Christian here is thus a distinctive choice. And since Methodist work in both countries is so new (about 4 years in Thailand and 10 years in Laos), being a Methodist Christian is an even more distinctive choice, and neither an easy nor an obvious one.
What I am seeing and blessed to share here, as part of this multi-agency partnership, is just how distinctive the Methodist vision is. It is nothing less than that all persons have the opportunity to grow in holiness of heart and life toward perfection in love in this life. All persons-- not just an elect few or some elites and leaders, but all. This full and entire salvation is possible for us, all of us, because this is what the grace of God offers. We have not been invited to settle for attending worship and having a relationship with God only at the margins of our lives. We have been invited, all of us, to nothing less than a complete transfiguration, a complete restoration of the image of God in us, a complete salvation that redeems every part of us and uses all of our capacities and continuously redirects them toward the love and reign of God, a love and reign that transform not only each of us, but the whole world in and through and beyond us.
What has become so obvious here, and what has become so much easier to say here, is that while other Christian traditions have offered much of the WHAT of the faith, Methodism has very much offered a practical, realistic and highly functional set of HOWS. The practices of the faith-- corporate worship including the sacraments, holy conferencing in class meetings/covenant discipleship groups, field preaching that directly addresses and awakens the surrounding culture, fasting or abstinence, searching the scriptures, personal and family and group prayer... these and more we know how to practice and teach. We are not left just hoping that we get our hearts warmed in a worship service and encounter with God and then sent out to try to live that individually-- which, alas, is what so many others in the larger evangelical and Protestant missionary tradition have left folks with-- we know how and can show others how to become more and more rooted and grounded in the love of Christ-- in real time and for all time.
Perfection in love in this life sounds odd and maybe even like too much demand or bad news so often in our US context. Why? I believe it is because we have exchanged our Methodist heritage for the pottage called "bigger and more successful congregations."
Methodism may or may not be a way to make congregations larger. But it is always a way of making the people who are Methodist bigger-spirited, more profound in their love of God and neighbor.
If we believe Priority 1 is to make our congregations bigger or even the roll of professing members bigger, per se, as well as to become more financially wealthy and even able to give more money than we did before, we may be foolish to pursue the Methodist way very far, the way of holiness of heart and life, the way of entire discipleship to Jesus in all things.
Because if those numbers and that kind of financial success are our real goal, offering and driving toward perfection in love in this life is not appealing, because there are far easier ways to generate those metrics than this more excellent way.
And then there's the problem we may have with the word "perfection." We equate that perhaps too much with some sort of finality, stillness, unchangeability, rigidity, and even lack of joy. We look at perfection in a Platonic and Stoic way-- a way that speaks more of deprivation than fullness of life, more about getting everything in its place than what it truly is-- getting the fullness of the life and love of God, whose perfection is love, into every place in every way possible.
We have been captivated perhaps, then, not simply by an idolatrous attention to size and financial flow, as if getting people into the congregations and keeping them and their money there were the final goal of Creation and Salvation, but also by a set of philosophical and theological assumptions utterly foreign to and subverted by our truly incarnational faith in a God who never stops pursuing us in love.
Here I can see clearly in the faces of people whose language I can neither understand nor read, at all, the fulfillment of Jesus' words in John's gospel, "I have come that you may have joy and that your joy may be full."
And so it is.
And it is a joy that only becomes the fuller as we are perfected in love-- as we cooperate with the work of the Spirit in each of us and among those who closely watch over us in love (class meetings), who gather to encourage such growth (society meetings), and who gather with many, even those whose desire to follow the way of Jesus may be minimal at this point, to offer glory to God, teach the basics of the faith, and share at the Table of Grace (congregations).
Such a blessing, so many blessings, to be here, among these people. Such a blessing to see and know and feel and be part of God's desire to redeem us all to the uttermost, a desire God earnestly and constantly works to realize in and through us. Such a blessing to be being made perfect in love in this life!
May more of us in the US and Global North churches quit settling for less than God desires to make of us. And may we Methodists, in particular, pick up again our truest birthright-- as way-showers and co-laborers in love that all who come near us may know and desire the joy of being made perfect in love in this life.