In medical jargon, “to flatline” means “to die.” In educational and developmental circles, a “learning curve” indicates the challenge to recognize, adopt, and master new information. If something is simple, the learning curve is gently sloped and short, but if there is a lot of new and/or complex information to learn in a short time frame, the learning curve is vertically steep. Obviously, you learn nothing if you are dead (no, this is not a theological statement, I am speaking purely at the earthly level here…) and you sometimes overload and learn little if the curve is too steep. But what definition do we use if we confront the same information and experiences over and over again across a number of years, and seemingly learn nothing? The United Methodist Church isn’t dead, but it does seem to have a monumental learning disorder. There isn’t a clear term for what we experience, so, might I suggest something a bit Suessian/Wonkaish? How about “fantabulous obliviousity?”
I would propose that the United Methodist church and all its antecedents have been the victim of fantabulous obliviousity. Instead of learning from our mistakes and accurately interpreting our culture, we seem to fight the same fights repeatedly. What am I talking about? Here are a few examples.
In the 1880s, The Methodist Church and the splintering branches got into a micro-culture war over appropriate dress for church. The Baptists pointed to Methodists (and, to be fair, Presbyterians as well) and accused them of “putting on airs” when they went to church. It was deemed unnatural and deeply arrogant and egotistical (these are my words to describe the conflict, not the words they used) to “dress up” for church. Jackets, ties, bonnets, polished shoes, fancy dresses, make-up, jewelry — these were clear evidence, to the Baptists anyway, that Methodists were irredeemable sinners. Dressing up was a way of drawing attention to oneself, not focusing on God. The Methodist rebuttal was that our God deserves the best, that we should make an effort to be clean, smell nice, and look good for God. It is the least we can do, but ultimately (this was OUR defense) it shouldn’t matter how a person is dressed, as long as their heart is in the right place. Fast forward a hundred years. What’s the argument? Nicely dressed Methodists look with alarm, disgust, and contempt on those who sully the sanctuary in shorts, jeans, sandals, scrubs, or sweatshirts. Fantabulous obliviousity! We may have finally turned this corner — as the casuals now outnumber the formals.
1916 — two debates rock our Methodist roots — one in The Methodist Episcopal Church, one in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Quarterly conferences across the northern tier of states wrangled endlessly about a horrendous threat to the integrity of Methodist worship, namely allowing “bar instruments” (translated “pianos”) into the sanctuary. Ignore the fact that most churches in western states had pianos instead of organs at the time, or that a number of churches had both in their sanctuaries. The big, eastern churches defended organ music as the most holy and acceptable form, and allowing our sanctuaries to be besmirched by more common “percussion” instruments. This was an emotionally charged debate — one that caused people to leave the church. Today, the piano is acceptable everywhere… it’s the d@#& drums that have absolutely no place in a Christian setting.
At the same time, our southern brethren and sistren were having their own “issues.” Churches were growing by leaps and bounds, and too many people were attending worship. Communion and the offering were causing log jams of hot, sweaty worshippers (remember, no air conditioning in 1916) so some “progressive” churches started delivering the elements in bite-size cubes/single serve cups (what my own grandfather referred to as “croutons and a shot”) to people sitting in the pews, and good southern Methodists started imitating the more “worldly” northern congregationalists by passing plate through the pews to collect the offering! Herbert George Welch (northern bishop) criticized his southern brethren (yep, at the time all boys) as “doing the devil’s work, making men idle in worship.” Who today argues with passing collection plates or distributing communion in individual servings? If anything, our arguments lean toward the “unclean” and “unsanitary” aspects of communion by intinction — and in some churches, we don’t even pass plates anymore — we position them at the rear of the sanctuary for people to drop their ‘gifts’ off on the way out. Forget coming forward to the altar of the Lord. It’s fine to mail it in, phone it in, email it, or transfer it online.
Few people today remember the battles in 1952 over the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (“King James is the language of God!” railed Clinton Barry at General Conference), but a lot of people remember the bruhaha over the 1966/1988 versions of the “official” hymnal. We’re trying to do a new hymnal, and are people anxiously and excitedly awaiting its arrival? Think again…
We won’t even go into the battles through the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond for African Americans, or the every-bit-as-hostile battles through the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s for women. Certainly we will never do THAT again! (Quick, haul out the Bible — as we did to keep minorities and women in their places — we won’t let anyone else who is “different” destroy our precious church!!)
And I personally know of three people who left the church over the debates concerning our denominational logo of the cross and flame. Isn’t it heartening to know how well we stay focused on the truly important issues of the Christian faith?
Every time we fight a battle in The United Methodist Church, we do so from a destructive and irrational position of “win/lose.” Its calls into question the “united” in United Methodist every time. We should not be opponents — we are family. We should not be so hostile, mean-spirited, and angry when we address our brothers and sisters. Even United Methodists got caught up in the superficial and maudlin “What Would Jesus Do?” mania of a few years back. Not that it needed to be either superficial OR maudlin — but we made it exactly that when we wore it on our wrists and stuck it to our bumpers and continued to treat each other abominably at all levels of the church. Self-righteousness and “open hearts, open minds, open doors” make abysmal bedfellows.
Every generation seemingly has to learn its own mistakes — ignoring what previous generations learned. In every century, Methodist leaders have tried to deny people access to the Lord’s table and the grace of God. It hasn’t ever succeeded in the past, and it won’t in the future. (It’s not our table… and God will seat whomsoever God loves). We have played games with offerings, hymns, creeds, practices (how many of our churches sport American flags? What’s that all about?), preferences, and styles. We have yet to learn how do deal lovingly with each other when we disagree. Go ahead, change a worship service time, or bring a praise band in, or rearrange the chancel area, or put a memorial gift into storage. See how much we’ve learned from all those who have gone before us?
Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. Those who ignore their history deserve what they get. Those who learn from history have an enormous advantage building a better future. Fantabulous obliviousity may be an appropriate description of both the Apostle Peter and The United Methodist Church — but Peter got better. Peter learned. It’s not too late for us UMCs either. We need to start learning — particularly how to treat each other — before it’s too late. If we flatline, there’s nothing left to learn. But if we tackle the curve — no matter how steep it is — we can emerge in a new and better place than we’ve ever been before.