Journey: Upside Down

Read:  “A New Identity”

With laser-beam clarity and power, McLaren shows how counter-cultural Jesus was from the outset of his ministry.  The Beatitudes–those seemingly benign invitations to godly happiness–first pierced the egoic balloons of those who thought they could have “God and country” with little or no disruption of their civic and ecclesial status quos.

And by the end of his chapter it’s clear that things have not changed all that much since Jesus preached his inaugural sermon on the hillside just outside Capernaum nearly two thousand years ago.  We still want a blend of cultural religiosity that leaves us inspired but unchanged. 

We still head out to find a “Jesus” (or preacher) who will make “being comfortable” in churches with folks like ourselves the essence of the Gospel and the goal of discipleship. And if we can download our version of the gospel (notice the shift to a small “g”), to our favorite dark-monied political party, all the better.

But the real, incarnate Christ will have none of it.  He even speaks of happiness in ways that shred our charades of it, but miraculously offer us abundant life at the same time. Jesus turns everything upside down–or so we think.  But we forget that it was the Fall in Genesis 3 when the world was turned upside down by sin.  When Jesus turned it upside down the second time, he was actually turning it rightside up!

A walk with Jesus (to quote Clint Eastwood) turns us every which way but loose.  And those who demand status-quo spirituality will always walk away (John 6:66) and re-up their membership in versions of faith that never require us to adopt a new identity.

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For the Bride: Amazing Love!

In early Christianity the synonymn for love was perfection.  Far from being a psychologized word (which could become pathological perfectionism), it was deeply theological–the best synonym the early Christians could find to describe when our lives are most like God.

This helps explain why later Christians like John Wesley and others in the holy-living tradition called the entirely sanctified life “perfection in love”—“love filling the heart”–and other similar phrases. Because  God is perfect love (e.g. John 3:16–to all people, at all times, and in all places) we know we are moving farther into Christlikeness as we develop perfection in love.

And so, the ‘Verba Seniorum’ (the sayings of the desert fathers and a few desert mothers, published about 550 a.d.) begins with the section “Progress in Perfection.”  In fact, the word monk (meaning “singular”) is a sign these early Christians knew that the life of love (as expressed in the two great commandments) is “Job One” for every disciple.

A look at the sayings of these first monks shows us that love is the basis for the entirety of our attitudes and actions, and that love is the defining word for the formation of our character (holiness of heart) and the expression of our conduct (holiness of life).  As we make this our all encompassing intention, we have the mind of Christ.

Unfortunately, we use fallen-world filters to read about the centrality of love.  We caricature the life of  biblical love as cheap grace and sloppy agapé, when the fact is, it is the most radical way to live. 

Why? Because it begins with the death of the false self (egotism) which deceives us into thinking that we can rationalize an “I love you, but________” attitude and actually (and correctly) decide whom we will choose to give or withhold love..  Egotism does all it can do to keep us from acknowledging that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).  Our pseudo love makes everything hierarchial, and we get to make the list and control it!

But biblical love is horizontal. To be rooted in love means, among many other things, that we always meet and relate to others as God’s beloved children, with ourselves being their brother or sister, and ourselves as their servants for Jesus Christ’s sake (2 Cor 4:5).

When everyone relates to everyone else this way, it creates an amazing fellowship–one in which the early Christians believed that the person standing before them could be the Messiah in disguise.

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In-Sight: Asking Fish About Water

Chances are, if you asked a fish about water, the fish would reply, “What do you mean by water?”  One of the amazing things is that we tend to lose touch with the surroundings we are in all the time.  We become desensitized and become comfortable with familiarity.  Our “is” soon becomes our “right.” We are the last to recognize anything could be wrong with our water.

In that sleepy state, the cries of others seem excessive and startling.  Who are “they” to tell me something is amiss in “my” world?  Prophetic voices are intrusions. 

So, to justify our disregard of them we quickly define their words and actions as disloyalty, writing them off as trouble-makers and upsetters of our sanctified status quo.  We impugn their character and declare them to have once been one of us, but now are gone over the slippery slope to the dark side.

We don’t realize that as we do this, we are saying more about ourselves than we are about those we reject.  We don’t recognize that we have become comfortable in “our” water, and we don’t want anyone calling it into question.  As one popular writer put it some years ago, we do not want anyone to move our cheese.

But that is what reformers do.  Start with the Old Testament prophets, move ahead to Jesus and the first Christians.  Travel with the monastics, touch lepers with Francis and Clare, walk with Catherine of Sienna,  stand with Martin Luther, saddle up with John Wesley, march with Dorothy Day and  Martin.Luther King, Jr., and follow where Thomas Merton and Wilda Gafney would have us go.

Everyone of them keep asking fish to pay attention to the water.  That’s what reformers do.  In the short run, they are villified, shunned, and booted out of the camp.  Like Wesley, they are told they cannot preach inside a church, so they go outside and preach on a tombstone.  And long afterward, most of them are seen to have been women and men sent from God to keep the fish from dying in contaminated ponds.

The fish who pay attention when someone asks them about the water are the ones who survive (Isaiah 43:19).

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Journey: Do We Dare?

Read:  “Making it real”

This week, I read McLaren’s fascinating portrayal of Mary trying, on the one hand, to put her experience of Jesus into words–and doing so in a way that invites her listeners to consider him for themselves.

This is the essence of Christian witnessing–taking The Story and making it our story. When we follow Jesus, people not only see him, they see us. We become identified as his disciples. It is clear that Mary, the mother of our Lord, did this herself. And her decision is an invitation for us to do the same.

The final words of the chapter speak for themselves, so rather than write a meditation based on McLaren’s words, I ask you to meditate on his own words…

“Do we dare to step out and follow Jesus, to make the road by walking, to risk everything on an uprising of peace, an uprising of generosity, an uprising of forgiveness, an uprising of love?  If we believe, we will make it real.”

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For the Bride: Turning the Page

When we turn the last page of the New Testament and move from the biblical era to the early Christian period, the next page in the book of history is not blank.  The first page of the Didache reads thus…

“The path of life is this–first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, thy neighbor as thyself, and all other things that thou wouldst not should be done unto thee, do not thou unto another” (1:2).

In other words, the first thing the early Christians wanted to base their faith on was the very thing Jesus said everything hangs on–the two great commandments–the way of love.  And they made it clear that love is the path of life.

Putting ourselves in the shoes of these early Christians, we remember that they had come to realize the return of Christ was not going to happen as quickly as some had originally thought.  They understood that the faith had to be passed on, but in ways that would not only perpetuate it, but also keep the succeeding Christians ready to receive Jesus whenever he came back.

When they decided how to do this, they chose the way of love–to describe the essence of faith, the path of life, and the disposition of our hearts to be ready for Christ’s return.  We are now twenty centuries beyond the days of The Didache, entering into the twenty-first century, and like all Christians before us, still seeking to live in a way that expresses faith, embodies expectancy, and enables to live in ways that will cause Jesus to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”. 

We have our marching orders, now as then, in the way of love.

Posted in For the Bride

In-Sight: Beyond Separation (2)

Besides electing delegates to the 2016 United Methodist General Conference who are committed to preserving unity, and electing younger delegates who will end up implementing for years to come whatever form this unity takes, I believe there are other pre-requistes to an actual plan for unity.

A third preliminary dynamic comes from sound biblical interpretation: use the oldest text as your foundation.  In this case, it is the “sacred worth” statement.  This view has shaped The United Methodist Church longer than any other statement in The Book of Discipline.  It is our core sentiment.

The Round Table should devise a plan that is congruent with our commitment to the sacred worth of all people.  This would eliminate the contradictory statements that presently exists in The Book of Discipline, but more than that, it would generate a plan that reflects the deepest values and convictions of The United Methodist Church.

We are a pluralistic, inclusive denomination:  open hearts, open minds, open doors.  It is time to turn a slogan into a way of life together and witness to the world.  It is time to move from stenciling these words on our walls to having the Holy Spirit write them on our hearts!

The sacred-worth commitment could then be the center for creating the circumference applications to such things as same-sex marriage, clergy participation in such marriages, and the ordination of gay Christians. In a global church, there would surely be other issues where the sacred-worth principle needs to be applied.  The goal would be to develop a plan that establishes one standard for everyone–a standard that affords privilege and expects accountability.

Fourth, the proposed plan in 2020 would be viewed as a learning document, not a final word.  Doubtless we will find that subsequent considerations and actual implementations will require an approach that improves the plan over time.

The plan itself would not be subject to cancellation, but rather open to revision that strengthens our commitment to unity.  The Round Table could continue beyond 2016, being charged with this ongoing responsibility.  Our polity invites a quadrennial quality improvement process.

Finally, I believe the General Conference of 2016 should launch an ongoing “Global Prayer Initiative,” inviting United Methodists around the world to pray for God’s blessing and guidance–specifically for the plan itself and our essential unity,  but also for the general life, witness, and mission of the United Methodist Church.

This initiative could be housed in The Upper Room Living Prayer Center, given that it already exists and given that The Upper Room is arguably the most global spiritual formation ministry in our denomination.. A monthly, “Call to Prayer” e-letter could raise the entire prayer life of the denomination as well as keep our commitment to unity alive as the new plan takes root.  These e-letters could be sent to each Bishop who would then post them on their Conference websites on a “Global Prayer Initiative” page.

I am sure there are other pre-requisites to the development of a plan and the other supportive dynamics related to it.  But hopefully these five ideas can lay a firm foundation upon which a good plan can be made and implemented.  We must not wait until Portland to sharpen our minds and prepare our hearts.  Discernment includes getting ready to receive what God can give us.  The unity we seek is a never-ending journey.

May God help us all!

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Connections: My New Book Is Out!

I am happy to tell you that my new book, Five Marks of a Methodist, is available. You can get it right now directly from Abingdon Press at a discounted price via this link:

Or you can place a telephone order: 800-672-1789.

Amazon shows they will have it available on March 17th:

The book is a contemporary re-presentation of the five marks of a disciple that John Wesley put forward in his writing, “The Character of a Methodist.”  Along with “The General Rules of the United Societies,” it provided the foundation for the launch of Methodism.

Some of you will recall and will have made use of Bishop Rueben Job’s Three Simple Rules.  My book is “in the family” with that excellent little book, sharing a similar size, style, and approach.

You do not have to be a Methodist to benefit from the book, for even Wesley himself roughly equated a Methodist with any person seeking to be an effective disciple.  But if you are in the Wesleyan tradition, the book will help you connect even more strongly with your heritage.

You will find the book beneficial for personal reading and for use in small groups.  It includes questions for personal and group reflection.  And its size and style makes it an excellent gift book for someone you know who desires to grow in their faith.

The book is available in either a traditional book format or as an ebook.  Join me in praying that God will use this book as a means of grace for those who read it.

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