Open, Nurturing, Empowering…

This past weekend I was challenged with a question. The question revolved around my vision of ministry. What evolved from the question was the realization that I am often not clear about my own particular vision for ministry. What do I seek to embody in my ministry? Could I express my vision for ministry in the time it takes to ride an elevator?

I have been thinking consistently about that question since it came into my mind. I have been asking myself how to express my view of ministry. Side questions arose from this contemplation. Could others remember it? Could they see it in my actions? Do I have a phrase that helps me stay focused on my purposes?

What’s the phrase? “I believe that the church should seek to be ONE.” I want my vision to be Open, Nurturing, and Empowering.

Let me break those buzzwords down into something more succinct. Buzzwords are nice but they do not always serve the purposes which they need to serve for others. These lists are meant to be examples and not a complete or restrictive compilation of ideas.

I believe the church should be Open to new people, Open to new expressions, Open to people who are differently abled, Open to hear/converse with our neighbors, Open to taking God’s love out of the church building, and Open to hear God’s voice.

I believe the church should be Nurturing to people who want to know God more, Nurturing to those who have had few advantages and many obstacles, Nurturing to those who are wounded or in need, and Nurturing with/towards other communities and people in our neighborhood.

I believe the church should be Empowering to people who need God’s freedom in their daily life, Empowering to those who have been oppressed, Empowering to folks who believe their voice does not matter, Empowering to those who need to borrow our strength to break free from their shackles, and Empowering to people who want to seek to enter into life changing discipleship.

Seven years ago, I knelt before my Conference and was ordained into ministry because people were Open to my leadership, Nurtured my potential, and Empowered me to go forth in ministry. What kind of person would I be if I did not seek to do the same for others?

What do those things look like? I believe that is the subject of a lot of posts to come, but here’s a few snippets of what I’m proposing to lead about more openly:

  • You cannot be truly Open to the community if your building or community has significant barriers for differently abled folks.
  • You cannot be truly Open to the community if you don’t welcome folks who are different than you in culture, race, ethnicity, or viewpoint.
  • You cannot be fully Nurturing to the community if you immediately dismiss people when they find the courage to talk about real life problems that make you feel uncomfortable.
  • You cannot be fully Nurturing to new leadership if you respond to every request to try something new with an immediate “No way. We’ve never done that before.”
  • You cannot be wholly Empowering if you look down your nose at folks who haven’t had the same advantages as you.
  • You cannot be wholly Empowering of other people’s ministries within the church if you rely on authority for leadership in the church instead of relationship, vision, and calling.

What are the words of the communion liturgy? Because there is ONE loaf, we who are many are ONE body. May we all be ONE in the love and care of Jesus.

Let us Ramble: Transients

I struggled to finish my sermon this weekend at the Maine Federated Church. The subject was challenging, but I was prepared. I struggled to finish my sermon because the cold of the previous week had beaten my voice to a pulp. We were preaching on baptism and how baptism was opened to people of all races. We shared that God loved all people. I publicly declared that God does not think of one race as superior to another. We spoke of deep things even as my voice started to crack.

Sunday night, I watched my Facebook feed explode with statements from pastors and committed Christians from across the spectrum. The vast majority of them were incredibly clear. “Racism is bad.” “God loves all people.” A few of the statements were provocative. A few statements seemed more concerned with politics than with what was actually happening. My public statement on Facebook was to reblog a “Litany against White Supremacy.” I will admit, I was still exhausted by my cold, so I was willing to let that stand for a day or two until I could get a good night’s rest.

Well, I am rested now. I have a cup of hot coffee to sooth my throat muscles, I have spent some time centering myself in my daily devotions, and I am prepared to enter into my pastoral role as one of the resident theologians in my community. So, let’s lay out the theological argument I wish to make. I will not be pulling punches today.

  1. It is a Christian’s duty to live with a sense of humility
  2. It is a Christian’s duty to love people like Jesus
  3. White Supremacy should be considered an abomination

I believe that it is a Christian’s duty to live with a sense of humility. I believe that is a belief that long predates Christianity, has been passed down from our Hebrew forebearers, and should be passed along from generation to generation. I believe that pride has been an issue for the church for nearly the entirety of our history and must be fought with all sincerity.

In my own studies I have been reading through “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings,” which is a translation by Maxwell Staniforth (revised by Andrew Louth) of some early letters of church leaders. One letter translated was from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth. It was written by one of the early church leaders in Rome named Clement and is generally considered to have been written during the last decade of the first century with a high probability of having been written around 96 CE. A passage from this letter from one church to another strikes me as fitting and applicable: (¶30)

“Since then we are the Holy One’s own special portion, let us omit no possible means of sanctification. We must bid farewell to all slandering, lewd and unclean coupling, drinking and rioting, vile lusting, odious fornicating, and the pride which is an abomination. God, it says, opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble; so let us attach ourselves firmly to men who have received this grace. Let us clothe ourselves in a mutual tolerance of one another’s views, cultivating humility and self-restraint, avoiding all gossiping and backbiting, and earning our justification by deeds and not by words… Self-assertion, self-assurance, and a bold manner are the marks of men accursed of God; it is those who show consideration for others, and are unassuming and quiet, who win His blessing.”

So, Clement was very opinionated. Clement uses several words and makes several claims that I am unwilling to make throughout his letter, especially on the role of women in their homes. I am very glad that this letter is not a part of our scriptures for several reasons, but there are some gems to be found in this old letter.

First, there seems to be a strong opposition to pride in Clement’s worldview. In some places, such as Clement’s insistence on quiet obedience of women, the adoption of humility as a driving force of church life is less than ideal in a modern context, In other places, such as the passage above, there’s a real sense of force behind Clement’s words. Looking through the list of sins Clement lists, the one which is singled out for being especially onerous is pride. Pride is the thing which Clement nails over and over again throughout his letter.

  • ¶16 “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock. The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of God’s Majesty, was in no pomp of pride and haughtiness—as it could so well have been—but in self-abasement…
  • ¶35 “Wickedness and wrongdoing of every kind must be utterly renounced; all greed, quarreling, malice and fraud, scandal-mongering and back-biting, enmity towards God, glorification of self, presumption, conceit, and want of hospitality; for men who do these things—and not only men who do them, but men who consent to them—are held in detestation by God”
  • ¶39 “Men who have no intelligence or understanding, men who are without sense or instruction, make a mock of us and ridicule us, in their wish to raise themselves in their own esteem. But what is there that anyone who is mortal can really effect? What force is there in anyone born on this earth?”

Clement was very clear in his letter that pride was a serious issue. It can be inferred that Clement speaks out of the worldview of the early church. The conception of pride being an issue and the value of humility was nothing new to Clement or the church in which he lived. We can head back to the end of 1 Chronicles to see King David share similar sentiments. David says in 1 Chronicles 29:10-18: (NRSV)

“Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours’ yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name.

But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope. O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. I know, my God, that you search the heart, and take pleasure in uprightness; in the uprightness of my heart I have freely offered all these things, and now I have seen your people, who are present here, offering freely and joyously to you. O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our ancestors, keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts towards you.”

At this moment in the story of scripture, David has prepared the way for his son Solomon to build a temple in Jerusalem. David has accomplished a great deal in his life and is approaching the end of his reign. David has led imperfectly but is completing his reign in peace, which is a blessing few of his descendents would know as the generations would pass. Here at the end David gives thanks to God through an honest lens that gives thanks to God and puts his life in perspective.

David sees himself as a transient in these words. He does not claim the right and power over all that he had done and all that he has gained. He seeks humility. He states that all of God’s blessings are from and ultimately are for God’s purposes. He lives out the humility that Clement claims we must seek. Clement is echoing David’s statement on human transience in this life when he asks what real effect the proud can have in this world. The people of God are here in this world for a moment. The people are being invited to live in humility by both Clement and David.

Going back further we see a real sense of a call to humility from the earlier tales of faith. When Abram was called in Genesis 12:2-3, the following words are shared (in the New Revised Standard Version) with the one who would become Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”

From the very beginning, the call of God comes with an understanding that the blessing that will come to Abraham is for the very purpose of Abraham becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth. His call is to head out into the world as a transigent. His call, the call to create a nation, will begin with him being an immigrant in a strange land. The call of Abraham is not into a castle or highly advantaged place in society, but to live as a stranger in a strange land.

Throughout the scriptures, God calls the humble time and time again. Even figures like Jacob, who was not humble, had to go through humbling circumstances before they were fully ready to take their place in the story of God’s life-bringing and grace. Being a Christian is a call into a tradition which has been marked by a strong need for humility. Jesus told a parable in Matthew 26 about an employer who hired servants throughout the day and paid each the same amount to each. The ones who began earliest in the day believed they deserved more, but it was the employer’s choice to be generous. All who follow Christ are called to understand that by God’s choice the first may become last just as the last may become first.

I also believe it is a Christian’s duty to love people like Jesus. When Jesus came across the other, Jesus acted with compassion. It is true that Jesus called people to repentance and expressed extreme disappointment and occasionally foretold woe for cities that refused to repent like those in Matthew 11:30-34 and the Samaritan village in Luke 9:51-56. Jesus also expressed hope for those of other races than those of Jewish descent when we shared the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, shared a story of a faith-filled Roman Centurion in Matthew 8:5-12, and told the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-42. Jesus seems less concerned with where people are from than how they react.

Jesus’ love was not bound to one race or one people. The very call of Acts 1:8 is to make disciples by witnessing to the ends of the earth. The very call of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 is to go out and make disciples of all nations. The call of God is to reach out to all people because God called for all people. Jesus’ compassion was for every people of earth—that is why are were sent out to share the good news in the first place.

This should go without saying, but this love informs us. If we want to live a life with Jesus, we will be remade through and like Jesus. Paul wrote to the church of Romans in 8:9-12:

“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Later on the effect of God’s Spirit and Christ’s love is further laid out by Paul in Romans 10:10-13:

“For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says. ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek—the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him, For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

So, let’s be clear on these points. Our life, our eternal life, comes from God. Jesus’ Spirit comes into us and gives us life. The Spirit of Christ who loved faithful people of different backgrounds has opened salvation to all who call on the name of the Lord. The God of the Jewish people is the same God as those who are Greek, Roman, African, Asian, or any other form of human.

With all these things in mind, I have to say that I firmly believe that white supremacy is an abomination which must be resisted with all of our strength, all of our willpower, and all of our heart. White supremacy claims that one race is superior to other races, but God has called us to humility. To claim an inherent greatness for people of one skin color is to walk in the exact opposite direction of where Jesus walked. To claim an inherent inferiority for people of other ethnicities is abominable for many reasons, but especially because it stands in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus.

In Luke 14:7-14, the following is shared by Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith:

“When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host, and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”

When teaching on humility, Jesus first told people to choose the worst places at the table. To be certain, there is a chance that this is a story about practically putting oneself in a place where someone could be honored by the host when they are asked to move up, but there’s also a real sense of Jesus noticing what is happening around him and inviting people to a place of honest humility. Jesus states that a person or people will be humbled when they seek to their own exaltation.

Is there any more clear description of self-exaltation than to say that your race is inherently superior to all of the others? Is there any more clear way of looking at this situation than as an invitation to being humbled for your actions? Is there really something so special about being white that leads people to believe that they alone are exempt from the call to humility? As a white male, I have to say that whites are no more exempt from this rule than men—any attempt, whether based on gender or race, to say that my people are superior to other people (either as men or as people of European descent) is foolhardy and an abomination.

Who should come to the banquet of celebration? The other is to be invited. We are called to humility and hospitality in life, Events like those in Charlottesville this past weekend are incompatible with Christian teaching. People who live out their faith through terrorism and violence do not exemplify the Christian life and they are certainly not acting on behalf of Christians who hear our call as a people to humility, repentance, and community.

Let us Ramble: The Narrow Path to Mars

Today has been a wonderful day. Saturday is one of my easier days in ministry. While I do not truly take the two days off a week that is expected of me by my Annual Conference, Saturday is an easier day for me as it almost always begins with family time. Today we went out to lunch and then went to the planetarium at Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton.

At the planetarium we watched a video on the history of humanity’s relationship with Mars, especially in terms of how it fits into the efforts of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the European Space Agency. I was struck by all of the attempts to reach Mars that utterly and completely failed over the years. There were a lot of probes, rovers, and other missions which failed spectacularly. Indeed, modern missions are informed powerfully by a history of failures. In a perfect world, these failures and challenges help to inform modern attempts to reach Mars.

The concept of necessity behind learning from the past came to mind as I was reading through my book for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through “Thirsty for God: A Brief HIstory of Christian Spirituality” by Bradley Holt when I was reminded thoroughly of the efforts of the people exploring Mars. Professor Holt says: (12)

“The first reason to study the tradition and present day Christian family is to make us aware of our own narrowness, our own parochialism. Knowing a larger part of the whole tradition gives us better questions to ask of the fads of the present. We are endangered not only with ethnocentrism, judging all things by the customs of our own ethnic group, but also with ‘presentism,’ judging all previous ages as inferior to our own.”

Can you imagine what would happen if an engineer at NASA said “The United States has best space program! Why would we study what happened with the Beagle 2’s solar panels?” Well, if that person sent a rover or a manned mission to Mars and that mission failed in the same way, you could imagine how foolish that engineer would seem. If only that engineer had learned from the mistakes of others then NASA could have avoided the same mistakes.

I will admit, I do not believe that a NASA engineer would turn down hard data that could help to create a better plan for a space mission. Engineers are trained to consider as many facets of a problem as possible. I do know that Christianity has had a long history of folks engaging in this kind of behavior. We tend to avoid learning from other communities, whether they are Baptists down the street or Orthodox folks from centuries past. We have made a lifestyle out of believing we are the latest and greatest believers that have ever followed Jesus. This seems especially true of the Eurocentric church in the United States.

It is true—Wesleyans and Methodists have traditionally held John Wesley on a pedestal and he was not an American or even a fan of the American Revolution. It is true—Lutherans love Martin Luther even though he was a German monk turned reformer. Roman Catholics may identify strongly with Pope Benedict, Pope Francis, or Pope John Paul II—each of which came from a homeland outside the United States. Many Christians have their exemplars from other cultures, but it seems to me as if most of them are exceptions to the general rule.

I do not base this on a random assertion. I have had many conversations with individuals that state clearly and unabashedly that American Christianity holds two things above any other: love of God and love of country. There is a strong ethnocentrism in American Christianity that would be unacceptable in other realms of study or belief. There is a strong presentism in American Christianity that ignores the lessons of the faithful who walked in ages past and studied things that are now considered superseded by modern scholarship. My experience of American Christianity supports Professor Holt’s assumptions.

My own experience and own history of scholarship support Professor Holt’s assumptions, which is one reason I am undertaking the Academy experience in the first place. I will admit that I know the story of John Wesley in many ways that I do not know scholars, theologians, and mystics from other cultures. I will admit my scholarship and study focused around individuals connected with the institutions where I studied theology and Christianity either directly or through the recommendation of faculty.

There is a value to learning from a wide variety of sources which cannot be overstated. Christians are part of a rich tradition that has had adherents, leaders, scholars, and theologians from across the world. We have had many people who have had many different opinions. To be clear, I agree with Professor Holt that another reason to study the history and practices of spirituality is to learn the boundaries of our tradition (13), but it needs to be said that the boundaries are often further than any of us normally experience in the practice of our Christianities.

I am thankful today for inspiration through scientific study applied to the history of space exploration around Mars. The study has inspired me to look deeply at my own faith journey and the ways in which I approach realms outside of my narrowness. I hope that we all find ways to interact with and become a blessing with traditions outside of our own tradition.