Scripture, Wesley, and the Way Forward (Part One in a Series on Wesley and the Way Forward)

pic- bible and communionWhat about the Bible? What about Wesley?  These are important questions in the midst of our struggles, as a denomination and as a congregation, around issues of sexuality and the future of the church.  As a follow-up resource to our conversations on the “Way Forward,” this paper is an attempt to put my perspective on these questions into written form. While there are other texts, the focus here is on key New Testament passages, with some comments on what Wesley had to say about them, and then followed with some questions to lead us into our next gathering.

Perhaps the most important New Testament passage for the debate on homosexuality is found in the first chapter of Romans, specifically vs.26-27.  From this passage, and others, many claim that same-sex intimacy, in any form, is a distortion of the God’s intended purpose and design for us.  For this argument, we can go back to Genesis 1:27 where we read, “Male and female, God created them.”

At the same time, we must note that these verses in Romans are given within the context of a larger statement about idolatry. We are told that idolatry results in us exchanging the truth of God for a lie and worship the creature rather than the creator. The word Idolatry starts with “I.”  It is the effort to manipulate spiritual forces to get our own way.   In the culture being addressed by Paul, rituals involving sex were common ways to engage in this manipulation.  Paul uses “unnatural” intercourse as an illustration.  And the Paul follows this illustration with a long list of “unnatural” acts that are against the will of God, including envy, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, insolence, and boastfulness (v.28-31). These acts and attitudes point to a disorientation of life and estranged from God.

This list also provokes a critical question: “Is there anyone not on this list?”  The answer must be “no.” We are all in need of grace.  Apart from God’s grace, we will bring despair and destruction. Furthermore, it would be a disservice to Paul, and to the Word of God, to not read this passage to its conclusion.  Paul conclude this passage by saying: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing.” (2:1).

As United Methodists, it is important to note what John Wesley says about this in his “Notes on the New Testament,” which are part of our doctrine.  He speaks of the “heathen Romans” and the “emperors themselves,” being given us to “vile affections” and “unnatural lust.” He points out that this passage is about “abominable idolatries” where God gives us over to the “vilest abominations.” The word abomination literally means to go against our nature as those created in the image of God.  And then he lists these “vilest abominations” — Injustice, Unmercifulness, Fornication – “which includes every species of uncleanliness,” Maliciousness – a temper that delights in hurting others, Whispering – to defame others, and Backbiting – speaking against others behind their backs. In his notes of this passage, Wesley emphasizes the point that Paul is trying to make.  If we judge others we only condemn ourselves.

Here are some inferences to be made regarding the issue at hand. First, same-sex sexual relationships are used as an illustration to make a larger point.  To turn the illustration into the main point is a hasty generalization that dishonors the intent of the passage.   Secondly, the point of Paul’s argument is that we all fall short and should not single some out for judgment.  Thirdly, from the context it seems that what is being opposed is forms of idolatry and acts that lead to “exchanging the truth of creator for the worship of the creature.” It can be argued that it is not a prohibition of intimacy between two committed people wanting to express love in the way that is natural for them, but rather about an insatiable lust that leads to excessive, dangerous, and even abusive sexual behavior, even to the point of (what we would call today) heterosexuals “exchanging” their natural proclivity and engaging in homosexual encounters.

For one more inference here, the tenor of this passage suggests that we focus on the actions that bring harm to us all and provide “means of grace” to address them together, rather than projecting onto others and how they need to change.  In Wesley commentary on this passage, “fornication” is the only one mentioned that involves sexual expression. In other Notes, Wesley uses this term as a cover term for all acts of sexual immorality. The Greek word is “pornia.” It may be defined as sex when another is objectified or objectifies themselves and allows themselves to be abused.  What if we were more focused on providing help with this?

There are two other passages in the New Testament to which people often turn, I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-11.  In both of these passages we find a list of vices that do not represent the kingdom.  More specifically, we see a list of certain types of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” — not apart from God’s amazing grace. The list includes the idolaters, fornicators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers (NRSV, 1 Cor 6:9), along with murderers, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching…(NRSV, I Tim 1:9-10).   Lists like this are common in most cultures, ancient and contemporary, given to motivate people to work at staying off the list. There are also some theological issues around categorizing people by their actions rather than by their “heart.”

Two of the characterizations, male prostitutes and sodomites (NRSV), potentially inform this debate. First, the Greek word, malakoi, translated as male prostitute (NRSV and pre-2011 version of the NIV) literally means “soft.” In other places in Greek literature this word is used to imply cowardice, laziness, weakness, and in some cases, was used to describe a man who is effeminate, which was viewed as a vice by many.  The Gospels use this word to compare the “soft” or “luxurious” clothing worn by those in royal palaces with the cloth worn by John the Baptist (Matthew 11:8; Luke 7:25).  Today, many scholars maintain that, when it is used in relations to sex, the reference is almost certainly to the passive, weak, or feminine partner.  Wesley build upon the King James translation as “effeminate,” which brings another set of issues which I will address more thoroughly in another post.  With all of this, here is the bottom line — we are not exactly sure what Paul had in mind when he included this word in his list.  It may or may not be about sex at all, or sex may be one way this sin can be manifested.

It is worth noting how John Wesley understood this word. He uses this word in a couple of different ways. In the broadest sense, Wesley uses the words “soft,” “weak,” and “effeminate” together to describe those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship.”  That kind of lifestyle leads to spiritual “softness” or “weakness.” He gives this description so frequently that it becomes impossible to project this “sin” only on to a particular type of person with no implications for us all.  This is a temptation we all face.  At the same time, in his commentary on First Corinthians he does have a particular type of person in mind, although it is not clearly defined.  He asks, “How is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites!”  He concludes that we are never secure from the greatest sins when we do not guard against those which are thought to be the least. For Wesley, this word does point to sin, but without direct or only sexual implications.  To be “too soft” on our own sin is dangerous.  While some scholars narrow this word to a form of sexual vice, Wesley clearly sees this in a broader context, calling all of us to look in the mirror.  To project sin only onto others is, in itself, an act in need of repentance.

The next Greek word, arsenoloitai, is even more problematic.  It is a combination of two words, one meaning “male” and the other meaning “bed,” usually with sexual innuendo. While very rare in ancient literature, it is most seen as a reference to exploitation and abuse – using male “strength,” or “domination” in sexual encounters, being abusive, taking advantage of another, perhaps regardless of gender.  It is also only about “men.” In some contemporary translations, it is used to denote the active partner in a same-sex (male) intercourse. In the history of translation, it has also been associated with pedophile or abuse of boys or children (This is how Luther, for example, translated it).  It has also been translated with general words like abominations, and in recent years, with the word homosexual. In the NRSV, it is translated as “sodomite.”  Sodomy has been associated with same-sex intimacy, but from a scriptural perspective, it is also associated with abusive treatment of the stranger and those who were vulnerable.  We cannot be certain that this word refers to same sex intimacy at all, and even if it does, it most likely refers to specific forms, namely acts that are exploitive, coercive, degrading, and abusive.  Some would argue that it is not about two people, of any orientation, who desire to express love and commitment to one another and grow together in the virtues of faith.

In Wesley’s Notes on the Bible, we find an expanded understanding of the word.  In association with the word, Wesley uses words like “abusive” and “assault.” In Wesley’s notes on Ezekiel 16:49, Wesley says that the sin of Sodom was “fullness of bread,” “excess in eating and drinking,” and Sodom’s refusal “to help strangers.”  Arrogance, gluttony, and laziness in helping the poor and needy was the source of their fall. Following the message of the prophets, Wesley wants to remind us that “Their doings were abominable, but thine have been worse.” (Note on Ezekiel 16:47).  In other words, when we see this word we cannot only think of “those people.”  On this whole, this term is used in the context of exploitive, abusive, neglectful, selfish, and harmful behavior and is not about personal sexual identity.

Beyond these references, there is very little.  It is often noted that Jesus has no direct word on this topic.  Jesus does, however, affirm marriage between one man and one women, and that the two become “one flesh.”  When Wesley mentions this, he interprets it as a clear prohibition against two things: polygamy and divorce.  He says this more than once. On the other side, and in the context of how there is no marriage in heaven, Jesus speaks of “eunuchs” who are born this way, or made this way, or choose this way to glorify God.  Many argue that the term eunuch was used in the ancient world as a euphemism for those we might call “gay” today.  Wesley, in his commentary, tells us that we cannot always take this term literally.  Those are some possible references from the New Testament that add to the richness of the conversation.

In the scriptures it is possible to show a progression of views on various issues. For example, we see an evolution towards inclusion, respect, and value of women.  Corresponding to this progression, we also see an increasingly restrictive view of sexuality, especially in matters of monogamy, divorce, and abuse, in order to provide more protection of women. If this progression is true, then one can ask: Could this be applied here? Could we move towards acceptance of people who claim this as part of their identity and, at the same time, promote a more restrictive sexual ethic -promoting monogamy, commitment, and faithfulness?

Here are some more possible questions: Is it possible for the church to lead the way in promoting a healthy sexual ethic that applies to all, rather than expecting some to live by a higher standard while becoming more and more lax with others – with divorce for example?  Or do we need two different sets of ethical considerations? Do we focus on how a specific group needs to change, or on the transformation needed by all – to be renewed in the image of Christ, to grow in the virtues of faith, and in our love for God and one another?  What if we rallied together around the higher sense of holiness?

How might we place this debate under “master texts” meant to guide our interpretation of all scripture – text like the great summary of all the law and prophets, where we are called to love God and love neighbor. Another possible “master text” could be where Paul begs the church to live up to its calling, and to do so with all humility, patience, and kindness, bearing one another in love, and eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace (Eph 4:1-3).  How does this calling shape the debate before us?

Is it possible for us to be the church together with people having different opinions on this and allow pastors and congregations to serve in ways they deem appropriate, within the larger doctrine of the church?  Does God want us to divide into like-minded camps?  Can we truly practice love in that kind of environment?  Do different voices help us to grow in faithfulness and fruitfulness or hamper this growth?  What virtues are needed for us to be the body of Christ in the world?

And finally, since we are all called to transformation, from one degree of glory to glory, in the image of Christ, we all can ask: Where do I need to be transformed in order to reflect the heart of the gospel in this time and place?  I suspect the church, and thus the world, would be well served if we were all more focused on that.  Can people on each “side” find ways to respect the concerns and hopes of those on the other side? What would that look like for you?

Sources Include:

Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible, (Abingdon Press, 2014)   (And other key resources)

Amy DeLong and Tex Sample, The Loyal Oppostion: Struggling with the Church on Homosexuality (Abingdon Press, 2000).

Bill Arnold, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World (Seedbed, 2014)

Jeffrey Siker, editor, Homosexuality and the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).  (Available for free at Google Books)

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Westminster /John Knox Press, 2004)

Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teachings of Paul, (Abingdon Press, 1985)

John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Public Domain)

What Are We For?

While watching the news this week, one commentator asked: If our leaders lack a moral compass, then who can we look to for moral guidance? Who will lead us to be a force for good in the world? The implication was that we are lost without such a voice.  My immediate thought was, “the church.”  We are called to be this voice and this witness.  Amid many recent and worthy posts that provide clarity about what we must stand against in this day, I also want to reflect on what we are “for” as the church.  Here are a few thoughts:

We are for peace-making.  Scriptural and spiritual peace is about coming together in harmony, respecting one another, honoring each other’s voice, and working together to create something good between us.  We are for that.

We are for love– and a particular kind of love, love that does not insist on its own way, love that seeks what is good for the other, love that makes connections with those who stand on the other side, even those that some might deem as enemies.  We are for that.

We are for listening.  In our natural state, our minds and hearts become so cluttered with judgement that cloud the way of God’s transforming grace and guidance. As the church, we suspend judgement long enough to listen, long enough to see what is really going on beneath the surface, long enough to build a relationship with those willing to do so.  We are for this hard work.

We are for proclamation.  Yes, we listen first, but we also speak.  We have a word to share — a word of love and life.  We have a prophetic word to share – a word of justice and inclusion. In a word full of hate, bigotry, deep seated prejudices that cause harm, and intentional polarization, this proclamation sometimes takes the form of prophetic protest.  We are for that, as it is rooted in virtues above.

We are for freedom.  We cultivate community where all are free to grow into who God has called them to be, rather than trying to fit each other into a particular box.  In this freedom that comes through Christ, there is no room to claim the superiority of one image over others, or working to subjugate others into that image.

We are for boundaries. True freedom is possible only when there is shared commitment to certain boundaries. Only in this commitment can we be free to be open and honest and to be ourselves.  What is out of bound for us? Here is a start – lying, slander, assault (and bragging about it), justifying bigotry, causing fear and harm with threats, slurs and claims of superiority, building ourselves, and those “like us,” up by putting others down, deflecting to the faults of others.  To allow “isms” to spread like a disease when we have a Word with the power to heal is to be unfaithful to Christ, and a sign that our own body needs healing.

We are for honest history.  A sign of inspiration is that our scriptures were not cleaned up in a monolithic account.    We see ups and downs, successes and failures. We are invited to ponder different perspectives. This does not mean that we have permission to honor or memorialize those who worked against what the larger community deems to be right and good. In the church, we don’t put up a statue of Judas alongside the saints.  We don’t do things that might give people the impression that it is okay to betray the nobler cause. We engage our history to grow into a more faithful and fruitful future.  We must be willing to hear the “woes” of Jesus along with the “blessings.”

We are for multi-partisanship. It is worth noting that the words party, partisan, partner, all contain the word “part.” We are “part” of a larger whole.  For the whole to be healthy, we need people with different perspectives and ideas, within the boundaries of respect, compassion, and wanting to build something good together.  It is so dangerous when a “part” starts to think of themselves as the whole, as the sole owners of truth.  We call that totalitarianism and I dare say that’s not what any of us want.  We are the body of Christ, with many parts, many gifts.

We are for confession. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said, there is no true community where confession of sin is smothered or concealed, where our humanness is not honored, and where we are unwilling to help each other through without judgment and division.  The worst kind of loneliness is to be alone with sin.  To bask in the illusion of our own self-righteousness and superiority is to miss out on true life – which is always “life together” with others who have different gifts and can help us through.

We are for the calling of Christ.  The Apostle Paul begs us to live a life worthy of this calling, with all humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing one another in love, and eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  When John Wesley defined holiness he almost always used these words, as oppose to words that tempt us to “self-righteousness.” I see this calling as highly relevant for our time.  In this age of deep hostility and intentional divisiveness, I believe that this needs to be the witness of the church.  It is not a message of “cheap discipleship.”  In fact, it takes more spiritual courage to cross the aisle, and find new and better answers, then it does to retreat into our camps and comfort zones.

I will stop here for now, and invite you to reflect and perhaps add your own.  Who can we look towards to be our moral compass?  Yes we need this from our leaders, and yes, we also need to look in the mirror as well.

Middle Way Behavior (The Wesleyan Way)

A Mempic- trinity 3e put out by the Wesleyan Covenant Association says, “We actually believe what the UMC says it BELIEVES…and how THAT MAKES us anything but the CENTER, I have no idea.”

It’s a nice soundbite and rings true at a basic level.  If being in the center is equated with being in the majority of the global church, then this is a valid claim. – at least at this time and on specific issues.  Likewise, if being in the center is about beliefs, then this statement is accurate as well.  From this perspective, to be in the center is to affirm the official position on any given issue, and by implication, to also be right.

In the light of this claim, it is important that we, as Wesleyans, acknowledge another perspective on what it means to be in the center.  John Wesley calls us to the middle way.  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or even beliefs.  He is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, Methodists are to BEHAVE in the middle.  We do so because our faith is not centered in doctrines or opinions, but in a relationship with a Living Lord, and in virtues that promote life-giving relationships in the world.  This is not to imply that doctrines and opinions are unimportant, but only that they are resources to support the larger purpose.  To confuse means with ends can easily lead to a betrayal of the Body as a whole.  It is a first step to dividing the body into “us” and “them,” in support of sides or causes.

One important example of this calling to behave in the middle is found in Wesley’s sermon, “The Witness of the Spirit.”  Here Wesley defines the middle way in opposition to both extremism and enthusiasm.  He is concerned about the temptation to mistake our own imaginations for the witness of the Spirit, and thus to become “the worst kind of enthusiasts,” where we are convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense.   When one is “drunk from [this] spirit of error,” it is almost impossible to see that we may be fighting against God rather than for God.

Continuing this thought, Wesley turns to the other extreme where “reasonable people,” who “see the dreadful effects of this delusion,” assert that “the witness of the Spirit” must have only belonged to the apostolic age and that the Spirit does not move among us in the same way.  At this extreme, people are weary of any claim of God’s direct guidance. Here, faith runs the risk of drying up into an intellectual exercise or becoming little more than a resource to help us feel good about ourselves.

In seeing the harm done by these extremes, Wesley asks: “May we not steer a middle course?  Can we not distance ourselves from the extremes of error and enthusiasm without denying the gift of God and giving up the great privilege of being God’s children?”  He is convinced that we can steer this middle way.

To do so, we must see ourselves as people who BEHAVE in the middle.  As Wesleyans, the evidence of the Spirit is not found in our enthusiastic defense of our way as God way, but rather in the opposite; the Spirit is revealed in the “holy tempers” of humility, gentleness, patience, temperance, and “kindly affection for all.”  The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  That is to be our witness to the world.

In a culture that seems to thrive on extremes and divisiveness, on winning and pitting ourselves against one another, what would it look like if we could “steer a middle course?” What if this was the focus of our conversation? Would this not be much more in line with the witness of the Spirit?  For one more quote from this sermon, this witness just might save us all from “the pain of proud wrath.”

Christmas Eve Sermon – “The Reason for the Season”

John 1:1-14  “The Reason for the Season”

I bet you have heard the saying “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  It is true, from our perspective.  From our perspective Jesus can get lost in the midst of our traditions and gatherings, our gift giving and getting.  Remembering Jesus may be the best thing we can do for ourselves.  And that’s what we are doing today.  But all that’s from our perspective.  I began to wonder, what about God’s perspective on this thing we call Christmas?

From God’s perspective, WE are the reason for the season.  God looked upon our condition and saw darkness in need of light, death in need of life, deep loneliness and longing in need of love.  And so, we are the reason for Christmas.  Christmas is all about God coming to us.

The gospel of John starts his version of the Christmas story by saying, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.”  The Word! In the original language, this word is Logos, which means to take chaos and order it into something meaningful.  We get the English word “logic” for this word.  It is translated as “word” because that’s how God creates and gives life, and takes chaos and gives it meaning. God creates by speaking it all into existence, according to first “word” in the Bible.  Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. John makes the connection by saying, “In the beginning” God’s word – God’s creating, life-giving power – was there and all things came into being through him.

Now that kind of fancy theological talk is all well and good, but it still leaves God out-there, in the realm of theory and ideas, not in the realm of relationship.  And so God gives Christmas to us.  John proclaims that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and full of truth.”  It is a reference to Jesus, who from our perspective in the reason for the season, but from God’s perspective is the one sent to us because we need to know that God is with us, and that God will see us through.  From God’s perspective, we are the reason for Christmas.

So, I want to push us a little more into the deep implications of this gift from God. By our logos or logic, we like to divide and compartmentalize.  This means we even like to keep God up-there, so to speak, and out of our daily business.  It’s just more comfortable and easy that way.  We come to church for a dose of spirituality.  Then we go out-there and live our lives.  We see a thread of connection, but by our logic, we can too easily keep these dimensions in separate compartments. By this human logic, we separate sacred and secular, spiritual and worldly, soul and body.

And here’s where this logic can get us in trouble.  When we do feel the need to be more spiritual then we often think that we must be less human, less worldly.  We might think, “If only I could get away from all that worldly stuff, then I might be able to see God.”  That way of thinking, that form of logic, is so engrained in our culture, but then Christmas comes.  God’s logos, God’s logic, breaks in. For Christmas people, spirituality is recognizing that God enters into our lives — into the mess of it all, into the joys of it all, into the pain of it all. God wants to share gifts of light, love, and life right there in the midst of it all. That’s where we need to look for these blessings – right in the very midst of our daily lives.

Here’s the good news of Christmas.  God wants to make a home right here (heart) and fill this home with light, with a light that illuminates true love and life, as John’s Gospel says, a light that will guide us into the world to shine and to share these same blessings.  This light is so powerful that no form of darkness or no form of death can overcome it.  That’s the blessing of Christmas.

At Christmas, from our perspective, we love to shine the spotlight on Jesus and say look, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  Today (Tonight) let us know that God shines the light of heaven on us and says, “Oh how I love you.”  “You are the reason for it all.”  Amen.

Breaking Bubbles

img_0515A couple of weeks ago, our church received a call from a person doing grad school research on how people of different opinions interact or fail to interact with one another. Her research focused on the information bubbles that we can all too easily get trapped in.  We watch news that caters to our opinions.  And if we use the internet or social media for information, then over time, computer algorithms figure out what we want to hear and then feed us with that information. If we are not careful, we can easily get trapped in our own, personalized, information bubble and begin to see that as reality.

Now, why did this researcher call us?  She called because, at a conference in New York City, she got into a conversation with someone who grew up in our church and who had suggested to her that, at least in his experience, FUMC in Conway, Arkansas was a place where he could break through these bubbles and connect with others in a spirit of respect and love.  It was a place where his perspective grew through interactions with others.  He shared this story and she was intrigued.  She was in search of places where connections were being made in the midst of a world that pushes us all into our own individual information bubbles.  Now, she was considering at least some churches as places where this might happen.

As we encounter him during worship this Advent season, John the Baptist calls us to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” In the Greek, the word is metanoia – meta meaning “beyond” and noia meaning “to know.”  Repentance is to know or perceive from a perspective above our current perspective.  It means to allow our minds to be changed or transformed by a higher perspective. It is the key to being able to see and experience the kingdom of heaven that is right before us, if only we are willing to look up.

Building on the story above, we might say that repentance happens when we engage others in a spirit of respect and love and through these encounters begin to see life from a higher perspective – bigger than ourselves and our own opinions.  As a possible exercise, think of an issue where you have a strong opinion but you know faithful Christians who have a different opinion.  Then spend time understanding this other perspective, perhaps even making a case of it in your own mind.  If this doesn’t alter your opinion, the hope is that it will alter your appreciation for the other. As we seek to understand, rather than just defend our positions and demonize others, that’s when we begin to see Jesus in our midst and God’s kingdom at work. That’s when we get a glimpse of true love – love that is patient and kind, never insisting on its own way, always seeking what is good for the other and how we might honor them.  We can’t do that if are stuck in our own bubble.

These thoughts will be part of my sermon this Sunday, which is a Communion Sunday. It struck me how this holy act invites us to literally change our perspective.  We get up, come to the Altar, with hands held open, ready to receive Christ into our being.  As we bow down and receive we are also lifted into a higher vision. Even as we pray, God pours out the Holy Spirit upon us.  We become One with Christ, One with each other, and One in ministry to all the world. And then, with the strength given, we go out into the world to live this mystery of faith.

During this season, we are invited to move into this higher vision, even with our posture and posturing. We are invited to move from arms crossed to open hands.  We are invited to move from looking down at our screens to looking up into the eyes of others.  As we do this, may we truly enter the kingdom of heaven which is right before us, in our very midst.

Virtues for the Days After (A Pastoral/Wesleyan Perspective on the Presidential Election)

I’ve had a week to reflect and to hopefully respond rather than react.  Therefore, I’m going
to weigh in on the presidential election as a part of my calling to give spiritual guidance – and to hopefully give more than platitudes like “It’s time to come together.”  While true, that’s too easy without some explanation.

First, for thosepic-election of us who voted for Donald Trump and claim to not have been motivated by any underlying racism, sexism, or any hate in our hearts, may the rest of us trust that and seek understanding of greater motives, including a deep desire for change.  At the same time, I believe we also must understand why many are afraid right now. To share one personal story, last week I met with young women who were truly frightened and felt that we had given an endorsement to demeaning and abusive behavior.  Considering this meeting, our calling as Christians is clear in my mind. We all have an obligation to model and teach respect for one another, and to each work on our own attitudes that might objectify and marginalize others.

In the last few weeks, our President-Elect has said repeatedly that he has this kind of respect.  While he has said many things to raise legitimate questions, at this point, my hope is that the weight of this new responsibility will make this word to be a word from the heart, and not just rhetoric from the mouth to achieve a purpose in the immediate moment.  Our words have power to heal and hurt, create and destroy.  Our words lead to actions. May we all hold one another accountable to appropriate words and actions.  May all of us go out of our way to honor one another – even as Donald Trump has seemed to do at times after the election.

Likewise, for all of us who voted for Hillary Clinton, I hope the rest of us will honor the noble desires for equality, opportunities, peace in the world, and even to see a glass ceiling broken.  Most of us hold these desires, even if we disagree about how to achieve them. Since Clinton did not win, there is little reason to speculate on the hurt or fear that might have been generated by her election.  At this point, may we all honor her respected service to our country, even as Donald Trump did after the election.  As an Arkansan and a United Methodist, some of us know her, not as a caricature, but as a person. We see much to be praised. Those who know Donald Trump as a human-being could give similar praise. We must see each other as persons– all flawed and in need of much grace, even as we hold one another accountable to higher virtues.

Regardless of our differences on economic policies and how to deal with social problems, may this election give us all a renewed resolve to promote basic scriptural virtues so needed for healthy community – humility, respect, kindness, honesty, patience, compassion, temperance – “bearing one another in love and eager to maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). I truly believe that it all comes down to the virtues of true holiness in our Wesleyan tradition, combined with the Wesleyan/Christian calling to look in the mirror more than out a window to see the faults of others.  We are called to build each other up from the inside out.

In Christ, there is no “us and them.” If we let this division and judgment into our hearts, we are all in trouble. Please do not revert into comfortable camps or stay only on one side of the aisle with backs turned to the other.  That way is much too easy…and puts us all at risk.   As people of faith, on both sides of the so-called aisle, we can be the ones who can lead the way to reconciliation and restored moral decency.  Together, we have the spiritual resources, perspective, and temperament to do this, if we are also willing to embrace the needed spiritual courage.

RIGHTEOUSNESS AS THE WAY FORWARD (A Word from Wesley)

img_0502-1 The bishops’ commission has been named and people are talking.  I’ve read a few comments about the liberals and/or the conservatives on the list, as well as many prayers. My prayer is that this commission, and all of us, will be able to rise above the contention, and truly witness to Christ’s love for all. As you may know, I’ve been engaged in this project of reading Wesley to re-hear what he has to say about matters before us.  There is so much!  I would say that his use of the word “righteousness” is among the most relevant words for us today.

In his sermon “The Lord Our Righteousness,” Wesley starts by grieving the dreadful contests that arise among the body of Christ. He is disheartened by the way we can turn our “weapons against each other.”  For Wesley, the primary cause is attachment to opinions and modes of faith-expression which leads us to lose sight of our common faith and our common cause.

So, the question becomes, how do we rise above the evil fray? – and yes, Wesley does call it evil.  A glimpse of true righteousness helps.  In a long and involved exposition, Wesley says that true righteousness is found in the One who is the image of God for us.  In Christ, we see a reflection of who we are called to be.  At the heart of true righteousness is “love,” a word more fully illuminated by the virtues of reverence, humility, patience, and gentleness.   This understanding of righteousness stands in sharp contrast to the more common definition of justifying our positions as right over and against others.  True righteousness is rooted in peace rather than war.

In several other places, Wesley cautions us against those who are overly enthusiastic for their positions and are “righteous over much.”  Anytime we put our trust in ourselves and magnify our own ways as “right” for everyone, then we block the light of Christ’s righteousness rather than reflect it.  May this not happen to those commissioned to lead us forward.

In this sermon on true righteousness, Wesley stews over the broad diversity within the church of his day, focusing on differing denominational confessions and practices.  In the midst of much contention, he truly sees this diversity as an opportunity to give witness to Christ and to grow, if not in agreement, certainly in love. With great optimism, Wesley believes that it is possible for us to “take off the filthy rags” of our own righteousness and put on Christ, where we partake of the “same precious faith” even as we celebrate our diverse expressions of this faith.  I wonder, are we up for this kind of courageous witness?

Wesley also quotes “Mr. Hervey,” with words “worthy to be written in letters of gold:” “We are not solicitous as to any particular set of phrases. Only let [us all] be humbled as repenting criminals at Christ’s feet, let [us] rely as devoted pensioners on his merits…” Meeting on the common ground of Christ’s merits, and with the call to love by the virtues of true righteousness, there is no room for “contention about this or that particular phrase,” according to Wesley, or condemning others as “Antinomians” or law/covenant breakers.  There is no place for divisive or destructive “wrangling” over opinions and expressions of faith – not as we stand together as “repenting criminals at Christ’s feet.”  To count ourselves among such “contending parties,” says Wesley, is to be “an enemy of peace, and a troubler of Israel, and a disturber of the Church of God.”

In our current contention, there is much labeling of self and others, often in flowery and soft spoken attacks. There is so much “us-them” language, and talk of “winning” and “defeating.”  Is it possible for us to rise above the fray? The answer is, “Yes!”  We can “join hearts and hands in service to our great Master,” even as we “think and let think” on matters of opinion and practice. We can stand together as “repenting criminals” on the common ground of Christ’s righteousness, rather than our own, and we can truly grow in Christ’s love. I can’t help but believe that this is our time to embrace this identity and give such a witness to the world.