Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Life-Changing Experience?

      I heard myself say it: “It was a life-changing experience.”  Everyone in front of me nodded – but a question jabbed me in the side of my head: “Yeah, well if so, why am I not more… changed?”  We were in Assisi, a dramatic place where I take pilgrims fascinated by St. Francis.  I told them about my first visit there in 1984, and how I was transformed.  Their appetites were whetted.  Over two days, we visited key places where pivotal moments of Francis's life happened - and then as the climax, we climbed to the top of Eremo delle Carceri, a beautiful mountaintop refuge, and shared in Holy Communion. 
Quite a few said, "That was life-changing."

In the rush of the moment, you feel like nothing will ever be the same.  But then you’re back at work, stress mounts, your back hurts, you’re running late, disappointments or failures bedevil you – and you succumb to the same old, nasty habits you’ve always had.  What’s the point of the “life-changing experience” if life isn’t really changed so much?  I mean, I’ve had plenty of them by now, at the ripe age of 62.  A retreat at Windy Gap in college, a silent clergy retreat with Roman Catholics near Durham, a flat out amazingly successful revival series a few years back, my daughter’s ordination – the list goes on.  With a several dozen life-changing experiences, I should be brazenly holy, having shed most of my earthly addictions, perhaps even like St. Teresa 
clinging to the altar rail so as not to float up to the ceiling during prayers.  If anything, the gravity of my fallen nature is heavier than ever.

     I could trot out that old “I’m not who I ought to be; I’m not who I should be; but thank God, I’m not who I used to be.”  Perhaps the way you can’t perceive a child’s growth day by day, but then one day she’s 5’7”, maybe I have grown.  Or, maybe it’s a Cappadocian kind of thing:  my growth, my learning is a real thing, but only opens a door that shows me how much further I have to go; each question answered births three new questions, and I’m more confused than ever about God and this Christian life.  I have changed my approaches to mission, and I emphasize mercy way more than I did decades ago.

     Probably we don’t reckon with the inevitable slippage in the soul, that danged second law of thermodynamics in the heart – that things tend toward disorder and chaos.  I see this in preaching.  I tell people anything really – that God doesn’t cause car accidents or sow cancer cells in their beloved.  They nod – but then a few weeks later one is phoning me to ask why God gave his wife cancer.  Or, caught up in worship, someone resolves to be holy, or not so materialistic – and by 2pm the experiment has blown up.

     Maybe we focus too much on the emotion, on the drama of the moment.  I find most pilgrims who travel with me are seeking just that:  the riveting, knee-buckling moment – even better if captured by a photo on Facebook.  Two years ago I took a group to Qasr el-Yehud, a pretty cool spot on the Jordan river where Jesus might have been baptized.  On the way I told my group how amazing it was, how peaceful and moving our service of baptismal renewal – in the Jordan no less! – would be.  When we arrived, a veritable Egyptian plague of gnats and flies had swarmed all over the place, as had huge groups of robed people chanting, shouting, and singing loudly the kind of Christian music I frankly don’t care for.  We wedged our way to the water, waving off the bugs, I hollered a prayer, and we scrambled back to the bus.

     Massive disappointment.  But then it dawned on me – and I told them – that we crave the drama more than concrete, sustainable reality.  As Maggie Ross put it, there are always those who prefer their experience of God to God himself.  Baptism, as in the gift of God’s Spirit and our place in the Body, is a fact, not remotely dependent on mood, or dramatic setting, or shimmering emotion.  In fact, the point of baptism is that you are baptized even in the ugly, awkward, dull and banal moments.  Flabby Christians see an orange sunset or snow on a mountain peak and say Ahh, God does great work!  The mature see God in more places – and the saints understand God is in the storm, the places nobody photographs, the prison cell, the heartbreak and all other not-ready-for-Facebook locales and events.

     Certainly our life with God and in the Body is won or lost, not in moutaintop retreat moments, but in the daily exercise of spiritual disciplines, in what Kathleen Norris described as “repetition as saving grace.”  And yet, we might be wise to seek out special moments, some high drama in this long life of faith.  Without them, we might be like the foolish husband who, on his 31st anniversary, when asked by his wife if he remembered, responded, “Honey, don’t you remember that great overnight trip we had on our 5th anniversary?  Wasn’t that enough?”  No one anniversary junket is enough, just as no towering spiritual high moment is enough.  It will never be enough, at least on this side of eternity – which will finally, and thankfully, be a thoroughly and permanently life-changing experience.

My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is out - a very different book about leadership, for church leaders but also leaders in business, community and even family.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Jesus' Summertime Parables & the Fate of the United Methodist Church

     During these long, sweltering summer days, when the pace of church life is a bit slower for me, I find my mind wandering from here to there, and I start to connect some dots I wouldn’t if I were busier. 

     Like the Gospel lectionary texts for the past two Sundays, and what will eventually happen to us United Methodists in the aftermath of years of wrangling over homosexuality.  On July 16, we were dazzled and confounded by Jesus’ story about the crazed sower who tossed his precious seed, not just on the fertile, plowed soil, but right on the road, over where it was rocky, and even in that thorn-infested place over there.  In my sermon, I actually threw handfuls of seed all over my sanctuary (shocking at my place, maybe the norm where you are) and asked not What kind of soil are you?  Go be fertile soil! – but instead, What kind of sower is this?  God wants God’s goodness, life, blessing to go all over the place, no matter how much gets wasted. 

     So then you have to ask, What kind of church will we be, this church that follows the crazed sower?  Will we be careful, getting bang for the buck, not taking chances?  Or do we fling it all over the place, willing and even eager to fail? 

     I hope for the latter – but then, since it’s summertime, I ventured to ask if this applies in any way to our church and what to do about LGBTQ people.  The seed should go here – but not over there?  Doesn’t Jesus’ story invite us to err on the side of flinging it any and everywhere – and let the seed do what it will, grow where it might, instead of limiting where God gets sown?  Maybe these are not connected, or maybe I misconstrue how they are connected.  But you never know.  Seems to me Jesus longs for risk-taking more than drawing firm lines.

     Then on July 23, Jesus took us back into a field where seed has actually sprung – but in the thick of the wheat there are weeds.  Robert Farrar Capon said Jesus was a way better carpenter than gardener, since all farmers and gardeners know you can't tolerate weeds.  But Jesus says Let them beClearly the story implies there’s evil growing right in the same field as the good – and it’s a story about how to be God’s people, how to be Church.  We want wheat in our church, not those dastardly weeds! – but then everybody defines what’s wheat and what’s weed in very different ways; wheat to me is a weed to the other guy.  Jesus seems to imply he’s not all that interested in whether we get that identification right or not.  He says Let them grow together.

     In my sermon, I recalled a passage in a novel I read years ago (Stephen Bransford's Riders of the Long Road) about a circuit rider who was trying to explain God and evil to a young man with hard questions – including Why won’t God finish evil off right now?  The preacher pointed to some grass where they were sitting.  See this good grass? But then, see there’s pennyroyal – like the weeds in Jesus’ story.  He grabbed a stem of the pennyroyal and yanked it out of the ground.  Dirt went flying – and so did the good grass.  You see, the roots of the grass and of the pennyroyal are all tangled under the ground.  Just like us.  We are a tangle of good and bad, all of us.  If God destroyed evil, if God uprooted all that is sinful, God would destroy all of us.

     Does Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds have anything to say to us?  In our church, at times there are those we just want to be rid of.  We want an 100% all-wheat church!  But I’m a tangle of wheat and weeds, and so are all the others.  Isn’t Jesus telling us, through this parable, that he wants us to let all that is growing in this field of Methodism just keep growing together, even though we are pretty sure others must have been sown by the enemy?  Progressives think they are wheat and conservatives are weeds; conservatives feel they're the wheat and the progressive are the tares.  Seems to me Jesus loves sticking together, we wheat and weeds.

     But maybe I’m just connecting random dots, and Jesus’ parables don’t have anything to say to the church during these stifling summer days.  Or maybe I misinterpret.  The perspiration gets in my eyes sometimes.

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   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.  

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Jesus' Prayer for Unity & the UMC: Some Things We May Not Have Considered

     As we pray for our Commission on a Way Forward, which meets this week, I'm reminded of a friend who will occasionally post a photo of a boring conference session, or a budget committee report, or a church sign advertising a big bake sale, and he adds the caption, “An unintended consequence of the resurrection.”  Surely one of the unintended consequences of the resurrection would be the United Methodist divide over homosexuality.  When Jesus rose, did he think, “I so hope that, because I am risen, those Methodists will split up one day”?
     I’ve written often in defense of unity – and am typing this as something of a final resort.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, not about Methodism, but about all sorts of things, and I want to share those reflections - on some things I worry we've missed.  For starters, the indefatigable, conservative and brilliant scholar Peter Leithart has a book that came out in October about Christian unity called The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church.  His manifesto, urging the creation of a single worldwide church, exposes the absurdity of our splintered efforts for Jesus, the consumerist inclinations of our people and leaders, the laughable Americanism of so much of our religious practice, and more. 

     Most importantly, he begins his book about the unity of the Church by explaining quite clearly that this unity is God’s will.  Jesus prayed for it.  Jesus clearly wants unity.  When we divide, we grieve the heart of Jesus.  And let’s be clear: one day, we will be one.  “The Father loves the Son and will give him what he asks… The Father will give the Son a unified church, and the Son will unify the church by his Spirit.  This is what the church will be.”

     This reality, that while we argue and reckon with ways to split up, Jesus is praying for us to be one:  this moves me, and should be the starting point of any talk about possible division.  Jesus is praying for something else.  So why would we attempt anything that would violate the heart of Jesus’ own prayer for us?

     In this blog I want to explore other things I’ve read, and reflect on compelling reasons we have not to split up.  I will look at (1) our witness to the world, (2) the fact that we haven’t yet gone through what a couple should go through before they divorce, (3) the embarrassing truth that we haven’t fully acknowledged why we in fact disagree, (4) why in Christ’s Body, we need even people who are dreadfully wrong, and (5) that simple question of whether what we are splitting up over is central enough to our faith to warrant a divide.  Stay with me through all five, if you will.

     (1) Witness to the world.  Recently I reread an astonishing, short but impactful book by Francis Schaeffer, the intellectual godfather of modern evangelicalism:  The Mark of the Christian.  As Christians, we wear or display many symbols.  Schaeffer notes that when Jesus was about to leave earth, “He made clear what will be the distinguishing mark of the Christian: ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another.’”  Interestingly, he says “it is possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.”  He calls this “the final apologetic.”

     Expanding on Jesus’ thought that “by this shall all men know you are my disciples,” he claims something that should make us shudder:  “In the midst of our present dying culture, Jesus is giving a right to the world.  Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians.”  Amazing: we are not to judge one another; but God gives the world the right to judge us.

     The world’s verdict is often, and quite rightly, negative.  Schaeffer observes how Christians “rush in, being very, very pleased to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down.”  We are to exercise love in even the toughest situations – the obligation of “loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see.”

     Of course, we say, we love those guys.  But do we?  And if we split, will the world say, as even the critics of the Christians of the early centuries couldn’t help but notice, “See how they love!”  No, the world will say They are just like the rest of us – and therefore they have nothing to offer us we don’t already have. 

     Love isn’t winning and then showing the loser how he was wrong.  Ephraim Radner, in his brilliant, theologically profound A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, joins two moments in our history.  Assessing various struggles the church somehow survived during the Middle Ages, he says “What they achieve is not so much agreement as an act that allows members to be joined to the figure of Christ.”  Perhaps the goal isn’t agreement but allowing all of us to be joined to Christ? 

     Radner continues by reminding us that when the church was most intimately joined to Christ, when the church most assuredly was one, “it was when Jesus was walking around with his disciples – and yet they were confused, mistaken, and Jesus quite deliberately included Judas, and even washed his feet and ate and drank at table with him.  The thief was already thieving, and the greed was already growing, and the disappointment in Jesus’ claims was already gnawing.  This was always a part of their unity.”  Such inept, broken people managed to succeed as God’s laborers, not so much because they were right and proved others wrong.  Tertullian noted how foes of Christianity had to admit, “See how they love.” 

     (2) Marital counseling. God says “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16), and yet God (through Moses) permits it, although Jesus clarifies that this is “because your hearts are hard” (Matthew 19:8).  If a couple comes to a pastor and says We’ve fought for years, it’s irreconcilable, we’re divorcing, the pastor is bound to ask Have you gone through counseling?  A time of unscrambling feelings and motivations, hearing what’s gone unheard, exposing underlying wounds and fears, devising new strategies for understanding and living together:  counseling may or may not rescue a marriage, but you don’t end the marriage without doing the work.

     Our denomination is pondering a divorce, but we’ve not undergone the intensive work of figuring out why we’re where we are, and what’s in the heart of those other people.  As Atticus Finch famously said in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  I am shellshocked when I ask proponents of one side or the other on homosexuality if they have had any long conversations with someone who disagrees – not the hurling invective at one another pseudo-conversations, but asking, listening, empathizing, the kinds of conversations Jesus had with people.

     David Wilcox, the clever singer-songwriter, does this funny and hopeful piece about a couple about to split up.  The man says “Sometimes we’re arguing and it’s taking her forever to see she’s wrong.”  But then an alternative approach presents itself:  instead of making his own case, and dismantling hers, he – for the sake of the love – makes her case for her as best he’s able, and she makes her case for him.  As he puts it, “Instead of getting an attorney, be the other person’s attorney.”  Understanding and peace happen.

     I lean progressive on homosexuality, or at least I acknowledge and embrace our disagreement.  But I have on several occasions tried to help the anti-gay side make their best possible case – which is what progressives would really want after all, right?  No one on the right, to my knowledge, has utilized the shrewdest, wisest, most compelling case against homosexuality – that offered by Ephraim Radner in his genius of a book, A Time to Keep: Theology,Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life.  And the left would be wise to turn to Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People.

     And then there’s this.  In counseling, I ask divided couples to list positives about the other person, which they are surprised to learn they actually can do.  In a letter John Wesley wrote to dozens of clergy in 1764, in his final effort to bring unity to splintering evangelicals, challenged them all to “speak respectfully, honourably, kind of each other; defend each other’s character; speak all the good we can of each others; recommend each other where we have influence, and to help each other on in his work and enlarge his influence by all the honest means he can.”

     Oneness of mind is always being joined to and enacting the humility of Jesus.  We are to “count others as better than yourselves… looking not to your own interests” (Philippians 2:3).  These are the “consistent postures” of church people toward one another, and we are to be this way not at a distance, but up close, in personal engagement.  Can we divorce without having gone through the real, arduous labor of striving for reconciliation with real people?

     (3) Why we really disagree.  I love what Frances Kissling said when interviewed by Krista Tippett recently: “The pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other.”  I think we United Methodists fight for a solution or vote on whether we agree or not – but we really have never done very much to understand each other, which only happens over time and with much curiosity, hospitality, genuine questions and empathetic listening.

     We think it’s Scripture people versus Experience people, or Orthodox people versus Progressive people.  But there is so much out there now about why we are divided on politics, moral issues, public opinion and so much more.  Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, demonstrates how our political leanings are deeply implanted intuitions, gut emotional dispositions we came by mostly in early childhood.  We have our allegedly rational, factual, logical arguments.  But they are “mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly.”  Our arguments, the cases we build and expect others to yield to, are no more than the proverbial tail wagged by the intuitive dog.  These deep emotional preferences are fossilized in us, rendering us incapable of hearing arguments from another side.  This happens to both conservatives and progressives in all political matters.  Could the same thing happen when Methodists try to talk about homosexuality?  Does the Bible, or reason, or tradition or experience really drive us?  Or is there something more subliminal we are hardly aware of?

     Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land (and this lovely podcast about why we disagree – and why people vote against their own morals and preferences!) Robert Jones, The End of White Christian America (which documents rapid demographic changes that create nostalgia, fear or delight – and how our basic posture toward these shifts spills over into moral and religious areas), and J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy have explained why many people in our culture grieve cultural change of all sorts, and feel resentful by the new and different who seem to gain preference.  Might the church mirror this same kind of fearful wariness of what is different and unknown?  And then there are the largely urban people who giddily embrace anything that is new; but while much that is new is lovely, not everything new is of God.  Christians are by nature conservative; we hold to what is old and time-tested; so are we clinging to the core of our faith or are we, like so many in our culture, yearning for a nostalgic world that seems to be slipping away? 

     Christena Cleveland, in her terrific Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep us Apart, shows how sociology understands that we clump together with people who think like we do, only reinforcing our viewpoints.  But what we wind up buttressing isn’t holiness, morality or God, but our own insecurities.  Only with “cognitive generosity,” only by expanding our circle of friends, can we test our own thoughts, discover where we are biased more than insightful, and make peace in God’s church.

     So we are divided.  But doesn’t our division mimic the very divisions in our society that would be there if Jesus and the Bible had never come to be?  If we were holy, wouldn’t we split (if we just had to split) along very different lines from the fracture lines along which secular society is splitting?  Isn’t this a sorry admission – and yet the beginning of a turn to life, healing and hope?

     We are not divided primarily for theological reasons, although we’d like to think we are, and wish we were.  A few fascinating studies assessed people’s high or low view of Scripture, and then compared this with whether they were opposed to homosexuality or accepting of it.  The survey expected those with a high view of Scripture would be opposed, while those with a low view would be accepting.  But it turned out there was no measurable difference.  Many with a high view do oppose homosexuality, but others are accepting; and plenty of people with low views of Scripture either oppose or condone homosexuality (which isn’t surprising at all).

     Humbly realizing these things, we can resonate happily to Ephraim Radner’s reminder that division happens when we forget that we all are sinners, and that the church itself is “sinner,” plagued by “the insistence that only others fail in their duties and squander their gifts.”  No one is right and holy; and we are most bedeviled by our unacknowledged and unintentional sins, our blind spots precisely where we think we see clearly.  And yet we broken people have hope.  Jesus kept Judas as close as possible instead of banishing him.  The unity he insisted on paradoxically achieved his own betrayal and sacrifice for the sins of all of them.

     (4) What the Body needs.  The psychiatrist Scott Peck once asked a woman why she stayed in a difficult marriage.  She replied, “For the friction.”  A lovely answer: friction is hard, and sparks fly; but friction smooths rough edges, and polishes.  Church friction, if we can stay with it, might help us mirror God’s love to a cynical world.

     We have a God-given, theological need for each other.  Slogans like “Stronger together!” are easy.  But have we examined why we in fact need one another?  Hans Urs von Balthasar, toward the end of his lovely Does Jesus Know Us – Do We Know Him?, assuming we are eager for the fullest possible understanding of God, says, “We cannot find the dimensions of Christ’s love other than in the community of the church, where the vocations and charisms distributed by the Spirit are shared: each person must tell the others what special knowledge of the Lord has been shown to him.  For no one can tread simultaneously all the paths of the love given to the saints: while one explores the heights, another experiences the depths and a third the breadth.  No one is alone under the banner of the Spirit, the Son and the Father; only the whole Church is the Bride of Christ, and that only as a vessel shaped by him to receive his fullness.”

     If we split, we will forsake voices we need to hear to know the fullness of Christ.  I love what Peter Leithart, in his book about unity, predicts:  in the unified church he believes God is calling us toward, “there will be not fewer but more theological battles – which are good, not to be avoided or definitively resolved.”  Through history, the Church has been blessed by theological controversy.  The debate has pressed us to answer newer and harder questions, and so in turn we are compelled to dig deeper and understand more than we would if everyone had always said Amen.

     In thinking toward unity, Ephraim Radner invites us to think about “solidarity” movements and how they work:  “Solidarity is about giving oneself over to another across an otherwise entrenched and immovable boundary… In doing this, we confront the ‘otherness’ of God even in the otherness of” the one from whom we are separated.”  We join hands for the sake of confronting a common threat; we stand with others because God calls us to stand with them, even as they differ from us.

     And then Radner shrewdly asks, “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say?  How did he contribute?  When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind?  They led him to Pilate’s bar, and e never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word.”  Indeed, “Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him.  So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.”  It is in this way, Jesus’ way, that we need each other.

     (5) The Center of our Faith.  I have said many times that there are conceivable reasons why Christians should by all means separate, and quickly and definitively.  If a General Conference declared Jesus was only a man, and wasn’t raised from the dead, if United Methodism adopted salvation by works instead of grace, if we determined never to baptize or eat and drink at the Lord’s table, I would exit, and encourage you to come with me.  Through history, Christians have sadly but quite rightly divided when the absolute core of the faith is in peril.

     But is human sexuality in this category?  My friend Talbot Davis posted a blog in October in Ministry Matters entitled “The Top 5 Hills I’ll Die On.”  His picks?  The literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus; Jesus alone, not Jesus among; authority and inspiration of the Scriptures; the reality of heaven and hell; the historic, global Christian understanding of sexuality.  In the words of the old standardized test question: which one doesn’t fit?

     It is the sexuality stance that does not fit.  Human sexuality is enormously important – obviously, which is why we’re talking about it now.  Holiness, understanding that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, being pure and consecrating our sexual selves to God:  these are incumbent upon all Christians.  But is it a central pillar?  Is it, to use Wesley’s language, an “essential”?

     To review: in 1770, at the death of George Whitefield (sermon 53), Wesley famous said, “There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God (such is the present weakness of human understanding) are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’  But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials of ‘the faith which was once delivered to the saints’; and which this champion of God so strongly insisted on, at all times, and in all places!”  His fundamental guidance was, “In the business of salvation, set Christ as high and man as low as possible.”

     Our cardinal doctrines are about God, about Christ, and not about us.  The foundational bedrock of our faith are those things we believe about God, and are essential to salvation.  Who the triune God is, the confession of God as Creator, Jesus as God incarnate, his crucifixion and resurrection for the redemption of the world, the Holy Spirit dawning on and thus creating the church.  Our doctrines of justification and sanctification, our need for and the assurance of divine mercy, the authority of the Scriptures, the centrality of faith in God.

     The Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith and the General Rules, our constitutionally protected doctrinal standards, do not mention sexuality.  Billy Abraham and David Watson, in their excellent Key United Methodist Beliefs, spend 150 pages exploring Key United Methodist Beliefs – and homosexuality, or sexuality period, is not mentioned.  Again, this does not mean sexuality is unimportant.  It is hugely important, a focal point, especially in our pleasure-fixated boundary-less culture.  But it is not a sine qua non.  We are not saved because we think rightly about sexual orientation, or because we behave in pure and holy ways with our bodies and minds.

     We might also look to Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit,” in which he memorably said “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”  Methodists have applied this to all manner of nonsense.  Wesley himself was talking about worship – which is something we do, not something about God – and goes on to explain why we should expect “variety of practice.”  When he cuts to the chase on what we must agree upon, it’s all about God:  “Do you believe His being and His perfections? His eternity, wisdom, power, justice, mercy and truth? That He governs to His own glory? Have you a supernatural conviction of the things of God? Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?”  All that he lists on the human side are these:  “Do you love God, do you magnify the Lord and rejoice in him?  Is your heart right toward your neighbor?  Do you do good to all men?”  Only after these assertions and queries does he offer “If it be so, give me thy hand.”  This is the basis upon which we can stay hand in hand today.

     Here’s how I was trained as a United Methodist:  Tom Langford explained that “Wesleyan theology, as it advanced beyond Wesley, has exhibited characteristic qualities of his thought more than it has adhered to distinctive doctrines.”  What we have is a vital tradition, with an inclusive, living history:  “The Wesleyan tradition is most true to its character when it is open and responsive to both its past and its future… New interpretation for a new generation may be an act of faithfulness to be viewed positively.”  Langford spoke of “center and circumference,” and that our “creative center” is the grace of Jesus Christ – and it is a creative center.

     At General Conference in 2012, I spoke on the floor urging us to acknowledge that we disagree on the matter of homosexuality.  I pointed to Acts 15, when the church could not get on the same page regarding what to do with the private parts of the human body:  to circumcise or not?  For the sake of the mission, they stuck with Christ and embraced dual ways of reaching different people for Christ. 
My friend Bill Arnold of Asbury seminary wrote a brilliant, extensive exploration of Acts 15’s role in this debate, raising serious questions about whether it can be used in this way.  I learned much, and have altered my thinking, which is as it should be in the Body of Christ.  Bill and I, who think differently, are very much beloved by Jesus, Christians in good standing, and still duly ordained United Methodists.  We agree on the essentials.

     An appeal:  this unintended consequence of the resurrection, the warring couple that is the United Methodist Church find themselves in the counselor’s office.  We are thinking divorce is the only way to live on.  But the counselor asks if we’ve done the work, if we’ve understood our own private selves and why we’re the way we are, if we’ve tried to get deeply inside the other person, if we’ve made their case, if you remember how much you and the kids really need one another – and what were you splitting up over in the first place?  Something big or who cooks dinner or gets to hang the pictures?

     The homework we would be assigned would be hard, long-term, regular, daily labor.  How foolish are we, to think we can meet every four years for a few days, with translation through headphones, and engage in anything but superficial debate (even if you dare to call it “holy conferencing,” which isn’t just a misnomer, but an impossibility in such a setting)?  The church where I worship (and work) has debated the issue of homosexuality – but over many months and years, in countless one on one conversations and classroom discussions, with much prayer and a real determination to stick together – which is what we have done.  We love each other and don’t wish to divorce; and we are focused on the real essentials of our faith, the goodness of God in creation and in Christ Jesus, salvation by grace through faith, and the hope of the Spirit’s redemption of us and all of creation.

     The way to unity is what God requires of us, even if we aren’t bound and determined to have unity.  Ephraim Radner put it so wisely:  “To live is to give up and give away parts of ourselves, and to live fully is to give ourselves away fully.  To be ‘one Church’ is to be joined to the unity of the Son to the Father, who, in the Spirit, gives himself away to and for the sake of his enemies.”

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Worshipful is out now!

I'm really happy with the cover and early publication of my new book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week.  Grateful for the positive blurbs on the back (Adam Hamilton - it's really "the best book on worship he's ever read"?).  I hope this book is helpful to people as they worship, and live.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

St. Francis Pilgrimage: October 8-18, 2017

    Come with me and walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi!  One of the great loves of my life is St. Francis – and the places he graced.  October is a beautiful time to be in Italy – and to ponder together the significance of this greatest of saints.  I have been obsessed with St. Francis, and have written on his impact on my life, and the lives of others in Conversations with St. Francis.

     We fly direct, Charlotte to Rome, where we’ll stay at the Cicerone Hotel, in a great location.  We will see San Francesco in Ripa, which houses the stone cell where Francis slept when he visited Rome, which has recently been restored - and is stunning.

We’ll visit the great medieval Lateran church where he spoke with Pope Innocent.  We will have a special entry to the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s – which is especially moving now, with Pope Francis, who deliberately took St. Francis’s name in imitation of his life.  Some other fascinating places in Rome I’ll show you are the Catacombs, where early Christians huddled to worship, and some terrific restaurants and Roman era sites.

     Then we will drive to Greccio, where Francis created the world’s first ever manger scene.  The fabulous view over the Rieti valley is unforgettable, as is the monastery’s collection of manger scenes from all over the world.

     Then we arrive in beautiful Assisi, where we’ll stay right in the center of town in the Hotel De Priori – an unbeatable location.  In Assisi, we will see where Francis was born, San Damiano where he heard God’s call, Santa Chiara which houses the cross the spoke to him (and the incorruptible remains of his friend St. Clare), San Rufino where he preached and was baptized, the basilica where he is buried (and which enjoys Giotto’s fresoes depicting his life), Santa Maria degli Angeli, the small church he rebuilt with his own hands that became the focal point of the growth of the Franciscan movement, and more.

     Then we will sadly exit Assisi and head into Tuscany to visit Cortona and Arezzo, marvelous Franciscan sites, before an afternoon worship service at La Verna, where Francis prayed and then received the holy stigmata.  Then to Florence – where we will stay at the Hotel Mediterraneo, visit the Duomo, the Baptistery, and more.

     Finally, after leaving Florence, we’ll stop in Ravenna to see the most amazing fourth century mosaics, some of the most stunning early Christian art, and stay at Padua, the home of Francis’s great friend, St. Anthony.  Finally we will stop in Venice and return home to Charlotte.

     Trust me: this is the trip of a lifetime!  Come with us.  The cost is just $3750 per person, which is surprisingly affordable for this kind of trip.  Includes airfare, accommodations, ground transportation, entry fees, and some but not all meals.  $300 when you register; the rest later.  Deadline = July 15, but we might fill up sooner.  You can inquire without paying...  Email me if you’re interested.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Her Utmost - For Decades, & even Facing Dementia

     Who reads the same book, cover to cover, at least a page every day, over and over for more than sixty years? - and the Bible doesn't count.  My mother-in-law, Jean Stevens Stockton.  Early on, when Lisa and I were dating and then engaged, I noticed something remarkable I've observed ever since for over thirty years:  whenever I get up from sleep when staying with them, I wander into the front room - of several houses now - and find Jean sitting in a chair with her feet up on an ottoman, not for comfort, but to provide a human desk, across which would be splayed an open Bible, various notes on pieces of paper, and that book, My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers.  Every day for thirty plus years.  And I've only witnessed less than half of her life with My Utmost.

     Naturally, I’ve been impressed, and moved by this immense devotion to God, this singular commitment to learn and grow into the things of God.  But I never asked many questions, not wanting to pry into what obviously was deeply personal, private devotion – 
until a day in February when the Wall Street Journal featured a book review that caught my eye.  Macy Halford, My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir, a book about the book her grandmother had given to her and what it had meant in her life.
     I thought, I know that book – sort of.  I’d never read it myself.  You would think that I, as a clergyperson, would be a voracious consumer of devotional books.  But they generally strike me as too thin, too trivial, and I just get bored.

     The Halford review piqued my interest though.  I knew it had become almost a sacred object in our family – and that Jean had decided she would, on her death, bequeath it to my daughter, her granddaughter Sarah, who had always shown outsized interest in it.  I put Halford’s book about her grandmother’s gift in my Amazon shopping cart, thinking it might be a quirky gift to my daughter when her birthday rolled around. 

     Then, that Sunday, before church, I was thumbing through the New York Times Review of Books – and there it was again: Macy Halford, My Utmost.  I’m not big on “signs.”  But I did revisit my Amazon cart and actually ordered her book.  And while I was signed in, I had them ship a copy of the book, Chambers’s book. 

     They showed up together in a package.  I started Halford that evening, and Chambers the next morning – February 22.  Chambers’s topic?  “Spiritual tenacity,” something I’ve dreamed of but have never possessed.  Thinking of Jean’s multi-decade discipline, I read that day’s very first sentence, which I knew she had read sixty or more times, and which I knew I would now never forget:  “Tenacity is more than endurance, it is endurance combined with the absolute certainty that what we are looking for is going to transpire.”  Oh my.  The next paragraph began, “If our hopes are being disappointed just now, it means that they are being purified.”  Indeed, for several weeks I had been floundering in a bit of a funk, demoralized about various things.  Chambers, who died half way around the world in Egypt way back in 1917, was helping me already in just a little over one paragraph.

     The next morning, February 23, Chambers said this to me: “If we are devoted to the cause of humanity, we shall soon be crushed and broken-hearted, for we shall often meet with more ingratitude from men than we should from a dog… When we realise that Jesus Christ has served us to the end of our meanness, our selfishness, and sin, nothing that we meet with from others can exhaust our determination to serve men for His sake.”  My funk, I realized, was a feeling of being unappreciated that had grown like kudzu, exhausting me, forgetting my worse-than-meager sense of gratitude for Jesus’ patient service to me.

     I cheated, not sticking with the daily routine, discovering an index that could point me to the text I was preaching that week.  His remarkable surmise about the Transfiguration (that at that moment, Jesus could have gone to heaven alone, but he refused, came down the mountain, and went to the cross so he could take us to heaven with him) saved that Sunday’s sermon and made it into my weekly preaching blog.

     Was this really happening?  Maybe God really does fashion unbelievably complex relationships across space and time in order to bless us.  Halford shares Chambers’s life story, full of all kinds of high drama.  I was thunderstruck, though, to learn he hailed from my favorite country, Scotland, and even my favorite place in Scotland, Glencoe – which I’ve always said “speaks” to me in some way I can’t explain.  His immersion in philosophy as a gateway to religion mirrored mine – and his reluctant entry into ministry fits my story so very closely.  His wife’s name, Gertie, is the same as Sarah’s dog.  Okay, maybe I’m pushing the connections too far.

     And so it began, day after day, my walk through My Utmost for His Highest:  a pregnant thought here, a reformulation of a familiar but fresh truth there, with that uncanny directness that this thing must have been written for me.  Perhaps I was beginning to enter into what Jean knew so well, and what Macy Halford reported in her memoir.  Her grandmother didn’t wait until her death to give her copy away – but Macy set it aside, like a relic perhaps, maybe a little skeptical about its contents, as “it suffered unfairly from its association with a senior citizen” (a line that made me laugh out loud).  
After finally picking it up, she embraced the routine, and after fifteen years of a daily reading, she says "I thought about it often. Or maybe it makes more sense to say I thought with it, since its presence in my life had become so fixed that I hardly noticed it was there any more."  Lovely.  I wondered if this book, with which I was falling in love, could be that for me.

      Then her next words were flat out jarring.  Pondering the fact that she and her grandmother had been reading this book for so long she added “she even longer than I, and even after losing her mind.”  Jean, my beloved mother-in-law, had in fact, over the past year, been losing her mind, not catastrophically, but noticeably, to us, and to her.

So I decided a few things.  I’d keep reading My Utmost every day.  I’d explore this further with my daughter, the heir to the book.  And I’d interview Jean, and pore over her book.  I'd seen the way she had written all over the margins of the thing, making note of her reflections on it, prayers she’d prayed while weighing its words, with hundreds of notations of the significance of each day, births and birthdays of family and friends, turning points in her life, and comments about loss and death.

     The book itself, as a physical object, is a testimony to its purpose and usage:  terribly fragile, and yet miraculously sturdy.  How any book that has been picked up, opened, written in, and closed more than 20,000 times is anything but shreds is stunning to me.  After multiple re-tapings, Jean abandoned the cover a few years ago.  But we retrieved it, cradled the pages of the book inside it again, and then she began to share.

     Where did she get it?  It had been printed in 1935, when she was too young to read.  She said “the Holy Spirit led me to it” without a slightest hint of the kind of smug spirituality you hear from so many people who talk this way.  I think this kind of mundane sense of what is profoundly spectacular is one of the fruits of spiritual tenacity – speaking of the Holy Spirit with the same intonation you’d use if you mentioned getting a cup of coffee.  

    She was a young woman, or maybe still a teenager - she's not sure.  One day she was in her dad's office - her dad being the legendary Dr. Charles Stevens, a gentle fundamentalist of a Baptist pastor, whose ministry in Winston-Salem was singular and holy.  She spotted this book among many on his shelf, pulled it down, and started her life with Chambers.
     I was surprised then when she said, “I’m not sure my dad was all that happy about me reading this.”  What?  Did he have some theological reservation?  Chambers wasn’t an outright fundamentalist at all.  Apparently, Dr. Stevens’s worry was that Chambers might become a substitute for daily Bible reading itself; “Be sure you read the Scriptures!”  Macy Halford was chided in the same way by her evangelical friends.  Clearly my mother-in-law heeded his admonition, as her Bible is as well-worn and heavily marked up as her Chambers volume.

     I asked her what this book had meant to her.  Her gut reaction was, “It’s been my constant.  Sort of my Linus’s blanket.  With so many moves, so much change, it’s been my one constant.”  And she ruminated, again with humility and grace, how this book had shaped her spiritual life – and I would say her life, period.  I asked if year to year she ever got bored, if it ever felt like I’ve read this before.  She said No, there’s something fresh, some new realization, and relating it to what’s going on now brings a new understanding.

     That’s where her marginal notes come in.  July 16 was a big day: “Dad died today” (1982), and also a notice that her husband, my father-in-law, was consecrated as a bishop (1988).  "Dad's coronation day = Tom's consecration day."  Chambers’s words for that day?  “Notion your mind with the idea that God is there… Then, when you are in difficulties, it is as easy as breathing to remember – why, my Father knows all about it!”  Did she ponder that her earthly father, gone for six years, knew about her husband’s life-changing event?  “God is my Father, He loves me, I shall never think of anything He will forget, why should I worry?”  In 2016 she added “God loves me.  I love Him even in the darkness.  Trust him even in the darkness of my broken mind.  God is my Father and my friend.”

     That’s when I realized what my daughter he been suggesting to me:  since her stroke affected her memory and thinking a year ago, she had been working out her grief, her confusion and her agony in the pages of her Linus’s blanket.  Quite a few pages mention her stroke, and struggles.  She had done the same, I noticed, back in 1989 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  In the margin for April 14: “Biopsy – cancer.  I’m ready to learn of Him through this.”

     She even used the book to work out lingering wounds from many years ago.  Our family has always known and been awed by the fact that as a newlywed, she had somehow, courageously endured three miscarriages and a stillbirth before managing to bring Lisa into the world. 
     I shuddered and was moved to tears then when I read a recent comment she penned on July 9, seven months after her stroke, where Chambers asks "Have you the slightest reliance on any thing other than God?... You say 'But God can never have called me to this, it can't mean me.'  It does mean you, and the weaker and feebler you are, the better."  Her comment:  "I have never been weaker or feebler than now, except when I carried a baby who I learned had died in utero when I delivered her.  She was dead, but I still love her.  I named her Mary Grace recently, because I have never forgotten her."

     October 22.  My birthday.  Since I met Lisa, she has always sent me cards and various gifts – and she and Tom always phone me, singing “Happy Birthday,” and apologize for the quality of the music – and this is entirely chalked up to the inexplicably lousy quality of his singing, not hers, which is lovely.  Then in the book I found her greatest birthday gift. 
A prayer, for me, prayed - how many times?  "Today, Lord, my prayer is for James.  It is his birthday.  Give him a special gift today of your Holy Spirit at work in his life.  Explode within him or quietly slip into the crevices of his mind and spirit that a seed of faith, your love and guidance may invade him in some powerful way."

     Her observations, which could themselves fill a book (as they actually do now), are pretty much as wise as Chambers’s own.  There’s this:  “Intercession means that we rouse ourselves up to get the mind of Christ about the one for whom we pray.  God does not call me to ‘understand’ the people for whom I pray, but to love them with His love.” 

     And this:  “I can only hear the voice of God when I accept what comes with reverence.  If I accept it with resentment, then the rebellious cry of my own heart makes me deaf to the voice of God.”  Probably years later, jammed into the small space left, she added “Forgive my resentment, Lord.  I want to hear your voice.”  I love that.  The spiritual life most assuredly is not (a) read a page of a devotional, (b) think it’s so good you absorb it with finality and then (c) move on to the next spiritual challenge.  It’s circular, with progress, setbacks, insights and then you’re back where you started.  God does not ask for perfection, or even progress in our devotional life.  Just some spiritual tenacity.  God wants what Jean scribbled on more than a dozen pages in the book:  “I want to give my utmost for His highest."
My newest book is now available: Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week.