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Church is a Miracle: Reflections on General Conference 2016

umh-545 lyricsI’m not certain what I think about General Conference.

The usual rundowns from secular media – quoting a progressive, a conservative, and then maybe a moderate bishop or academic – reflect the problems of General Conference as much as they describe them. Both “sides” are, in different ways, claiming victory and crisis.  Most statements from denominational leaders seem to me the kinds of things one has to say when one is in leadership, not honest assessments of where we find ourselves. They fail to take seriously, at least in public, to degree to which wilfulness and division – major ingredients in the unholy concoction called evil – were everywhere on display in Portland.  Bishop Swanson’s powerful homiletic exorcism was a refreshing bit of honesty. Let’s go ahead and ask him to do that every morning in 2020.  The low point, at least to this live stream viewer, was watching a presiding Bishop, widely respected by both conservatives and progressives, get spoken down to like a school boy that had just forgotten his hall pass.  As David Watson points out, such a lack of trust is disturbing.

Regardless, the Church goes on.  I do not necessarily mean the United Methodist Church, whose institutional life is frayed. I mean that whatever happens to our particular part of the Body, the work of Christ’s family goes on.  And the true Church, wherever it is found, is based around table fellowship with diverse people. (Look to the Articles 13, 16, & 18 for the centrality of the Table.)  This has been true of the church from the very beginning, even in the church in utero, represented by the disciples.

In a wonderful section of his ecclesiological tome Does God Need the Church? titled, ‘Table Manners in the Reign of God,” Catholic theologian Gerhard Lofhink reflects on the how the church, seen in the figure of the twelve disciples gathered around the Eucharist, reflects such diverse people that only God’s Kingdom could bring them together:

Certainly the common meal, and therefore the common table, played a crucial role simply because a wedding is being celebrated. We can even say that the profane table at which Jesus eats with his disciples becomes the new place of salvation. Jesus dares to effect the eschatological renewal of the people of God with the simplicity and intimacy of a table around which is disciples gather as a family.

These disciples were by no means “like-minded people.” There is a good deal of evidence that Jesus chose the Twelve from the most diverse groups in the Judaism of his time in order to make it obvious that he was gathering all Israelites. The Twelve were a colorful mixture: from the former disciples of the Baptizer (John 1:35-40) to Matthew the tax-collector (Matt 10:3) to Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15).  In a tax-collector and a Zealot the most bitterly opposed forces that existed in Israel at the time were joined within a single group, for the tax-collectors gathered revenue for the Romans while Zealous utterly rejected the Roman occupation as incompatible with the reign of God.

We should try to imagine how such different people could sit at one table. They were like fire and water. But just there began the miracle of the eschatological people of God. If each one were to remain in his or her own corner and individual house nothing of the reign of God could be seen.  Its fascination can only appear when people of different backgrounds, different gifts, different colors, men and women sit together at a single table – and when they join their lives so that together, undivided, they can serve God’s cause. (Lofhink, 174-175)

We wonder how different folks – Zealots and tax collectors, natural enemies! – can sit together at the one table of Christ.  The truth is that it is a miracle.

The church is always a miracle.

thereforegoThis is because the church is most herself when she points towards the reign of God.  It is easy for the church to reflect the world: its division, strife, discord, and polarization. United Methodists know too much of this.  But if and when the church reflects God’s Kingdom – when folk of different opinions and ideologies, life experiences and social locations, come to the one table – it is a gift of God.

As an Arminian, I believe that we can be open to or closed off to God’s gifts. God, in God’s radical freedom, grants human image-bearers a similar freedom.  As such, His gifts can be accepted or rejected.

When and where God’s people depart their “own corner and individual house[s]” and come to God’s table, there the miracle of church is enacted.

But when we refuse to leave our own huts and enclaves, when we try to keep one foot in my way and another foot on the narrow way, or if we come to God’s table with prejudices and ideologies that are more determinative than the Word of God, we have refused to receive the gift called Church.  We we make God’s table our table, we have rejected the very nature of Christian community.

I believe God’s desire is for a United Methodist Church that, like the eschatological feast that is at the heart of our faith, brings different people together to praise, serve, and witness to God’s grace.  But God has given us freedom in this. And while the Spirit binds us together and equips us for ministry, we are capable of following other spirits.

But unfortunately, the principalities and powers have been having their way with us.  The bishops’ post-Portland letter closed, cryptically, with words from John Wesley’s deathbed.  That’s the definition of cold comfort.

But God is in the business of making rivers in the desert and raising the dead to life.  It is not too late for a miracle.

I will be praying for one, and I invite you to join me.

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Jesus, Hitler, & the Willfulness of Evil People

people-of-the-lieWhat do Jesus & Hitler have in common?

Contemporary Christians too often lack the resources to resist or even name evil.  I have learned from scripture, the desert fathers, and even the Harry Potter novels that evil must not be taken lightly.  A classic resource that many people, myself included, have found helpful is M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.

In an especially helpful section of chapter 3, Peck differentiates between the normal, even healthy, narcissism of functional adults and the “malignant narcissism” of the evil.  For the author the difference between these two kinds of narcissism is that the evil have “an unsubmitted will.”

He goes on to elaborate:

The reader will be struck by the extraordinary willfulness of evil people. They are men and women of obviously strong will, determined to have their own way.  There is a remarkable power in the manner in which they attempt to control others […] Indeed, it is almost tempting to think that the problem of evil lies in the will itself. Perhaps the evil are born so inherently strong-willed that it is impossible for them ever to submit their will. Yet I think it is characteristic of all “great” people that they are extremely strong-willed – whether their greatness be for good or for evil. The strong will – the power and authority – of Jesus radiates from the Gospels, just as Hitler’s did from Mein Kampf. But Jesus’ will was that of his Father, and Hitler’s was that of his own. The crucial distinction is between “willingness and willfulness.” (78-79)

Jesus and Hitler: both people of conviction, of strong will. But ultimately Hitler’s will served nothing but his own maniacal ego, and Jesus’ will was forfeit to the Father. “Not my will, but yours be done,” as he prayed in Luke 22:42.

In mixed martial arts parlance  – and much to the chagrin of many Macho Jesus types – Jesus “tapped.” That is, he surrendered his own will out of obedience to the Father.  Though surely plagued by the desire to preserve himself from torment, as the heavily fictionalized Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ so aptly demonstrated, the Son of God ultimately submitted.

The malignant narcissist’s “unsubmitted” will, however, is precisely the opposite.  He or she desires the world to bend to their will.  All who refuse to submit must be destroyed, one way or the other.  This is evil unalloyed.

Submission is a nearly extinct virtue, not merely in today’s culture but even in the church who worships Christ as King and Lord.  Thomas a’ Kempis, the devout monk who left us one of the great devotional classics of all time in The Imitation of Christ, devotes a whole chapter (9) to obedience and submission.  Here we find this refreshingly counter-cultural wisdom:

There is greater security in living a life of submission than there is in exercising authority. Many live under obedience, more out of necessity than out of love of God, and they murmur and complain in their discontent. These will never achieve spiritual freedom until, for the love of God, they submit themselves with all their heart.

I can already hear the familiar litany of late-modern warnings against such archaic virtues. (Feel free to leave them in the comments section anyway.)

However unpopular in our day and untested in our experience, submission to God is the way of Christ, the narrow way that leads to life.  All else is the way to death, even if it be a wide and easy path that passes through Vanity Fair on the way.  In the end, there is only “Thy will be done” or “my will be done.”  And while a baptized willfullness is a recipe for sainthood, Peck’s “unsubmitted will” is little more than embryonic evil.

A prayer from the heart of the Wesleyan tradition brings this home beautifully. I’ll close with this prayer, used in Covenant Renewal and Watch Night services for centuries, in hopes that the embers of long-dormant virtues might be kindled in me and in my fellow disciples today.

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

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Why the Nicene Creed?

confessing one faithHow does one choose the most significant Christian confession?

There are thousands of different creeds, catechisms, and confessions which Christians have used in liturgy and for instruction over the centuries.  From the earliest centuries until today, various Christian bodies have searched for ways to distill Scripture and tradition into statements that serve the church in forming disciples.  These statements are ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, Reformed and Arminian, progressive and evangelical.  How does one decide?

The World Council of Churches, in a series of meetings and documents throughout the 20th century, decided to use the Nicene Creed.  First drafted in 325 and approved at the First Ecumenical Councils in Nicea, it was modified and again approved in Constantinople in 381 (thus its formal title is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed).  In 1991 the WCC produced a document, Confessing the One Faith (Faith & Order #153), expounding on this creed as a basis for the doctrinal work needed to work towards full visible unity of the constituent churches.  The essay addresses up front why the WCC chose the Nicene Creed for this important role:

Why was this Creed chosen? At a time when erroneous positions on Christ and the Holy Spirit were already tearing the Church apart, the Ecumenical Councils set forth the faith of the apostolic community which it is the Church’s mission to safeguard, defend and transmit. The essential truths of this faith were summarized and articulated in creeds or confessions of faith, most often in the liturgical context of baptism.

The credal statement known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is a typically Eastern creed, the core of which dates back to the Council of Nicea (325), while its third article is linked with the Council of Constantinople (381).  Because it is used in the liturgies of both East and West it is undoubtedly the best witness to the unity of the churches in the apostolic faith, as Faith and Order affirmed at Lausanne (1927). It reminds all Christians and all communities of their faith, and links it with the faith of all ages and all places. The churches of the Reformation have included it in their credal books as a reference text that objectively expresses the faith, making no concessions to religious sentimentality, and drawing directly on Scripture.  (Preface, ix.)

Eastern Orthodox icon of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325). Public Domain via WIkimedia Commons.

Eastern Orthodox icon of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea (325). Public Domain via WIkimedia Commons.

The World Council of Churches has judged this statement of faith so significant that they made it the basis of ecumenical dialogue for nearly a century.  This alone should be reason enough for Christians in 2016 to embrace it.  For in confessing together this creed from the 4th century, we join with Christians across time and space.  The WCC document continues:

The Nicene Creed as a confession of faith belongs to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. In the Nicene Creed the individual joins with all the baptized gathered together in each and every place, now and throughout the ages, in the Church’s proclamation of faith: “we believe in”. The confession “we believe in” articulates not only the trust of individuals and God’s grace, but it also affirms the trust of the whole Church in God. There is a bond of communion among those who join together in making a common confession of their faith. However, as long as the churches which confess the Creed are not united with one another, the visible communion of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church remains impaired.

Just as in baptism the confession of faith is made in response to God’s grace, so too the Church’s on-going confession is made in response to God’s grace and love, most particularly vouchsafed in the preached word and celebrated sacraments of the Church. Hence the Church’s liturgy is the proper context for the Church’s confession of faith.  (pp. 15-16)

This is why the Nicene Creed is, as its broad use across a number of communions and by the chief ecumenical body on the globe testify, the preeminent statement of Christian confession.  As Christians have recognized since 381, nothing else witnesses to the unity of the apostolic faith in the undivided church with both the theological beauty and ecumenical authority that can match this ancient confession.

Why the Nicene Creed? There is simply no substitute.

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3 Theological Reasons the #UMC Should Reconsider its Stance on Same-Gender Relationships

essentialsThe debate we have been having for over 40 years as a church has been decidedly un-theological.  Below are three ways to enter this conversation that force us to think a bit more theologically, channels that deserve more attention than they usually get.  Here are three theological reasons the United Methodist Church Should Reconsider its stance on same-gender relationships.

3) Divorce

All churches, in formulating their teachings on marriage and sex, are faced with a variety of questions.  These are interrelated.  What you think about sex impacts what you think about marriage; what you think about marriage impacts your view of divorce; views about a host of other matters like abortion and contraception also must cohere within this web.

The fly in the ointment of conservative United Methodists who argue that it is impossible for the church to change its stance on same-gender relationships is divorce.  On one hand, we are told it is impossible for the church to “compromise” the clear teaching of Scripture about divorce, but in the other, we see evangelical leaders getting divorced and remarried with hardly the bat of an eye.

It makes no sense to threaten schism over same-gender relationships and remain almost silent on divorce.  We have come to see, as most Protestants now have, that divorce is sometimes a necessary option – not just in cases of adultery but particularly in situations of abuse or neglect – and that remarriage is often a blessing.  This is against the clear teaching of Matthew 19.  Why can we reinterpret (or ignore) Scripture here, and not elsewhere?  I do not agree with the Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox on everything, but their practices vis-a-vis marriage, divorce, and same-gender relationships are coherent.  On the other hand, I’ve known many couples who have their second marriage to be a profound blessing.  If this is a possibility, despite Scripture’s teaching, might not there be room for a conversation about same-gender marriage?  (Note: we already let individual conferences make policies about divorce.)

It makes no sense to argue we cannot bend on sexuality while in practice being silent on divorce.  It is incoherent for our clergy who are in the closet to have to remain there when we say nothing to heterosexual clergy who are serially monogamous.

2) The Keys

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” -Matt. 16:19-20

If you have read my work elsewhere, you probably guessed that I take ecclesiology (the nature/study of the church) very seriously.  I believe this is because Scripture and tradition treat the church as an entity of utmost importance.

Jesus gave the church “the keys of the kingdom,” and promised to honor whatever the church bound and loosed. (Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox differ over who precisely Peter represents here.) We see a clear example of this in Acts 15 over the question of dietary laws.  I’ve often thought that Acts 15:10, about “placing a yoke” on the neck of disciples that neither they nor their ancestors could themselves bear, applies to the UMC’s treatment of gay and lesbian persons.  To call people to lives of celibacy, without lifting that up as an honorable vocation and providing resources and community to make this a life-giving possibility, is indeed a heavy and unjust yoke.

The church has authority, given by Christ, to bind and to loose – to come together in prayer and humility – and discern these matters. We’ve been doing it since the earliest church.  God, amazingly, trusts us and honors our discernment.  On ecclesiological grounds, I believe that anything that is not core doctrine (say, what is contained in the historic creeds), is subject to the binding and loosing of the community.  “In non-essentials, liberty,” as the saying goes.

1) Holiness

Methodism is a holiness movement. Even the most cursory reading of  Wesleyan history shows that holiness is at the core of our mission and ethos.  This is perhaps the most neglected, most fruitful avenue for discussion in the long-simmering debate over same-gender relationships in the United Methodist Church.

In the church, marriage is not a right but a rite, not a ceremony but a vocation.  The best reason Christians marry is because they find a partner who will draw them nearer to the triune God.  If the whole of a Christians’ life is to be directed towards a greater love of God and neighbor, then the deepest purpose of marriage must align with this end.

United Methodists would do ourselves a favor if we took seriously the work of Eugene Rogers, a lay Episcopal theologian of uncommon nuance.  His Sexuality and the Christian Body is a hefty read, but you can read more succinct versions of his work here and in this Christian Century piece. In the latter, he argues explicitly for a holiness view of marriage and suggests that we

…take marriage as an ascetic discipline, a particular way of practicing love of neighbor. The vows do this: “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” Those ascetic vows—which Russian theologians compare to the vows of monastics—commit the couple to carry forward the solidarity of God and God’s people. Marriage makes a school for virtue, where God prepares the couple for life with himself by binding them for life to each other.

Marriage, in this view, is for sanctification, a means by which God can bring a couple to himself by turning their limits to their good. And no conservative I know has seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than opposite-sex couples do.

I am moved by this vision of marriage as “a school for virtue.”  Re-discovering this sense of marriage as a calling directed towards sanctification could do much to sanctify our own conversations within the United Methodist Church and beyond.  Let us not treat as a piece of paper what God has given as a gift and a vocation.

Conclusion

Too much of our denominational conversation devolves into categories imported from outside the church.  To be frank, there are better avenues for debate, three of which I have outlined above.

I long for us to argue better.  I long for us to seek holy ends by holy means.  How we go about this conversation matters; I do not believe coercion is a legitimate strategy for intra-church debate. We are not utilitarians, and “anything that works” is not Christian logic.

So let us argue as sisters and brothers in Christ, both in form and content.  By re-narrating this debate in terms of our views of divorce, binding and loosing, and holiness, we might find a more fruitful debate.  We might even find a surprising unanimity among otherwise disparate factions.

I yet hope that our decades-long fight can be over. I hope we can find a way to welcome our LGBTQ neighbors more fully into the life of the church.  I likewise hope that this can be done in a way that does not drive away folks who are evangelical or traditionalist.

To that end I shall continue to study, work, and pray.

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Premeditated Abdication: A Rejoinder to James Howell

Byzantine icon of Ignatius of Antioch from Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Public domain image via Wikipedia.

Byzantine icon of Ignatius of Antioch from Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Public domain image via Wikipedia.

Premeditated abdication is a strange way to run for Bishop.

Going back to 1784, American Methodists have been guided by a Book of Discipline. Though it has changed over the years in response to new laws, splits, and mergers, the Discipline has been a staple of Methodist life here in the former colonies.  For as long as there has been an entity called the United Methodist Church, the Discipline has also been a source of controversy.  Since 1972, questions about sexuality have led the agenda for many Methodists.  With increasing fervor, arguments about the clauses related to LGBT persons have raged as the decades rolled on.  Rev. Dr. James Howell, senior pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, NC, has recently offered these pre-Portland thoughts (high-fived by Bishop Willimon here) on our meddlesome book:

A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?”  This is code language. Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in.  The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.

I wish we wouldn’t speak in code.  Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced.  But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all.  Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive.  Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.

It seems strange to argue that enforcing church law “sounds punitive” when it is bound between two covers with Book of Discipline on the front. If what we have is church law, and many churches (along with non-profits, states, cities, and middle school student councils) are governed by laws, then said law can be broken or maintained, defended or flaunted, enforced or ignored.

I also think it’s important to note that Dr. Howell is himself speaking in code. The issue is clearly not whether or not “enforcement” is a positive or negative practice.  The real issue is that he disagrees with some parts of the Discipline and, in a coded way, is arguing for ignoring them.

It may sound shocking, but there are times when enforcing the Discipline is wholly uncontroversial.

For instance, when a Virginia pastor was removed from ministry because he refused membership to a gay man, I do not recall progressives decrying the worldly, legalistic culture of “enforcement.”

Moreover, when a pastor runs off with the Sunday offering or with a partner who is not their spouse, we not only expect, but we hope for enforcement of clergy standards.  If you’ve ever been in a church wounded and riven because that enforcement came too late, you learn to appreciate it.

In the Christian tradition, discipline can actually be a means of grace, or even an act of love.  Augustine argued that it was loving to rein in the Donatists, because their apostasy was ultimately destructive to themselves and others.  Dr. Howell rightly notes the example of the eccentric St. Francis, but we might also mention the more ancient Rule of St. Benedict, in which we discover that correction includes not just public excoriation but excommunication and even corporal punishment.

Can enforcement be an act of love?

Earlier this month a judge in Fayetteville, NC sentenced a veteran to 24 hours in jail.  The veteran, Sgt. Serna of the Special Forces (retired), spent twenty years in the Army including four tours in Afghanistan. He was almost killed three times, and has one Purple Heart and many other awards to his credit.

His life post-service has been difficult. Like so many combat vets, he’s struggled with PTSD in the ensuing years.  Serna turned to alcohol for relief, which has led to several DUI’s.  Though he’s been working a treatment program, he confessed to Judge Lou Olivera recently that he had lied about a recent urine test, which led to the 24 hour sentence.

But what came next was astounding. Judge Olivera himself drove the veteran to jail, and then joined him in the cell.  Worried that Serna’s PTSD might rear its hideous head if left alone in a cell overnight, he stayed with him.  They spent the evening talking about military service. Olivera, you see, is himself a veteran of the first Gulf War and knew Serna’s pain better than most.  An overwhelmed Serna had this to say:

I cannot even put into words how I feel about him…I look at him as a father. I’ve seen a lot of things, and this by far is the most compassionate thing I’ve ever seen anyone give to anybody. I will never let him down again.

broken chaliceCompassion and enforcement are not of necessity opposites.  As Christians who have tethered ourselves by sacred vow to a church whose foundational doctrine is grace, governed by laws together compiled as the Book of Discipline, this should not be surprising.  Grace and discipline. Love and order.

It is fashionable to decry those who are in favor of church order as Pharisees and fundamentalists – cheap attacks are easier than relationship and engagement, sadly – but this of course ignores the many positive references to correction in Scripture. To name just two:

Those who ignore instruction despise themselves, but those who heed admonition gain understanding. (Prov. 15:32, NRSV)

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. (Gal. 6:1, NRSV)
Scripture values correction, and so does our own particular church history. For those following Jesus in the company of the Wesleys, discipline should not a four letter word.  John Wesley and later Francis Asbury held their circuit preachers to high standards of accountability. Likewise, band and class leaders who formed the skeleton of the Methodist movement also maintained serious (though loving) boundaries. (Remember, it is not unheard of in our tradition to have to receive a ticket from one’s spiritual overseer to receive Communion!)

I am especially concerned about the outright rejection of enforcement because Dr. Howell is my conference’s nominee for Bishop. Going back to ancient precedent, Bishops are in fact to be foci of unity for the church. Thus, St. Ignatius wrote in the 2nd century, “For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop.” If one were to imagine the church as a house, Bishops are charged with ensuring there are not termites in the wall or cracks in the foundation. If there are, some action will be necessary.

Elsewhere, Ignatius argued that the unanimity of the bishops and the priests was to model and reinforce the singleness of the one Lord Jesus Christ:
As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent.

The United Methodist Church operates in like manner. We “come together in one place” and decide how to order our common lives. No one is forced to be a United Methodist, but if you have decided to be a lay or clergy member, the results of these quadrennial gatherings shape our mutual life. If some decide instead to follow what is “reasonable and proper to [them]selves apart,” if the oneness of the church is broken, we have a process for restoration that must be followed. The hope is that this can be done short of something punitive or drastic, like de-frocking. But more severe corrective measures are certainly on the table.

To say otherwise, a priori, is an abdication of a crucial apostolic duty that belongs to bishops alone.

The Book of Discipline is an imperfect document by and for imperfect people. In that, let us grant each other grace. But let’s also care enough about our life to not shy away from this sacred bond.

I would hope that someone called to the office of Bishop in our particular corner of Christendom would see that our covenant, warts and all, is a sacred bond: a bond worth preserving where it is eroding, worth defending where it is threatened, and worth enforcing where it is violated.

While I greatly respect Dr. Howell as a preacher, a theologian, and a leader not just in my conference but across the denomination, I cannot support a candidate for episcopal office who has already signaled a premeditated abdication of duty.

This is a path to increased chaos, not coherence.

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The Untorn Net in John 21:11 & Church Unity

"The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," by Konrad Witz. 15th century. Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” by Konrad Witz. 15th century. Public Domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Scripture’s truth comes to us at a variety of levels, as the miraculous catch of fish (part deux) makes clear in John 21:11. In the gospels, fish are a common symbol for humans, as when Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 5:10, “I will make you fish for people.”  The gospels relate two similar miracles about catching fish.  For our purposes here, perhaps the most significant difference in this two stories is what happens with the net.

In Luke 5, we are told that the net begins to break because there are so many fish.  But in John 21, the author is careful to tell us that though there were 153 large fish in the net, it did not break.  It is also significant that the John miracle takes place after Easter. What could this mean?

I was intrigued by A.T. Lincoln’s comments:

The details about the size of the catch and the untorn net not only attest to the miracle but may also at the other level of the narrative suggest the completeness and unity of those drawn in by the disciples’ mission. In fact, the verb ‘to haul’ (ἕλκω) is the same verb translated as ‘to draw’ earlier in the Gospel when Jesus says, ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me’ (6:44) and ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (12:32). Peter’s action, then, can be read as the disciples’ involvement in the mission of God and Jesus in drawing people to Jesus. If the untorn net has symbolic significance, it points to the unity that is effected by Jesus’ mission and should characterize the resultant believing community.[1]

Thus, the untorn net may be a symbol of Jesus’ ability to hold the entire “catch” in his net.  The linguistic links vis-a-vis ” draw”/”haul” are fascinating as well.  In the way of grace, none of us have put ourselves in the net.  All of us have been hauled in by Jesus; we may have come in at different times and in different ways, but the net is one, and all of us owe our place in it to Jesus’ drawing, not our swimming.

The net is one.  We are all caught up in the life of the same God together.

The church should reflect that.

Of course, unity is not the highest good in the Church. “No one is good but God,” as the carpenter said.

But God’s will is certainly for one people united in one Body.  The net does not have to be torn. There is plenty of room for all God’s people, but only if the sharp edges of our disputes and our egos, our power games and our tragically individualistic ethos do not fray the net from within.

How is your corner of the net looking?

 

 

[1] Lincoln, A. T. (2005). The Gospel according to Saint John (pp. 512–513). London: Continuum.

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Even Superman Has Limits: On Being Servants, Not Saviors

prayforpastors

Are pastors servants or saviors? Lately the quote on the left has been floating around, and it has irked me to no end.

Of course the sentiment is sweet, and God knows (literally) how much pastors and other caregivers need prayer, support, and a kind word on occasion.  The intent is beautiful.  But something about this particular quote has stuck in my craw ever since I first saw it posted.

I couldn’t name it until Batman v. Superman came out.

As you might have heard, BvS received mixed reviews. Fans sort of liked it, critics largely did not.  In its third week at the box office, it was beaten by a Melissa McCarthy movie that had little hype behind it and received even worse reviews!

[Warning: big spoilers follow!]

In lieu of this, BvS director Zack Snyder has already started to talk up the R-rated Director’s Cut that will be released, arguing that scenes cut for time and content will flesh out the characters and fill in some of the narrative gaps, both of which were complaints by many critics and fans alike.  In response to a specific question, about why Superman doesn’t save Martha himself at the end, he details one of those deleted scenes:

We had a scene that we cut from the movie where he tries to look for her when he finds out that Lex has got her…It was a slightly dark scene that we cut out because it sort of represented this dark side. Because when he was looking for his mom he heard all the cries of all the potential crimes going on in the city, you know when you look.

I kind of like the idea that he’s taught himself not to look because if he looks it’s just neverending, right? You have to know when, as Superman, when to intervene and when not to. Or not when not to, you can’t be everywhere at once, literally you can’t be everywhere at once, so he has to be really selective in a weird way about where he chooses to interfere.

Even Superman can’t be everywhere at once. Even Superman can’t be on duty all the time.  Even Superman needs a nap every now and then.

This pervasive mythology about pastors and other caring professions – that we are “on” all the time, that wenot how any of this works never get to take time off, that we are “never off duty” – is not only wrong, it is sinful.

Sabbath is not a command for all of those who are not professional religious types.

We do not cease to be creatures dependent on the Creator because part our vocation includes caring for others.

This lie has much to do with issues see related to clergy (and let’s also add counselors, nurses, and other caregivers).  It is a recipe for burnout and frustration.  Moreover, it is functionally agnostic, because it tells us we don’t really need time with God if we are doing stuff for God.

“Never” get to be off duty? “Never” get to have a normal schedule or punch out at 5?

This is evil.  And it is evil for us to live into these inhumane expectations and not challenge them among those we serve.  We are not Superman. Even Superman has a Fortress of Solitude where he is “off duty” and takes time away.

We are servants, not saviors.  Or, as a prayer attributed to the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero says, we are ministers and not messiahs:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

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Finding God Where Understanding Does Not Reach

by Drew 1 Comment

john paul 2 easterThere are times we must seek God in darkness, times when God’s goodness and love are difficult to spot. As a pastor, there is no more difficult time when I see people seek God than when they bury their child.  At times like this, understanding is in short supply. As I’ve said before, the death of children is perhaps the best argument there is for atheism.  But the occasion of this writing is a bit more personal. Today we bury my cousin Matt, who died of a rare disease at 33 years old.

This is senseless.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that God is love, I believe in the redemption of the world through Christ and in the gifts of the Spirit.  I do not grieve as one who has no hope. (1 Thess. 4:13)  But I also know that 33 year olds are not supposed to die.

I was listening to a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio the other day and came across this quote from Gregory of Nyssa, the great Cappadocian Father. Though I studied a bit of Nyssa with Professor Warren Smith at Duke, this particular quote was new to me.  In Life of Moses, Nyssa allegorizes the ascent to God through Moses’ biography.  There we find this remarkable passage, in which Moses finds God’s presence in the darkness on Sinai in Exodus 19:

[Moses] teaches, I think, by the things he did that the one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and—lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible—believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.

It is important to remember that Nyssa’s assessment is not an invitation to agnosticism or Unitarianism.  The end of the apophatic search is the Holy Trinity. The God one meets in the darkness, when understanding fails and night is thick, is none other than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For Nyssa, the image here is of spiritual growth in God.  In his Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles, he notes

Moses’ vision of God began with light; afterwards God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in the darkness.

Gregory of Nyssa, 11th cent. mosiac from Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Gregory of Nyssa, 11th cent. mosaic from Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The spiritual beginner thus may not see God in the darkness.  This gift is the result of a spiritual ascent from the visible, to the to hazy, and onward until finally all is night.  As martyrs and monastics have found throughout history, God can be sought and found even in the most bleak circumstances, even when it appears that He has totally left the scene.

This makes me think anew of Jesus’ cry of dereliction when, borrowing language from Psalm 22 to express the mysterious agony of his existential abandonment, he prays from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)

If we find it difficult to follow Nyssa on this point, let us at least look to Christ, who in the midst of suffering too profound for words still called out to the Father.  God was there, even if understanding was not.

Today I will gather with many who will seek God where rational thought has failed. We will bury someone who died too young, who suffered too much.  I pray we all have the courage, with Moses, to look for God even in this dark place.

I am grateful that this is the Easter season, and that, in John Paul II’s words, we are despite all things an “Easter people.”  Nothing, then, can separate us from God’s love – not the darkness of death, not the evil of a life cut short, not the insanity of diseases without cure in an age that seems so advanced.

Christ is risen, so we will gather in faith, sing alleluia, and thumb our noses at the darkness.  For Matt is with God, and God is present even here, even now, where the understanding does not reach.

Almighty God,
you judge us with infinite mercy and justice
and love everything you have made.
We rejoice in your promises of pardon, joy and peace
to all who love you.
In your mercy turn the darkness of death
into the dawn of new life,
and the sorrow of parting into the joy of heaven;
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
who died, who rose again,
and lives for evermore.
Amen.

Source for Nyssa quotes here.

Prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book funeral liturgy, found here.

Full text of Life of Moses available here.

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The Only Purpose for Worship

by Drew 2 Comments

Why do we worship? What is worship about?reaching out without dumbing down

The answer is simple: God.

In the crucial fifth chapter of her classic Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Marva Dawn argues that God is both the subject AND object of worship.  In other words, worship is both something that God accomplishes (the Word proclaimed in Scripture and in the sacraments is only possible because God acts) and something that is about God.  To put it more succinctly: God alone is the purpose of worship.  Dawn cites C. Welton Gaddy to this point:

A constant temptation toward utilitarianism has to be rejected. To use Christian worship for any purpose other than the glorification of God is to abuse it. God expects a church to meet for divine worship without ulterior motives. Thus, worship is not convened so that church budgets can be pledged, volunteers for ministry enlisted, programs promoted, attendance goals met, or personal problems solved. Authentic worship takes place only in order to honor God. People gather to worship God in order to give everything to God.

Centuries ago, Augustine noted that only God can be enjoyed but not used.

Good worship is true to this teaching: it seeks to enjoy God, not reduce God to our own purposes.

Today we see worship reduced to political rallies, self-help seminars, rock concerts, TED talks, artistic expression, and theological lectures.  All of these are a reduction of the great gift of worship God has given us.

Dawn notes elsewhere that if we focused on this piece, many of the artificial questions about “style” would melt away.  No matter the genus of worship, the purpose remains unchanged.  To employ sacramental terminology, the accidents (visible, outward attributes) may change, but the substance (the inward, true nature) remains the same.

Worship is by and for God. Full stop. Anything else – regardless of how “useful” it may be – is abuse.

At the next worship service (or “experience” as some now use) you attend, pay attention. How much of it is actually about God? Who or what is being glorified?

Let us settle for nothing less than worship that is by and for God.

 

Source: C. Welton Gaddy, quoted in Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, 82.

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A Gloomy Church is No Church

Christ is risen!barth prayer.jpg

(Christ is risen indeed!)

The church is founded on the resurrection of Christ.  In the light of this, the church – God’s people, not the buildings in which we happen the gather – cannot be gloomy.  The Easter joy is contagious and pervasive. Recently my congregation sang the classic Brian Wren hymn that contains these lines:

“Christ is risen! Earth and heaven
Nevermore shall be the same.
Break the bread of new creation
Where the world is still in pain.
Tell its grim, demonic chorus:
Christ is risen! Get you gone!
God the First and Last is with us,
Sing Hosanna, everyone!”

Pain is not absent after Easter, but it is also not finally victorious.  We can “tell its grim, demonic chorus” – with a shout of alleluia! – that Christ is risen, and nothing else can ever be the same.

In his wonderful little book on the Lord’s Prayer, Karl Barth reflects that in the death and resurrection of Christ, the kingdom has already been accomplished:

“In Jesus Christ the world has reached its end and its purpose. Therefore, the last day, the judgment, the resurrection of the dead, all this is already fulfilled in him. It is not only an event to be awaited, it is behind us. We must understand that in him it is also a past event. When the church speaks of Jesus Christ, when it proclaims his word, when it believes in the gospel, when it goes out to the pagans to make known the gospel, when it prays to God, remembers Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. Those are not ordinary historical events to which we would give a mere religious significance (telling ourselves: that is all very well, but indeed it means nothing). No! They are not nothing. They are all that has happened and is behind us. We proclaim the word made flesh, and we announce the kingdom of God which has come. When it is not jubilant, when it is not sure of its significance, the church cannot be insistent and is not insistent. A sad and gloomy church is not the church! For the church is built upon him who has been made flesh, upon him who has come to say the last word (not the next to last). This last word has already been uttered. We live upon this event. There is nothing more in it to be changed. We cannot turn back time, whose beginning is Christmas and Easter.”

There is much anxiety about Christianity in the West.  Fear and despair abound among laity and church leaders alike.  It is easy to understand how gloom, like a slow-acting poison, might seep in.

But let us remember, with Barth, that in Christ, all has been accomplished.  Let us with joy recall that at Pentecost the Spirit gave birth to the church, and we have been promised that “the gates of hell” will not prevail against her. (Matt. 16:18)  We thus greet gloom and doom with the fierce smile of a competitor who knows the game is rigged in our favor.

Christ is risen! Earth and heaven nevermore shall be the same!

Let us show it in our words and actions, in our attitudes, in our boldness and daring to be the church, to claim our story, to be true to Christ and thus filled with the Spirit whose abiding fruit is joy unmixed with gloom.

 

Source: Karl Barth, Prayer: 50th Anniversary Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 37.

 

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