Tag Archive | Gospel of St. John

The Transformation Of The World

The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. – Mission statement of The United Methodist Church, adopted May 1, 2008

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Favela – a shantytown in or near a city, especially in Brazil; slum area. – Dictionary.com

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Looking up a street in a Brazilian favela. These warrens often lack proper plumbing, are infested with rats and disease, and are so violent police refuse to enter. The United Methodist Church, however, is in the thick of it.

Looking up a street in a Brazilian favela. These warrens often lack proper plumbing, are infested with rats and disease, and are so violent police refuse to enter. The United Methodist Church, however, is in the thick of it.

I have to admit that as much as I talk about the life of the church being a very real, very concrete thing, I am too often prone to be sparing in actual examples of what all the stuff I say has to do with the real world. I think that’s all too true in just a bit too much of our talk about the church. We are so keen to have our argumentative ducks in a row we forget that the reality is far more tangible. We can sit around and toss accusations about all we want – and I don’t hold myself above that; what are some of my posts other than accusations either of ignorance or bad faith among some in our denomination? – and forget that we should be telling our stories. The mission of the church, after all, is making Disciples of Jesus Christ not to increase our numbers, make sure our Apportionments are met, or to become the largest Protestant denomination in the USA. We are about making disciples for the transformation of the world. We can blather on in theology-speak about “what that means” or “what the Kingdom of God looks like”; or we could tell some stories.

The story I like best begins, like all the best stories, with “Once upon a time . . .”

When the project began in 2000, there were many street children and teenagers were prone to get involved in drugs, crime, and prostitution. In many cities, vigilante groups that sought to clean up the street, murdered street children. At the same time, the Brazilian Methodist church had a number of local projects that worked with at risk children and teenagers, but these efforts were disperse and uncoordinated. Many other churches were concerned about the children’s situation but didn’t know how to make a positive change A national network of after-school programs was created in 2000, an its first goal was to unify the church s effort and secondly to strengthen each local church program by providing common materials and regular training. This network has been very effective. Over the last 10 years, the number of projects has more than doubled, and thousands of children and teenagers are being reached. All the projects have a common vision and framework. Regular training has greatly increased the quality of each local project. Probably the most significant change has been a much clearer focus on the building of character and values of the more than 3000 children and teenagers involved in this network. Projects are constantly telling us of children and teenagers that were once involved in drugs, drug trafficking that have left this activity, and many of the current educators were once part of the program. Many local churches have involved these community children in the worship activities of the church and many are now Methodists.

One of the reasons I really like this story is the reality that these centers operate in some of the most dangerous urban areas in Brazil; police don’t go in; gangs rule the street, recruiting through threats, intimidation, and violence; open sewage breeds diseases, lack of hygiene brings rats that carry disease. The children of Brazilian slums are more than just “at risk”, as if they were teenagers with bad attitudes. These are children and youth “at risk” of losing their lives, either through defiance of gang authority, or by joining a gang or participating in drug trafficking, prostitution, or enforcement. And again I repeat myself – there are these after-school programs, operated by The United Methodist Church, the midst of it all.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. – Genesis 1:1-4

Formless and void, the waters of chaos in control. The Spirit of God, however, was there, bringing order out of chaos, bringing light to what was impenetrable, infinite darkness. For those who think the Doctrine of Creation is all about Dinosaurs and how old the Earth is; that it has nothing to do with the mission and ministry of the Church; for all of you who don’t get it, I suggest you consider our mission work in Brazilian slums. In that chaos and darkness, God said “Let there be light!”. That light, as we read in the opening of the Gospel of John, is the Light of the World; those words are the Word become flesh and living among us. Our work as Christians gives flesh and blood and sweat and tears and joy and laughter to all those words of the Bible. Those lives touched by those after-school programs, well, aren’t they what God called “Good” when he saw the light?

When I say that the work of being a Christian has to do with very real life and death, this is exactly what I mean. Some folks have told me I exaggerate. Well, perhaps. On the other hand, there are 3000 children and youth in Brazil who might disagree with that assessment of my position.

Creation? The calming order of Creation brought to the Chaos of this world. Mission? Setting up after-school programs in some of the most dangerous urban areas in South American. Ministry? Bringing the Word of God to children who have only heard words of violence and fear. Transformation of the world? All of this put together: this is the Kingdom of God we talk about; this is what “New Creation” will be; this is what I mean when I write “the Church being the Church”. That hymn, “The Stories of Jesus”? This is a story of Jesus.

If you wish to learn more about the Shade and Light Mission project in Brazil, click the link on the words “with ‘Once upon a time . . .'”. There will be a more full description of the project, it’s goals, needs, and how to give. If you decide to toss a buck or two in the kitty, please let them know I directed you there.

The “T” Word: A Response To John Meunier

In the end — and let me apologize for the rambling nature of this post — I find myself wondering why we have Social Principles at all. If they really are just a list of carefully thought out opinions about various social issues, then what purpose is there in putting them in our Book of Discipline? Opinions — in either the classic or contemporary sense — are no basis for unity or uniformity. They are things over which we expect difference.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth? – John Meunier, “Do We Have More Than ‘My Truth’?”, United Methodist Insight, July 17, 2015

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Personally, I agree with Richard Rorty that questions of truth are not so much wrong-headed as uninteresting. Because “reality” is opaque to language – because many of our arguments over the truth-value of science are, in essence, arguments over wor’ds about reality, not reality itself – and because there is no meta-lingusitic judge to which all can appeal for the correctness of one’s view, we end up arguing over definitions. More interesting are the ways we figure out, through language, story, and our readings of various texts, how to live in the world. There is nothing special about “truth”, nothing talismanic, nothing final, nothing ultimate to the view that, if we grasp the truth, we have a hold of something that definitively addresses all sorts of matters. – Me, “On Truth”, March 17, 2007

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Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ – John 14:6

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In a world filled with questions, few are more annoying than those who insist they have the answers.

In a world filled with questions, few are more annoying than those who insist they have the answers.

I had made a resolution to myself that I wasn’t going to “go after” other writer’s expressed views. My goal was and is to be positive, to present a particular set of options that promote discussion, or at the very least thought. Reading John Meunier’s article at United Methodist Insight, however, seemed to offer me an opportunity to say – what turns out to be again – something that is central to how I live. My eight-year-old post, linked above, says much and it would probably be easiest to copy and paste it here. To be fair to Rev. Meunier, however, I need to deal with the specifics of what he wrote in order to make the points I wish to make. Furthermore, I’m not “going after” John at all. I am, rather, offering a different perspective, one I believe offers something fruitful for the Church in its struggles. And I will apologize here and now because some of what follows will be a bunch of philosophical and theological mumbo-jumbo. I do hope I can present what I want to say clearly and intelligibly. If I don’t, it isn’t because the concepts are difficult; it’s because I’m a lousy writer.

Meunier’s musings on the difference between truth and opinion cover familiar ground: Plato gets a shout-out, of course, as well as the United Methodist Articles of Religion. In the midst of his discussion, however, are assumptions that are both rarely spoken aloud as well as, lets be honest, pretty parochial. We in the West have multiple traditions regarding matters regarding “truth”, and while Plato certainly offered one answer, he was hardly the first and definitely not the last. In the mid-20th century, German philosopher Martin Heidegger taught a course in which he offered the view that, in fact, much of the western tradition of metaphysics is rooted in the distinct opinions of two men who taught centuries before Plato: Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitus is remembered among philosophers for his dictum, “No one steps in the same river twice.” The only constants are change, which brings conflict. Nothing is ever settled, even human identity. Parmenides, however, insisted precisely the opposite is the case: all that is exists as a single, dimensionless whole. There is no distinction between things; there is only this singularity, both infinite and infinitesimal. This, for Parmenides, is “truth”. Our human inability either to perceive or understand this is the result of “opinion”. Thus, for Heidegger, was born our western obsession with “truth”.

Much of our tradition, whether we acknowledge it or not, follows Parmenides. The kind of unity of which he spoke was rooted in the assumption that, to all questions there is now and can only ever be a single correct answer. Pushing this assumption to its logical conclusion, then, Parmenides insisted that not just truth but existence itself is undifferentiated, a single Being that is indistinguishable within itself, yet also imperceptible, leading to differences of opinion and the (false) perception of movement and change.

Recently, however, the idea that some “thing” called “truth”, a property that inheres in particular words, sentences, and texts, has not so much been attacked as it has been set aside. This isn’t a matter of “relativism” as it is too often portrayed. Rather, it is a matter of people finding far more interesting questions to ask about how it is we human beings work out living in a world we now understand to be governed by the theories of quantum physics and general relativity as well as the theory of evolution. Philosophy no longer has dominion over questions that science addresses both more clearly and more definitively. That leaves philosophers wondering less about things like being and truth and more about how best to be human and negotiate our differences in ways that are fruitful for all of us.

Richard Rorty, the most prolific and clear proponent of this view, offered the following justification for his life-long philosophical project: In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant asked whether there was really something called “being” that humans could discern and understand. Did “being” add anything to our understanding of really existing things? Rorty asks the same question about “truth”: Does the idea that a sentence is “true” add anything to that sentence that wasn’t there before? Do human beings react differently to sentences that are “true” than to those that are not “true”? Like Kant, Rorty’s “No” didn’t so much end discussion as become fruitful for a completely different set of questions, questions about how human beings structure what Rorty called their webs of belief, adding and subtracting particular words and sentences to their stories over time. For Rorty, this offered fruitful thought and discussion about negotiating differences among stories, understanding different sentences as important to some while meaningless to others. Bridging that gap is the philosopher’s – and the poet’s, and the novelist’s – task.

For Meunier to set to one side centuries of skeptical discussion over the concept of “truth” – really from William Ockham through Hume up to the analytical philosophers and pragmatists – is misleading, to say the least. It is uncomfortable to assent to the idea that a word as important as “truth” should probably be set aside. All the same, particularly at a time in our United Methodist Church’s history when all sides in our conflicts brandish truth about like cudgels and swords, I think it would be far better for all of us if we accepted the emptiness of “truth” as a philosophical category worthy of any attention.

As for the theology of the matter, the famous quote from St. John’s gospel above is the starting point for any Christian attempt to define “Truth”. Truth is not a quality of facts or sentences. It isn’t something that inheres in things or words. It certainly isn’t something we human beings can “have”, or at least some of us can have and others can lack. Truth, for Christians, is the Person of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Truth isn’t a thing. It isn’t something that exists within particular words or phrases. It most definitely is not something we sinful mortals can ever claim to have. On the contrary, truth is a Person, a distinct, specific, individual Person whose ministry, passion, and resurrection are not “truths” to which we assent. Rather this Person in and through these events grasps us in our lives and define us. The Christian churches are not truth-tellers. The Christian churches are those communities who believe themselves in the hold of Truth, a Truth to be shared with the world in word and deed in the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord.

To understand Christian truth in this way offers us a way forward through the morass of arguments and difference our Social Principles call us to recognize without allowing such differences to create barriers to community. To understand Christian truth as Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, is to understand ourselves as sinners even while we declare ourselves redeemed. As such, the Truth bridges the gap within our lives, offering us the opportunity to share the Good News without worrying overmuch about whether or not our words are true.

Theological truth as an inherent quality of the words of our proclamation disappears in a puff of air when we understand our Truth is Jesus Christ who saves us. That is the basis of our Social Principles, as well as the acknowledgement of our many differences. It is the heart of who we are as Church, as the people called Methodist. It is how we will continue to live and move and have our being once our current worries and conflicts have passed.

I Will Seek Him Whom My Soul Loves

After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends. – Wallace Stevens

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Like the time you ran away/I turned around and you were standing close to me. – Yes, “Awaken”, lyrics by Jon Anderson

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St. John Chrysostom once compared the love Christ has for us to a beggar who pursues us, refusing to be turned aside or take "No" for an answer. That Divine pursuit continues throughout our lives.

St. John Chrysostom once compared the love Christ has for us to a beggar who pursues us, refusing to be turned aside or take “No” for an answer. That Divine pursuit continues throughout our lives.

I often feel we never quite “get” the whole God’s love and grace thing. For far too long, the whole “born again” idea, taken from St. John’s Gospel, in Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus, has been understood – both far too literally (which was Nicodemus’s problem) and far too narrowly – as defining and describing what it is “to become” a Christian. Even St. John’s Gospel offers other metaphors and stories to describe the process of redemption.

Part of my problem with the whole “born again” message, while still important and necessary, is it becomes far too final. One either is or is not “born from above”, at a particular time, a particular event proscribing the “moment” one “accepts” Christ, or one is not. Far more in keeping with both the tone and narrative of the whole of Scripture is the idea that ours is a life spent in various stages of a pursuit, like the lover and beloved in The Song of Songs, to be captured, then escape yet again.

Taking the whole of Christian Scriptures and Doctrine seriously, both Old and New Testaments present God as passionately, selflessly desiring only one thing: to be in a loving relationship with Creation, with first the children of Abraham as those through whom this message of Divine Love would be made manifest, then in the Incarnation the definitive statement of the lengths to which God’s love will go in order that our relationship with God is real, that God’s love is real, and that God never ever gives up on us.

The redemptive “moment”, if you will, is the whole Passion Event. It always moves from God to us. That includes the Divine “No”, as Karl Barth (and Wallace Stevens) called it. That “No” isn’t directed at us as objects of Divine love and grace. It is, rather, directed at all the ways we continue to reject even the possibility of such a relationship. If the doctrine of original sin is to mean anything at all, it means at the very least that God’s constant pursuit of a particular covenant relationship with humanity, as a means toward the end of the final recreation of all things, is too overwhelming, too restrictive, too demanding. Too impossible even to consider. That God begins with a “No”, often with a “No” in response, is hardly the end of it all. It is that “Yes” that always – always – follows that “No” that changes the nature of the relationship. That “Yes” dogs our heals, invades our hearts and minds, has us turning our head left and right. We reject the “No”, but too often we also reject the “Yes” as well. Our refusal, however, is never the end of the conversation. It is, in fact, just the beginning of a pursuit that continues, even after we might give a tentative “Yes”.

I admit this is no less incomplete, and no more definitive, than the whole “born again” idea. It is, however, a too often neglected aspect of our lives as Christians. It is the source of the church’s insistence on compassion and mercy defining our justice; on our ministries even to those who have committed the most heinous crimes; and so much Christian spirituality that comes to see ourselves as insignificant precisely because that first “No” always haunts us. The Divine pursuit of humanity, as the Scriptures narrate it, is endless; it is the love that is more powerful than death, the passion that is as boastful as the grave; it is what the Incarnation is all about. To view the Christian life as a series of non-repeatable events, limited in time and space – including to a human lifespan – is to ignore the weight of the testimony of Scripture; it is to devalue the meaning of the Incarnation to a once-for-all event, a take-it-or-leave-it moment of decision that leaves us bereft of any help. Compassion, Divine agape, dry up and disappear if we insist that God’s offer is only once; that our acceptance and rejection at any particular time are definitive for our eternal fate. This capricious God is not the Divine Lover of the Bible; it certainly isn’t the Triune God revealed in the Incarnation, a Godhead whose very Being is mutual, interpenetrating, selfless love that nevertheless respects and holds intact the distinctions among the Persons. Unless we understand grace as the central component of the Divine-Human encounter, a grace that is always before us, around us, and ahead of us, we will never really hear the Divine “Yes” that pursues us all the days of our lives and beyond.

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!

An Exercise, A Lesson, A Point

Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ – John 18:37-38

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I’m taking a break from my Lenten Journey today.  See, Sunday’s don’t count as part of the season of Lent, because centuries ago the Church realized that Sundays are, in and for themselves, little Easters, during which we celebrate the Eucharist, and recall the death and resurrection of Jesus.   How is it possible to maintain a discipline rooted in following Jesus to the Cross if on Sunday we declare Him already raised?  That’s why Lent is actually longer than the 40 days advertised.  We don’t count Sundays.

It probably won’t come as a shock to some of you there is actually a group calling themselves “United Methodist Scholars For Christian Orthodoxy”.  They even have a website (who doesn’t these days?) in which various Seminary professors extol the multiple virtues of adherence to orthodox doctrine.  Pretending, of course, that we do not have Doctrinal Standards or Articles of Religion that are clear, orthodox, and that make clear that to which we United Methodists hold fast in faith, in love, and in hope.  Wedded to an individualistic idea that the faith of the Church is only as strong as the declarations of any particular one of its members, these “Scholars” don’t quite get that they are both unnecessary and redundant.  The United Methodist Church in and for itself is Orthodox in its profession of faith and practice of ministry, as set out in The Book of Discipline.  That individuals across a denomination counting over nine million members in multiple countries, speaking multiple languages, coming from multiple ethnic, cultural, social, and political contexts might well be a bit different in their approach, apprehension, and use of our Orthodoxy is to be expected.  It just isn’t a big deal.

Except to this group of mostly white, mostly men, all North Americans who seem to insist that our quadrennial proclamation of faith just isn’t enough; they live in fear and smoldering anger that someone, somewhere, believes differently than they do, and it must be stopped at all costs.

Actually, I exaggerate.  Their sole reason for existence is to demand adherence to a particular interpretation of doctrine in order to prevent full inclusion of sexual minorities in the life of the church, and ministry to them including presiding at their legal weddings.  You see, this is what it’s come to in the United Methodist Church.  “Scholars” are using “doctrine” as a weapon to build up forces against full inclusion.  Is it any wonder I, for one, have little to no interest in adherence to doctrine, particularly in the way they insist it is to be done?

Let’s take a ferinstance.  The latest post, dated February 23 (apparently the situation isn’t nearly as dire as they would want us to think), concerns “Jesus Christ in United Methodist Doctrine: Exploring the Biblical and Creedal Basis”.  It is written by Rev. Dr. Kenneth Loyer, Senior Pastor of Otterbein United Methodist Church of Spy, York, PA.  If the title isn’t enough to make your jaws creak with a yawn, let’s venture forward and see what the good Rev. Dr. has to say.

At the very center of Christian faith and practice stands Jesus Christ. Christians throughout history and around the world today, regardless of their ecclesial traditions, hold that basic claim in common. For those of us in the United Methodist tradition, and for other interested parties, several questions then emerge. What specifically does United Methodist doctrine teach about Jesus Christ? To what extent does United Methodist Christology represent the teaching of Scripture and early Christian creeds, and why does that matter? Guided by such questions, this post will explore, albeit initially, the biblical and creedal basis of United Methodist Christology as set forth in the Articles of Religion (abbreviated as AR followed by the article number) and the Confession of Faith (CF).

I will focus on two articles in particular, AR 2 and CF 2, which can be found here:http://umorthodoxy.org/documents/. These articles present a number of key themes that not only express the essence of Christology in United Methodist doctrine but also illuminate the biblical and creedal basis for confessing Jesus Christ in the United Methodist tradition.

Which could have been shortened to: “Let’s see what United Methodists say about Jesus.”  Because, of course, part of being a scholar is using a whole bunch of words, when a few will suffice.  I think it comes from having to pad all those 25 and 30 page papers we get assigned in Seminary.  Anyway, I want to skip through and highlight a particular part of this post.

Full divinity and humanity. The two articles cited above also affirm the two natures of Christ, fully divine and fully human. The unity of these two natures in one person is described in ways similar to the Definition of Chalcedon and its balanced statement of the two natures of Christ united without confusion, change, division, or separation: the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ are “never to be divided” (AR 2) and are “perfectly and inseparably united” (CF 2). Furthermore, both articles mention the Virgin Birth (cf. Matthew 1:20-25) as part of the explanation of the hypostatic union.

Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins. (emphases added)

Now, doctrine is all about words.  Repeating words without defining them or understanding them is a bit like being told to make an omelet with hollow eggs.  No matter how hard you try to tell the person insisting you make that damn omelet that the eggs are empty, all you get as a response is, “I don’t care!  You’re supposed to make an omelet!  Now get cooking!”

There are a couple things I want to note about what Rev. Dr. Loyer wrote above before I get to the main point.  First of all, he is not “doing” doctrine here.  Nor is he really doing theology.  He is, rather, telling people why using particular words and phrases is necessary – our salvation, our redemption, the person and work of Jesus stands or falls on whether or not these particular words and not others are used – without taking a single moment, a phrase here, a sentence there, to tell us what any of these words mean.  Hypostatic Union?  What the hell is that?  Definition of Chalcedon?  Who is Chalcedon and why is it necessary that whatever it is defined as be held up as the cornerstone of our faith?

I’m joking of course.  I know what the Hypostatic Union is.  The Definition of Chalcedon, which we in our churches recite as “The Nicene Creed”, is about who Jesus is: Son of God, Begotten of the Father, Begotten Not Made, Very Light from Very Light.  All that good stuff.  I will also state, up front before I go any further that I believe all this stuff, as weird as it is.  Not that my adherence to this or any other Doctrinal formula is actually a matter of concern either to God or to anyone else (except the church ladies in United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy).

Here’s my real question.  It’s simple, actually: What is “divinity”?  What does it mean to be “divine”?  I mean after all, this is Divine:

More Woman Than You'll Ever Have And More Man Than You'll Ever Be

More Woman Than You’ll Ever Have And More Man Than You’ll Ever Be

Yet, there are other images that capture, at least in part, the Christian idea of the Divine.

For Some Reason, Bright Sunlight And Clouds Equals God To Some People

For Some Reason, Bright Sunlight And Clouds Equals God To Some People

The Creation Of Humanity On The Ceiling Of The Sistine Chapel Is An Icon Of A Divine Moment For Many

The Creation Of Humanity On The Ceiling Of The Sistine Chapel Is An Icon Of A Divine Moment For Many

And there are, of course, non-Christian notions of divinity that can be captured in an image:

In Mumbai, A Child Greets The Day With Thanksgiving To The Sun God.

In Mumbai, A Child Greets The Day With Thanksgiving To The Sun God.

For Some Who Follow Contemporary Paganism, Gaia, While Represented As Female, Is Above Gender

For Some Who Follow Contemporary Paganism, Gaia, While Represented As Female, Is Above Gender

With all these images and understandings of “Divine” that float around our world, none of which can or should take precedence over any of the others without looking and sounding like an uptight, imperialistic douchebag, I guess I’m confused about what, exactly, the word “divine” means, or is supposed to mean, to us United Methodists.  Which, I suppose, leads to a bit of a challenge, should any of my “Orthodox” brethren and sisters feel up to it.

Define divine and divinity for me.  Three things, though: You can’t reference centuries-dead metaphysics that are even more confusing than the vocabulary of so much of our Christian faith; and you can’t rely on tautology, e.g., “God is Divine, therefore whatever is Divine is of God.”  This isn’t a definition.  It’s a concession that you have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.  Finally, don’t go quoting someone else’s book.  You can start with the Scriptures, of course – that kind of goes without saying – but please don’t rely on some other scholar or author.  Since you’re so concerned about what each of us United Methodists say and believe, I’m sincerely interested if it’s possible for any of you to give a coherent understanding of “the divine” and  “divinity” in your own words, words than express something meaningful about your life and faith.

I’m trying to make a point.  We in the United Methodist Church not only hold up our Doctrinal Standards and our Articles of Religion.  We also hold up our Theological Task as a necessary part of the faith and life of the Church.  Without performing our theological task, those “Scholars for Orthodoxy” would have us recite empty words, meaningless phrases, without any clue they actually mean something, something vital, something life-affirming, life-changing, world-changing.

So, who’s up to the task?  And remember, don’t turn it around on me, because I asked first: What is “Divine”?  You don’t have to link to me.  After all, I read you folks far more than you read me.

 

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.

The Temptations Of Truth, The Universal, And Primitivism

Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful.  Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs. – Rev. Drew McIntyre, “When Progressive Christians Nuke The Fridge”, United Methodist Insight, September 5, 2014

My recent posts regarding the temptation to close the floor of General Conference in 2016 to all but delegates and others with actual business before the body have reminded me, again, that we contemporaries are no less prone to temptation than those from the distant past.  The idols we continue to praise include Truth, which carries in its wake the desire to have in our possession something Universal, and a corollary idol I call the primitivist temptation, i.e., the idea that if we somehow arrive at the best understanding of the original Biblical texts, we shall possess Truth in its most pure form, a Truth that is Universal and which can be communicated with clarity and simplicity to others.

One would think that a good course of a survey class in the Scriptures, or even a common sense glance around our neighborhoods, our states, and our world would disabuse us from these temptations.  Alas, they are just too seductive.  To be in possession of universal Truth, with the clarity and simplicity of those who originally set it forth all those thousands of years ago, this would make us the controllers of the message, those who, like St. Peter, have the Keys to the Kingdom.  One of the great gifts of the past generation of protest theologians is the realization that Truth, Universalism, and Primitivism not only are not possessions of the Western Church, but can become demonic, dehumanizing, and a stumbling block to real participation in the life of the Spirit for those for whom the alleged True and Universal message of Jesus does not speak in any relevant way, in any language that makes any sense.

St. John’s Gospel presents the matter of Truth in two key passages.  In the first is the statement from Jesus that he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  In other words, “Truth” is not a thing.  It isn’t a series of words or phrases, a set of concepts that either logically flow one from another or correspond in some way yet to be determined with the world in which we live.  Truth, rather, for a Christian appealing to St. John’s tradition, is the person of Jesus Christ. Thus it is that Jesus refuses to answer Pontius Pilate when he asks Jesus, “What is truth?”.  It is a person who is not grasped and possessed, but rather grasps and possesses us.  We are not purveyors of Truth; we are those to whom the Truth has been revealed.  As the late philosopher Richard Rorty asked, “What does the claim that a sentence is true add to that sentence?”  His answer was that, like Kant’s query regarding the addition of “being” to an already existing thing, it adds nothing at all.  I would add, however, that it adds a personal commitment, an element of power and control that other statements, not being True, do not have.  As those who possess, guard, and spread Truth, we live in a special relationship to the Universe that others do not.

Being True and bearers of Truth, it follows that our words and concepts are not subject to the vagaries of time and language and social and cultural context.  On the contrary, being True means they transcend such merely human realities.  Thus “the Gospel” becomes a Thing that is spread regardless of language, of history, of culture.  Resistance to this message isn’t that it is meaningless to those who hear it; resistance is the result of sin, or evil, rather than hearing something that makes absolutely no sense.  When I read that someone insists their words are not just true (in the trivial sense) but True, I immediately wonder what, precisely, they’re worried about.  Is it possible they are so insecure in their beliefs that, unless those beliefs conform in some manner, fashion, or form, to the reality that is the entire Universe, they fall apart?

The matter of primitivism is more a methodological matter.  If we contemporaries, through study of the original languages and social and political settings that produced them can come to understand those original texts really meant, the question of hermeneutics, of understanding and appropriation for we moderns, can be set to one side.  We no longer have to bridge the gap of centuries, of languages, of cultures, of the heap of interpretation piled on commentary, but like Martin Heidegger can make one giant leap back and understand and know the Truth and its Universality as it was originally conceived.  Thus we need not worry about how women were treated in ancient times, or the status of sexual minorities, or national or ethnic conflicts and prejudices; these become part of the Truth of the text, a Truth to which we adhere, Universalized to our contemporary world of very different views, inheritors of two thousand years of human history and all it has wrought.

To admit that Gospel is for all is not to submit to the idols of Truth and the Universal.  It is only to say what it says.  Making the Gospel intelligible and comprehensible across thousands of years and the variances of language and culture and history is to be Incarnational in our approach to being the Body of Christ in the world.  In Philippians, we read that God surrendered all that is Divine and became human.  The testimonies of the Gospels show Jesus living with the lowly, serving the outcast, eating with prostitutes and tax collectors and drunkards, bringing a message of hope and life to those who had no hope, and for whom life was a slog through exclusion and dehumanization.  God did not become the Universal person bringing universal Truth to all persons in all times and places.  The Second Person of the Trinity existed in this particular person, in this time and place, speaking this language, serving these particular people.  When St. Paul writes that Christ came in the fullness of time, he means only this: the specificity of the Incarnation is what makes it the Incarnation of this God for these people, that is, the Jews and Gentiles.  We cannot escape this specificity, this contingency with appeals to the idols of Truth and Universality ex post facto.  The reality of the Incarnation give the lie to the idols of Truth, Universalism, and Primitivism.

Finally, yesterday I noted that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was doing Christian Ethics for a contemporary world that understood the Universe to be finite, curved, and governed by the contradictory laws of General Relativity and quantum mechanics.  One limits the extent of our reach to the Universe.  The other limits what we can ever know about the most elementary particles that make up our world.  Both strip away any pretext to Truth, Universalism, or Primitivism precisely because they always places us in a position of limitation regarding what we can do, what we can know, and how we can know it.  When Bonhoeffer casts aside “good and evil” as the criteria of Christian Ethics, demanding instead the continual renewal of our commitment to the life to which we are called, he is doing ethics for just such a world, a world humbled by its understanding that the very fabric of the Universe limits what we can know, how far that knowledge extends, and how we can communicate that knowledge to others.  Acknowledging this reality, that our Universe exists in this way rather than a way that allows us mere humans to have and communicate Universal Truth, arrived at through a method that transcends the limitations of time, space and matter, strengthens our commitment to being bearers of the Gospel in the way Jesus was: As these persons in this time and place, speaking to this particular group of persons, to their needs, in words and images they understand.  We become an Incarnational Church not when we surrender to the shiny god of Truth.  We become an Incarnational Church when we realize we are, like Jesus, being fully human, surrendering any pretense to power and authority, submitting ourselves to the death Christ died in his baptism, in hopes of rising with Christ.