Let us Seek: “All that is required…”

In pondering today’s scripture reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, I found myself thinking back to “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies” as first printed in the 1808 Discipline under the heading “The General Rules of the Methodist Church.” In reading the description of the societies which gave birth to churches, there is much to ponder.

The classes which comprised each society consisted of individuals who would meet with a leader weekly to talk about how their own faith journey was progressing, find what was needed for life (whether that be encouragement, reproof, advice, comfort, etc.), and to collect what each was willing to give for the relief of their preachers, the church, and the poor. Each week (or (as I understand it) as often as possible in a circuit where the preacher would travel long distances), the leaders would meet with the minister to talk about challenges, which challenging class-members needed individualized attention from the minister, and to give funds to the stewards of the society. Those were different times with different understandings of what was expected of church members.

Having now given a, extremely basic overview of what classes were within the societies of yesteryear, I will share why I was thinking about the General Rules while pondering the reading for today, which is 1 John 3:10-16. There’s a line in the General Rules about how a person could become involved with those societies which sticks in the mind. The line says:

“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.”

The General Rules go on to talk about how those who wish to continue in the societies that they evidence their desire to be saved through following guidelines on how to live life in terms of doing no evil (don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t profane the Sabbath, don’t engage in drunkenness, don’t engage in slaveholding, don’t quarrel, don’t buy or sell illegal goods, don’t charge unlawful interest on others, don’t speak evil of others (especially governmental leaders and ministers), etc.). doing good (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, exhorting all souls towards God, helping others within the household of faith, being frugal, having patience, etc.), and attending on the ordinances of God (go to church, spend time with the word, take communion, pray, fasting, etc.).

Some of these concepts are a bit foreign to us. A lot of our churches would be in trouble if we felt that speaking poorly of governmental leaders or our pastors was grounds for expulsion or reproof. We might raise an eyebrow at someone for drinking too much, suggest counseling, invite them to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or simply pray deeply, but to expel someone from the church for even buying an alcoholic beverage is not a common standard for expulsion from church membership these days.

Times have changed over the centuries, but I continue to believe that there are still standards which we hold as church that continue to evolve. In some ways, we continue to struggle with some of the original concerns of the United Societies, but our role in the world has called us to be more vocal on other concerns.

Forgetting our identity as those who seek to live in this life as God’s people has proved disastrous in the past, such as when we forgot our call to avoid slavery as sin in the midst of the centuries that have passed since those rules were recorded in 1808. Forgetting our identity led to massive quantities of evil and suffering for those who were enslaved and in the souls of those who enslaved others. Forgetting our identity led to a grim chapter in our history which still has an effect today.

It is just as easy to forget our continually changing identity in the present as it was for those folks who struggled with slavery in bygone years. Reflecting on this reality, I pondered the scripture deeply in light of upcoming events.

This Saturday, April 21st, the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will kickoff the “Imagine No Racism” Campaign. We are gathering as a Conference to seek to imagine a better world without racism and (hopefully) with equity, and this gathering came to mind as I read today’s scripture. 1 John 3:10-16 reads this way in the New Revised Standard Version:

“The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.

For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

What does it mean to desire to flee wrath by fleeting towards God? What does it mean to evidence that continuing effort by doing no intentional harm through our actions? What does it mean to do what is right in a world that is marked by racial injustice?

The very first message we heard, according to the writer of this epistle, was that we should love one another. First and foremost, the message was to love. How can we claim to live in love if we see people around us suffering due to their genetic composition? If Christ laid down His life for our lives, are we not called to do the same for each other? Does the need have to be as drastic as a life and death situation for us to be called to act?

I know many people who grew up with racial biases who would have nonetheless laid down their lives in order to save the lives of people (that they thought less of due to their ethnicity) due to their own moral, religious, and even political beliefs. To lay down one’s life is often a momentary decision and many individuals would have the courage to make that sacrifice in a moment.

I would love to say that those brave folks would lay down their privilege, their comfort, or their well-being over the long-term for those who are suffering from racial injustice, but I am not always certain that they would do the same over the (much more challenging) long term. In honesty, I would love to say that I know that I am perfectly laying down self-interest myself, but there is something to be said for the fact that moving away from “thoughts and prayers” for racial justice towards courageous acts to reassert equilibrium requires more than a moment’s courage or conviction for those of us who have privilege. I seek the courage and endurance to do so perfectly, but I often fall flat on my face. These words don’t come from a “holier than thou” stance. I often do not know how to move forward myself.

To move towards equilibrium will require more than most of us, including me, currently possess. It will require… imagination! Movement towards that equilibrium will also require the courage and character to do more than imagine, but it is hard to do anything but spin our wheels until we have an image of that more perfect (united) society in our collective mind and heart.

Although I hate to bring in my readings for The Academy for Spiritual Formation into yet another blog post, I am reminded of the writings of George Govorov. Theophan the Recluse (yes, that’s George Govorov) taught that growth in prayer must go through stages. I won’t quote a specific paragraph, because (as a friend put it) that particular chapter (the second) is kind of like a broken record.

  1. Prayer of the Body: Prayer shared in physical ways, often with specific actions (speaking, bowing head, kneeling, reading from a prayer-book, etc.)
  2. Prayer of the Mind: Prayer that has a resonance in the mind. There are no absent actions here. The prayer of the body is caught up into conscious thought and action through the mind. Each word is pondered in the mind, each movement is done with intention, etc.
  3. Prayer of the Heart: Prayer moves beyond word, thought, and deed to a place where it comes from the center of our being. Prayer of the heart does not preclude physical actions or pondering words, but goes deeper. In Bishop Theophan’s view, prayer of the heart is at the center of true prayer.

In Govorov’s view, moving through each stage of prayer takes time, effort, and dedication. For some, the place where they belong is in practicing with their body until rhythm is established. For others, there is a moment for letting the words rattle through their minds until it takes root. For other, true prayer requires the heart to work in concert with the body and mind. A person united in body, mind, and heart could truly enter into God’s presence through prayer until their soul was set alight through the Holy Spirit!

It is my hope that we would continue to go on towards Christ through events like the gatherings this Saturday. I pray we move past dwelling in the midst of death into living in a place of love. For some, that may mean learning new words and new actions. Prayers of repentance in the body might mean learning new ways of living, new ways of acting, and even new ways of speaking. For others, this may be an opportunity to connect our mind to things we are already doing. What does it mean to speak out for justice with words that are not platitudes but are deeply pondered? What does it mean to ponder the words of others instead of just listening with one ear and letting those words pass out the other? For others, this may be a moment to let the heart take hold of deep truths.

I am not certain where I fall in that realm of prayer for repentance. In some areas I am likely in one place and in another place in other places. Regardless, as I ponder the scripture today, I am reminded of my desire to flee the wrath that comes from living in the midst of death. May God give me the courage to have open ears this Saturday and to enter more deeply into a prayer which may take a lifetime or longer to comprehend.

This church in Sawmill, AZ helped me to grow as a person as I faced my own racial biases while on two United Methodist Volunteers In Mission trips. I cannot tell you how much I was blessed by the people of this small but mighty Diné church.

Let us Ramble: Common threads of grace

I have been working through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. In particular, I have been working through “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology” as compiled by Igumen Chariton of Nalamo and Translated by Kadloubovsky and Palmer. I was reading through the second chapter when I was struck by the words of Theophan the Recluse on grace. Theophan writes in the section entitled “The prayer of the mind in the heart”:

“But no one is refused. Because all have grace, only one thing is necessary; to give this grace free scope to act. Grace receives free scope in so far as the ego is crushed and the passions uprooted. The more our heart is purified the more lively becomes our feeling towards God. And when the heart is fully purified, then this feeling of warmth towards God takes fire…Grace builds up everything because grace is always present in believers.”

Of course, as a good United Methodist, I was immediately drawn to these words on grace. John Wesley penned and preached a sermon entitled “Free Grace” in 1739, which was 76 years before Bishop Theophan was born. In that sermon, John Wesley wrote the following:

“The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all and free for all.

First, it is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in any wise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver, nor on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions, for all these flow from the free grace of God. They are the streams only, not the fountain. They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root. They are not the cause, but the effects of it. Whatsoever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it all. Thus is his grace free in all, that is, no way depending on any power or merit in man, but to God alone, who freely gave us his own Son, and with him freely giveth us all things.”

I would like to think that Wesley’s work might have had an influence on that of Bishop Theophan, but given the time of the Bishop’s life, even as a scholar, it would be unlikely that Bishop Theophan would have been heavily influenced by a reformer like John Wesley within the Anglican church.

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Two books in a stand isn’t nearly as catchy a phrase as two peas in a pod…

 

Regardless, clearly both Bishop Theophan and John Wesley agreed on the power of grace, the presence of grace being available for all people, and the ability for that grace to build up everything and to draw us closer to God.

All of this being said, there’s a major difference in thought here. While Bishop Theophan believed that grace was free for all, he warns the people reading his work to take care not to stifle the spirit. He writes earlier in the same paragraph quoted before:

“He who turns to God and is sanctified by the sacraments, immediately receives feeling towards God within himself, which from this moment begins to lay the foundation in his heart for the ascent on high. Provided he does not stifle it by something unworthy, this feeling will be kindled into flame, by time, perseverance, and labour. But if he stifles it by something unworthy, although the path of approach of approach and reconciliation to God is not thereby closed to him, this feeling will no longer be given at once and gratis. Before him is the sweat and work of seeking and of gaining it by prayer. But no one is refused…”

There is a difference in understanding here. Although both John Wesley and Bishop Theophan believe in the power of grace, there seems to be a disconnect on how that grace can and will be applied. For Bishop Theophan, if there is a stifling of the grace of God, at some point there is a place where labor becomes necessary to achieve a reconnection to God’s mighty acts of grace.

For Wesley, while there is a strong connection to the concept of choice, the reality is that the good which is done by humans is done through God. Although our choices may lead to blessed events like the floodgates of grace being opened, the freedom of grace beginning to work fully within us, and a reshaping of ourselves into the further image of Christ, these are but streams of God’s grace, not the fountain of the grace itself. To put it another way, we might grow branches out from the trunk of who we are in Christ, but without the roots made in, through, and by God, we will achieve nothing.

I might be making too strong a point for the differentiation here, but let’s think about the difference. What if Wesley is correct that if God, putting a stumbling block between sinners and salvation, would be acting like a crocodile shedding tears “over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction?” To complete the quote “Free Grace” by John Wesley:

“To say that [God] did not intend to save all sinners is to represent him as a gross deceiver of the people. You cannot deny that he says, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden.’ If then you say he calls those who cannot come, those whom he knows to be unable to come, those whom he can make able to come but will not, how is it possible to describe greater insincerity?’ You represent him as mocking his helpless creatures by offering what he never intends to give. You describe him as saying one thing and meaning another; as pretending the love which he had not. Him ‘in whose mouth was no guile’ you make full of deceit, void of common sincerity. Then especially, when drawing nigh the city, ‘he wept over it’, and said, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together… and ye would not…’ Now if you say, ‘They would’, but ‘he would not,’ you represent him (which who could hear’) as weeping crocodile’s tears, weeping over the prey which himself had doomed to destruction.”

These words, like many of the words of John Wesley, are very strong. To be honest though, there’s some merit to what Wesley wrote. How could God say “I desire good for all” while setting such a high standard for a future with God after a stifling of that grace? Does not grace abound when one chooses to turn from sin?

Do we choose to continue in sin knowing this to be the case? I would say that would grieve the heart of anyone who loves God and is grateful for salvation, but I cannot believe that God would put a firm barrier that some could not overcome between their desire to find salvation and the achievement of that goal. Even if that warming of the spirit is simply an assurance of salvation, I cannot believe that God would slam that door so heavily.

How could one even desire to move past a place of futility if the feeling “towards God” described by Bishop Theophan is stifled and no longer free of charge? Would you turn to God for a path towards salvation if you had not desire in your heart to draw nearer? Would not such a journey become nearly impossible given the fact that the reward itself is something that can only be seen and felt by faith and not the eyes? A person might work at a job they hate because of a paycheck that comes regularly, but would they do the same job with the assurance that they would be paid when the job was complete? Would they do so if they did not even feel an iota of love or desire to be near and with the one who would bring that good into their life?

There is much to think about with these streams of grace. What do you believe about grace? Is it free to all? Is John Wesley’s desciption a grace which is too “cheap” in the words of Bonhoeffer? Is grace something else entirely? What are your thoughts?