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.

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.

Bigotry in the Church (A Very Relevant Word from Wesley)

pic-bigotIt’s a strong word – Bigot – often associated with extreme prejudice. John Wesley actually used this word in direct connection to the church.  He defined bigotry as extreme “attachment to, or fondness for, our own party, opinion, church, and religion.” This is similar to the way he talked about orthodoxy.  Underlying bigotry is a form of self-righteousness, possibly combined with fear, where we focus on the outward sins of others while conveniently overlooking the “subtler, but no less destructive, forms of disobedience” within us.  This leads us to divide the world into “us and them” and causes great harm to our witness.

In the midst of the blessed diversity of perspectives among us, Wesley warns against party zeal and how it can override our call to love.  Wesley challenges us to be attentive to God’s work in others, especially in those who differ from us, even when what seems “efficacious to [another] is horrid to [us].”   If another seems to be bearing good fruit, then who are we to judge?  As Jesus says, “Bless them and do not try to hinder their work.” “Forbid them not” – even if they are only a “lay person,” says Wesley. That certainly says something about an issue of his day.

Wesley gives a personal example regarding preachers.  He points to the book of Acts where people preached before they were ordained.  They demonstrate fruit before given the office.  Building on this, Wesley wonders about a Bishop refusing to ordain them, even if they are bearing good fruit.  Even if the Bishop stands in their way, “I will not,” says Wesley, “I dare not lest I be found even to fight against God.”  That is a strong word of warning.  Echoing Jesus, if we discourage others from using their gifts, even indirectly, then we are bigots by this definition, and possibly in grave risk of working on the side of the devil.

Wesley gives another personal example.  He asks himself, “what if I were to see,” to use his 18th century terms, “a Papist, an Arian, a Socinian casting out devils.  If I did, I could not forbid even them, without convicting myself of bigotry.”  In radical and relevant fashion, Wesley goes on to say the same about a Jew, a Deist, or a Turk (a Muslim).

So what can we do?  According to Wesley, we can give praise and encouragement to whomever God is pleased to employ.  We can work to enlarge their sphere of action. We can focus on manifesting the virtues of Christ – patience, kindness, compassion – rather than judgment and division. That is our witness to Christ, as we stop trying to defend God and start following instead.  Is this not a most relevant word for us today? (See Wesley’s sermon: “A Caution Against Bigotry”)

In a time when theological/political parties are forming within the church, we need to be alert to this danger.  In a time when people are rallying around code words that are too easily perceived as divisive and self-glorifying – progressive, prophetic, evangelical, orthodox, traditional, covenant-keeping, Jesus loving, faithful (some use more self-elevating adjectives than others) — we need those who are willing to rally around what truly maintains “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”  We definitely need to be cautious of hard line ultimatums which come from those who love self-affirming qualifiers; those so attached to their own party and position that they are unwilling to reflect upon how they might fall short or break covenant, or cause harm by their self-proclaimed faithfulness and rightness.  It comes from all “sides” and does so much harm.

As we turn to Wesley for guidance, he cautions us against this temperament and calls us to meet in the middle with a very different understanding of grace and holiness.  May we heed Wesley’s cautionary word and turn our focus to our common calling to be something other than bigots. Yes, it is a strong word revealing a great weakness within us. May we all guard against building ourselves up by implying that others have less of whatever has hold of our heart.   Does the right thing have hold of our heart?

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.