Letters from the Valley of Suck Three Years In

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Three years.

It has been three years today that cancer did its finally work in Heather’s body and took her from the physical world. Three years since that day that our family was rearranged. Three years since I came up against the wall of mortality in the most personal way and profound way I could have imagined. Three years since I lost the life we had been building.

I am learning that the tighter I try to hold onto things, the more anxious and fearful I grow. The more I try to control outcomes, the more fearful of tomorrow I become. The more I try to figure things out, the less I really feel like I understand.

Jesus talks so well about our need to die, comparing that need to a grain of wheat that must die for it yield a rich harvest (John 12:23-27). And it is so well interpreted that this is related to the “born-again” experience, we never think to ask if it is repeatable and what it may mean to us if and when it is repeated in our lives?

When I gave my life to Jesus at 17, I died. In many other experiences, parts of me “died” but at no point did my life die the way it did three years ago on the night of June 12th.

The valley of suck has provided fertile ground because it is littered with death, the death of lives, dreams, hopes, visions, failures, joys, struggle, and so much more. The valley of suck is all about change - the change forced on the unsuspecting because of morality and grief. And as one author puts it, “what the ego hates more than anything else in the world is to change. Letting go is not in anybody’s program for happiness, and yet all mature spirituality, in one sense or another, is about letting go and unlearning.” (“Breathing Under Water,” Richard Rohr)

I call it the valley of suck and it has been my road to changing. My hope and prayer is that the narrow road has me more like Jesus than when it began. In the end, if I find myself where he says I should be, I should look more like he did...and I suspect that means crucified, too.



Losing Control To Let Grace Win

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It was nearly a year ago and it was the end of summer in Louisiana. The humidity and heat hung onto me like the spanish moss surrounding Manressa Retreat Center. During the silent retreat, I found myself listening intently in the “great silence” to the teachings of our retreat leader and movements of God’s Spirit.

As I have combed through the notes of that retreat, a number of nuggets were revealed. None more appropriate lately to me than these words…

“Rather than try to control, we should live in a state of grace.” -Fr. Mike French, SJ

From the perspective of armchair theology, the idea of a Roman Catholic priest speaking of grace may seem out of place. But a deeper study finds it is not so out of place. Ignatian Spirituality and practice was methodical and offered means of grace long before John Wesley and the Oxford Holy Club received the moniker of “Methodists.”

And John Wesley would later state, “However much any man has attained, or in however high a degree he is perfect, he still needs to ‘grow in grace,’ and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his Savior.” And while we are all very adapt at advancing in knowledge of God, where is the passion and zeal for advancing in our love of God? We have created whole institutions in schools, colleges, seminaries, and our churches in the former...but just where are the places for the latter now?

It seems to me, we can control knowledge. We can shape it and categorize and teach it and test on it but grace is something out of our control. Jesus teaching on the matter seems best found to me in the parable of the workers of the vineyard…
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.2“When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.3“And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place;4and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went.5“Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing.6“And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he *said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’7“They *said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’9“When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius.10“When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.11“When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner,12saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’13“But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?14‘Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.15‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’16“So the last shall be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16,NASB)

What kind of nonsense is this? This is completely foreign to our ears just as surely as it was to the workers in the story and those disciples who heard it. In our day, the unions would be called in as well as the labor department! But the point is, this is grace, this is how God operates.

And, we are to grow in it and live in it for we are called to people of grace just as Jesus has shown us. While we may control knowledge of God (though this is questionable), we are not going to be able to control grace. As much as we try, it will “slip through our fingers,” as Princess Leia said to Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, A New Hope. And personally, I’m not fond of the idea of being on the side of any Empire building plans.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is intended to release us from sin, and certainly, the sin of pridefulness. We are released to love God and love our neighbors, to live fully in grace BOTH as recipients and partakers but also as givers of grace - caregivers of the souls of others help fast by our sinful natures.

Living in a state of grace, I think, means we must stop and look intently at what we are receiving from God (not just what we have received but what we constantly are being given). And while we are in the midst of such blessing, consider, not why others aren’t receiving the same but why is the grace not overflowing from us? If sinners don’t experience the grace, are we actually living in the grace?

We aren’t called to determine the worthiness of others to receive God’s grace but the vessels that carry God’s grace to a thirst and dying people...just like we once were.  It isn't a cheap grace, it is costly because it costs us our control...something we really never had anyway.




Facing My Own Disillusionment: A Clergy Confession


It is a shame how quickly we lose sight of authors through the years. So many books, so little time I suppose. Used book stores a wonderful source of stories and forgotten wisdom. On my shelf, is one of those books picked up, one until recently I’d not yet read. As I often quote the old saying, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.” I suppose the time was right for me to read Eugenia Price then…

“Some disillusioning experiences come gradually, but more often than not the element of shock is involved when an idol crumbles, a dream disintegrates, a hope vanishes...the illusion of children are no silly; they are natural. But it is another matter when we reach the twenties, thirties, forties, and, like me, the fifties, still clinging to unrealistic illusions, still insisting upon putting our faith in people” (from No Pat Answers, 37).”

Ouch.

I have to own up to the reality this is a road I have been on for some time now, and one, I am coming to face through all the disillusioning experiences I’ve had in life, in family, in ministry. It is so easy to build ourselves castles and towers and kingdoms in our childhood but in the reality of things, I should have seen it sooner. It should have been in my first full-time position as a youth pastor and in the closed door conversations but I wouldn’t see it. I was young and I cherished my illusions.

For years after, I still, stubbornly clung to those illusions and had enough good and gracious people around me who also held to similar convictions. Little by little, life, experience, failure, suffering, caring, loving, dying, the facade has come down.

I suspect this is why more and more people are not beholden to denominations. I hate that. Our denominations offer us a chance to see the great diversity of God’s creation and how we understand God. It is unfortunate to say they have become institutions rather than communities, places where the hungry, the sick, the worn out, the hopeful, can find healing. On a number of items, I have had a “love/hate” relationship with Richard Rohr but I think he gets it right here:

“We clergy have gotten ourselves into the job of ‘sin management’ instead of sin transformation. ‘If you are not perfect, the YOU are doing something wrong,’ we have taught people. We have blamed the victim, or have had little pity for victims, while daring to worship a victim image of God. I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you. Otherwise, it will only return in new forms, as Jesus says of the ‘unclean spirit’ that returns to the house all ‘swept and tidied’ (Luke 11:24-26)...(from Falling Upward, 61-62)”

God’s mercy is wider and broader and God’s grace is deeper and more filling than what we humans are passing off as gospel, it seems. Now, I will say, there are many who don’t care for anything beyond a ‘happy meal’ to call their religion. It will fill your belly but not the soul. It takes a great deal of work to get into the kitchen and craft a meal. We’re not all there. And you cannot force anyone there. You have to get there by your own journey. The community that is the church, should be providing shelter along the journey though, a place where Jesus is lifted up when we grow disillusioned...

“I, if I be lifted up...will draw all [people] unto me,” Jesus said (John 12:32). We’re drawn to other people, to a sunset, to a clear, black shadow across grass, to a passage of music, but only God can draw us to real worship. Any other form of worship is false and will end in disillusionment. Only Jesus Christ cannot disillusion us. (from No Pat Answers, 38).”

We are needing grace. Not just the grace of God but the giving of grace to one another, not one best on illusions but one based in fact - in reality - we humans are sinners and we don’t play well with others! Jesus, “takes away the sin of the world’ by absorbing it himself and exhibits no need to punish anybody else. He transforms the pain instead of transmitting it, and doing that is largely misunderstood to this day. We prefer tit-for-tat morality, passing on the problem, instead of taking away the problem. It fits our small idea of justice, but Paul comes up with a whole new idea of ‘justification’ based enitrely on this Jesus pattern of gracious existence. Jesus lives and teaches redemptive love instead of the common lie of “redemptive violence.” (from Wild Man to Wise Man, Rohr, 55.)”

This is not theology of justifying sinful behavior, it is recognizing God, in Jesus Christ, has done something with sin that we could not and cannot, and nor should we continue in the mode of gate keepers to the Kingdom. But in the zeal for change, may we be wary of changing one gate keeper for another.

Don't worry about cheering me up or offering platitudes of encouragement, I'm finding my way on this journey of faith with guides I have found around me.  I have plenty of reason to hope for my hope is in Jesus and I have not lost my faith in Jesus at all!  Let us not lose sight ever, that the Church, and churches, are not our kingdoms to rule, whether you are laity or clergy. These are people longing for the Kingdom of God to be real. Only Jesus is sufficient so let us live and give grace.



What I Wish On My Worst Enemy

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Just what EXACTLY are you considering for the people you disagree with most vehemently? Those you place labels upon and speak openly derogatory at the water cooler or on your Facebook post? What do you want to have happen to those you call out online in the comments section behind your avatar?

Of course you have your first amendment right of freedom of speech here in the United States, but to what end? We can “fire warning shots across the bow” by just placing labels in a general sense: right wingers, lib-tards, neo cons, bigots, homophobes, femi-nazis, and others just to name a few and there are TONS more created every day. And it doesn’t take long, once a label is placed, that we begin to make the case our enemies are less than human. We begin to make caricatures and propaganda in keeping up with the war posters of World War II

In doing so, we are making out that our “enemies” are less than a magnificent, miraculous, work of art crafted by God (Psalm 139:14).

So just what would you wish on these, your worst enemy?

I don’t think Jesus gave us an option of being mean spirited or give anyone the ok to demean those whom we disagree with, let alone those who are outright truly and enemy. Jesus clearly says, “You have heard people say, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.” But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. (MATTHEW 5:43-44, CEV)” And Paul makes the point, “we are not fighting against humans. We are fighting against forces and authorities and against rulers of darkness and powers in the spiritual world. (EPHESIANS 6:12, CEV).”

What exactly are you praying for regarding your worst enemy?

Its no wonder the “Nones” want no part of churches today. Its no wonder pastors are burning out and walking away from pulpits. Followers of Jesus aren’t following Jesus at all - NOT so long as we continue to act just like the world.

What do I wish on my worst enemy?  The same thing I wish for myself...
Our other option: be like Jesus.

See Jesus.
See Jesus pray for his enemies.
See Jesus turn the other cheek.
See Jesus forgive others.
See Jesus change hearts.
Be like Jesus.


 

You Want a Catholic Spirit UMC? Be Excellent to One Another.


It is often quoted among United Methodists, an excerpt from his sermon, “On a Catholic Spirit.” and it goes like this:

“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without doubt, we may.”

But, as we are so prone to do, we pull it out of the fuller context, one which begs us to reflect upon further. Here is the whole of the paragraph:

“But even though a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without doubt, we may. In this all the children of God may unite, even though they retain these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may help one another increase in love and in good works.”

Sometimes, those opinions and modes DO prevent an entire external union. Finding our way forward as Christians means we own up to truths we hide from ourselves.

One thing I think telling for those of us from a Wesleyan-Methodist tradition is a couple of classes I took in seminary. I took two classes, one required for graduation and the other required for ordination. The first was Wesleyan Theology. It delved into the thought and understanding of Wesley’s view of God. The second was United Methodist Theology. This class dug into what the denomination had come to think and understand about God. Are they similar? Yes, because the second came from the first. But are they also different? Yes, subtle at points and more telling in others.

I will only consider one point because it seems most telling. It is what is often called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” but it is more correctly called “Outler’s Quadrilateral” after the theologian who described the four tenets. Albert Outler observed in Wesley’s theology four important elements: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. In United Methodist theology, these four elements were given equal weight in how United Methodists should understand God.

But in John Wesley’s mind and theology, these were far from being equal. Scripture was primary and the other three, while important, were to always submit to Scripture. I’ll admit this maybe over simplifying but it is important. This simple difference in understanding has, I think, more than any other single point of contention, led the UMC to the place it finds itself.

I have read enough and listened to enough to see we are different and though descendents of Wesley’s great renewal, we are on differing tracks. But why should it mean, though we differ and need to seperate from an “external union,” that we not seek to find ways to love alike and to love one another?

I liken it to what I told my children, now adults, “I’m not going to agree with every decision you make nor do am I obligated to bail you out of the results, but I will love you and I do want you as part of my life.” Is there still a way forward? Yes, there always has been if only we’d live more gracious than we seem to be right now.

The United Methodist Church is a denomination, it is a sect of the Holy Universal Church of Jesus Christ. As such, it ought always be in submission to the realization it may become a dead sect, just as Wesley feared. However, from ashes also rise new hopes.

I leave this post with one simple rhetorical question and one quote:

First, how many of those churches Paul wrote to in the New Testament still exist today?

Second, “be excellent to one another.” Bill and Ted



It Is Time to Look at Your Faith Failures


When there are long days and dry spells, coming home to face reality can sometimes be too much. I miss many of the greatest truths because the lesson is right in front of my face. They are in the mirror looking right back at me or found in words I'd just rather ignore than own up to.

It has been panned now by many, but I am one who finds “The Last Jedi” to rank up as one of my favorite Star Wars movies. It carries with it the wisdom of Empire Strikes Back, the surprises of Return of the Jedi and at least one scene reminiscent of Phantom Menace (and it makes me cringe). It wasn’t perfect but neither are any of us and it has great moments too.

When Yoda’s force ghost appears, he does what Luke cannot, burn down the tree with the ancient Jedi texts. When Luke returns to pouting as he did when he was younger, Yoda challenges him, “Heeded my words not did you? ‘Pass on what you have learned’...strength, mastery...hmm...but weakness, folly, failure, also. Yes, failure most of all.”


Damn, I hate the way our society has managed to destroy or white wash important truths and how popular Christianity practices are complicit in the same for the Church! I cannot go into “Christian Bookstores” anymore because of the way marketing has put “Jesus” on everything from silverware to drawer pulls to make a profit. Is toilet paper next?

In the end, slick marketing becomes of more value than relationships. The idea is perpetrated that only churches that make one “feel good” (the band was awesome playing that current worship song!) or “meet a need” (thank goodness there is a children’s program and paid people so I don’t have volunteer and so drink my latte in peace), are the ones where the Holy Spirit is “moving.”

Where is the mess of the New Testament??? Come on! Where is Jesus saying, “Oh ye of little faith!” Where is Paul calling out Peter? Where is Barnabas calling out Paul? Where are there churches like the one at Colossae or Ephesus? It happens all the time. We struggle to believe. Disciples and church leaders disagree. Churches close their doors. It happened in the beginning and it still keeps happening.

We are a Church of failures. We are people of weakness and folly, too. We are a Church needing to own up to what we have failed at doing and being...and MOVE FORWARD. Not “move on” and forget but move forward, seeking to follow Jesus as best we can. We need to move forward and burn some of our “sacred writings” that don’t serve us well any longer (I am NOT speaking of the Bible but other authors and teachers and teachings and yes, United Methodists especially, we need to look at this).

“Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm,” says the writer of Proverbs 13:20. How do you gain wisdom? As the country song goes, “How can I be old and wise, if I ain’t ever young and crazy?” Wisdom is often gained from our errors. When I look back at what I have done in ministry and in life, the failures pile up. The follies usually occur when I repeat the mistakes failures should have taught me. As my wife reminds me, “if you know better, you can do better.”

It is time for the Church, for Christians, to not be so uptight about our failures and follies. It is past time for some of you to GET OUT OF THE BOAT and learn the lesson Peter did for yourself. It is past time for some of you to GO INTO ALL THE WORLD and leave your annual conference and pastor somewhere else OR go visit a bar and meet some heathens OR try visiting some churches with a different view of God than yours.

Some days I get tired of failing. But then I have to admit, I am not tired of learning. I am not tired of growing. I am not tired of loving. I am also not done following Jesus. So for what it is worth, I am going to try and pass on what I’ve learned...all of it.


Will the United Methodist Church Be A One Wing Phoenix?


There is an ancient teaching that suggests, “there are two wings by which we rise, one being personal piety and the other community charity. No one can fly by flapping only one wing. It is impossible to be sincere in our worship of God without expecting to do the will of God. It is equally impossible to do the full will of God without the guidance and empowerment of a vital personal relationship with God.” (Harvey and Lois Seifert).

What really strikes me about this observation of the Christian faith, is the varying understandings and interpretations of the meaning and experiences of people of faith leading up to the formulation of those meanings. Think about it this way, my sister and I grew up in a nuclear family. We grew up with the same two parents who have now been married for over 50 years. But we each experienced that home in two very different ways and look back on it differently. My two young children have expressed the very same things about our home too.

The same is true for faith and church.

As much as there are similarities, there is not one wholly and normative experience anyone has regarding their journey to faith in Jesus Christ. Looking at Scriptures, would we say a person isn’t “real” Christian because they didn’t encounter Jesus like Saul did (Acts 9)? Or what about the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40)? And what about the 3,000 in Acts 3:40-41? Would we just shutter all the churches that don’t have that happen in their community?

One of the many things I have found helpful in my faith and United Methodist Church, is the tension created by having a “big tent” denomination. Because of our Open Table, all are welcome to come and receive communion without there being a litmus test other than repentance. We do not prevent children from coming to Jesus anymore than the worst sinner or the most prestigious clergy. This has meant we have had to also face issues of justice within a culture and world that is always changing and our foundations shifting.

Having made the move from the southern U.S. to the pacific-northwest has allowed me to look beyond my own understanding of the differences we U.S. Americans have, both in our culture but also our faith. Like many of the biases we create, we do so when we don’t actually take the time to get to know our neighbor. It still remains easier to craft a “strawman” over sexual issues and gender identity than to get to know someone just as it is easier to do so with Republicans and Democrats or Cowboys fans and Redskins fans.

We UMC folks need to walk carefully and humbly in these days. History is always more complicated than we often learn at first. But we UM folks need to be wary as we take steps forward. Coming as we do as a renewal from the Church of England, our “mother church” was formed when Henry VIII didn’t get his way regarding divorcing Catherine of Aragon. Not having male heirs and wanting a divorce is pretty poor reason to start a new church. And lets just name it...the Pope was right to challenge the king. No one was fighting for justice for Catherine (or any of the wives/concubines of Henry VIII either).

We can’t fly as long as our faith is more about pie than piety. Nor can we fly when our focus is just caring for society and not really caring about justice. Whatever phoenix rises from the ashes, may all be found having both wings and not floundering, one-wing birds.


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