Signs

When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! – Luke 11:29-32

I just love that Jesus isn’t all nicey-nicey all the time.  Yes, we read about Jesus having compassion on Jerusalem; on the crowds that followed him; on the blind and lame and social castoffs who came to him for healing, comfort, or a chance to return to full community with others.  At the same time, the so-called “Temple cleansing” isn’t the only time Jesus anger and frustration overflowed.  If you believe Jesus can call a bunch of people standing around him “an evil generation” without anger, your faith and imagination are far better than mine.

Yet, for what is he condemning them?  For some kind of sign, something that let’s them know, definitively, that he, this carpenter from Nazareth, is the One promised.  Like the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, at the end of which the Rich Man begs The Lord to return to his family to warn them only to be told that this man’s family had the Law and Prophets, and if that’s too bad, well too bad so sad.  In other words, Jesus is condemning an entire generation for basic faithlessness.  As if the whole history of Israel, the Scriptures that attest to what God has done and will do, isn’t enough, now the people want some kind of sign.  To which Jesus says, “Fine!  You want a sign?  How about Jonah?  How about the Queen of Sheba who came to sit at the feet of Solomon?  The Kingdom of the South condemns you for your faithlessness; Nineveh condemns you for your faithlessness.  Consider that.”

In this way, the United Methodist Church is so much like this evil generation.  We have our heroes – Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter, Rob Bell – who we look to for guidance through our generation-long malaise.  We look for signs that our churches are alive, whether it’s through more people attending, higher giving, vibrant Sunday School and Youth ministries – including the required Summer Mission Trip, which has become de rigeur – and mistake all of it for the life of the Spirit.  Not that I’m condemning more people in church, or mission trips; just that we think these are signs of the presence of the Spirit, signs of life, when all the sign we need has already been given to us.  Consider part of the lyrics from the song above:

When will we learn, when will we change?
Just in time to see it all come down

Those left standing will make millions
Writing books on the way it should have been

We have all the tools, all the understanding, all the knowledge, all we need to be about the business of being the Church.  What we lack is faith – faith in the God who calls us; faith in the Son who saves us; faith in the Spirit who brings us Life and New Life – to be about what we should be.  We mistake being busy for being about making Disciples.  We mistake larger attendance numbers for making Disciples.  We mistake our Summer Mission Trips for transforming the world.  In other words, we think all this stuff can silence the nagging fear that it just isn’t enough, that we need something, some sign, that we’re doing it right.  We don’t have to have our theology right; we don’t have to have our doctrine set forth appropriately; we don’t have to pray the right prayer; we don’t have to see the face of Jesus above the altar;  we don’t need signs.

I have a Facebook friend who’s a United Methodist pastor here in the Northern Illinois Conference.  She constantly writes that she loves her job.  She notes when she receives compliments from youth in her church, such as, “You make church fun!”.  She holds office hours every Tuesday evening at a local Mexican Restaurant, and folks stop by.  Oh, and did I tell you that she has a pink streak in her hair, in every picture she’s smiling a huge, warm smile, and that she preaches barefoot because she is treading on Holy Ground?  I’m sure she and her church have the same worries all other churches have; there’s no reason to believe they are exempt.  All the same, her message is more than perky happiness.  Her message is far simpler: She is about the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world, and, man, isn’t it a blast?  It’s holy, sure, and it’s serious, life-altering, world-altering business.  There’s no reason not to celebrate the sheer joy of being about this work to which she’s been called, and at which she is so adept.

We need more like her.  We need more men and women who love what they do, that to which they are called, and can share that love and joy with the world.  There’s no magic formula, no sign, no miracle.  Just understanding that one greater than Solomon and Jonah has come, and that’s worth celebrating, that should be enough to create excitement and enthusiasm for this whole church thing.  Joy, love, and an enthusiasm for sharing that – there’s your sign.  Otherwise, we might just find the good folks of Nineveh telling us, “What the world’s wrong with you?”

The Darkness Does Not Overcome It

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. – John 1:3b-5, 10-11

News Item:

News 2 reports that the three armed men turned their attention to the 19-year-old granddaughter and attempted to gang-rape the girl. It has not been made known if the grandfather had his gun inside his safe or exactly how he obtained it, but he didn’t waste any time in aiming and shooting at the three men ganging up on his teenage granddaughter.

Byrd managed to shoot all three men, but not before they managed to fire back, shooting the grandfather several times. News 2 reveals that the three suspects quickly fled the scene stealing Byrd’s gold Cadillac as their getaway car. . . .

Fay Observer says that “Byrd was taken to Southeastern Regional Medical Center and later airlifted to an unidentified hospital.”

A short time later, the police were notified when two men with gunshot wounds turned up for treatment at McLeod Hospital in Dillon. With this information, deputies were able to gather details and found the third suspect, 20-year-old Jamie Lee Faison, dead from gunshot wounds still inside Byrd’s gold Cadillac outside Faison’s home in Lumberton.

When I heard this story, my first thought was, “Good.”  My second thought was, “I hope that one who died suffered.  I hope the ones who live, well the doctors are busy, the nurses are busy, their pain killers will be along in a while.”  Then, I realize that’s just wrong.  The whole situation is wrong.  Those three men, who knows what their problems were; that family whose home they invaded, who knows what went on inside that house, what kind of people they really are.  All any of us know for sure is that four men were shot and one died.  These aren’t things to celebrate; to wish pain and suffering on anyone, for any reason, is wrong.  It doesn’t matter that it’s “human”; hell, it doesn’t matter that it might well have been my reaction under similar circumstances.  Guilty of a crime?  Yes.  I am not judge and jury and executioner, and shooting and killing those men makes that “hero” grandfather no different from the men who invaded his home.  My applauding his actions, wishing for pain and suffering for those the grandfather injured, particularly since I’m at a remove from the situation, somehow, in my own eyes, makes me worse.  I get to play hero without any risk, without any moral disapprobation from others for supporting the killing of another human being.

News Item:

A video that shows the beheading of American Steven Sotloff was delivered as a “second message to America” to halt airstrikes in Iraq, following through on a threat to kill the journalist.

In the video posted Tuesday online, Sotloff says — in a message surely scripted by his captors — that he is “paying the price” for U.S. military intervention. . . .

The killing of Sotloff follows a threat last month by ISIS made during the videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley. The latest video threatens the life of another man.

A masked ISIS figure in the new video speaks to U.S. President Barack Obama, telling him, “Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”

We sit half a world away and watch, helpless as our fellow Americans are killed in a most brutal fashion.  Anger, rage, made more potent and poisonous by impotence, pushes us to celebrate as we bomb and send cruise missiles, destroying not only the physical infrastructure of ISIS and other terrorist organizations, but men and women:

Since when is celebrating death and destruction, even of those who wish the same upon us, right?  Yet, I no less than anyone else cheer as I watch these shots of American firepower being brought to bear to wear down an enemy whose methods are barbaric, and whose words distort a beautiful, peaceful, loving, lawful-and law-filled faith.

We are told at the beginning of St. John’s Gospel that the Light, the first Word of Creation that pushed back the darkness of primordial chaos came and dwelt among us.  This Light is Life.   Yet, we also read that this Light, this participant in Creation, came and no one noticed.  This Life that had chosen the people of Israel came and was rejected by Israel.  The darkness did not and will not overcome the Light – or as we repeat in the Chalcedonian formula, “True Light From True Light” – yet there are times when that darkness seems very oppressive.  If those who faced the Living Light couldn’t see it; if those chosen by the Light to be a fellow-human among them refused to receive him as one of their own, how can we ever boast of our living and working and believing in the crucified and risen Christ?  We are not witnesses, just hearers of a story so old now even the languages in which it was originally told are dead.  How can we bear witness to this Truth, this Light, when – especially at this time of the year, as the hours of daylight shrink and even that light seems less light somehow – the darkness all around us presses in?

I had a conversation with my younger daughter the other evening.  She was telling me of her childhood fears, especially at night.  I told her that I remembered telling here there was nothing to be afraid of, that there was nothing in the darkness that isn’t there in the light.  I apologized for this trite, ridiculous dismissal of her fears; we adults all too often forget just how terrifying that darkness can be, how populated by horrors the adult mind cannot fathom.  Most adult fears are so mundane – will I get this raise/promotion/new job?  Will we be able to make this month’s mortgage payment?  Can the car last another year so I can save enough for a down payment on something new? – that we forget the real terrors that lie just out of sight.  We chuckle at horror movies and the contrived “monsters” that are little more than variations on primal human fears buried deep within our collective psyches.

Yet, that light . . . That Light is not overcome.  The darkness presses in, presses down, keeping us awake at night, making us jump at shadows and bumps.  But we must always remember that it is the light that pushes back the darkness, not the darkness that oppresses the light.  In this life we are always, in a spiritual sense, diurnal creatures.  We prefer to think the best of ourselves while most of the time we walk the blade between barely recognizing the good and the gaping maw of the abyss that stares back at us, inviting us to let go.  Our best intentions, our best senses of ourselves, even those things we consider virtues or perhaps the merely human part of who we are – these are the seductive whispers of the darkness, inviting us to snuff out the one candle that keeps it all at bay.

That light, if it really is a part of our lives, is more powerful than the deepest, darkest primordial chaos.  Precisely because it is the Life of All People, it not only keeps the darkness at bay, it chases it back.  If we carry that light in our lives, it can shine forth for others to see and realize that the darkness, for all its seductive, fearful, nearly ubiquitous presence, cannot compare to that Light.  We may not have been there, but we are blessed enough to recognize this Light.  We are not his own, but we accept this Light, and through this acceptance become heirs of the promise.

So I don’t despair, despite my worst self rearing its head.  I do not fear the seductive whisper of the darkness, because it is the Light whose promises are true.  That Light, I hope, has and does and will shine forth from me, even just a tiny bit, so that others may know that the darkness, for all its chaotic power, cannot overcome the blazing Light of Life.

Breathe

A couple years ago, at my old site, I spent the better part of a month giving a kind of overview of why it is I’m interested in so many things, how that progressed through my life, and how that study has led me to the conclusion that all things are connected in some way.  And it all began, as I write here, with a photo of Saturn.

The Planet Saturn In False Color, Courtesy of Voyager I Spacecraft

The Planet Saturn In False Color, Courtesy of Voyager I Spacecraft

Among the many things I’ve followed in my life, the ups and downs and ins and outs of the American space program, including our robotic studies of the solar system, has been one I’ve followed closely.  We live at a time that can best be described as a golden age of discovery about our solar system.  We have orbiters around Mercury, Mars, and Saturn.  We have one headed for Jupiter that’s a few years away, while one on its way to Pluto will be arriving sometime next year.  A European Space Agency craft is orbiting a small comet, about to send a lander to the surface.  The spacecraft that took the photo above, back in 1980, has sent one of its last signals home, letting us know that it has now, finally, reached interstellar space.

What does my Yahoo! News Feed offer?  Blurb after blurb from UFO nuts about everything from iguanas on Mars to pyramids on a comet to UFOs buzzing the International Space Station.  All this beauty and wonder, from the surface of Mars to the space just outside our atmosphere, and there are people who are breathlessly searching for all sorts of things – and finding them! – all the while ignoring the real wonder, beauty, and mystery that we really are seeing and learning.

I know it might not seem connected at all, but it’s much like the Ebola-panic that’s sweeping the country.  We have one – 1, uno, einz – confirmed death from Ebola in the United States, while hundreds die every day in Sierra Leone Liberia.  We will have more people contract bubonic plague in the United States than will contract Ebola this year.  Did you know that?  In fact, more people will die today from gun violence than will die from Ebola all year here in the United States.

On September 11, 2001, over 3,000 Americans and others died in a completely preventable – indeed predicted, with counter-measures offered and rejected – terrorist attacks on the United States.  One person dies from Ebola in the United States and it’s Pres. Obama’s fault?  Is anyone asking this question serious?  High?  Forgetful?  We already know Pres. Bush heard a National Security Threat Assessment about al Quaeda attacking the United States, including using planes as missiles, and carried on with his vacation.  Pres. Obama has absolutely nothing to do with a person entering the United States with a tropical disease and it’s all his fault.  More than that, people all over the country think every sniffle, cough, or bloody scab is a sign of the disease, even though there are no more active cases in the United States that aren’t contained, and those who contracted the virus have managed to fight it off.

No one takes the time to breathe anymore.  We either lose out stuff because of some shadow on a rock on another planet, or because a disease that is admittedly horrible yet easily contained and controlled has come to the United States.  We can’t take a moment to breathe as we watch videos of a comet – something human beings have never seen up close before – or photographs from another planet, or the radar mapping of a moon that has seas of methane that seem to have tidal movements, with pieces of land covered, then uncovered.  No, we have to listen to kooks talk about petroglyphs on Mars and UFOs following the International Space Station.

No one takes the time to breathe and find out that even though Ebola has come to the US – as if we could ever effectively keep it away – it is no big deal, and in fact when politicians aren’t interfering public health officials are doing an admirable job containing it.  We can’t breathe because we have had years and years warning us that the next thing coming down the pike is the most horrible thing in the world.  It could be Mexicans and Guatemalans entering the United States illegally; it could be a new, and fierce, terrorist group half a world away; it could be a tropical disease that is certainly horrible; it could be any number of things, but we as a people are poised to panic.  The truth is, things are wonderful.  Look around your yards at the leaves.  Breathe that fresh autumn air.  Take a moment to look at a photograph of a planet, or moon, or comet, or distant object that no human being has ever seen before.  We live in an age that should fill us with awe and wonder.  Instead, we live in an age when quite literally everything, from people of the same gender getting married to an illness is cause for panic and a sure sign of the end of days.

We as a people need to breathe.

OK.  Rant over.

It’s All Over But The Whining II: The Schaefering

Rev. Frank Schaefer With Family And Friends.  Photo Courtesy Of UMNS

Rev. Frank Schaefer With Family And Friends. Photo Courtesy Of UMNS

Two weeks ago to the day I wrote that the matter of how we United Methodists minister to and with sexual minorities was all over except for some formal work.  With the news this morning that Rev. Frank Schaefer will retain his orders, despite having performed the wedding of his son and his son’s now husband, I am more convinced than ever that formal, legal change within the United Methodist Church will come; I am more convinced than ever that “the facts on the ground” – there is no longer any penalty to be paid for violating the Book of Discipline when it concerns ministry to and with gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, queers, and other sexual minorities – make it clear that, from the Council of Bishops through the Judicial Council to local districts and churches, the decision has been made.

The next question is: What does this mean for the future of the United Methodist Church?  I do not believe “schism” will happen.  Oh, a few churches and clergypersons might leave, although the local churches might find the matter of the Trust Clause a bit of a sticky wicket.  For the most part, the forces of our reactionary status quo will bemoan our slide in to heresy and apostasy while most the rest of us celebrate then continue to do the work we’re called to do.  One important matter that I think has not received enough attention – who likes to talk about money, right? – is the whole question of what happens to giving should we legally change our stance and allow sexual minorities full participation in the life of the church?  Right now, there is a bit of a crisis of giving across the denomination.  I haven’t heard anyone say it out loud, but I’m quite sure someone somewhere is blaming our liberalizing our relationships to LGBTQs is posited as at least part of the cause.

Whether it’s schism talk, or giving, one thing no one seems to have said is that neither church membership, membership in the clergy, a church’s participation in the connectional life of the United Methodist Church, nor even the future of the denomination are zero-sum games.  While we might lose some, we might very well gain more – in terms of members, in terms of attendance, giving, participation in ministries at the local, conference, and general church levels.  There are still plenty of churches willing to discriminate and insist that sexual minorities are horrible people who have to become straight in order to get in to heaven, although trends suggest their numbers are shrinking at roughly the same rate as the old mainline churches.  By opening our churches to everyone in all parts of the church’s life and ministries, we will at least be able to offer ministries with integrity to all persons.

As I noted on Facebook, I am quite sure no one is happier than Rev. Schaefer that this ordeal – which all began years after the actual event occurred – is finally over and he can continue his ministry without any cloud hanging over his head.  I am a bit worried about the celebrity status he’s achieved, for our church already has a few too many of those while ignoring the hard, and blessed, and holy work of so many unknown faces and names, both clergy and lay, around the world.  Still, this affirmation of Schaefer’s ministry is yet more proof that, for all intents and purposes, the United Methodist Church is finally and truly the Church of Jesus Christ for all persons.  Thanks be to God.

Lives Are At Stake

It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, . . . – United Methodist Book of Discipline, Paragraph 104, p.76

At my previous blog, I used to write all the time that being a part of the Body of Christ is the most important thing in the world; that our work, our voices, our spreading the Good News and making disciples is the most necessary thing in the world; that lives are at stake because of who we are and what we do.  I was told I was exaggerating, that I was being hyperbolic, that lives don’t depend on what we do or what we say or how we love or how we live.

In much the same way, recent discussions about the place of sexual minorities within the denomination have been derailed by everything from whether or not we argue correctly to whether or not protest groups can speak their minds on the floor of General Conference.  All the talk about schism; all the red herrings and side bars and attempts to avoid discussing the one thing that is necessary has even led me far from the point.  “Sexual minorities” is a handy term I use, but it’s real people, real lives.  Men, women, youth, children who look to the Church of Jesus Christ called United Methodist for love and care and are told that their lives are incompatible with Christian teaching; they have Bible verses hurled at them, calling their love an abomination, unnatural, and that they are going to hell, to spend eternity separated from the God who created them as they are – gay – because God created them that way.  Sometimes, the price we pay for our ignorance, our bigotry, and our hatred is far too high.

Since I take seriously the connectedness of our denomination, I am as responsible for the hatred and rejection this young man faced as are any who are a part of the United Methodist Church.  I have not worked hard enough, I have not pushed hard enough, I have not yelled loudly enough to change who we are.  For my failures, and those of the rest of us who have not been able to erase the hateful language from our Book of Discipline and prevent people like this young man’s youth leader from taking a position of authority in our churches, a young man who loved the church, who served others, who was a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ transforming the world; that young man is dead.  What’s even worse is I am sure there are more out there of whom we shall never hear or know, young men and women whose lives have been destroyed by the hatred and bigotry that we wear in our Book of Discipline, and express far too much in our ministries, and the people who carry out those ministries.

For the sake of William Benjamin Wood, and all the other gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer and others who struggle with their sexuality and do not find sanctuary in our sanctuaries; who do not hear the Good News of God’s love for them, but rejection and condemnation for how they love; whose lives are counted as less and whose love is condemned as a sin  and an abomination; for all of them, let us work to get rid, once and for all, of any statement that our church sees people who love differently than we do .  Let us pledge, in memory of Ben Wood and all those whose lives have been impacted by what we do and what we say as a people, to perform acts of contrition, to ask forgiveness of those who we’ve hurt; forgiveness from the families whose members are lost in one way or another because the United Methodist Church turned its back on them.

Being a Christian, a part of the Body of Christ, is the most important thing in the world.  We do what we do because lives – real human lives – are at stake.  Sometimes, our failures as the Body of Christ incur the ultimate cost.  Which is why we must always remember that love – not doctrine, not reason, not Biblical interpretation, not orthodoxy – is our commandment.  Ben Wood is dead because someone bearing the name “Christian” did not love him, and provoked others to cast him aside.  This, I would insist is the abomination.

And Another Thing . . .

The two extremes in the United Methodist Church have likewise forgotten the nature of the Church. Both seek to control it. – Joel Watts

The other day, I wrote a piece criticizing the notion of the indefectability of the Church, the original written by Joel Watts.  After a couple days, these two sentences, which had troubled me since I first read them, crystallized for me in to a matter that lies behind all the offering of distractions, the insistence on a particular type of “christian discourse” that ignores any reality save its own sense of its elevation above the give and take of actual discussions and arguments, and now a movement to notify delegates to General Conference on matters that might not have the full support of delegates prior to them coming to floor.  What lies behind all this is a distaste for politics in the church.

Discussions, arguments, positioning prior to actually considering legislation, presenting the public with alternatives – this is all part of politics.  Sometimes, it can get downright nasty, especially when people feel as passionately as they do about something like their faith and the Church in which they practice and live out their faith.  While I refuse to reduce the realities to “extremes” versus those far more sober, orthodox, middle-of-the-roaders, there is little doubt that the nub of the matters before us as United Methodists is, indeed who controls our church.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

The orthodoxy which Joel Watts praises so highly wouldn’t exist without political trickery.  Martin Luther would be just another dead martyr to ideas for reform of the Roman Catholic Church if not for the internal politics of the Holy Roman Empire (and Charles V’s felt need to wage wars elsewhere rather than deal with the rising heresy within the borders of his realm).  The United Methodist Church in the United States wouldn’t exist without Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury calling a Conference at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore and arranging for delegates to elect them our first Bishops, severing the American Church from its British parent.  I could go on, but I think the point is clear enough: politics is part of church life, and politics is dirty, sometimes nasty, and always about power and control.

To attempt to stand above it all, declaring oneself adhering both to an orthodoxy and a practical via media that excludes those extremes that are so busy dirtying themselves and others with church politics is as much a political move as all the rest.  The difference is the pretense of being above it all.  As political as we are – Aristotle’s famous dictum about humanity being a political animal has yet to be proved wrong – especially we Americans are somehow averse to the idea that we are practicing politics.  Thus in the secular world, we insist we don’t want a President who is political, but more like a corporate CEO.  We want Congress to manage our national budget and financial affairs in the way households do, even though this is both impossible and unwise.  We distrust politicians, insisting “they’re all alike” despite abundant evidence that politicians are as different as night and day.

To disdain church politics because its central concern is power and control is as unfaithful as disdaining the practice of the Sacrament because of intinction rather than separating the elements, or discounting baptism because one was sprinkled rather than immersed.  Church politics are like anything and everything else in the Church – a vehicle for God’s will to become known and lived.  Yes, politics can get nasty.  Arguments can get heated and not always follow the niceties some would prefer.  To insist one is above or between the extremes, thus outside the give and take and push and pull of politics is both to fool oneself and to offer others a vision of Church life that never has been and never can be.  The pursuit of Church practice and polity always includes politics.  Yet, if we are faithless enough to refuse to pray for and see the presence of the Holy Spirit even here as all sides, not just the extremes struggle both to have their voices heard and to get their positions part of Church life, then we might as well hang up our stoles, desacralize our buildings, and find something else to do.  If we are so weak in our faith that we would rather imagine ourselves outside the all too human politics of Church life, then how is it possible to proclaim the Good News, if we do not trust it enough in our common life?

Church politics isn’t a test of faith.  It’s a practice of faith.  Accept that, and so much of the dross can be discarded.

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