My Lenten reflections this year pull me to my core beliefs and values — why do I think, believe, and feel the way I do about God, my self and others? What is it that I truly believe is God’s will for my own life as well as this beast I call the Christian church? You know, little questions — simple questions — insignificant questions. Questions I should be asking all the time but find ways to avoid because they make my head hurt. I am forced to wrestle with what I most deeply and truly believe. It’s been an interesting Lent. I have been working long hours and pulled a muscle in my back, so I played hooky from church yesterday, but that doesn’t mean I escaped an hour or two with God. I took some time with a pad of paper to think about what scriptures and theological concepts most impact and shape my thinking and writing these days, and this is what I came up with.
- I am a Golden Rule kind of guy — I actually think the world (and definitely the church) could benefit from the application of this timeless truth as our core mission. I mean the mission behind the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” A Golden Rule fueled mission would take us in some very different directions than the current “divide and conquer” mentality of our passive, representative evangelism. Were Christians to make a fundamental commitment to the Golden Rule all of our relationships — inside the church and beyond — would be transformed for the better.
- I’m a pneumatologist — I study theology, have a global/cosmic Christology, but when it comes down to it, I believe that the Holy Spirit is still working within the hearts and minds of God’s people and that the story didn’t end when the ink dried on the first edition of the Book of Revelation. I believe the Good News is still being written, but that we aren’t paying attention. I believe that we are trying to design a faith-based on 4,000-2,000 year-old pre-modern, pre-enlightened, pre-scientific, middle eastern/mediterranean beliefs of a dead people rather than embrace and discern the faith of a living Spirit of a living God. We don’t pray “for,” we pray about.” We don’t prophecy (in the Biblical sense of letting the Word of God be “in-breathed” (inspired) through us), we preach at. We don’t study scripture for wisdom and meaning, but for rules and answers. We impose the legalism of Old Testament (notice I don’t say “Hebrew scriptures,” since Jewish scholars don’t use their sacred texts as weapons like many Christians do…) on the grace and guidance of a “new covenant” relationship. It feels like each time Christian community says, “Perhaps God is opening to us a new way,” someone else clamps down with a “but it’s not in the Bible!”
- I like fruit — no single passage of scripture (well, perhaps besides Romans 12:1-2) has worked on my spiritual psyche more than Galatians 5:22-23. The fruit of the Spirit — the outward and visible test of God’s Holy Spirit at work in the body of Christ — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is what it is all about. Everything we need to become a just, loving, merciful, inclusive, compassionate and compelling church is l;aid out in a short list of nine Christian characteristics. Would that each United Methodist congregation focus their energies and efforts on learning to LIVE these fruits, our world would truly be transformed. Shift our focus off of what we shouldn’t do, what we shouldn’t be, what we deem sinful, and instead focus on what we should do, what we can be, and what redeems our very lives and relationships — that’s what I wish for.
- I want to err on the side of Grace, not Law — who am I to judge another person as a sinner? I certainly don’t want anyone else to know what goes on in the darker recesses of my heart and mind. I fail in myriad ways to be Christlike in thought, word and deed. I strive to live as I believe God calls me to, and I invite others to wrestle with the same questions. But if a person acts or thinks in a way that differs from me? It simply is not my place to condemn, castigate or alienate. The moment I draw a line that divides, I feel I am in violation of what God calls me to be — a fruit-bearing source of compassion and reconciliation. Does this mean I don’t care about sin? No, sin is destructive — I’m not a fan. But the sin of judgment is as heinous in my mind as any sin I judge, so I would rather be in relationship with those I disagree with rather than try to “defeat” them. I believe God is at work in those who seek relationship with God — even if they think or act in ways I feel are wrong. I don’t believe in universal salvation — people have free will to reject God and deny God a place in their lives. I simply don’t believe I have the right to deny God a place in someone else’s life.
- I haven’t given up on the church — this institution we have created that is so materialistic and defensive is what we have to work with, so let’s make it work. Our Western culture loves its buildings and property, its bricks and stained glass, its parking lots and play areas — just look at how much of our resources for ministry go into these things alone. And we like BIG — most of our church buildings are much too large for what we do with them. We need a professionalized ministry and staff, at great cost, because we have become part of the religion industry. Many congregations find that they don’t have time to make disciples because they have to use their primary efforts and energies to figure out how to pay for everything. In United Methodism, we scream and fuss and bitch and moan about “paying apportionments,” forgetting that if we weren’t required to support connectional ministries and mission, we wouldn’t be doing any ministry outside our own doors at all. When money is our driver and our leaders think about “our” money, “our” church, “our” pastor, etc., we have lost our way, our focus, and our minds. The church isn’t property, pastors, programs, or parking lots. Until we remember who we are and why we exist, we will continue to struggle, founder, and fail.
- Our future does not lie in our past, but it does depend on the basics — prayer, Christian conversation, study of scripture, worship with sacraments, building each other up in love, and working together to serve those outside the church are foundational to the Christian Way. Many of our congregations and our congregational leaders are “too busy” to do these things themselves, let alone teach others. This has to change. When I go into large churches that have cooking classes, and knitting/quilting groups, gardening clubs, reading groups, etc., but no Bible studies and prayer groups, red flags start waving. When I meet with Boards of Trustees and Church Councils that don’t want to “waste time” with devotions or prayer, I hurt inside. The latest “churchy-book” or DVD series may be more fun, but they cannot displace the core.
Okay, that’s enough for now. As I look at the breadth and depth of what I write here, I sum it up as what Thomas Kelly speaks of as “a compassionate life.” I’m not making a case or looking for debate. I’m not stating this is what should be for anyone else but myself. This is where I find myself during my Lenten wilderness walk 2011. I invite others to share their own person reflections (though I guess I can tolerate your critical assessments of mine, as well. After all, this is a blog…)