Patience As the Way Forward

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“We’ve been patient long enough.”  “It is time to make a decision.”  These statements echo through our denomination.  Yet, into this kind of environment, John Wesley lifts up the word “patience.”  If we are to truly find a way forward, it may be very important that we let this virtue get through to our anxious hearts.

Wesley makes it clear that patience is so more than “waiting.”  It is certainly more than fear-ridden fretfulness, where we bury our heads in the sand, hoping a problem will go away.  Patience is a “gracious temper,” a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Patience holds the “middle way,” he says, staying in between the extremes. Even as we advocate for opinions and positions, Christians behave in the middle, staying connected to all with respect, humility, and compassion.  Standing on the solid rock of God’s love, we avoid “impatience with contradictions,” to use a phrase from Wesley.  We honor diversity of opinion as those who see in a “mirror dimly.”  We listen and learn. We embrace our differences as opportunity to learn how to love more fully and truly glorify God.  In this way Wesley characterizes patience as the “manifestation of the perfect love of God.”  That’s how important this virtue is. It is our witness to the world.

And now for the deep theological reason for placing patience at the heart of how we engage one another – instantaneous entire sanctification!  It’s not a phrase we hear every day, but it was key for Wesley.

Why be patient with ourselves and others? Because we are new creations in Christ.  From the moment our hearts were first opened to the saving love of Christ, a transformation happened and is happening.  Deep within, we have already been transformed “from inward sinfulness to inward holiness.”  Deep within, our “pride and haughtiness” have been transformed into virtue of true holiness – “calmness, meekness, and gentleness.”  With deep theological insight, Wesley warns against undervaluing what happens in justification.  Justification is so much more than a forensic pardon or act of blind grace — as in “oh yeah, you’re forgiven or “You have a ticket to heaven” — but with no real expectation of change.  In Christ, we are sanctified! And yet, from our vantage point, this sanctification comes in degrees, much like the growth of a child into maturity.  The key insight for Wesley is that we grow “into” this sanctification, not “towards” it. Our life becomes a journey of living into our new identity as “born again” children of God.

And so, we can truly be patient, with ourselves and others, because of what God has already done and will do.   We honor that! With holy patience, we learn to “not be angry at those who differ from [our] opinion, nor entertain hard thoughts concerning them.” We can give thanks for the way God is working in them, even if it is different from our desired timeframe or perspective. Our focus is ONLY this:  to see that this transformation “is wrought in our own soul, if we desire to dwell with God in glory.”

Wesley builds his sermon “On Patience” upon the words, “Count it as a joy knowing that the trails of your faith teach patience.”  (James 1:4). He points out that we are not saved from temptation.  In fact, we can count temptation as a gift. God works through patience to bring us to maturity in faith, where we learn that we cannot return evil for evil, barrier for barrier, or attempts to divide with more division.  In Christ, we find ways to bless even in the midst of such tension.

Impatience with others, or with the church, is a sure sign that we are off track in our journey. It is possibly a sign that we have reverted back to spiritual childhood, often accompanied with spiritual temper tantrums. We must be patient with even this, yet when we are in this state it is probably wise of the church to not give us a gavel.

The Wide Narrow Way (A Wesleyan Perspective)

phonto-1How’s this for a timely thought from John Wesley? Wesley calls us to purify our hearts from “all party-zeal,” from “prejudice, bigotry, narrowness of spirit; from impetuosity, and impatience of contradiction…” (Sermon: National Sins and Miseries).  I want to explore a few of these conditions.

Party zeal! Wesley speaks often of the problems caused by zealousness for the “part” rather than the whole within the body of Christ.  In contrast, he calls is to be peacemakers, willing to step “over all these narrow bounds” with a love that is patient and kind, never insisting on its own way. Sometimes, “party-zeal” leads us into the trap of too hastily judging others, based on our “opinions,” while seeing little need to be patience with ourselves because we are already models of true faithfulness – at least in our own eyes.

Impatience with contradiction!  As finite beings, our relationships are rarely neat and uniform, free of differences or paradox. Within the church there is so much diversity among those seeking to be faithful in the midst of such varied circumstances.  This diversity is the context in which we learn how to love, and thus be the church. Impatience with contradictions betrays the call to this holy and humble love.

Narrowness of spirit!  Our orthodox faith, built upon the doctrine of the trinity, is meant to expand our understanding of God and actually keep us from narrow agendas.  In reality, however, the opposite can happen.  A focus on “right belief” and “right opinion” can lead to a narrowing of our capacity to love. The way out of this temptation is to focus on “holy virtues” over “right opinions,” and on people more than positions. With this focus, we are able to glorify God rather than just call attention to ourselves.

The Narrow Way! The way into God’s kingdom is by the narrow gate.  As Wesley makes clear, the wide and easy way is the way of division, contention, power, and judgment. That’s the way of the world.  The true narrow way is the way of “poverty of spirit” — recognizing that we all lack the means to achieve what we really want.  Into our poverty, Christ comes with the indescribable riches of God’s grace, with light to overcome all forms of darkness. In this same vein, the narrow way is the way of “holy mourning, of meekness, of mercy.” These are the virtues by which we connect to others and, together, show the way of God.  The narrow way is the way of “ordering conversations aright,” and thus working for unity of spirit always in the bond of peace. Along this way, we discover the wideness of God’s mercy and grace.

At one point, Wesley says that he would rather listen to a “generous heathen” than a “poor narrow-souled Christian.” As a hindrance to the health of the Body, Wesley also speaks of the “enthusiasm of weak and narrow souls,” who are “always righteous over much.” (See Sermon: The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption).   We might conclude that narrow souls follow the wide way of the world — allowing party zeal, impatience, judgment, bigotry and bitterness to “disease” the whole body.  Souls that are wide in love follow the narrow way, the “road less travelled.”  And make no mistake, this narrow way is hard, for it requires us to give up our righteousness and to risk the wrath of those bound by fear.  Following this way can only be done by a deep trust in God.

Through this narrow gate, Wesley pushes us even farther.  We may strive to enter by the narrow way and still build a barrier to the holy love that God desires for us. The deepest places in our hearts may still be wide open to the ways of the world.  This is one reason why, for Wesleyans, the “road less traveled” always calls for deep and constant self-examination more than a focus on others. There is always spiritual work to be done within ourselves as we enter into the fields of God’s abundant love.  (See Sermon: Upon the Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 11).  That’s the Wesleyan way!

(Up Next: Patience as a Way Forward) 

Party Zeal and the Call to be Peace-makers

img_0491Party, Partisanship, Partners, Partakers. All of these words have the word “part” in common.  In a “party,” the healthy perspective is to see yourself as a part of a larger whole.  There is great danger in believing that the part can be the whole, that any part can possess all truth unto itself.

Wesley would agree.  This is why he cautioned us against “party zeal” in the church and contrasted this zealousness with the call to be peace-makers.  Here’s Wesley’s definition: A peace-maker is one filled with the love of God and all people, one who is not confined to expressing this love only to family, friends, or party – those of like opinion or “partakers of like precious faith,” but who steps over all these narrow bounds, and manifest love to others, even strangers and enemies. In another place, Wesley insisted that followers of Christ purify themselves from all “party-zeal” and purify their own hearts before casting any judgment on others.   To give into such zeal is to become a “narrow soul.” This doesn’t mean that we give up our opinions, but it does mean that we engage others in opinion-sharing in a very different way than we often see modeled in the world. (See Sermons: Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 3 and National Sins and Miseries).

If politics is the art of making good decisions for the whole, and not the part only, then politics requires meeting in the middle, opening ourselves to new perspectives, and coming up with solutions that are “win-win” rather than “win-lose.”  Wesley actually uses the word “middle” as the proper place for true Christian witness and the best platform upon which we might see more of the whole and thus be instruments of peace.  Extremes bring harm. This may not be the way politics is practices in the world, but it is the way we are called to practice politics AS the church.

In this light, Wesley asks this question: How can we bear the name of the Prince of Peace and wage war with each other – “party against party,” faction against faction!”    For the church, this happens when we are “drunk with the blood of the saints.” In this state, we allow contention and malice to drive us, “even where [we] agree in essentials, and only differ in opinions, or in the circumstantials of religion!”  Our true calling, says Wesley, is to “follow after only [his emphasis] the things that make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”  Anything other than this is to “devote each other to the nethermost hell.”

Wesley makes it clear.  If the world is looking at us and saying anything other than “look at how they love one another” then our witness is causing harm. That happens when a lust for rightness and power becomes our focus, usually justified as righteousness. (Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 2). For Wesley, “true religion is nothing short of holy tempers.” – humility, patience, and love above all, virtues to be practiced as parts of a larger whole, virtues that make for peace.  In these anxious times we need peace-makers… and a lot of them.

Up next: The Narrow Way (A Wesleyan Perspective) 

“On Schism” A Devotional Paraphrase of Wesley’s Sermon

IMG_4576As promised in the previous post, here is a devotional paraphrase of John Wesley’s sermon, “On Schism.”  This version is long for a blog post, but, believe me, much shorter than Wesley’s original work.  The key verse is I Corinthians 12:25, “That there might be no dissension in the body.” 

Schism.  At one time, this was a much used and scary word.  While it is not at the forefront of most of our minds today, its underlying meaning still sparks anxiety within us. Schism is the “churchy” word for divorce on a community scale.  Thinking of schism only as a “separation from” does not do justice to the term. More to the heart of the matter, schism is a separation “within” the church.  There is no way it can happen without someone being hurt. This deeper understanding is made clear in the three passages of scripture where this word is used.

In the first chapter of first Corinthians, Paul pleads with his sisters and brothers to not be divided (schismata) but to be united under a common purpose.  Rather than working together under the banner of a common mission, it seems that the Corinthian Church had instead become divided by preferences and personal agendas.  Rather than following Christ they had formed alliances around personalities, with some saying “I belong to Paul” and with others giving their allegiance to Apollos or Cephas.  The separation in this instance was not from the Church but took place within the Church.  In this environment, says Paul, Christ is divided and his witness is damaged.

The second place where this word is used is in the eleventh chapter of the same letter.  Again there is division within the body, this time over the nature of the Lord’s Supper.  It seems that they were dividing into little parties, eating on their own, and creating a situation where some were left out and hungry.  They had created an environment that fostered resentment and turf protecting rather than an environment that promoted forgiveness and reconciliation.   That is not appropriate for the Lord’s Supper. When we eat and drink without discerning what it means to be a part of the body of Christ we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves, says Paul.

In this same chapter, Paul uses the word “heresy” to make his point, translated in verse nineteen as “fractions.”  This word has been distorted for many centuries.  By common definition, a heresy is an erroneous opinions or a wrong belief.  Naming heresies has been the pretense for many terrible acts, including the destruction of cities and the shedding seas of innocent blood.   But note the horrific irony.  While some have killed others in order to wipe out heresy or wrong views, Paul makes it clear that heresies or factions should never lead to schism or war. He says that there must be “factions” among us, various views within the body. Factions or heresies serve a positive purpose.  It is amid various perspectives within the community of faith that we learn how to live in love and how to break bread together.  This unity might be imaged as a beautiful piece of art with multiple colors coming together.  Schisms happen when the goal is uniformity, with the desire that everyone look the same.

There is great danger in linking heresy and schism together in a cause, where heresy is defined in terms of “wrong belief” and schism is justified by claiming “right belief” or “orthodoxy.”  It is this kind of thinking that does great harm to the witness of the church.  As finite and limited human beings, we just can’t get that hung up on beliefs.  If we do, we will miss the opportunity to learn how to love.  Relationship matter more than opinions about doctrine. When this connection is made between heresy and schism, we are likely to find ourselves fighting with shadows of our own raising and combating, perhaps with violence, a sin which has no existence but in our own imagination.  We find ourselves lost in a house of mirrors, unable to see others as children of God.

The only other instance of this word is in the twelfth chapter of the same letter where Paul uses the image of the body with many parts to describe the church.  He calls us to give honor to all parts, and the greater honor to the seemingly more insignificant parts.  Following this principle will help ensure that there is no “dissension” (schism) within the body but rather an environment of mutual care and concern.  For, as in the body, if one part suffers, all suffer; if one part is honored, all rejoice together. This is the goal and hope of the church.  Schism, in this instance, point to a shortage of love that manifests a division of heart and fragmentation within the body.  When we break with the body we bring spiritual harm to ourselves.

So what are the implications of all this?  Well, we must conclude that the act of causing a split within a body of living Christians is a grievous breach of love.  It is the nature of love to unite us together.  It is only when our love grows cold that we can think of separating from the community in this way.  The pretenses for separation may be innumerable, but lack of love is always the real cause; otherwise, those wanting to separate would work hard to hold the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Take a good look at the effects of schism.  It opens the door to many destructive emotions and harmful dispositions — anger, resentment, sadness, depression, bitterness, malice, and hatred, creating a present hell for those involved.   Sadly and ironically, the arrogance of schism can manifest itself in the name of loyalty to God and to the true way.

But some will make the case that they had to leave because they could not continue with a clear conscience. The former community was causing them to sin or not allowing them to use their gifts.  Well, if this is truly the case, then they cannot be blamed for leaving. There are situations where one must make this choice. Leaving the church can be seen as multiplication rather than division, and can be a good thing.  But even here, make sure the motivation is calling and conscience and not condemnation. We must ask ourselves: Is this desire to leave and form a new church born in our ego or in God? Is it worth the risk of the potential harm?

To conclude, if your faith is not yet deeply rooted in a community, then you have freedom to explore. Find a place where you can plant yourself more deeply and begin to grow and bear good fruit.  But for those who are already so planted, then take care how you tend the body of Christ.  Do not get caught up in wars over opinions.  Shun the very beginning of strife. Be a peace-maker.  Do not lay more stumbling blocks in the way of these others for whom Christ died.  Realize that this is what happens when we give energy to schisms within the body.  Above all else, let love be your rule, knowing that love always unites rather than divides; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Schism or Unity: We Do Have A Choice

 

A colleague and leader in our conference recently made this comment on Facebook: “It is time for a split. There is no way to avoid it now.”  In the light of this sentiment, I want to suggest that we do have a choice. Our choice is not unlike the choice family members make when a loved one makes a decision about religion, politics, or lifestyle that is outside the norm of the family.  Options include going “all in” in terms of support and making their decision a primary agenda, or, on the other hand, shunning the loved one or divorcing yourself from them. A third option is choosing to love the other and stay connected, even if there are disagreements.  Christians, in various ways, must make this kind of choice every day.

John Wesley gives us great guidance.  It cannot be overstated how strongly Wesley advocates some form of the third option, in multiple writings. Perhaps his most direct advice on this topic comes from his sermon, “On Schism.”   (I have a paraphrased version that I will post later).

With strong biblical connections, Wesley makes it clear that heresies or factions should never lead to schism, defined as a divorce ‘within” the church, or an intentional splitting of the church.  He even shows how differences — even “factions” or “heresies” –serve a positive purpose.  It is amid a variety of perspectives within the community of faith that we learn how to love and how to break bread together.  Perceived heresies within the church actually makes it possible for us to practice being Christian.  That’s Wesley’s take.

For Wesley, it is spiritually dangerous to link heresy with justification for schism, defining heresy as “wrong belief” and justifying schism by claiming “right belief” or “orthodoxy.”  This kind of thinking does great harm to the witness of the church. It causes great suffering within the Body of Christ.  Taking Wesley’s lead, I am saddened and shocked by how easy it is to deny our complicity in this suffering, and even justify it as a by-product of being able to “win” over the other.  As Wesleyans, contention in the Body must spark this kind of reflection and confession.

After these strong biblical proclamations, Wesley does give permission for people to leave a church — to attend or form another church. But this is very different from intentionally creating a split.  Leaving can be seen as multiplication rather than division, and can be good for the body as a whole. Yet, even here, Wesley cautions us to make sure that this decision flows from a sense of calling and conscience, and not from any sense of condemnation on another.

Yes, we have a choice! If we are not deeply planted in a community of faith, we have freedom to explore options, says Wesley.  However, to those who are deeply planted, Wesley insists that we tend to the care of the whole body in love, peace, humility and mercy.  He strongly warns us against laying more stumbling blocks in the way of those for whom Christ died. And that’s what happens when we let rules trump relationship, and positions take precedence over our humble, patience, and gentle love for people.  It is simply not up to us to defend God by defining ourselves against others within our own family.  That is not the way of Christ.

Yes, we have a choice!  From a Wesleyan perspective, this choice starts with us focusing on our own witness and our own growth in holy virtues.  Are we living out the love of Christ?  Are we doing anything to create a stumbling block for others? As we focus here, Wesley might say that there is no time left to judge others, and no good reason to inflict this kind of harm. Yes, we must make these kinds of choices every day.

Up next:  Party Zeal vs. Peacemaking (A Wesleyan Distinction)       

The Madness of Building on Sand (Another Word on Wesleyan Orthodoxy)

It is madness, says Wesley, to hold to a set of “notions” and suppose that they are “more rational or scriptural than others,” as if we can be “right” or “orthodox” in this way, and as if this were at the heart of our witness. Wesley compared this zeal for orthodoxy to building our spiritual home on sand. In fact, Wesley says it is worse than that; it is more like building on the “froth of the sea.” (See “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 13).

Wesley rarely (I believe I could say never) used the term orthodoxy in a positive way. At the same time, it is clear that he promoted key doctrines and core beliefs. Doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation, for example, expand our understanding of God and keep us from getting locked into narrow agendas.  They enhance faith…BUT only when in service to the call to love.  When they are used to set up “us and them” categories, or to promote positions over people, or to justify division in the body of Christ, or to lay claim to “faithfulness” for ourselves, they do great harm. When used in service to ourselves and our causes, these good doctrines are placed into the service of the devil, says Wesley. They promote a Pharisaic faith, as Wesley argues elsewhere.  They inspire building on sand.  Yes, Wesley used multiple metaphors to keep us from missing the message, and yet he still might have underestimated how alluring this mode of faith can be. We are prone to such madness!

It makes me wonder why so many Methodists are enamored with the notion of orthodoxy today. What does the word “Wesleyan” refer to in the phrase “Wesleyan Orthodoxy?” Is it simply a reference to our historic roots and a way to make a connection in order to promote a new theological agenda?  I wonder, what might happen if we actually engaged Wesley and let him, as our spiritual father, guide us through our current struggles.  Would that not be our better hope for a Wesleyan revival?

If we did this, I suspect that talk of splitting or schism would not even be on our radar.  I suspect that there would be a lot less labeling. I suspect that we would put a lot less energy into creating like-minded political camps.  Instead, we would distinguish ourselves not by doctrine or code words, but by the love in our hearts and our desire to glorify, not ourselves, but the One who is saving us – even us — by much needed grace.  Our focus would be on how we might “outdo one another” in showing this love.

From a Wesleyan perspective, that’s the way to build our spiritual home on a solid foundation, one with the strength to hold us together by something more than our opinions and positions.  What if we let the Holy Spirit do this work, of bringing us together upon the solid foundation of God’s peace which passes human understanding? What if we poured our energy into growing together in the holy virtues of meekness, patience, gentleness, and compassion, to name those on Wesley’s frequent list. That possibility moves me to joyful tears.

The word “orthodox” is not the only word being used to divide, and I dare say, to do harm. Others include evangelical, justice, rights, tradition, faithfulness, truth, and even love. While I do trust that God can use even our harm to do good, I also see that Wesley wants us to pay a lot more attention to the “woes” that are pronounced upon those who do the harm, especially when the harm is justified as righteousness. I wonder if we need to be a lot more fearful about that – of God taking an anointing away.  What if our focus was on our common “solid” foundation? What might it look like if we were all more Wesleyan in this way?  And thus less mad?

Up Next: Is it time to split? (Wesley had a lot to say about it).

Orthodoxy and Our Treatment of Others

In continuing the previous post, there is no doubt that Wesley was orthodox in the sense of affirming the Trinitarian faith.  The “rightness” of this doctrine is illuminated in the way it expands our understanding of God and keeps us from getting locked in our prejudices and narrow theological agendas. Likewise, Wesley affirmed the divinity and humanity of Christ. This full understanding of the nature of Christ keeps us from over-spiritualizing, on the one hand, or over-moralizing, on the other; it also has implications for the way we embrace grace and holiness, evangelism and social justice, knowledge and vital piety, among other blessed tensions within the faith – tensions which lead to wholeness.

What Wesley DID NOT like is the term “orthodoxy” itself. It would seem that too many in his day were using this term as a label to claim “right belief” over others. Too many were placing “right belief” at the core of faith.   Seeing this, Wesley says that orthodoxy or “right opinion” is “at best a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all.”  In even stronger statements, he equates those who claim to be orthodox as promoting a form of “salvation by works,” and even condemns it as the “faith of the devil.”  For Wesley, our life-giving faith grows through how we threat one another. It does not grow through our need to win or defend our version of “true faith.” In faith, God does not need defended in this way.  That stance leads to haughtiness, arrogance, divisiveness, anger, abuse, self-righteousness, and self-proclaimed faithfulness – the opposite of the life-giving witness manifested through the virtues of humility, patience, kindness, and love (a few of Wesley’s favorites as he describes true holiness).

Centering faith in “right opinion” rather than in relationship is more than misguided; it can be insidious, it can be violent; it can do great harm.  As we struggle through issues as the body of Christ, we need to be cautious about following those who are “drunk with the blood of the saints,” to use another image from Wesley.

So how might we approach someone whom we suspect believes “wrongly?” From a Wesleyan perspective, when we engage others our focus can never be on what they believe or don’t believe, or on any “externals,” as Wesley calls them, even on good works.  Our focus must be on “nothing short of ‘the mind that was in Christ,’ the image of God stamped upon the heart… attended with the peace of God and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  In other words, we focus on our heart and our desire to show pure love.  This approach opens a way for the Holy Spirit to do the work of building relationships and creating unity, not in opinion or even practice, but in love.

In this holy relationship, our hope is to see peace and joy, humility and love in the other, but what if we see no evidence of these virtues?  At this point, we look, not for some fault with them, but inward once again. We ask: Is there something in me that is blocking me from seeing these blessings in the other? Any questions about the character or actions of the other are a very distant second, if ever asked at all.  If it turns out that the blessings of peace and joy, faithfulness and fruitfulness, are not in the other, then our next response is not condemnation, judgement, or argument; our response is to actively stay engaged, show mercy, and to pray that we might be instruments that help produce these blessings. That’s the “right” way for the people called Methodists. (See “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists”). 

Oh, if only this could be our focus. If only this could be our hope for one another. If only this could be our witness in the world. Is this not worth being more than a dream?

(Up Next: Orthodoxy and the Pharisees, another word from Wesley)