Random Thoughts On That Spiritual Journey Called Going On To Perfection In Love In This Life

Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow Of Death, I shall fear now Evil. Thy Rod and Thy Staff, they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4

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A spiritual journey worth taking includes many dangers. Remembering that light always shines upon you, well, that's important too.

A spiritual journey worth taking includes many dangers. Remembering that light always shines upon you, well, that’s important too.

Here on this site, I’ve been trying not only contrition, but real and honest humility as I reassess so much of what I’ve written and said that has hurt others as we try to move the United Methodist Church forward. On my other site, I’ve been dealing with another aspect of what I feel is a newer, deeper spiritual journey. Specifically, I’ve set all I thought I knew and believed about evil to one side, and begun considering the real possibility of spiritual evil, and the implications that has for all of us. My latest post led me to spend a day considering the writings and actions of mass murderer Joseph Duncan. The result was frightening in its implications. It was also emotionally difficult just to spend a day trying to understand something as horrific as child rape and mass murder. Confronting the internal workings of the mind of such a person left me exhausted and confused. If he was willing to call what was happening to him “demonic”, and to be detailed as to the implications of “the demons taking over”, it becomes difficult to gainsay it, particularly when seeing the work of these demons handicraft visited on an innocent family.

Each of these are part of what I think of when I consider John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection. For me, such perfection in love must needs lead a person not only through the dawning light of humility and self-reflection; it also leads a person to places that are far more dark and frightening, and spiritually dangerous, than one might have experienced before. The great spiritual writers, from the ancient anchorite St. Anthony through Hildegard of Bingen to the Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila,St. John of the Cross, and St. Ignatius Loyola all experienced the horrors of what St. John called “the dark night of the soul”. This is so much more than just doubt and fear. St. Anthony, Martin Luther, and Teresa all had personal encounters with Lucifer (Luther famously reached in to his cell toiler and flung his own feces to send Old Hob back to the pit). Part of my own need to take this part of this journey is to figure out, exactly, what constitutes real, spiritual, evil as opposed to its no less horrifying but mundane relative, human and social evil that is understandable through other means like psychology, sociology, and history.

That journey, however, is more properly reserved for “Reflections On”. Here it is enough to say that this journey is far more difficult than I had imagined, even though I understood it would be very rough going. Which, of course, begs the question, “Why?”

The only answer I can give is that I feel called to do so. Reading and reflecting upon John Wesley’s famous pamphlet, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, makes it clear this is all part of what Wesley called “sanctification”. In modern, Freudian, terminology, it is a process of stripping away the Ego, without allowing the Id freedom to move and breathe without guidance from the Superego. Indeed, part of this process also involves facing the elements of the Id and renouncing any hold they have. Except, of course, this psychological explanation hardly does the spiritual nature justice.

Far more than stripping the ego, this is what St. Paul called kenosis in Phillipians.  It is answering the call to self-emptying that is the call all Christians must answer in some manner. “Have this mind that was in Christ Jesus” St. Paul wrote, reminding the church in Phillipi that to be a follower of Christ calls for so much more than ritual, prayer, and service. It calls each of us and all of us to become conformed to Christ. The reward of this kenotic identification is that our thoughts and actions will all flow from the Divine Love that is the Holy Spirit, in our lives individually and collectively. Getting from here to there, however, is a long process. Not only does it involve introspection and silent reflection and prayer. It involves public acknowledgment of one’s own failures and sins, seeking forgiveness and counsel on how to move forward with the command “go and sin no more” ringing in our ears.

So humility is a most important part of it all. Real humility, which includes confession of all the false humility with which one has covered oneself. Wesley is very clear: It is from love alone our thoughts and actions should flow. This is so hard, considering the ingrained habit of judging others rather than ourselves.

The other part that I’m reflecting upon elsewhere, is part of this journey because clarity about the reality of evil, the depths of depravity of which humans are capable and the roots of that depravity possibly lying outside human agency or control – how is it possible to be wholly sanctified unless one is willing to venture as far in to the darkness as possible to know the alternative that always lies before us? So it’s all important. It’s all the result of the demands of the Christian life. It’s about the promise of Christian perfection in love, living wholly submitted to God’s presence in our thoughts, our words, and our actions. And through it all it’s important to remember the words of Psalm 23, that this isn’t “my” journey, something I’m doing on my own. Whatever difficulties, fears, even perhaps spiritual threats lie in store for me, I am not now nor ever alone.

On to perfection in love in this life? I have no idea. To try, however, is necessary.

No One Leaves You When They Live In Your Heart

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honour.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy. – Proverbs 3:13-18

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CORRECTION: I corrected some minor errors, and added her wedding date. I apologize for those errors.

Ruth Winter, age 18, in 1932

Ruth Winter, age 18, in 1932

She was born in a different time, a different place. A time-traveler of sorts, someone whose life spanned ten decades, filled with love and laughter, loss and sorrow, the blessings of family and friends. Most of all, she knew herself to be a child of God, saved and blessed. That faith sustained her through moves from Illinois to Texas, then back first to southern Illinois, then finally home, to northern Illinois.

Born March 14, 1914, she grew up in a home where no English was spoken; she didn’t start speaking English until she started school. Her mother never learned, and her father only learned what little bit he needed for work, in a building in the heart of the original Chicago Loop. She told me his office building sat right where the trains made their Loop, giving that particular part of the city its name.

She was a daughter, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and finally a great-grandmother. Even far from home, she remembered their birthdays, special events in their lives, her cheerful voice filled with joy when talking to those she loved and who loved her.

She was fearless. She was visiting us in the spring of 1995 when we brought home our puppy, Gretchen. We talked often of her gentle but firm way of correcting our new household member. She would just bend over, waggle a finger in the puppy’s face and say, “No, no, Gretchen. No, no.” A year later, while visiting Illinois, I remember very clearly Gretchen bounding on to my sister-in-law’s deck. No longer a tiny puppy but a full grown Great Dane, she walked over when she heard Gramma exclaim, “Is that my little Gretchen?” That huge dog walked up, towering over Gramma while the old woman sat there, petting Gretchen, telling her how beautiful she was.

Carl and Ruth Kruse, around the time they were married.

Carl and Ruth Kruse, around the time they were married.

She lived her life of faith in a household of faith. Her husband, Carl Kruse, whom she married on December 30, 1939, was a pastor in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. My mother-in-law told me he was a real hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. I saw what that meant when, in 1995, during that same first visit, Gramma brought Lisa the cross Carl wore every Sunday. The force of his delivery, bending forward pressing against the pulpit, had put a dent in the solid gold. At first, Gramma wasn’t quite sure what to make of her granddaughter becoming ordained clergy; the Missouri Synod doesn’t ordain women, and I think it was an adjustment for her. All the same, she gave Lisa that cross, and if you ever see her wearing it, just remember how deep the roots of that simple, beautiful piece of jewelry run.

When her husband took a church in southern Texas just before the birth of her second granddaughter, I’m sure it was hard. All the same, Gramma went, because that was who she was, what a faithful clergy spouse does: The life is hard, but once chosen you follow along, knowing God is with you in the midst of it all. She made visits back north; her son’s family made trips south. Once, her younger granddaughter was climbing a tree in her back garden and fell. She would have been fine, with perhaps only her ego bruised, but Gramma’s garden was filled with cactus. So Ruth and her daughter-in-law Sharon had to pluck each of those cactus needles out of that tiny behind.

Her husband died much too young, at 61 in 1974. If Ruth were another kind of person, she might have said, “I can return home now.” Instead, she was a person of faith. That means she was a person who refused to give up on life while it was still to be lived. She settled in a small home and got a job as a secretary at a school the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod operated. She stayed in that job until she was 75.

After retiring, she moved to southern Illinois to live with her friends the Winters (no relation). For over a quarter century she called this large farmhouse outside Chester, IL home. She and Eileen entertained a parade of guests, family and friends, over the years. She was very active in her local Lutheran Church. She also joined The Red Hat Society. Even while living through and surviving lymphoma, she never lost her spirit or her preference to always look her best. When I first met her, I had no idea she was still recovering from her last bout of chemotherapy!

Time passed, however, and she and Eileen continued on while the other members of the local Red Hat Society passed away. Time takes a toll, even on the hardiest, most faithful person. It became increasingly difficult for the ladies to live alone in this large house without help. A stair-chair was installed so Gramma could get to her apartment on the top floor, but she refused to use it, insisting despite evidence to the contrary that she could make that trip by foot. Until, of course, she couldn’t anymore.

After making it through a bout of pneumonia, she told Lisa, “It’s time.” Rather than leave the hospital and go home, her granddaughters made arrangements for her to move in to an assisted living facility just north of DeKalb. After her furniture, then pictures and other small things were brought in, she smiled as she looked around and told everyone, “This feels like home!”

That's Ruth in the middle, at her 100th birthday celebration. I'm on her right, and Lisa is on her left.

That’s Ruth in the middle, at her 100th birthday celebration. I’m on her right, and Lisa is on her left.

And it was in this home, her family and friends around her, that she celebrated her 100th birthday. The Mayor of DeKalb and the State Representative from DeKalb came and presented her with certificates. Children from the local schools drew all sorts of pictures that hung on the walls of Heritage Woods. She received congratulations from the school the students had attended as well. And Ruth being Ruth, managed to upstage the State Representative. No one, not even a politician, would make a better speech than she would. Especially on her 100th birthday.

The book of Proverbs says that age brings wisdom. In Ruth’s case, it also brought a wealth of experiences that might have sorely tested the faith of most us. She lost her husband far too early. She lost her son, and no parent wants to look on as their child dies. Her friends went, one by one. Her faith, however, never wavered.  Just a couple days ago, Lisa recited Ruth’s confirmation Bible verse. While Ruth couldn’t speak any longer, she mouthed the words while Lisa spoke, a smile on her face.

So it was that, this morning, just after 9 a.m. Central Time, she “sneaked away”, as Lisa said, quietly, perhaps not wanting to disturb her granddaughter who had spent Ruth’s last night with her. I won’t deny I’m sad. Ruth was an important part of our lives for the past 22 years. I will miss our bantering, that look on her face that told me she was going along with whatever story I was telling, but that I shouldn’t dare think I could beat her. I will miss her cards; she always signed them the same way: “Love and God Bless You”. Someone occupies a place in your heart, and when they’re gone no one can ever fill that space.

At the same time, I’m happy. I’m happy I had the chance to share time, to allow my story to cross paths, with this funny, faithful woman. She was strong, too, and fearless, but her smile and laughter always made me so happy. To know and be known by someone like that is very special indeed. And after 101 years, I do believe she’s earned a rest. As her life slipped away bit by bit over the past month, she would have conversations with people who weren’t there. She saw her mother, her husband, and then finally, just a few days gone, her son. Now, they are together, and I have no doubt she was warmly greeted, welcomed with open arms in to that great cloud of witnesses whose lives are both a witness and lesson to us, but continue to look on with love and hope for us. Like I told you yesterday as I said my goodbyes, I look forward to seeing you, Gramma. Just not too soon, if that’s OK with you.

henryscotthollandregiusdivinityoxford

A Brief Pause To Listen

Geoffrey, I think this is a helpful step forward for you and for the conversation. What I have always found needful in your writings is for you to couch your very valid critiques of others’ views in ways that focus on the argument, and only refer to the maker of the argument when it is imperative that the person and her/his context are essential to what is being said. I believe you’ve taken a good step for yourself and given all of us a model to ponder as we move actively into preparation for the 2016 General Conference. Yes, make amends for the ways in which your arguments have been couched, but don’t berate yourself for the arguments themselves. You have uncovered fallacies and logical lacunae that others of us missed. To that end, I encourage you to follow this path of saying what you mean in ways that are more approachable than in the past. And BTW, even Jesus had his moments; see “brood of vipers,” “children’s food to dogs,” and “get behind me, Satan!” Oh, and there was that time in the temple … Hugs to you! – Comment on Facebook link to yesterday’s post, “Love Keeps The Door Of His Lips”

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It's important to listen to every voice. Why else offer people opportunities to respond?

It’s important to listen to every voice. Why else offer people opportunities to respond?

When I linked yesterday’s post on Facebook, I invited two particular individuals to respond to it. Above is one of those particular responses. I have read it, and read it. I have sat and thought about it, the whole, the parts, what I like, what I don’t like, and realized that before I went any further, I had not so much to respond as I did to demonstrate that I was  pausing to take stock. I wanted to show that I was listening, not just casually reading.

Can I confess the comment has a stumbling block for me? It’s a word, one simple, clear word: “berate”. In all honesty, I don’t believe I am berating myself at all. I do know that this whole self-reflection thing has offered more than glimpses of me doing and saying things about which I am embarrassed to say the least. Yesterday, I made that point as clearly as I could without slipping into self-flagellation or any kind of pose as a morose martyr. On the contrary: After I wrote what I did, I was happy. It was more than a little bit like cleaning out a wound. Rather than lounge in my hair shirt, I felt like moving on.

Then I saw this comment, and thought, “I need to read this and think about it.”

I’ve dealt with the specific word “berate”, and how it feels a bit like a stumbling block for me. There is more in there, however. Like the following: “What I have always found needful in your writings is for you to couch your very valid critiques of others’ views in ways that focus on the argument“. In all honesty, I do believe that the time for argument is long over. The time for playing games with others – “critiquing” their views, showing the world how clever I am – exhausted itself years ago. Precisely as the General Commission on General Conference has offered a different way forward for considering matters of human sexuality that come before the body, I believe it is imperative to model that, rather than continue the endless circle of the same tired arguments, the same bitterness, the same mutual destruction that is the end result of the constant claims of purity of motive and the apostasy of the opposition.

That whole mindset – that there are sides; that this is a question of opposition with winners and losers – needs to be given the old heave-ho. We are in this together. How is it possible to pretend to care a whit about continuing to be in covenant community together, all the while dismissing others, degrading them, showing off one’s alleged superiority and moral righteousness? That only sows the seeds of bitterness and schism. To that end, I am no longer going to engage in argument of any sort. Since many of those “arguments” were ones I started, that’s the best way to stop.

Furthermore, as I wrote in part in response to another comment, continuing to play the game of arguments, of winners and losers begs a question we in the United Methodist Church should face squarely: What, exactly, would “winning” mean? If there are “sides”, and one side “wins”, what, exactly, will either “win”? I always insist this matter is not about any particular individual’s feelings, any particular individual’s beliefs or preferences. I have written over and over again that this is about the United Methodist Church as a whole body. I do believe that. If so, however, what do we as the United Methodist Church gain by playing a game with “winners” and “losers”? Who gains anything by continuing to argue about who is more Biblically, doctrinally, theologically, and morally correct? This is why I embrace the General Commission’s recommendations for suspending the rules of debate regarding human sexuality and having real face to face dialogue about our church, our mission and ministry, and our identity. Obviously matters of Biblical interpretation, doctrine and theology, and morals and ethics will be involved in these discussions. What they won’t be is the focus of our discussions. If adopted, we will no longer be hamstrung, arguing over absolutes. Rather, we will be sitting across from and side-by-side with people whose views are very different from ours, yet who love the United Methodist Church, believe in its mission, its ministry, and are just as concerned and hopeful about its identity as we are. It will certainly be more difficult to carry on as so many have when seated together, rather than resting comfortably in the false freedom the distance and even anonymity the Internet affords.

For now, because I just don’t trust myself to model what I claim I believe to be in the best interest of the Church, I am just going to allow myself to be pulled in to these discussions, at least as they continue to play out on the Internet. I have always said the best way to “win” a game is not to play. To that end – no more. If anyone is really interested in my thoughts – and it isn’t like anyone is knocking my door down! – I will only say that my thoughts are that someone has to begin modeling this new way of discussing these matters, and I’m just not that person.

 

Love Keeps The Door Of His Lips

Nor do the customs of the world at all hinder his ` running the race which is set before him.’ He cannot therefore `lay up treasures upon earth,’ no more than he can take fire into his bosom. He cannot speak evil of his neighbour, any more than he can lie either for God or man. He cannot utter an unkind word of any one; for love keeps the door of his lips. He cannot `speak idle words; no corrupt conversation’ ever `comes out of his mouth;’ as is all that is not `good to the use of edifying,’ not fit to `minister grace to the hearers.’ But `whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are’ justly `of good report,’ he thinks, speaks, and acts, `adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things. – John Wesley, A Plain Aaccount Of Christian Perfection

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Andrew Cordonnier prostrate during his ordination as priest. Would that we United Methodists were willing to prostrate ourselves more.

Andrew Cordonnier prostrate during his ordination as priest. Would that we United Methodists were willing to prostrate ourselves more.

So I’ve begun a process of spiritual re-evaluation. It is long overdue. It is, in fact, covering the whole spectrum of my beliefs and actions. I am, not to put too fine a point on it, wondering just how much of a real Christian I am or have been. I feel, however, more than a little at sea. I feel like I am venturing in to territory that is strange, filled both with light and darkness, and deeply personal. This last, of course, means that I need to be conscious of my reliance upon others, not just here and now, but that cloud of witnesses who have gone before down similar roads.

To that end, I felt the need to begin reading John Wesley’s A Plain Account Of Christian Perfection (and thank you Northwest Nazarene University and the Wesley Center Online for providing this and so much more of John Wesley’s writings for people who wish careful study and reference online). I didn’t want to speed through it, but read it slowly, studying and digesting what it has to say. So it was that, this morning, I came across the above epigraph and just stopped reading. I knew I had to stop. I had to stop and think, I had to stop and pray. Most of all, I had to stop and see myself reflected very poorly in these words.

Part of what I believe is at work in me is accepting my role in the continuing heated exchanges that are corrupting so much of what should be holy conferencing and loving conversation within the United Methodist Church. To that end, the title of this post from last year, as well as its content, is clearly a lie. It is the perfect kind of lie. It is me lying to myself; never mind that I am lying to the whole world. It should be clear from far too many of my posts here that I am, in fact, not only quite happy to involve myself in arguments, including those which are not mine at all, but willing to go looking for them.

More than arguing, sometimes. This post is just one in a series in which, rather than ignore something with which I disagree or go to the person and address them privately, I thought it best to show off just how clever I think I am. In the process, I thought that humiliation was a good tactic. It isn’t just David Watson, however. It is also Rev. Drew McIntyre. Others, too, were the targets of my own smug sense of superiority. To say I’m ashamed of these posts is far too mild. I cannot ever take them back. All I can do is accept them as the products of my own nonsensical belief that I had some monopoly on righteousness and intellectual integrity.

Which is part of this journey. Before I can move forward at all, as I wrote before, I have to look within. It also means owning all that I’ve said and done. So much of that, however, just doesn’t reflect the person I am or want to be. I have no choice, however, but to say, “Yes, this is not just mine. It is me.” I cannot become clean if I do not come clean. Which is why this post makes me cringe so much. I wanted to look so humble. I wanted to appear as if I, too, were willing to accept that I, too, were wrong. The truth is, however, all I was doing was demanding others admit they are wrong all the while basking in my own . . . what? Superiority?

All this and so much more are things for which I take responsibility. I have not been a positive force for moving the conversation forward, which is what we need. Rather, I have rested on self-righteousness, smugness, and the easy judgment of other’s intentions and beliefs rather than speaking (or writing, as the case may be) from real love, real self-denial, and real conformity to Christ.

This journey I am on will be long. Before I go traipsing in to conversations that are not mine; before I go telling everyone in the world how wrong they are; before I do much of anything else, I first have to own all the ways I have not allowed love to keep the door of my lips, to speak from genuine Christian love and affection for my sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church.

The photo above, of the gentleman lying prostrate, is an ancient practice in the church. It signifies true obeisance and honest humility when one faces the Throne of God. We in the Protestant traditions have, by and large, surrendered this practice. It is, however, a great and honest post one should take. Particularly when one is confronting the worst parts of oneself. How better to show that we are serious about asking forgiveness? How better to demonstrate our understanding that we are not at all worthy of the grace that is ours? Sitting and closing one’s eyes and maybe folding your hands, what does that have to do with any sense that, in the words of Thomas Cranmer’s prayer of Holy Supplication, one is not worthy to gather up the crumbs under Christ’s table?

This is just a tip-toe forward. So much more to do, I think before the real journey begins.

Looking Within

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Romans 12:2

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Laboratory Peer Pressure by Gary Larson. It's always important to make clear to oneself one's own motivations for doing something.

Laboratory Peer Pressure by Gary Larson. It’s always important to make clear to oneself one’s own motivations for doing something.

 The other day, I wrote that I am no longer happy with who I have become. My online interactions with my fellow United Methodists have become little more than a mirror image of all the things I claim I dislike about those with whom I disagree. I dropped out of one private FB group because I no longer wish to have a modifier behind my identity as a United Methodist. I keep saying I do not want schism; that I believe our denomination is stronger with all of us together instead of one faction or another splitting off. I have not, however, done anything to encourage unity.
How is it possible to be clear about one’s own motivations? When we do or say things, particularly things that are controversial, there are certainly all sorts of reasons of lesser or greater import, that contribute to those actions or words. There is no way any of us – really – can be transparent to ourselves about why it is we do what we do or say what we say. There is, however, a need to pause, reflect, and perhaps share one’s own sense of how one came to the decision to speak and act in this way rather than that.
St. Paul is clear enough that, rather than conform to this world, we are to be open to be transformed so that we are open to seeking the will of God, in our lives and for the church as a whole. This is both an individual and communal necessity, this transformation. And I want to be perfectly clear: I’m just not sure there are any right or wrong answers prior to that kind of serious soul-searching. I have no desire to prejudice a search, particularly when I know that such things are never pure, thorough, or as entirely honest as we would wish.
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What do I see when I look inside? I'm just not sure yet.

What do I see when I look inside? I’m just not sure yet.

It was the winter of 1989, I think. I was in the midst of considering the question, “What is a call from God? What is my call from God?” I was having a conversation with an old friend who was going through the same process. For some reason lost to middle-aged forgetfulness, the talk turned to the question of gay folk in ministry. As I said, I have forgotten what I said before and after, I remember all to vividly something I said, something that has stayed with me, shaped me, and pushed my thoughts on this question in the quarter-century since. “Since I have no idea what this whole call-to-ministry thing is, beyond believing that God is calling me to do something, who am I or anyone to question someone’s call to ministry just because they’re gay?” That simple, logical formula has been the plumb line for my reflections on these questions ever since.

The funny thing, of course, was that at this time the number of folks I knew who self-identified as a sexual minority was precisely zero. The whole issue was abstract for me. Within a year all that would change and the challenge I would face was my own inner thoughts and prejudices that suddenly came to the surface when I met actual flesh-and-blood folks who were happy to be known as gay or lesbian. Getting to know them as people for whom this modifier was only one among many that shaped their identity certainly helped. Realizing that I had now to live out what I had previously said I believed, viz., that these folks call to ministry was as legitimate as any other, I was humbled by own earlier forthrightness precisely because I had not reckoned my own feelings. In retrospect, this process was actually quite quick, although at the time it was largely silent, unknown to anyone else. I just wasn’t sure that being in Seminary was a place I could be honest about this struggle; I had to come to terms with my feelings on my own.

Fast forward to now. Our denominational battles over sexuality, our theology of sex, our policies and practice of ministry toward and with sexual minorities is, yet again, reaching a fever pitch as we come ever closer to yet another General Conference at which these matters will be front and center. Until just the past few days, I was quite sure what side was “right” and what side was “wrong”. Convinced of my own theological and moral purity on this matter, I was as disdainful and destructive of others as they have been of me. Anger, bitterness, charges and counter-charges of bad exegesis, faulty theology, even apostasy seemed so easy to make, especially since I was so sure I was right.

Then I realized who I had become.

So now, rather than man the ramparts, I want to know the answer to one, simple, question: What have been my motives not only to support full inclusion, but to act with such anger and – let’s be honest – hate toward those with whom I disagree? Rather than rely upon my confidence in my own righteousness, I really honestly want to know if, no matter how honest and well-intentioned, there might well be conformation at work, rather than transformation. Which is not to say that, suddenly, I’m going to become an opposite partisan in our on-going self-flagellation. No, I’m just asking a question I hope and pray we all do as we move forward. Are we really, truly so sure of ourselves that we believe we speak for God? How far, really, have we opened ourselves to the transformation of our minds so that we can discern the will of God? How far have we been motivated by a deep well of fellow-feeling for our fellow human beings? Are we so eager to be “prophetic”, to be heard as some forward-thinker, to gather around us those who believe and act like us that we are not humbling ourselves before God in prayer and one another, seeking discernment.

This isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be. It is necessary, however, if our discussion and dialogue is to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

When Wesley Spoke Of Experience . . .

Someone once said I found God on a stripper pole. For me, dance class is definitely my church, my sanctuary, the place I feel most at peace and where my spirituality continues to grow. My teachers tell me the pole represents anything I need it to be. I remembered that as I was dancing in class one night and teared up. … I give the pole all of my worries and fears when I need to, I wrap myself around it and feel connected to something, I dance around it in celebration, I lean on it for support, sometimes I hold on and cry and sometimes I hold it with love, gratitude and appreciation. I feel closest to “MY God/Higher Power” when I’m in MY “place of worship” – “Finding God On A Stripper Pole”, Chrlstinamarie, May 10, 2015

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In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? – John 14:2

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The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’- John 3:8

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What does this have to do with the Gospel? Maybe everything . . .

What does this have to do with the Gospel?

Just yesterday, I had the temerity to take a United Methodist Bishop to task for what I felt was a serious doctrinal error in a simple statement. And today, I do believe many who read this might well take issue with what I am going to say. I find it difficult, however, to discount a person’s testimony of the salvific experience she has received through a particular way of coming to accept who she is; of the life-restoring power not only of a particular workout, but of the growth of relationships with others who have come to experience a certain sense of self-worth, power, acceptance, and even love together.

And let’s be honest. Isn’t it just a tad creepy that I spent any time looking at photos of women dancing around a stripper pole? Under pretty much any other circumstances I would say, “Absolutely!” Except, if you’ll notice, I’m not posting photos of women without their clothes, because that’s not what this is about; I’m not being sensationalistic, voyeuristic, or exploitative because to do so would undermine the entire purpose of writing this. Finally, I want to celebrate one woman’s journey to self-acceptance, to finding real community with other women who share an understanding and experience, and recognize the possibilities that exist for continued spiritual growth and maturity (“going on to perfection in this life . . .”) towards which this woman sees herself moving.

Still, what does a stripper pole have to do with the God of Jesus Christ? Maybe, just maybe, everything.

I do think we get so caught up in being “right” and “correct” in our theology, our practice of spiritual disciplines, our insistence on particular experiences being exclusive of others, that we forget that our Triune God is not restricted by our all too human – therefore limited and always in need of correction – understanding of just how God might act in the lives of people. Albert Outler added “experience” to the Anglican sources of theological insight: Scripture, tradition, and reason. Doing so, he recognized something in John Wesley’s preaching and teaching that others missed. For Wesley, the very human experience of salvation comes at different times, in different ways, through different vehicles, for different people. Of course, this is not just “experience” as in, say, my car broke down on the side of the road and someone came along and helped me therefore God loves me. Rather, it is the experience of the Holy Spirit, which comes to us, giving us that sense of peace that affirms our sense of salvation. This is never a “once for all” experience; it is, rather, something that comes to each of us and all of us at different times with different levels of intensity.  For John Wesley, it was hearing Luther’s “Preface to Romans” read to him. Now, we have no idea what others experienced that night. For Wesley, it was that “heartwarming” experience, that understanding that Christ had died even for him, that led him to note it in his Journals.

For the woman whose blog I’m celebrating and sharing, it was joining Sheila Kelley’s S Factor workout, which includes using a stripper pole. That experience was more than just the joy that comes from feeling physically fit. In her own words, this is a spiritual experience of great depth. In the moment, she feels herself strong, freed of the demons that had haunted her through so much of her life, and connected to the other women with whom she shares this workout. And we have no idea if other women experience with the depth of feeling what she does. What we do know, from her own testimony, is that she has found God, had her life saved, and experiences spiritual peace and power in and through this particular experience.

Along with being meticulous in our desire to guard the truth of the Gospel, we tend to police the boundaries of what is and what is not an acceptable understanding of how God works in people’s lives. Even I have done so, in my own recent post on “community” in which I was explaining my understanding of what is and is not authentic community. We also tend to be prudish. Anything even hinting at sex becomes, for some reason, suspect as a vehicle of spiritual enlightenment, a gateway for the Holy Spirit to enter our lives and remind us that we are precious, beloved children of a God who will never, ever let us go. Yet, the act of sex itself is often considered a metaphor for the Divine/Human encounter (see The Song of Songs). Why should we deny what Scriptures and our own experience confirm?

To insist there is no way a person could have an experience of the Divine by dancing around a stripper pole not only denies this woman’s reality. It is to repeat what Nathan, a future apostle, said of Jesus: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” We contemporary American Christians are just a bit too blinkered to see how God can work pretty much anyway God chooses; that the Spirit will blow where it will, and we can see its movement from what it leaves behind. In this case, a woman struggling through hard times, low self-esteem and a lack of healthy body image, and personal grief discovered transcendent love in and through the discovery of the power her body experienced not only exercising, but in celebrating the beauty and mystery of the human body when it expresses its core sensuality. Like all spiritual journeys, this one sounds like it is just beginning, and I celebrate what has already been done in her life, and what may come.

Finding God on a stripper pole? Absolutely. Let the journey continue!

Creation Or New Creation?

When Christ summons someone, it’s like Genesis 1 all over again, bringing something into being that was not. – Will Willimon

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So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! – 2 Corinthians 5:17

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Lucas The Elder Cranach's Adam And Eve In The Garden Eating The Forbidden Fruit. Does Bishop Willimon really think this is that to which we are called by God?

Lucas The Elder Cranach’s Adam And Eve In The Garden Eating The Forbidden Fruit. Does Bishop Willimon really think this is that to which we are called by God?

There’s a School of Homiletics going on in Colorado right now. A friend of mine and classmate of Lisa’s posted the above quote from Bishop Will Willimon. It caught my eye because I was more than a little surprised someone as prominent as Bishop Willimon would say such a thing. Everything in Scripture, in our doctrine and practice, all make clear that our lives as Christians are no longer wholly a part of this Creation that is passing away. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, ours is all ready a life living in to the New Creation. Our calling, whatever it might be, is a call to bring about the full realization of the Kingdom of God. When we see, we see with eyes able to recognize those signs of the Kingdom. When we hear, we listen with ears attentive to the New Song. When we act, we are acting as those living toward the Kingdom.

Now, perhaps this distinction I’m making is some kind of piddling word play. That might be true. But, it troubles me that someone like Bishop Willimon would say that our life in Christ is like Creation. The whole New Testament understanding of our life in Christ, rooted in the prophetic promises of the Hebrew Scriptures, is that we are even now a living part of the New Creation. We are not wholly a part of that Kingdom. That tension must always be kept, and we can never fall too far to one side or the other, as Luther made clear. St. Paul above all, however, was very clear, as stated unequivocally in the above passage from 2 Corinthians, that we are a new creature. That one day all will be made new; that our current existence shall pass away to become we-know-not-what (1 Corinthians 15), yet we do know this promise will come true because it has already been made true in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

I know there is a tendency in our denomination to give celebrity writers, pastors, and Bishops a pass when they say or write things. Whether it’s Maxie Dunnam, Mike Slaughter, Adam Hamilton, or whoever, we tend to be happy enough that we are encountering another United Methodist and pass over in silence those things that might cause us to pause. Even Bishops aren’t perfect, however, so rather than repeat their words with adulation, it might be a good thing to stop, think, and maybe even raise our hands (figuratively or literally) and ask the hard question: Are you sure you want to go with that?

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