Review: The Greatest Story Never Told by Len Sweet

My clergy group recently read Len Sweet’s book The Greatest Story Never Told: Revive Us Again (Nashville: Abingdon, 2012).  I figured I might offer a few thoughts; if you’ve read it would be happy to hear yours.

I confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for Sweet’s work.  I remember reading a few of his books before going to seminary and being thrilled to find out he was at Drew, where I planned to study.  I took my first couple of classes with him.  If you have a copy of SoulTsunami on your shelf, I challenge you to pick it up and see if it wasn’t pretty much on the money about emerging trends in both the church and American society.

That said, Sweet definitely isn’t for everyone.  He loves his metaphors and his stories, and sometimes he’s willing to lose the flow of the narrative for the sake of an illustration.  Sometimes the wordplay gets a little too cute and clever (woe to readers for whom English is a second language).  You have to remember he’s a preacher at heart – and quite a good one.  He loves a good one-liner, and sometimes it seems like a book is just a convenient place to gather a bunch of them in one place.  Here are a few examples:

  • God puts life’s goodies and cookies on a low shelf.  You have to get on your knees to find them. (46)
  •  “Duh!-ciples,” I call them.  Do they ever get it? (51)
  •  [Wesley] advised early Methodists:  “Be electrified daily.”  Not bad advice for our future. (61)
  •  Methodists are people who sing in the key of love. (111)

But Sweet is also a scholar – not only of Wesley but of American Protestantism.  In this book, he sets out to remind us of who we are as Methodists and exhorts us to reclaim that heritage.  In his introduction, he states the problem this way:

What Voltaire once said of the Holy Roman Empire – it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire – might arguably be said of the UMC:  it is not United, not Methodist, and less a church than a bureaucracy, and sometimes less a bureaucracy than a circus.  (xvii)

Sweet usually tries to connect his chapters with a running metaphor, or (more often) metaphors.   Here we’re about music (a favorite Sweet trope) plus the four elements, so we’ve got “The Song of Water,” “The Song of Fire,” “The Song of Wind,” “The Song of Earth,” corresponding to holiness, passion, connection, and hope.  For me, the chapters on passion and connection are the strongest of the book.

When Sweet speaks of connection, he keeps it in its proper context of relationships.  The connections that are most important are not the large C’s of “the Connection,” which has become shorthand for our structure and bureaucracy, but the connections between people that result in mutual support, encouragement, growth in faith, and power in mission.  Relationships are fundamental to our identity, and he offers this challenge to those who would root our identity elsewhere:

When the grammar of God moves from the relational language of withness and worship to the descriptive language of absolute determinative proposition, we have moved away from Methodist heritage to Methodist heresy.  (77)

On passion, Sweet quotes Thomas Chalmers, the leader of the Free Church of Scotland in the 19th century, who called Methodism “Christianity in earnest.”  Wesley, often accused of “enthusiasm,” would surely be disappointed by the stunning lack of enthusiasm for much of anything in many of our churches today.

But here’s the challenge, as a good friend put it to me during our discussion of the text:  “Sweet’s describing a church none of us ever knew, that doesn’t exist except in history books.”  Is it possible for a people to reclaim a history they’ve never seen or experienced?

Sweet has been trying to remind us for a while.  Did you read 11 Genetic Gateways to a Spiritual Awakening (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998)?  Probably not.  I bought my copy when I heard him preach in Raleigh  in 2000, and when he signed it, he said something like, “Congratulations!  You’re the sixth person to have bought this book.”  While The Greatest Story Never Told covers a lot of the same ground, and recycles a few of the same lines, it’s much simpler and conveys more of the essence of what I believe – after three years of seminary and ten years in ministry – what we’re about.

But here’s the thing about Sweet’s work that touches on Methodist heritage and history – it always comes back to the experience of Jesus in the heart of the individual.  That’s what moved Wesley.  That’s what powered the movement.  It was the experience of grace in one life, and another, and another.  We’re talking about revival.  And revival can’t be programmed or planned from Nashville or anywhere.  It can only be prayed into reality, one person at a time, one pastor at a time, one church at a time.

When Methodists Mattered

Gentlemen, -In response to your address, allow me to attest the accuracy of its historical statements; indorse the sentiment it expresses; and thank you, in the nation’s name for the sure  promise it gives.

Nobly sustained as the government has been by all the Churches, I would utter nothing which might in the least appear invidious against any. Yet without this it may fairly be said that the Methodist Episcopal Church, not less devoted than the best, is, by its greater numbers, the most important of all. It is no fault in others that the Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospitals, and more prayers to heaven than any. God bless the Methodist Church! bless all the Churches! and blessed be God! who in this our great trial giveth us the Churches!

May 18, 1864

A. Lincoln

A few months back I was at Old St. George’s Church in Philadelphia with my confirmation class, and came across a history of the former Southern New Jersey Conference. I bought it for $2. My wife makes fun of me for doing things like this, but last weekend I was sitting in the backyard, my feet in a kiddie pool, lounging and learning more about the roots of Methodism in NJ.

The book included this incredible letter from Abraham Lincoln, one that I had read before in seminary, but had long since forgotten. I couldn’t help but think:  really? Did Abraham Lincoln just describe the M.E. Church as “the most important of all”?

It’s good to read the address that prompted Lincoln’s reply to gain some context. Lincoln was not unprompted. The General Conference offered him its unqualified support, characterizing the war as “most unnatural, utterly unjustifiable rebellion, involving the crime of treason against the best of human governments and sin against God.” To some degree we went fishing for the compliment.

Still, to read this – in a time when we wonder whether the UMC will survive, when we find it impossible to find our place in the national conversation, when we spend big money on advertising just to let people know we haven’t disappeared from the face of the earth, it’s good to remember that there was a time when Methodists mattered.

I hope that seeing this reminder of our history reinforces your hope for the future – that we Methodists can matter again. And I pray that when you look at your local church, you see ministries that already do.

In the end, you know what’s important is not what those in the seats of power think of the Methodists.  It’s about what the poor, the hopeless, the helpless and the hurting think of us.  That’s how we know what Christ thinks of us.  That’s what matters.

We’ve Got Trust Issues

“We have huge trust issues.” – Adam Hamilton

Finally I’ve calmed down enough to do some thinking about GC 2012 without getting worked up.  Like a lot of folks, I spent a few weeks angry and depressed.  So I threw myself back into the work of the local church…confirmation, new members…and again God proved to me that the actions of GC don’t change anything about Jesus or about the community I pastor.  For that, I’m so grateful.

Adam Hamilton is absolutely right, building trust will take a lot of conversations.  Not just among Methodists in the US but around the world.  I’m convinced American Methodists have no clue about the structural, spiritual, or cultural realities of the Church in Africa or Europe.  I know I don’t.  In fact, I doubt those in the Southeast Jurisdiction really understand the situation in the Northeast, or vice versa.  So conversation is definitely important.

I want to remind us of another key component of trust:  transparency.  Hamilton alluded to the issue in the interview linked above, when he touched on (hidden) “agendas.”  He said, “Sometimes there IS an agenda going on and sometimes good people are trying to make the next best decision.”

We all have agendas.  Let’s start there, because the statement implies that good people don’t.  I disagree.  I hope all of us – and I imagine at least most of us – are good people who want what’s best for the Church.  But we all have different visions of what would be the best Church and hence different agendas.

Usually when we use the word “agenda” it’s a pejorative to describe a preferred outcome that is driven more by ego than by big-picture, what’s-best-for-the-Church thinking.  No question, that element is always present, even in “good people.”  We’ve got to ask God’s wisdom to recognize it.  That said, much of what we derisively label an “agenda” is simply someone else’s preferred outcome based on someone else’s vision for the Church.

In other words, when we do it, it’s “wanting what’s best for the church.”  When someone else does it, it’s an “agenda.”

If we want to build trust, we’re going to have to find the courage to bring our agendas into the light of day.  I can work with someone when I know where they’re coming from and what they want – even if we disagree – because then I understand what might make for compromise.

Here’s the catch.  Revealing our agendas often means revealing either:  1)  that we fundamentally distrust the other person; or 2) that we believe they’ve failed to do their job.

An illustration:  it’s hard for me to look at the restructuring proposals and counter-proposals without seeing them as a clash of agendas between (primarily) the bishops and the agency executives.  We talked about the various plans in terms of efficiency and adequate representation but my sense is that what we really should be talking about is 1) why these two groups distrust each other and 2) why someone feels someone else isn’t doing their job.  Of course, this is what we’re not doing.

Ugly, I know.  Personal, I know.  Best done one-on-one, in private, behind closed doors.  But I don’t see evidence that it is happening.  Because if it were, where people were coming clean on their agendas and working out their interpersonal stuff, I’m guessing we wouldn’t be slugging it out on the floor of GC.

The problem:  the only alternative to working things out in private is speaking them in public.  Maybe this can be done, but it strikes me as incredibly risky for everyone involved.  What’s spoken at arm’s length seems harmless enough until you suddenly find yourself in the same room with the person who’s been insulted by something you’ve said.

I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder and pray over:

Do we value transparency – in ourselves and others – as foundational to relationships?

Are we willing to reveal and articulate our agendas, even if they paint us in a negative light?

Can we develop trust without first revealing the dimensions of our distrust?

The New Terms of Employment

As I follow General Conference, I can’t shake a feeling that my church is dramatically changing the terms of the relationship between the church and clergy in the order of elders.  The move to end guaranteed appointment is one of a several things making me wonder.

I want to start by saying I recognize that we can’t continue to let bad pastors kill churches.  That’s first, and most important.  I’d urge you to listen to this interview where Bishop Will Willimon describes how he’s dealt with the problem.  His argument, in part, for the end of the guaranteed appointment is that some of his colleagues aren’t willing or able to do what he’s done to remove ineffective clergy.

It’s not just the appointment issue the GC is dealing with.  There are also the changes to the pension plan.  This will be the third plan we’ve had in 10 years.  I’m reminded of Jacob’s complaint in Genesis 31:7, but I can understand this and deal with it.  It’s everyone’s reality now.  I honestly wish we’d just go to some kind of 401K with a match and be done with it.

Then we’ve got the CTA with its emphasis on numbers.  I was an engineer before I was a pastor.  I know numbers are important.  I track them and have been blessed to see ours going up.  Our congregation set some aggressive targets in the Vital Congregations planning.  Still I can’t help but wonder – if we miss, how will that miss figure in the cabinet’s evaluation of my work?  (Maybe we should have sandbagged a little bit.  I imagine a lot of churches did.)

And here’s where I wonder about the end of the guaranteed appointment. I don’t really fear for myself (except when I consider how freely I tend to speak my mind.)  The congregation I serve is growing and vital.  I believe God has called me and gifted me for this work.

But I do know good pastors in tough appointments – places where they get beaten down by the people for trying to make changes that will lead to vitality and beaten down by the hierarchy for not paying the bills.  Or where pastors are immediately rejected just because they are female.  Or Korean.  Or both.  How will we measure them?

There’s a lot of talk about the typical layperson not having any job guarantee.  I get that.  But honestly, the UMC doesn’t much resemble a free market.  Between the bishop, the conference, and the local church, not just my employment but a good deal of my life is under someone else’s control.  That includes the church-owned house we call home and even the credentials that allow  me to do my job.  Imagine a lawyer whose bar association assigned her a job, a salary, and a residence.  That’s a lot of power to give into the hands of an institution.

It’s no small thing for a family to commit to live under itinerancy.  The question always comes up in the spring:  should we plant a garden or not? Someone might say, “you knew what you were getting into.”  I guess.  I thought part of the deal was that if I offered myself to serve, I’d always have a place to serve.  I thought that was part of the reason the Conference asked me to undergo 7 years of education and evaluation before ordination.

I can accept the end of guaranteed appointment.  But I don’t want to give it up without something in return:  if we go this route, we need term limits for bishops.  That didn’t pass today.  I pray that in time we’ll see that simple fairness requires the issues of  guaranteed appointments and term limits to travel together.

Meantime, my prayers are with General Conference:  the delegates, the bishops, and all who have come to observe and serve.