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.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. – James 1:22-26
Violence seems to be the order of the day in our country. Reports of shootings are ever more commonplace. We cast about for solutions, but none seems to be forthcoming. We ask for new laws, and laws can change behavior, but they cannot change hearts. Only Christ can change hearts, and he does this by the power and work of the Holy Spirit. . . .
Thirty days of praying for peace and reconciliation….Will you join me? It won’t take very long. Can you think of a better way to spend a few minutes of each day? – Dr. David Watson, “Thirty Days Of Prayer For Peace And Reconciliation”, Musings And Whatnot, Aug 27, 2015
It might seem more than a little odd to read someone who claims the Christian faith to call prayer a “cop out”. What about “pray without ceasing?”; even the Epistle from James reads, in chapter 5, verse 16, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” How dare I say that prayer is a cop out, to write that nothing is accomplished by prayer!
Except, of course, I’m not “calling” prayer “a cop out”. I am, rather, pointing to a particular piece of writing, linked above, in which readers are invited to spend thirty days in prayer for peace and reconciliation. Both personal and social it would seem, at least from the opening paragraph. We are reminded just how difficult reconciliation is. We are told that real forgiveness – of ourselves, of those we consider “enemies” – is only possible through the power of God. The opportunity to spend even just a few moments each day in prayer for peace and reconciliation is offered.
There’s not a single word that even hints at the following sentence: “And when you’re done praying, get up off your asses, contact the person with whom reconciliation is needed, and get busy.” Or, perhaps: “Say ‘Amen’, then get together with folks who want sensible gun legislation; who want to work to fix the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots.” Just . . . 30 days of prayer.
Should I assume, perhaps, that action follows on prayer? I would except the powerlessness and helplessness of human beings in the face both of social injustice and violence as well as interpersonal conflict is presented as nearly insurmountable. Yes – through prayer, we may indeed find the strength to do what needs to be done. Offering 30 Days Of Prayer For Peace And Reconciliation without offering 30 Days Of Action Toward Peace And Reconciliation is a bit like telling the poor, hungry, homeless person “Go in peace!” (James 2:16).
As Wesleyans, we believe ourselves to be co-workers through and with the Spirit both for making disciples as well as for the transformation of the world. This Spirit is the Spirit of Life, the Holy breath of God that moved the first human beings to live, that blew across the primordial chaos bringing light and Creation. We are not just a praying people, although Lord knows we do indeed need to do that. What we do not need to do is accept an invitation only to prayer. We need, rather, 30 Days Of Prayer And Action For Peace And Reconciliation: Spend time in prayer each day to be reconciled with God, with our fellow Christians, with those toward whom we may feel anger or enmity. Then get up, walk out the door, and get busy reconciling. Get busy being peace makers. I’m not denying that real peace and forgiveness and reconciliation comes through the presence of the Spirit; I’m only saying if that Spirit isn’t prompting you to act right now, despite strong emotions and overwhelming obstacles, then perhaps the first thing for which you need to be praying is a clean heart, reconciled to God.
One final note. Presenting us as helpless without the Spirit in the face of a social issue like gun violence is absurd. Solutions abound; political corruption and cowardice, combined with our current poisoned political atmosphere, make any action on any vital national issue impossible. Saying that law don’t change hearts, if followed to its logical conclusion, is counsel to inaction. After all, why have laws for murder, since we know people are going to commit murder? Laws against theft obviously offer no deterrent because the hearts of thieves aren’t changed. Whether or not laws change hearts is not the issue: Changing laws to reduce violence, to increase justice, for a more fair society really do reduce violence, increase justice, and make for a more fair society.
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.
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ – Luke 11:1
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes* with sighs too deep for words. – Romans 8:26
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name for ever.
For great is your steadfast love towards me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. – Psalm 86:12-13
Cure for loneliness
Life is much too short to be whiled away with tears
Cure for loneliness
I erase you now
I don’t need you now
I erase you now with all of my past – Partial lyrics, “Second Life Syndrome”, lyrics by Mariusz Duda
This is not a blog about me or my life. At the same time, occasions might call for some reflection. I have tried in the past to set that in a theological context, if for no other reason than to maintain some kind of integrity with this blog’s purpose. Also, these personal reflections more likely than not come through reflection, prayer, worship, and are rooted in theological categories. Today’s reflection is actually rooted in the Sermon preached at the 11:00 service at Christ UMC in Rockford, IL. It was an extended meditation on Psalm 86, and how it can be a model for prayers of petition. Perhaps it can be a model of prayer, full stop.
In any event, after the sermon and after taking communion, as is my wont, I went to the kneeler around the altar to pray. I’m never quite sure what I’m going to pray, 0r how I’ll feel. This is just my time to do that. There was this flash in my head, and I think I learned something, or perhaps relearned it in a new way. Why I feel a need to share it, I’m not quite sure. Only that I was stupid enough to share my thoughts and plans on how I was going to kill myself, it might be nice to share with you where I am now, and how that all might have changed today.
There is no question I face every single day, whether from myself or someone else, that is more annoying or more unanswerable than, “When are you going to get better?” Some time back, it occurred to me that this was not some incident triggered by a combination of a series of particular events in my life; rather, I’ve come to see that I have lived most of my life with depression, sometimes less so, sometimes more. I am in the middle of re-evaluating the talk-therapy part of treatment, as I come to grips with all this. Still, the psychopharmacology of mental illness is such that it renders it difficult, to say the least, to work. I know some people who do. I’m currently on maximum doses of two anti-depressants and the maximum dose of an anti-anxiety medication, so I spend most of my waking hours in a bit of a sleepy fog. As much as I’d love to give this up, these medications keep me from sinking back to where I was; they help me focus and concentrate even while they usually push me to sleep, or at least want to, throughout most of the day. I want to work. I also want to live. It’s a trade-off with which our family is still trying to come to terms.
Yet that question arises. When will I get better. Early on, I was more honest than I realized when I said that I had no idea what “better” might look like, only that I’d know it when I started to experience it. All along, however, my secret wish – and I think my wife’s as well, for no one has been impacted more by all this than she, and she’s endured it like a real trooper, let me tell you – has been that I could or would just go back to the way I used to be. Certainly not outgoing and the social butterfly but at least comfortable in social situations, rather than awkward and wary; no longer living with a constant undercurrent of nearly-paralyzing anxiety that is more set at bay by medication rather than eliminated; most of all, I just wanted to be the person I used to be. Is that asking too much?
Listening to today’s sermon on prayers of petition, and thinking about St. Paul’s declaration that we do not know how to pray as we ought, and reflecting both on the plea of Jesus’s disciples to teach them to pray, and the Psalmist declaration of fealty because of the deliverance the LORD has given from the place of death, I was at the kneeler and I realized that I had, in all probability, been praying for and expecting exactly the wrong thing. Whatever “better” might mean, it certainly would not be the status quo ante. How would that even be possible? Not knowing how to pray, wanting to learn to pray, and remembering my deliverance from the place of the dead, it occurred to me that, on a spiritual level, I had been yearning for something that I could not have: myself prior to the events of last winter.
To do so would be to ignore the reality of all I’ve been through. To be who I was not only wouldn’t be growing; it would be regressing. Asking through prayer for some kind of return to the past missed the point that I was in the midst of a process that might well create a far better person, a far more self-aware person, a far less self-centered person than I was before. To arrest that, to reverse it, in some desire to be over it rather than through it, in the name of “better” would be not to recognize not only the reality through which I had lived, but the reality in which I was living.
So, that “you” Riverside sings about, that “you” with whom I do not need anything anymore – that is not only the extremely ill me from last winter. It is the me who was there prior to that. Things that do not grow die. So, here I am – growing, even if that isn’t necessarily “better” (it certainly isn’t worse!). I still don’t have a clue what “better” would be. I do, however, understand my current experience in a far different way, spiritually, than I did before. Perhaps even that is a sign of “better”.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how topray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes* with sighs too deep for words. – Romans 8:26
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. – Romans 12:12
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters,* to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you;esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved,* to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets,* but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.- 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22
As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church. We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people. We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another. – Statement from The United Methodist Council of Bishops
One would think the Bishops had asked us to poke one another in the eyes with sharp sticks, if one only considered the comments both on the linked piece as well as the comments on the same linked piece at the Facebook Group “Progressive United Methodists”. Acknowledging our division; speaking the name of that which divides us; calling upon all of us to pray for the Bishops, for one another, and for the whole United Methodist Church: These are not just important steps in a far longer process. The Bishops follow in the tradition of St. Paul, part of whose legacy is not only prayer for others, but admonitions to pray in all circumstances, indeed to pray without ceasing. To live one’s life as prayer.
In the midst of our disagreements, nothing is more necessary than prayer. Prayer for our leaders, from our local pastors up to and including our Bishops. We need to be in prayer for our local congregations, for our districts and District Superintendents, for our Conferences and the member churches, the Administrative and Episcopal and Ecclessiological leaders and servants. Most of all, we need to be in prayer for those with whom we know we disagree, even if we may not know their names, because there is little doubt there are those with whom we disagree strongly. It was Jesus Christ who called us to bless those who curse us, to love our enemies, to always live in love toward others, even if it meant our death. Nothing that drastic is involved here; the Bishops are doing nothing more than calling upon the whole Church to be in prayer for the whole Church. This is not just proper Episcopal advice; it is proper Biblical advice.
All one need do, however, is scroll down the linked article at the United Methodist News Service, and it becomes quite clear that a call to prayer sounds . . . weak to many in our midst. For example, revlar wrote in part: “With all due respect; this is a weak and disappointing statement. We have been called to be in prayer regarding human sexuality but that is not prophetic or ground-breaking or Pastoral.” Conqui wrote:
Asking people to pray, talking about loving each other, encouraging us to make disciples of Christ are nice platitudes but does nothing to have specific conversations about the specifics of disagreement. What in God’s name has the so-called task force accomplished towards the specific goals it was given a year ago? The ways the Cou[n]cil of Bishops is avoiding dealing with actual things that will result in true and specific conversations are more than shameful, they are destructive.
Finally, someone posting only as “You’re not welcome anymore” was the most harsh:
“guard the faith”…. Translation: protect the book of discipline and keep Gays and SSM couples out of the church at any cost. Worthless fools guarding the gates reassuring some of us there is no “open door, nor an open heart” to be found in the old mainline UMC.
It’s almost like some folks resent being reminded that we are to live in prayer. It’s almost as if some folks do not believe in the power of prayer to change lives.
The title of this post comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. He reminds his readers that even our most earnest, fervent prayers are little more than jumbled nonsense, groanings that the Spirit translates and hears as the deepest needs of our hearts. Rejecting a call to prayer . . . it goes against Scripture. It goes against tradition. It violates the most basic canon of reason. It makes a lie of our experience of prayer. It is, in other words, as unWesleyan as you can get.
Not only should we heed this call to prayer; we should advocate it in our local churches, making it a request during congregational prayers – asking for prayers to heal the divisions within and among the people called Methodist; for our leaders who are no less divided than we are; for a passionate but ultimately fruitful conversation and process in which we hear the answer of the Spirit in our collective life.
I’m disappointed by so much vitriol directed at a call to prayer. It hurts even more than the divisions and acrimony at the heart of our disagreements, and is all the evidence we need that ours is a hurting people, in need not only of prayer but the Holy Spirit to come and be with us, among us, in us, and for us. We are in this together, so praying for all of us is as necessary as breathing. What else can we do, if we are to be the people of God gathered as United Methodist Christians?
So now we wait. We watch. We pray.
Unlike the first disciples, we believe something wonderful is happening, that time itself is reshaping around a corpse in a rock-hewn tomb. The sorrow and grief we are called to remember on Good Friday is replaced by a Holy watchfulness, a prayer-filled anticipation for what we shall proclaim tomorrow.
Yet, this watch is also one performed in awareness that it is done in the midst of a darkness so vast, it recalls the original chaos before creation. We believers are few in the face of those who would celebrate the demise of our hope and salvation, announcing the false freedom from Divine discipline and justice. Our silent prayers screech above the din of celebration at the death of one man.
How often have any of us read, after the execution of a criminal, that the person deserved that death? How often do we read words such as, “Good!”, “One less scumbag,” and other sentiments? We have yet to learn one of the lessons of the Passion – that the death of anyone, no matter how much how many of us may believe it necessary and just, is not a thing to celebrate. We should pass over such a death in silent waiting, praying for the time when life will over come death, even death on a state-owned table by state-controlled chemicals.
Our Easter Vigil, a time of praying in silent waiting for the coming New Creation, should include prayers for our world that still believes death is a solution to a problem we create. As we sit, or kneel, or stand, or however we prostrate ourselves before God on this day, we should remember all those the world deems unworthy of life, for whatever crime. We should carry the name of an executed convict with us, and remember that he or she, too, faced the same fear, the same emptiness, the same descending darkness that Jesus faced on Good Friday. We should life up that name, in hopes that God’s grace is greater even than our justice, and certainly greater than that person’s crime.
We are in a time of waiting, of prayer, and of hope. We wait for the word from the women who went to the tomb early in the morning. We pray that God’s will, the New Creation, will begin as the sun rises on the First Day. And we hope that life, God’s life in the Spirit, is stronger than death, even death for the sins of the whole world. We wait. We pray. We hope.
So, Holy Saturday is, in many ways, a singular moment that is like much the rest of our Christian living – waiting, praying, and hoping.