How I Went to Church and Was Convicted of Being Disingenuous (and That Was a Good Thing)

     Yesterday I went to church and was blessed with an awareness of how I had been disingenuous with my children over the years; how easy it is to be seduced by the Siren songs of our culture; and how daunting it is to be the disciple you long to be. I suspect I am not alone in that.
     Now rest assured, this insightful moment of conviction did not lead me to feel an overbearing load of guilt, or beat me down with a sense of being an utter screw-up. It was a grace-filled experience in which I could accept the truth of what I heard, acknowledge my failure to live into that truth, and experience the mystery of divine acceptance, nevertheless, providing hope that I can move on and be more honest and truthful in days to come.
     Moments like these again confirm for me why I need to be engaged in worship, prayer, scripture study, and Christian community on an ongoing basis, as I hear truth through the community and its means of grace I will not hear otherwise. There is a generous acceptance, and offer of ongoing transformation and sanctification that I would not necessarily believe, if I did not continue to hear of such things in such practices and among others who also are on this journey with me.
     When our children were little and restless in worship, I would often lean over and whisper to them, “Trust me; you get a better dad at the end of this time than the one you brought with you.” I don’t think that at their young age they had any idea what I was talking about, but it was true. At its best, Christian worship is an occasion for truth-telling, conviction, conversion, gratitude and joy for the offer of such gifts.  
     Yesterday was a day for such gifts to be offered. As is often the case, yesterday brought me to Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, which provides a service of Eucharist each Wednesday. Typically the focus of the Word proclaimed is on a saint of the church whose feast day falls on or near a particular Wednesday. Yesterday’s gospel text was one of the tellings of Jesus’ teaching that if we want to gain our life, we must lose it by taking up our cross and following in the Jesus Way; it included the compelling question, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul? And what can they give to buy it back?” Or as the New English Bible puts it, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their true self? And what can they give to buy back their true self?”
     The priest told us that this particular text is often used for the feast days of martyrs throughout the liturgical year, and said that the saints are those who show in their lives what it is to live self-sacrificially. And then he spoke the truth that convicted me in a profoundly deep and compelling way.
     I cannot quote him exactly; preaching is such an in the moment, aural experience. But this is what I remember: the saints give the lie to what culture tells us about how to live well. We are told life’s goal is happiness, and we tell our children that all we want is for them to be happy.
     But in reality, he said,what we want for them is to be good and to enter into the life of God. And I thought, “Yes, that is true.”
     That is what I have ever wanted for myself when I have been my best self and most honest. And to be good, to participate in the true and beautiful, is to enter into the life of God who alone is true, good, beautiful, all-together right, just and merciful. At my best and and most honest, that is who I want to be. It is not something I can achieve on my own. It is not always an easy route and is not always a source of happiness. But to participate in that reality is to experience joy and fullness of life.
     Happiness is so ephemeral, fleeting, and transitory. What promises to give happiness today will be passé tomorrow, and a new source of happiness will be offered that also will soon fade away. I am persuaded that I can always be joyful, even in the most horrible of circumstances; but perpetual happiness is an illusion, and the quest for it as a permanent feature of life even is perhaps something unhealthy and foolish.        On more than one occasion I have told my children that all I wanted for them was for them to be happy. But as the preacher said yesterday, what I really wanted for them was that they would be good, and participate in the life of God.
     And what I mean by “being good” is not a bourgeoisie goodness that entails being nice, obedient, compliant with authority, and adhering to the rules of society. By goodness I mean a life characterized by the goodness of God, which includes mercy, grace, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, compassion for the poor and weak, advocacy for those demeaned or mocked or marginalized, a life of integrity and commitment to the well-being of all, even if that requires self-sacrifice. Such goodness produces a sense of wholeness and harmony of life that is seen in the wholeness and harmony of the Triune God known in the Christian tradition, and embodied in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ.
     And participating in the life of God is grander and broader than simply participating in the life of the church, as useful (and as maddening) as that may be. It is a good thing, a means to the greater end, but in and of itself ultimately it is not enough. Life in God is so much more. Our culture whispers that true happiness is found through self-actualization. Be the best you you can be, do whatever brings you contentment, whatever works for you. The problem is that such promises put me at the center of my life, and prioritizes my happiness above all other things, including what is good and life-giving for you and others who also inhabit this village we inhabit.
     What culture offers is an inversion or perversion of the truth told by the faith community. That truth is that I find myself by losing my self in the life of God so that, as St. Paul puts it, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me.” I may be able to reflect such life and goodness in my own life; that is what grace enables. But apart from a deep, intimate, and ongoing connection with God, in which God’s life continues to flow through me and nourish the goodness within, it will soon wither and fade, like a cut flower. As Jesus put it, “I am vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
     That’s really what I want for myself and my children: life abundant, i.e., living in God and being shaped and formed in that divine image and likeness. Happiness through self-actualization, as offered by the world, is a poor substitute for such glory. I believe true happiness and deep and abiding joy are possible in the Way lived by Jesus. I was convicted yesterday that I simply have been disingenuous and have not always told this entire truth to those dearest to me (ironically because I did not want to turn them away from this hidden joy); I pretended that I knew less than I really did.
     By God’s grace, I strive to be better; such blessing is priceless and too valuable not to speak with all truthfully, humbly and with grace, including those who are especially most precious. 
Advertisements

In All Things, Charity: A Sermon Based on Romans 14:1-12

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.

A Sermon for Stephen Ministries Sunday, Based on Philippians 4:4-14 & Mark 10:46-52

          In my time at the Wesley Foundation, one of the yearly low-lights of orientation for new students was icebreakers: the important but endless activities helping students get to know each other and feel more at home on campus. By the end of orientation, students were too through.
          But one such icebreaker activity still stands out for me. It was done several times on a Sunday afternoon so every new student participated, but in smaller groups of 300 or so. It began with all the students on one side of the room; then the leader would call out a description and if it fit you, you moved to the other side of the room. It started out fairly tame: if you have blue eyes, move to the other side; if you’re from Virginia; if you’re Baptist; if you have siblings. Gradually the exercise dug deeper: if your parents are divorced; you’ve experienced the death of a peer; you know someone with cancer; someone mentally ill; someone with an addiction; is in an abusive relationship; who’s thought about suicide. Students became quieter, more pensive; they looked around to see who also moved with them, and saw they weren’t alone. Somebody knew the troubles they’d seen; there were tears, the occasional embrace or a knowing look; strangers saw they had more in common than they thought. True community began to form through the bonds of shared struggle. For me it was a moment of holiness born of vulnerability.
          It’d be interesting to get up right now and move into the Fellowship Hall to do a similar exercise, perhaps with other descriptions: if you’ve ever been bullied; concerned about health; dealing with dementia; in conflict with children or parents, or both. But we’ll have none of that; we prefer safe and predictable worship; we might go over an hour; oddly enough we fear the church is the last place to show our wounds, even as we claim to be disciples of the Christ whose wounds are still visible. But if we did such a thing and moved into that space, we probably would be stunned to see the wounds we bear. Some are still fresh; perhaps recently opened, or a scab’s broken-again. Even if our wounds are now scars, we know they’re there and some areas are still sensitive; all of us came limping here one way or another. And at least for some, there’s a lingering, longing wish that we were a community where wounds could be more easily shared.
          We live in a culture that tells us to be quiet, don’t make a mess, keep your troubles to yourself; we’re entered into an endless competition always to be the best, the brightest, the happiest, the most successful, the most beautiful and fit. That competition produces one of the most depressing parts of December: the Christmas letter from folks touting their great successes and accomplishments. Did you ever notice that when tough times came to folks’ lives, the letters stopped coming, too?
          For a younger generation the phenomenon of social comparison is linked to depression, low self-esteem, and jealousy. It’s the funk felt on Facebook or other social media when our humdrum lives bump up against our friends’ highlight reels of fun, parties with friends, and awesome vacations. Ugh.
          Thank God for another, more real and true story found in scripture. What a blessed relief to see that wounds are real; terrible things happen; life can be a mess; and that that isn’t the end of the story. As many a preacher has said, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. We know Good Friday’s darkness, but Easter dawns. The Crucified Jesus is also the Risen Lord. An imprisoned Paul on his way to Rome and possible execution writes to Christians in the town of Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Do not worry about anything, but in everything let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus;” then he is bold to say, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We followers of Christ can sing this truth, “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack, in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)
          Sisters and bothers, it’s OK, even a blessing, to own our brokenness and our need, and to cry out for help, even when good people around us tell us that’s in poor taste, or to shush up. It’s a blessing, because that’s how healing and transformation happen.
          Imagine how unsettled the crowd is around Bartimaeus when he begins to howl for help, “Jesus! Son of David, have mercy on me!” A bunch of folks tell him to put a sock in it, but desperately hopeful people do desperately hopeful things so he just cranks it up a notch, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And then Jesus says, “Call him here.” Did you notice that? Jesus’ call doesn’t come directly from him but through the crowd. It’s the crowd that says, ”Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Healing comes from Jesus, but through the caring help of those around Bartimaeus.
          Think of what would’ve been missed if Bartimaus had just shut up and stayed in his proper place. The crowd would’ve stayed distant and removed; they would’ve missed the opportunity to help healing happen. They would’ve missed seeing God’s amazing power transform a life. Bartimaeus would’ve stayed blind, he would’ve stayed put, begging on the sidelines, and he would’ve missed seeing the face of Jesus and the adventure of getting up to follow on the Way.
          For this gospel, following on the Way is not just walking a road; it’s following Jesus, being a disciple.  In Mark’s Gospel, Bartimaeus sees what the disciples hadn’t: following Jesus is about serving, not being served, finding life by giving it away, becoming great through suffering love. Bartimaeus was never the same.
          And I suspect that following Jesus led him to see that becoming like Jesus meant helping others also to experience healing and hope and new life. And I suspect the crowd was never the same, either. Because of what they saw and said that day, they knew they’d had a part in God’s work of healing a life.
          That’s our calling and promise, too. What happened with that crowd and Bartimaeus can still happen here in this place, where Jesus also stands. Indeed, it happens, every week.
          When I left the Wesley Foundation to become the pastor of the United Methodist Church at Randolph-Macon College, I was thankful that dedicated Stephen Ministers were there; we became a ministry team as I offered first response to need, and they followed with long term care as I went to the next crisis. We knew that together we were the care-givers, but God was the Curer. Here too, each week, Stephen Ministry care-givers serve their care-receivers.
          But it isn’t one-way. Blessing comes to all. Any Stephen Minister will tell you they get as much or more out of the humble gift of being allowed into the most fragile parts of a person’s life. They know God guides and helps them; the ministry is simply beyond their ability. They’ll tell you it’s a holy thing to be Christ’s instrument of transformation in a life, and to sense Christ at work through their flesh and blood. Wouldn’t you want to experience Christ alive in such a way?
          And any Stephen Minister will tell you God works in their life through the care-receiver they serve. Every gift of the Spirit has grown in them, especially peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. This ministry’s changed them; they’re more open to others and willing to share their deepest selves, more ready to be still, to wait, to listen. One Stephen Minister confessed, “Christ has developed parts of me I didn’t know I had.” Watch out: put yourself at God’s disposal and you don’t know what’ll happen. But trust me, it’ll all be good, for others, and you. Perhaps God is working on someone right here and now with a challenge and call to let God do such things again. Maybe that call is to you.
          A Stephen Minister here told me she’d once been a care-receiver and it was such a gift in her need that she felt called to share that gift with someone else. Mutual blessing happens when we become wounded healers together in Christ. From prison Paul wrote to the Philippians, “It was kind of you to share my distress.” Paul had birthed that church and helped them come to Christ. Now in his need they were the ones to offer help as mutual care and ministry were given.
          Some years ago I was one of the pallbearers for a friend and mentor who’d died. We were seated in the church together and during the singing of the opening hymn, at one time or another each of us broke down in grief. But the song kept on; others sang for us until we could again join in singing when sadness silenced other voices. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ: sometimes we serve, sometimes we’re served; in all times and places we all join love’s sweet harmony; we hold the Christ light for each other until we can see clearly the Christ who helps us all follow the Way that leads to life, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.