“Our hopes…have got to be supernatural.”

Body of Christ

On October 2, 1962, Thomas Merton wrote in his journal,

Today, the community begins the novena for the II Vatican Council…The Council is certainly a most momentous event. Much more than we realize, although we keep telling ourselves how important it is. Important not at all as window dressing or public relations, but as a supernatural event. I have no patience with the thesis that the main purpose of the Council is to show the rest of the world that the Catholic Church is united, coherent; articulate (indeed, there is talk of struggle and conflict)…Our hopes for the Council have got to be supernatural. What matters now is prayer.

I am a United Methodist pastor (a Provisional Elder, in UMCspeak, if you’re fluent). We too are in the midst of major church-changing events. As one official source frames it (more cordially than many of us are actually experiencing it), “The matters of human sexuality and unity are the presenting issues for a deeper conversation that surfaces different ways of interpreting Scripture and theological tradition.”

Like Merton said of Vatican II, we’re in the midst of “a momentous event…more than we realize, even though we keep telling ourselves how important it is.” The biggest pieces right now are cases before our Judicial Council (with the majority of its April docket relating to human sexuality), The Commission on a Way Forward, and the presumptive special General Conference in 2019.

Perhaps especially if you understand all that church jargon above, it’s easy to lose sight of this main point: despite all the human trappings, this is a supernatural event. God is at work here. (Actually, if Jesus is fully man and fully God, then we shouldn’t be surprised at supernatural human events being the normal way God works.) And if it’s a supernatural event, then indeed “What matters now is prayer.”

The whole UMC has been called to pray, my bishop has called my Conference to pray, my District Superintendent has called me to pray, and I know I ought to be praying, but I rarely have. Merton’s clear-eyed diagnosis gives me the emotional shove I need (and perhaps channels the Holy Spirit’s shove) truly to commit to prayer in the midst of all this. I hope you’ll join me, that even if we United Methodists are not your tribe, you’ll recognize our connection to you within God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

——
Bonus: this is what a novena is.

The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams numbers not only among the most influential theologians in the world, but among the top living minds, period. His career is both impressive and praiseworthy—dedication over the course of his career to both local church ministry and the Christian academy, faithful leadership at the top of the Anglican Communion through its recent global rupture, and no hesitation to use his weight as a public theologian and political figure in the UK and beyond.

Williams also keeps writing lovely little books for the church, like The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection.

Rowan Williams Sign and the Sacrifice

This book is divided neatly in two. Part 1: The Meaning of the Cross is subdivided into “The sign,” “The sacrifice,” and “The victory.” Part 2: The Meaning of the Resurrection is split into “Christ’s resurrection—then” and “Christ resurrection—now.” Along the way Williams presents, analyzes, and invites us to contemplate just as wide of a swath through Christian history, theology, and practice as the book’s subtitle and organization suggest. Deep dives into Scripture and theology accompany references to literature as well as—in what turns out to be most distinctive in this book—the hymnody and prayers of the church.

The annoyance I have with this book is that points of theological argument and conversations in Biblical criticism are frustratingly lacking in footnotes. The bigger qualm I have is that in the second part of the book, I want Williams to unequivocally state, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and he never does. There are certainly statements that can be read that way, particularly a conversation on how Jewish conceptions of resurrection at the time of Jesus could not imagine a resurrection apart from this earth. In Part 2 as a whole, however, I find Williams to be equivocating on what the nature of Jesus’ resurrection is, and thus the nature of what our resurrection will be, although he certainly believes that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that it was the defining act of the new creation.

In terms of best audience and application, the book is successfully aimed at normal church folks. It is intellectually serious, but it isn’t unapproachable, and it even has helpful conversation questions at the end of each chapter. For me personally, I can think of several people to recommend it to, especially fellow pastors. It would be a tremendous book to plan a sermon series around, especially during Lent.

I’ll end with a longer quote to draw you in to take a chance on this excellent book:

Jesus’ death is not a ritual sacrifice. It doesn’t happen in a temple, it happens on a bleak hilltop on an execution ground. Jesus’ sacrifice is the sacrifice of obedience. At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. So even before his crucifixion we could say in Jewish terms that he was offering a sacrifice, giving his heart to God in such a way that God is pleased with his gift.

But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed.

God’s Filing Cabinet

The X-Files

When I was growing up, I was taught to understand the daily Christian life as “walking by the Spirit” (cf. Gal. 5:16).  What that meant until perhaps ten years ago (and still means at times of high stress and low coping) was that there was some exactly right plan in God’s head, and I was anxiously trying not to fail it.

Things which aren’t psychologically healthy are never spiritually healthy.

They’re not theologically accurate either: that vision of God and God’s plan had nothing to do with Jesus or the Spirit of Jesus Christ (as the Holy Spirit is repeatedly named in Scripture).

Thomas Merton puts this all so well (from “Renunciation and Contemplation,” quoted in Fr. Albert Haase, Swimming in the Sun, pp. 123-124):

“Your vocation isn’t something that’s in a filing cabinet in Heaven that is kept secret from you and then sort of whipped out at the Last Judgment and [God says], ‘You missed, buddy! You didn’t guess right.’ But your vocation, or anything in life, is an invitation on the part of God which you’re not supposed to guess and you’re not supposed to figure out. It’s something you work out by free response.”

I still think “walk by the Spirit” is a decent, short description of the daily Christian life. But now I want to offer a bigger picture: “walk by the Spirit” when the Spirit is experienced through the whole Biblical canon; in community with other Christians, living and dead (the Tradition); via the Sacraments; and in lived experience, both my personal experience and in connection with the larger human experience.

Joyfully.

Not a Psalm of Asaph

Psalm LXXXII
And there was December and there was January,
A new year.

And in this new year, I will
I will, I will, I will, I will, I will
I will–

But what will I be?

I will be more beautiful
Than the angels,
Although with regard to me
The answer is zero
Can dance on the head of a pin.

But what shall I be
And what shall be and
What shall be
And what shall I be?

God has said, “You are gods,”
And God meant it.

What of the Star?

Magi following star
This week I finished reading Scott Hahn’s Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (and Still Does). It’s a good devotional read for the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany seasons, especially for its deep dives into traditional Christian interpretations of the Christmas story.

From his chapter on the Magi of Matthew 2:

And what of the star?

As far back as the fourth century, Saint John Chrysostom pointed out that it didn’t behave like any other star anyone had ever seen…

“This star,” said Saint John Chrysostom, “was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, it seems to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance.”…stars in the sky were often identified with angels in heaven. The motif appears in the Bible, and in other Jewish sources from the time of Jesus. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria speculated that the stars “are living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind.”…

John Chrysostom may have been pre-scientific and pre-critical in his thinking, but he wasn’t stupid.

With John Chrysostom I have to conclude that an angel appeared to the Magi as light and led them to true worship—which, as I’ve said before, is what angels were created to do.

Key for me is this sentence: “Chrysostom may have been pre-scientific and pre-critical in his thinking, but he wasn’t stupid.” For some of us, we need that basic fact: he wasn’t stupid. For others of us, it’s not that we think people of the past were stupid, but rather that we assume they were ignorant.

“Pre-scientific” means that Chrysostom didn’t understand the motion of celestial bodies as well as we do. At the same time, Chrysostom’s view of reality was larger than many of ours. He had room for the observable and empirically measurable as well as room for things beyond those categories. I hope I have room in my life and my outlook for things that don’t make sense. I hope I don’t have an explanation for the glory of God. I hope that sometimes I can still experience wonder and worship and lead others to worship—which is what humans were created to do.

The Church Is More Than a Business

Church by Buildings
This is the time of year in the United Methodist Church where much of our formal reflection on the previous year’s ministry takes place. Among the persistent goals in my ministry is to fully live into my job description from Ephesians 4:12–“to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” I’ve written previously on just how little attention is given to leadership formation (in terms of character or skills development) in seminary. This lack is multiplied when the ordained minister’s job is both to lead and to form and lead other leaders (many of whom highly capable leaders in the marketplace).

For United Methodists, there are particular leadership structures already laid out for us in our Book of Discipline. Instead of a board of deacons or elders, we have various leadership committees dedicated to particular tasks. Sometimes this prescribed structure is very, very helpful: it’s possible to develop a deep and wide lay leadership within the church. Sometimes the structure is very unhelpful: even small churches have slow decision-making processes, and the number of required roles can mean filling leadership positions with bodies rather than placing people according to their gifts and calling.

(I hope this last doesn’t sound like a slight against anyone. In Paul’s bodily terms, sometimes the Book of Discipline calls for a set number of ears, a set number of eyes, a set number of hands, but your church doesn’t have those people, so it just uses whoever is willing to fill prescribed roles. The best pastors and leadership teams get shrewd at this point, through creating alternate structures, re-crafting roles around particular people, and trusting that the Gospel at its heart says that God is creating beautiful things with whatever raw materials we have to offer.)

And then there are the meetings. Even if meetings are good meetings–actually, especially if they are good meetings–they are full of business from beginning to end. But the church is more than a business. In far too many churches, a church meeting is a small business meeting with a prayer at the beginning and maybe at the end, if we remember. Most pastors and most lay leaders long for something better, something that differentiates what we’re doing from what any other institution with a business side is doing. But we don’t know how to do better.

There was some literature several years ago on transforming church business meetings into worship services. You introduce a liturgy, have a call to worship, some prayers, maybe some singing, maybe even celebrate the Eucharist, and in the midst of the worship service is the business meeting. This might work in some settings, but it has massive downsides: 1) It’s difficult to actually enter into worship because of the business that actually does need to be done, and 2) It’s difficult to get all the business done because we’re trying to worship together. I’m glad if that works somewhere, but it sounds like a lose-lose.

So here’s my goal: find a schedule and shared practices for the coming year in which business happens at business meetings, but we also have time for worship and spiritual formation specifically as leaders. The foundational text for thinking through how to do this practically is going to be the ever-excellent Ruth Haley Barton’s Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.

The Immortal Hazelnut

Julian with Hazelnut

I’m currently rereading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, and this is from the Short Text (Elizabeth Spearing translation):

And in this vision [Christ] showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind’s eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last for ever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three attributes: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God cares for it.

The multiverse is the size of a hazelnut, and you couldn’t find me or yourself in it if you looked at it with the most powerful microscope on earth, and this is good news. As Julian continues a page later, “until all that is made seems as nothing, no soul can be at rest. When a soul sets all at nothing for love, to have him who is everything that is good, then it is able to receive spiritual rest.”

There are times, in the thick of things, when I get overwhelmed and too close to the work I am trying to do as the pastor of two small churches. Despite being regular in spending time in Scripture and devotional readings and prayer, fairly regular in mindful silence, in journaling, in conversation with others, I simply lose perspective. And when this happens, I become less effective and more anxious, and it takes some time and effort to regain perspective and balance.

I stumbled into a miniature retreat on Friday in the form of an 80-minute drive to a meeting. I found that I needed to turn the podcast off and just start talking to God out loud. What I was looking for was God’s reminder, “This is who you are.” I’d name that in retrospect as the need for a renewal of calling. And I received what I was looking for, in this case the sense of “Do not over-identify with the churches you serve, their successes or failures or programs or hopes or fears or futures or lack of future.”

Who I am is A Person God Made. I can have great success, and that won’t make me more than that. I can utterly fail in every sense that you or I could consider failure, and that won’t make me less than that. Richard Rohr terms this understanding of personhood the “immortal diamond” (a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins, after Rohr puts a couple layers of Jung on top of Merton’s concept of the “true self”) to name what identity actually means in God. It’s part of the same whole that Julian once saw as a ball the size of a hazelnut.

Before and after all the voluntary and involuntary associations and relationships and places and works that I enter into, there is some eternal, inviolable identity which God has made from love and which God sustains in love. And that self has no fear, because that self still resides in the hand of God, who is Love, and there is no fear in love. That’s not something I need to know as a pastor. That’s something I need to know as a human being. Only when I know this can I enter fully and healthily into all those relationships and works I’m a part of. And only when I know this can I find rest.