Year of Mercy: Powerful Mercy

(6) Pope Francis connects God’s mercy and God’s omnipotence.  Drawing on the thoughts of St. Thomas Aquinas, he writes that God’s most powerful action is the expression of mercy. This is clearly so when we remember that mercy is our word for ‘hesed’ (OT) and agapé (NT).

What this essentially means is that God does not act toward us on the basis of who we are, but rather on the basis of who God is.  Because God is love–steadfast love, never-failing love, loyal love–every movement toward us is merciful.  Every act is aimed for our good.

Such mercy is powerful precisely because it so often flies in the face of conditions which do not deserve mercy.  Our attitudes and actions would justify something from God other than mercy.  But we receive mercy anyway!

This amazing grace removes all notions that Christianity is a meritocracy where God blesses those who are “worthy”–those who “toe the mark” and perform up to par according to the rules of a person or group.  Mercy is all that keeps any of us in the game (see Ecclesiastes 7:20, Romans 3:9, Romans 3:23).  Mercy is the basis of hope. 

Mercy is the proof that we are in a relationship with One who loves us.  Pope Francis puts it this way, “It gushes from the depths naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy.”  Mercy is not a trickle of love given to us reluctantly by God; it is God’s “Niagra” soaking us 24/7 with a never-ending embrace.

[Note: the numbers at the beginning of each meditation correspond to the section of the Pope’s document on which it is based]

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UMC: Round Table #1

I stand among those who are happy to see the emphasis on Christian Conferencing as the preferred means for deliberating matters at General Conference this coming May. I believe that the future of The United Methodist Church largely turns on our willingness and ability to practice Christian Conferencing and our willingness to  allow this means of grace to inspire and inform us.

This is the vision I cast in my book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ in proposing that our hope for renewal lies in our commitment to exercise love, non-judgment, and holy conferencing.  I chose the Round Table used by E. Stanley Jones as my illustration for Christian Conferencing in the church today.  I will write a few blogs on this practice as a means to assist any who wish to practice holy conferencing.

What John Wesley called Christian Conferencing was his 18th-century use of the ancient practice of holy conversation–a conciliar process used by Christians throughout the Church to deal with challenges by trusting the Spirit to give collective insight which exceeded what an individual or partisan group could achieve in isolation from the larger community.

This process underlay the seven Ecumenical Councils, enabling some of them to  produce the classic Creeds of Christianity, and other significant things as well.  We see the process at work in later periods of Church history, one product being major Confessions.  The process was also used throughout Vatican II and the multiple subset activities which the conference generated (e.g. ‘The Catechism of the Catholic Church’).

The practice is continued today through such things as Jewish Chavurah, Native American Council Fires, Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust, and Appreciative Inquiry.  The commitment made by General Conference delegates to practice Christian Conferencing is a sign of hope.

But Christian Conferencing is not something anyone can do on the spur of a moment.  It requires training and guidance.  I am glad to see some resources aiming to help delegates prepare to practice Christian Conferencing.  It would be well for the General Conference to engage the services of  consultants who can provide on-the-ground guidance as the Conference unfolds.  This could include people schooled in historic Methodist conferencing and others knowledgeable of contemporary conferencing (e.g. ‘Circles of Trust’ or ‘Appreciative Inquiry’).

In addition, every delegate and delegation would do well to “train” in exercising the spirit and substance of holy conferencing.  In the next couple of blogs, I will offer insights from the Round Table that help facilitate holy conferencing.

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Year of Mercy: Living By Faith

(5) Before Pope Francis opened the Vatican Door announcing the commencement of the Year of Mercy, he looked to the end of the Jubilee year next November, declaring his belief that God would be faithful and pour out mercy on the world.

As I read his words, I asked myself how often I have expressed faith about one thing for a whole year.  In principle, I think I do.  But when it comes to writing about a year’s worth of anything in advance–well that’s another story. 

We can only imagine how deeply the Pope prayed and then pondered the stirrings in his soul before declaring (not just in a papal proclamation, but in lived-out conviction) the Year of Mercy.  We will await the end of November next year, trusting that there will be many confirmations of the Pope’s discernment.

Which brings the matter to us.  If we put ourselves inside the circle of the Year of Mercy, then we too must believe that the Holy Spirit will offer us numerous times to show mercy in the coming year.  Will we too live the Year of Mercy in faith–faith that is both professed and expressed?

[Note: the numbers at the beginning of each meditation correspond to the section of the Pope’s document on which it is based]

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Year of Mercy: Fortress Abolished

(4) Pope Francis declares mercy to be the means for the Church to break out of a fortress mentality.  Mercy makes the Church “a”living sign of the Father’s love in the world.”

I cannot think of anything more needed in the Church than this.  It is beyond dispute that a fortress mentality has increased the past few years.  Pope Francis has rightly named the new-fundamentalism in the Church (characterized by, among other things, the absence of mercy) as a diseased manifestation of religion in the world today.  It is sickening Christians and infecting the Christian witness.

Mercy, on the other hand, propels us outside the Church (ideologically and institutionally), locating the Christian message and ministry in the world for which Christ died.  The fortress is abolished, and the Church offers “the medicine of mercy” to the world.

All this flows from our communion with the risen Christ, the One who is the source of mercy and sustains us in all of our ministries of mercy.  We can trust the Holy Spirit to guide our steps to those people, places, and situations where God’s mercy is needed. 

[Note: the numbers at the beginning of each meditation correspond to the section of the Pope’s document on which it is based]

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UMC: They Owe Us Something

Having just read Thomas Lambrecht’s “Methodism at the Crossroads” article (Good News magazine, January-February 2016), I am moved to make an appeal.

Each of the major proposals regarding the future of the UMC with respect to human sexuality appears (at least as presented by the article) to stand alone and in ideological isolation from the others.  That does not strike me as either a prudent or wise way to leave them as we approach General Conference.  The more plans available increases the difficulty of discerning our future, leaving delegates with a potentially competitive process (or worse) based on a “pick-and-choose” factionalism.  That not only seems too much to ask delegates to deal with in ten days, but also not the making for an atmosphere where Christian Conferencing can be done well.

Each of the major proposals is championed by identifiable persons.  My appeal is for these persons to gather and see if there is anything that they can give us other than isolated and conflicting proposals.  Given they have had the will, even the courage, to make their proposals–I believe they owe it to the rest of us to get together for their own version of holy conferencing.  If the Holy Spirit can do something in and through them, it would stand the whole denomination in a better place come May 10th.

The gathering should be caucus-group free, with only the leading champion of each proposal present.  The playing field keeps moving, but as far as I know, this would mean: (1) Amicable Separation–Maxie Dunnam, (2) Jurisdictional Options–Chris Ritter, (3) Local Option–Adam Hamilton, (4) Connectional Table—Bruce Ough, and (5) Covenant Unity Plan–Bill Arnold.

I am fully aware that this proposed makeup lacks global, racial, gender, and orientation diversity–the lack of which, in-and-of itself may tell us something.  But I nevertheless believe that the proposals’ champions owe us the courtesy of getting together soon.  Otherwise, they end up asking General Conference delegates to attempt something they themselves have been unwilling and unable to do.

I know of some previous attempts at this, but the gatherings I have heard of were not limited to the proposal champions themselves, so far as I know.  I appeal to these five people–all of them longstanding and respected leaders in the UMC–to do us this service.  Surely those who know each plan best are in a position to discuss each one in the most mature and considered way.  And if there are any possible places for synthesis, surely they are the ones best able to see them.

No matter what happens at General Conference, this before-conference meeting is “leading by example”–something we all need to see, for the good of the UMC.  And it is, I continue to believe, the kind of gathering in which God can work to put us in a better place than we are now (Jeremiah 32:27).

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Church: Biblical Marriage

As a person who seeks to be a responsible student (notice I did not say “expert scholar”) when exploring topics of interest and importance, the recent sanctions of the Episcopal Church USA by the Primates of the Anglican Communion has necessarily brought me back to yet another consideration of the phrase “biblical marriage”–a phrase not used in the actual document produced by the Primates, but certainly implied in it, and used in various responses to the document.

Hopefully, I am stating the obvious when I say that no Christian is in favor of unbiblical marriage.  But what is not so obvious is that the term “biblical marriage” is not as singular and clear cut as some allege.  A look at Scripture bears this out, as does the subsequent Christian tradition.

The Bible has eight models of marriage in it.  I cannot describe them in a blog-length post, but in brief they are: man/woman; man/brother’s widow; man/woman (or women) & concubines; rapist/victim; man/woman & woman’s slaves; male soldier/prisoner of war; man/multiple women as wives; and male slave/female slave. [You can Google “types of marriage in the Bible” and see them for yourself, as well as where they are mentioned in the Bible] 

The point I am making is simply that there is no one model of marriage in Scripture.  And, furthermore, godly people in the Bible are married in different ways.  It is also true that every model could be violated.  The model is not determinative; how the model is honored is.

In history, the variations multiply over the earth over the course of time.  These variations became significant (and problematic) as Acts 1:8 became fulfilled “to the ends of the earth.”  And once again, we see Christians lacking a singular mind on every occasion when the meaning of marriage was up for discussion.  This was particularly true with respect to polygamy. A few examples suffice to illustrate this fact.

Paul’s words (1 Tim 3:2, 3:12 & Titus 1:6) were taken by some to be pervasively prohibitive, while others pointed out he was applying the principle only to leaders.

Additionally, Martin Luther, on one occasion, condoned polygamy while continuing to advocate monogamy as the norm.

Even the Anglican Communion reveals the historic struggle in (1) Bishop John Colenso’s excellent and extended 1855 treatise on the subject as the Church of England moved further onto the African continent, and (2) the Lambeth Conference of 1988–Resolution 26 .  Both examples uphold monogamy, while acknowledging there are occasions when people in polygamous marriages can become Christians.

What emerges from the witness of history is that the Church came to reject models of marriage which were non-consensual, the result of abuse (e.g. rape), and more recently marriages that ascribe to women a status of lesser worth than men.  At the same time, the Church has never based the meaning of marriage in “romance,” reproductive capacity, or any other concept that lacks commitment.

Again, the point is that the Church has had to discern the meaning of marriage from among the options presented in Scripture itself and represented in a variety of religions and cultures over time.

The question is, “How did the Church do this?” The answer is, through the concept of Covenant, the all-encompassing bond, established by God, that defines the God-human relationship and the related human-human and human-all creation ones.  Covenant principles are non-negotiable: sacredness, fidelity, and permanency. [I personally believe church history shows that monogamy can be added as a fourth (New Covenant) principle]

This use of Covenant established a crucial distinction between “normative” and “definitive”–a distinction that gets lost when only the term “biblical marriage” is used.  To be sure, the one-man/one-woman model is normative–no doubt about that.  But Scripture and tradition reveal that this model is not definitive–Covenant is definitive.  We even sometimes today call marriage the “covenant of holy wedlock.”

If we are to move beyond the intense controversy (even impasse) in the Christian community regarding the meaning of marriage, we must recover the historic Church’s willingness and ability to make the distinction between normative and definitive–with Covenant being definitive, not a particular model of marriage.  No marital union can be called “Christian” if it lacks sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency. [That’s why even some one-man/one-woman marriages are not actually Christian]

If we follow the example of the Church over time, we will preserve the foundation of Covenant as the definitive element, recognizing that one-man/one-woman marriages are normative–as evidenced by historical data itself.

But when using Covenant to define marriage, we will also join with historic Christianity in recognizing that there can be other marriage models which honor and bear witness to Covenant: sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency.  And with the foundation of Covenant in place, we can bless and/or solemnize the union of any two people who intend (and pledge through the making and keeping of vows in the presence of God and Christian witnesses) to live in Covenant love toward God and toward each other, and to make their home a haven of blessing to all who enter it.

This is the reason (rooted in Scripture and tradition, not cultural capitulation or a Supreme Court ruling) that many Christians and ecclesial bodies believe that same-sex marriage is legitimate–whenever and wherever it honors and reflects Covenant.

I do not offer this blog naively.  I know it is not the view held by all Christians everywhere.  But that fact only illustrates the reality the Church has had to deal with when considering (re-considering) the meaning of marriage.  Our challenge is to recognize, as the Church has recognized in the past, that times like ours call for conversation, not censure. 

Without that, the term “biblical marriage” (a term we are all for) will be an ecclesial volly ball batted back and forth over a net of confusion, caricature, and contradiction–leaving us vulnerable to being less “Church” (i.e. unloving, judgmental, arrogant) than God would have us be.

If, however, we are willing to engage in holy conferencing, we may find (as the Church has found in the past) a way through what too easily seems to be an impasse–as the Holy Spirit leads us beyond our wilderness wanderings to “a new land” that God has made and will show us–a land that is ahead of us–a land only grace can create (Jeremiah 32:27).

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Year of Mercy: All Doors Open

(3) God moves us to pay concentrated and prolonged attention to particular things.  We cannot take in all the wonders of God at once.  The Spirit has moved in the heart of Pope Francis to call us to spend this year exploring the theme of mercy.

Pope Francis recognizes that even a singular gaze yields different visions.  He calls the entire Church and indeed the whole world, to consider mercy.  But it is an invitation combined with the freedom for people and groups to see mercy from their respective vantage points.  In his opening the Holy Door this past December 8th, he called us to open our doors (literally and figuratively) to mercy.

This opening will have profound effects upon us, but it will not be a one-size-fits-all experience.  From countries and cultures, ages and stages, races and classes, conditions and orientations, God’s mercy will come to us in different ways, and flow through us in varying ways.

The common thread, as the Pope points out, will be our desire to be more-effective signs of God’s actions–our desire to grow stronger in our faith and in our sharing of it.  The increase of mercy will be confirmed by the increase of love.

In these opening weeks of the Year of Mercy, let us pray for grace to join with everyone else to seek to receive and to offer God’s mercy.  In that commonality let us look for the unique ways God will reveal mercy to us, and then call us to live it out. Let us pray for grace to see mercy in our particular context, so we can offer it realistically and concretely.

[Note: the numbers at the beginning of each meditation correspond to the section of the Pope’s document on which it is based]

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