Friday, October 23, 2009

In The Presence of Two Witnesses

Paul writes in II Corinthians 13:1 that “Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” This principle of Jewish law—that there must be at least two witnesses in all criminal prosecutions—stretches back to Deuteronomy (see 17:6 and 19:15, among other verses). For me, this precedent Paul and Moses established for unhappy circumstances has been an aid for spiritual growth.

That is, I have found through the years that I do well to pay attention when “two witnesses” testify to me about spiritual things. When different voices speak to me at the same time about the same thing, I consider that God is “doubling” the lesson he is trying to teach me so that, dull as I often am, I might clearly see. Or begin to.

It has happened again in the last couple of weeks. One “witness” was something I read in a new book on congregational life by Gil Rendle, former senior consultant at the Alban Institute. The other was a blog entry by Will Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference.

Dr. Rendle writes,

“One of my favorite bromides says, ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything you see looks like a nail.’ Similarly, if the only available tool that leaders have is the basic problem-solving process that most of us employ, then the only way we can view (congregational) discomfort is as a problem. A critical challenge congregational leaders face is the need to preserve and protect the discomfort of differences among the people as an opportunity for learning rather than to seek quick solutions that will make winners comfortable and losers disappear.”

He goes on to suggest that a healthy congregation (which is not always a comfortable congregation) is one that 1) receives new members (who admittedly come in bringing with them new ideas and expectations); 2)passes on the faith from one generation to the other; and 3) is in earnest dialogue about what is important. He quotes Dorothy Bass: “When a tradition is ‘living,’ its members are engaged in a vibrant, embodied ‘argument,’ stretching across time and space, about what the fullest participation in its particular goods would entail.” Such ‘argument’ need not be acrimonious; indeed, it must be robust but kind, energized but respectful, truthful but loving.

So what does it mean to be a UM Christian in these days? How can we foster a four-fold mission of teaching/learning, fellowship, worship and prayer? In sum, how can we make healthy congregations so that we can offer a joyful and vibrant invitation, to existing and prospective members, to join together in the glad work of the gospel? How can we become excited again about our faith and faithfulness?

Some have suggested that, in my congregation, it might be hard to do all that—and hard especially to get people excited and joyful again. They say there is still too much distrust, much of it born of unpleasant conversations about unhappy topics. They say that for the last little while we have been kind of turned in on ourselves, occupied with some hurtful and in some cases disrupting matters. Many feelings have been hurt, I am told. Many hearts are still heavy. Some are trying to get over it but still find themselves struggling, going through he motions but still carrying too much weight from the past to face the future nimble and glad.

I am doing my best not to extinguish or ignore those very real feelings. I do not know how deep or widespread they are—as Dr. Rendle says, sometimes those kinds of feelings and the people who have them just disappear. I do not want that to happen here. What I do want to happen is this: that we all of us learn from them.

One of the particular geniuses of Jesus is that he was able to keep together people who had every reason to part company. Natural enemies and competitors together became disciples. Slow as they often were, they each and all realized that being with Jesus was reason enough to stay together. They still had arguments and disagreements, God knows. Jesus never did resolve all of their differences. But forced to live together as a spiritual family, they learned to get along even when their “stuff” collided.

With that already in mind I heard the second voice, received testimony from the second witness. Please take time to read this post:

I am wondering how we can keep everyone together, talking and learning from each other? I do not think I am focusing on negatives or anything like that; I am not trying to make too much of the “trouble;” instead I am suggesting that our hope for these days and the days to come have, as a part of its foundation, a commitment to listen and learn from each other. Dr. Rendle says, “When a system does not know what went wrong, it will determine who went wrong, and quickly.” Blame, one way or the other, is always easier than confession. Speaking is always easier than listening.

I am suggesting our in our place that we do as James counsels us, that we each be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” That, as Hebrews commands, we “lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus…”

I want us to look to Jesus, remembering that in spite of it all he has called us together, is working to keep us together here, to make us learn and grow in faith and hope and love. I hope we can have the kinds of healthy, if sometimes “uncomfortable” conversations, we might still need to have about what it means to be a part of our family of faith right now. I am suggesting we be open to receive each other’s different experiences and perceptions. I am not suggesting a forum; only that we all of us be alert, ready to listen, to learn, to converse, to confess, to forgive—so that we can help one another lay aside the weight, bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ. And thus find our joy!

Friday, October 09, 2009

RIP, John Wesley Winchester


Praying all dogs go to heaven, in the sure and certain hope that God loves what his children love.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

West-Flowing Praise

This is a piece of my sermon for World Communion Sunday. If you would like a full copy, leave me an email address in the comments and I will forward it to you.

Already this day, in all times zones east, Christians have gathered in humble thanks, in genuine praise for the grace that is ours as evidenced in this meal.

Even now, right this very moment, all around us in Shelby and Cleveland County, in the Gastonia District and the Western North Carolina Conference, in the North Carolina Conference and the Southeast Jurisidiction—and that’s just United Methodists—all sorts of churches, all up and down the entire Eastern Seaboard, from the Atlantic to the Appalachians; in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec; in the Caribbean and South America, in Brazil—in Rio de Janeiro, too: happy as they are about the coming Olympics, there is greater, more lasting praise yet, for the wonder of God’s grace as evidenced, as experienced and expressed, in bread and cup on this World Communion Sunday.

Soon, now, we will hand off the unending hymn to those west of us, and they to those west of them, and again and again till it comes back round to us again, where in monasteries and convents, in closets and in school rooms, in hospital rooms and funeral homes, in traffic jams and every other place imaginable people will pray. People will worship.

Indeed, there is a worldwide communion of faith and worship and prayer every day—but tell the truth: some days our own world seems so small. If we are honest we will confess that our sphere of concerns is so insular, our awareness so narrow, and we can imagine that we believe or pray alone, that it’s “me and Jesus,” you know?

Thank God for a day like today when we gather around the Table and purpose to remember that it’s “we and Jesus,” that we are joined with and joined to Christians the world over. That together we offer one unbroken, unending hymn of praise, in different rhythms and keys, in various verses and chorus, in stanzas and descants—praise for creation, for recreation, for Christ, for the grace and unity we know most and best here at this Table.

Have you watched any of Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan’s new documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea?

In one of the episodes there is a quote from a Robert Frost poem, entitled West-Running Brook:

'What does it think it’s doing running west
When all the other country brooks flow east
To reach the ocean? It must be the brook
Can trust itself to go by contraries…'

What a great line: 'it must trust itself to go by contraries…'

The Communion Table is a contrary: it disagrees with the unsettled world. It disagrees with the enmity and division by which we often organize our living and thinking. It runs against the currents of hatred and exclusion, of class and color. It flows opposite our narrow concerns and in that way carries us into the great wide ocean of God’s mercy and grace. Like our praise it runs west, cutting a path through ancient sediments of animosity, crystalline deposits of indifference.

Frost’s poem continues:

'It must be that the brook can trust itself to go by contraries,
The way I can with you -- and you with me --
Because we're -- we're -- I don't know what we are.
What are we?'
Young or new?'
We must be something.'

Indeed we are something—and what we are is the church. Here at the Table we ourselves, you and I, like Frost’s West Running Brook, trust ourselves to go by contraries… and thereby find unity in the Table.

Unity in the Body of Christ. A table set for us in the wilderness, till al the wilderness shall become the Promised Land at last.