Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School has a poster on his office door that reads “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” Ask him about it and he might tell you, “It would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but you have to start somewhere." One would suppose we could agree on this modest proposal, if we could agree on anything.
We live in fractured world where division is the air we breathe. Turn on any news pundit and they’ll say, “Well, we’re just so divided now.” It’s deeper than partisan politics. We are a people of tribes—country clubs and civic clubs; Walmart or Target or the Asheville Mall; Ingles or Aldi or the farmer’s market. We are as divided by the logos on our shirts and the food in our pantries as we are by where we live and go to school. By the way, will Duke University and the University of North Carolina fans ever find a way to unite?
My own denomination, United Methodism, has a dubious relationship with unity. We began as a movement within the Church of England blending together strains of Anglicanism, German pietism, Catholic mysticism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Wesley’s ecumenical spirit led him to take the best of other traditions and juggle them together creating a hodgepodge theology of grace.
But schism is in our DNA. We’re Protestants, after all. Wesley, who vehemently opposed schism with the Church of England, eventually laid hands on Thomas Coke and sent him to America. Today, my ordination is traced back to John Wesley and no earlier. There have since been other splits and mergers. Schism, like divorce, seems to get easier with each iteration. The people called Methodists, and the holiness movement, morphed into pentecostalism and other forms of methodism. Most recently, we nominated ourselves a ‘united’ church only fifty years ago when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical Unity Brethren in 1968. We’re due for another break up.
There’s an old motto that circulates attributed to John Wesley, which he never said: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity." The problem is that we can’t agree on essentials and rampant liberty isn't a viable option to create a covenant together. Some doctrines and practices are so antithetical to the good news of Christ that they merit division, even if it’s to our lament.
The problem for me, at least recently, is this letter to the Ephesians. It’s really inconvenient, isn’t it, that we’re handed this letter when American politics are the juiciest and denominational split seems so appealing. Even when I want the denomination to fall apart and banish political foes to the innermost layer of hell, I read Paul's words and have to bite my tongue. There was no greater cultural or religious divide as that between Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) and Paul (or whoever wrote this) is pleading for God’s chosen people to start getting along with Gentiles who were the eleventh hour workers, the prodigal sons, the ones begging for crumbs on the floor like dogs.
Here’s a miracle that’s about as unbelievable as resurrection: Christ has created a new humanity—a third race, as the church fathers used to say. The person and work of Jesus is about tearing down walls beginning the wall between heaven and earth. Jesus forgave our sins, breaking down the wall between us and God. His own body accomplished this work, holding together both God and flesh—immortality and mortality—divinity and humanity. In his ministry, he crossed over into Samaria and invited the ‘far off’ to come home, like the prodigal son.
There’s no other sensible reason to sit across the table from someone you hate, unless you believe that Jesus Christ is present in the power of the Spirit breaking down barriers. If it’s true, then there’s a reason to have church. If not, then we should continue to sit with insiders and scapegoat and complain about those on the outside. Let's build another wall because who cares. But the Jews and Gentiles shared a table and broke pita and drank wine. Together, the different notes blended to make a harmony that neither could make alone.
Unity doesn’t exist where there is uniformity; diversity is the key ingredient.
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
It’s a unity based in the very nature of God. There's oneness, but there’s a complexity within the one. God is one, but God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No one person is separate from another nor is one consumed into another, but each is held in communion in a divine dance of love. It’s the love of a community that spills out to create, redeem, and sanctify the world.RSS Feed
A theologian I admire reminds us that we have one Bible, but it’s infinitely complex. Total consensus is never the chief end, not even in the Scriptures. There are diverse voices, contexts, opinions, and theologies that are all inspired by the same Spirit. The early church canonized four different Gospels with four different christologies, or imaginations of the significance of the person and work of Jesus. When an early Christian named Tatian tried to harmonize all four Gospels into a coherent, uniform story called the Diatessaron, the church called it a heresy. No one wants a drab, watered down story of Jesus that has no context and thus, no courage to say something meaningful to particular people in real times and places.
Can we belong to one another despite our differences in this fragmented world? Our Bible does this. The early church did this with the power of the Holy Spirit that blowed on them and set hearts on fire at Pentecost. Jesus does this in his body and his mission. God does this in God’s self. It’s much bigger than one denomination’s struggle over articulating human sexuality; it extends to our idolatry of political ideologies and even more so to our unwillingness to look a stranger in the eye and listen, have a hard conversation, and admit that we're sinners who might be wrong.
It’s amazing that we still care about this in our culture with our current squabbling. Division may be warranted and lamented as an order of preservation, especially if we disagree over the basic essentials of the faith. But other folks are obstinate in their love for the church with a pigheaded hope that we might become the foretaste of God’s kingdom that will include every race, nation, economic, and ethnic group. And it’s a profound Methodist thing not to believe in some vague sense of Christ’s imputed unity, but to pursue it and allow it be imparted by the Spirit among us today. We’re not there yet. There’s always a tension between where we are and where we are headed—the already and the not yet—and we have an optimism that God’s grace can close the gap.
I also think I'm sure of this: if we will ever bear witness to unity, it won’t be a result of some political ideology spouted from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or a Bishop's prophetic stance, and definitely not a blog. But it might start with us and the ways we live our lives as every day Christians--in our churches and in our communities from the grass roots. It's worth a shot. After all, Paul tells us that peace has come and we’ve seen it. It’s Jesus. It’s the body Christ. It must be us.
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Our church didn’t have any kids represented at vacation bible school besides my two year old daughter. Children did come to vacation bible school; they just don’t worship at Oak Hill United Methodist Church.
We had a few children from each of the small, rural churches, mixed with kids visiting grandparents, and fewer who showed up from cold calls and advertisements. I won’t see most of the kids again, unless we both happen to find ourselves at the singing grounds playing tag and singing cheesy, energizing songs again next year. What’s almost certain is that they won’t waltz through our church doors this Sunday.
It sounds like a bad use of time; there’s no return on the investment. Vacation Bible School is glorified babysitting, making no discernible difference in creating disciples or transforming communities. It's equally frustrating that, in many Bible Schools, a third of the group is bussed in from the local, non-denominational megachurch. The work is enormous and the return—usually slim. There are better contextual and incarnational ways to reach and disciple children, sure. I’ve made that argument before and others will continue to be make it. The logic of Egypt where worth is based on sweat, bricks, and capital is a worldview that’s hard to shake, even after God has broken the chains of domination and utilitarianism.
I'm glad we resisted.
We might have said, “we have no kids” and opted out of the work, but we chose to go and love kids from other churches like an old-timey kind of neighborhood where you're trusted to parent your neighbor's children. If rural United Methodist Churches have a viable future, it will look a lot like co-parenting with nearby United Methodist Churches. Or better yet, there will be marriage and unity between them. And it's faithful, too. God who left the ninety-nine for the one isn’t preoccupied with counting the number who feed in a particular stable, despite our love to compete. God just cares that we are being led to better pastures.
United Methodists call this being connectional, but we better name it as being baptized. We leave our own tributaries and all gather together in the river, which this year was called the rolling river rampage of God’s love. Oak Hill Methodist gave the snacks--like the servants who were called down the alleys and country lanes to invite everyone to the junk-food banquet. And when there is a table in God’s name, there is Holy Eucharist. The goldfish, the bread. The Pina Colada Hawaiian Punch, the wine. We all became children, together, sharing the family meal.
The one church was visible.
This is subversive, make no mistake: all children, whether they’re members in another Methodist Church or emerging from another denomination, are our responsibility. Why? Precisely because no children belong to us. They’re God’s. And we belong to each other only because we belong to God. Persons aren’t valued because they sit in a particular pew on a Sunday or have the potential to become a future tithing-member of a congregation. These are valued because they're created in God’s image—chosen and loved in Jesus Christ. And how do you show the community kids that God loves them? Play. It’s a part of our liturgy that most of us practice one time a year, if we're lucky. Vacation Bible School bestows a particular means of grace that only comes from uncoordinated dancing and tight hamstrings after a night of tagging kids and freezing them in place.
These are the kinds of disciplines that differentiate us from the pattern of this world, and transform us by the renewing of our minds. It’s a disciple that the church would do well to practice. So when children happen show up at our doorstep, say looking for asylum or a better life, we don’t turn them away because they aren’t ours.
We love them because they are God’s.
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Maybe it was Peter Boehler.
The sails ripped in half and ocean water roared on to the main deck. A terrifying storm grew as John Wesley voyaged from London to bring the Gospel to colonists and natives in America. While Wesley panicked that he wasn’t ready to die in the midst of chaos, he noticed a group of German pietists who were calmly singing Psalms. And in that moment he realized that he lacked faith—sure and abiding trust in God: “I was strongly convinced that the cause of that uneasiness was unbelief, and that the gaining a true, living faith was the one thing needful for me.” Thus began Wesley’s quasi-Puritan spirituality, as he lived in a constant state of anxiety, compulsively searching for assurance of salvation and his name in the book of life.
A couple years later, Wesley arrived back in London where he befriended a group of German Moravians who would counsel him through his existential crisis. The Lutheran pietists taught him faith was black or white—you have it or you don’t. And true Christian faith is always accompanied by a sense of peace and well-being. Peter Boehler was one of the Moravians, who counseled Wesley, and he spoke little English, but Wesley and Boehler discovered that they could talk freely in Latin.
Wesley asked him, “How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?"
Boehler, who equated faith with certainty, responded,
“Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
It’s pithy—fake it till you make it—keep drinking it until you develop the taste. It worked for Wesley; he preached faith until he had a ‘heartwarming experience.’ And now, it’s a very Methodist thing to say, like ‘do all the good you can’ or ‘spread Scriptural holiness.’ If there’s a caricature of Methodism, it’s that we love to try harder; we flirt with Pelagius, who we’ve been forbidden to see, but still secretly love to sneak into our upstairs window.
Until the certainty doesn’t arrive immediately and you wonder whether you put in enough effort, left no better off than the poor soul whose child wasn’t saved because she didn’t give ten percent of her monthly income. Even Wesley succumbed to self-deprecating thoughts and great anxiety as he wondered why God’s Spirit hadn’t given him a ‘certainty of being in a state of salvation.’ Was there something more he needed to do? I wonder if this kind of damaging ‘all or nothing’ shame should be categorized as a disorder and treated by a psychologist.
It strikes me as spiritually and psychologically dangerous to step into a pulpit to preach the the contents of what you can't trust yourself. Sure, there are mornings that a pastor doesn’t want to step behind a pulpit because the incarnation seems about as rational as a god who throws thunderbolts from the sky. I’m just not sure it’s sustainable over the long haul, week after week. Imagine a scenario where a counselor tells a spouse with trust issues to keep trying. One day it will click.
“Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith” is a recipe for isolation, as if there’s not enough isolation and loneliness embedded in the work of ministry, or possibly detachment and cynicism. It could also give way to a culture of fundamentalism: let’s not risk being honest with one another. It’s easier to play the game of show and not tell— smile on the outside and cry on the inside. Everyone believes. No one questions. Because if you do voice your feelings, then the whole house of cards might come crashing down. It works until the water gets too hot and everything boils over. And thousands of clergy put on their robes and open up Scriptures and believe in no God whosoever.
In my case, faith was strengthened because I took a year off from preaching. Though I never left a faith community or the disciplines of discipleship, I took time apart to receive the gift of time spent in deeper probing and intentional thinking. Still, it wasn’t a period of quietism, or ceasing all good works and waiting on the Lord to deliver assurance of salvation or Christian sanctification. That’s not quite right, either. We'll never have it all together. Part of the Christian vocation is to act in ways that are beyond your own inclinations and belief structures. "Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not," says Flannery O'Connor. Don't give up on faith; it's a noun and a verb, a gift and a practice.
But there’s a difference between practicing the Christian disciplines and standing behind a pulpit trying to summon water from a dried up well each week.
Doubt and distrust aren’t healed with repression, locked away in the basement of a heart, but by opening up windows and airing out thoughts with a community you can trust—the saints of the present and past. It’s the kind of example pastors should set for the laity. In a recent Bible study, we sat down to talk about the Apostle’s Creed and one parishioner asked, “Am I supposed to believe that?” Even better, someone might say—'am I supposed to trust that God?' Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s open up the Scriptures and brew up something more faithful . There are degrees of faith, Wesley later believed, and maybe there are different shades, too.
“When I was young I was sure of everything; in a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before; at present, I am hardly sure of anything but what God has revealed to me."
God longs for us to feel the spirit bear witness to our souls that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16). So what if instead of telling folks to try harder, pastors admit the brokenness and create a space for doubts to float to the surface? We stop telling ourselves, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith” and give thanks for the degree of faith that we have, whatever it is, as we press on to greater sanctification by taking time apart when we need it: advocating for more sabbaticals, honoring sabbath rest, creating honest friendships, embarking on a personal leave. The difficulty is that clergy can be punished by their denominations for this kind of transparency, though maybe not explicitly. It’s worth it, even if you don’t climb a rung on the ecclesial ladder, you’ll save your soul.
Or better yet, we can throw away every Christian cliche.
It can happen almost anywhere—debating with your spouse about where to eat or reading an article about the job satisfaction in a particular line of work. It’s the rush of anxiety that life carries too many choices. Most recently, my child said, “I died” after playing a video game on the iPad, and it was enough to make me rethink everything I know about my life and the way I’m living it. Kierkegaard (under the guise Haufniensis) pictures a man standing at the edge of a cliff who has a chilling fear of falling. More terrifying still, there’s an impulse that he might actually want to jump. Dread and angst rise to the surface. Such is the ‘dizziness of our freedom,’ whether your in the grocery choosing between whole wheat and white or choosing whether and how to exist.
It’s freedom, says Kierkegaard, that’s intricately connected with our anxiety—we have infinite numbers of decisions, complicated today by a strong case of FOMO (fear of missing out), and a vast sea of avenues to becoming a true subject and a realized self. He goes on to say that this dizziness of freedom is part of the human condition. The Judeo-Christian tradition expressed it through the tale of Adam and Eve who are bestowed the possibility of eating forbidden fruit, initiating an awareness of good and evil. It’s the ambiguity of freedom that predisposes and causes the sin.
Child psychologists know that excessive toys and trinkets produce overly anxious children. Simplify their lives, they say. No paralysis. It’s too bad that we grow and graduate from a curated number of trinkets to an abyss of possibilities. There are ways, of course, to mitigate or deflect the damage as we grow older: Steve Jobs wore a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers every day. I mindlessly frequent the same coffee shop to avoid deciding between the plethora of good pour overs on Haywood Road. Less benignly, some shut off decision completely by living entire lives running from the anxiety of choice, mindlessly following whatever shepherd is loudest while never questioning the customs, social conventions that are handed down.
But Kierkegaard thinks that’s the wrong instinct. We lose our humanity when we only throw pills at the anxiety or avoid it at all costs. One day you’ll be driving in your car when you come to the realization that you’ve been living a lie—that your existence is masquerading as a life—and you’ve never actually chosen to really live and die for anything.
It might be counterintuitive, but Kierkegaard says to embrace the anxiety; it’s the disease and the cure.
“One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever,” writes Kierkegaard. But there is possibility, and it’s the possibility that makes us human—we have the ability to decide our lives and to become a self. He goes on to say, “If man were a beast or an angel, he would not be able to be in anxiety. Since he is both beast and angel, he can be in anxiety, and the greater the anxiety, the greater the man.” One must deliberately enter into it and look for the generative possibilities. We alone have the possibility to pursue a specific life, seek a particular adventure, choose among the endless avenues—take a leap of faith and become a true subject.
And until you make that choice, or act on a defining commitment, there’ll be paralysis or aimless wandering at best. At the worst, existential despair (conscious or unconscious) and a sickness in your spirit.
And that’s a gift.
And maybe this is why anxiety is so central to Christianity: it’s about choosing the persons we want to become before the world chooses for us. It’s the catalyst for assuming a proper relation to the Eternal—or, at least the prerequisite to our recognition of our absolute need of it. We take the leap away sin and discord into the kinds of creatures that we were created to become. Then, in an instant, literally the ‘eye blink,’ there’s a moment when the eye opens and eternity intersects with temporality. “In the instant, [the individual] becomes aware of the rebirth, for his previous state was indeed one of ‘not to be.’” The haze of confusion burns away and there is subjective clarity. This moment of vision bestows a defining commitment, relativizing all others, endowing a true identity.
To live is to be anxious, but it’s your choice on how you harness it. Ignore it. Follow the herd. Or, find a defining commitment and enter the strain between who you are and who you might become.
For “whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”
Next time you find yourself standing at the edge of a cliff, don’t freeze or take a step back. Choose to take the leap into personhood. Do it every day. Or better, open your eyes to the moment of transfigured vision—assume a posture of being and an orientation of the mind that is shaped by Jesus Christ, God incarnate.