Friday, June 3, 2016

I've seen it done, or, some not-so-final thoughts on unity

Over the past few weeks, I've been doing some reflection on the concept of Christian unity, following the General Conference of the United Methodist Church (and now a troubling Balt-Wash Annual Conference as well). You can read the first of those reflections here, as well as a second and third.

Just to summarize, I looked at three different ways of understanding unity, based on three (well, four, but two of them together) different texts:

The Pentecost story, in contrast to the story of Babel, reminds us that true Christian unity is not monolithic or institutional, but rather charismatic and multilingual. It is based not on structure or top-down enforcement but rather on the Spirit-gifted ability to hear each other in all of our differences.

The Christ hymn from Paul's letter to the church in Philippi shows us that unity is based in the self-emptying love of Jesus, which reveals rather than conceals what true divinity looks like. This passage cautions against trying to achieve unity with power politics and instead challenges us to step out of centers of power and into places of suffering and hurt.

And Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17 reminds us that Christian unity is a mystical unity with God through Jesus and the Spirit, rather than a worldly program of organizational merging or institutional togetherness.

Which all sounds very nice. But the thing is that I'm not just making stuff up here. I've seen it done.

Or rather, I've seen it happen, a gift of the Spirit, the presence of the self-emptying Christ, the mystic union that God bring about.

I've seen communities, churches, small groups, big groups, gathered together in ways that transcend differences while affirming the amazing diversity needful for the health of the body.

I've seen it, I've witnessed it, in a converted apartment in the mountains of Morocco, in a converted house in the city of Jerusalem, in living rooms and small university chapels and big auditoriums.

And yes, I've seen it happen in many United Methodist congregations, where my gifts and my calling have been nurtured, encouraged, strengthened, and affirmed.

It is a beautiful, beautiful thing. A true gift.

There are a few common characteristics that I've noticed about these sorts of communities. I think I'll save that for another reflection, though, because I don't want this to be too utilitarian -- I just want to say, yes, this is possible; yes, there is beauty and wonder to be found in this weird tradition we are a part of; yes, God does call us to unity.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Leigh's church let me preach again

I preached at Leigh's church a month ago.

They invited me back.

That was nice of them.

You can watch/listen to it on their website; the sermon itself starts around 26:00.

It was Memorial Day weekend, and so I talked about memory. Thanks to my dad for giving me permission to share some of his thoughts about Memorial Day and Veteran's Day at the beginning of it.

Thoughts on Unity, pt. 3 -- "I pray they will be one"

This is the third in a series on unity in the church. What do we mean when we use language of "unity," "being united," versus "being divided"? If you missed them, you can go back and read the first part here and the second part here

If you've spent any time with the four gospels, you know that John's gospel is...different. I won't go into all the many differences here, but I'll mention one briefly. Unlike the first three gospels, John's gospel has a long "farewell discourse" in which Jesus offers final thoughts and reflections to his disciples before he is arrested and executed. At the end of this farewell speech, just before his arrest, Jesus prays a long prayer for his disciples, which includes these lines [I've added a few notes since it's out of context]:
"I’m not praying only for them [that  is, the disciples who are standing right there] but also for those who believe in me because of their word. I pray they [that is, all those others who will believe because of the witness of the disciples] will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me."
This is, in a sense, a prayer for Christian unity par excellence. Here Jesus prays, not only for the disciples who he has known during his time on earth, who -- in John's gospel -- he has called friends, but for all those who will come to believe because of their witness. And what does he pray? That they will be united. That they will be one, inextricably part of each other just as John's gospel portrays Jesus/Word and Father*/Source and Spirit/Breath as inextricably part of each other.

Now, this prayer only appears in John's gospel. Maybe Jesus prayed it, maybe not. Maybe this is a prayer that emerged from the experience of a particular community, perhaps an early Jewish Christian community in the diaspora, feeling isolated, it's identity threatened from all sides.

But you know what it's definitely not?

It is definitely not a prayer about denominations staying together.

Or about denominations joining together into bigger denominations.

You know how I know?

Because denominations weren't a thing yet.

This is "yeah, duh, we know," stuff, but it bears saying, because it's so easy for language of "that they will be one" to be co-opted into our denominational conflicts or dialogues.

But that's not what this prayer is about at all. Here, Jesus prays, not for institutional unity, but for a mystical one-ness, the same kind of mystical one-ness that Jesus enjoys with the Father.* What's more, this one-ness has a purpose, an end: "Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me."

The purpose of the unity Jesus prays for is for the world to know and understand God's love, as manifested in Jesus, the Word who becomes flesh and dwells among us. So on the one hand it's a mystical one-ness, rather than an organizational or institutional unity. And on the other hand, it's made real, fleshy, physical, by virtue of its indwelling-ness in the world.

Now, as I've suggested in the past two posts, institutional and organizational work can be good and important. It's very possible to argue that bringing two previously separate organizations together into one united organization is a faithful way to live out the one-ness that Jesus prays for in John 17. But that kind of work isn't the be-all and end-all of Christian unity. Christian unity is only Christian unity if it is (a) a participation in the mystical unity of Christ with God by the power of the Spirit** and (b) directed/sent to the world to spread the knowledge of God's love.

"The Church" at the time John's gospel was written was not a single, united institution. It would have been nearly impossible for the community out of which this writing emerged to have imagined such a thing. What they could imagine, and what they were willing to stake their faith and their lives on, was a deeper unity, which would serve as an expression of God's love in the world.

It seems to me that before we even have any sort of conversation about how to "stay united" or "split up" a denomination or a church, we ought to take a good hard look at what we're doing and ask:

Are we sharing together in spiritual union with God?
Are we helping the world to know God's love?

Ask those questions first.

Ask them. Pray about them. Reflect on them.

And then maybe -- but only maybe -- we can start talking about the structures or institutions that such questions might imply.


----
*I've kept the masculine language as it is in John's gospel, but the language is metaphorical, not literal. The language is meant to emphasize relationship, not gender. One could substitute "Mother," or "Caregiver," or use alternative language, but keep the same essential emphasis. For a wonderful take on all of that, check out Sharon Ringe's book Wisdom's Friends.
** Traditionally, this has been expressed in the doctrine of the Trinity. We can argue until we're blue in the face about the doctrine (and we certainly have), but at base it's about mystical unity, about the indwelling community and hospitality modeled for us by God.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Thoughts on Unity, pt. 2 -- "Be of the same mind"

This is the second in a series on unity in the church. What do we mean when we use language of "unity," "being united," versus "being divided"? If you want to know where this is coming from, you can read the first part here
"I am praying that the Church -- as a whole, as a body, not those individuals who already feel they have been emptied, broken, beaten -- but the Church as a whole will remember an ancient, ancient hymn."   
That's how I ended my post two weeks ago, with a prayer for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The ancient hymn I'm talking about is quoted by the apostle Paul in his letter to one of the very earliest churches in the city of Philippi. You can read it here.

Paul quotes the hymn, but first he introduces it. He's quoting it for a purpose, and you could sum up his purpose by saying that he wants to urge the church in Philippi towards unity:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Notice that he uses the phrase "same mind" or "one mind" three times in this short passage, as well as"same love." The phrase in the original Greek is phronein to auto -- be of one mind, have the same mind. But the phrase used here by Paul, like similar phrases elsewhere in his letters, doesn't mean "agree on everything." That becomes clear when we read on to hear Paul speak of having the same mind as Christ -- not the same intellectual beliefs, but the same willingness to divest ourselves of power and privilege in order to be united in love.*

Unity, here, is unity in Christ. Specifically, it's unity in the self-emptying Christ.

Now, for some people who have been abused, or deprived of power or a sense of self, an ethical imperative to empty one's self can be problematic. But Paul's "you" is always a plural, written to a community -- in this case, to a community in Philippi, a city deeply entrenched in the power and imperial might of the Roman Empire. And with Paul's interpretive gloss about having one mind and one love, this passage speaks to me of the need for our unity to be based, not in politics or power over one another, but rather in mutuality and solidarity, particularly with those experiencing suffering and marginalization. Those suffering death, even death on a cross.

One last note on the text. Many English translations say something like this:

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself..."

I added the emphasis there.

Because "though" isn't in the original Greek at all.

"Though" was added by English translators to make some sense out of a rather complex Greek sentence. But "though" sets up a contrast -- even though he was in the form of God, Jesus Christ emptied himself. Which apparently is a very un-God-like thing to do.

But the text says something more like, "Christ Jesus who in the form of God was emptying himself."

Which makes it sound like self-emptying is, in fact, a very God-like thing to do.

I owe this insight to a talk given by Brian McLaren, and I'm inclined to agree with him. The self-emptying of Jesus isn't in contrast to an otherwise mighty, distant, apathetic god; the self-emptying of Jesus is what God looks like in action. And it's the sort of action we're called to -- one in which we empty ourselves of power, not because it removes our divinity, but because it reveals it.

That's the important point that I want to make here. A truly self-emptying unity ought to reveal the divinity in all of us, not obscure it or harm it. "To be of one mind" is to be of this mind -- this self-emptying mind, this mind of divine love.

And I'm just not sure there's a way you can institutionalize this kind of thing. As I said in my last post, this doesn't mean institutions are necessarily bad. And there are certainly actions they can take and structures they can form that tend to inhibit or obstruct such kenotic unity. There also might very well be actions that institutions can take to facilitate -- the root of the word means 'easy,' as in, 'to make something easier' -- this sort of shared identity-in-love.

But "Be of the same mind" and "have the same love" is not the same as "be of one logo" or "have a single mission statement" or "share a global structure." That's not to say those things are bad. They're just not really the point.

This passage can't -- no ancient passage can -- reveal to us all the answers of how to make such a thing possible, how to shape it or structure it. But it can, I think, give us some good questions to ask. Questions like, "Are we creating a space in which people are safe to express a self-emptying love? Or are we too anxious, too conflictual, for people to do anything but keep their guards up? Are we divesting ourselves of power-over in order to unite with those who are being harmed by the powers of the world? Are we (and here I'm speaking to myself and everyone else in the ordination process, or already ordained) more concerned with questions of status than with questions of love?"

These are challenging questions, which defy easy answer. They aren't the only questions raised by this passage. But they're the kind of questions -- rather than questions about votes, or who's-in-charge-here, or institutional authority -- that we ought to be asking if we want to talk about Christ-like unity.

Stay tuned for the third part of this little series, where I'll share some thoughts about Jesus' prayer for the unity of the Church. 

---
* Edit: I realize I should provide some sources for this claim. Check out the chapter on Philippians by my professor, Carla Swafford Works, in the 3rd edition of the Women's Bible Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2012); as well as Sze-Kar Wan's entry on "Mind" in The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 4 (Abingdon, 2009).

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Thoughts on Unity, pt. 1: Pentecost or Babel?

I said two weeks ago that you wouldn't be hearing from me about the General Conference of the United Methodist Church until it was over, and I stuck to that promise.

Now the Conference is over, with unfortunately predictable results. Some people are saying that unity is worth it all; others are agitating for splitting up. Which is pretty much what I remember happening 4 years ago.

And I'm still not going to say much about it. I wasn't there, and there are other places you can go if you want analysis of General Conference itself. Better places. More informed places. Let me suggest Jeremy Smith's blog, which includes guest voices; or this helpful article from Dr. Darryl Stephens; or this one from Rev. Mary Sellon Huycke.

What I have been thinking quite a bit about, and what I would like to spend some time writing about, is the idea of unity and being united. What does it mean to work for, pray for, seek unity in the Church? What would it mean to be "united"? Or to be "divided"?

I've been thinking about that a lot over the past week, and I started sketching out a blog, and before I knew it had gotten way too long. So I'm actually going to write a few posts on this topic, and post them here.

First, I'm going to talk a little bit about two stories that, in many churches, are read together 50 days after Easter.

Then, I'm going to talk a little bit about a very old song.

Then, I'm going to talk about a prayer that Jesus prayed, at least according to one storyteller.

And finally, I might get around to saying a thing or two about the United Methodist Church.

So with all of that said, here's part 1:


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sometimes Pentecost is cold

Sometimes Pentecost is cold
   which is fitting
      because the flames can't burn hot
           all the time.

That would be the stuff of
   motivational speeches
   self-help pep talks
   bluster and chest-pounding.

Sometimes we need
   a flickering
   a dampening
   a dimming

So we can remember:

We spend most of our time
   not in upper rooms
      but in places called Babel.
   

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What happens when I pray

What happens when I pray
               ---

Whenever I try to pray
   I find myself
     (or at least, I fail to lose myself)
   distracted
      (in record time)
   by
      10,000 things

By failures and grudges
   and time tables and pay scales
   by the good and the bad and --
      well, mainly, by the ugliness that simmers behind my smiles.

And if, by chance or by grace,
   I catch myself
   as I churn through the sludge of old, tired thoughts

And if, by chance or by grace,
   I don't turn the catching into more sludge
   fodder for the curving in

then --
   sometimes --
      some precious times --
         I can have a quiet, inward chuckle at myself.

And if, by chance or by grace,
   I do
Then the churn quiets down enough
   that I can hear --
      just barely
      out of the corner of my soul's eye
God chuckling softly with me.

You see,
   prayer is a serious thing.

But God knows 
   not to take it too seriously.

Monday, May 9, 2016

A prayer for General Conference

For anyone reading this who isn't ensconced in the weird world of United Methodism, this week begins the United Methodist Church's General Conference, taking place this year in Portland, OR. This gathering takes place once every four years, and brings delegates from all over the world to discuss various matters of church doctrine and policy.

I was at the last General Conference, in 2012, and it was a very difficult experience. To be honest, in hindsight it was a questionable decision for me to attend. I was still recovering at the time from a series of hospitalizations for mental health reasons, and the gathering is stressful and discouraging for even those in the best of mental health. Which I was not. So take that into due consideration when I tell you that, for me, being a part of General Conference was an alienating, disconcerting experience, one which I frankly have no desire to ever repeat.

And so as General Conference begins, and as the rate of blogs and articles related to it begin to take up more and more space on my newsfeed, I want to just say briefly that I am praying for everyone attending and everyone affected by the decisions made there, and that you won't be hearing from me about the topic again until it's all over.

My prayer is that the delegates, observers, and those there to witness for justice and inclusion will find moments of hope, of solidarity, and of peace in the midst of all of the rancor, division, and political posturing. My prayer is -- as it always is -- that love will, somehow, prevail.

To be honest, although I have very strong beliefs and opinions about a number of the topics that will be debated, and while I am definitely praying for an end to the hurt that so many have experienced, I am finding it hard to be optimistic about any particular outcome.

In part this is because the experience 4 years ago was so terrible for me, not because of the results of the votes, but because of the hurt and cynicism that seemed to dominate all of the discussions.

In part it is because a quick glance at any of the crosses with which we decorate our churches ought to remind us that the God we proclaim does not really guarantee us results.

What God does promise us, instead, is solidarity. Resurrection. Spirit. Hope.

And so those are the things that I am praying for.

And I am praying that the Church -- as a whole, as a body, not those individuals who already feel they have been emptied, broken, beaten -- but the Church as a whole will remember an ancient, ancient hymn.

Of Christ.
In the form of God.
Not grasping for power.
But emptying himself.

Emptying.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

I preached a sermon at Leigh's church

You can listen to it here.

It's part of a sermon series called "Half-Truths." Each week the congregation -- Crossroads UMC in Ashburn, VA -- is looking at a popular saying that people think is biblical/part of the Christian tradition, but really isn't a good representation of that tradition. My "half-truth" was "God won't give you more than you can handle."

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My friend Morgan wrote a book

Hi friends.

At the beginning of last month, I posted on here and said that I was going to be writing more regularly and that you would be seeing the fruits of that writing.

Fun fact: I lied.

Well, "lied" sounds intentional. The actual fact of the matter is that I've been struggling with a mixture of writer's block, existential doubt, and my old friend depression, who seems to haunt around every corner that looks even a little bit like failure.

Also I have cold. Blergh.

One thing that I have been meaning to write, in fact that I promised to write, is a book review. I was supposed to review a book written by my friend, Morgan Guyton. The book is called How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity.

It's a good book. I recommend it. You can buy it here.

I told Morgan that I would post something about his book on my blog. I told him I would do so last Tuesday. I didn't. Then I felt really bad about it. So I promised myself I would post it on Wednesday. I didn't. So then I started feeling really awful and ashamed about the fact that I had not posted about it, even though (rationally) I doubt Morgan, who is in the middle of launching a book, really noticed that I had failed to do so. Especially since some rather more high-profile folks than me are talking about his book. But I kept feeling worse and worse about not writing anything about it, and kept trying to come up with something clever or good or helpful to say about it, and not coming up with anything, and so not posting anything, and then feeling bad about it. And, if I'm being completely honest, I was feeling a bit bitter and jealous of my friend Morgan, who was able to write a book, while I'm apparently incapable of even writing something about a book that someone else managed to write.

This is not a particularly flattering thing to share about myself, but c'mon, you know you've thought this kind of thing before.

And then, while complaining to my wife about something completely different, she said to me: "Why don't you try to do one thing at a time and not try to do everything at once?"

Which is wise advice.

So I decided I would post about the book written by my friend Morgan.

Which I still have nothing clever or helpful to say about, other than this:

It is a good book. You should read it, if you are interested in faith or if you have become un-interested in faith because of hurtful things that religious people have done or said.

And also, this:

One of the things that Morgan's book says is that our desperate need to justify ourselves and to perform does a lot more damage than it does good, and the grace our faith proclaims is exactly the opposite of all of that. And that is probably a good thing for me to remember, when I have a bad case of writer's block and am feeling a bit depressed and can't, for the life of me, come up with anything useful to write about a friend's book.

Which you should buy.

By clicking here.



Friday, April 1, 2016

In (brief) praise of foolishness

I don't like April Fool's Day.

I hate pranks. Joke news articles that get posted online never rise to the humor level of actual satire, and often involve making light of things that aren't really that funny.

But I did name this blog with a nod to the foolishness of faith, so I thought I'd take a brief moment on this first day of April to celebrate foolishness.

Writing to a church wracked with conflict, scandal, and political machinations, the apostle Paul wrote this sometime in the 1st century:
Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human being can brag in God’s presence.
Not many wise, not many powerful, not many form the upper class -- but God chooses what is nothing to reduce all the "something-ness" that we strive for to naught.

Foolishness.

An even playing field.

Foolishness.

Compassion winning out over hatred.

Foolishness.

Love being the strongest force, the thing that holds the universe together.

Foolishness, foolishness, foolishness.

I hate pranks. But here's to foolishness.