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.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (emphasis added)
The past two-and-a-half years have been an interesting study in human interaction. Not long after the announcement that Lisa was being appointed Superintendent of the Rockford District, back in 2013, there was a special session of the Northern Illinois Conference to consider a particular plan through which the Conference would help churches laden with mortgage debt. As a member of the Conference Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, I not only attended but was given voting privileges (for the first time! It was very exciting). As I wandered through Elgin First UMC, my name badge on, people would glance my way then do a double-take. Not everyone, of course, but more than a few. When they saw my last name, they would approach me, introduce themselves, shake my hand and invariably say, “You must be Lisa’s husband.” On our way home that afternoon, Lisa and were talking and she said, “It was weird. All these people came up to me and were talking to me.” I chuckled and said, “It’s because of your appointment. Hell, people were sucking up to me because I’m your husband.”
I suppose it’s part of the process of socialization that we learn to approach persons with power or authority, introduce ourselves to them, perhaps only to be known by them, perhaps seeking some favor, perhaps both. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. Lord knows I’ve done it, although I do hope I’m better than I used to be. Who wouldn’t want to be known by those who might well have some kind of influence on our lives? How better to get them to be aware of the people their word and actions might touch?
Still, being on the receiving end of this behavior was distinctly odd, to say the least. It still is. That Lisa is the District Superintendent is true enough. It doesn’t change the person I am. It does, however, change how people perceive me and choose to interact with me (with the exception of the people of Christ The Carpenter UMC; thank God for them and their openness and love and insouciance toward names or titles). I have had to keep reminding myself of this often. I am just me, no big deal. All the same, to some just the fact that I’m married to a person holding a particular office of authority in our denomination makes me a big deal. I’m not sure I’ll ever wrap my head around that, at least not all the way.
You see, St. Paul reminds us that none of us are a big deal. As much as we might enjoy parading our advance degrees around – and you can’t be ordained clergy in the UMC without at least an advanced professional degree – and showing off how much Greek and Hebrew we know; as much as we might enjoy being looked upon as particularly special people (having been a clergy spouse in a couple small towns, I will tell you that everyone knows who you are, whether you are aware of it or not); as much as emphasize having been called out from among the rest of the Body (and being a clergy spouse is a calling); for all this, St. Paul reminds us we were called out precisely because we aren’t all that wise. We certainly aren’t all that powerful; besides United Methodists, and probably not a majority of those, who cares about our General Conference, what difference does it make to anyone? We have been called out not because we have special gifts, are oh-so-smart or powerful. I don’t care if you’re a Bishop, the Chair of the General Conference, the head of one of our global Boards, or just a local pastor or deacon in service: you’re where you are because you’re not that big a deal.
So you have a piece of paper that says you read some books and wrote some papers. Do you honestly believe that’s going to get you a free cup of coffee anywhere? Does seminary education really matter all that much? So you stand in front of a congregation every Sunday, lead Bible Studies and classes, and your sanctuary is filled with people and your mission and outreach continues to grow. Do you really think any of that has to do with you? So people in different conferences and in other parts of the denomination know your name, you get mentioned in the United Methodist Reporter or are interviewed on local or even national news. Does that mean you don’t fart after a really good meal? Do any of these things eliminate your need to confess your sins together with other Christians? Does an education or a piece of paper or a special title before your name mean you aren’t in need of the means of grace of the Sacrament to bring you together with the Body of Christ? Does the fact that you might have written a book that a whole lot of people read, perhaps study and share in their local congregations grant you wisdom or courage for the facing of this hour?
As difficult as it is, each of us and all of us need to remember that God has called us not because of who we are or because of some special gift we have; God has called us to serve God, to be builders of the Kingdom, tenders of God’s garden. No one is supposed to see us or hear us. Who we are is inconsequential. All we do, all we are, is for the glory of God. Period. Full stop.
We are just too wed to our special status, whether as baptized Christians in service or ordained as clergy or consecrated as Bishop, to recall that not a bit of it has anything to do with any of us, either individually or as the Church. We are called to be the Body of Christ, not the Body of the educated, the movers and shakers, the special people. St. Paul reminds the people of Corinth they just aren’t that big a deal, which is precisely why God called them. I think we, particularly in the United Methodist Church, not only have forgotten this; we celebrate our special status. People in positions of power and authority seek to remain in positions of power and authority, rather than remember our power comes from weakness, our authority from the Spirit of God, not from some book we read or some title in front of our name. We need to stop regarding ourselves as all that, because we’re not. We are those who were not, created by God to show forth the Glory of God to the world.
That is who and what we are. Nothing before God called us in to being to serve God, God’s Kingdom, and the living of the Gospel.
But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ* for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – Romans 3: 21-23 (emphasis added)
Sisters, Brothers and the Whities Blacks and the Crackers Police and their backers They’re all political laughters
Hurry, people running from their worries While the judge and his juries Dictate the law that’s partly
Cat calling love balling fussing and cussing
Top billing now is killing For peace no one is willing Kind of make you get that feeling
Everybody smoke Use the pill and the dope Educated fools From uneducated schools
Pimping people is the rule Polluted water in the pool
And Nixon talking about don’t worry He say don’t worry He say don’t worry He say don’t worry
But they don’t know There can be no show And if there’s hell below We’re all gonna go
Everybody’s praying And everybody’s saying But when come time to do Everybody’s laying
Just talking about don’t worry They say don’t worry They say don’t worry They say don’t worry – (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, words & music by Curtis Mayfield
As we move through this Advent season with our guide, Curtis Mayfield, we should take a moment and consider the usual or “traditional” appellations given for each week. Last week, the first Sunday in Advent, is usually considered the Sunday of Hope. So it was we considered what “Hope” means to a people who continue to live as strangers in their own land. We heard Mayfield offer to the African-American community a vision of themselves as the “people who are darker than blue”. It is a call to name the community’s sins one by one; only a voice from within that community would have either the authority or power to do so. As is usually the case, however, a call to repentance carries with it the promise of redemption. Why else name one’s community “darker than blue” is, in the words of Ebeneezer Scrooge, one is beyond all hope?
Last week I also noted that it was precisely the specificity of the song – it was not addressed to everyone; it was addressed to the African-American community at a particular time in their history – that opened it to all. Had Mayfield written a call to repentance to everyone, how might that have worked, exactly? How would it be possible to list the collective sin of all the various groups in the United States? Hearing Mayfield’s call to his people however, opened to those with ears to hear the possibility of considering their own people’s sin. It opens up hope for redemption to all.
The Second Sunday is usually named “Faith” Sunday. Yet, what “faith” is proclaimed? In what are we professing our faith? Nothing less than that the God who has created the Universe will not leave us to wallow and die in our sin. The coming of the Messiah is first, foremost and always for a particular people; again, it is only because of that specificity that we can make the universal claim that the Savior to be born, to come to us today, the return of the risen Christ to bring about the final consummation of the New Creation, is something for all of us.
A popular question is always, “Why do we need a Savior?” It’s a good question. It is part of our faith that we profess our need for salvation in part by talking about something called Original Sin. In this song, Mayfield moves from the specific hardships of the African-American community, their need for salvation and the hope of redemption to the declaration that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Not just anyone can make such a claim with authority. In a world divided by nationality, by race, by class, by religion, it is only the voice of those who suffer at the hands of history’s victors who have the power to say that all face the prospect of eternal judgment. As James Cone noted decades ago, it isn’t up to the white power structure, secular or religious, to tell African-Americans what they need to do to change. It’s up that community, as Cone writes, to get their shit together. In doing so, however, they can pronounce judgment not only upon themselves but upon all precisely because of their unique perspective.
Many people are turned off by the idea of Original Sin. It just seems to violate our contemporary sensibility, our belief in our fundamental goodness. We reward ourselves by saying that “sin” isn’t meaningful; only “sins”, individual or collective acts, are that which need forgiveness. Curtis Mayfield, however, isn’t buying it. The world isn’t just filled with people who do bad things; those people aren’t bad because they are powerful political actors (Nixon, judges, police and their backers, people on drugs, the pushers, the pimps). People do bad things because all have sinned and face the ultimate judgment not for their acts but because they refuse to see the fundamental brokenness that leads them to commit these acts.
“Don’t worry,” Mayfield says, turning the words of the powerful around not only upon them but to all, “if there’s a hell below we’re all gonna go.” Hell isn’t something that awaits bad people who do bad things. Hell isn’t the reality in which the oppressed live right now. Hell is something that awaits everyone. Our faith this Advent has to include a profession of our need for salvation, otherwise the need to prepare, the need for this child to be born, the need for a Savior is meaningless.
As we prepare, we need to remind ourselves not only to hope for the possibility of redemption; we need to declare this redemption is redemption from something. And it is a call laid upon all of us. No one escapes the final judgment. No one is so blessed that they can escape the promise of eternal separation from God. If there’s a hell below, we’re all gonna go. Only Faith can give us the strength to hear this Word. Only faith could give Curtis Mayfield the power and authority to declare this judgment.
All that scattering is for the sake of the Mission of God, a mission that has nothing to do with uniformity, but rather asks for unity among those who would undertake it. It may not be comfortable or neat or easy, but as the church it is our mission. – Andy Bryan, “Unity and The Sin Of Babel”, United Methodist Insight, October 2, 2015
I’m going to share a story out of school as it were. Lisa and I are in the midst of a disagreement centering on my appearance. I have to admit part of it is rooted in what is probably a mid-life crisis of one kind or another. At the same time, it has to do with expressing who I am. For several years I’ve worn my hair very closely cropped – almost a buzz cut. I’ve been letting my hair grow out for several months and it’s past that awkward stage and beginning to wave and curl. I haven’t decided for sure if I’m going to just allow it to continue growing or get dreadlocks. It has to be a minimum of three inches long for that. I’m also growing out my goatee while keeping the rest of my beard short so that, when it gets long enough, that can be braided.
Why the big change? To express who I am. I’ve never fit in to any particular group. When I was in Seminary, one of the faculty I respected a great deal, Mark Burrows, said to me, “One of the things I really admire about you is you get along with everyone.” Now, I honestly don’t know if that’s true. I think I tried to get along with everyone; more to the point, however, my effort to get along with different types of people comes from the fact that I just don’t fit in with any single group. Furthermore, I’ve never tried to fit in to one group. Where’s the fun in that? I’ve always figured it’s better to have all sorts of different kinds of people in one’s life. How else do you learn and grow? How else do you share all sorts of experiences with others if the folks you call acquaintances and friends are all like you? That’s boring.
One of the most important theological lessons I learned in Seminary was that God wants us to be us. We were each of us created to be who and as we are. Our life, all the things that go to make up who we are, they are our most precious possessions. God uses that uniqueness in specific ways to achieve the ultimate divine end – the Kingdom in which the New Creation exists to give our God the glory. The salvation offered in the crucified and risen Jesus comes to each of us as we are, calling us to be who we were created to be for the glory of God. The freedom we enjoy is the freedom to surrender care for ourselves to serve others. It is also the freedom to do so with the unique gifts only each of us has. For me, part of the uniqueness is appearing as one who does not fit in anywhere because this world, in the end, is not my home.
Ours is a world with so many enforced conformities. Labels get attached so easily, and short-hand summaries of others are far too easy to come by. It is part of that sin of Babel Andy Bryan points out: The urge toward uniformity less God scatter us. Uniformity and conformity flow from an unfaithful fear of God’s wrath. As the early chapters of Genesis make clear, ours are lives spent going out in to the world; in the Great Commission makes clear, this “going forth” is part of our identity as Christians. It is that to which calls us. Going out to the world, being scattered for the sake of the Kingdom should offer us the kind of freedom to show the world, “This is who I am as one beloved child of God!”
When I was in Seminary, I attended Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church because it was just across the street from American University. The pastor at the time, Rev. William Holmes, sent us forth with the best benediction ever: “Now go! And be the scattered Body of Christ at work in the world!” Part of being that “scattered body”, of not becoming ensnared in the Babel trap, of following the command to spread across the Earth, to preach the Good News from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth, is allowing ourselves to be the person God created us to be. Be willing to express that so the person God created can be a sign of what is possible through God’s saving and perfecting grace.
I still haven’t decided on the whole dreadlocks thing. On the other hand I do know that being part of the scattered Body of Christ means that I’m just one small yet unique part of a massive whole aiming toward bringing about the Kingdom of Peace for the Glory of God. How I look isn’t important at all compared to getting out there and being and doing the call I hear each day in new ways.
What troubles me most about this question is that the church is usually the one on trial rather than the motives of the unchurched and unbelieving. Why is the church always on trial? Why is the church always in question? Why are the motives of the church always under the spotlight and never the motives of the unbelieving community? – Kevin Shrum, “9 Reasons People Leave The Church When The Church Isn’t To Blame”, Christian Post, July 29, 2015
[P]eople feel like the church is a horribly judgmental place more concerned with keeping its own brand of morality afloat than actually helping anyone in need. You’ll notice that Shrum never says a word about service or ministry. It’s all holiness all the time. Unfortunately for churches like Shrum’s, holiness just isn’t very popular in our culture these days. What people want in spirituality is egalitarianism, an emphasis on the ways in which God welcomes, rather than rejects. – Daniel Schultz, “Millennials Put Off By Rigid, Judgmental Religion Offered . . . More Orthodoxy,” Religion Dispatches, August 3, 2015
More broadly, articles like Shrum’s are further evidence of the fact that evangelicals need to conduct some serious self-examination on these questions. They must ask themselves whether this oppositional mentality comprises a core component of who they are. In other words, if they were to drop the discourse of “us” versus “them” altogether, would they cease to be evangelicals at all? Moreover, without such vigilant policing of theological and social boundaries, would their movement“lose its identity and purpose and grow languid and aimless?” . . .
The “us” versus “them” disposition clearly benefits evangelicals in a variety of ways. Individual believers may take comfort in the ability to easily identify one of “us” in an increasingly diverse society, political leaders can use it to mobilize the powerful white evangelical voting bloc, and of course it does seem to, for the time being at least, keep church attendance from going the way of the Mainline. –Jonathan Orbell, “Sure, Evangelical Numbers Are Steady . . . But At What Cost?”, Religion Dispatches, August 14, 2015
I urge you, as I did when I was on my way to Macedonia, to remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine, and not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the divine training that is known by faith. But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk,desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions.
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. – 1 Timothy 1:3-11
There are many things in this world I abhor. Cooked cabbage is probably at the top of that list, although I love brussel sprouts, with vinegar and butter. I’m turned off by casual, unthinking, knee-jerk reactions some people make about things others say. The Internet, it seems, provides far too many lessons in not listening/reading; we have forgotten the preciousness of others, that – barring such extreme views as the desire for the death of others – even views we might hold in contempt are still those held by our fellow human beings, children beloved by God. We are becoming far too casual in our dismissal of others. It used to anger me, this refusal to understand others. Now, it makes me sad.
Perhaps what makes me more sad, however, is the kind of bickering among Christians we see represented above. The abuse of the word “evangelical”, something all Christians should embrace, considering it is always and only the willingness to share the Good News of Infinite Divine Love embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, makes me want to bang my head against a wall. It is not the property of this or that party – “one says ‘I am of Apollos’, another says ‘I am of Paul'” – but part and parcel of being a Christian, a part of the Body of Christ. There is nothing political, social, cultural, uniquely American, or anything else about being an Evangelical Christian (except, of course, historically where the word has been used to differentiate Protestant and Catholic styles of theology).
Buzzwords and proof-texts are tossed around like a graduate marketing seminar. “The narrow way”, “millennials”, “orthodoxy”, “holiness”, “liberal”, “spirituality” and so many more find their way to these articles, typed with neither thought nor reflection they might really mean things. Indeed, perhaps they mean the most important things. Rather than remain gentle, however, these authors all seem to be of one mind about one thing, at least: it is far better to distinguish “us” from “them” even as we acknowledge that is something Jesus didn’t do. So caught up in taking sides, in proving a point, in arguing, in being right at the cost of the ministry of the Church, these authors have no idea how much they are hurting the rest of us. They have no idea how much they are hurting a world in need of words of comfort, in need of those willing to stand with the nameless and faceless, in need of a vision of promise and hope for a world cast about by too many plans and visions and threats that promise nothing but pain and death. While we stand atop our sinking steeples yelling at one another, we forget there are children dying of preventable diseases; there are women hiding in shame, covered in bruises and scars; there are men so full of fear and rage they sense only violence will give them a voice.
The quote from Kevin Shrum is a remarkable whine that nevertheless holds at least a grain of truth. The church should and must sit in silence and hear the complaints of those we try so hard to reach. When that reach is pushed away, we need to know why. A refusal to do so is a betrayal of our faith. It is a stance rooted in our own sense of our own righteousness. It is, in other words, a whine rooted in our sin and brokenness. The moment we wish to stop hearing from those outside the church how we are perceived regardless of our stated intentions is the moment we are lost.
Still, the Church should also be careful that criticisms that extend beyond our identity as the Body of Christ aren’t taken too much to heart. We have an obligation, after all, to the Living God, to whose glory we work. We are the hands and feet of the Risen Christ, empowered by the Spirit to live in love to the world around us. What Shrum writes earlier in the article shouldn’t be of any concern to us at all:
Once possessing a “favored place at the community table” along with other community leaders, with portfolio and reputation to boot, the church in North America is now hemorrhaging members at an alarming rate. Further, the indifference toward the church by non-attenders and unbelievers has been a shock to the often insulated and isolated members of an all too often recalcitrant church. To make matters worse, most people in the church are clueless as to the reasons for this indifference.
Pastor Dan is correct in his observations about stated trends in recent surveys concerning the religious preferences of the American people. I would agree we as churches still have far to go to be what we are supposed to be. That, of course, has always been the case; in many ways, particularly in the mainline churches, we are more active in the pursuit both of personal and social holiness than at many times in history. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
What it also doesn’t mean is that we surrender the reality that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is not just about the happy ending at the end of the story. On the contrary, along side the freedom and salvation God in Christ brings to the world is the judgment that the Christ-event was necessary at all; we are all judged and found unworthy of Divine love. The strain of spiritual sickness that is always with us, even in the Church, can only be removed through Divine condescension. There is always judgment with grace, and that judgment is always death – our death, our eternal separation from the God who created us. The moment we lose that, the rest of the story becomes nonsense and the Church is little more than a private social welfare agency staffed by people who think just a bit too much of themselves. Until we remember the whole story, we aren’t living the Gospel at all. We’re trying to feel better about ourselves at the expense of some other.
The use of the buzzword “consumerist” in the last article by Orbell is – or should be – strange. The idea that the either/or of a “faithful few” against the “consumerist majority” is solely the creation of the binary thinking of “evangelicals” is absurd. The reality is we are indeed a consumerist society; our religious preferences no less than the brand of soap we buy or car we drive is driven by a capitalist ideology that understands all things as having a market value, to be weighed on the scales of worth against what we are willing to pay. We can no more escape this reality than we can the reality that our churches still struggle with racism and sexism: they are an indelible part of our history and need always be kept in mind. To be an American is to be a consumer. Whether it’s coffee or churches, the role of final arbiter of “best value” is always us. That this distorts so much of what we do as churches, particularly as we try to get out our message, should be obvious. The lie of individualism is part of the ideology of capitalism, an ideology that infects our churches no less than our schools, our politics, and our sport.
What made me angrier and angrier, then sadder and sadder, as I read these related pieces, was the reality that our Scriptures offer something so different from this kind of petty bickering, nonsensical talk with empty words, all rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking ship of the Christian churches in America. In 1 Timothy, St. Paul asks his young protege to remain in Ephesus. Why? Because there are those in that city who worry themselves overmuch with all sorts of matters that have nothing to do with the Gospel, the Gospel that St. Paul preached, the Gospel that St. Paul received from God. Rather than hold in love the Word of Life, they pay attention to fads and fashions, to abstruse and nonsensical ideas. They carry on as if they actually knew what they were talking about, rather than attending in love to the Gospel.
At its heart, we are to hold fast to a life in which we recognize the ordinances of God exist for us not because we are blessed. Rather, they pronounce judgment upon us as sinners. The life of holiness, personal and social, to which we are called is not for us, but for the Glory of the God who saves us. Carrying on with little understanding, using words without knowledge, having no idea what they’re talking about, we find little of the Gospel that is the precious kernel at the heart of the Church’s life. As the world around us cries out in need, rather than offer bread we toss as many stones as we can, some called “orthodoxy”, others called “holiness”, still others “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. Is it any wonder the Church has been tried and found wanting by so many?
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.
In order then that the social compact may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking, which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body.This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free . . . – Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I, Section 7
Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don’t allow our enemies to have guns, why should we allow them to have ideas? – Josef Stalin(?)*
For freedom Christ has set us free. – Galatians 5:1a
The other day, I published a post entitled “The Power of Ideas”. It concerned itself with the complexity of the real world (as opposed to the myriad ways various groups try to enforce some kind of conformity through particular narrative strictures) and how we in the old-time mainline Protestant Churches are not dealing well with the messiness of our current reality. Then, last night, I was privileged to attend the ordination service of the 176th Session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. I saw a former pastor of mine commissioned to become an Elder and one of my current pastors ordained an Elder. Ordination services are long. They can be too long, depending on the atmosphere. Or, as last night’s service proved, the time can fly because the Spirit, the music, the message, and the purpose of the service blend so well, time seems suspended and one is swept up in the God’s Holy Breath of Love rather than checking watches and cell phones.
Bishop Sally Dyck preached, using as her text the text from Exodus describing priestly consecration for Aaron and his sons. It was a typical sermon from her: It offered the opportunity to hear Scripture with our ears, to understand that anointing priests’s ears, thumbs, and big toes with ram’s blood is as important, meaningful, holy, and relevant today as it was when the practice was established. It called upon those whose call to ministry was to be affirmed and sealed to remember that ordained ministry is the work of the whole person. Most of all, the sermon offered a vision of the ministry of the whole church guided not from dictates from above. Rather, Bishop Dyck reiterated how ordained ministry in particular is servant ministry, and in the end is God’s work.
We in the mainline churches are hurting. We are scared. We are so unsure of ourselves in the face of so many troubles, so many voices telling us which way to go, which nostrums will cure that ails us, we are paralyzed. An ordination service, however, is a good way to remind all of us who we are and what it is we are supposed to be about. While those called and ordained are set aside by God for specific tasks, all of us in the Christian churches are called and baptized in to the ministry of the Church: Preaching the Good News; serving the poor, the orphaned, the lost; living together as communities called out from the world around us to be the Body of Christ in our world. Ordination is not only consecrating those called to specific tasks. It is also a reaffirmation of the ministry of all of us who bear the mark of the Cross on our hearts, trying to figure out what that means for all of us in our different places, times, languages, etc. It is a challenge we all must face with true faith: live it out as best we can, reflecting as we go, but never allowing our reflection to become the end of our lives as Christians.
There are so many of us, however, who would far prefer to set this challenge aside. Wouldn’t it be easier if we were told how to live our lives? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give to those who deserve it, as defined by people in charge? Wouldn’t it be better to set clear boundaries between ourselves and those around us so we know who we are? Wouldn’t it just make the whole church-thing easier if someone in charge set aside the messiness of actual life and the world around us, gave us clear instructions on what it is we believe, how we are to live, who deserves our love and care and who does not?
I was a junior in college when I first read Rousseau’s The Social Contract. It was for a class in political theory, the class that whetted my appetite for philosophy. When I came to the quotation above, I was horrified. Few things are more detestable than surrendering one’s whole life to the dictates of self-appointed leaders. It would be a living nightmare to live without the ability simply to think for oneself, to look at others around us and how they express themselves and say, “You are wrong.” As the questionable quote from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin makes clear, tyrants are more than aware of the danger posed by true freedom: the freedom to think for oneself.
This is true no less in churches than in the secular realm. We all need constant reminding that, while we submit to the Will of God, it is God’s Will that we be free, that we be the persons God created us to be, and that the only Rule or Law over us is that of Love. Love for God and love for one another. Not just those in our congregations, but love for all God’s creatures, for God’s creation, and all people, whether they are Christians or atheists or Muslims or Zoroastrians or Satanists or the old lady whose given her life to children in her community or the old man who’s in jail for molesting some of those same children. They are all children of God, deserving of love just because they are. Nothing is more difficult for us to understand. Nothing is more difficult for us to do. Nothing, however, is more or less than that to which all of us in the churches are called to do. How we do it, who does what, and how best to pay for it – because doing anything in our world requires money, as much as we would prefer it didn’t – is for local church, and connected churches through denominational and ecumenical structures to figure out for themselves each and every day.
Is it any wonder so many American churches are looking more and more like tiny little authoritarian fiefdoms? Few things are as intoxicating and arousing as power. The kind of power exercised in the the spiritual realm is of far greater potency than anything this world could offer. Quite literally, it is the business of life and death. Those who hold such power easily are to be feared above all others. They demand the kind of submission Rousseau insisted was the essence of true freedom, in direct contradiction to the Scriptural injunction that ours is freedom for the sake of freedom. When you hear or read someone insisting that, as Christians it is our duty to submit to this authority or that doctrine or the other person in charge, you should run the other way.
Nothing is as dangerous, as counter-cultural, as fully human as the idea of freedom. Many people run away from it precisely because it calls upon so much energy, so much time and effort. People who love power understand this, exploit it, and in the process destroy lives, the good name “Christian”, and leave so many of us more confused and uncertain than we already are. It takes the kind of service I attended last night to remind us that ours is a life of true freedom: Called to live our lives as God created those lives, to be fully who we can be, we travel this road together, never quite sure if it’s right, but knowing we can’t stop because it’s our job to be God’s hands and feet and words of love and lives of sacrifice. No one said it would be easy, which is why so many prefer to submit themselves to this or that rule or law or person who has all the answers for us. We need to be reminded that, just as those ordained are set aside for particular work, we, too, have work to do. No idea is more dangerous, more powerful, more threatening than the idea that we are free.
And no idea is more true.
*I have no idea if this is, in fact, a quote from Josef Stalin. Let’s just say it certainly sounds like something he would say. If it isn’t a quote, however, I will certainly make a correction.