In-Sight: A Jelly Sandwich

When my grandmother got older, neither of her two children (my dad and his sister) thought she was eating properly.  The crisis was precipitated by her wanting to eat jelly sandwiches instead of a “proper meal.” 

I was present on a couple of occasions when a a tug-of-war ensued between Ma and her kids over her food choices.  They were convinced that her preference was a sign she was “losing it,” and that a steady diet of jelly sandwiches would surely hasten her death.

Ma was around 80 when this was happening, and I am 67, so I have a ways to go before I will know if jelly sandwiches will end up being be my meal of choice.  But I am old enough to know Ma was not “losing it.”  She was just trying to eat what she enjoyed, and she figured at 80 she had eaten enough of almost everything (not to mention her decades of cooking it), and besides, how much shorter would her life be if she were actually done in by a jelly sandwich?

In retrospect, with the gift of years under my belt, I think Ma had it right.  You cannot improve on saying and doing (even eating) those things that give you joy.  I mean, joy is a fruit of the Spirit.  I just had to become a senior citizen myself to know God is willing to deliver joy in a jelly sandwich.

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Journey: Get on the Arc

Read: Spirit of Holiness

The world (that is, everyone and everything) is heading toward judgment.  The Bible makes that clear, and McLaren does not sidestep that fact, or dismiss it in this week’s reading.

But what kind of judgment?  If we see ‘condemnation’ as a synonymn for judgment, then we will understand it punitively.  But if we see ‘restoration’ as a synonymn for judgment, we will understand it redemptively.  The former idea creates a fear-based faith, while the latter generates a hope-based faith.

McLaren calls restorative judgment the arc of the universe.  When I read that I thought to myself, “Our job, like the animals who got on Noah’s ark, is to get on God’s arc–and be saved.”

McLaren rightly notes that restorative judgment does not eliminate pain and suffering in God’s final analysis.  In fact, the more we have become glued to that which is false, the more painful our final judgment will be.  And none of us will pass through “scot free,” because none of us has lived a completely righteous life.  We will all pass through the fire, but it is a refining fire, not a destroying fire.  It is the fire of love.

But there is more, and it is actually the best part.  God’s restorative judgment is a refining process that can begin now.  We do not have to wait until some eschatalogical ‘final judgment’ to have a bonfire of purgation that calls for a firey furnace and flames that light up the night sky.  Instead, we can let the fire of the Holy Spirit cleanse us of any current unrighteousness through the refining process of conviction, confession, and cleansing.

Judgment–the final word.  But because the arc of the universe is holy love, it is a restoration, not a damnation.  The only folks who will miss it are those who refuse to accept this severe mercy.  And if that turns out to be even one person, God’s heart will still be broken because God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to salvation (2 Peter 3:9).

There is only one invitation: get on the arc.

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For the Bride: From Letter to Spirit

The early Christians recognized they were stewards of a great Mystery–the Mystery that had within it power to give life or to deal death.  Whether the Mystery did one or the other depended on how they used the Law.

In applying the Law, they took seriously the fact that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).  Growing up under the Law, they had seen how the religious leaders used the Law to deal death to those who broke it, sometimes literally but always by  declaring some “unclean” and therefore outside their camp.

But Christ ended the death-dealing application of the Law (Romans 10:4) fulfilling it (Matthew 5:17) by moving it from the letter to the spirit, and thus making the Law subservient to grace and life the final word, not death.

One illustrative passage of this principle is John 8:1-13, the woman caught in the act of adultery.  The religious leaders played the “letter” card and already had the rocks in their hands to kill her, willing to leave her dead and judged. But Jesus trumped their hand with the “spirit” card, and the woman walked away alive and forgiven.

From the example of Christ the early Christians learned they were misusing the Law whenever they were judgmental.  And that is a huge reason why they rejected judgmentalism so quickly and completely and practiced non-judgment so rapidly and radically.

Similarly today, we remain stuck in the letter of the Law when we use it judgmentally, retributively, and punitively.  We are strangers to grace and to the spirit of the Law, whose purpose is to always to give life.  We resemble the religious leaders rather than Christ. 

The early Christians exemplify for us what the movement from the letter of the Law to the spirit of the Law looks like–the movement from being death-dealing to life-giving.  It is the movement that occurs as we follow Jesus, who ends the Law (as judgmentalism), leaving it outdated and obsolete (Rom 10:4 and Hebrews 8:13). 

It is the movement which occurs in non-judgment–the movement in which the Law bows its knee to grace–the movement in which love triumphs over legalism—the movement when stones are dropped so that stones may be rolled away–the movement that does not end on Friday with death, but rather on Sunday with resurrection.

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In-Sight: Sunrise/Sunset

The sun does not pop up in the morning or fall down in the evening.  Sunrises and sunsets occur gradually.  And they do not happen only once, but in a daily cycle that brings variety and enrichment to the basic process.  Within the slower movement there may be key moments, but they are never isolated from what precedes and follows.

Our souls are formed the same way.  We may have moments of memorable experiences with God, but they occur in larger and slower experiences.  As we discover the sunrises and sunsets in our souls, we come to view our formation in broader, more-expansive and recurring ways.  Words often used to describe this are ‘contemplative’ and ‘mindful.’

In much of North American Christianity, we have developed an event mindset–a 24-hour retreat, a three-day conference, or a six-week group study.  We experience good parts, but keep them isolated from the sacred whole.

We need to move into the sunrise/sunset pattern in which we gaze and ponder the larger rhythms and patterns.  We need to practice attentiveness to our broader life, for it is there that we discern the things God is calling us to receive (sunrise) and relinquish (sunset).  And from this larger view, we can incorporate specific means to more fully engage and experience what God is doing in and through us.

With this kind of attentiveness, we also discover that our most formative experiences unfold over time–they mature through repeated manifestations.  For example, we are not born again only once, but repeatedly as death gives way to life in multiple aspects of our lives.  Likewise, we are not filled with the Spirit one day, but every day as the Water of Life flows like an artesian spring into us.

A look at the saints in Scripture and tradition show them to be sunrise/sunset people–people who are formed over the long-haul, not the short-run.  Paul’s dramatic encounter on the Damascus road is set in his larger “I have run the race” perspective.

So, we must devote ourselves to that long obedience in the same direction–to the video of the spiritual life, not simply the snapshots.  There is a wideness in God’s mercy and a slowness to God’s grace.  Watch the sun rise and set, and learn that God is working the same way in your heart.

Posted in In-Sight

Journey: Push Back/Push Back?

Read:  Spirit of Power

When we follow the Spirit, we eventually experience push back from a person or group who feels we have ceased to do good and begun to do harm.  That’s because no one and no community is perfect, so eventually the Spirit will challenge someone’s sacred cow.  The resistance will be swift, severe, and negative.  It is, McLaren notes, impossible to follow the Spirit without experiencing criticism and persecution of some kind.

It is at the point of opposition where we face our greatest temptation–to oppose those who oppose us.  The question is, “When we experience push back, do we turn right around and push back?”  If so, we quickly bite back with the same venom we have received.  We use the same weapons on our opponents they have used on us. 

As we give way to this temptation, we find that we have left the Holy Spirit and attached ourselves to the unholy spirit, where vitriol, condemnation, and harm take the place of kindness, forgiveness, and goodness.  Instead of this capitulation to selfishness, we must seek what McLaren calls ‘the non-reactive mind’–one dimension of the mind of Christ, who when reviled did not revile in return.

So much if life hinges on how we answer this question, “When we experience push back, do we turn right around and push back?”  Spirit power gives us the ability to say, “No.”

Posted in Journey

Editorial: Suspend the Sorrow

As I sit down to write these words, the Reverend Benjamin Hutchinson and his partner, Monty, are getting married today in the Cass County Courthouse in Western Michigan.  As they do this, Reverend Hutchinson has been forced to resign as pastor of Cassapolis UMC.  What a juxtaposition of emotions these two people must be feeling right now.

Following the details of all this the best that I can, I have been moved to  remember the exhortation of the late Bishop Rueben Job in his chapter in the book, Finding Our Way (Abingdon Press, 2014), a plea to suspend all retributive actions between now and General Conference, so that propaganda and reactionary thinking will not infect the discernment process required of General Conference delegates with regard to human sexuality.

I reiterate his exhortation, not simply because I read it in the book, but because Bishop Job was one of the Christian leaders I most respect–in both the substance and spirit of his faith.   Much of this was from afar, but Jeannie and I were blessed to know him and his wife, Beverly, during our years at The Upper Room in Nashville.  I have not known anyone who manifested a kinder and gentler spirit than Rueben–and who loved Christ and the Church more than he did.  I cherish his influence and friendship.

I would never presume to put words in Bishop Job’s mouth, but I am willing to put his words into mine, and hopefully perpetuate his view–one that I own on a day when I believe it is needed.  I put it this way:  it is a day to suspend the sorrow.

Some will immediately respond by saying, “To suspend retributive actions violates the existing Book of Discipline–case closed.”  There is no way to dispute that, but I do not believe a “case closed” approach includes everything we need to be taking into account these days, and I do not believe it generates the spirit we sorely need in the days preceding General Conference.

I have no institutional authority to speak into this complex and controversial issue, but I am willing to say, as Christians before me have said in the past as they spoke to thorny problems: “the love of Christ constrains me.”  My soul is stirred by the testimony to love by the great cloud of witnesses, now including the likes of Rueben Job.

I urge a suspension of retributive actions based on the fact that all people on the spectrum of opinion are agreed that the General Conference must deal with the double-talk and restrictive nature of the current Book of Discipline.  In spirit our agreement has already “convened” General Conference in the soul of the United Methodist Church.  We do not serve our soul well by acting retributively prior to the actual General Conference itself.  We only trouble the waters without anyone stepping into them to be healed.

Moreover, to act retributively is to assume in advance how the General Conference will legislate the 2016 Book of Discipline.  And the fact is, we do not know how revised statements will read.  How sad it would be to realize we took actions ten months prior to General Conference to prohibit clergy from serving the Church in ways that would then be allowed in whatever way the General Conference effects our position and future.

If the General Conference finds a way forward and preserves unity, we will have what so many hope for–a new set of regulations for The United Methodist Church that are more gracious than the current ones.  If, however, it maintains the current language, or perhaps even tightens that language, then many of us will have what we need to decide our future  relative to the post-2016 UMC. 

In the meantime, it is not disrespectful or disobedient to our current Book of Discipline to suspend action using statements we all agree will be changed some way next May.  We have, in effect, already suspended them by our agreement that they must be reviewed and revised.

Returning to Bishop Job’s exhortation, I share his sentiment that the better way for us in the coming months is to pray, pray, and pray some more–rather than follow a trail of tears blazed by words and actions that erode our discernment.  We have elected our delegates to General Conference.  Our “job one” is to intercede for them, asking (in the words of the hymn) that God will “grant them wisdom, grant them courage” for the living of these days.

If we do this, rather than divert our energy to enforcing statements we already concede will somehow change, we will arrive in Portland wiser, stronger, better, and more loving.  Do we not believe that is better than getting there through a swamp  of retribution?

Bishop Job offered this challenge in his chapter–one that I own and repeat today: “To give up the gods we have made, will require a deep humility, an incredible trust in God, and the courage to lose everything, and to die to everything else for what is the primary call of our lives ”

God, may it be so!  For us all.

And in keeping with the overarching spirit that has moved me to write this post, I say to Benjamin and Monty, “God bless you as you are married today.  May you continue to love and serve God, trusting that the One who began a good work in you, will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.

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For the Bride: Judged by Scripture

Douglas Burton-Christie calls the early Christians’ refusal to be judgmental  a “hermeneutical act” (The Word in the Desert, p. 280).  He means that the early Christians took Matthew 7:1 with utter seriousness.  To refrain from judgment was to trust the power of Scripture to do its work.

As a hermeneutical act, non-judgment recognizes that there must be a context in which any proper assessment occurs.  The context includes the mixture of a particular person in a specific situation.  It includes the necessity of getting to know a person and coming to understand the motives which gave rise to his or her action. 

This is the very thing judgmentalism lacks.   Judgmentalism is a self-authorizing arrogance that flings verses at people without even knowing who they are.  It presumes to know everything when, in fact,  it knows little or nothing.  And failing to establish a relational hermeneutic, judgmentalism’s conclusions are fraught with errors–errors which the judges never see (or if they do, they cover them up) or acknowledge.

Instead, the early Christians acted kindly toward others, not only because they knew themselves to be sinners too, but because they believed kindness was the doorway for getting to know others truly.  Moreover, they believed that kindness was the atmosphere in which the Holy Spirit works.

In the end, our predecessors knew that we are all judged by Scripture.  We have no right to “lay the Word” on another while refusing to wear its mantle ourselves–a mantle of grace and forgiveness, not one of guilt and  retribution.  The Bible speaks to every heart, beginning with ours.

Posted in For the Bride