Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Beauty Will Save the World

   The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote, "Only Beauty will save the world." With so much ugliness in the world, I wonder if Jewel’s song lyric might bring us some hope: “Maybe if we are surrounded in beauty, someday we will become what we see.”

   God has strewn beauty all over the place, but we neglect it: we hurry right by and don’t notice, or we have forgotten to name it when we see it. A dandelion, a carefully arranged place setting, an old photograph, the tree in your yard, a wrinkled face, clouds, a tune, a historical moment, commitments, the face in the mirror: beauty is all around, waiting to be noticed, cherished, pointed to, shared. And all of it reveals God’s heart to us. Want to see God? “Every experience of beauty points to infinity” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

   How good of God to stir so much beauty into the mix when God created everything! It could have been all dirt, rock, efficiency, productivity. God, like the artist, created what was unnecessary, inefficient. Why did God not only leave space for beauty, but elevate it to its status as the one thing that thrills the heart and leaves us feeling noble, giving immense dignity to the smallest creature?

   St. Thomas Aquinas’s answer? “God created the universe to make it beautiful for himself by reflecting his own beauty.” God is a great many things – but at the center of it all, God is beauty. Ours is to notice, to be awed, to be delighted.

   We’ve all heard that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but it’s a lie. It’s not a matter of taste, or private preference. When we shrink things down to a private, opinionated list of what I like or don’t like, we’re the losers. As we explore Beauty, we’ll learn to see better, to see what God sees: every person, every thing, pretty or glitzy or not, partakes in the goodness and beauty of God. We’re surrounded in it.

   Sure, beauty also gets twisted and perverted, and there’s so much desecration. Isn’t most ugliness really beauty that’s gotten scared or fallen on hard times? And aren’t we adept at pinpointing what’s ugly when there’s actually beauty there? For instance, there is a beauty in suffering. You may know this from experience… Or the stunning array of colorful leaves in Autumn: what you’re looking at is death.

   Faith isn’t merely a belief God exists, or access to help when you’re in trouble, or your calling card to get into heaven. Faith is seeing as God sees. It’s a readiness to be astonished. It’s inefficient and unproductive, this pondering of beauty – and so it’s like prayer, a wasting of time, and yet what we crave deep in our souls. Nothing else really will satisfy.


   Paul, from a dark, dank stone prison, wrote, “Whatever is noble, whatever is beautiful, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). God has strewn beauty all over the place. The least we can do is notice. Maybe we will become what we see.


  I'm beginning a months-long project on Beauty. Through Facebook (with a special page if you’re in Charlotte) and Instagram I'll be posting stories, photos, quotes and more. I'd love for you to Email me pictures or stories. Not thinking "pretty" or even "attractive" but "beautiful," which may be surprising, subtle, humble, even dark. We have some great programs lined up, with former Mayor Harvey Gantt (Jan. 7), Jeremy Begbie of Cambridge and Duke, Ray Barfield, doctor and theologian, and Chas Fagan, sculptor and painter.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Absolutely Beautiful Face


   The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky suggested that "Beauty will save the world." If not beauty, then what would save the world? Might? Money? Fun? Politicians? Arms? Gritting our teeth and trying harder?

   Christians say "Jesus will save the world" - which is true. Dostoevsky, again, said "There is only one face in the whole world which is absolutely beautiful: the face of Christ." Was Jesus handsome? Maybe, maybe not. Jesus must have exhibited something compelling in his persona. He must have been "attractive," in that people were attracted to him. His words intrigued. His compassionate embrace of any and everybody was alluring. People asked him questions endlessly; he usually responded with a question, which says to the other person You too are beautiful and wise, although you might not have been told this before. Busy people dropped everything and traipsed off after him, without knowing where they were going or how things would turn out.

   I love St. Augustine's pensive praise of Jesus: "He is beautiful in heaven, beautiful on earth, beautiful in the womb, beautiful in his parents' arms..." He rambled further on this, but I want us to pause and ponder how Jesus was "beautiful in the womb" and then "beautiful in his parents' arms." It's 20 days until Christmas. Don't think shopping days, but imagine Jesus in his mother's womb, with 20 days to go. The Savior of the world, there but not quite having arrived just yet. Dependent, like us. It's dark, like our world. Cramped, with painful squeezes now and then. Before long he'll undergo considerable trauma, exit the dark waters of the womb and land in his parents' arms, out in the air, on the starlit earth, in the manger.

   This wee one would save the world. There's something evangelistic about Beauty. If you see something beautiful, you're compelled to share. Snap a photo, or point; try to describe it. If only others could see this! Isn't that the way the Christian message, the glory that is God gets shared?

   Beauty is so... democratic. It's for everyone. Every person is immensely qualified to notice and appreciate it. Yet so many miss it. You have to slow down. A knack for beauty requires some cultivation. After all, an educated farmer might have a far better chance than a Ph.D. in chemistry when it comes to noticing beauty. Just as each one of us was, at some point, just like Jesus, in our mother's womb, just days from being born, so each one of us is surrounded by beauty. And each instance of beauty is one more kaleidoscopic refraction of the beauty that is the face of Jesus.

   Advent is a season of repentance. Repentance isn't groveling in guilt. It's turning toward God. It's a changed mind. Elaine Scarry says that "beautiful things have been placed here and there in the world to serve as wake-up calls." This Advent, keep an eye out for beauty. Be awakened to it. Turn toward God, who is Beauty. Share with somebody.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Methodist Slime, Scum, Sloths and Slugs

   I’m one who has urged us United Methodists to be generous listeners, and full of love and respect even when we disagree strongly on homosexuality or other issues. I’m one who is mortified when politicians are ugly toward one another, with vicious attacks and mean-spirited name-calling.

   So how jarring was it for me when I recently read Carlos Eire’s wonderful book, Reformations, which narrates those seemingly heroic and theologically profound moments in the Protestant and Catholic Reformations of the 16th century. We lionize Martin Luther for his 95 theses – but they are a ferocious assault on fellow churchmen, accusing them of greed, avarice, blasphemy and madness, threatening them with eternal damnation. His restraint in 1517 was remarkable, as over the next few years he published vitriolic critiques of other theologians, including fellow Protestants, calling them stinking mushrooms, dumb dogs, idiots, toad-eaters, blockheads, the devil’s donkeys, and worse. The pope returned the favor and dubbed Luther a wild boar. Thomas M√ľntzer, himself a Reformer, couldn’t bear to utter Luther’s name, so spoke of him as Dr. Liar, Malicious black raven, Father pussyfoot, and Rabid Fox. John Calvin parted ways with both of them and the Catholics, slandering those who disagreed with him as vermin, slime, scum, swine and fiends.

   Nothing new in this savage barrage of words. I also recently read Philip Jenkins’s Jesus Wars and Ramsay MacMullen’s Voting About God in Early Church Councils, which remind us that the early Christian councils (Nicaea, Chalcedon, Ephesus) featured outbreaks of violence. Delegates were beaten up en route.. Papers were seized and burned. During breaks in the deliberations, thugs broke the knees of wrong-thinking voters. Heretics’ tongues were cut out, floggings and stabbings were inflicted in Christ’s name. All this in an urgent desire to say true things about the Trinity, Christ’s nature, Mary’s role, and sin and grace.

    By contrast, we United Methodists look a bit pale, mamby-pamby, timid and mild-mannered softies. All we do is sigh and bristle a little. But there’s a bigger contrast. During the Reformation, as during the decades of the great Church councils, the finest theologians held disputations and colloquys where they laid out their cases, submitting their arguments to the public for judgment. Transcripts of these debates are weighty and impressive on all sides. No vague or flabby stances, never just a few Bible verses, and never a mere echo of the cultural biases of the culture. Instead, theologians analyzed the original sources, in Hebrew and in Greek, in considerable depth, citing the Church’s most esteemed authorities through history (Origen, Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas) and even the wisest philosophers ever (Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus).

     How bland, how thin, how feeble we United Methodists have been in our conversations that we concede should divide God’s church. We never talk to each other much at all, and certainly don’t devise profound, complex cases, much less subject them to critique, judgment and even correction. I've not seen a single public debate where knowledgeable people dig in and debate, subjecting themselves to scrutiny and judgment. We pretty much preach to our own choirs. I never hear any finesse, any profundity, any Greek or Hebrew, or any ecclesiastical or philosophical authorities. What might Luther, Teresa of Avila or Dietrich Bonhoeffer have to expand our horizons? How might engagement with Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida or Richard Rorty inform how we answer the world's questions? 

   I wonder what the Reformers or the Early Church theologians might call us? Rev. Lazy Bones? Dr. Superficial? Mr. Shallow Arguments? Ms. Play Nice? Eeyore pouting in the corner? Vapid deserters of Jesus’ church? Maybe slug? Or sloth? Should we take the gloves off – if not to hurl angry epithets at one another, then to engage in some serious arguments?

Saturday, June 15, 2019

"I Dreamed a Dream" of the United Methodist Church

     “When the Lord restores Zion’s fortunes, we should be like dreamers” (Psalm 126:1, in Robert Alter’s translation). I’ve been dreaming a lot lately: anxiety-rooted dreams during the night (while asleep or lying awake), and more hopeful daydreams when I probably should be working. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired us to dream. And so I have this dream, conceived in a good bit of grief and fretting, and yet consummated in faith, hope and love – a dream of what my church, and I mean both my United Methodist denomination and the parish where I serve right now, might be, or dare I say it, will be. The Church really is of God, as we say and trust.

     I dream of a church where homosexuality isn’t the thing, which it isn’t anyhow. Of course, one day it won’t be the big thing – and the deep truth that it’s a temporary obsession lightens today’s burden, and reminds us all that we have so many other tasks and so much beauty apart from it. After all, it’s not as if we could come to a total embrace of the LGBTQIA+ community, or if we could manage somehow to put a stop to it, that the kingdom will have dawned. That kingdom is about what we share, the redemptive love of Christ from creation and forever, and being Christ’s Body, not what divides us.

     I dream of a church where everyone would be blessed as I have by befriending and loving people all across the theological and political spectrum. I wish everyone knew the conservative, straight people I’ve known and know, who are humble, holy and generous. I wish everyone knew the same gender couples I’ve known and know, who seek God’s will and strive for missional holiness. I wish everyone knew the very fruitful gay clergy I’ve known and know. I wish everyone knew the very fruitful straight, conservative clergy I’ve known and know. There’s no enlightened elitism in this. Knowing people deeply doesn’t settle moral questions. But it makes me, for one, humbler, gentler and wiser, and it leaves me knowing we absolutely can and must be in church together. Once in a while someone declares that they have detected which “side” I am on. In Christ’s Body, there aren’t sides, and there aren’t winners and losers.

     I dream of a church where robust disagreement is celebrated, and where theological debate is understood for the great gift from God that it really is. I envy my Jewish friends, who chuckle at the notion that there might be just one right answer to hard theological questions. It’s God and God’s mysterious ways, after all – and we learn so much when we differ, when our half-baked conclusions and jaded biases are exposed. Church, of all places, should be a safe haven for intense debate among the faithful who can vocalize their reading of God’s way in Scripture almost as well as they can listen attentively and empathetically to other viewpoints. Such friends would never belittle others, oversimplify the other’s beliefs, or sneak in false assumptions.

     I dream therefore of a church where we don’t stigmatize, mis-categorize or slander anybody in God’s church. Many conservatives I know are humble, thoughtful interpreters of Scripture and holiness, and should not be labeled and libeled as “haters” or “narrow-minded,” even though a few probably are. Many progressives I know are humble, thoughtful interpreters of Scripture and holiness, and should not be labeled and libeled as “cultural sellouts” or “morally lax,” although a few probably are.

     I dream of a church where we ponder and honor the commitments to God and church made by others. We should all be jaw-dropping awed by the marvelous truth that LGBTQIA+ United Methodists, despite years of not being condoned or having access to the blessings of the church, have stayed. That’s a grace I can’t quite comprehend. And the profound commitment of conservatives who have stayed and struggled valiantly for good is grace too – although my dream is also of a church where those who stay love, and never harm one another, where no one’s full humanity is up for debate.

     I dream of a church where no child of the church would ever even contemplate suicide or running away or hiding the truth from loved ones or the pastor because of an emerging sexual orientation. God wants a church where an adolescent, discovering same gender attraction, would not cower in terror, but be able to share openly and be embraced by the church instead of floundering in denial and then rejecting the church itself.

     I dream of a church where all are welcome, not as a slogan, sign or mat at the front door, but in living habit and embodied demeanor, when we fully grasp that if everybody isn’t welcome, nobody’s welcome, and if the blessings of God’s church aren’t for everyone, they are nothing but a charade for the few. None of us have sufficient merit, knowledge or faith to qualify for the church’s blessings. Thankfully, they are all free.

      I dream of a church that relishes the fact that God can and does call anybody into ministry. It’s God, after all, who calls. We have had, have and will have gay clergy among us – thankfully. I realize there are many who are uncomfortable with the idea of gay clergy. I’d encourage them to meet, listen to and ask questions of gay clergy, and at least open their hearts to the possibility of what God can do. As we celebrate the stellar ministries gays and straights have had among us for decades, we dream of a church where clergy are valued for their call and fruitfulness, and that we never have to say No to any person sensing a nudge from the Holy Spirit into ordained ministry simply because of their sexual orientation.

     I dream of a church where the question of who can marry isn’t settled as long as it’s male and female. Christian marriage is a mystery, a symbol of Christ and the church, two people prayerfully determined to do God’s will, and a hospitality that is eager to share love with those to whom love is a stranger. I understand that many Christians are uncomfortable with same gender marriage. I’d encourage them to meet, listen to and ask questions of same gender Christian, United Methodist couples, and at least open their hearts to the possibility of what God can do. It may just be that our debate over marriage might awaken everyone to the glorious marvel Christian marriage is intended to be and can still be.

     I dream of a church where those of us who sense it is of God for us to marry same gender couples who are committed to Christ and are responding to God’s call to marital fidelity may do so without recrimination. Clearly, saying “All are welcome” is no longer enough. The United Methodist LGBTQIA+ community and those who love them are weary and appalled by living as second class members. They seek, and we seek for them, the full blessings of God’s church. All clergy I know are offering nothing but their holy best to God, including those who don’t conduct same gender marriages due to conscience. Punishment serves no one well – except the devil, who delights in Jesus’ followers afflicting one another.

   I dream of a denomination organized around doing good and not judging others, so we are about shared mission rather than taking little-heeded stances on the political issues of the day. I dream of the day when our energies are rightly directed - toward reconciliation, poverty, injustice, race, and so many other issues and people, rather than who thinks right on just one issue or even many.

    I dream of a denomination in which, if we have to have a book like the Book of Discipline, it’s a book that is never thought of as a divinely inspired instrument of blame or exclusion, and instead opens doors and hearts, inviting its people and congregations to life and being reshaped after the mind and heart of Christ.

     Dreams are elusive, and forces conspire to tamp down and squelch holy dreams. We get cynical, or we get realistic and strategic, or we get mad. Understandably. But God promised that “in the last days,” when God’s Spirit is finally poured out on us, “your young will see visions, and your old shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). Dream with me. God is even now pouring out God’s Spirit on us.


Wednesday, May 8, 2019

How LBJ's Biographer is Helping my Preaching

    I continue learning how to preach from unlikely tutors. Robert Caro, the Pulitzer prize-winning biographer of Lyndon Baines Johnson, recently put out a little book (called Working) about how he researches, thinks and writes, and why. I kept circling this and that, prompting fresh thoughts about how I preach.

    Caro is maddeningly slow, turning out a volume about LBJ about once every nine years. Preachers can’t afford such a luxury – but I realize I’ve prided myself in churning out sermons more rapidly as I get older. Maybe that’s not such a good thing, even if I feel it’s good enough, or done enough. Caro is a perfectionist, always looking to uncover one more fact, or to recraft one more sentence so it evokes just the right mood.


     When Caro was writing about Johnson’s childhood, he felt he wasn’t understanding all he hoped to understand. So he not only visited the area. He and his family moved to the Hill Country of Texas for three years. Mind you, this makes me think of God taking up residence among us for… yes, three years. I also wonder: How do I go there in preaching? I’ve been lucky to visit Palestine, Turkey and Greece. With video, online photos and virtual stuff you can find, any of us can go to the wilderness of Judea and notice it isn’t flat sand but a rocky, sandy zone with steep hills. The Jordan River is a muddy creek.  You can even see an artist's rendering of Caesarea Philippi and realize that it was before the Cave of Pan and a thicket of imperial temples that Jesus asked, "Who do they say that I am?"



     Caro is the master of what he calls the “sense of place,” “helping the reader to visualize the physical setting in which the action is occurring: to see it clearly enough, in sufficient detail, so that he feels as if he himself were present while the actions is occurring.” Caro’s next thought intrigues me when I think of preaching, and creating this sense of places: “If a reader can visualize them for himself, then he may be able to understand things without the writer having to explain them; seeing something for yourself always makes you understand it better.” Might I, in preaching, describe a place, its texture and temperature, its light, color and shadow, and my listeners will grasp more than I know to tell them?

     Places, as we all know, evoke emotion. So, “the better the place is envisioned, the more the reader might feel the emotion.” Speaking of emotion: when Caro went to the Hill Country, he found it took a while for the people to trust a guy from New York. Eventually they opened up. Very old women described what life was like before electricity. The dark. The loneliness. The labor required. One woman handed him a heavy bucket of water and asked him to carry it up the hill to her house. He did. What was life like for Mary? Or for Sarah? How dark was the sky at night (or how bright, as they could see millions more stars than we can)? How lonely did Abraham or Elijah feel in that place? Was there a breeze? A multisensory depiction of a Bible scene should be far more fruitful than me trying to “make the Bible relevant today.”

     I love this: Caro asked Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, to go with him to visit the LBJ childhood home. He asked him to sit at the dinner table, in the very seat where he sat growing up. He waited a long time in the quiet before Sam began to talk about the toxic, harsh relationship between Lyndon and his father. Interviewing people is the key to Caro’s work – and he explains that in interviews, “Silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it.” His notebooks are full of notations and comments – and regularly you can find in big letters SU. “Shut up.” While interviewing, instead of filling a quiet moment, he reminds himself to SU. Eventually the interviewee begins to say more.

     I am thinking I should never preach without interviewing some people. And observing the SU counsel. I might interview a Bible character. Howard Thurman famously asked Jesus what he was thinking on that Palm Sunday as he jogged along the back of that donkey. Talk to Elijah: how did it feel during that crackling, scary storm? Ask Peter how it felt to be engulfed in the water. Ask Paul what Silas’s voice sounded like in the Philippian jail.

     Or interview some live people. Phone up a scholar at your alma mater and ask a hard question. If you have a neighbor who’s not a churchgoer, ask him what he thinks about David dissing Michal. Talk with a pregnant woman in your church, or a mom who lost a child. And SU. Listen. Marvel. And ask more questions. Caro was advised by his first boss to “turn every page, never assume anything.” So often in preaching we assume we know things – about the text, about the Gospel, about our people. But ask questions. It helps them to tell you. And you learn amazing things. That was the Cappadocian way, right? You ask questions about God, and instead of getting answers, you get three more questions.

     Caro only appears to be a slow worker. He actually works long hours, every day – and he’s in his eighties. His rule is that he writes several pages every day. The more you write, the better you write. Lots of it gets thrown away. I know my best preaching decisions are when I toss something out. It might be a really good idea too. Caro researches relentlessly. Then he pictures his entire thousand page book in a short outline, with summaries of his key points, and then he fills in. Whatever doesn’t fit that pre-arranged structure doesn’t make it into the book. Preaching would be wise to adhere to such a discipline.

     Caro taps away on an old Corona manual typewriter – which is charming. But he only does so after writing several drafts in longhand. That seems charming as well. He does this, he says, in order to slow him down. With a pen and legal pad in hand, he thinks a long time before writing, and as he writes. I did my sermons pen on paper for years. I am going to go back to that, at least for a season.

     Finally, back to the idea of going to the place and creating the sense of place. Caro interviewed several people who reported that when Lyndon first came to Washington in 1931, he would show up for work early, walking from a tiny, shabby apartment near Union Station. A couple of folks oddly reported that he was often spotted running as he passed in front of the Capitol. Caro thought this was interesting, but couldn’t figure out why he ran, since he wasn’t late for work. After taking careful notes, he decided to walk from Union Station to the Capitol along that same route at the same time in the morning. What he noticed was the stunning way the rising sun gleamed on the white face of the Capitol at that very hour. Johnson, thrilled by the beauty of the light, broke into a run out of sheer joy and enthusiasm.

     If I’m preaching on Psalm 8, I’d best go outside at night out in the country somewhere and stare upward for a while. If I’m preaching on Genesis 32, I’d be wise to unroll a sleeping bag and sleep up in the hills outside my city. If I’m preaching on Jesus’ Baptism, I might wade into a stream nearby and feel the water. Then my people might be awed that the God who strewed the stars across the night sky is mindful of them, and that a sleepless night is a night in God’s unexpected presence. They might feel the rush of the water, and a breeze, and sense God’s Spirit. For at least this next season, I’m going to imagine Robert Caro going to work with me as I prepare to preach.

    {My weekly lectionary preaching blog will try to incorporate some of these approaches in the coming weeks!}

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Religion News Service Op-Ed

Religion News Service invited me to write an op-ed reflecting on General Conference. It has some fresh stuff I've not put here before.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

What now that the vote is past?

The Traditional Plan just passed by a vote of 438 to 384. I am not shocked, but deeply disappointed. A few observations: 

(1) "Traditional" is a bit of a misnomer. So much we associate with "tradition" is good. In this case, the church has traditionally condemned LGBTQ people, and this plan is a more ferocious version of what has been the tradition. 

(2) We know that more than 2/3rds of the U.S. voted against this. A coalition of American conservatives (that's not really the right word either), Russians, Africans and some others appear to be forcing the issue, refusing to be in fellowship with centrists, moderates, progressives and young people in the denomination. 


(3) What will unfold, we do not know. We and many others will be discerning how best to be faithful to God and to God's people. And much of this adopted plan has already been ruled unconstitutional.


(4) General Conference is NOT the church. The Church is where you attend, love, worship, learn, share. We do what we do at our church, not for a denomination, but for people seeking God. 


(5) We will continue to stand with LGBTQ people and all of us who love them, who are wounded by this, unconditionally, always, joyfully. 


(6) The best way for us, at Myers Park church, to support them and the hope for a church for all people, is to remain strong as a church. A weaker Myers Park will only weaken us. We are viewed around the denomination as a bright light of hope for centrists, progressives, and young people. 


(7) God is still God, God is still good, and many of us believe a beautiful church of life and joy is coming to life even in the ruins of this conference.