Lessons for the Journey

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Last winter, my immediate family planned a trip to Hawaii to escape the cold and the snow.  We often like to travel all together, but because of my weekend work responsibilities, the rest of the family took off earlier, while Brandon and I stayed here in Iowa to get through church on Sunday morning and then fly out. 

Our original plan had been to fly out on Sunday afternoon, but about a month before the trip, they cancelled that flight and rebooked us for first thing on Monday morning.  So our alarms were set for 4am, our bags were packed and we were ready to go.  And then the text message came.  Our flight had been cancelled.   There had been storms that weekend in Dallas, flights were backed up and ours was being bumped.  We had been rebooked for Wednesday morning. 

I instantly got on the phone and tried to see if there was any way we could get out of town sooner.  Except the hold time with the airline was estimated to be an hour or more.  Brandon and I live near the airport, so I decided to go and try to get in line and talk with an actual agent at the ticketing counter.  Only, the lines there were nearly out the door.  Everyone was trying to get out of town and no one was going anywhere.   There were no earlier flights to be had.

We decided to make the most of the day and built a fire in the fireplace at home and tried not to grumble.  The next day around noon, we got another text from the airlines.  Our flight Wednesday morning out of Des Moines had been cancelled, too. 

I think I spent about three hours on the phone with the airlines and the soonest they could rebook our tickets was on January 1st.  It would be another two days before it would be possible to get out of Des Moines due to the back up all throughout the system.  I cried.  The good lady from the airlines tried her best to help make something work, but it was a mess.   

I finally asked if the flight from Dallas to Hawaii was still taking off the next morning.  It had been only the Des Moines leg of the trip that had been cancelled.  And sure enough, it was still going to be leaving at 9 am Wednesday morning.  Brandon and I looked at each other, and decided to drive to Dallas.  

We picked up the rental car around 4pm, left Des Moines around 5, and drove through the night.  When we arrived, exhausted, around 4am, we found a quiet corner in the airport to take a short nap, made our flight, and made it to Hawaii to spend the rest of the trip with our family… only three days late.  

 

In our scripture this morning, the Israelites are on a journey as well.  While Brandon and I were trying to escape the cold of winter for a warm, sunny beach, the Israelites had escaped slavery in Egypt and now they were headed for the Promised Land.  God was leading them to the land flowing with milk and honey.  Only, they didn’t quite know how to get there and they trusted God to lead them.  

This was supposed to be a fairly simple trip, and yet at the outset, God planned to lead them the long way round.  The pillar of smoke and fire was taking them on a journey that would avoid most of the difficulties they might encounter along the way.  But no road is easy and the setbacks they experienced were far greater than a few cancelled flights. If you continue reading through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Israelites experienced loss, frustration, bickering, and ended up wandering for forty years in the wilderness.  There were times in the journey when the destination seemed so far away that they wished they were back in Egypt.  And despite the daily guidance and food provided from above, there were even times they forgot God was with them.  Ultimately however,  just like we finally touched down on the rainbow isle and got to spend our vacation with my parents, siblings, and three amazing niblings, the Israelites finally made it to Canaan.

While we might not be on a physical journey, the people of the United Methodist Church and the people of Immanuel are on a journey, too.  John Wesley often talked about how we are going on to perfection and I think part of that means that we as the church should always be working towards the Kingdom of God and growing not only in our personal faith, but we should be transforming the world around us to look more like the “Promised Land” every single day.  As a church, we need a compelling vision to hold in front of us, a picture of the destination we are longing for, so that we can actively work to bring that reality into being. 

But like the Israelites, our journey has been and will be marked by setbacks. Most journeys are.  We, too, have experienced loss and decline.  In fact, I bet some of you in this room can remember when this sanctuary was built in order to accommodate when we had over 500 in worship every single Sunday.  And, there are times of disagreement and disunity.  We won’t always be able to find the best worship times for every person and we won’t all agree on what a faithful Christian response is to some of the toughest conversations of our day.  

Last week in fact, an email came out from a new group that has formed within the UMC called the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  The email contained a video that highlights the three central beliefs of the organization.  That God is good, the Bible is true, and that Promises should be kept.  And yet, how those three very simple statements were defined is not something that all United Methodists agree upon.  So I became part of a group of young clergywomen that created a statement in response, trying to expand and enlarge the conversation.  

When Bishop Bickerton talks about this journey of faith we are on, he knows that it will not be easy.  But he offers a couple of simple lessons that might help us arrive together at our final destination.  As I have thought about the journey of the Israelites,  my own adventures in travel, and the journey we are currently on as a church, I find them helpful.

The first lesson I want to highlight is what my colleagues and I were attempting to do last week as we drafted a response to others in the church.  And that is the see yourselves and others as a work in progress.   I think this faith that we share is not simple, but it is complex and messy and real.  We are always learning and growing and going on to perfection.  Or as Paul put it, “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face.  Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way I have been completely known.” (1 Cor. 13: 12).  And so that means we should constantly be in dialogue with one another.  We need to admit our shortcomings and leave ourselves open to the possibility that we might be wrong.  We do not need to have it all together or have all the answers… we are still on a journey!

The second lesson relates to that idea.  In the famous words of Vanilla Ice, we need to stop, collaborate and listen. It is often the people we disagree with the most who can help us to get farther on our journey.  We need to collaborate across generations, with our older folks helping out our young parents and our younger folks providing support and care for their elder counterparts.  In his book, Bishop Bickerton shares a story from Zimbabwe and Bishop Nhiwatiwa.  In the Shona language, the word used for the spirit of collaboration is chabadza .  “If you approach a person working in a field, you do not say, “May I plow your field for you?” Instead you say, “May I help you plow your field?”  Chabadza represents a willingness to enter into relationship with someone else on the journey.” (p. 36)   And it is a willingness to let to, let others help, and to let it be done another way.  This is the spirit that we embody here at Immanuel whenever we put the needs of another person above our own and let go of our way in order to let God move us in a new way.  

The final lesson is one that I needed to remember many times on our long journey to Hawaii.  You need to lighten up, loosen up, and have a little fun The journey we are on is difficult, and if we don’t open ourselves up to find the joy in the midst of the journey it will feel like its longer than it actually is.  We need to enjoy the ride, remember that we are loved by God, let the Holy Spirit encourage us every step of the way.  Here at Immanuel, there are so many opportunities to have a little fun as we grow in this journey of discipleship.  You can sing and dance with the kids in Children’s Church.  You can laugh together over coffee in Faith Hall.  You can step out of your comfort zone and make a new friend.  You can stand up and let God move you when the music starts playing.  You can roll with punches and smile more and see where the Spirit will move.  

Above all, no matter where we are on this journey, God is with us, pushing us, pulling us, prodding us, and never letting us go.  Like the cloud of pillar and fire never left the side of the Israelites, the presence of God is in this place and will continue to guide us every step of the way.  Amen. 

Was John Wesley a Deacon?

Through John Meunier, I was directed to “Four John Wesley quotes everyone should know” by John Pedlar.

They are good quotes, and ones that, as a student of Methodist history and theology, I knew well.

But as John shares, James shares an important insight at the end of his piece.  It is in response to Wesley’s quote “the world is my parish.”

Wesley’s quote about the world being his parish is usually seen as his missional justification for preaching the gospel wherever he was. But he also knew that he was exempt from the parish boundary rules as a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. He had no parish of his own, and was free to preach where he liked

I think for me, that quote from James Pedlar asks the question – are we hindered in our ability to preach the gospel where it needs to be preached BECAUSE of our parish/appointment?

In the context of Wesley’s ministry, territory was everything.  Your parish was a geographical location and your people where those within its borders. I think he’s right that John was free from that because of his academic placement.

So, what would that look like today? Would it be more appropriate to think of John Wesley in today’s terms as a deacon?  As a pastor without an appointment?

The more I think about it, the more I think Wesley would have been a 21st century United Methodist Deacon rather than anything else.  As far as I can tell, he did not regularly administer the sacraments… he encouraged people to go to their local parish congregation and recieve them there.  He was an academic and a preacher, a writer and a teacher, an organizer… and I have a feeling that he would have been very unhappy under the appointment system.

In our world, our “parish” or our congregation can be limiting if we let it. If we stick within the walls of our church and only preach to those who come to us, the gospel is confined. Sometimes this isn’t intentional. Sometimes the demands of newsletters and repairing the roof and worship planning just gets in the way of our ability to be in the world preaching the gospel.

If we were not limited to one congregation – or even two or three or five (in some yoked parishes) – how would the job of ministry change? If the parish were not your primary appointment, but you were still an ordained elder with sacramental responsibility, what would your days look like? The first place I see being thrown out the window is pastoral care, but perhaps that is not fair…

That being said… sometimes Elders under appointment self-limit themselves.  As my bishop reminded a group of young clergy, we are appointed to communities, not to congregations.  The world of ministry around us is far bigger than we sometimes assume.  There are plenty of opportunities to serve outside of our local church communities, also.

The question for me is always one of calling… what are you called to be and to do?

Wesley was called to use his post as a vehicle for transformation of his church and of disciples of Jesus Christ.  He had some freedom to move and travel to enable him to do that.

I am called to deeply inhabit this community to share the love of God with them in every way that I can.  I have some freedom and authority because of my position to do that as well.

Thank God that there are many ways that we can serve!

cut and paste liturgy of JOY!

I am definately a cut and paste liturgical writer.  I don’t have the time and energy most days to do the good hard creative work it takes to listen for God speaking and to craft liturgy.  And there are other people out there who do it so much better than I do!

There are a few places that I typically turn for inspiration – the favorite of mine being Thom M. Shuman (TMS).  Another favorite haunt is the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Discipleship and the Worship Planning Helps there.  I use hymns and turn them into responsive readings.  We sing.  We pray.  We make liturgy happen.

But sometimes, those pieces need to be all woven together.  Sometimes a bit of this and a chunk of that speaks to me.

Recently, a colleague Sean McRoberts and I created a communion liturgy using the basic liturgy in the Hymnal, but incorporating the Charles Wesley classic:  O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.  And when it came up as a possibility for music this Sunday as we think about the gift of JOY we await at Advent… I had to throw that into the mix, too.

So, here it is… in its fullness.   The cut and paste liturgy of JOY!

Prayer of Confession

Ever Present Peace, you came to save us, but that is so hard to remember in this hectic season. Our impatience for Christmas to arrive gets in the way of listening to our children singing in their rooms. We let the blinking lights blind us to your quiet presence in a noisy world. We get so caught up in the stories of violence, we cannot hear your voice reminding us not to be afraid.

As you poured out your mercy on all who have gone before us, shower us with grace and forgiveness. Then, our eyes will be opened to all your wonders, our ears will echo with the anthems of the angels, and our emptiness will be filled with the life gifted to us through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. (TMS)

Words of Assurance

Dear ones of God, this is the good news: God comes to us to bring the healing of hope, the joy of justice into our hearts.
We need wait no longer. We will go and tell everyone what we have seen and heard! Thanks be to God. Amen. (TMS)

In Christ, your head, you then shall know, shall feel your sins forgiven;

Anticipate your heaven below, and own that love is heaven.

The Great Thanksgiving

The God who is coming to us be with you!
And also with you!
Lift your hearts to the One who turns barren deserts into seas of grace.
We lift them to the Lord!
Beloved of God, let us come to the table with songs of joy on our lips. (TMS, adapted)

O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King, the triumphs of His grace!

It is right to give you thanks and praise,
Great God of the Coming Dawn,
for in each new day you surprise the earth with splendor.
Your Spirit moves across the face of the waters and brings forth life.

At the dawn of all things in a garden you worked the earth.

Elbow deep in mud you fashioned us, gifted us, gave us work to do.
Made from the earth, Made by your hand,
We forgot who we were

We forgot who you were
and we tried to remake ourselves.
We rejected your love and fell into sin and death.
Yet even in our darkness you continued to speak light and life.
…And so we come to live on the edge of your new and promised day.
[We come to wait for your Son Jesus Christ our Lord]

[His] coming was announced by wilderness prophets
and [he] arrived to the song of angels
in the choir stall of a manger.
In Jesus you not only took our name but our flesh.
He was the One promised
He announced the new day and the acceptable year
When blind folks would see
And poor folks would rejoice
When captives would be set free
And the oppressed would once more walk upright in liberty.

In stories he spoke of waiting bridesmaids and prodigal sons,
With tears and compassion he brought a dead man to life
and gave a woman at a well the living water she sought.
With anger he overturned tables and challenged the powerful.
On the cross he revealed the power of weakness
and in the emptiness of the tomb
he gave us a glimpse of your tomorrow
that does not end in death. (AJ – see note at bottom)

He speaks, and listening to his voice, new life the dead receive;
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe.
He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free;
his blood can make the foulest clean; his blood availed for me.

On the night when he was betrayed
he sat at a table with his friends.
He took bread, blessed it, broke it, served it to them, and said,

“Take this. Eat it. It is my body, given for you. Do this to remember me.”

In the same way he took the cup,
Blessed it, served it to them, and said,
“Drink from this every one of you.

This is my blood poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin.
Do this to remember me.”

And so we remember.

And so we offer our praise and thanks and our very selves
As a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us.
[We offer our lives as he remembered that he offered his for our own.] (AJ)

I felt my Lord’s atoning blood close to my soul applied;
Me, me he loved, the Son of God, for me, for me he died!

May the gift of your Spirit, Advent’s Hope and Peace,

be poured out on the simple gifts of the bread and the cup,
and on those who come simply to find healing and hope.

And when we have been fed by your surprising grace
and filled with your peace, may we go forth to the world,
where our weak hands will become calloused by compassion;
where we will bend our feeble knees, reaching down to lift up the fallen;

where we will become fountains of living water for those parched by the wilderness of their lives.
Then, when sorrow and sighing have been chased away from us,
and we gather with all generations around your Table in heaven,
everlasting joy will be our song, and gracious hope will be our refrain,

as we sing to you through all eternity, God in Community, Holy in One.  (TMS)

Glory to God, and praise and love be ever, ever given,

By saints below and saints above, the church in earth and heaven.

The Lord’s Prayer

Sharing the Bread and the Cup

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Benediction

Jesus! The name that charms our fears, that bids our sorrows cease;
‘tis music in the sinner’s ears, ‘tis life, and health, and peace.


My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad the honors of thy name.

(AJ – Written by Alex Joyner. Advent Great Thanksgiving – Copyright General Board of Discipleship.  www.GBOD.org Used by permission.)

Judicial Retention and the Trust Clause of the UMC

This week in Iowa, three Supreme Court Justices were voted out of office.  And I’m a little upset about it.

A huge part of my frustration comes from the fact that they were voted out because of a homophobic reaction to one decision they made during the course of their tenures.  In a unanimous ruling by the court, a law that limited marriage between a man and a woman was deemed unconstitutional.  The decision itself can be read here.  It is extremely well written, and worth the read. One of the first responses our bishop, Bishop Julius C. Trimble, made was that in no way does that decision impact what we do or do not have to do as clergy.  We are not being forced to marry those whom our Discipline says we are not allowed to marry.  But as far as the state is concerned, as far as the institution that the state is concerned with, the rights should be granted to all.

I realize that folks are of all sorts of different opinion about the issue of same-sex marriage.  I respect your beliefs.  I hope you will respect mine.

My frustration is with the precedent that this particular retention vote sets for the future of our judiciary.  In conversations that I have had with others in the past week, I have become ever more aware of two things.

1) Folks don’t understand the role of the judicial system.  There are all sorts of arguments going on saying that a court shouldn’t be making law and shouldn’t be accepting cases of such a highly volitile nature and I have even heard more than once that the courts don’t get to interpret the law – they just need to enforce it.  Basic civics lesson – the courts job IS to interpret the law.  It is to recieve cases, brought by the people or the state, that bring forth questions of constitutionality.  Is a particular law constitutional?  The congress can’t decide that, the people can’t decide that, the executive branch can’t decide that… it is the court’s role to interpret the law and hold it against the constitution to deem its worthiness.  AND – they issue opinions.  That is their role.  Their rulings are deemed opinions because they are interpretations in particular times and places.   The executive branch enforces the law, the congressional branch makes the law, but the judicial branch interprets.  It always has been and always will be its role.  The congressional branch is absolutely free to make amendments to the constititution that will then change what that opinion might be in the future… that’s part of the checks and balances system.  Instead of being upset with the unanimous decision of the justices, the anger in this case should have been directed towards those who refused to bring an amendment to the table.

2) In a facebook conversation, someone mentioned that folks who voted “no” on retention were afraid to speak up and tell why they did so.  “don’t you think the fear of being personally and politically attacked keeps people from having a civilized conversation about this subject or any other for that matter?”  I responded, ” ironically, the fear of being personally and politically attacked for an unpopular opinion is exactly why that vote is so damaging to our judiciary system.”   The very reason that we moved away from an elected judiciary is so that money could not buy court decisions.  The very reason this vote is so troubling is that it will take balls for justices to make unpopular rulings in the future.  To always be wondering who you might upset because of your decision takes the unbiased factor out of the judicial system.  Now, I’m prone to be naive… but I will admit that there are flaws in the system we have.  It was pointed out that each of the justices currently on the court are registered democrats… however, two of those voted out were appointed by a conservative governor.   In any case, for the retention vote to be used not as a means of disposing of poor judges, but as a referrendum on one particular issue destroys the objectivity of the court.
Perhaps I am so frustrated by point number two, because I feel like there should be some protections there to enable justices to go against the flow, to rule for what is right and not what is popular, to make a stand for actual justice.  I say that because I, myself, like all other pastors, regularly have to make those sorts of decisions.
The very nature of the pastorate means that we have to speak the truth – even when it is not popular.  We are called upon to comfort the afflicted… but also to afflict the comfortable.  We are called to speak truth to power.  We are called to pull at people and challenge them to grow.  We are called upon by Christ to turn the values of this world upside down and inside out.  And constantly, that means that we are called upon to lift up the concerns of those who have no voice, those who have no power, those who have no hope.  The bible tells us to leave our gleanings for the poor and not gather them up for ourselves.  The bible tells us to be good to the foreigner in our midst.  The bible tells us to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies.  To preach the gospel often means that we are speaking out on behalf of the minorities in our country.  It often means saying unpopular things.
Which is why I am grateful for some protection.  If a pastor depended on their popularity to maintain their pulpit – the gospel would never be preached.  But in my tradition and in others as well, we have this lovely little thing called the Trust Clause…

 Which means… any United Methodist Church belongs to the Church and not the people.  Any pastor who serves in said church is accountable to the Church and not the people.   That may be a slight oversimplification… but I hope you get the point. 

In trust, that said premises shall be used, kept, and maintained as a place of divine worship of the United Methodist ministry and members of The United Methodist Church; subject to the Discipline, usage, and ministerial appointments of said Curch as from time to time authorized and declared by the General Conference and by the annual conference within whose bounds the said premises are situated.  This provision is solely for the benefit of the grantee, and the grantor reserves no right or interest in said premises.
John Wesley used something called the “model deed” to protect the security of the places where the Methodists worshipped.  It created a sense of conformity… in that those who preached must hold to the doctrines espoused by the church, but it also meant according to one scholor that the preaching houses, “cannot be alienated from their original intent and are not subject to the theological or ecclesiastical fancies of local leadership.” 
If you preach against gambling in a community that has just recieved permission to build a new casino – you can’t be kicked out of the church.  If you preach tolerance and welcoming of the sojourner in a community frustrated by an influx of migrants – you can’t be kicked out of the church. Just because something is unpopular does not mean that it is grounds for dismissal.
I think part of the reason this retention votes is so disheartening is because I empathize with those who are called sometimes to make unpopular and difficult decisions.  I have watched them over the course of this campaign refuse to fight back, refuse to give in, and I have watched them and supporters of the judiciary work to educate the public. 
When I am called upon to be prophetic, to speak hard things, it would be easy to argue back when others disagree… but I am inspired by the courage and respect that these three justices in particular showed. 

I am lucky enough to be a part of a system that allows me to make tough decisions and I get to keep my job.  My heart goes out to those not only for whom that was not the case here in Iowa, but for those across the world who take tough stands every single day and are punished for it, who are ridiculed, who are persecuted, and who die for those decisions.  I am more lucky that I realize.  And I pray that I might use this gift for good and not squander it.

the world is my parish…

There is this saying sometimes about Methodists… that we’ll marry and bury anyone.  And in my little town, I guess that is true.

Most of the weddings that I have officated in these past three years have not been church members.

Most of the funerals I have presided over have not been church members.

I understand and honor and respect the traditions and policies of the other churches in town. There are good reasons for asking couples to belong to the church before they get married within in.  There are reasons that in lay terms we call it “Christian burial.”  As pastors, we invoke… or at least name the presence of God in these sacred and holy moments and ideally, the person or couple would want God there and would hold to our beliefs about God as well.

But that is not always the case.

A couple does not always have a church home or a background in the faith.  An individual or a family may have fallen away from church or may want nothing to do with the church in their final days.  And yet, I get a phone call that my services are needed… and I try my best to respond.

I cringe at the idea that the church is a place where religious services are provided.  I hate the consumer implications of such a statement.  So, as I started typing that last paragraph and the idea of a supermarket came into my head, I started to go back and change it a bit.

But I can’t… because when I get the phone call from the funeral home or from a young (or old) couple… I hear more than a request for services.  I hear an invitation to be in relationship.  I hear the voice of a person who is seeking the presence of God. They might not fully understand what that means, but they are inviting me into a relationship with them and together we get to discover how God is moving in their lives.

When I talk with my congregation members about what our church is about, one of the first things that they mention is our open communion table.  The fact that everyone is welcome to come and participate.  And one of the second things they mention is that our church is open to the people of our community and that we will go and sit with families that are not a part of our church when their loved one has died… that we will get the ladies together and put on a funeral dinner… that we will open our doors to a couple who wants to join their lives together in marriage.

John Wesley might have meant something very different when he said, “The world is my parish.”  But I understood him to mean that his minstry was not limited to a local parish.  His ministry was not limited to the people who sat in the pews every Sunday.  His ministry was out in the world. And my ministry belongs to the community as much as it does to my congregation.

The Gift of Gentleness

What is meekness? Gentleness?

The opposite of gentleness is seen in both of our readings today…

First, from the book of Kings:

1. Elisha is a man of God and yet he is human… and in a moment of frustration and embarrassment, he lashes out at a group of young boys.

2. Is that part of the scene something familiar to you? Can you remember the grumpy old man who lived down the block from you and would shout curses from the windows? Do you know of rude young people who jeer the elderly, the disabled, or anyone different from them?

3. Now, perhaps letting a slip of the tongue speak out a curse against the boys is one thing… but our young prophet Elisha doesn’t quite have the power of God firmly in his grasp yet. Aristotle once said that a person who displayed gentleness would be angry only “on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”

4. This is NOT what Elisha did. He may have been angry at their teasing of him, but they were only children, and rather than an eye for an eye – his curse called out bears from the woods that killed those children on the spot. We can look at this and firmly say it was ANYTHING but gentle.

Secondly, we see the opposite of gentleness in our gospel reading today from Luke.

1. Jesus sends forth the disciples at the beginning of our chapter with guidance as to what to do if people are rude and inhospitable to you: Shake the dust off your feet, turn and walk away.

2. yet by the end of the chapter… the disciples have already forgotten his example. When a town will not welcome them, James and John run back and ask Jesus if they can call fire down from heaven to destroy them…

3. Again – we have rash, arrogant, and excessive behavior… which Jesus quietly rebukes and they move on.

So, what is gentleness?

The Full Life Study Bible: restraint coupled with strength and courage.

Aristotle: halfway between excessive anger and indifference.

Paul demonstrated the kind of restraint Nathan had when he confronted David. As he writes to the Corinthians he asks them: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit.” (1 Cor 4:21). He could be angry. He could be harsh. As a teacher, he probably knew something about discipline… but he wanted them to repent and transform their lives not out of fear… but out of the love and gentleness that was shown to them.

In John Wesley’s writing, we see the spirit of gentleness in his command to “do no harm.”

As our former Bishop Reuben Job has reflected upon that command, he writes: “I have found that when this first simple rule was remembered, it often saved me from uttering a wrong word or considering a wrong response.”

He adds, “I have also found that this simple step, when practiced, can provide a safe place to stand while the hard and faithful work of discernment is done.”

Maybe that is the key. Responding in gentleness allows us to take a step back and to determine proper response. And I think that if we are faithful to the scriptures we will find that gentleness should be the core of OUR response to wrong in the world…

Think of our gospel reading…

The brothers recall how the power of God was unleashed on people and communities unwilling to repent and they believe they are justified in doing the same.

But “Vengeance is Mine.” Says the Lord.

These words come from Romans 12:

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

You will heap burning coals on his head… that sounds an awful lot to our modern ears like we should send people to hell.  But a colleague shared with me that this injunction is actually similiar to the first too – to feed and give drink to our enemies.

You see, in ancient cultures, fire was everything.  Without a fire you had no warmth, nothing to cook over, no protection.  A fire meant life in your home.  And if your coals went out – your family faced death. 

Sometimes if someone was nearby, you could take a container and they would fill it with some of the coals out of their own fire.

This passage says – if your enemy is hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; if the fire in their home has gone out… if the light of hope has gone out… if the fires of love had gone out in their heart… HEAP burning coals on their head.  Overcome evil with good.  Love them.  Be gentle to them.  And by doing this – you will light a fire in their heart.

And in our gospel reading, when Jesus rebukes the disciples, Jesus he is not only giving us an indication to how we should respond to injustice – with gentleness… but also how God-in-flesh responds:

“Jesus’ awareness of His power enabled Him to be gentle to those in need. The broken reed He would not crush but would fully restore. The flickering wick of a lamp He would not put out but would cause it to burn brightly again.” (Stanley Horton)

That is not to say that there will not come a time when there will be judgment. God will do what he has promised and will make all things right. But that judgment is not for us to make.  Our job is to point to the truth and to love with generous hearts.

But as we look at our fellow brothers and sisters, we must remember that the gentleness of Christ died for us while we were yet sinners…

The gentleness of Christ is his power… Again from Horton: “ He gently takes the sinner and makes him whole.”

levels and dimensions

 Last month at our county ministerial alliance gathering, we got to chatting about the books we were reading.  One pastor mentioned a book – and of course the title escapes me – but it had something to do with how we invite people into deeper discipleship. I actually think that it was “Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples” but I’m not 100% positive.

Our conversation from this point talked about the process for making these deep disciples.  We talked about Saddleback Church’s Baseball Diamond metaphor… which probably comes from somewhere else first.  We talked about the process at one local pastor’s church of moving from an attender to a participator to a server… well, that’s not exactly how he phrased it, but it’s moving from simply being there to going deeper in your involvement and then giving back in some way. 

It was all about process and movement and how to move people, how to encourage people to not just stay at one level in their spiritual growth, but to… grow!

I left the conversation thinking about the fact our congregation hasn’t had a discussion about our discipleship process.  People come to church and we try to get them to join and then… well, pray they get active. It’s kind of sad to type that out, but it’s probably the truth.
I left the meeting and picked back up the book that I had been reading, “This Beautiful Mess: Practicing the Presence of the Kingdom of God” by Rick McKinley.  And the very chapter I was beginning had this to say: 

When I first became a Christ follower, I was invited to a Bible study… Bring it on, I thought.  I was all for it.  I devoured that one and soon moved on to the next, and then the next one after that, and the next one after that… But there was no end to it.  All I ever arrived at was a new level that needed reaching.  Now you might recognize yourself in my spiritual striving, or you might not.  But I see that kind of striving and competitiveness everywhere… churches especially. Pastors and lay leaders love to talk about advancing the kingdom, about building the kingdom.  It is as if Jesus said, “My kingdom is a pile of lumber on the truck in heave, and I need you boys and girls to get a hammer and help Me nail this thing together.  Could ya?”

But he didn’t… He said, “The Kingdom is…”

… What if I told you that the the world is broken and that WE are God’s answer to the world’s problems?… You yourself – and all that you can do – are crucial to the future of the planet.  Just like you secretly, humbly, all along expected.

Of course, it’s not true. The kingdom is. That’s it. Jesus does not need you or me to nail it together.

Kind of throws me off.  I like thinking in terms of levels of achievement… if I work hard and do the right things, I can move to the next level… Levels of spirituality are perfect for a culture that deifies the individual.  Our world is focused on self; the kingdom is about the other.  It demands that I notice others, love others, pray for them and serve them. “Levels spirituality” does not.  It allows me to do it myself, by myself.

Jesus hates levels spirutuality. All it does is reinforce the lie that started way back in the beginning – the one that says I can be like God. (pgs 56-58)

So, I spent the morning talking about and embracing this idea of levels and growth through a process and then Rick McKinley turns the whole thing upside down and on its head and says – no.

Of course, it’s not necessarily an either/or.  It’s a both/and.  We are called both to just be in Christ’s kingdom and we are called to take up our cross and follow. 

In spite of my Wesleyan roots, I think I tend to really hold fast to the being of discipleship.  Wesley had a fanatical desire to grow in his spirituality and had all sorts of “methods” for doing so.  Fasting, prayer, visiting the prisoners were all steps in the process of becoming more like Christ. There was the whole idea of sanctification… that we actually COULD by God’s grace become more and more like Christ. 

But what I think that in spite of all the doing of discipleship, the early Wesleyans were also putting themselves in situations and among people where they could BE in the Kingdom.  They was seeking out the poor – or they were the poor, the sick, the imprisoned. They sat with the people Jesus loved.  They loved them.  They did what they could for them, but the relationships were important.  When they asked, “how is it with your soul?” they meant it.

Again from Rick McKinley:

…God isn’t measuring anything.  He only wants us to live in a dimension that is already there.  He is simply inviting us to be a part of what He is already doing… What I am realizing after a few years of leaving the levels is that our eyes begin to see differently.  We notice the kingdom dimension of life, but slowly… seeing the kingdom may take a few seconds.

My hope as a pastor is not that I get someone to achieve higher levels of discipleship, but that I can love them.  My hope is that I can love them and offer them the opportunity to see the world with new eyes.  To see the world as Christ sees it.  To see the broken and hurting things and to love them.  Yes, there is a goal to be reached  – a time when that hurting and suffering and pain is no more… but that is not for me to determine.  I can simply be in the kingdom and let Christ’s love flow through me.

Doctrine of God… or something.

When I submitted my candidacy papers, I had just finished Constructive Theology.  I was in a totally heady space, although I also had a lot of practical application involved. 

In my first round of papers, here is how I talked about God:

We have come to know and trust in God primarily through scripture – which holds the accounts of faithful witnesses to God’s work in history. There we learn that the God we worship is not a passive entity, but jealous, powerful, and always seeking relationship with creation. While some theologians begin with the via positiva or via negativa to describe God, Wesleyan theology begins with the scriptures and from that place, redefines the “natural characteristics” of God. We come to know God’s nature through the covenant made with the Hebrew people and the new covenant of Jesus Christ, as well as the continuing witness of the Holy Spirit. Above all, these actions tell us that God works in ways that invite human response and gives us the power to respond in faith. This is particularly true in regards to God’s power – which Randy Maddox argues must “not be defined or defended in any way that undercuts human responsibility.” God seeks to work in co-operative ways; ways that build, rather than destroy, relationship…

In his own time, Wesley was familiar with not only the Western notions of the divine, but also explored Eastern conceptions as well, which Maddox claims influenced his theology in subtle, though profound ways. Though he never directly claimed the Eastern Orthodox understanding of perichoresis as a description of the Trinity, it is not disconsonant with other of his claims, and in fact helps us to comprehend the relational nature of God. If our sources and the ways in which God is revealed are diverse (the economic Trinity) and yet always in need of one another, it would make sense to assume that God’s internal relations (the immanent Trinity) are likewise diverse and in need of a constant dance.

I still remember one of my Board of Ministry team members saying:  I was a little worried about you after I read the answers to your first question… but then you got more practical. 

Note to that team member:  I actually did teach perichoresis… in a children’s sermon, nonetheless… we got up and danced in a circle and it was fabulous.

The ordination papers as I understand them are meant to be more practical and experiential.  So here is my answer to the question:
How has the practice of ministry affected your experience and understanding of God?
I have always firmly believed that God is relational and so it will come as no surprise that I have found and experienced God in the midst of the congregation. The lives of my parishioners carry on the story of God that was begun with the Hebrew people and we weave together our experience of God with the scriptures that have been passed on to us for future generations.
That understanding of God, however, has been most directly challenged and stretched in the practice of ministry through encountering over and over again the via positiva. So many in my congregation experience God as omnipotent, omni-present and omniscient and therefore see every minute detail of their lives as having been directly set into motion by the God of the universe. On the one hand, it gives me pause as I think about how various pieces of my own life have fallen into place by the grace of God. On the other hand, as a Wesleyan theologian, I also want to fight against determinism. I still hold firmly an understanding of God derived from scriptures – that God works in ways that invite human response and gives us the power to respond in faith, a god that allows it to rain on the just and unjust alike. I recoil when I hear a congregation member talk about how God caused something to happen in their life in order to bring them to faith. While it may be the result of such a time of tragedy that brought about their faith, I refuse to believe God causes pain and suffering in one person in order to reach another.
As I work with congregational members as their pastor and teacher, being able to talk about our Triune God, is immensely powerful. I can share with them my firm belief that in all situations, the Father of us all has always desired a relationship with each one of us. I can talk with them about the sacrificial love of Christ Jesus who died so that we might live… who died to bring us faith so that others do not have to die or suffer for that reason. I can talk about the Holy Comforter walking with each and every single one of us through the valley of the shadow of death. Our encounter with God in the scriptures is so much richer and deeper than any attribute we might postulate about our creator and redeemer and sanctifier.

Photo by: William Vermeulen