For the Bride: The Sum of All

When Paul wrote that love is “the more excellent way”–that it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things”–and that it is greater than faith or hope, he was doing all he could to say it is the sum of all.

Similarly, we have found the early Christians saying the same thing through their words and deeds, many of which are preserved in the Verba Seniorum (c. 550 a.d.), which we today call the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers.

One of my favorite companion books to this ancient volume is Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert.  I cannot think of a better way to draw our exploration of the principle of love to a close than to post Merton’s summation written in the 20th century and in keeping with Paul’s conviction written in the 1st century…

“All through the Verba Seniorum we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love, in fact, is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions. The more lofty they are, the more dangerous the illusion.”

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In-Sight: Arise! (#2)

Last week’s post (Arise #1) encouraged us to see Jesus’ resurrection as the ignition of an ongoing uprising. It is an uprising that occurs in all sorts of ways–what Paul referred to comprehensively as a “new creation” (2Corinthians 5:17).  This uprising is not something we merely observe and affirm, it is something we are called to participate in.  Today, I want to offer three ways we can do this.

First, spend your time developing your position rather than criticizing someone else’s.  This makes us advocates rather than adversaries.  Of course, people will disagree with us, but our participation in God’s uprising should not be consumed in being a counter-point to someone else’s view.  Be proactive and constructive, not reactive and deconstructive.  If you really think your position is better, commend it by building it up, not tearing another position down.

In social media, this negative deconstructionism happens to an alarming degree.  I rarely read the “Comment” sections of Facebook posts, because people use them way too often to do little other than find fault.  Do not do this.  Instead, use your own media outlets to communicate your view, rather than piggy-backing on someone else’s.   Be a message, not a footnote.

Second, be a Kingdom-banquet person.  Invite everyone to feast on your point of view.  As in the parable, some will turn down the invitation. But rather than lament their refusal, go out to the highways and hedgerows (as Jesus said) and invite others to come. 

Be inclusive, not sectarian.  Some whom you hoped would show up will not, but you will find a host of others who will come and dine.  If your position is credible, it will attract others just as a magnet draws iron filings.  Like the sower in Jesus’ parable, do not predict or attempt to control in advance who gets the seed.  Sling seed all over the place, and you will get a harvest somewhere.

Third, align your heart and your treasure, or as the old phrase says, “put your money where your mouth is.”  Use your stewardship of time, talent, and treasure to advance what you believe in.

Sign up.  Join in.  Donate.  Find reputable groups to support.  Weave your single voice into the tapestry of a larger voice.  Be a visible member of a community that advocates your position beyond your own locale.

Fourth, seek for the fruit of the Spirit to characterize your involvement.  There will be some occasions when a clear and courageous stance is necessary.  But no stance should make us bitter, and surely not hateful.  The essence of Christlikeness has been described throughout church history  by the fruit of the Spirit.  As the commercial says, “don’t leave home without it.”

Finally, trust God for the outcome.  Like Moses, the best we can often do is only look over into the promised land, but not enter it.  Like the writer of Hebrews, we do not see everything in subjection to Christ.  Be content to show up and speak out, going as far as you can–realizing it will likely not be all the way to the end.  Transformation is usually trans-generational.  We are to be faithful in this generation,  and hand off what remains to those who come after us.

On his final night on the earth, Martin Luther King Jr. used this analogy to declare that even though he might not get to the goals espoused by the civil-rights’ movement, he had been to the mountain top, and everything else was secondary to that experience.  He went as far as he could, trusting the goodness of the cause would be embraced by those who outlived him.

Arise!  It is God’s call.  And while it certainly includes the ministry of encouraging others, it goes beyond that to include our own engagement.  It moves beyond support to showing up.  It means incarnating the apostolic spirit that says, “We cannot keep from telling you what we have seen heard.”  It is that personal involvement which turns a resurrection into an uprising.

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Journey: Known By The Scars

Read: Whatever the Hardship, Keep Rising Up

As I have already told you, I have benefited greatly from McLaren’s analogy of resurrection as an uprising.  Not surprisingly, he brings the third-quarter readings to an end in a way I would not have anticipated, but in a way we all need to recognize.

He ends with Jesus’ nail-pierced hands and Paul’s marks–both the real-life effect of bearing witness to their faith.  We must not view the Christian uprising as pain free–as a movement beyond struggle and suffering into an artificial “sweetness and light” existence.

Truth be told, the longstanding peace and prosperity that we have taken for granted in North American Christianity has never been the paradigm for most of the world’s Christians.  Untold numbers have lived daily under the shadows of persecution and deprivation because they profess faith in Jesus Christ.  Like Jesus, Paul, and the people of faith in Hebrews 11, they are known by the scars.

Without drifting into predictionism, that may or may not turn out to be true, what we can say for sure is that, because of the resurrection, Life not death is the final word, even if we have to pass through a tomb on the way to it.  The uprising truth is that strength is made perfect in weakness. 

So, the sooner we take off our super-saint outfits, the better.  The sooner we stop lighting the fires and then try to claim others are burning us at the stake, the better. Now, as always, we will be known by the scars.

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For the Bride: Soft on Sin?

We have spent an extended period of time considering the way of love in early Christianity, revealing that it was the virtue which defined and directed the inner life and outer witness of the desert fathers and mothers.

I will turn next to the practice of non-judgment, but today I want to write about a misperception that often arises among critics who view the way of love and the practice of non-judgment as meaning that ancient and modern Christians who espouse these values are soft on sin. 

I confess that I am inserting this writing into the larger exploration of the three pillars that I advocate in my book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride,’ because one of the false allegations that keeps raising its head against me is the notion that by advocating the principle of love, the practice of non-judgment, and the process of holy conversation, I have joined the ranks of those who take a minimalist position on sexual sin.

As a way of honoring the early Christian community, and simultaneously representing myself, I want to make clear where a theology of sexual sin fits into the paradigm I commend and that I find operative in early Christianity.  I know that what I am about to write will not satisfy everyone, but I hope it will put to rest the caricature that Christians like me (ancient or modern) have become relativists when it comes to sexual sin.  The following points can only scratch the surface, but I offer them as signposts toward a larger address of this matter which I hope to make eventually.

First, there is sexual sin, and in every case the Bible is against it.  God has created human sexuality as “good” in the original creation, and whatever violates the sacredness of sexuality is to be rejected. The two main words that capture the Bible’s prohibition are the Hebrew word zana and the Greek word porneia, usually translated by the term immorality.

Second, both heterosexual and homosexual persons commit sexual sin.  As Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson so clearly points out, heterosexual immorality is frequently ignored in the current debate, when the data reveals that heterosexual sinfulness more extensively affects the sexual mores of society than homosexual sinfulness does. I fully agree that this is an unacceptable imbalance in any attempt to establish a theology of holy sexuality.

Third, sexual sin is summarized in one word: promiscuity.  That is, any sexual behavior which is driven by lust rather than defined by love, centered in self-gratification rather than God-glorification, is temporary rather than permanent, and lacks a sense of commitment.  The two words used to describe this in Scripture are fornication and adultery, with a plurality of behaviors that emerge. A look at early Christianity shows that these two manifestations were roundly rejected.

Fourth, the often-debated passages regarding homosexuality in the Old and New Testaments are all about some kind of promiscuity, as are the other texts in Scripture that describe sinful sexual behaviors.  As with heterosexual sin, homosexual sin is not one overarching behavior, but rather sexual behavior that is promiscuous.

Fifth, the basis for determining the morality of sexual behavior is covenant: sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency.  Covenant is the evaluative factor for all of life.  We even refer to the two major sections of Scripture as the Old and New Covenants. In both Testaments, covenant is rooted in the two great commandments, upon which hang all the law and the prophets. Sexual behavior is, therefore, one powerful way we declare our love of God and others. Sexual sin is a violation of biblical love through a host of expressions, all egoic in nature.

Sixth, when covenant remains definitive, both heterosexuals and homosexuals can honor it through celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.  With regard to human sexuality, God has one standard, and both heterosexuals and homosexuals can and must keep it.

So, far from being soft on sin, I join with Christians who put the focus on behavior rather than orientation.  I join with Christians who reject sexual promiscuity of any kind by anyone.  And I join with Christians who offer any two people the opportunity to make vows that root their relationship in covenant (sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency), creating accountability and responsibility for us all.

I believe this way allows the principle of love to exist and flow between and among people, without creating  a carte blanche disregard for honoring the covenant which alone makes any aspect of life good.

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In-Sight: Arise! (#1)

Many of you will know that I write meditative posts each Monday here on Oboedire based on Brian McLaren’s book, ‘We Make the Road by Walking.’  I do this primarily as a way of personalizing the book for myself, but also to encourage folks in the Oboedire fellowship to join in a common reading and reflection on this excellent formation resource.

One of the takeaways for me is McLaren’s interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection as an uprising–Jesus’ literal one, and the figurative one he set in motion in what we today call the Church.  I have been drawn deeply into McLaren’s metaphor, believing more than ever that the first stone was rolled away so that our stones can be rolled away–that Jesus rose so we can arise and become part of God’s Uprising.

For me, as most of you already know, one expression of this uprising in my life has been an advocacy for unity in the Church in general and in The United Methodist Church in particular–unity that is inclusive of all God’s people–unity that can only occur when we build our individual and institutional spiritual house on love, non-judgment, and holy conversation.

Over the past year, I have discovered a host of people who affirm much the the same.  I have heard from some and read about others who say, “I believe largely the way you do about unity.”  I have been encouraged to realize there are many who share beliefs and practices similar to mine.

But in that number are stealth disciples–men and women who fly below the radar to avoid detection.  In that number are bishops and bankers, teachers and truck drivers, pastors and plumbers, old and young, straight and gay people, men and women.  In that number are many who support from the shadows.

Martin Luther King wrote about people like this in relation to the civil rights movement–people who said to him, “We believe what you believe and appreciate what you are doing,” but they never identified with the movement or actually became involved in it.  In his Letter from the Birmingham jail, King lamented that the silence of friends hurt more than the vitriol of critics.

Connecting this to the resurrection, I take it to mean that Jesus’ resurrection was not meant to be an isolated event. It was aimed to create a ripple effect that moved from the first Easter morning, down the corridors of time, until he comes again.  It means that Jesus’ rising up was intended to generate our uprising.

God is Light, and among other things this means our discipleship cannot be lived in the dark.  The challenges are great, and they call for overt action, not simply covert affirmation.  Appreciation does not produce transformation. There has never been a silent revolution or an invisible reformation.  When death is being replaced by life, we have to come out and show up.  The call is always to “Arise!”

Next week, I will propose some specific ways we can do this.

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Journey: Holy Generosity

Read: “The Uprising of Stewardship”

As with so many other things, we move too quickly to plans and formulas in much of North American Christianity.  We want to know “how” to do something before laying the foundation of “why” we should be doing it in the first place.

This week, McLaren provides an excellent introduction to stewardship, the basis for which he finds in the resurrection (the rising up) and the Christian movement (the uprising) which flowed from it.  The resurrection was God’s way of making Christ for the world (trans-incarnational), so it followed that the first Christians would be people for the world (non-possessive) as they moved into the world to live for Christ.

It is significant that the first Christians adopted the “all things in common” mindset almost immediately after Pentecost, and the sooner we do so, the better.  Otherwise, we run the risk of our possessions possessing us.  The actions of stewardship cannot occur until the attitude for it is established.

But when the uprising mind overtakes our materiality, then as we often say, our time, talent, and treasure is consecrated to Jesus just like everything else. Jesus does not demand 100% of our possessions (as McLaren shows), he just wants to know that 100% of them is available to him should there be a way he needs to use them in his post-resurrection ministry.

Personally, I liked the way McLaren developed the three-layered approach to stewardship in a way that makes the application of it feasible for anyone regardless of economic status.  And that is as it should be since everyone can be a good steward in their discipleship.  It is captured in the word generosity.

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Editorial: Local-Option Methodism

Adam Hamilton has issued a new call for “a way forward” advocating a local-option plan that the General Conference would design, approve, implement, oversee, and (doubtless) amend over time.

As with his original proposal (issued about a year ago), social media is buzzing with pro/con commentators.  But because the idea is embryonic in its conception and unformed in its actual shape–both of which Adam is wise enough to know are not within his control, we have at the moment only our history and heritage to use in evaluating the idea.

And when we look to our heritage, we find that versions of local-option Methodism have been present in early British Methodism, early American Methodism, and today in contemporary United Methodism.  Far from being a violation of our polity, local options are means for applying it.

In early Methodism, Wesley launched the movement with two documents: ‘The Character of a Methodist’ and ‘The General Rules.’ These were non-negotiables incarnating the two great commandments and the behaviors that would do good and avoid harm in relation to those commandments.  Factoring in the Creeds and Articles of Religion from the Church of England (since  Methodism was essentially a movement within Anglicanism), we can speak with confidence about “the main branches of Christian doctrine” that all Methodists were to uphold.

After that, we see flexibility for local-application of the agreed-on standards.  A reading of the Conference Minutes, Wesley’s letters to Methodist leaders, and entries from his Journal reveal local-option freedoms in a variety of expressions.

When Methodism came to the colonies, the same mix of standards and options continued, due in large measure to Wesley’s inability to name or enforce a one-size fits all polity across the ocean.  Besides which, the first Methodists in America had everything that they had used in Great Britain to make Methodism existant and vital.  Wesley did not need to add anything else at the time.

When Methodism became a denomination in 1784, Wesley enjoined a connectionalism that he provided in the Sunday Service and the amended and reduced Articles of Religion, additions to accompany the already-existing documents and structures which had existed in America for about 25 years.

As a result we see Francis Asbury, for example, dealing with different Methodist groups in different ways, giving the leaders (especially in the local class meetings) liberty to act in ways they considered to be best where they served.  As the Circuit Rider system brought an increasing clergy presence into American Methodism, we can continue to trace the local-option diversity in the church’s polity, both in terms of the circuit riders themselves and the charges they oversaw.

Moving ahead to our time, our Book of Discipline enjoins numerous principles that can be organized and expressed with a local-option flexibility that reveals variety in such things as administrative structure, clergy liberties, missiological manifestations, and stewardship decisions–to name a few.

Our Methodist heritage reveals that local-options have been part of our polity from the beginning, and that local-option polity does not violate or diminish our spiritual vitality or our institutional connectionalism.  In fact, local-option Methodism enhances our message, manner, method,and ministry.

Of course, all this today is contextualized in relation to human sexuality.  But a look back to our heritage shows that the aforementioned universals (Creeds, Articles, The Character of a Methodist, The General Rules, and The Sunday Service) do not include the topic of sexuality–leaving the topic, at least institutionally speaking, on the level of ‘opinion’ not ‘doctrine.’

The validity of local-option polity with respect to human sexuality needs to be brought to the table of holy conferencing and (eventually) to the floor of General Conference.  But to immediately dismiss local-option Methodism as foreign to our polity, flies in the face of its existence in the past and in the present. 

But even more,  the immediate dismissal of it closes off a path of discussion and discernment that people all along the spectrum could use with profit and with confidence that we are ‘Methodist’ in continuing our Christian Conferencing in relation to Wesley’s threefold paradigm: what to believe, what to teach, and what to do–and then, to engage ourselves in these things in ways that continue to manifest the mix of universality and local-option polity which has served us well since 1744.

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