Monday, January 21, 2013

The Middle Way

I first met Adam Hamilton when I was a student at Duke Divinity School. For whatever reason, I was given the opportunity to host him during a visit to the school in the late 90's. This privilege of providing hospitality afforded an opportunity to share a meal of North Carolina's finest food at Durham's Bullock's Bar-B-Que while also hearing stories of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection when it was in its first decade of life. Adam taught me much that day as he shared the story of the church's founding and his leadership principles. And he's continued to offer countless lessons in the years since.

The best continuing education event I have ever attended is the Leadership Institute at the Church of the Resurrection. The most helpful course I took as part of my Doctor of Ministry studies was a class with Adam on "Sermon Series that Engage the Mind and Heart." I've used his stewardship curriculum and borrowed parts of his teaching on spiritual gifts.

Adam Hamilton represents the best of the United Methodist Church. And it's not just Adam as a person or as a leader. It's the ways in which Adam so artfully articulates and teaches the best of our Wesleyan theology. Tomorrow, Adam gets to offer our nation the best of the United Methodist Church as the preacher at the Inaugural Prayer Service.

When I shared my excitement about Adam's selection as tomorrow's preacher on Facebook, someone immediately commented, "Is it true that they are removing the BIBLE from this inauguration?"

We have a tendency to become easily upset by small pieces of fiction, don't we?

But we are also regularly tempted to believe that the presence of a Bible makes a difference.

But a symbolic Bible does nothing. What makes a difference is the way in which we interpret and embody what's inside the Bible. And the best thing about the United Methodist Church - one of the things that makes me most grateful for our church - is the way we seek to interpret and then faithfully live what we read on the pages of scripture.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, learned much from the religious and political leaders who ruled before he was born. When Henry VIII was replaced by Edward VI in 1549, the Church of England gravitated towards the Reformed tradition, allowing the influences of the reformers to be felt in tangible ways. But when Edward died, Mary Tudor became queen, and England was restored to a place that took its cues from Rome. The Roman Catholic Church then lost its grip on the nation's church when Elizabeth I came on the throne in 1558. With Elizabeth, a new way emerged, the via media, the middle way. The middle way straddled the best of both Rome (Catholicism) and Geneva (Reformed). The middle way was paved well and provided the foundation on which John and Charles Wesley continued to journey and eventually birth Methodism.

John and Charles discovered that one did not need to limit their understanding of theology to what was taught in the high Anglican church. Rather, they could also begin to embrace lessons learned from the Moravians, particularly their emphasis on personal holiness and awareness of God's love in one's life. Right teachings were not accepted as the most important thing. Rather, the Christian life - the experience of God combined with the tradition of the church - proved more instructive and important than a rigid orthodoxy. While core doctrines were non-negotiable, John Wesley articulated a need to allow a variety of opinions on how best to articulate, explain or teach these doctrines. Furthermore, there are countless things about God that just cannot be understood or explained if using only scripture or narrow doctrines. God is bigger!

Today, Methodists describe our way of doing theology through the lens of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. We hold that our faith was revealed in scripture, illumined by tradition, confirmed by reason and vivified through personal experience. There is not just one way to read a Bible. In fact, there are countless ways of interpreting scripture. Furthermore, scripture must always be held in tension with the traditions of the church. And, our experiences of God throughout life are to be inserted into this mix with our reason being the fourth block of getting to the place of understanding.

The middle way has provided the foundation for a church that is large enough for all kinds of people. Rather than say, "The Bible says it so I accept it, believe it or teach it," we are able to carefully study what the Bible says and then even more carefully hold what is written in scripture with what has happened in the last 2000 years and what has happened in our lives. Scripture. Tradition. Reason. Experience. All play a role. Each one is essential to our faith.

Too often the church is quickly labeled too conservative or too liberal. Preachers are judged even quicker as they are invited and then dis-invited to play a public role because of something they have said or written - even more than a decade ago.

I wonder how many of Adam's sermons were listened to by someone at the White House before an invitation was extended. I would be curious to know how many people went through his preaching and teaching with a fine tooth comb. And still, he was invited. He was proven to have the capacity to walk the middle way.

While people watching my Facebook feed today may conclude that I lean a little to the left or am rather excited about what our President "preached" earlier today, I can think of nothing more miserable than having a church filled with people of the same mind and same opinion. I regularly describe Mount Vernon Place as being liberal and conservative...along with gay and straight, Democrat and Republican, lifelong church goers and people new to the church, Catholics and Methodists, young and old, Washingtonians and Suburbanites and countless other things.

I would not have it any other way. It would be miserable to just have one way, one belief, one doctrine, one understanding represented in the life of our faith community.

We grow when we learn from each other's differences. We are strengthened by opinions that are different from our own.

God comes to us in so many ways. Diversity should always be one of the most recognizable traits in the body of Christ.

I'm so grateful that Adam gets to share our middle way with our nation tomorrow. It's the best part of being a Methodist. This is the best of the United Methodist Church!

What would happen if all of us were willing to walk in the middle - opening ourselves to receive the best from all sides around us?

1 comment:

Susann said...

I'm curious to learn more about the "middle way". I don't want to lose my hubs in this process... he's challenged when the church is "too political" (on either side).

I'm a Matthew 25 gal myself. (Look! I know a Bible verse!)