As District Superintendent, my wife is responsible for 70 churches, fifty-odd charges, about the same number of clergy and their families, and a couple thousand church members scattered from Rockford west to Galena and Savannah on the Mississippi River. One of the things she discovered after talking with some of the younger and newer clergy was a need for assistance in being a more effective pastor, preacher, teacher, and administrator. Not that these young local pastors weren’t fine. They wanted to be better. After talking with several of the experienced elders on her district, she created “Methodists On Mondays”.
Meeting every Monday morning for six weeks, the curriculum covered everything to Wesley’s doctrines of grace and perfection in love through liturgical practices to how to conduct meetings and be a more effective administrator. At yesterday’s final meeting, they worshiped, celebrated a renewal of their commitment to be leaders of their local congregations, then all gathered around and laid hands and prayed over Lisa (and of course she cried). One of the elders involved in planning and creating the curriculum invited a member from his first appointment to be guest preacher for the closing worship. It was she, he said, who taught him what it means to be a pastor. Lisa told me that she said there have been 63 pastors at her church in her lifetime. Having seen it all and experienced it all, she can now offer her wisdom and insights to young, new pastors. A real blessing all the way around.
I write this not only to toot my wife’s horn (although, let’s be honest here: I am), but also – and far more importantly – to remind myself that in the midst of all our troubles as United Methodists, ministry continues. Congregations want and need effective pastors. Local clergy need support systems in place to help them through those first weddings, first funerals, first sermons, first Bible studies, first Finance Committee meetings. Long-serving clergy are always better mentors because, like the guest preacher, not only have they seen it all and done it all, they’ve served a variety of settings giving them a broader view both of the possibilities and perils of local church ministry. We talk about “connectionalism” an awful lot; for the most part, that’s just too abstract, too disconnected from the day-to-day life both of clergy and congregations. Methodists On Mondays offers real connectionalism, real teaching and mentoring, real opportunities for people both to share what they’ve learned and to learn from what they’ve shared.
Methodists On Mondays was a success all the way around, Lisa tells me. There will continue to be monthly District clergy gatherings, open to all, at which she will have guest speakers come and offer help. At one, someone from Rosecrance, a United Methodist-affiliated drug and alcohol treatment center located here in Rockford, will offer guidance on dealing with substance abuse. I don’t remember classes on dealing with substance abuse in ministry while a student in Seminary; perhaps there was a section in a pastoral counseling class. No problem is as pervasive, as hidden, or as silent as substance abuse. Almost everyone in the course of a lifetime will encounter an alcoholic or drug addict that impacts their lives. How best to minister in the midst of such a situation is vital to effective ministry. Lisa would like to get either Garrett Evangelical Seminary of Dubuque Seminary involved, offering Continuing Education Units which would certainly create incentives for people to attend.
This is the real life of the local church, local clergy, the District, and Annual Conference in action. We allow ourselves to get a tad overheated and invested in controversy. It is far better to look and see where real ministry, real teaching, real connections, and most of all real living churches are happening. The patient, the United Methodist Church, isn’t dead yet. There is still and awful lot of life left. If you don’t believe me, ask someone who went to Methodists On Mondays.
If this sleeper be not outwardly vicious, his sleep is usually the deepest of all: whether he be of the Laodicean spirit, “neither cold nor hot,” but a quiet, rational, inoffensive, good-natured professor of the religion of his fathers; or whether he be zealous and orthodox, and, “after the most straitest sect of our religion,” live “a Pharisee;” that is, according to the scriptural account, one that justifies himself; one that labours to establish his own righteousness, as the ground of his acceptance with God.
This is he, who, “having a form of godliness, denies the power thereof;” yea, and probably reviles it, wheresoever it is found, as mere extravagance and delusion. Meanwhile, the wretched self-deceiver thanks God, that he is “not as other men are; adulterers, unjust, extortioners”: no, he doeth no wrong to any man. he “fasts twice in a week,” uses all the means of grace, is constant at church and sacrament, yea, and “gives tithes of all that he has;” does all the good that he can “touching the righteousness of the law,” he is “blameless”: he wants nothing of godliness, but the power; nothing of religion, but the spirit; nothing of Christianity, but the truth and the life. – Charles Wesley, “Awake Thou That Sleepest”, preached before university at Oxford, April 4, 1742
I’ve been struggling the past day or so, unable to settle in my mind anything about which to write. It became so frustrating yesterday afternoon that I’m afraid I snapped at my wife when she tried to have a civil conversation with me. This morning, that sense of frustration returned. I know that part of it is wanting to write about one thing, but finding myself afraid of repetition; I want to say another thing, but my thoughts aren’t quite straight, not quite ready to be set out. So, around in circles I go!
This morning, I thought it best to look elsewhere for inspiration. The Sermons of John Wesley are available online thanks to Nebraska Nazarene University. I clicked open the sermon on Ephesians 5:14 to discover it was actually a Charles Wesley sermon. Right away, I was struck by this glorious poet of grace preaching a good old hellfire-and-brimstone sermon. Let’s make no mistake: Wesley was taking the task, the text, and his role with the utmost seriousness. Recognizing that with the Christian faith we have to do, quite literally, with life and death, he wasted no time making clear that to be the sleeper addressed by the author of Ephesians, one need not be “a sinner” in some conventional moral sense. The sleepers to whom the author of Ephesians writes, and to whom Wesley preaches, are we Christians in the Church, so confident in our salvation, so righteous in our life, relishing the power granted those offered the keys to heaven and hell.
In these opening paragraphs, I heard Wesley speaking to me.
Unless we are offered some beatific vision, even those who claim the name “Christians” should, at times, be reminded that even our best sense of our salvation might well be our own conscience seeking solace in empty words and gestures. Until we are perfected in love – to which Wesley refers, and which need always be kept in mind – our life is always a journey through the morass of sin and brokenness that is our creaturely lot. We cannot become holy in heart and life if we are not first judged and convicted of our basest and deepest sinfulness, “that one dark blot” that cannot come clean through our own efforts. Part of the life of the Christian is the reminder that our lives are not our own; our salvation is not for us; no matter how precious we hold ourselves to be in the sight of God, ours is an existence always balanced on the sharpest of edges; no matter how much we attend worship or profess our adherence to the faith or tithe or serve those in need; we must always remember that it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, that same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, that saves us, grants us the faith to live with true conviction that we are, indeed, wishing to flee the wrath to come. This and this alone wakes us from whatever comfortable slumber holds us.
But know ye not, that, however highly esteemed among men such a Christian as this may be, he is an abomination in the sight of God, and an heir of every woe which the Son of God, yesterday, to-day, and for ever, denounces against “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” he hath “made clean the outside of the cup and the platter,” but within is full of all filthiness. “An evil disease cleaveth still unto him, so that his inward parts are very wickedness.” Our Lord fitly compares him to a “painted sepulchre,” which “appears beautiful without;” but, nevertheless, is “full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” The bones indeed are no longer dry; the sinews and flesh are come upon them, and the skin covers them above: but there is no breath in them, no Spirit of the living God. And, “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” “Ye are Christ’s, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you”: but, if not, God knoweth that ye abide in death, even until now. . . .
Wherefore, “awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead.” God calleth thee now by my mouth; and bids thee know thyself, thou fallen spirit, thy true state and only concern below. “What meanest thou, O sleeper Arise! Call upon thy God, if so be thy God will think upon thee, that thou perish not.” A mighty tempest is stirred up round about thee, and thou art sinking into the depths of perdition, the gulf of God’s judgements. If thou wouldest escape them, cast thyself into them. “Judge thyself, and thou shalt not be judged of the Lord.”
Awake, awake! Stand up this moment, lest thou “drink at the Lord’s hand the cup of his fury.” Stir up thyself to lay hold on the Lord, the Lord thy Righteousness, mighty to save! “Shake thyself from the dust.” At least, let the earthquake of God’s threatenings shake thee. Awake, and cry out with the trembling jailer, “What must I do to be saved” And never rest till thou believest on the Lord Jesus, with a faith which is his gift, by the operation of his Spirit.
It is a good thing to hear that before we hear the words of pardon we always hear the words of judgment. It is good to remember that our faith is not our own, but a gift from God, the gift that speaks to our hearts and lives, the Spirit that gives life and offers new life. Conviction of sin keeps us honest, particularly when offered in the starkest terms. This thing we do, we don’t do through any power of our own. This life is not ours, but is lived in and through the crucified and risen Christ, the Spirit quickening our dead lives for the glory of the Father. No matter how well we think of ourselves; no matter how well others think of us, no matter how awake we believe ourselves to be, it all may yet be a dream, the consolation of our hardened hearts.
No, no more plural here. This is addressed to me at the moment. I believe that no matter how much I claim to confess; no matter how much I may, indeed, love; no matter how I hope for the coming of the fullness of the New Creation already begun in the Risen Christ; no matter all this, there is always that part, the chaff that needs to be separated and tossed on the fire to be burned. My prayer this morning is that chaff is not all of me, that my life no longer serves whatever purposes I might have, but that I will lives only for the glory of God.
I wish to remember that it is the Spirit who brings life. I want only to confess this simple reality: that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, proving God’s love for us.
Hellfire-and-brimstone is good for the soul. It helps keep us humble, reminding us whose we are, and that the alternatives are stark and eternal.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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!