I long for us to argue better. I long for us to seek holy ends by holy means. How we go about this conversation matters; I do not believe coercion is a legitimate strategy for intra-church debate. We are not utilitarians, and “anything that works” is not Christian logic.
So let us argue as sisters and brothers in Christ, both in form and content. By re-narrating this debate in terms of our views of divorce, binding and loosing, and holiness, we might find a more fruitful debate. We might even find a surprising unanimity among otherwise disparate factions.
I yet hope that our decades-long fight can be over. I hope we can find a way to welcome our LGBTQ neighbors more fully into the life of the church. I likewise hope that this can be done in a way that does not drive away folks who are evangelical or traditionalist. – Drew McIntyre, “3 Theological Reasons the UMC Should Reconsider Its Stance On Same-Gender Relationships”, Ploughsares Into Swords, May 2, 2016
This second offering of things to consider as we head into Portland, OR and General Conference, should, perhaps, have been written first. Before anything else, we are the Church, the Body of Christ, specifically the inheritors of those John Wesley called “the people called Methodist”. As the Church, our first aim always and everywhere should be to remain faithful. Before we consider anything, we should reaffirm our faith, prayerfully considering how we have neglected this or that or the other part of our collective confession, asking for guidance and strength as we go forward.
Prayer is the practical side of our declaration of faith. St. Paul insisted we should pray without ceasing. To that end we should in all times and places where we gather together seek in and through prayer to remain faithful to the God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who creates us, saves us, and gives us life and new life. How would it be possible to deliberate as the Church if we did not pray and confess our faith together?
For a very long time there’s been a whole lot of talk about the place of confessing the faith within the life of the United Methodist Church. Ours is, after all, a non-creedal Body. There is no distinctive United Methodist Confession of Faith. Over 20 years ago, some people bemoaned this part of our life and formed The Confessing Movement, to the end that the programs and ministries of our Church be held accountable to the confession of Jesus Christ as Son, Savior, and Lord. While some, including me, have wondered at some of the things the Confessing Movement has written and said, their goal shouldn’t be all that controversial. After all, if there is no guidance and limit to what we as a corporate Body preach and teach and witness, why call ourselves as “Church” at all?
Doctrine, a word much misunderstood and abused, is an expression of our collective identity. Too often used synonymous with “theology”, Christian Doctrine is the collective profession of our identity as this Church, this particular living Body of Christ at work in the world. Much bandwidth and ink has been spilled over the status and role of Doctrine within the life of the Church. I sometimes think arguments like this, substitutes for our real grievances against one another, are more entertaining than anything else. That it, until some either dismiss our Doctrinal Statements completely or insist that Christian Doctrine is some unchanging “thing”, existing since time immemorial, vouchsafed to us only to defend and pass on, unmarked by time and circumstance. At these points, I think we’ve entered loony land.
Doctrine is now as it has always been, our collective expression of our identity. People what to know what it is to be a Christian, what that means, all we really need to do is point to our Doctrinal statements and say, “Read this.” The words, their interpretation, different emphases (for example, our particular Wesleyan emphases on grace and Christian Perfection, on mission and discipleship) are always changing because languages change, people change, history changes, circumstances dictate what should be shouted from the rooftops and what should be whispered in secret. This is neither interesting nor surprising.
Gathering in Portland our delegates have a duty to reaffirm our collective profession of faith. In so doing, they should also prayerfully ask that our Doctrinal Standards be their rule and rod, their guide and limit for all they deliberate and decide. Only thus, in an attitude of prayer and in full knowledge of that which marks us as distinct, can our deliberations and decisions be understood as the fruitful outcome of faithful living, prayerful deliberations, and mutual love.
While I still believe that at least some of the emphasis upon Doctrine has been either code for calling those with whom they disagree heretics thus outside the bounds of Christian fellowship or a distraction from other matters, it needs to be repeated and emphasized: We either stand together under our collective expression of identity as professed in our Doctrinal Standards or we shall always be divided by the winds of whatever controversy comes down the pike. We cannot forsake our profession of faith and remain the Body of Christ, regardless of the outcome of our deliberations.
In prayer and profession, only there are we truly The United Methodist Church.
“The Futures Of Her Rapists Were More Important Than What They’d Done To Her”: Evangelism In Our Day And Age I
It wasn’t enough that ABC aired a rosy profile of one of the now-convicted rapists before the trial, emphasizing his happy mood the night of the rape and his football career. Instead, CNN anchor Candy Crowley and correspondent Poppy Harlow talked about how hard it was to watch the convicted rapists break into tears, given their good grades and, again, their football-playing prowess. NBC’s Ron Allen spoke eloquently about the boys’ “dreams” of college and, again, their football skills now wasted by their convictions. And, of course, the AP, USA Todayand Yahoo stories about the convictions all led off with how the victim in the case – of whom the boys were convicted of raping – was reportedly drunk on the night in question. The convicted rapists’ intoxication, or lack thereof, was not, apparently, editorially important.
Generally speaking, the news media don’t lament the theretofore bright futures of young men (or women) convicted of other violent crimes, such as the killing of girlfriends or executing down-on-their-luck job-hunters. They don’t grieve at the loss of college football careers for kids convicted of drug-related offenses, or empathize with would-be murderers who break down in tears when faced with consequences for the crimes they committed. They don’t assign deeper motivations to the tears of men and women who must now contend with the most openly broken part of the American criminal justice system – incarceration – to which around 2.2 million Americans are currently consigned (at 730 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, the highest rate of imprisonment in the world) and which is widely recognized as minimally rehabilitative and maximally punitive.
But rape isn’t any other crime in America, or elsewhere. Statistics show that every 100 rapes in America results in only five felony convictions. It’s the only crime in which the level of intoxication of the victim is considered by some, like the convicted rapists’ lawyers and some in the media, to be mitigating evidence. It’s the only crime in which the perceived attractiveness of the perpetrators to other people or the victim is considered relevant information. It’s the only one in which we’re encouraged to sympathize with why perpetrators picked their victims – their supposed drunkenness, their clothes, their reputations – and then blame the victims for making themselves attractive targets. – Megan Carpentier, “Steubenville And The Misplaced Sympathy For Jane Doe’s Rapists”, The Guardian, March 18, 2013
On the campus of Indiana University this week, a fraternity was closed down after a video surfaced featuring about half the members of the house cheering on and engaging in sexual immorality with a pair of woman paid for their participation.
. . . Alpha Tau Omega bills itself as a fraternity founded on explicitly Christian — as opposed to Greek — ideals. The name of the fraternity itself is a reference to Scripture.
. . .
It all has me wondering how the Church engages with the culture that forms young people who will do such things, make videos of them, and release them into the Internet. So much talk these days is about being contextual and meeting people where they are. If this is seen as normal by large numbers of people, where is the ground on which we might meet these young people? – Rev. John Meunier, “Where Do You Even Begin”, An Arrow Through The Air, October 9, 2015
A few weeks back, driving to a DJ job, the song “Harper Valey PTA” came on the radio, celebrating the opening of another school year. I’ve always loved this song, and learning that Tom T. Hall wrote it made me happy. What I love about this song is how Mrs. Johnson throws down to the PTA. They judge her based solely on how she dresses. She judges them on what they actually do. That “Kiss My Ass” ending is so perfect.
In contemporary parlance, she is calling out privilege. More than merely naming hypocrites, Mrs. Johnson is making clear that those in power in Harper Valley are no less prone to bad behavior, from drunkenness to adultery, than anyone else. The difference between the PTA and the rest of the town is the actually believe they ought to be given a pass on any consequences for their behavior. Particularly by someone like Mrs. Johnson who likes to wear short skirts. Class privilege, male privilege, and the demand that accountability does not run from the top down but throughout a community – this song is still a great smackdown of what is far too common, whether in small towns or our largest cities, private clubs and fraternities, a weekend in Vegas or a week in Monte Carlo: folks who have the means to set aside not only the rules for proper moral conduct also should not be held accountable for doing so. That is one of the perks of power, after all. It always has been.
I read Rev. John Meunier’s post over the weekend, and offered some initial comments that, I thought, addressed some of the concerns he had regarding doing the work of the Church with people who, well, seemed impervious to moral norms. I want to make clear that I am not making light of John’s question; it is both an honest and serious question. It needs an honest, serious answer.
First, it is most important to rid ourselves of some delusions. Ours is not some depraved society on the verge of moral and cultural collapse. On the contrary, compared to the America of fifty years ago, we are a far more accepting, (small “d”) democratic society than ever before. Despite resurgence in religious-based and race-based violence; despite on-going refusal among many to address our national cancer of racism; despite our ruling elites willingness to tear down our political system rather than accept the many changes that render so many of them obsolete; for all this there has not been a better time to live in the United States. Our larger social moral code is both firm and expansive. While we accept particular behaviors previous generations attempted to poo-poo, we have done so in order to be a more honest society, recognizing the reality that, say, sex prior to marriage and long-term commitments without marriage might well suit some people just fine. We are also far more aware, and more strict, regarding those who break not just laws but just the general moral order: those who are openly racist or homophobic are no longer acceptable; violence against women that once was seen as normal – from date and marital rape to domestic violence – has now become criminalized; the last log-jam is our general social frustration with increasing economic inequality. By and large, this is a great time to be alive.
Compared, say, to the Britain in which John Wesley’s revival occurred. Consider the following description of Covent Garden in London:
In Vic Gatrell’s 18th century evocation [Covent Garden] was a place ‘thick with coffee-houses, bordellos, bawds and privileged rakes on the razzle’, dedicated to buying and selling of all kinds of things, cultural or otherwise. The bordellos and bawds may still be here somewhere (how would I know?) but the selling of all things continues. Back then, this was a teeming, disordely quarter where, from Soho and Leicester Square across Covent Garden Piazza to Drury Lane, and down from Long Acre to the Strand, creative types rubbed shoulders with rakes, prostitutes, market people, craftsmen, and shopkeepers in an often brutal world riddled with criminality and poverty, but also bursting with irreverence and exuberant high spirits.
This was a the time when gin emerged as an economic and social palliative among the working class. Popular sports like bear-baiting were prevalent, part of a larger gaming culture that respected no social class. Human life was cheap; that conditions in the slums of London, Newcastle, Manchester, and other rising urban centers were deadly, outside a few “mission” houses few cared. The landed aristocracy took to measures such as “poacher traps”; larger and more violent even than bear traps, they were hidden in the acres of enclosed land poached by the rural poor for food. After being trapped, and being unable to spring the trap loose, the poachers who didn’t die from shock were summarily executed by groundskeepers.
One reason Wesley and the Methodists were so despised was not only their religious seriousness. They were seen as far too morally serious in a time when moral laxity was commonplace. To preach and teach not only an earnest and serious piety, but a morally upright and virtuous practice, both personally and socially, were both seen as antithetical to the spirit of the age. To be “serious” was then understood much as it is now: to be a party-pooper, to be no fun, a wet blanket, etc. Both the anger at Wesley and the success his mission work had led to frequent death threats, the tar-and-feathering of Wesley’s local preachers (and the boiling hot tar would probably have been life-threatening if not lethal), indicate not only how much Britain at the time was in need of moral uplift; like the open violence against the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, such reactions demonstrate the underlying anger and pervasive acceptance of violence as a proper method of social and civil control.
Let’s get back to the question: How do we begin, as John says, to meet these people where they are? I noted above that we rid ourselves of the delusion ours is some kind of exceptionally depraved age. We must also be clear that having the label “Christian” attached to something or someone does not mean there is either some higher standard to which such ought to be held, or that such are immune from the temptations of sin that might come in the combination of race, class, and gender privilege and the urge to sexual debauchery. Precisely because one of the marks of class privilege has been rampant promiscuity without consequence, many revolutionary societies have enforced a moral code far more strict than anything taught by the western Christian Churches. Part of the reaction against the rise of women’s sexuality as part of the second wave feminist movement was the feared loss among men to have access to whatever women they want without consequence. Should women be accepted as sexual equals, that’s a serious blow to one of the age-old perquisites of male privilege.
The last bastion of much of what used to be simple male privilege is usually now labeled “rape culture”. As the story about the Steubenville, OH gang-rape case demonstrates, the tropes that have been so common live on in many places, even in our national media. That the larger society is increasingly refusing to accept either the acts or the rhetoric used to defend it is yet another sign of how ours is a far better, far more moral society. That what is unacceptable is still prevalent only means we have a lot of work to do.
As to the alleged “Christian principles” of the fraternity in question, and their relevance to the issue at hand, I have to ask when Christians were exempt from sin. Particularly when there are many lived examples calling themselves Christian, separated by Confession, by class, by race, and by region, to pretend that slapping the label on Christian on anything – I don’t care what it is – makes it so is ridiculous. The first true awareness of an honest Christian is the awareness not of our salvation and holiness; it is the awareness that we are separated from God by a chasm of our own making. We call that separation “sin” and one of the gifts of the Reformation was the rediscovery that even the most pious among us, the most dedicated, the most holy are yet sinners. The final recreation has begun. It will only be completed in and by the fulfillment of the New Creation as the Triune God brings to Life all that has been laid low by death. Until then, we Christians – again, no matter how serious and earnest, no matter how virtuous and no matter how many years of faithful living one has – are always just as susceptible to sin as anyone else. The only difference between Christians and non-Christians is the awareness of our propensity to sin. We are not different because we don’t sin. To pretend that a “Christian” fraternity is somehow exempt from the social, economic, and cultural force of privilege is to deny the power of original sin. It is to pretend we Christians have access to virtue rather than the blessing of grace.
So: How do we meet them? We begin by a realistic understanding of our times. We refuse to accept the facile and false description of our times as somehow extraordinarily immoral; we asses the historical record and see how moral, open, free, and accepting of diversity we have become. Rather than lament the distance between ourselves as Christians and others as somehow so different, perhaps we should recognize our common humanity, our own susceptibility to sin which leaves us no moral high ground from which to pronounce judgment. We understand how social realities like privilege, the pervasiveness and reality of rape-culture, and on-going social ailments from racism to social inequality create conditions in which some people feel it is acceptable to act in ways many find reprehensible. Rather than determine the actions in question are primarily or even solely moral, we might consider them to be social and cultural; rather than pervasive and broadly accepted, perhaps we should understand such actions as limited by socio-economic boundaries and not acceptable by many if not most people. We should recognize that there will always be people who think such things are acceptable; the phrase “boys will be boys” has excused everything from theft through rape to murder.
We meet them where they are as fellow human beings. We do not meet them as morally superior bearers of a message of condemnation but rather as people who have a story to tell. Before we start telling that story, perhaps we should listen to their stories. We might be surprised by what we hear. We meet them as children of our loving, holy God who loves them as much as God loves us.
This is the first of Two Parts that address issues of evangelism and the church in our world.
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.
The guy would come to the bookstore every once in a while. Elegantly dressed, he was Senior Pastor at a large Baptist Church in the DC area. I was always intrigued by the fact that in a Seminary bookstore, he would talk down a Seminary education, even calling Seminary “Cemetery”, as if a place to educate and nurture future church leaders was really a place faith came to die. Doing this all the while buying books . . . it made my head hurt.
I sat in on a couple class meetings of a Seminar led by our then-Academic Dean, Dr. M. Douglas Meeks. The class was reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Volume IV, Part 1 and during the very first meeting, a student asked the relevance of something as dense as Barth’s theology in the local church. Doug turned to me and offered me a chance to answer, as I had, by this time, spent time as a clergy spouse in a local church. My answer was simple and clear: Because this is what people in our churches hunger for. They may not have the technical vocabulary, but folks in the local church demonstrate a need for ways to think through and speak their faith. They look to clergy to help guide them. To be able to do that, a minimal understanding of the vocabulary and movement of Christian God-talk is necessary. That’s why there are classes on Systematic Theology, advanced classes on Biblical theology and Seminars on particular theologians. Not only is clarity of exposition necessary; knowing why our particular theology as heirs of John Wesley is distinct from Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, and other theologies helps congregations understand who they are.
I recently got all technical with Rev. John Meunier over the matter of “truth”. Just yesterday, he published a piece about “saving souls” being the primary business of the church. Again, I am not picking on Rev. Meunier (I’m really not!!!). Still, I think it is necessary to highlight why theological education is necessary, particularly when it comes to such technical matters as questions of theological truth, the matter of “souls”, what salvation means, etc. I am going to assume, for the moment, that Meunier has, at the very least, the basic theological education, including Systematics. Continuing one’s education beyond this most basic class – really a historical and doctrinal survey class more than anything else – becomes important, particular when it comes to discussing matters of import about ministry, mission, and the nature of the Church’s proclamation. Clarity is impossible without understanding that the words we use are hardly simple or have one clear definition. One need not be involved in contemporary technical philosophical or theological discussions but still should understand that writing, say, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth?”, begs far more questions than it would seek to settle. To insist that “saving souls” is the business of the Church without being clear about what “salvation” means, about what the author means by “soul”, leads both to confusion and further questions.
The United Methodist malaise is due in no small part to our inability as a connection to have a coherent theological discussion in which all parties accept the terms of debate, from “doctrine” right up to “evangelical” (a word hijacked by particular factions in a denomination whose very identity is evangelical; thus so much of our “discussion” becomes a debate over who can call themselves such when all United Methodist, clergy and lay, are in the business of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ). At the very least, we need to accept that the particular vocabulary of theology might well use everyday words whose commonsense understanding just doesn’t work within the context of serious God-talk.
So, to all those clergy and laity out there who think all that theological and philosophical mumbo-jumbo has nothing to do with being Church, remember: If you can’t articulate not only what you believe, but why you believe it, in ways that do justice to the specificity of the Revelation of the Trinity in Jesus Christ, then, perhaps, you need to reevaluate why you’re in ministry in the first place.
A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee.
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
Whenever I read the acknowledgements in a non-fiction book, I’m struck by most authors’s attempted humility. They offer credit for clarity, correctness, and other writerly virtues to others while insisting errors of fact, opacity of presentation, or other negative reactions rest solely with the author. It’s almost as if these authors seem to believe the years of research, thought, discussion, writing draft after draft, and final edit were performed by committee, with the author being the least competent on the committee. Yet, the work goes out to the public under only one name (usually), upon whose good name rests the success or failure, the acceptance or rejection, of the work at hand.
To be humble and to be an author presenting work to the public is a contradiction. There is nothing less humble than thinking to oneself, “You know what? I have something to say the world needs to hear.” Whether fiction or non-fiction, the result of years of work or something slapped together in the matter of hours or days or weeks, any writer who claims they only write for themselves – no matter how earnestly they may make that claim, denying any personal need for attention – is lying. All of us write for others. Otherwise, we’d keep our writing hidden. Most writers will dispute this, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
I, for one, desire nothing more or less than to live in humility. Which, obviously, collides with my desire to write so that others will read what I write. I recognize these as irreconcilable. Which leaves me conflicted pretty much every single day.
Last evening during a discussion about prayer, humility, and Divine dependence, a clergy person I respect offered a kind of Aristotelean understanding of humility: It is the mean between sloth and pride. Sloth, or acedia, along with pride are two of the Seven Deadly Sins. How this person presented the matter, sloth was thinking so little of oneself – self-esteem? – there is no room even to understand how it would be possible God would work through us. When it comes to pride, of course, the exact opposite is the case: One believes oneself in no need of the Divine presence, that all one’s actions are just that.
That sounds so nice. Humility is about maintaining a balance. On the one hand, we should never be so secure in ourselves that we forget our need for God. On the other hand, we should never forget ourselves so much that we become incapable of seeing all the gifts we have, and how they can be and are used for the work of the Kingdom. That sounds so mentally healthy, the kind of bourgeois reassurance we all need. Earlier this year, didn’t I affirm what Rev. Montel Putney said, viz., that being created in the Image of God, we ought to walk and talk and present ourselves as those who possess that Divine Image?
Except, alas, that message is not one for the ears and lives of the privileged. That is something those on the margins of life need to hear; there is nothing prideful about those whose humanity is consistently denied stepping out to the world and declaring they are blessed children of God, created in the Divine Image, with a story to tell that others need to hear.
We who live in positions of privilege – whether we recognize that privilege or not – would be far better keeping silent on so much that passes through the world. We are overflowing with the alleged wisdom and authority of those who consider their positions of authority the natural course of events; people for whom being white, being male, being straight being cisgendered are all just assumed to be “the way God created the world”, a way to which all those who differ should and must conform. The destruction of human life pursued in the name of such conformity is incalculable. The best thing for us to do is to sit in silent contrition.
Except life and the world and even the dictates of the Gospel seem to demand more of us. We are to live, to serve the world in the name of God and God’s Kingdom, words and actions rooted in love and self-denial flowing from the Holy Spirit through our lives. When people see us live, see us work, see how we relate to others, read what we write, they should never see us, read us, or hear us. We should strive, as Wesley’s Covenant Prayer reminds us, that our lives would always be transparent; that we become vessels through which the Divine Life and Work and Image become what the world sees. Ours should be a life lived not only in prayer, as St. Paul admonished. Like the priest pictured above, ours should be a life lived prostrate before the altar, our earthly representation of the Divine Throne (itself an image of that which is ineffable).
Yet don’t I and others continue to speak as if we had some kind of authority, whether secular or sacred? What possible notion enters our heads that the things we say are things to which others should listen? Well, I know Jesus was asked the same question: By whose authority do you teach? To this, he responded with a counter-question: So, John the Baptist: Prophet or Criminal? Jesus asked this because he knew the Temple Priests who demanded an answer about Jesus’s authority to teach were terrified of John, his disciples, and his on-going reputation among the people. Being careful, calculating politicians, they refused to answer. Jesus shrugged and turned away saying, “Fine. I won’t answer your question, either.” The question of “authority”, really, is artificial. The things I say and write, I don’t say or write them with any authority. I make no pretense to wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and certainly not truth (yet another word I would gladly toss from the English language). I take no authority because I have none.
True humility is a daily struggle. I continue to be confounded by the questions, perplexed and challenged by the answers, and prayerful that some day none will see or read “me” at all.
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.
And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. – Genesis 4:10-15
Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. – Acts 7:58-8:1a
I’m taking a class at church on the life and teachings of St. Paul. It’s from a series about to come out, created by Adam Hamilton (it was offered to people who attended the Church of the Resurrection Leadership Conference last autumn; several members of our leadership attended and brought this not-ready-for-primetime series back with them) and last night was the first class, covering St. Paul’s early life up to his conversion and baptism by Ananias in Damascus.
An important part of the discussion was the martyrdom of St. Stephen. The author of the Acts of the Apostles places young Saul in a rather prominent position: the one at whose feet the witnesses lay their cloaks and who would “approve” of such an execution was appointed by the leadership to oversee and direct it. It would have been very clear to early readers that young Saul was not just an onlooker, but an important part of that particular narrative.
We know how the story continues. The letters from the Sanhedrin to the synagogues in Damascus, the lightning strike, the voice in the thunder, the blindness, the house on Straight Street (which, while no longer their entirely, still has the arched entrance, and the oldest Christian worship space in Damascus, claimed as the house of Ananias where St. Paul was baptized; I don’t know about anyone else, but I really want to go there), the dreams, and Paul’s baptism. In the midst of the hatred, fear, self-righteousness, murder and threats of violence, God saw a way where the folks at the time saw nothing but death. God saw Saul’s potential – his desire for success; his inner drive to do a particular task better than anyone else; most of all his desire to be at peace and right with God – and decided that this guy, this murderer, would be a most excellent choice to be the missionary to the Gentiles, the single most important follower of Jesus Christ in human history.
So, he’s kind of like Moses that way. On a literary level, I’m sure that’s no accident. Having Moses and Saul become murderers gives the stories a certain literary symmetry. All the same, we do have the text with which to concern ourselves, and no amount of literary analysis or historical demythologizing lets us off the hook of considering the person and work of St. Paul in its totality as a theological moment of great import. We must acknowledge, whether we wish or no, that our faith history is filled to overflowing with prostitutes, the mentally unbalanced, idolaters, those who lived out faith even while not being of the chosen people, rapists, and of course murderers. All these, along with more reputable folks, make up those God used to fulfill the Divine purpose. Divine relentlessness, what we who follow in the footsteps of John Wesley might call prevenient grace, refuses to surrender in the face even of murder. These folks, from Cain and Moses and King David to St. Peter (who struck the ear from the High Priest’s slave) to St. Paul were to be used and nothing would prevent God from using them.
Which gets me thinking about a couple things. Divine justice, it is clear, doesn’t resemble human justice. Were Moses or Cain living in Texas, they would have been executed by now. Were the Twelve concerned with justice, they might well have risen up, cast out Paul from their midst, and perhaps arranged a quiet, out-of-the-way death for him. Such things were not uncommon at the time. We read and hear so often from the families of victims, from police and their supporters, from just ordinary folks, that murderers aren’t human beings, they should be locked away and the key lost, murderers should themselves die because Divine justice demands it (even though, it should be clear enough, there isn’t a bit of evidence from Scriptural narrative God would have supported the execution of any of those upon whom he showed favor). It should be obvious that when we human beings talk about “justice” we aren’t at all concerning ourselves with Divine justice. We just want vengeance. We want those who have murdered our loved ones – family, friends, important people – to themselves face the final destiny that awaits us all.
Which, of course, leads me to wonder: Why do we humans even pretend to call ourselves believers in God, or followers of Christ, if we are so willing to destroy what God has created and, in the past, used to great benefit for Divine purposes. World-changing purposes, really; consider if Moses had faced human justice for his crimes; consider if King David had surrendered himself to his own, self-proclaimed, justice for the death of Uriah, or his son Absalom. Would we even have a Christian Church, at least as it exists today, had St. Paul faced a human tribunal for the death of St. Stephen?
We are so quick to judge. We are so quick to declare our judgments approved by God. We are so confident that excluding others from Church, from society, from life, are all acts approved by God when even a glance at the most familiar stories from the Bible remind us that while we human beings may be all too willing to exclude, to destroy, and to kill those we have determined do not belong either to the human race or to the Beloved Community, God continues to insist, throughout the generations and through the narratives in Scripture, that this just isn’t the case.
Perhaps if we didn’t waste so much energy figuring out ways to keep folks out, to remove them from our membership roles, to declare them unacceptable, to create new and interesting barriers to acceptance in our homes, our churches, our societies, and our political culture, we might just hear a voice not so much thundering as it is whispering, “Why are you persecuting me?”