The Ordinary Work of the Spirit and the Way Forward

IMG_4576Holy Spirit Come! That is at the heart of my prayer as General Conference approaches. To understand the meaning of this prayer, my go-to source is John Wesley.  From a big-picture perspective, Wesley’s focus was on the way the Holy Spirit works through ordinary means and basic virtues, rather than extraordinary signs and wonder. The witness of the Holy Spirit is best revealed when we come together in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, all wrapped up in the word “love.”  The Spirit is revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions. In my mind, we could use a lot more of our energy being open to this witness of the Holy Spirit rather than expecting something extraordinary.

In his sermon “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley calls us to the “middle way.”  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or beliefs; he is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, faithfulness calls us to “behave” in the middle.  For Wesley, the “worst kind of enthusiasm” is where we are so convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense and actually create division.  In contrast to this kind of “enthusiasm,” the Holy Spirit leads us to “steer a middle course.” On this way, to draw upon the scriptures, we work to break down dividing walls of hostility and seek unity in the One who not only brings peace but is our peace (Eph 2:14).  This way is defined by an eagerness “to maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). To draw lines in the sand, and promote division is to be “devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 1:19).

After seeing this phrase in Jude, I had to do a little research. Sodom is used as an example. (We have seen this before in this series). As is often the case in the New Testament, the word “pornia” is used as a general term, often translated as “fornication” and here as “immorality.” It can be defined as objectifying others and using them only for our pleasure.  There is no doubt that this is against God’s will for us, but it is far from Jude’s main point (and that is important for our current debate). When Jude outlines “unnatural lust” he focuses on the way we use words to harm others and to get an advantage over others. To do this is to be “devoid of the Spirit.” In contrast, those who are with the Spirit keep themselves in the love of God and focus on sharing the mercy and peace of the Lord.  These virtues work only when we meet in the middle where we can then engage in the greatest challenge we are given, and that is to learn how to love one another.

To build upon Wesley’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, it is possible that God might come and give some extraordinary sign, but we have little reason to think that God will.  The Holy Spirit is already at work in the everyday and universal call to “steer a middle course.”  This cannot happen when we are intent on using scripture as a weapon to belittle faithful interpretations that differ from what we believe is the only right way. It cannot happen when we use good words – orthodox, evangelical, Jesus-loving, traditional, progressive, inclusive, gracious — as code words to create an “us and them.” Rather, God will be glorified in the way we love one another in our difference – with patience and kindness, without arrogance or envy, and never insisting on our own way. What a word! (I Cor 13:4-8).  If we were able to practice this faith, then I guess we could say that it would be extraordinary indeed.  Come Holy Spirit!

Is There Grace in Gracious Exits?

Around the Way Forward there is much talk about the need for legislation that allows clergy, congregations, and conferences to exit the denomination without penalty.  The proposal is being called “Gracious Exit.” I get the rationale at a surface level, and may even be put in a position to employ it, but I also find it theologically disturbing.  Here are my prayerful musings.

Using the word grace in this context feels like a violation to me.  Grace is a theologically charged word. Grace is much more than a synonym for “kind,” “polite,” or “civil.”  To attempt to define it, grace is the unmerited gift of relationship with the One who is above all, in all, and through all. Grace is knowing that we are not alone and that nothing can separate us from God’s love.  Grace is being included into something bigger than ourselves, indeed into an infinitely larger community where we get to practice the virtues of patience, kindness, humility, forgiveness, never insisting on our own way, and bearing one another in love – virtues not really needed in like-minded religious clubs or if grace is seen only as a personal transaction.  Grace holds all labels loosely.  Grace always works for reconciliation and unity, and in this work challenges our prejudices and holds up a mirror to our narrowly-defined agendas to secure our own comfort and get our own way.  It is this challenge that makes grace hard to accept or trust because this grace requiring so much sacrifice and even more humility.  Faith in something beyond ourselves and our own efforts is so hard, and that’s what is needed to know God’s grace. And so, we often turn away from grace in order to promote our own religious agenda.  And here is the really good news about grace; even in our self-righteousness, grace remains and works for good.  That’s what makes grace so amazing!

In recent days I have heard calls from several “camps” to allow for gracious exits as a part of our Way Forward.  I have heard people call for this freedom to “depart and thrive.”  Often, it feels much more like an invitation for others to leave, wrapped in polite or “gracious” language.  Many want this so that “the issue” will go away and so we can stop talking about it.  It just doesn’t feel right to me to use this sacred word to justify easy divorce and civil schism.  Grace is what beckons us to the common table, not to divide it.  Grace is what allows us to find our true selves in the presence of the Other and “others.”  Grace is knowing we are not alone, and thus the challenge to build life-giving relationships and to truly learn how to love.  Grace is the hard work of our calling.

Yes, we can be polite and civil in our eagerness for divorce, but I wonder, are we denying or cheapening grace in the process? While God can work for good in all things, will we be able to “thrive” with any sense of faithfulness to anything “Other” than ourselves, if we make divorce and cheap grace the accepted norm?   Perhaps our divisions and differences are not “impeding our mission,” as some claim, but are the very realities that make it possible for us to truly fulfill our mission and offer something truly life-giving to the world.  I wonder.

If we make this policy, what are the unintended consequences? Would it not be the de-facto demise of the denomination? What would hold the covenant together in terms of accepting things like apportionments or appointments? Could congregations come and go depending on the current climate?  Could congregations apply this same grace to staying instead of exiting, continuing to act upon the spirit of our doctrine and discipline, as they see it, and with the grace of their contextual colleagues and conference, until another who can claim to have never committed disciplinary sin is thus able to act in righteousness, instead of grace, and start casting stones? (Which may be a good way to look at it).  I wonder and will continue to pray for deeper understanding.

Stopping the Slippery Slope (and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576It was a shocking realization while sitting at a district gathering to discuss the various plans for the Way Forward.   I purposely set next to one of our youth who had recently come out and was now invested in the discussion in a new way.  At the table, a man launched into prepared talking points.  At the heart of his argument was the popular “slippery slope.”  “If we allow this,” he said, “what’s next? – polygamy, bestiality? Sex with animals, is that where this is leading?” He did not seem to be aware of the pain caused around the common table. Since then I have heard this talking point many times and have tried to think through it more deeply.

To start with, it is good to realize that actions have consequences; it is wise to think through possible outcomes.  This, however, is very different from the “slippery slope” argument, where harmful consequences are assumed.   In thinking through outcomes, it is helpful to reflect on the lens through which the issue is framed.  If seen through a “libertarian” agenda, promoting individual freedom with no interference from any outside entity, then a case can be made for the slippery slope.  If we give one freedom, then that might slip to giving another.  There are those who are promoting an agenda through the lens of individualism, but that is not the lens of the church.  It is an act of deception to lump me, and a multitude within the church, into this perspective.  The faithful church does not frame this issue through the lens of individual freedom but through the lens of wanting to cultivate life-giving relationships with God and others, relationship built upon the values we all hold dear – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, and opportunities to grow in the biblical virtues of patience, gentleness, and forgiveness, among others. This is the biblical language, by the way, that supports the one plan that would make it possible for some in the church to focus on these virtues over base sexuality.  Through the lens of promoting life-giving relationships, the concern becomes what we say to anyone who says, “I want to give my life to Christ and live in a relationship where I can grow in the love of Christ.”  In working with anyone, wherever they are, to respond to this desire, the “slip” is more likely to be into something that will truly glorify God.  If we focused our energy here, there might be a lot more people wanting to know more about the love we preach.

Because of sin in the world, harm may come within relationships — there is no doubt — but this harm is not a direct result of people wanting to be treated with respect and to be able to love others with the blessing of the church.  Granted, this blessing cannot be cheapened.  The blessing includes the cultivation of the virtues meant to under-gird all life-giving relationships.   When we fail to cultivate these virtues then we indeed water down the gospel – but perhaps not as much as those who are using this harmful argument.

This slippery slope argument is an official fallacy.  In other words, it promotes falsehood. It causes harm.  It vilifies others to create fear and doubt. It assumes negative outcomes without any thought to other possibilities. That’s where the argument itself “slips.” I do wonder – are the spiritual consequences worth the desired end?  What if we came together to discern a higher “end” or “purpose” and worked together from there?  That, I trust, would truly glorify God.

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.