There is so much grace, mystery, wonder to be seen, and I mostly miss it, but today I saw a blessing. An elderly woman was making her way toward the local Lutheran facility where the church gathers weekly for worship (St. Stephen, you may know of whom I speak); she looked frail and ancient leaning on her cane, and yet there she was making her way toward the place where she expected, by grace, to meet the God she’s forever known in Christ. I suspect she was unnoticed because this is who she is and what she does; most Sundays I have also missed her on the way but today I saw and marveled at her faith, her steadfastness, her enduring perseverance that was Spirit-inspired to move her toward worship once more.
Her witness reminded me of another moment of mystery and wonder I encountered in a small Methodist church building in Bournemouth, England in 2004, with a group of students from the Wesley Foundation at The College of William and Mary. Worship was being led by Kara Cooper, a W&M alum, now a British citizen and Methodist chaplain at Lancaster University. What I will remembers always from that Sunday was a trio of members coming forth, the middle an elderly WW 2 veteran aided and upheld by his fellow sisters in Christ who had come and brought him to the Lord’s Table. There is a hunger and a thirst that only God can quench, that draws us until we draw our last breath, and is a blessing. These poems respond to the epiphanies I was blessed to see today here and then, in England.
Her three-legged crawl near imperceptible
By drivers passing on their way
Like a vine she moves toward the Light
Her outstretched hand feeling for the sign
Aptly marking the privileged place for her
Who no longer moves so fast or far
As others do and once she did
But blesses and is grateful for a place
Reserved for her
Shyly lightly curb-toeing her way up
Wondering not if it can bear her up
But if she can bear herself to that low height
Rocking back and up once twice thrice
The small swell of success waving her on
A one-woman band gliding toward the parade
Others also drawn toward that Light
Just inside the door
Where she expects to meet The Door
The Shepherd True Gate Way of Life
The path paved every first day of life
A lifetime lifelong journey
She cannot think not going
Woman toward the well where the thirsty Savior waits
Thirsty to bless and he blessed
To feed and be fed
Welcomed Home once more grateful
Table set and prayer ended
Bread fractured Cup filled
Hungry hearts anticipating
Empty hands filled with hope
The pastor stands
Ordinary ways ordinary folk
Nothing new as always
Until he comes they come as one
Mystery on the move
An ancient man
Armed with two women
Who stand him guide him on
Lest he fall or fail
To reach the goal of God
No rush ever patient
They have eternity
Feet sliding on holy ground
Once young guarding shore
Ludicrously armed with battle axe
Now feebly muscled yet faith strong armed
He comes as two stand guard and lead
The pastor ready at her post to feed and bless
A miracle seen at life’s ebbing shore
Ancient soldier at ease before the soul’s Guard
At peace and fed and blessed
By two by all by One
And blessings he because I saw
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.
O God who knows and sees all:
She died this morning. We do not know the ins and outs of how it came to be, but one she bore bore no interest in her passing. Papers signed and legalities addressed and niceties tended, the child said good-bye to others, swore she would not return and cared neither to know when the mother died or how her mortal remains were disposed, and stepped away into an unknown future.
O God who knows and sees all:
We do no know what failings brought such fracture of family; we cannot know the deep seas of anger, pain, rejection, abuse or guilt that roil the lives of others; or overwhelm the connections of kin; or drown fragile cargoes of faith or hope, love or mercy, kindness or forgiveness. But you know, O God, and so knowing nothing of these your children, we simply and humbly pray for mercy and healing, forgiveness and grace, tenderness toward wounds, and peace beyond all knowing.
O God who knows and sees all:
She did not die alone. You were there at her final breath as at her first; you knew her before she was born and now know her in ways we cannot know. For that we give you thanks. And we give thanks for nurses and volunteers who tended her with compassion and care simply because she was in need, and that was what could be offered. Blessings and glory to you for goodness given and received without regard.
O God who knows and sees all:
She did not die alone. She was in the company of countless others among your beloved who died today; again we do not know them or their stories, and mostly most do not notice. The grief would be beyond bearing and so we cease caring; there will be more tomorrow joining those of yesterday and today: refugees on high seas or behind high walls, street children or old folks who simply lived too long, the addicted or victims of violence not in our backyard, homeless folks or immigrants in a desert, people who were a pain and hard to endure and whose passing is sadly but honestly, a relief.
O God who knows and sees all:
Daily your great heart is battered and broken; your tenderness toward your own knows no bounds; your sadness before suffering does not know limits. Soften our hearts; open our eyes; inspire us to notice even the least of these; and in whatever way we can, great or small, enable us to companion and befriend those most in need, and trust that at our end, you will know and see and stay with us, who also are your precious and beloved.
Words form sentences, which give shape to ideas, which constitute philosophies, ideologies and world-views, which ultimately inspire and shape ways of living, priorities, understandings, values, and faith.
But we can be rather cavalier with how we use words, which can result in shoddy thinking and poorly formed lives. That can be particularly true with theological language and thought, and the consequent understanding of who God is, our relationship with God, and our practices of discipleship.
This is a problem I often ponder, as a theologian and member of Christ’s Body, the church (specifically that portion of the Body which exists in the USA), and as someone committed to language well used. Here in the US we are often motivated by what works, and not necessarily by what is faithful, true, or consistent with the teachings of scripture, or the rich tradition of the church through the ages. That utilitarian spirit is also sometimes reflected in our God language and church practices.
For many years, The Interpreter was published as a resource for clergy and lay leadership of The United Methodist Church. Each issue included a section called, “It Worked for Us,” in which subscribers would report on activities and programs that “had worked” in attracting people, capturing the interest of children, involving youth, etc. Certainly some of the stories were inspiring and helpful in sharing news of imaginative or creative ways to deepen faith and form disciples. Others were, quite honestly, inane or frivolous. The most memorable of these for me was the story of a church that put goldfish in the baptismal font, not because there was any expressed symbolic meaning or theological significance to having fish there, but because “the children loved it.”
When German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) spent a year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, his initial impressions of the curriculum and the student body left him rather unimpressed. Charles Marsh writes in Strange Glory: A Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), “He was decidedly underwhelmed by a religious culture in which people fashioned their beliefs the same way a man ordered a car from the factory – according to taste and preference,” and surmised that “pragmatism explained much about Protestantism in the New World” (Marsh, 103). Bonhoeffer studied the writings of William James extensively while a student at Union, which to his mind “was the intellectual source of the local compulsion ‘to hasten past difficult problems and to linger inordinately on things that are either self-evident or that without additional preparation cannot possibly be adequately addressed.'” He also described his classmates initially as completely “clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions…. [T]hey talk a ‘blue streak,’ but often without the ‘slightest substantive foundation,’ blithely indifferent to the two thousand years of Christian thought” (Marsh, 104).
Which, finally, brings me to the topic of prayer: how we pray, the focus of our prayers, and what I humbly consider to be right and faithful prayer. I begin by confessing that I have not always prayed aright, or in conformity with the thoughts that follow, and gratefully claim the grace that covers a multitude of sins, including talking out of my head, or praying with ignorant foolishness.
Today, as is often my practice, I went to Bruton Parish Episcopal Church to participate in the mid-week service of Eucharist. While waiting for the time of worship to arrive, I paged through The Book of Common Prayer, looking to find a prayer appropriate for preparing myself for worship, when I encountered this Call to Confession in the liturgy for Morning Prayer:
Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation. And so that we may prepare ourselves in heart and mind to worship him, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.
What a wonderful template for forming prayers and disciples, reminiscent of the ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) prayer form I learned as a child. What particularly caught my eye and heart was this statement: to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.
To ask: when we address and petition the Sovereign of the universe, it is unseemly to make demands, to assume that the Holy One is our servant required to be at our beck and call and to provide for our every want. It is an act of hubristic arrogance to presume that our personal needs are most important in the universe, or that we know what is best for its maintenance and operation, or that we are so important that nature’s laws should fall before us simply because that is our wish and desire. We humans are treasured and cherished by God, along with the whole creation, and God is always at work for our good; so says Paul in his letter to the Romans in the New Testament. But sometimes what is best for us is not what we want; sometimes our personal desires cannot be met without harming others; there are some things that must happen simply because we are creatures, and not God. We will all die; we age and suffer injuries of all stripes; we experience failure and disappointment; we are nowhere guaranteed that in all times and all places we can have our way or whatever we want; sometimes the wisest and best answer to our prayers is not yes, but no or not yet. Prayer rooted in trust and humility knows the wisdom of asking in prayer, and not making demands, or threatening to walk away from God if God doesn’t deliver in the way we want.
For ourselves and on behalf of others: We thrive best in the world and most faithfully, when we acknowledge that we live in community, not in isolation. It is certainly appropriate to pray for ourselves, and to make known our needs and desires, to the God and Parent of all. Most attentive and loving human parents know what is happening in their children’s lives; they may not know exactly or fully what is transpiring, but they likely have the sense that something delightful or dreadful is occupying their children’s lives, hearts and minds. To paraphrase some words of Jesus, if we who are evil know such things, certainly we can trust our Creator Parent to know us more fully and deeply. But there is something powerful and transformative about speaking our desires, failures, regrets, sorrows and shortcomings, our need for guidance and help. Sometimes it is in praying and speaking that truth is revealed to us that otherwise would not have come. And all of aspects of our prayer life are richer and more full when offered in light of the needs of others with fresh awareness of the possible repercussions my prayer requests may have on the lives of others. If what I ask will diminish the life of another, or is not rooted in mercy and love, it seems I should not offer that prayer. If my quest for abundance of resources and riches causes harm to others, it seems I should pray differently. If what I want damages and puts at risk others or the creation today or in the future, that is not a prayer I should offer, and I trust it will not be favorably heard by the God who loves and cherishes all.
Those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation: In my life I have prayed for many thing not necessary for life and my salvation, and have heard countless others do the same: for my team to win, for a good grade, not to be caught in my sin or to escape punishment for lesser deeds, to be chosen for some select group, to be popular or wealthy or successful by the world’s standards, to win the lottery. These are things we may want, but they are not essential; they are not necessary for true life and salvation. Indeed, we may sometimes be so bold as to pray for things that are not good for us, or for an abundance beyond our need.
For people of faith there are few things necessary for life and salvation: faith, hope, love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, commitment to justice and right living, insight and discernment leading to true wisdom, peace, deep awareness of divine presence, daily sustenance, shelter, warmth, security, a sense of belonging and communion, meaning and purpose, goodness (for the Christian, Christlikeness). When we pray for what we need rather than what we want, our prayers become more lean, more focused, simpler, more humble and expressive of our acknowledged dependence on God. Life is less focused on my will or the things of this world that pass away, and on what is eternally significant and valuable. Indeed, our words paradoxically may become fewer because we pray for fewer things, and more expansive as they probe more deeply and extend to the needs of others I may previously have failed to notice because I was so preoccupied with my own wants. And through God’s grace, the words I offer in prayer become a way for the Word made flesh to transform me to know what truly matters; for words do matter.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.
One of my colleagues in campus ministry knows his faith is weak. He’s not ashamed to confess that he doesn’t watch R-rated movies without checking with some of his soul friends or accountability partners. Watching some such movies takes him to a place that’s not good for him as a disciple, and so he counts on friends giving him good advice. They don’t judge him; they don’t think they’re better Christians than he because they don’t have such problems. Every Christian needs to have such folks in our lives, who we can trust to watch over us in love and not judge or mock the ways we believe are best and faithful for us and to keep us company on Christ’s Way.
Paul knew about Christians with weak faith as well as strong, and he writes about them in today’s reading from his letter to the Christians in Rome. The weak eat only vegetables while the strong are meat and potatoes kind of folk; the weak put a priority on one day of the week as more sacred while the strong treat every day the same. It might not sound like a big deal to us, but my friend who wonders about R-rated movies gets it. What may not be a big deal for one can challenge another.
Being true to Christ in 1st century Rome’s more complicated than you think. You don’t get your meat at the local grocer but from the local pagan temple, where it’s been sacrificed to a pagan god or to honor the emperor who’s honored like a god. So the weak in faith don’t eat meat to show their utter loyalty to Christ; the strong eat whatever’s put in front of them because they know the gods aren’t real and Caesar only thinks he’s in charge. In the same way the weak especially setting aside one day for God are perhaps honoring the Sabbath; or they know that pagans pay special attention to the moon’s cycle and particular days as having magical power or mystical importance. Again, they want to show their complete loyalty to Christ. And those with strong faith don’t fret it; they know all power comes from God, not the moon or the stars.
We don’t fuss and fume over those things, but we have real conflicts in the church over what does matter to us: drop down screens; contemporary vs. traditional worship; baptism by sprinkling, pouring or immersion; monthly or weekly Communion; meeting local needs or over there; how we interpret scripture; how we think and act on social issues as disciples; whether the flag should be allowed in an embassy of heaven and a sanctuary devoted to the Lord of all nations.
So how do we live together when faith leads us different ways? Paul gives some very helpful advice. First, don’t judge each other. It’s not our place, or our job. As Pope Francis responded when asked about homosexuality, “Who am I to judge another?” Paul reminds us that God has already accepted the person with whom we differ; they’re part of God’s posse, so who are we to question God’s commitment to them? If you live your faith and life in Christ differently from me, what’s that to me? You’re not my slave, but Christ’s. I’m not your master; Christ is. Whatever happens with your faith and life is Christ’s business, not mine, and Christ has the power to raise both of us to life.
Paul’s not saying anything goes. How we live and trust in Christ matters. My friend with weak faith clearly knows that. But we’re to think deeply and carefully and prayerfully about it means to be true to God’s will and purpose, and to act on our own convictions, in line with what we discern to be Christ’s Way. I’m not at the center of your life; I’m not even at the center of my own life, to decide on my own all by myself how to live for Christ. We both live to the Lord, for the Lord; we both belong to the Lord; our actions and attitudes are to please and honor Christ alone, not ourselves nor anyone else. How I experience God’s work and will in my life may not be yours; my life doesn’t have to be the mirror image of yours. But both our lives are to reflect the love and mercy and grace and healing power and light of Christ. We’re not to judge one another but to love and honor each other in Christ. In one translation of these verses, Paul seems to call out folks individually: “You then, why do you pass judgment on your fellow-Christian? And you, why do you look down on your fellow-Christian? We shall all stand before God’s tribunal; each of us will be answerable to God.”
I have enough trouble living faithfully myself without judging your discipleship. Later in this chapter Paul advises, “Let’s make up our minds never to put a stumbling block or obstacle in a fellow-Christian’s way. All I know is that the Lord Jesus convinces me that nothing is impure in itself. The kingdom of God is justice, peace and joy, inspired by the Holy Spirit. All who show themselves servants of Christ in this way are acceptable to God and receive human approval.”
Why does this matter? We’re the only Bible some people will read; we’re the face of Christ some will most remember. We convince the world the gospel’s true, or they decide it’s a lie, based on the evidence seen in our us. At the funeral of a dead relative, one of my cousins said, “She was the meanest Christian woman I know.” Sadly there was some truth there. Our relative was quite ready to be judge and jury to let you know where you’d gone wrong. But that wasn’t her job, and her scowl was the face of Jesus some turned from. Truth is, many folks won’t go near a church because we’re so judgmental. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Why does this matter? When we judge others and build barriers there’s little room for love. John Wesley knew that Christians sometimes were unable or unwilling to live in communion with one another and he said, “The pretenses and excuses for separation may be innumerable, but the lack of love is always the real cause.”
Why does this matter? When we lose our focus and misplace our priorities as disciples in Christ’s community, we fall into following the world’s familiar ways. Can’t get along? Move to another neighborhood, go your separate ways, unfriend her, stop talking to him, get a divorce; demonize your opponent to win at all costs. But that’s not Christ’s Way: he welcomed all, made room for a tax collector and a terrorist among his disciples, he was the friend of sinners, which includes me, and you. Christian community reflects the life of the Triune God who is one in three and three in one, united but not identical. Such life together is an act of subversive resistance to the world and to those who conquer us by dividing us into parties and factions. Wouldn’t it be great if our words of welcome in worship were to saints and sinners, regular pew sitters, those here for the first time or after a long time; married, single, divorced, young, old, straight, gay, Democrats, Libertarians, Republicans, members of the Tea Party, the Green Party, the Green Tea Party – more mellow, less irked: all welcomed by the Christ who died and rose for all; all welcomed because above all else we honor and serve the Christ who holds us together and meets us at his Table. That’s Gospel truth, for sure.
Why does this matter? Today we United Methodists are more at risk of giving up on each other than at any time since the Civil War when we could not find a way forward over slavery. Those were not our best or more faithful days, but eventually the Spirit in love made us one once more. Today we risk doing something similar with regard to sexuality. In my entire ministry life, matters related to homosexuality have been debated, even fought over. Last year, our General Conference stepped back from the edge of division to establish the Commission on the Way Forward to discern if and how we might live together in mission and ministry, even in our differences. The truth is, good and faithful friends of Jesus can deeply disagree and be deeply convicted that their understanding of faith and life is still valid. Can we live together in Christ in that tension and diversity? Can we trust and respect each other’s deepest convictions and commitments in Christ, even if yours is different from mine? Can I admit I might be wrong or honor the truth you profess; can I see that there’s more to God than I know; that God’s ways are beyond my small ways; and we’re both accepted by God and Christ can make us both stand?
My friend Kara is a University Chaplain in the British Methodist Church. This summer she visited an artist’s glassworks studio in a small English town and struck up a conversation with the owner, Jill. Jill asked Kara what she does for a living. Preachers can often be pegged, so Kara chose to say she works at a university in student welfare. Jill asked about issues students face, and Kara said that in addition to typical ones like homesickness or relationships, students wrestle with some very complex issues around sexuality and gender identity. That’s when Kara remembered she wasn’t in a particularly progressive part of England; Jill’s body language seemed to shift to a more aggressive position as she asked “And what do you think about that?” Kara took a deep breath, looked at Jill and said, “Shakespeare said, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ So I think that just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not real and true and painful for someone else.” Jill stared at Kara for a very long time and then her demeanor softened as she said, ‘You must be very good at your job.’” There was open grace and truth there, and humility and love, too.
John Wesley said, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand;” he also gave us this wisdom for life together in Christ’s church, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity. Paul could live with that. May we do the same, thanks be to God.
- David M, Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.