Thursday, September 22, 2011

I now interrupt your regularly scheduled life to bring you this mission trip

I have been in Frakes, KY all week at Henderson Settlement, a United Methodist agency of the Red Bird missionary conference. It has been such a blessing to be in such a beautiful place, working with folks who clearly need help. I have some reflecting to do, but I look forward to telling the story here soon. In the meantime, forgive the lack of a post this week. I have been busy!

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Anything goes? Really?

Maybe I'm just naive, but I keep hearing the same allegation spoken again and again, and it sounds something like this: the United Methodist Church is in decline because we are preaching "anything goes."

Let me bracket the issue of the United Methodist Church being in decline. I'm not going to argue that one. We've got to do better on getting folks in our doors, we've got to do better at baptism, we've got to do better at evangelism. This is all good. I'd like to have a church to serve in twenty years, after all.

But "anything goes?" Really? Have you ever actually heard a United Methodist pastor preach "anything goes?" Do we have a cadre of spiritually blase ministers out there, preaching "Whatever" and "Do what you want" and "What you think and believe and do don't matter?"

"Dearly beloved, we gather here for some reason or another, not that it matters, to join these two in holy marriage, which doesn't even really mean much. I'm just here for the honorarium."

"In the beginning was the Word, which you can interpret however you want. I choose to think that the Word was not so much a Word as a symbol, like the artist formerly known as Prince."

"Do unto others whatever you feel like, really."

"Keep these commandments, when you can."

Are these sermons being preached? Of course not. Find one such sermon, send it to me, and I'll eat my words. They simply do not exist. You would be hard-pressed to find one mininster who has preached one sermon that boils down to "anything goes."

This does not mean we do not have some deep-seated theological differences, not that that is a bad thing. We disagree on many issues, but ours is a big tent denomination, for better or worse. The United Methodist witness is born out of these disagreements, tempered against different opinions and dulled a bit, perhaps, in community. We move slowly, but we are a Church. We're carrying two thousand years worth of luggage. Slow movement is warranted.

To say that "anything goes" is to deny the strongly-held beliefs held by those with whom we disagree. I may hear a sermon with which I disagree, but I'll bet I will hear a passionate defense of the point, using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

Deep-seated theological differences are not the same thing as "anything goes," and I am starting to believe more and more that blaming "anything goes" is a convenient way to keep from looking at our actual house, figuring out what is actually going on, and addressing our actual issues.

But maybe I am wrong. Find me one "anything goes" sermon and I'll recant. I just don't think they exist.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

God and everybody

I am co-facilitating a Disciple 1 class with my wife on Wednesday nights, and it is always such a delight to watch people engage the Bible in a new way. I do not know how much the class gets from my facilitating, but I always get so much from their learning.

Last night, as we studied the flood narrative in Genesis, I asked them a question straight out of the leader's guide: what does this passage tell us about the relationship between God and us? I think it is a clear enough question, even if the answer takes some investigating. And it is a fair question. The Bible tells us all kinds of things about how we relate to God.

One of the members of the class asked me this question: "Is this about the relationship between God and me? Or God and everybody?"

I had to think for a minute, and I think I gave some garbled reply about trying to see if there were different answers to the different questions, or some such nonsense. But the question stuck with me, and at the end of class, I came back to the issue. Disciple, after all, is an exercise in communal Bible study.

For that matter, so is the church. We come to the church and participate in it because none of us has a corner on Truth. This communal endeavor--the work of tempering the "me" against the "us"--is the best argument I have against the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. Of course you have your own truth. So do I. To simply embrace my own truth is to to simply embrace myself. I'm all for self-care and self-regard, but it is not such a far leap from embracing my own truth to worshipping myself.

It is in community that my beliefs are tested, or confirmed, or sharpened, or blunted. It is in community that I can be reminded that I am not so important, or that my experience of God is not the only experience of God.

In fact, community is WAY harder than having my own truth. It is not easy being told that I am wrong; it is even harder facing the fact that I may actually, in fact, BE wrong. I get frustrated with worship songs that are all about me, all about my experience. I am not surprised those songs are popular; it is much easier to have it just be, as the song says, me and God.

But the tempering process of community is important. This process ensures that the church is one, that we are in relationship with others and in relationship with God.

It is maddening, this business of being the church, but it is a holy madness. After all, what a miserable life it would be, just me and my truth.

(image (c) David Hayward,

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How God Acts

Shane Claiborne, who is usually one of my spiritual guides, posted a cute story the other day in which a child asked him whether God sent Hurricane Irene. The gist is this: No, Virginia, God does not cause hurricanes.

And while the basic sentiment is important--God does not cause disasters--there is more to be said. God does not cause disasters, but what does God do? We often talk about God's action in terms of what God does not do, but speaking about what God is not only takes you so far. I am very sensitive to the notion that God stands above language, and thus ascribing qualities to God is dangerous business; in some ways, the more we describe God in human terms, the more we get away from who God actually is.

I also believe that we must be very, very careful about talking about what God does, because it is not such a far leap to start assuming that God is in control of everything, or to ascribing characteristics to God that are more about our understanding of the world than of God's understanding of the world. As the writer Anne Lamott says, you can be sure you've created God in your own image when God starts hating all the same people that you do.

So a spirit of humility is called for in all of this, but a spirit of humility is called for in most things. Such concerns should not keep us from speaking about how God acts

I do not care to pen a lengthy excursus on the myriad ways in which God works in the world. There are far more ways that God works than I am able to list, and besides, any such list is by its definition inadequate to describe God.

What I do want to do, though, is affirm the historically Christian notion that God works through people. As Claiborne says, it is God who saves the world, not humans, but to stop there is to do a great disservice to God's call to faithfulness, not to mention Wesley's call to acts of mercy.

So let me bracket the issue of God's saving act and simply assume that God's action in the world is understood. God is at work in the world. God is interested in saving the world. This is well and good.

But to stop the conversation after this, to say only "God does not send hurricanes" is to miss an essential part of the equation: that is, the end result. It is good to say that God does not send hurricanes, but hurricanes exist, so what should we do about it? How do humans react in the face of something like a hurricane? Ignore this part of the equation, and you'll find yourself only looking up--not out, but only up--and it will not be long before you trip on your shoelaces.

I have a hard time understanding why, in the doing of theology, we are only concerned with that which comes "down" from God? Why is a simple "no" sufficient to end the conversation about God sending hurricanes? Why are we only concerned about what God does?

I must admit that when I hear these kinds of answers, I cannot help but feel that we focus on what God does so that we do not have to worry about what we are doing.

We worry about whether God creates hurricanes so that we can get away with living as we always have, pretending that there is nothing to be done about problems here and now.

If the focus is on how God acts--and this is an important question, do not get me wrong--but if the entire focus is on how God acts, then there is no room to evaluate how we act, to think about the ways in which God works through us. After all, God working through us does not take the pressure off. It is not as if God, when needing to use me for some divine purpose, pushes a button, turns off my brain and puts me on autopilot, until the purpose is finished. I have initiative, and a brain, and emotions of my own, and until I am receptive to God's calling for my life--until I make a conscious decision to live as if God's purpose of Love might just be made manifest in me--I am not fully participating in God's plan for the world.

For as much as we talk about free will--for as much as we talk about the ways in which we are responsible for ourselves--we neglect the part about how free will requires something of us beyond simply agreeing to "accept" Christ. Even the language of acceptance means more than simply saying the words. Accepting Christ means accepting our great role in creation, accepting that God's love works through us when we serve, accepting that there is work to be done.

The answer to "Does God send hurricanes?" is much more than "No." The answer is even much more than "God came to save the world," though this part is vital.

The answer to "Does God send hurricanes?" is this: "God came to save the world, and while God does not send hurricanes, God does send us. Let us go."