Year of Mercy: Good Confessors

(17) Had we begun the reading of Pope Francis’ document when he officially began The Year of Jubilee, we would have found this segment to be more timelyfor Lent.  But reading it now makes it no less important, given his emphasis upon the crucial connection between the ministry of mercy and the role of confessors.

Simply put, Pope Francis recognizes that good confessors are necessary if the ministry of mercy is to exist.  This is probably obvious to Roman Catholics, who go to Confession regularly.  For those of us in other Christian traditions, we need to read the Pope’s words recognizing their truth in a less formal, but equally significant way.

In the broader sense (but within the Roman sense too) good confessors are first and foremost those who live in the love of God as ones who have themselves received God’s mercy.  We are more likely to give what we have received–and all the more if what we have received has had a profound effect upon us.  When confessors have themselves received mercy, they are “safe places” where we do not need to be afraid of how they will receive us when we go to them in our need.

This means that good confessors are disposed (before we ever show up) to emphasize reconciliation.  Because of grace, good confessors are restorative, not retributive.  Their defining word is “Welcome!” not “Warning!”  In the Roman Church this is expressed through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and Pope Francis urges that it be used lavishly.  For the rest of us, we must see that reconciliation is sacramental in its nature and propensity to forgive even when we are “a long way from home” (e.g. Luke 15:20).

In being good confessors, we become signs of God, revealing God, as we say in the liturgy, “Whose property is always to have mercy.”

[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: The Newness of Oneness

Acts 11:1-18
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

The lectionary readings from yesterday should be required reading for every delegate to General Conference, every Bishop, every Board and Agency attendee, every caucus member, and every Conference observer.  They offer us a pre-Conference word from the Lord, if we have ears to hear.  They provide a moment of opportunity if we have the will to claim it.  The timing of these texts is providential.

The texts all point to something new, and they do so within the context of inclusion, love, and God’s transformative creation.  They were marching orders for the first Christians, and they should be so for us now.

In the early church in/out thinking existed, and it took direct action by the Holy Spirit in the heart of the church’s primary leader to break it.  Gentiles were considered “outcasts” and excluded as much as any people who are treated as “less than” today.  The Acts passage makes it clear that such exclusion is not God’s will.  In nothing short of an absolutely amazing text, universal inclusion (Jews and Gentiles include everybody) replaces human-made exclusion categories–an idea which Paul strengthened by adding two more “less than” peoples–slaves and women, all of whom are now (along with Gentiles) one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

This revolutionary life together, Jesus says in the Gospel lesson, is initiated and sustained by love.  The commandment to love is “new” precisely because of the vision represented in the Acts passage.  Because of Jesus, “love one another” means love everyone, and moreover, love will now be the mark by which the world will see that we are Christians.  “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

All this, Revelation shows, will be carried forward into a new heaven and new earth created by God, who makes all things new.  The trajectory begun on earth is now made eternal.  Another text in Revelation shows the radical universality of this new creation (Revelation 7:9).

These passages define God’s new wine, made sacramental in the Gospel lesson as Jesus ate the bread and drank the wine at the table.  At General Conference, The United Methodist Church has the opportunity to become (by God’s grace) a new wineskin that can hold the new wine of inclusion and love, and in doing so be a sign of God’s new heaven and new earth.  The One who said, ” I am making all things new,” seeks to include The United Methodist Church in that  newness and the mission such newness generates.

We still have two weeks to decide to become a new wineskin church and then gather in Portland to become one.

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Year of Mercy: The Jesus Way

(16) The impetus for Pope Francis’ declaration of this year as a Year of Mercy comes from Jesus himself, when he inaugurated his ministry saying that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isa 61:2)–the word ‘favor’ being the same as the word ‘mercy.’

This is more than God “doing a favor” for us, even though that image is a positive one. No, the word ‘favor’ describes the nature of God more deeply–meaning that it is the disposition of God toward us.  We say it in the liturgy for Holy Communion, “whose property is always to have mercy.”  Mercy is not God’s obligation, it is God’s desire.

Jesus began his ministry incarnating the disposition of mercy and announcing that it would be the hallmark of his ministry.  From Christ’s example, Francis takes his cue for the anointing of his ministry as Pope, and finds the basis for his announcement that the whole Church must be merciful.

Such mercy Jesus said,  extends to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.  Such mercy, says Pope Francis, must similarly be given to anyone who is viewed as an “other” and relegated to the margins.  Just as mercy inaugurated Jesus’ ministry, it inaugurates ours too.

[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: The Importance of Memory

Years ago, Henri Nouwen was asked to name the key problem in the spiritual life.  He responded, “Amnesia.”  He went on to describe the deformative effects of forgetfullness, and to point out how often the word ‘remember’ is used Scripture.

As the days of General Conference draw near, there is nothing more important to pray for than that the delegates ‘remember’ crucial matters as they discuss and decide relative to the future of the UMC.  It begins in scriptural memory, and I would note the following…

(1) That we are Gospel people, hanging all the law and the prophets on the two great commandments–to love God and to love others.  Love is “the more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31).

(2) That the fruit of the Spirit is the means we use in assessing whether our attitudes and actions represent the Gospel.

(3) That making disciples is our mission, forming people who live the two great commandments, anchoring their character and conduct in the holiness of heart and life (“perfection in love”) which results from these two commandments.

(4) That the Church is called to bear witness to this love through a grace-based message that is rooted in mercy offered to all–no exceptions.

If the UMC can be a denomination that remembers these things, we will remain a church God will bless and use for the transformation of the world.

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Year of Mercy: Wealth Blocks Mercy

(15) Pope Francis echoes Jesus’ concern that riches can make it difficult to enter the Kingdom of Heaven–difficult to practice the Kingdom virtue of mercy.  This is consistent with the Pope’s concern about the danger of riches with respect to life in general as God intends it to be.  Why does he have this concern, particularly with respect to mercy?

It begins with the indifference that can result from wealth–a kind of, “I got mine, why don’t you get yours?–an indifference which quickly turns into cynicism–“Why should I be merciful to deadbeats and dropouts?”

When cynicism has taken hold, it is difficult to see the misery of others, and their plight must somehow be defined as their fault. When this happens, the nerve of mercy is severed–and in the end, cynicism turns destructive as the poor, suffering, and marginalized are now seen as threats to the power and prosperity of the rich.

Pope Francis calls for a return in the Church to the works of mercy (in the Wesleyan tradition these are the prudential means of grace)–acts which express compassion because our hearts have been re-awakened by conscience–conscience under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  And as the Pope reminds us, these works of mercy are the very criteria Jesus said would be applied at the end of the age to judge the holiness of our lives.

Mercy is loved shown toward anyone who has failed to receive it from other sources.  Mercy is what we are intended to give to others because grace is what has been given to us by God.  We must not allow the economics of our life to become the god of our life, lest mercy becomes suffocated under a pile of money.

[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: The Power Arena

The ego gravitates toward control and the exertion of power. This is not all bad. Without ego, we would have no will-power, and on our best day, that would neither be a good thing nor a God-thing.

Trouble is, we have bad days as well as good days.  And with respect to ego, our bad day is when our will-power deteriorates into self-will (when ego becomes egotism) and our God-created self (true self) becomes a fallen (false) self.

When applied to institutional religion, there is no more formidable “power arena” than polity and the conferences which legislate it.  Egotism ratchets up its power, creating polity that produces “control.”  Unless we recognize how vulnerable we are to temptation in the making of our polity, we will not see how pervasively egotism gums up the gears.

The temptation exists across the theological spectrum because, as a human enterprise, doing theology is a powerful act of will of every human being. It is when will crosses the line and becomes willfulness–that is, the attempt to “control” and/or “win” that theology can be deformative.  None of us is exempt from this temptation; that’s why we must recognize it for the evil it is and remain vigilant about it.

This is all the more important as we approach General Conference.  Already we see groups planning to hold “briefings,” running the risk of behaving like secular political lobbyists who operate without the context of faith in their work, making the end-game trying to “get the votes” their group needs to “win.”  My friends who have been delegates to past General Conferences do not hesitate to tell me how pervasive these tactics are–and the media that reports General Conference sometime provides stories of “power plays” for all to see, leaving everyone to wonder why the church (who claims to know God, worship God, and serve God) is unable to operate differently than some who make no claim to faith.

I am not writing this post to criticize the necessary legislative process that attends institutional religion in general and the UMC General Conference in particular.  But I am calling for the recognition of how dangerous this process is when ego becomes egotism, when will becomes self-will, etc.  I am asking we understand that General Conference and the production of polity therein is a time to be approached with fear and trembling.

I believe that Walter Brueggemann offers us light to carry to Portland (through intercession and delegation)–it is his notion of “neighborly holiness.”  If our egos can see the “neighborliness” of the global UMC constituencies, we will relate differently than if we allow egotism to frame the experience in “un-neighborly” ways–ways that create and justify partisanship, lobbying, back-room deal making, and the creation of a “good guy/bad guy” mentality–ways akin to the false self, not the true self.

Polity is always the enacting of a prior and deeper mindset.  General Conference will legislate a polity that not only prescribes actions, but reveals attitudes. Polity is always a reflection of the deeper heart which makes the Church what it is.  General Conference will enact polity which not only tells us what we will be doing until we meet again, but more profoundly tell us who we will BE until we meet again.

If we recognize General Conference as the “power arena” that it is, and pray for grace to check egotism (personal and collective)–that is, to keep “neighborly holiness” alive and paramount–we have a chance to be a denomination God will bless.  But if we allow will to become self-will, creating a polity of winners and losers, then we will leave Portland (literally and figuratively) as a denomination God must judge.

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Year of Mercy: Walking Into Mercy

(14) Life is a pilgrimage, says Pope Francis.  Being merciful as God is merciful is a spiritual pilgrimage, marked by the movement spelled out by Jesus in Luke 6:37-38: non-judgment, no condemnation, and forgiveness.

The first step in becoming merciful is refraining from judgment–of anyone.  Why?  At least four reasons: (1) Our judgment of someone else is always imperfect, (2) Our judgment usually fails to include what is good in the other person, (3) Our judgment operates using harsher standards than we normally apply to ourselves, and (4) When we judge, we engage in a practice that is reserved for God alone.  To avoid these deceits in ourselves and to avoid the entrapment of others, we must obey Jesus’ exhortation: “Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1).

The second step in becoming merciful is expressing no condemnation toward anyone.  Condemnation is the result of judgmentalism.  Armed with the (limited and even erroneous) evaluations which judgmentalism affords us, we easily move into condemnation.  And we feel justified (on the basis of the judgment we have made) to issue the condemnation–usually “in the name of God” and doing so as “God’s representatives.”  Pope Francis says clearly that we are not to do this–we are not to condemn.

If, however, we judge and condemn, we never get to the third step: forgiveness–at least not forgiveness rooted in compassion.  Judgmentalism and condemnation make forgiveness conditional–based on what the judged and condemned person does (e.g. repent) to “prove” to us that he/she is now “worthy” of our forgiveness.

Pope Francis sweeps all this away with a marked simplicity in which he simply tells us not to live this way–we are not to live with judgmentalism, condemnation, and withheld forgiveness. This is not the way of mercy.  It is not how God relates to us in our sinfulness.  It is not how we are meant to relate to others.

Instead, the way of mercy is non-judgment, no condemnation, and forgiveness.  When we walk this path and take these steps, we walk into mercy.

[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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