Sunday, February 05, 2012

longing for spring: hope for the united methodist church

I write in the heart of the winter; ours has actually been quite mild, thus far, but I do enjoy the lengthening of days and the sense that more warmth and light is on the horizon. Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker teach evangelism at two of our seminaries, Perkins and Wesley, and they have framed their call for a renewal of the church around the metaphor of change and rebirth. Longing For Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books) is a deceptively simple, soundly argued and theologically provocative engagement with our present condition, and yet one that is placed within the context of both deeply personal narratives and carefully remembered histories of renewal.

The impetus for the writing of Longing For Spring was simple enough: something is wrong. We know this at a personal, congregational and denominational level. Elaine Heath sensed it in the inability of the denominational structures to embrace the movement of the spirit in her spiritual mentor or in the younger students she would over time find herself mentoring. Scott Kisker grew up in a mainline congregation that, for all outward appearances, was strong and health, apart from one crucial shortcoming: an inability to help younger generations to know, claim or live the faith. Longing For Spring begins with their testimonies, and in this sense the work is deeply Wesleyan---theirs is indeed a new Aldersgate.

What struck me in my first reading of this brief work----and I am grateful for its brevity, for this will render it more accessible to those those who sense with them that something is wrong----is a basic gratitude that the story did not end there. Kisker and Heath could have lived out of their narratives into a cynicism about church and culture, even as they inhabited professional positions within the denomination (this happens). But there was a turn, which for them happened as they walked around Lake Junaluska, a turn toward the radical character of the tradition, which would become in itself a movement of the Holy Spirit.

Their stories led them to think about where the church has been, over time, when something has been wrong. God has led individuals, women and men to form communities, in the desert, at the abandoned places of empire, on the periphery of established churches. Kisker traces a path from Anthony to Benedict to the Beguines to a Kempis to the pietists and Wesley. The early Wesleyan experience was a communal and intentional path toward holiness, the love of God and neighbor. Over time this practice was lost in the development of structures and conformity to the world. A lay movement became clericalized; spiritual formation and social justice were separated.

And so two academics began to explore how the tradition might be rediscovered. They found a clue in the new monastic movement, and here Heath connects the dots: methodist, missional and monastic. Learning from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the "Twelve Marks" from the Schools for Conversion, she pushes this movement of the spirit into the language of Methodism: three general rules and five membership vows. If Kisker is skilled at tracing the history of renewal movement, Heath's genius lies in connecting the New Monastic movement with the desire for reformation in the Wesleyan tradition.

These two movements in itself would be helpful, but Longing For Spring takes one additional step that is critical: Heath imagines how a renewal movement could exist within our present polity (clergy appointments, boards of ordained ministry, the ordering of ministry) and institutional life (camps, unused churches, theological seminaries). She names the facets of our ecclesial life that are broken, while also pushing in creative ways toward organizational reform. There is both an honesty and a hope in the institutional strategy; it seems slow and plodding at times, like the passing of time from winter to spring, and yet it moves toward renewal. This rebirth is a "new day" for the church, and the authors guide our focus toward places and texts that will encourage and sustain us in the journey.

I love this book for many reasons: it is practical theology in service of the church; it hears the cries of a younger generation that will not sign on for a career of institutional maintenance; it resonates with a postmodern context that seeks an integrity of a living spirituality and a social witness (or, in Bishop Schnase's language, intentional faith development, passionate worship and risk-taking mission and service); it moves beyond cynicism toward hope; and it translates the best of our tradition for the present moment.

What if the words methodist, monastic and missional are at the heart of our calling to be Christians in this time? And what if we designed a way of life and found institutional support for the flourishing of this calling? Heath and Kisker are asking these questions, and they have placed them in the context of our historical memory and our institutional status quo. For those who sense that something is wrong, but find themselves at the same time longing for spring, this is the text for a new day.

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Blogger Linda Evans said...

Yes, throughout the Ekklesia, this longing for authentic and complete Christianity - the grand and glorious perfecting in Love as John Wesley expressed it so well, is refusing to be satisfied with the structure and function of "church" any longer! This Call of the Spirit of God to the awakening hearts is irresistible -- your heart hears it too. Linda the Beguine :)

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