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.”

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.

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)