Living the Story

•September 8, 2012 • 1 Comment

Many scientists have made studies of the human brain and noted that we seem to be particular hardwired for stories. We love to tell and hear stories. But more importantly, we organize information around a story structure. The human interest and even need for story predates written history. As someone who’s studied English literature in college and does so still, it’s good to know that I’m studying the most important aspect of humanity. Okay, maybe that’s just what we English majors told ourselves…

The thing about stories is that they are more than a subjective telling of an objective truth, they are more than community-building exercises, and they’re certainly (usually) more than pretty art. As I mentioned, they are structural to how we process and organize information. This is important because it can help us understand when and how we encounter fundamental disagreements with other people. We can look at the same exact facts and yet fit them into radically different story structures. And the thing is that our own particular “story structures” are formed throughout our entire life. So we fit the facts into our structure based on a large chunk of our personal history.

Is it any wonder then that it sometimes seems as if we are talking past each other? Or that when we mention some particular word or concept, a person may act in a radically different way than we thought?

“I find the term ‘chicken’ insulting and offensive!”

As Christians, we are caught up in a story that transcends time. To use a cliche, it is “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” CS Lewis said that Christianity was the “myth” (i.e. story) made incarnate. I mean think about how the Bible begins. Not with a theological treatise about God’s relationship to created matter and humanity in particular. It starts with a story. “In the beginning…” And how does it end? With the end of time itself in a renewed and perfected creation. What does that mean for us? It means we exist between the front and back covers of the Bible. We are in the story. I’ve seen some people ask why the Bible is considered “closed.” Why don’t we add new books to it? Well, the Bible isn’t closed. The story is not over yet.

I think this is an aspect of Christianity that has perhaps been a bit submerged by other ways of communicating Christianity. Don’t get me wrong, theology, rational discourse, debate, etc. are all good ways of relating Christianity to others and explaining what it is that we believe. But I think perhaps that we tend to forget that we are primarily in a story. I’m sure all of you have seen plenty of movies. Well, there’s a time in every movie to explain one facet of the plot, and then there’s a time for simply acting. A movie that is nothing but explication is rather dull. Who has an interest in seeing a movie with nothing but talking?

That’s why we need to keep things in balance. Jesus sometimes preached to the crowds, sometimes fed them, but it seems that he most frequently told them stories. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” Not, “Well the Greek word for ruler is ‘archon,’ therefore when you consult theological treatise IX.256.xvii you will see that…” Incidentally, I just had to put a book of theology down last night because it was exactly like my silly example there. “If, in accordance with the 1956 Covenantal Doctrine Statement…” Ugh.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like some rich guy who wanted to throw a party. But none of his rich friends wanted to come. They made a bunch of lame excuses. He had already bought the potato salad and didn’t want it to go bad, plus what was he going to do with light beer? So he sent a couple of the servers out into the streets with big signs saying ‘free food.’ A bunch of people who didn’t have homes and weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from showed up and enjoyed the rich guy’s generosity.”

Stories matter. They are integral to how we form our perception of the world. Discussion and debate are okay, but perhaps at some point we need to simply say: “Hey man, listen to this one!” or, “Why don’t you just come and watch my story for a while?” That might just be the best way for us to even do so little as simply understand one another.

Remember the Mission

•September 6, 2012 • 3 Comments

So at the last General Conference for Methodism one of our committees was handing out those rubber wrist bands (you know, like the Live Strong ones?) with the words “Remember the Mission.” A friend of ours was at General Conference (coincidentally it was also held in Tampa) and he brought one back for us. We then re-gifted this rubber wrist band (men don’t wear bracelets!) to another pastor friend of ours. Ah, how a simple little rubber wrist band grows up and travels the world…

Anyway, after reading up a bit on Methodism, as many of you have noticed recently, the message on this wrist band makes more and more sense. We Methodists are all about the Mission. But we Methodists are also all about… well, being methodical. So sometimes we need to be reminded to remember the mission. Any organization or institution can occasionally lose its focus and become more about self-preservation rather than the Mission. It can be a slow, and even subtle, shift of focus but it marks a noticeable decline.

And, let’s be honest, the message of the Gospel is not mere self-preservation. Contrary to some watered-down theologies that simply urge us to “get saved” otherwise we’ll suffer for eternity. Participation in the in-breaking and salvific Kingdom of God is so much more than a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. The Gospel is about self-sacrifice. In fact, if you look at how God acts from the first pages of Genesis to the last pages of Revelation, you may see something startling: God leaves Himself recklessly open to rejection from a people that He loves beyond all description. And I do mean “reckless.” At least from our perspective. God opens Himself up to being taken advantage of, rejected, forgotten, abused, beaten, and crucified. But even then He never stops loving us. Can we even imagine that kind of love?

And here’s the difficult part of this depiction of God: We are called to act just the same. That is our mission. As participants in this New Order of Creation we are to open ourselves up to the possibility that others may use our love and ultimately take advantage of it. And that is how we are to live our entire lives! I’ve mentioned a story from the Desert Fathers once before where an abbot notices that a brother is stealing from him. Rather than confront the brother, the abbot simply works that much harder to provide for the both of them. When the abbot is on his deathbed, he calls for the brother who stole from him. The brother comes and the abbot kisses his hands saying “Blessed are these hands for by them, I may hope for joy hereafter.” But that’s not the end of the story, the stealing brother is struck by these words and gives up his sinful ways.

This doesn’t sound realistic does it? Maybe you’re even thinking “Okay, that works for some monks but we live in the real world.” But the thing is that Jesus made no differentiation between a monastic community and society at large. He expected his disciples to embody a new ethic, a new perspective. And the early Christians did. Slaves sat as equals with slave owners. Worldly distinctions were irrelevant.

No one wants to open themselves up to this level of vulnerability. It’s uncomfortable. We don’t want to be taken advantage of. No one wants to seriously think that the “other” might actually be better than us. And here’s where our structures and our bureaucracies can insidiously work their way in again. As long as they are subject to the mission, then they are useful tools. But if our structures start to insulate us from the radical challenge that the Mission demands of us, then something has gone wrong. Our focus has been disrupted. Then, we need to “Remember the Mission.”

Postscript: Maybe some of you are now expecting me to nail 95 theses onto a door somewhere and declare myself for Luther. And, while I admit we have one wooden door in the house in need of decoration, that is not what I’m saying. I don’t discount the possibility that institutional structure can be reformed. In fact, I think the theological idea of the Church as being “always reformed” is a fundamentally good perspective. Insofar as the Church is made of the people of God who are always in need of repentance and “reforming,” the broader church structures which we create are also in need of repentance and reforming.

Immigrant Life

•September 5, 2012 • 2 Comments

I was going to make another post about a chunk of reading from Bishop Willimon’s book Who Will Be Saved? that I have been reading concurrently with his book Why I am a United Methodist. However, a certain something has arisen that presses more urgently on my mind.

I am an immigrant. If any of you have read my “about me” section when my blog was under the old format, I mentioned that I am an ex-patriot living in Germany. Where I live now is my… “adopted” place of residence. The Germans have a lovely word for us, “Ausländer.” That is: a foreigner, a stranger, an alien. Or, to put it more bluntly, an “outsider.” If I live here thirty, forty, fifty years I will remain an outsider to some people. How easily and highly we build our walls of separation! Here is our group, there are the “others.”

Why is this on my mind? Why is it so immediate to me? Well, to put it equally bluntly, Europe has racism problems. For the second time in the past few months my daily walk with my dog through the park next door to our house has been interrupted by Nazi propaganda. That is no exaggeration. For the second time this year I have found stickers plastered over the garbage cans and lamp posts that urge people to join the “free opposition” accompanied with the logo of the black flag of the national socialists. (It should be noted that such organizations while legal in Germany, are barely so and that they prey upon the disadvantaged and those who have slipped through the cracks.)

How do these stickers make me feel? Well, how would anyone feel when images and words are shoved in their face that say quite blatantly “You don’t belong. You are different. You are not one of us. You are a threat.”? It damn well hurts and angers. But more than that, it makes me afraid. It shoves in my face the reality that I am occupying a narrow space of bare tolerance. I have moved from a center to the margins. These stickers and their rhetoric remind me that I have become marginalized. I may be able to outwardly “pass” as German, but for some people that will never be good enough. I am a sickness. A disease. A social ill that is somehow deeply subversive to what these people think is truly “German.”

Can you imagine how this feels? I’ve read the words of an African-American living in Germany: “It’s like a physical pain in my hands.” Do I experience physical pain at these images and words? I don’t think so. But not all pain is physical and some of the hardest wounds to heal are unseen.

Being Christian, having my life claimed by a God of compassion and ever-searching mercy, I can’t help but think of this in relation to my faith. Jesus lived on the margins of the Roman Empire. Judea was a political backwater. But Jesus also lived, moved, spoke, and acted at the margins of Jewish society too. What did his enemies accuse him of? He dines with tax collectors. He associates with prostitutes. He touches lepers! John Wesley believed that the Gospel and the poor, the marginalized, have a special relationship. Does this mean I have a special insight, am specially spiritual more so than others? No. There are probably 120 saintlier people than me in my local congregation of… 120 people (that’s 121 with the pastor!)

So I’m not claiming special insight. There are people even more marginalized than I am. But, I do perhaps have a different perspective that many people perhaps do not get. I am, at some level, marginal. As Mr. Monk would say, “it’s a gift… and a curse.” This experience, as painful as it can sometimes be, can challenge me to greater depths of compassion and empathy. Am I “better” than those who don’t experience such marginalization? No. My first response is usually one of anger rather than compassion. I could, and should, be better.

There are lots of discussions in many nations about “outsiders” and what it means to be “German,” or “British,” or “American,” or possibly even “Liechtensteinian.” Of course we come up with terms to make this group into a nameless, faceless other so that it is easier for us to deny their humanity. They may be “Ausländer” or they may be “illegals” or whatever word we attach to them. But the Church, by nature of being the Church, reminds us that these terms are… well, mere shadow. The Church is beyond and above all national, regional, or local viewpoint. From the perspective of the Church, mere nationality is an aberration. A relic of the old order that holds little to no substance. “Behold the old is passed away and I am making all things new.” “At the name of Jesus all principalities and powers shall bow.”

As a part of the Church I have more in common with an “Ausländer” Christian from Lesotho than I do with a non-Christian fellow citizen. This is why the Roman Empire persecuted the early Christians to such an extent. They refused to acknowledge the “reality” of Caesar’s rule, Caesar’s claimed godhead. They refused to bow, to sacrifice. They saw their citizenship as belonging to something else entirely. They were, as Bishop Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas say, “resident aliens” in this world. A Christian born into Roman nobility or citizenship had more in common with a Christian slave than with a pagan noble or citizen.

We have more in common with the people we make into the “other” than we do with many of our fellow national citizens. So why would we cling to insubstantial smoke? Why do we cling so desperately to something that is “passing away?” A single, resurrected soul is of far higher importance than a political structure that will ultimately pass away. And make no mistake, the political structure will pass away. All do. Every empire has its end.

Please note, I’m not saying we can’t love where we come from. That’s a natural feeling. It’s when that love becomes an idol that the problem begins. It’s when we buy into the totalizing and idolatrous claims of the State, the claims that State philosophies can define who is “us” and who is “other,” that we fall into a blinding sin. CS Lewis said that the highest angels, when fallen, make the worst devils. So, thank you Nazis for telling me I don’t belong. You’re right, but not in the way you think. It hurts, and it pushes me to the margins, but I suppose I may find myself in good company.

Who is “us?” The Church Militant. The Church beyond ephemeral borders. Who is the Church? All of those who Jesus calls to himself and, contrary to what “respectable” people think, Jesus likes to work from the margins. He is actually rather recklessly extravagant and that’s pretty good news for all of us.

Reflections Upon Why I am a United Methodist

•September 4, 2012 • 3 Comments

So my first-ever series of any appreciable length is over and I was able to maintain my focus throughout–

Squirrel!

Wait, what was I saying?…

Anyway, after reading this book it’s easy to see why Methodism has been such an influential and dynamic force in Christianity. I had read directly from Wesley in the past, but (I suppose like a typical Protestant) I had delved into “the original source” without paying much thought to an overview of the structure he created. So, while I appreciated Wesley’s thought, I didn’t really have enough context in spite of growing up Methodist and attending a Methodist seminary.

GK Chesterton wrote once of a person asked what the benefits of civilization are. Such a person is generally not able to immediately articulate the benefits of society. They may start by point out lamp posts or the mail. I think there’s a point for me in this parable of Chesterton’s. I am immersed in Methodism by my family, my history, and my own choices. If I sometimes lose sight of the benefits of Methodism, I’m left pointing to a few pieces of evidence but am too often unable to properly articulate the benefits of Methodism. Bishop Willimon’s book is what I struggle to articulate about Methodism.

In another blogpost I recently read, the author writes that even though he’s moved from the Anabaptist tradition to Anglicanism, he is still deeply Anabaptist. His past is part of who he is today. We always carry that with us as Bishop Willimon points out in the introduction to Why I am a United Methodist. And it’s okay that we carry our past with us. It shapes and forms us. As Bishop Willimon pointed out, our past is a gift and another word for gift is “grace.” Our past is a grace from God for us.

As I’ve occasionally said in posts and comments, I can be an impatient person who wants to get right to the result. I want information, then a decision, then I move on. Being immersed in Church history, and even more so being immersed in Church family, is something entirely at odds with a results-oriented mindset. The gospel remains a direct challenge to my (and all of our) ways of thinking. I need to stop building barns to house a hypothetical future harvest and start paying attention to being faithful in the present moment. So, I’m not ready to stop delving into the richness of Christian history and tradition. But I’m also not ready to stop being Methodist just yet. And really, wherever my wandering path leads me, I’ll always be Methodist on some level.

And so, I suppose the best ending words for this series (and my whole journey) are Bishop Willimon’s own words:

“The Bible shows God to be infinitely resourceful and creative in getting his way. However, it appears that God has chosen to get his way with me through The United Methodist Church. Perhaps it will be the same for you.” (Page 120)

Review VII: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Religion is not a Private Affair”

•September 4, 2012 • 2 Comments

Welcome to the penultimate post in my series on Bishop Willimon’s book Why I am a United Methodist. My last post will come a bit later with some of my overall thoughts.

One of the major assumptions of our westernized (and increasingly secular) culture is that religion should just be something we keep in the privacy of our hearts and homes. Such a view shows that those who hold this view probably do not understand religion. What if I were to counter: “Please, keep your secularism in the privacy of your home and out of the public”? If we believe in something so strongly that it has re-shaped our entire lives, then how can anyone ask us to conveniently compartmentalize our lives? It is a tension within Christian thought as to just how exactly the Church should affect the world around it. So I won’t get into the theory of how exactly we should be salt and light in the world. I’ll merely say that the compartmentalization that many in this world ask of us is impossible. A changed life is a changed life. And such a change spreads out all around the life in one way or another.

“…One of John Wesley’s great insights was that the Christian life, if taken seriously, is far too demanding to live alone… If all the Christian life involves is a momentary realization of God’s saving grace (justification), then who needs friends for that? But if (as Wesley contended) the Christian life also involves maturation and growth in grace (sanctification), then you can never do it by yourself.” (Page 118)

So it’s not only that we affect the world around us, but also that the term “solitary Christian” is simply an oxymoron. There is no such species. We can no sooner be a “Christian, alone” than we can be an elephant. The Christian life is much more than simply having some particular ideas or feelings.

“Jesus’ message was not a simple ‘Do you agree?’ or ‘Do you feel?’ but ‘Will you join up?’ Will you come forward to be part of a movement, a people? So being a Christian is more than a vague feeling or intellectual assent. It is also discipleship, discipline, embodiment. The church is the very Body of Christ, the specific, institutional, corporate, in the flesh form which the Risen Christ has chosen to take in the world… It affirms that Christ’s promised, predominant presence is in and through the organizational church.” (Page 110)

We are a movement and thus, we are a Church. The Church is how our movement is structured. The United Methodist Church is perhaps unique among denominations for our particular structure. It is termed “connectionalism.” Now, as is usual, the bureaucracy is a bit difficult to describe. So let me just say that connectionalism is a form of episcopal polity with a touch of congregationalism to it. We have bishops and a Council of Bishops, but we also have conferences where lay leadership is also stressed.

John Wesley realized that:

“Sometimes it takes a good shove from our brothers and sisters for us to do what is right.” (Page 107)

So our church utilizes bishops with authority over local churches.

“Pastors are assigned on the basis of the bishop’s assessment of that congregation’s missional needs rather than on the basis of how much the congregation can pay or on the basis of a few powerful people’s wishes. Sometimes this means that the pastor you get is the one you need rather than simply the one you like.” (Page 114)

A purely congregational polity can be problematic. It can lead to a particular church becoming far too introverted and isolated from the broader church. One of our local baptist churches is actually experiencing problems from this right now. The leader of the committee that is searching for a new pastor is very strict about what he wants the pastor to believe. This church may receive the pastor that it wants. But will he be the pastor they need? We’re usually not very good at assessing our own needs. We turn a blind eye to our own sins and weak spots.

At the same time that we have bishops with authority, our conferences have strong lay participation because we realize that the professional clergy do not always have a monopoly on theology or missional ideas. Some of our best groups have been lay-led organizations. I’ve often said that if it were not for the United Methodist Women, our denomination would have died long ago. The UMW is at the forefront of many of our missional, charitable, and welcoming efforts.

At the same time,

“Wesley had no interest, nor should we, in organization for its own sake… Our organization is for the sake of mission.” (Page 110)

The church structure is a structure that serves a purpose. It is not a self-propagating bureaucracy (or at least it shouldn’t be.) As I mentioned in my last post, it is the mission that forms us and it is on the mission that we should be focused. If we worry about that, the structure can take care of itself. But if we start to worry about the structure for its own sake, then we lose sight of the mission and begin (or continue) to die.

Bishop Willimon had this insight about local church structure and how it should be shaped to correspond to missional need:

“There is no such thing as a large church, only large numbers of small groups who happen to gather in the same building. As Mr. Wesley discovered, the church, no matter how big it becomes, is still primarily a face-to-face meeting of friends who know and care about one another.” (Page 112)

No matter how big a church becomes, it must remember this fact. The church is primarily a community. Without a sense of community, the church is merely a show put on to entertain and maybe inspire individuals. An inflated and glorified philosophy of individualism is one of the greatest dangers the Church (and likely human community in general) is facing.

“Individuals shop around for a religious enclave that ‘meets my needs,’ turning religion into yet another item for personal consumption. Sunday morning church is described as a ‘filling station,’ a place where I come to get my needs fulfilled, my spirit serviced for another week. We judge all experiences, people, ideas on the basis of personal fulfillment–What’s in it for me? The Christian church, in this cultural context, can degenerate into a center for therapy, a place to discuss assorted religious ideas, or a stage for religious entertainment. If this cafeteria-line approach to religion is criticized, the response is, ‘Well, at least they are meeting people’s needs.’ We United Methodists are committed to meeting human need… But Christian mission involves meeting human needs in the name of Christ. That makes all the difference because the gospel rearranges our definitions of ‘human need.’” (Page 117)

Review VI: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Christians Are To Grow”

•September 3, 2012 • 3 Comments

Okay, so I’ve determined that I can pretty much just stop reading this book right here. Why? Because apparently Bishop Willimon and I have somehow started operating on exactly the same wavelength. How do I know this? Compare how Bishop Willimon opens up this particular chapter with some of my recent comments about “academic” versus “practical” theology:

“The word ‘theology’ has a dry academic, forbidding sound to the ears of many people. Theology sounds like some arcane, esoteric endeavor. Sometimes, that’s what we have reduced theology to–something for a Ph.D. dissertation but not anything related to real life. Theology in this sense is not a United Methodist interest. Theology is not only an endeavor to talk about God, but also an attempt to live with God. Theology is not simply an exercise in intellectual reflection upon the ideas of Jesus, but also our effort to put the way of Jesus into practice.” (Page 86)

See what I mean? United Methodists do not have the likes of a Karl Barth, a Saint Thomas Aquinas, or a Philokalia. Although I might argue that the works of John Wesley could (and should) have the same significance for Methodists that the Philokalia has for the Orthodox. This has often led to the criticism that we are “mushy,” lack distinct belief, or some other criticism of the like.

“Sometimes we United Methodists have been criticized as having no theology. I am tempted to get defensive and talk about what a marvelous and creative theologian Wesley was, or cite some of our great theological thinkers of the past or present. However, the person making such a charge may have, from our point of view, too limited a notion of theology.” (Page 86)

As I mentioned, I think the works of John Wesley should be like our Philokalia. At the very least, I think a great many of our pastors would benefit from a renewed immersion in Wesleyan thought. United Methodist theology is hopelessly practical (or should I say hopefully?) It is a theology dedicated to changed lives, renewed souls, sanctification, continuing nearness to God. That’s not to say that such a perspective doesn’t exist in a Barth or Aquinas, because it certainly does. Rather it is to say that the best Methodist theology does not need to have its practicality teased out of it by a translator or intermediary; Methodist theology does not treat practicality as a side event. Practicality is primary. Changed lives are the fundamental. (Again this is not to wholesale criticize Barth or Aquinas, there is much that is great in both of their works.)

“Wesley himself never tired of saying, Christianity is considerably more than ‘true opinions.’ It is a way of life; ‘holiness of heart and life’ said Wesley.” (Page 90)

As the Bible points out in the Epistle of James, even the demons have orthodox belief! Again, this is not to discount orthodox belief. Rather, it is the realization that orthodox belief must be tied with a changed life.

“Our theology does not exist just to assert abstractly what is true but to persuade, to change people and society. Wesley abhorred ‘dead orthodoxy…’ In other words, our theology seeks visible, experienced evangelistic results in response to the offer of the love of Christ.” (pages 91-92)

This it the foundational synergy of our theological thought. Orthodox belief coupled with changed lives. It is the synergy John Wesley formulated from his two entirely different experiences in 19th century Anglicanism and 19th century Pietism.

Bishop Willimon then explores the necessity of a changed life in Wesleyan theology. It’s probably safe to assert that the majority of people in our western culture do not immediately think that they need to experience a changed life. Such assumptions have even crept into the Church because we have too often failed to adequately teach as Paul Tillich mentioned (and I quoted) that sin is, at its most basic, a separation. Our life needs to change in light of this separation. Bishop Willimon confronts the idea that we are basically different and in no real, deep need of change head-on:

“Perhaps Methodism’s later unfounded, even un-Wesleyan optimism about the natural human condition is the result of our lack of commitment to and involvement in ministering to those victimized by the social evils of our day. If you view the world from the comfortable vantage point of affluence and power enjoyed by those at the top, the world looks like a rather rosy place and people appear to be basically good. However, if you dare to stand beside those who are on the bottom (the poor, the captives, and the oppressed to whom Wesley preached Good News) you see the sad human wreckage of a fallen and sinful world. Sometimes your theology is a function of where you are standing when you are thinking.” (Pages 93-94)

Bishop Willimon ends the chapter with an important reminder to the Church:

“Our goal is not institutional preservation, the care and feeding of clergy. Our point is not to keep our ecclesiastical machinery well oiled and maintained, as if the machinery itself were more important than its product. We exist for mission.” (Page 100)

He is not attempting to reduce the importance of the Church as a structure. Rather Bishop Willimon is reminding us that if we pay attention to mission, the Great Commission, then the rest will take care of itself. But, if we start to care more about committees and structures rather than changed lives, we are forgetting both Wesleyanism and the point of the Good News.

Changed lives. That is key.

The next and likely penultimate chapter: “Because Religion is not a Private Affair.” This will be the “penultimate” post because I will probably make one last post after that with some reflections about this book in general and where it has led my thinking.

Review V: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Christians Are To Witness”

•September 1, 2012 • 3 Comments

John Wesley split with the Moravians over the issue of quietism. He rightly saw that quietism advocates an unacceptable withdrawal from the world that is inimical to the witness and commands of the New Testament. While Wesley always remained indebted to Moravian pietism for his understanding of spirituality, he also believed that our spiritual experiences have deep implications for our daily lives.

“John Wesley set the tone for United Methodist social witness. He always believed that our spiritual commitments have strong implications for our daily lives… Wesley believed that those who did not use their money responsibly for God’s work ‘were not only robbing God, continually embezzling and wasting their Lord’s goods, but also robbing the poor, hungry, naked; wronging the widow and the fatherless; and making themselves accountable for all the want, affliction and the distress which they made, but do not remove.’ Strong words indeed, words from a man in whose day poverty was accepted as God’s will for the poor or a demonstration that the poor were lazy and did not want to work. When Wesley died, he died in virtual poverty, having given away all his wealth.” (Page 71)

John Wesley is perhaps only second to Saint Francis of Assisi in his generosity and identification with those who have nothing.

“When he was accosted by beggars on the streets of London, Wesley always raised his hat to them and willingly gave them alms.” (Page 71)

John Wesley didn’t just see the poor as objects that we should throw money at until the problem goes away. That is all-too-often the problem with modern attempts to alleviate poverty; the poor are made into the “other,” they are objects for us to act our mercy upon. Such a view is deeply un-Biblical and John Wesley was nothing if not an apt pupil of the Bible. Thus, John Wesley treated the poor with respect. They were equals, so he raised his hat to them. (Incidentally, am I the only one who thinks top hats really should make a comeback in our daily wardrobe?)

Like the Catholic Church, the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and other churches with a history of social advocacy, the United Methodist Church also engages in advocacy on a broad array of issues.

“If a person’s idea of a church is a safe haven, isolated from the tough questions of the day, an island in Never-Never Land where everything is discussed except what really matters in this life, then it’s a safe bet that person will not be happy among us United Methodists. While our church does not tell us what to think on every pressing social issue it does give us helpful guidance and encourages research, debate, and prayer over social and political questions.” (Pages 73-74)

Bishop Willimon relates a story where a potential member gets upset over the church’s stance on an issue. The individual asked: “Why should I join a church which says things that make me mad?” Bishop Willimon gave this individual a copy of our Social Principles. The man read them, came back and said that while he sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed with what the church said, that wasn’t the point. “The point is that the church is taking a stand and pushing me to take a stand too, to think and act as a Christian. I want to be part of that kind of gutsy church.” (Page 74)

It’s entirely possible there is no denomination out there that agrees with all of my positions 100%. That’s really not surprising. If we insist on such a thing, then we’ll all quickly become a church of one (of course many people have taken this route.) The point is not to find a place that agrees with me completely, because faith is about sacrifice. It is about stepping outside of our own ego and admitting that we don’t have all the answers and that wiser heads than ours might be right even if we disagree with them.

Of course far too many of us have forgotten the necessity of humility. So when we disagree with the church, we instead leave for another one and keep shopping until it suits us. (This is not to criticize someone who may feel like they need to change denomination out of a theological necessity. There exists a whole spectrum of reasons why an individual may change churches and some reasons are perfectly legitimate. I’m rather cautioning that if one is considering such an action, it should be accompanied with prayer and study to make sure that we are not acting out of pride.)

So the United Methodist Church takes stands. They’re not always popular with members and non-members alike.

“Wesley took controversy and conflict for granted, as a necessary by-product of confronting people with the truth.” (Page 75)

Again, I should sound a cautionary note here. There’s a difference between conflict over truth, and conflict over egos. I was once told by an individual that Methodists don’t believe in God. I was too shocked to think of a response and the individual walked away certain that she had offended only because the truth can be offensive. As Jesus said, it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles us. So perhaps we all need to think twice before we speak what we think is truth. Once again, humility is a sadly forgotten part of the Christian life.

Bishop Willimon talks about John Wesley’s witness in writing books and education in the next part of this chapter. He  relates a story to illustrate John Wesley’s output that made me smile:

“Methodist preacher and popular historian Halford Luccock once said that, whereas Martin Luther claimed to have thrown his ink bottle at the devil, John Wesley hurled an entire printing press at him–writing 440 books, tracts, and pamphlets.” (Page 78)

John Wesley wanted to reach everyone, everywhere. He was truly consumed with the passion to see lives changed and people helped out however possible. He even wrote a tract about inexpensive folk medicines for those who did not have the money for proper medicine.

Aldersgate inflamed Wesley’s heart to spread the good news of Christ to everyone, everywhere, particularly to those who felt alienated from the ministrations of the established church. When that meant communicating the gospel in ‘plain words for plain people,’ Wesley gladly did so. When that meant developing new structures to bring help to the sick, the poor, the uneducated, and the addicted, Wesley creatively designed such structures.” (Page 80)

Of course, not everyone appreciated his efforts. The Duchess of Buckingham commented about the Methodists:

“Their doctrines are most repulsive and tinctured with impertinence and disrespect toward their superiors, perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and doing away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting.” (Page 82)

Of course Wesley wasn’t alone in coming up for derision. Methodists were an early and active part of the temperance movement, pointing out the evils of the alcoholic beverage industry. And the evils of the alcoholic industry haven’t vanished either. At one temperance meeting a man in the crowd shouted to Frances Willard, the speaker (a Methodist), that she should mind her own business. Frances responded: “I am minding my own business. Men, women, children are my business because they are God’s business.” Of course the temperance movement is now widely derided by many as government overreach and an attempt to “legislate morality.” Yet, alcohol continues to be one of the most abused substances in the world. Is temperance the answer? I don’t know, but Methodism’s actions in the temperance movement showed just how strongly we feel about people being exploited.

“Then, as now, it takes courage to be a witness. Powerful forces urge conformity to the status quo and adherence to conventional, merely socially approved standards of behavior. Yet wherever the gospel is preached or enacted, it has always produced a collision with conventional values. Thus we need a church so confident of its vision, so determined to be faithful to Christ at all cost, so equipped to put loyalty to the Good News above all other loyalties that ordinary people will be empowered to be anything but ordinary witnesses.” (Page 82)

Bishop Willimon ends this chapter with a story about one of our first bishops, Francis Asbury:

“When he ordained one of his deacons tough old Bishop Francis Asbury prayed, ‘O Lord grant that these brethren may never want to be like other people.’ At our best, that has been a typically United Methodist prayer, a prayer for the grace never to be just like everybody else.” (Page 83)