The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “with…” #GC2019
The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “pray.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga! My prayer today is for the United Methodist Church.
Friends, Tuesday was an odd day for me as a minister. Two things happened which led me to go for a long walk around the block. The first is probably obvious to anyone who knows I am United Methodist or even goes back a few blog posts.
General Conference was taking place and the institutional global church further pressed back against people pushing for inclusion. I did not see the legislation pass in person because I felt the need to go and pray for the church.
The second thing that happened was that I had a conversation with a colleague from a nearby church who came to discuss recent events during worship at our church. His church now has locked doors during worship. They were concerned. I was asked about what happened, was I afraid, and we discussed churches that have panic buttons and armed security. My colleague and I discussed that he doesn’t carry the panic button because he is aware as one of the people up front he might be the first one targeted by a shooter.
I went to take a long walk because it is weird to feel both slammed with pressure from above when there are people and colleagues in my neighborhood in the middle of nowhere that are now worried that church is literally a physically unsafe place without locked doors.
I have received threatening notes in the past regarding my own safety for taking stands on including folks from the margins, although honestly more about racial inclusion and less about LGBTQIA+ inclusion. I have upcoming meetings scheduled for dates before the Judicial Council will meet to determine whether what was just passed is enforceable under our constitution. I am concerned about what will happen between now and when the Judicial Council will (in my opinion) likely strike down portions of what passed.
I’m just concerned because my honest response to both issues is the same. If someone came into my church with a theological or physical gun, my place is between the church and that person. I have children and a family to provide for in this life, but that place of risk is my place as a minister.
I have taken a number of long walks between Tuesday and today. I will likely continue to keep walking, praying, and honestly playing a few video games on my phone to help keep my anxiety down.
I will find that ditto… I need the Pokémon who is all things to all people.
J: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be sick.
Me: It is okay. Just because you are sick it doesn’t mean I don’t love you.
United Methodist friends, today is going to be rough. I didn’t sleep. Many of my friends didn’t sleep. We are tired, cranky, and a little bit tired of the arc of history being so long… I heard a speech on the livestream of General Conference yesterday about hearing the same arguments over and over… I sympathize. I am also very stubborn!
Young friends, we are birthing something new. If you have never raised a child, I will tell you that it takes a lot of patience. I cannot tell you how many times YESTERDAY I asked a toddler to stop pulling leaves off of the houseplant… Being a parent takes patience.
Older friends, do not be deceived. Something isn’t wrong just because our younger family in Christ is trying to do something new. To be honest, we have likely had siblings trying to help us through this struggle for decades. I know that is a truth for me.
Beloved family in Christ who are my age, we likely have decades to go before our time is done. We are the ones who can shepherd and support the generation after us. I can think of folks who shepherd and shepherded me along this path. Don’t give up.
Nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. Nothing,
Wind blows through cold bones;
Icicles form on sad souls
As hot air blows out:
No one should see their life’s worth
Put up to a legal vote.“Sad Souls” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
Hear the deep sound of how my heart does pound.“Poem for General Conference” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019
Listen to the call of Your servant child.
Draw madly near to those with this task dear
To those who seek You in these times so wild.
Fill Your children full in ways which will pull
Our community through this way forward.
Give them a deep trust in the ways which must
Guide our ships from seas of chaos: shoreward.
We really don’t know how things will go
As we trust Your Spirit to guide us all.
Abba please lead our way on through this day
And be with all those whose faith may shrink small.
God give us the grace which we need to face
The way we seek by the light of Your Son.
Things may be rough; help those tender be tough
When all is done may we who pray be one.
I write this blog post for posting a few days before the beginning of the special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I write this blog with a lot of questions in my mind. What will happen over the next few days? What effects will that gathering have on the church as a whole?
My questions about the future have been inspiring questions in my mind. What does it mean that we are a “United” Methodist Church? What does it mean that we have deep divisions in our unity? Have we missed something?
I recently started rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” I have been pondering the nature of Christian community, the life of someone who had to make incredibly hard decisions to remain as faithful as he could, and it is nice to read about the life of someone who is not United Methodist during these troubling days. Still, Bonhoeffer has always been troubling. I found the following quote calling out for contemplation:
“Therefore, let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together,” page 4.
Bonhoeffer writes this quote in the midst of contemplating how rare it is for Christians to live in community. As Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus himself lived a life that involved isolation during many of the major events of his life. Jesus was alone even in the midst of the crowd for many events of what we call the “passion.” Bonhoeffer points out the lonely lives lived by many of the apostles, missionaries, and even individual Christians throughout the centuries.
Reading Bonhoeffer is always challenging, but these words were particularly biting in light of the upcoming events in the life of my denomination. Have we honestly thanked God that we have each other? Have we thanked God for the privilege of living in community with one another? Have we seen our living together as anything but a gift of unmerited favor?
Honestly, when I see some of the vitriol in the community of faith I share with other Christians I do not always see people thankful for grace. I have seen people stand there and say “You do not belong in the church” when they are only in the church by the grace of God. They have been given the blessing of belonging to a body of faith. They have been given a grace and it seems as if that grace is taken for granted.
How many Christians over the centuries longed for a place to belong with other Christians? How many of our churches exist because people came together to have a place to belong? Are we turning our back on that legacy of grace? Are we so thirsty for law, structure, and power that we would burn our community of grace to the ground if we do not get our own way?
It is far easier to tear down than to build something. It is far easier to destroy than to give life. As we head into General Conference, I am praying we remember that we are only together by the grace of God. I am praying that grace prevails.
The Good Shepherd comes“Shepherd” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019
And will find all of the ones
Who are left out cold.
What happened to you?“A Poem born in Prayer” by the Distracted Pastor, 2019
I was raised in your old pews
And was taught deep faith.
I don’t recognize all this.
I lament what I now see.
It was not easy.
You remember the good things.
In my family
There have always been battles
As people work through this life.
Can we just go back
To the time of innocence
When it all seemed well
Before our eyes were opened
And we saw through the curtain?
Those days were hard days.
People fought to bring the light
To entrenched evils.
People died to get us here
Where martyrs may yet come forth.
What should we do then?
Everything seems far too large
For my human hands.
Where should we go in these days
When all may be asked of us?
Let us go to pray
At the feet of my Lover.
My Love is as near
Now like once in Babylon
And in cold dark Roman cells.
Come near to the fire.
No fiery furnace burns hot
as my Love’s passion.
The days ahead may yet burn
But you will always be loved.
I wrote this prayer poem in a conversation between my soul and God. The bold parts are a personification of the church. I was reminded in that time of prayer that nothing in the church was ever perfect. We cannot go back. The only way is forward.
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.
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.
Today I spent my afternoon with colored pencils and my copy of “Mandalas, Candles, and Prayers” by Sharon Seyfarth Garner. I am in the second week of working my way through Rev. Garner’s book. The second week of the study centers on the concept of intercessory prayer.
Today I focused on “praying for the shepherds in my life.” The timing was exceptional as I know from chatting with my District Superintendent last week that the Cabinet is meeting for their first appointive meeting this week before the gathering of the Order of Elders in Syracuse on Thursday.
As an Elder in the United Methodist Church my appointment in ministry is set by the Bishop of my Annual Conference. As I type this, my colleagues and I are being prayed over by the cabinet, so it is fitting that I would pray over them at the same moment.
My prayer was deep and centered for a good long while. I used liturgical colors of purple and red for the center of the work. In the United Methodist tradition I follow red is the color of the Holy Spirit, and it was encircled by the purple color reserved by tradition for our bishops. Planters in the shapes of hearts edged the encircling red border, again representing the Holy Spirit. Perhaps in a poor choice of colors, brown heart planters sat surrounded by golden ground with a drop of blue to water what rested within each planter.
I prayed the Cabinet would be filled with wisdom, grace, and love. I prayed the Cabinet would be practical, brave, faithful, life-giving, and protect both churches and pastors in need. It was a deep prayer experience, but I wanted to blog about it for one reason.
I was in the middle of coloring the first of my planters when my daughter came over. She was playing on the floor and was acting weird. I picked her up and suddenly the floodgates opened. She went from dry and cuddly to an utter disaster in seconds.
I was praying for wisdom. It was the first thing I hoped would fill the Cabinet with as they worked. The next thing I prayed for was that the Cabinet would be practical. It’s wise to pray. It’s wise to change a messy baby. Practicality says one needs to take priority over the other.
A quick bath for the baby delayed my prayer time. My prayer was still heartfelt. Sometimes a person needs practicality as much as they need wisdom. I pray the church has moments where it remembers the world needs more than one gifting of the Spirit. I pray that those reminders will be a bit less messy.
Last night I went to an event hosted by my bishop at the Chenango Bridge United Methodist Church. Bishop Webb came to our district to discuss the proposals headed to the Special Session of General Conference scheduled for this February. As I entered the space, I was frazzled. I had believed the event started at 6:00 PM. I arrived on time because my wife is far more focused and capable of remembering times than me. I was tired and suffering exhaustion from a budget meeting after a morning of study and worship.
Let me admit that I was anxious about the meeting. I had hoped to sit with a friend who was unable to attend. I had hoped the meeting was later so I could relax over dinner before entering a space of shared anxiety. I came into the space tired on several levels.
Before I sat down to listen to the presentation, I said hello to Bishop Webb. He asked about my children. Bishop Webb has an excellent memory about such things. I may not agree with everything my bishop says or does, but I appreciate the way he expresses care to his clergy by knowing details about their family. We exchanged pleasantries. I took a seat where I could read the screen easily for the presentation.
There were a few minutes to kill, so I went through the library on my Kindle to see what might be interesting on my tablet. I recently replaced my Kindle. The library was sparse, but one downloaded book was a collection called “Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings—Annotated & Explained” by Christine Valters Paintner.
I recently have spent a lot of time going back to one of the more definitive translations upon which a lot of my Kindle collections of the Desert Ammas and Abbas rely. Benedicta Ward’s translation is normally a wonderful resource, but it is unfortunately not available on Kindle. I opened Paintner’s collection and went forward to the furthest place read. I read the next saying. I was surprised by the applicability of the saying. The next saying was:
“[Abba Nilus] said, ‘Do not be always wanting everything to turn out as you think it should, but rather as God pleases, then you will be undisturbed and thankful in your prayers.’”
This ensnared me given the circumstances. I was in a room full of people who had gathered to listen to their bishop speak about a challenge before the church. There were people who did not know how they intend to perceive events in the years to come. There were people who knew their opinions and hold their convictions firmly. The saying of Abba Nilus was strong in a room filled with people who often want everything to turn out as they desire.
I know this was true of at least one person in the room. I am definitely from a place of personal experience. There have been many times I have sought to have things turn out in the way I desire. There are places I seek to have things turn out the way I desire. There are places I will probably seek to have things turn out the way I desire. I see this is a sign of my humanity. I do not pretend it does not exist.
Living in this self-knowledge, I found myself challenged by Abba Nilus from across the centuries. Do I need to seek that everything turn out as it should? When in a room with dozens of individuals, should I expect things to turn out the way I desire? Is it reasonable to expect that outcome?
More to the point, what is my purpose? Why do I seek to have my way? What if Abba Nilus is correct? What if surrendering my desire to God’s pleasure leads to thankfulness and peace in my prayers? Are those benefits worth more than having my way? Frankly, I believe these blessings are worth more than having my way.
The epistle known as Philippians has something to say about this reality. In the New Revised Standard Version, Philippians 4:6-7 says:
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I entered the sanctuary of Chenango Bridge UMC with a sense of anxiety. Abba Nilus called me out on my attitude from across the centuries. As I reflected on the experience that call was confirmed by scripture and Spirit. I have already said I am not perfect in this blog post. Imperfections and all, I will seek to find that peace in these conversations.
I may not always find the peace perfectly. I will still seek that peace through prayer. When necessary, I hope that God will setup reminders to draw me back. Thank you God for Abba Nilus. May words from the past continue to draw me to You and to the scriptures.
Yesterday, was a rough day for me in terms of ministry. The day began with watching colleagues, laity, and friends within my denomination begin to process through the previous week’s events with wildly different points of view. The sight of people I care about debating each other was not always pleasant. Shortly after responding to the situation and inviting people to breathe, I was made aware of the constitutional amendment results. I was rendered speechless by the result and told my wife “This is a day my denomination deserves to be ashamed of itself.” Yesterday was rough.
I was speaking to someone yesterday afternoon when I was asked what I do when I am faced with things I cannot change. I told a story that I would like to share with you in the format of a parable.
Living in the Kingdom of Heaven is like this: Once there was a baker who was easily distracted. The baker went to make a loaf of bread one day, but became distracted. The yeast was mixed in with the flour, but the baker rushed the process and forgot the salt. The dough was given time to rise, but the baker forgot to put the bread in a warm place. The bread was baked in the oven, but the baker ignored the step where the temperature was lowered. The bread came out of the oven blackened, hard, and inedible. No children could make sandwiches, no butter could be spread on toast for a snack, and there was a lot of disappointment.
The next day, the baker rose again. The baker considered what had happened the day before and set about making bread with a singular focus. The baker mixed yeast with flour and with the previous day’s forgotten salt. The dough was given time to rise in a war,=m environment. The bread was baked at the correct temperatures for the right amount of time. The bread which sat on the cooling rack was golden and delicious. The baker’s family had what it needed.
Friends, we cannot go back to change the past. All we can work with it the dough we have today. May God grant us grace to live into the day that we have today. May God give us the grace to pick up the pieces and try again.
In honesty, I have spent a bit of time looking around the internet this morning. My normally scheduled blog post has been posted and I spent the morning looking at debates on the Facebook feeds of my colleagues. I have read carefully statements from groups like the Confessing Movement. I have prayed through debates around the video clip circulating around social media by Bishop Ough.
Honestly, watching the back and forth about the Council of Bishops recommendation is a bit heartbreaking. I hate watching colleagues, laity, and friends debate, argue, and occasionally attack one another. In some cases (but not all), we stand in direct opposition to the recommendation of Paul in Galatians 5:13-15—less concerned with serving one another in love and more concerned with biting with sharp teeth before we are consumed. My soul is a bit bruised from trying to find a space of peace in the midst of the debates.
My own discernment (for today) revolves around Acts 5:27-39. In Acts 5, we find the Apostles brought before the High Priest and the council in Jerusalem for sharing the Good News. There are folks who want to kill the Apostles, but a wise leader named Gamaliel advises them to be careful. Leaders had come, gathered followers, died, and the followers dispersed. If the Apostles were like those leaders then their movement would fizzle out in time. Human plans lead to failure. If the Apostles were acting with God’s blessing, they might find themselves fighting against God.
The council saw the wisdom of Gamaliel’s words and let the Apostles live. Obviously, their movement lasted beyond the lives of those Apostles. There was wisdom in Gamaliel’s counsel. Nobody wants to stand in the way of God when God is preparing to act. Still, here we are with sharpened arguments and deadly counterpoints while the world watches.
I admit that I have a more progressive outlook than some of my conservative colleagues, but I honestly wonder how long this battle can go on legislatively. More than that, I am wondering what is served by any of this battling? Is this constant argument truly of God?
Some context on why I wonder. We were debating the questions around human sexuality when I was teenager. My first time visiting Annual Conference with a friend and mentor included watching people debate questions relating back to Central Conferences with people stating on the floor of Annual Conference that this was a ploy to push what was then known as the “gay agenda.” We had debates around human sexuality as I went through seminary, became a pastor, went through the ordination process, was ordained, and as I have continued in my service. This debate has been going on longer than I have been alive. This debate has been the context of my entire faith journey.
So, why are we continuing to push a legislative solution? Clearly, saying “You have to believe this to be a part of the church” has been neither effective nor conclusive. Now there are people calling for a schism in the church. What good will that do? We have been down that road before on issues like pew rentals and slavery. Nothing concrete was solved through schism. The same debates came back time and time again until we ceased legislating and let the Holy Spirit work within us as a body.
So, why are we here again? Why are we assuming that this is something new? Why don’t we listen to Gamaliel? Do we really need to make human laws? If you believe scripture says “This is the way,” what good will a church law do? Do you hold the church law above scripture? If you believe that God is leading the church in a way contrary to one reading of scripture, do you believe that a human rule should overcome your obedience to the Spirit of God? In either case, when you look at the motivations on both sides, who truly believes that a church law made by humans would ever trump the conviction of another person?
Beloved friends, this is madness. I do not mean to be so very blunt about this, but go and take a deep breath and relax. If this is of God, then God will prevail. If this is from humans alone, it will not succeed.
I find wisdom in an offhand comment made by Father John Mefrige at the last session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. His church, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, believes that the Orthodox Church is the one true church that follows in Christ’s path. How does he understand the rest of us Christians if God has led to one right way while we continue in our own faith? He said he sees a paradox in us! We are not Orthodox, yet there is evidence of the Spirit in us. We are Heterodox, but God lives and breathes in us. We do not make sense, yet here we are giving glory to God as best we can! How very peculiar and marvelous it is that God is praised through people like us!
Maybe we are also called to live in paradox. Apparently, that’s a thing that happens sometimes. If members of the Orthodox clergy can have a sense of humor about the very powerful and deep differences we share with their church, can we have a sense of grace with and for each other?
Go, take a deep breath, and remember that faith, hope, and love are what remain will after all of this has long since passed away. When you have done that, do everyone a favor and remember to continue to breathe!
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.
- Prayer of the Body: Prayer shared in physical ways, often with specific actions (speaking, bowing head, kneeling, reading from a prayer-book, etc.)
- 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.
- 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.
So, after the busyness of the Lenten season and a week taken away to provide childcare for my three children during their spring break, I am back in the saddle again. In the next few weeks I will be preparing for the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation and then it is time to prepare for Annual Meetings, so you can guess the direction of posts as those events draw closer.
In the meantime, in between changing diapers for my smiler and breaking up youthful hijinks between the two elder gooseballs, I have been pondering a passage from the Book of Genesis. In particular, I have been thinking about the nature of covenant.
As a pastor, I am surrounded by covenantal relationships. I have a covenant with God in my own personal spiritual life, a covenant with my wife to remain faithful until death parts us, a covenant with God to care for the children I have been entrusted with as a parent, a covenant with God to care for the people I minister with in my appointment as a minister, a covenant with the Maine Federated Church to support this local church, a covenant exists between the United Methodist Church and the Maine Federated Church that sets the guidelines for how the church cares for me and the parsonage in which I live, a covenant with the United Church of Christ to minister on their behalf in this community, a covenant between myself and other United Methodist Elders in my Conference’s Order of Elders, a covenant between myself and all pastors and deacons that serve within our common denomination, and finally a covenant with myself. Like I said, there’s a lot of covenant relationships in my life.
If that run-on sentence above doesn’t prove the point that it makes sense that I think about covenant a lot, then let me just assure you that I do think seriously about covenant and covenantal requirements often. Covenants are often conflicting and challenging. Which covenant takes priority on a daily basis? Do I spend another night away this month at another meeting or do I spend time with my children who sometimes don’t really see me except an hour a day some weeks? Do I sit in the office and wait for someone to come by the church or go visit people who cannot leave their homes? Do I blog about the nature of covenant or do I spend another few hours writing letters to church members? Covenants are complicated.
Genesis 15 lays out a sign of the covenant that is quite gruesome. Animals are split into two pieces and in the midst of the night a flaming torch and a smoking fire pot pass between the two lines of animal parts. It seems a bit gross, but the reality behind the imagery is even more frightening. In covenantal language, the promise is made. May I become like these animals (split in two) if I break this covenant. The severity of the response to a break in covenant is intentionally graphic, intentionally troubling, and intentionally recorded for the people so that they understand the importance of their covenant with God.
So, being surrounded by covenants, what do we do? Do we look at our relationship with God as being so important that we might be divided in two if we were to break it? Do we look at our relationship in the marriage covenant as being so powerfully binding? I have never been divorced, but many of the people I know who have been through the process refer to it as being a traumatic and spiritually violent process—almost as if they were torn in two. Do we look at our relationships we share with our beloved family in the church the same way? I know few places where a falling out can be as traumatic as in a church. Hearts break in those circumstances.
In honesty, where I found myself pondering covenant a lot this week was while thinking about the United Methodist Church. Are we facing a breaking in covenant as a whole? Have we been so brutally biased in our approaches to each other, to the looming conversations, and in our application of church politics that we have missed basic concepts such as loving each other? Has a lack of love led to a breaking of covenant? Are we tearing ourselves apart in some literally testimony to the concept that broken covenant leads to torn relationship and a torn body split in two?
As we go through this season of resurrection, what does it mean to go forward in covenant with a God who moves past death into life? There is much to ponder this Eastertide. I pray that we all go forward with love and peace.
Unity is currently an interesting word within United Methodist circles. The United Methodist Church is currently in prayer for “The Commission on a Way Forward” (hereinafter, “Commission”) The Commission was established by the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church by the General Conference delegates at the request of the Council of Bishops. Conversation has revolved around concepts like unity as the Commission has continued to meet over the past year.
As a result, of this conversation, my eyes have been drawn to the word “unity” when I have come across it both in my reading and in my study. I was drawn to thought when I came across the collect “For the Unity of the Church” in “The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other RItes and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the use of The Episcopal Church” (hereinafter, “BCPASORCCTPPDAUEP” (just kidding)). The collect reads: (certified 2007)
“Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, even as thou and he are one: Grant that thy Church, being bound together in love and obedience to thee, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom thou didst send, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.”
In a similar manner, I was drawn into prayer and contemplation by the first full paragraph of the letter “From the colony of the Church of God to the colony of the Church of God at Corinth, called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is found in “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings” as translated by Maxwell Staniforth and revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1968). The paragraph which caught my eye reads:
“Because of our recent series of unexpected misfortunes and set-backs, my dear friends, we feel there has been some delay in turning our attention to the causes of dispute in your community. We refer particularly to the odious and unholy breach of unity among you, which is quite incompatible with God’s chosen people, and which a few hot-headed and unruly individuals have inflamed to such a pritch that your venerable and illustrious name, so richly deserving of everyone’s affection, has been brought into disrepute.”
The concept of unity caught my attention sharply in both of these readings. I was sharply caught by the ideas in the letter from Rome to Corinth, which is generally considered to have been authored by Clement of Lyons, the bishop of Rome at that time. Clement’s words were very strong. Disunity is described as having brought the name of the church in Corinth into disrepute. Indeed, of all of the struggles being faced by the church in Corinth, the disunity in the community is the very first thing that the church of Rome brings to the forefront for conversation.
Certainly, there is a brief statement of thanksgiving and blessing as per the custom of letter writing in that era. The church in Corinth is acknowledged to be called and sanctified. Indeed, before the letter writer enters into our quote, the writer also expresses the blessing, “All grace and peace to you from God Almighty, through Jesus Christ.” The combination of these statements is very brief and Clement is very clear that this is a situation that deserves to be addressed even as the church in Rome has her own situations to work through in her journey of faith.
Indeed, Clement was very concerned about the disunity of the church. The very next sentence Clement writes is, “There was a time when nobody could spend even a short while among you without noticing the excellence and constancy of your faith.” The connection that I make in this reading is that the disunity of the church in Corinth has led to others seeing their faith as being inconsistent and less than excellent. There’s a high opinion of unity in Clement’s writing.
Indeed, the high opinion of unity is seen in the collect. The collect asks God for unity within the church so that the world might believe in Jesus Christ. The church is called to unity in the collect through the binding together of the church by both love and obedience. Love and obedience are seen as reasons for unity within the life of the church even as that unity is seen as a converting witness.
Indeed, Jesus prays in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus prayed that we would have unity as a people. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of unity in Clement, in the prayers of the church, and in the scriptures themselves.
So, if unity is so important, why is it ignored so often? Why do we engage in behavior like gossip if we know that there is almost no quicker way to stab unity in the back than to engage in gossip? Why do people hop from community to community looking for people like us if we know that we are called to be in community across the spectrum? Why do we do the very things that we do?
In many ways, the struggle of the church over questions of unity throughout the centuries reminds me of the writings of Paul. Ironically, while writing to the church in Corinth, Paul describes a struggle that he has faced in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul describes how there is a thorn in his side which has forced Paul to his knees in prayer repeatedly. Paul uses that thorn as a reminder of his weakness, a reminder of his dependency on the grace of God, and as an invitation to contemplate the power of Christ.
I wonder if our ongoing struggle with these concepts is continual because we are in need of a reminder of our weakness. I also wonder if our ongoing struggle with gossip is a sign of our unwillingness to let go of this most basic of sinful behaviors. Indeed, the works of the flesh listen in Galatians 5 include such sinful vices as dissensions, factions, strife, enmities, and other behaviors which should be excised from the life of the faithful. As Paul states in Galatians 5:21, those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Unity is a concept that I believe we all need to be in prayer around as a community. God’s call is for us to be one. It deserves to be noted that God does not call for uniformity among the church. God’s call is for us to be united in Christ and unity does not require absolute conformity.
Paul seems to agree with this assertion that unity is important. Clement seems to agree with the assertion that unity is important. The collects and prayers of many modern denominations seem to agree with this assertion that unity is important as well. With such a great cloud of witnesses inviting us to see the importance of unity, it is crucial that we be in prayer both on obtaining unity and understanding what unity might actually look like in our context.
Okay, so today I wanted to put out a blog post that addressed something I hinted at in yesterday’s post. This is more educational than pastoral. Teaching is a part of the role of a pastor in the United Methodist Church, especially in times of crisis. Yesterday I wrote about fear. Today I write about applying faith to action.
Our world stands at a precipice. We have rushed up to the edge of a cliff and are looking off the edge. There is a need for wisdom and discernment in the world. A voice needs to cry out with wisdom! In a world with a thousand and one opinions for every person, there should be some place we can turn when things are out of sorts to find a consensus of wise minds. Yes, the Bible is one such place to find guidance, but nuclear weapons are not mentioned by name in the scripture.
Thankfully, the United Methodist Church meets for holy conferencing every four years. While I am not always a fan of everything that comes out of General Conference, there is one resource that I believe best expresses the heart of what good holy conferencing can create. Unfortunately, not many United Methodists read the words of our Book of Resolutions. The Book of Resolutions are non-binding on people within the church and as such are free to express our most passionate ideals while not forcing churches in wildly different circumstances to engage in the same behaviors.
Here’s what the 2016 Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (¶160.1) says about “The Natural World:” (my underlines)
“All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings. God has granted us stewardship of creation. We should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect. Economic, political, social, and technological developments have increased our human numbers, and lengthened and enriched our lives. However, these developments have led to regional defoliation, dramatic extinction of species, massive human suffering, overpopulation, and misuse and overconsumption of nature and nonrenewable resources, particularly by industrialized societies. This continued course of action jeopardizes the natural heritage that God has entrusted to all generations. Therefore, let us recognize the responsibility of the church and its members to place a high priority on changes in economic, political, social, and technological lifestyles to support a more ecologically equitable and sustainable world leading to a higher quality of life for all of God’s creation.”
As United Methodists have gathered in Holy Conferencing, we have come to the conclusion as a global body that there are some things we believe about the world around us. We believe that this world is a world that is entrusted to us but does not exist entirely for us. Our planet has a natural heritage this planet possesses that abuses have caused us to damage and debilitate in some cases. Plants, creatures, and the earth itself all consist parts of God’s creation. We are called to care for this earth as caretakers and stewards.
While there are people who still argue about and around climate change, the vast majority of people understand that the deployment of nuclear weapons would be a damaging act that would do a massive amount of harm to the earth, the plants, the biosphere, and the creatures including humans. United Methodists believe that the way we treat the world can jeopardize the natural heritage entrusted to all people and all who live upon and in the world itself. As a people, we cannot abide the concept of nuclear war and the ramifications it has on human and natural life. We have the technology and we have the ability to develop non-technological responses (e.g. diplomacy, sanctions, isolation) to deal with tyranny without resorting to nuclear exchanges.
The suffering which would take place as the result of a nuclear exchange would be massive. As people of faith, there are many things we can do. We can pray for our leaders and for other world leaders. We can study peace-making and begin to create a culture of peace-making that can influence challenges like these in the future. We can also write or call our representatives in this earthly nation and ask them to express displeasure (and abject horror) to other leaders in the world about the possibility of a nuclear exchange.
Regardless of feelings of helplessness, questions of efficacy, or doubts about our own abilities, it is the obligation of stewards to care for creation. We are stewards of creation and we have an obligation to seek a way forward which will care for creation in the face of nuclear annihilation. To do anything less would be an abdication of our responsibility as caretakers of a planet that has given us all of the great elements that provide us life.
A Collect for these days: “Holy God, You are the One who stitched this world together. Knit together Your caretakers in action, deed, and love through your Holy Spirit so that we may work together to keep this world from being torn asunder through the most brutal and violent of forces. We pray these things through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”