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Clergy Spiritual Life Retreat February 25-27, 2013
Presenters: Dr. Doug Meeks and Bishop Bill McAlilly
Location: Paris Landing State Park Buchanan, TN
2013 Theme: A Way of Excellence: Reclaiming Confidence in the Gospel
Doug Meeks' three sessions will be as follows:
February 25-27, 2013
M. Douglas Meeks
The Required Readings for the Spiritual Life Retreat are clustered around three presentations I will give. Let me offer some reflections that might guide your reading. Under Bishop McAlilly’s leadership all of us in the Nashville Area are in a period of discerning our common mission as the first step in the revitalization of the church. The main theme of my presentations will be what John Wesley meant by sanctification (nothing more, nothing less): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10.27). To find out who we as disciples of Jesus Christ are called to be in the Nashville Area we have to confer about what it means to love God and our neighbor where and when we are living. And if we are to do this as Wesleyans we have to remember that theology must be what Wesley called Practical Divinity. Christian theology is utterly practical; Christian praxis is utterly theological. Theology is reflecting on situations under the gospel. We are coming together to reflect on, pray about, and act in the situations in which we are living in southwest Kentucky and west and middle Tennessee – all of this under the gospel.
1) The first presentation will deal with how we can love God. Most crucial in the revitalization of the church in our Area is proclaiming the gospel, for if we don’t know who God is and how God loves us, our attempts to love God will melt into deadly moralism in all dimensions of the life of the church. Moralism is killing us and making us frozen, suspended in indecision.
The other most urgent question for our revitalization is worship. Worship is the way we creatures love God. The first thing we discover in worship is that we are loved by God. In worship we are uncovered as loved ones, no longer capable of hiding in our shells of masking and ideology. Failing true and faithful worship in our Area we might as well, excuse my bluntness, hang it all up. If we want to have a future that the Lord smiles upon in this Area, then the ordained and lay leadership have to support each other in the reading of scripture and marshal all the resources of the two conferences in holding each other accountable in preaching and worship. From my perspective, without this all else (yes I mean all else) will fail.
2) The Second presentation will concentrate on the formation of the congregation around the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Evangelism and Mission (the two bookends of the present crises of our Area) are limping and listing among us because, I will argue, we don’t know our neighbor. The gospel requires us to distinguish between friendship and erotic love, on the one hand, and neighbor love, on the other. By and large, our congregations are striving for good friendship and healthy erotic love among our members (and according to the gospel these are definitely two goods), but we are doing very poorly at friendship and erotic love because we have forgotten that everything in the body of Christ depends on neighbor love. You can’t love God without loving the neighbor. In my friend I see myself reflected, in erotic love I am completed by the one I love, but in neighbor love I encounter the one who is radically different from me, the one who frightens me and calls me into question, the one I cannot love except through the miracle of God loving me. But this is precisely what the church is all about. You cannot love the neighbor without being loved by and loving God. Should the church grow? (evangelism). Does the church exist for the sake of God’s redemption of the world which God loves with God’s whole being (John 3:16, Mission)? If the answer to both of these questions should be, yes, then we should concentrate on the Wesleyan conviction that there simply won’t be any faithful evangelism and mission without loving our neighbor. The church comes into being for the sake of evangelism and mission (defined by the gospel). But this makes the very practical business of forming the congregation for evangelism and mission depend on the power of the Risen Crucified One. The doctrine of the Triune God as seen in the resurrection, crucifixion, life, and future of Jesus and the Holy Spirit is the most practical doctrine there is for the life of the church.
3) The third presentation will invite us to begin thinking more practically about the mission of our Area under the assumption that we will not experience revitalization without engagement in mission. Mission is not “outreach” or “social action.” Mission is the being of the church, that is, God in Christ through the Spirit giving Godself to the world which God loves with God’s whole being. I think scripture and tradition give ample evidence that it is mission, God’s mission, that brings the church into being, not the other way around. If you are trying to start a new church or revitalize an existing church, mission is what will give it life. I will argue that the problem of our churches and the key to the restoring of mission is the neighborhood . If the church exists, having been loved by God, to love the neighbor, then the burning question is Where is the neighborhood? A majority of the churches built during the greatest periods of the “ascendancy” of American Methodism (the second and third “Great Awakenings”) were “neighborhood churches.” Many of you, maybe the majority, are serving what were once clearly “neighborhood” churches. From a sociological perspective the United Methodist Church has been in decline since its inception in 1968 largely because our neighborhoods have declined, changed, atrophied, or in the view of some impossible to live in. We have striven to readjust to this reality with all sorts of new assumptions about how to establish churches, but the simple gospel facts are that there is no neighbor without a neighborhood and that the “problem” with the neighbor is often the neighborhood. Then comes the inconvenient, hard theological reality: you can’t love God without loving the neighbor and the neighbor is always incarnated in a neighborhood. Evangelism and mission depend (I mean this literally) on knowing the neighbor and the neighborhood. Our talk of evangelism and mission is often just flapping in abstract language that doesn’t signify anything concretely. For the Nashville Area to be in mission would require in addition to the Wesleyan acts I’ve already mentioned also deep, disciplined, sustained conversation (the Wesleyan mode of doing theology) about the situations of the neighbors and the neighborhoods of our churches. And here is a theological complication: Our neighbors are not defined by the usual definition of proximity, nearness, or likeness. Our neighbors are the ones Jesus Christ gives us to love and through the power of the resurrection makes it possible for us to love . This is the presupposition of evangelism and mission. No pastor or lay leader should have to do this on his or her own. Nor is this the work of a single congregation on its own. For God’s sake, we are a connectional church! I am convinced that our Bishop is determined to find ways to bring our leaders and congregations together for this awesome, scary, and joyful work in which, I am also convinced, we will find new life. My hope is that the spiritual retreat will give us space and time to begin this work and that the Spirit will give us courage and energy for it.
Now a couple of comments abut the readings. I have not included a lot of the recent theological and social science literature but will provide that later for those interested. You might say, well, I already know the biblical, Wesleyan, and disciplinary readings you’ve listed. No, you don’t. None of us knows this as well as we should. My hope is that all of us can come to the Spiritual Retreat having a good grasp of these readings so we will be on the same page for discussions. I’ve included Gregory of Nazianzus’ oration “On Love of the Poor” because it is an early example of the faithful work of a bishop (like Wesley as a “bishop”) and gives us a good perspective on what the gospel requires of us in the love of the neighbor. Roxburgh’s book is a good attempt at reflection on mission in the neighborhood. I will preach on Luke 11:5-13 and, since preaching is always a communal event, I would be grateful if you would prayerfully read this passage.
1) Readings for Preaching the Gospel (Evangelism for our Time) and Loving God (Worship in the Beloved Community of Jesus Christ).
Mark 1:14-15, Luke 4:16-19.
John Wesley, “Open Letter,” (1751) in John Wesley ed. Albert Outler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 232-237.
Luke 4, Phil 2:6-11
John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” John Wesley’s Sermons Ed. Outler and Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), 158-171.
2) Diakonia: Loving/Living with the Neighbor .
Matt 5-7, 1 John 2, 4, Acts 9.
John Wesley, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse IV,” John Wesley’s Sermons Ed. Outler and Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), 194-206.
John Wesley, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” John Wesley’s Sermons Ed. Outler and Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), 550-557.
3) Mission: Living in the Neighborhood .
Gregory of Nazianzus, “On Love of the Poor” (Oration 14) in Brian Daley, ed. Gregory of Nazianzus (New York: Routledge, 2006), 76-97.
“Social Principles,” The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, 95-125.
Alan J. Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011).
Recommended Further Reading :
Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
William Faulkner, Light in August (New York: The Modern Library, 1959).
Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope Trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012).
Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962). No author I know shows more clearly that the whole point of being a Christian is loving the neighbor and, at once, the seeming impossibility of loving the neighbor and thus of being a disciple of Christ, except through God’s grace. Of course, if you happen to be a Southerner, as a goodly number of us are, Faulkner and O’Connor remain on the required reading list. Almost any O’Connor story is appropriate for our theme of living with the neighbor. “A Circle in the Fire” and “Everything that Rises Must Converge” are examples that haunt me when I hear Jesus’ command to love my neighbor. And if you have to preach 40-50 times a year, don’t forget the novels of Walker Percy.
Reggie McNeal, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church (Jossey-Bass, 2009).
Gil Rendle, Journey in the Wilderness (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010).
For more information and to register, print this form and mail it in with check (registration fee is $40.00) to:
Memphis Annual Conf.
Spiritual Life Retreat
24 Corporate Blvd.
Jackson, TN 38305-2315