Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Ascension Thoughts

I wrote this for my congregation, on May 29, 2014, the Feast of the Ascension. May 29th this year was the 40th day of Easter, the day when Luke recounts Jesus’ Ascension to Heaven (twice, actually, in Luke 24:50-51, then again in Acts 1:1-11). The Ascension is always a Thursday (since Easter Day is always a Sunday), and rarely celebrated outside of the most liturgical protestant churches, regardless of their tradition. Sometimes, we do celebrate the Ascension of Christ the Sunday following the day, but that’s about it. For United Methodists, this is somewhat ironic, as the worship book John Wesley sent to America in 1784 included texts for only 3 days aside from Sundays—Christmas Day, Good Friday, and the Ascension.

Wesley was right that we need the Ascension (not just because the Risen Christ should, reasonably, still be walking around with us otherwise), but because Advent (the return of the King) is impossible without it! As usual, we have a powerful hymn from Charles Wesley we often sing for Ascension, “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise” in our Hymnal. The first stanza is familiar enough:
Hail the day that sees Him rise, Alleluia!
To His throne above the skies, Alleluia!
Christ, awhile to mortals given, Alleluia!
Reascends His native heaven, Alleluia!
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.    Revelation 21:1-2 NRSV
However, as is often the case, Charles wrote more than we’ve kept (it’s actually a rather long hymn). Toward the end, he references the end-goal of the Ascension:
Ever upward let us move, Alleluia!
Wafted on the wings of love, Alleluia!
Looking when our Lord shall come, Alleluia!
Longing, gasping after home, Alleluia!
There we shall with Thee remain, Alleluia!
Partners of Thy endless reign, Alleluia!
There Thy face unclouded see, Alleluia!
Find our heaven of heavens in Thee, Alleluia!
There it is—in sections of the hymn we don’t sing, a clear reference to the joining of Heaven and Earth! “Looking when our Lord shall come, Alleluia!” followed by that wonderful image of the renewed Heavens and Earth that rings of the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” from Revelation 21 (NRSV), the final answer to the prayer “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Bishop N. T. Wright, in a Sunday after Ascension sermon to the Diocese of Durham (England) from 2007 put it this way:
When the New Testament speaks of God’s kingdom it never, ever, refers to heaven pure and simple. It always refers to God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven, as Jesus himself taught us to pray. We have slipped into the easygoing language of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ in the sense of God’s kingdom being ‘heaven’, but the early church never spoke like that. The point about heaven is that heaven is the control room for earth. Heaven is the CEO’s office from which earth is run – or it’s supposed to be, which is why we’re told to pray for that to become a reality. And the point of the Ascension, paradoxically in terms of the ways in which generations of western Christians have seen it, is that this is the moment when that prayer is gloriously answered. 
The whole sermon is worth looking up and reading. Our hope isn’t going to heaven when we die, but beyond that, of heaven and earth made one. What that means is, what we do now isn’t just about living well enough to “get to heaven,” but instead to live and work to make this more like the King is on the throne already—because he is! After all, that’s what the Ascension means—Jesus is Lord of all creation, and reigns from the heavenly throne so that his presence can be felt in all things. So the work we do to fight cancer, to feed the hungry, to care for the earth, to end malaria… all of it is of eternal significance, because as Charles Wesley put it when our Lord shall come “There we shall with Thee remain, partners of Thy endless reign, there Thy face unclouded see, find our heaven of heavens in Thee.”

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Holiness is the Goal

During May, I preached from 1 Peter. Much like the rest of the New Testament letters, 1 Peter mixes theology and ethics in a facile manner—moving from thinking about the nature of salvation, hope, resurrection, suffering, the purpose of creation, holiness and who Jesus is; moving into what believing and having faith in Jesus means practically, in the present, in terms of behavior, for those who call themselves (ourselves) disciples of Jesus Christ.

One of my favorite pieces (that isn't in the Revised Common Lectionary, I blogged about that here, but that I added for worship the first week) is 1 Peter 1:13-16. In the NRSV it reads:
Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
Methodists have always been holiness people. Now, let’s be clear, at times we’ve let that identity express itself as “holier than thou, people,” and that’s not OK! Being holiness people shouldn’t be about legalistic judgmentalism, nor should it be about imagining ourselves to be perfect when we are not. Holiness should be a calling and a goal—it should be our desire and hope to fulfill God’s call to holy living, and to submit ourselves to the kind of discipline that can lead us there.

Christian faith is far more than just believing, though belief is important. Christian faith is as much a way of living as it is a way of believing. Being Christian means acquiring and practicing a peculiar ethics. For most of us, we learn how to be good, nice, kind, studious, industrious, and so on as children—we learn virtue as a part of our formation as people! That is normal, and part of the reason that Christians are intentional about formation and education of our children. But, and there’s a pretty big but here, we don’t become Christian automatically—we have to decide to follow Jesus, and to be conformed to him. “Christian ethics, like any ethics, are ‘tradition dependent.’ … Christian ethics only make sense from the point of view of what we believe has happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.”* What we believe matters for how we behave (and that is especially true for what we believe about Jesus).

There’s a corollary as well: even in the process of being formed into “good” people, we have the propensity to develop habits that need to be reworked. 1 Peter reminds us, “do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.” Our desires, passions, and drives, some of them even defined as virtues by the world around us, need to be brought into the light of Jesus Christ and examined to see if they conform to the desires, passions and drives of Jesus and his followers. We are called to reconsider our behavior “like obedient children,” as those who are most likely to be formed into a particular way of living and being.

I didn’t run before I moved to my current appointment. In fact, I had a pretty lax relationship to physical health overall in terms of diet, exercise, and rest. I had endless excuses, including chronic back pain and plenty of “busyness,” to justify my choices—but then I visited my new doctor. He engaged in some pretty serious truth-telling, bringing into perspective that my learned behaviors did not conform to longevity or long-term well-being, and when I reflected on that, it seemed profoundly poor stewardship of God’s gift of health to continue living like I had. It wasn’t instant, but I have learned the joy of a different way of living by practicing it. The same is true for Christian living—we might find it difficult at first, impossible apart from the Church, but with time and practice, we can become more and more God’s holy people, conformed to the way of Christ. What Christian practices might you re-engage? What practices might you take on for the first time?

*Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville,TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 71.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

We should mount a Wesleyan protest...

Christ is Risen! It is Easter (the Great 50 Days, not just Day 1), and I'm feeling the joy of celebrating the season. I'm also glad to be back on lectionary after a Lent working on Rocks and Stones (deriving from a congregation-wide devotion). I'm focusing on 1 Peter for the next few weeks, and I'm looking forward to it. Studying the book in preparation, though, I realized that the Revised Common Lectionary leaves out something vital from the semi-continuous reading.

To stop the suspense: This week's pericope starts a couple verses late! I mean, how are we to understand 1 Peter 1:22 "Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart (NRSV)," without 1 Peter 1:13-16:
Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
As far as I can tell, John Wesley never published a sermon based (primarily) on this passage, but it does seem to be referenced in Standard #18 "The Marks of the New Birth" (specifically at Section IV.1). That paragraph concludes:
So that ye are constrained to love all men as yourselves; with a love not only ever burning in your hearts, but flaming out in all your actions and conversations, and making your whole life one "labour of love," one continued obedience to those commands, "Be ye merciful, as God is merciful;" "Be ye holy, as I the Lord am holy:" "Be ye perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."
What's the big idea that all of the major 3 year lectionaries drop this section of 1 Peter, along with it's particularly challenging quotation from Leviticus (11:45, 19:2, 20:7 etc...) to BE HOLY.

If we are called to preach full salvation, skipping this part of 1 Peter isn't really a help! Apparently, we can refer to our pure souls without first hearing the call to holiness of heart and life.

So, should I add this in? Skip a week? Send a strongly worded letter to The Consultation on Common Texts?

What do you think? Should we mount a Wesleyan protest?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Divisions in Christ's Body and The UMC

I've never really wanted division within The United Methodist Church. I've always held up hope that somehow, someday, we'd find a way forward through acrimony and division to a better place. I don't think I'm particularly naive, I've watched the coverage of every General Conference from 1996 to the present pretty clearly, attended a United Methodist seminary, and experienced all sorts of tension--but I've always wanted to believe that we could learn from each other how to follow Jesus better. I don't know anymore. The truth is, the last year has left me unsure about the future of this particular segment of Christ's Church. I've seen the tensions rise around issues regarding homosexuality, mostly, and that's a part of it. I believe that underneath our disagreements about homosexuality lie our differences on the proper place of sexual ethics in the overarching schema of being Christian, and different theological anthropologies (specifically around the place, power, and role of passions for Christians). We can't seem to get beyond the surface issue to the deeper issues, and I'm not sure if we can (in my opinion, no other mainline Christian body in North America has, so we'd be unique if we succeeded).

 I've always held out hope, though, that God might do something different with United Methodists. I've wanted us to offer a better model of Jesus' vision for his people (the Church) from John 13:35 "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Now, I'm not Greek scholar, but the "love" here is no mere affection, no familial presence, but a deep care for the Other we learn from God--it's not erotic, familial, filial or anything of the sort, it's AGAPE. As long as we let each other be who we are, and love each other enough not to directly impinge on one another's deep convictions, while working on how to be united in living out Christian faith, there's hope we can agape in the same house. Once that mutuality reaches a point where it's gone, then we need to consider if the only way to maintain agape is in separate denominations.

While my level of mutual accountability to other United Methodists is greater than my Congregationalist, Baptist, Lutheran, Nazarene, Episcopalian, or Roman Catholic friends, my agape for them isn't. Some of us live together, some apart, but our agape ought to be the same in the Church of Jesus Christ, whether we share in one communion or not. In fact, it's easier to live out agape across those bounds at times than within one part of the Body of Christ, in part because the decisions of another part of the Body are less likely to impinge on my deep convictions directly--we can focus on a common identity as Christians without being constantly and directly impacted by our differences.

We've argued, we've wept, we've disagreed--but I had believed that all sides acted out of mutual agape at least most of the time until now. I have Conservative, Moderate and Progressive friends (and many who would prefer other labels or none), and most (if not all) genuinely seemed to love Jesus and want to follow where he leads. The United Methodist Church might not be united in all the finer points of Christian living, but at least all clergy are asked if we've studied the Church's Doctrine and if we will uphold and teach it, so at least we're all good with our Doctrinal Standards, right? We're far from in complete agreement, but at least we have common ground!

I'm not pretending I've never heard either side malign the other--I've heard Conservatives call Progressives apostate and Progressives call Conservatives hatemongers and homophobes. I've never wanted to believe either was true, and I've seen much evidence to the contrary over time. Sadly, I began to wonder during Annual Conference last year. 

I'm theologically orthodox, a thoroughly Nicene Christian in the company of the Wesleys (as I've heard Eddie Fox say). During the entirety of Annual Conference we had the text of The Lord's Prayer placed before us, but it was never the prayer Jesus taught the Disciples based on any Bible I'd ever seen. Apparently, the words he gave us weren't good enough--we had to learn a new (presumably better) way to pray. As we were encouraged to pray in our own languages, I prayed the prayer that has shaped me, that continues to shape me, and went on with the work of Annual Conference. Only during the actual Laying on of Hands in Ordination did anyone ever use the Trinitarian Name of God from the "pulpit" during the entirety of our Conference together--we heard many names used, but here and here alone the God named in Article I of both the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. 

Perhaps I was being oversensitive--these are challenging things for me, but our metaphors describe the God revealed in Scripture and the Incarnation, and there was at least some reference to the God I know. Perhaps there's room for worship that speaks obliquely of Scriptural Truth, especially at Annual Conference--we assume all of these leaders of the Church ought to be converted already, right? Yes, this is MY church, the place of my membership, but it's a shared space with all the others present as well. Sure, I there were some prayers I couldn't pray authentically, so I stopped, and prayed silently that God would be with me and all of us. I'm open to letting church be church for all of us! 

This was a first for me, that most of worship at Annual Conference felt more like a political show than worship of the Triune God, but I was open to this being my own false-perception. That broke down during the hymns in the ordination service. At that point, I experienced real hate from some of the Body in a way that nearly drove me to leave the service--hate and vitriol that has stuck with me ever since. The thing is, it was directed at me and those who needed the heart-song we were singing, telling us just how unwanted we really were. While singing "Victory in Jesus," some voices among the clergy began screaming over the text every time we sang of Jesus' redeeming blood. Even now it moves me almost to tears. Something that to me is an essential affirmation, that Christ died for us, ALL OF US while we were yet sinners, was desecrated. This was no disagreement over gay marriage or sexual ethics, no divide over secular politics or even theological minutiae--no, for me this was an assault on the CORE of the Gospel (how are we freed from the power of sin but by the blood of Jesus? I can't find another way--and at least my reading of Hebrews 9:11-10:18 seems to indicate the same). 

I don't know what the intent was--but the message I received was clear: we're done with Jesus' blood, and you probably should be too. I'm glad we didn't sing "And Can it Be?" I think I might have been driven to walk out, or perhaps cried out to the Bishop to stop the singing had the Methodist Hymn of Hymns been treated in that manner. 

 I've never really wanted division within The United Methodist Church. I want to hope that somehow, someday, we'd find a way forward through acrimony and division to a better place. I'm finding that harder and harder these days.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No More Checks? this week includes a post about the end of checks at the supermarket.

Let me just say, I've never payed a grocery bill with a paper check. I know there are plenty of folks who do--and there are a few places I do use paper checks (tithes to church, bills where a company charges extra for some kind of electronic payment, certain personal services, the IRS, etc...), but for the most part, I'm a part of the "post-check" generation.

If your friendly local supermarket stopped accepting personal checks, would this cause you personal anxiety, make your life more difficult, or have vitually no impact on you?