Along The Way: Tending the Flock

​“Tend the flock of God among you” (1Peter 5:2)

During the course of my thirty two years as a seminary professor, I taught courses in United Methodist history, theology, and polity in two theological schools and one Course of Study program.  In doing so, I came to see the differences between these three strands which weave together to create a denominational heritage.

In particular, I saw the distinction between theology and polity, and how in an operational sense, polity often consumes more time, money, and energy.  And while this is a kind of chicken/egg reality where theology and polity are never completely separated (and where one can generate reflection on the other), it is still fair to say that institutional Christianity is given over to polity more than to theology.  Our United Methodist Book of Discipline is a documentary illustration of that fact.  Sociology of religion takes precedence over theology of religion, sometimes leading to more consideration and conflict over the container than the content.

That reality is once again playing out in the dynamics directing the discussions and debates swirling around the future of Methodism as it has been institutionalized in The United Methodist Church since 1968, and before then in pre-UMC days. [1]  

All this came to focus for me in a conversation with an LGBTQ+ person who said, “What’s happening in the UMC has ceased to be about people like me, it is about power and control.  Sometimes I wonder if it has ever been about us.  But whatever the case, LGBTQ+ people have been eclipsed by what the institution is going to look like in its various expressions.”

Part of me wanted to say, “No, you are  still what it’s all about,” but I did not respond that way.  I have been trained to know that in times of oppression, it is the voice of the oppressed that needs to be heard.  And in this case, it was a voice speaking from seeing thing like the following questions increasingly taking center stage in the futuristic controversy…

               –what happens to pensions?

               –how do congregations and Conferences decide whether to stay or go?

               –how do those who leave maintain their church property?

               –how many regions will there be, and what will they look like?

               –how much money will departing entities receive?

               –if there are bishops, what tenure will they have?

               –how will boards and agencies need to be restructured?

Let me be clear: I understand that institutions must deal with the sociology of religion.  I am not trying to create an either/or dynamic in this post.  All I want to highlight is that it is possible to become so institutionally focused that we lose sight of the reason we’re doing all this in the first place.  The Church is people, and the institutional side of Christianity dares not lose that.  

The person’s words, “It’s no longer about us….sometimes I wonder if it has ever been,” cleaned the lens of my mind, returning me to the center.  His remark hit home against the backdrop of the questions above, and many others like them.  And in the revelation that his words provided, I asked myself the question, “How do we prevent LGBTQ+ people from being lost in the shuffle….from becoming grist for the institutional mill…..from becoming invisible in something alleged to be about them?”

And from the soil of that question arose the sprout of an answer—a sprout emerging from Peter’s words, “Tend the flock of God among you.”

Let the institutionalists give themselves  to the sociological task.  We have a process and delegates chosen for this task. They will come up with something, and each of us will know where and how to locate ourselves in what they create.  

Instead, give yourself to the pastoral task.  Peter’s words describe it.  So do words from Paul, “Watch yourselves and the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit has placed you as supervisors, to shepherd God’s church” (Acts 20:28).

More recently, Eugene Peterson formulated what he called the pastor’s question, “Who are these people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” [2]  His question is a gift and guide for ministry in general but it is particularly useful in preventing LGBTQ+ people from being forgotten in the institutional process.  Played out for them, it means things like this…

(1) Visiting with LGBTQ+ people in your congregation.  Ask them the Wesleyan question, “How is it with your soul? “—that is, how do they feel about what’s happening?  Where do they feel encouraged?  Where are they discouraged?  How can the congregation be more loving to and caring of them?  These are the folks who have not left the church.  Befriend them.

(2) Attend and become active in community groups made up of LGBTQ+ people and allies.  A lot of people you never see in church will be there, and if you care for them or ever intend to hear from them, you must go where they are.  Some groups will be faith-oriented; others will be civic in nature.  Become familiar with both.  Together they provide a panoramic view of your locale.  The world is your parish.

(3) Utilize existing resources to increase your understanding of LGBTQ+ people, the challenges they face, and how churches have been in ministry to them.  Reconciling Ministries Network has an excellent resource list of organizations and materials on their website.  I have also placed a resource list on my Oboedire site.

(4) As you do these things, prayerfully “ask, seek, and knock” to discern how you can deepen your personal involvement and how you can engage your congregation on behalf of LGBTQ+ people.  Turn your affirmations about inclusion into actions.

In calling these things pastoral acts, I am not limiting them to the clergy.  Anyone can do these things.  

“Tend the flock of God among you.”   It’s the means of insuring that LGBTQ+ people do not become invisible to you.  It is the way we answer the question “Lord, when did we see you?” as Jesus intends.

[1] Ashley Boggan-Dreff, ‘Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (New Room Books, 2018).  She offers the definitive work today to show how we got to be where we are today.

[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ (Word Publishing, 1989), 11.

Posted in Uncategorized

Along the Way: Real Love

It’s not even noon, and my email box, facebook page, and related social media have presented a host of people and groups, all espousing love as being at the heart of what they are saying and doing.  And not surprisingly, some go on to solicit financial contributions, appealing for would-be donors to “support love.”

Well…yes.  What else would anyone in their right mind want to support?  And if we factor Jesus into the picture, the obvious becomes even more so.

But the moment we make Jesus the portrait and pattern of love, the momentum shifts from the espouser of love to the recipient.  Jesus reframes the narrative away from the giver to the receiver.  For him, the question is not do we allege to be lovers, the question is do people feel loved by us?

Do children feel loved by their parents?

Do wives feel loved by their husbands?

Do LGBTQ+ people feel loved by Christians–or any others, for that matter?

Do non-whites feel loved by white people?

Do non-Christians feel loved by Christians?

Do co-workers feel loved by their colleagues and employers?

Do the “dreamers,” immigrants, and refugees feel loved by this nation?

Do the poor feel loved by the rich?

Not every context uses the word love to define things.  Sometimes the word is ‘respected’….’safe’….‘cared for’….’treated fairly’…. ‘befriended’….’protected’….etc.  But love is the word we all like to claim because we know “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).  So, every group claims to be loving.

But Jesus does not let us get away with that. For him, the story does not end with what we say. He predicates the reality of love not on those who claim to love, but on those who are the said to be loved.  To say, “I love you” means nothing if the other person does not feel loved.

Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 5:16).

Whenever I claim to love someone, Jesus immediately invites that person into the room and says, “Steve claims to love you? Do you feel loved by him?”  That’s the moment when allegation become authentic, or dies on the vine.  That’s the moment when words become Gospel, or just remain words.

The “Jesus Test” of love is whether the words of our testimony land in the hearts of those we claim to love, or hit the ground in front of them with a deadening thud.  The historical principle is this: don’t ask the sender about love, ask the receiver.  Until others feel loved by us, we are only using the word love as a salve to cover over reality and make ourselves feel good.

Jesus loved in word, and deed.  He told people he loved them, and they felt loved by him.  He defines the reality of love for the rest of us.

Posted in Along the Way

Love: Spirit Love

​Galatians 5:22 is an awkward sentence: “The fruit of the Spirit is…” and then we read nine words.  At first glance, it seems that the sentence should read, “The fruits of the Spirit are…” but it doesn’t.  The reason is significant.

The sentence is singular because the fruit is singular.  The fruit of the Spirit is love—what John Wesley called “the root of all the rest.” [1]  The other eight words are expressions of love…

          Joy—love’s celebration

          Peace—love’s wellness

          Patience—love’s endurance

          Kindness—love’s compassion

          Goodness—love’s being

          Faithfulness—love’s trustworthiness

          Gentleness—love’s tenderness

         Self-control—love’s humility

The phrase “fruit of the Spirit” means that the Spirit makes us what God is, which is love.  Inwardly in character and outwardly in conduct we are made to be loving.  The Holy Spirit, as the third person of the Trinity, is the mediator of love.  Growth in love is what it means to mature. [2]

We are familiar with the phrase, “You are what you do.”  It communicates the truth that our actions pattern us.  But there is a deeper truth, “You do what you are.”  Our actions emerge from our essence—at least they’re meant to.  It is the indwelling Spirit, who is love, who produces the fruit of the fruit of the Spirit, which is love.  The Holy Spirit is the spirit of love, and when we are filled with the Spirit, we are filled with live—and  thus, most like God.  Through the Spirit, the love of the Trinity comes alive in and through us.

[1] John Wesley, ‘Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament’ (1755).  His comment about Galatians 5:22.

[2] E. Stanley Jines’ book, ‘Christian Maturity’ (Abingdon Press, 1957) is the best study I know of that connects love and maturity.  His book, ‘Growing Spiritually’ (Pierce & Washabaugh, 1953)  explores the fruit of the Spirit in depth.

Posted in Love

Shepherd’s Care: The Jesus Pattern–The One We Need

Jesus had a clear pattern for his life and ministry.  Luke described it in 5:15-16,

“Huge crowds gathered to listen and to be healed of their illnesses.  But Jesus would withdraw to deserted places for prayer.”

His pattern was a rhythm between pastoral ministry and personal formation–between the public and private aspects of his life–a pattern which actualized the larger pattern of working and resting, doing and being, engagement and abstinence which is at the core of the spiritual life. [1]  In short, Jesus knew he could not sustain a vital public ministry if he was running on empty in his soul.

There is a need for a recovery of this pattern in the lives of ministers today.  We clergy are not good at self-care.  We are very familiar with Luke 5:15 (public ministry), but strangers to Luke 5:16 (private prayer).  Moreover, institutional ministry, by its very nature, leans toward the public side (with a host of criteria for it practicing it and related reporting mechanisms for assessing it), with a comparative lack of attention to the private side.

The consequence of the imbalance is a low-grade malaise, described this way by a young pastor, “I know what to do, I just don’t want to do it anymore.”  When this acute sense becomes chronic, we become dropouts, even if we remain in ordained ministry.  

We clergy are good at asking for some things: money, people to hold church offices, etc.  But we are not so good at asking our laity to help us establish the Jesus pattern in our lives, so that both dimensions described by Luke are alive in us.  In fact, most laity don’t even know about the pattern; most of what they’ve been shown is a corporate pattern.

Nevertheless, I believe our laity are as willing to help us live well as they are to assist us in being institutionally  successful.  But the fact is, they don’t know how do that unless we bring them into the picture.  I offer these thoughts for doing so.

First, invite into conversation several people whom you know to be spiritually mature in general, and suppotive of you in particular.

Second, share the Jesus Pattern (Luke 5:15-16) with them, telling them you want his pattern to be real in you, but being honest to say that it is not in the kind of balance (on the personal side) as you’d like it to be.

Third, have a Rule of Life ready to share with the folks–one that includes a weekly sabbath day (not your day off), a monthly retreat day, and a sustained formation experience that enhances spiritual vitality over the long haul. There may be other aspects of your Rule besides these.  [2]  Ask the group to offer their ideas about how you can make this vision a reality.  

Fourth, invite these people to be your support group, not just your idea-gathering group.  Ask them to pray for you as you take action to realize the Jesus Pattern in your life.  And develop a process (e.g. periodic meetings, social media messaging) to turn their initial help into spiritual companionship.

This formative process is not secretive, but neither does it have to be voted on.  A weekly sabbath and monthly retreat day are things you can implement without any diminishment in your public ministry.  Jesus’ periodic withdrawals were integrated into his public responsibilities.  Yours can be too.  In fact, the more natural you can make it, the better.  

With respect to a sustained formative experience, consider having a spiritual director. [3]  And explore formation programs that unfold over an extended period of time. [4]. If the costs for either of these things exceed a budgeted amount for your Continuing Education, ask your support group for suggestions regarding increasing that budget, or funding these things in other ways.  

The point of this post is twofold: there is a Jesus Pattern for ministry, and laity are willing to help you incarnate it.  But you will have take the initiative to bring the two realities together.

The relevance of this post lies in the context of the church’s institutional decline, the increasing none/done phenomenon, etc—and your wellbeing in such a time.  The simple fact is, the church must have a vision for its clergy larger than “religious CEO” or “institutiinal shopkeeper,” and you must have an experience larger than that for the sake of your soul.

[1] Dallas Willard, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines’ (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988). This is the best book I know of in describing the engagement/abstinence rhythm of the spiritual life.

[2] Stephen Macchia, ‘Crafting a Rule of Life’ (IVP Books, 2012).  Macchia draws on the Benedictine Rule to offer concrete guidance in making a personal rule today.

[3] A directory of certified directors is available online from Spiritual Directors International.  Also, if there are retreat centers, monasteries, or convents in your area, leaders there will likely know directors to recommend. Your denominational office may have suggestions as well.

[4] I am familiar with these programs: The Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation, the Renovaré Institute (part of the ministry begun by Richard Foster), the Apprentice Institute (begun by James Bryan Smith), the Living School (begun by Richard Rohr), and the newly-established Spiritual Leadership Certification Program (begun by Matthew Fox).  Each one nuances spiritual life and formation differently; what they have in common is that they are sustained experiences in community, not one-time events.

Posted in Uncategorized

Love: Son Love (Jesus)

​Two great thoughts bring the love of God the Father into the love of God that we see in Jesus: the Word was God…and…the Word became flesh (John 1:1, 14).  In Jesus we see the incarnation of love.  Reading the gospels shows us a multitude of ways that Jesus loved God and others.  We could do a whole series on Jesus’ love, expressed particularly to those who felt unloved by the political/religious system of their day.  And while that’s too much to write about in a blog post, we must not fail to see the radical nature of Jesus’ love for all.

Recently, I have come to see a good summary of Jesus’ love in these words, “ Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1 NRSV).  The phrase “to the end” is an insightful one in the original Greek, telling us two important things about Jesus’ l love.

 First, he loved people from beginning to end—all the way through from his first day until his last day.  Here we see Jesus’ unwavering love—expressed without variance despite the many fluctuations of love expressed toward him by others.  When John wrote that he loved them “to the end,” it meant Jesus loved people all the way through.

Jesus’ unwavering love was the basis for Paul’s later words, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8: 38).  We must not miss the word ‘nothing.’  If we do, we will come up with some condition (as people often do) that makes us believe that “God could not love someone like me.”  But that’s not what we see in Jesus.  He loved people from beginning to end—when they responded to his love and when they did not.  Nothing separated people from the love of God in Christ because he loved people unwaveringly.

Second, he loved people fully.  The Common English Bible translates “to the end” with this word.  Here we see Jesus’ undiminished love.  He did not dispense his love in measured amounts depending on who he was with.  Jesus loved extravagantly…and…sacrificially.  He did not play it safe.  He loved everyone to the “nth degree.”

This is one of the main things that angered the political/religious leaders, who had devised their elaborate systems of rules and regulations to determine who was “worthy” of full love or only of something less.  Jesus moved the giving of love from a merit-based system to one of grace.  It incurred the wrath of the legalists to see that Jesus loved everyone the same.  This kind of love is always a threat to meritocracy.  But it was Jesus’ kind of love—undiminished love, for all.

Given this twofold vision of Jesus’ love (and there’s more that we could say), we see the power of his words, spoken only a little while after John 13:1—the words he used to exhort his disciples to “love each other just as I have loved you” (John 15:12).  Because he had “loved them to the end” they knew what that meant, and we know what it means too:  love unwaveringly…and…love undiminishedly.  We see this love in Jesus.

Posted in Love

Along The Way: Our New Friendship

​On the night of his betrayal, Jesus gathered with his disciples.  John records it in chapters 15-17.  The evening was filled with one treasure after another, which we can read and re-read for our edification.

One gem was Jesus’ definition of the relationship he had with his followers. “I call you friends,” he said (John 15:15).  That simple sentence changes everything.

Can you imagine sustaining a friendship with someone who constantly demeaned you and repeatedly criticized you?  Of course not.  Yet, many have accepted that idea of their relationship with God.  To them, God is thought to be mad at us, looking for any opportunity to enact retribution upon us.  But that is not the picture Jesus painted and left with his disciples.  Jesus gifted us with the portrait of God as our friend, not our foe.

So, how have we hung the “God Is Foe” painting in our soul’s gallery?  Several factors have caused us to do so.  First, the courtroom metaphors in Scripture have shaped the theological paradigm which many of us accepted.  God is the Judge.  We are criminals.  And even if we factor in the presence of the Spirit as a defense attorney and Jesus as the one who bears the punishment we deserve, it still leaves us a with a legalistic sense of our relationship with God, not a friendship sense.  We hang the “God Is Foe” portrait in our souls because of a theological perspective advanced in large segments of the Church.

A second reason we hang the wrong picture is psychological.  Many have been nurtured in a family system and/or social environment where love was overshadowed by a performance-oriented relationship in which we never “measured up” to the standards set for us by others, often including the expectations of our parents who gave us our primal, but deformed definition of love–one which remains inside us even when we move beyond it.  When we are strangers to grace, we hang the “God Is Foe” portrait in our hearts.

The third factor integrates the first two and creates a false self.  We do the very thing on the inside of ourselves that we refuse to do on the outside.  We travel through life with a companion self who demeans us and lies to us about who we really are. The voice of the false sends us many bogus messages…
          –“you are stupid, ugly, no good, distorted, damaged goods, lost, etc.

          –”you exist as an object of gratification and exploitation for me/us”

          –”you are not white, male, heterosexual, patriotic, or Christian”

          –”you are only as valuable as your possessions and achievements”

          –”your acceptability is determined by whether or not our group accepts you”

          –”you are a failure in a one-strike-and-you’re-out system”

          –”you are hopeless, no longer worthy of attention and investment”

Depending on the moment in which we find ourselves, these are the impressions which come when the “God Is Foe” portrait hangs in our soul.  These are what the voice of the false self speaks and what it tries hard to convince us to accept and believe.

But there is another voice.  The True Voice, delivering the message from God that we long to hear, that we are made to hear.  He says, “I call you friends.”

From him, we receive this invitation, “Say no to your false self and follow me. Take down the “God is Foe” portrait and throw it away.  Hang the “God Is Friend” painting in your heart. Don’t listen to what an aberrant church, a sick family member,  a toxic human being, demagogic leaders, or your own wounded spirit has been telling you.  Listen to me.  Take your cues, define yourself, and order your life by what I call you.  I call you friend.”

Posted in Along the Way

Love: Son Love (Christ)

​To see the love of God in the second person of the Trinity, we must explore the love of the universal Christ and the incarnate Jesus.  We look at the universal Christ today and the incarnate Jesus next week. [1]

The Son of God is the excarnate Christ. [2]  As the second person of the Trinity, Christ is an aspect of the eternal God, bearing the nature of love with the Father and Spirit in the Godhead. In relation to  time, Christ is the 13.8 billion year “firstborn of all creation” who created all things and in whom all things are held together (Colossians 1:15-17).  Just a little later in the same letter Paul summed it up in one sentence, “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).  E. Stanley Jones said that nothing in all literature compares with that sentence. [3]

With respect to love, this means what Richard Rohr says: love is the meaning of everything. [4]  As I noted in the second post in this series, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin saw this reality in the physical structure of the universe, and contemporary cosmologists are saying similar things as they see an essential oneness between things seen and unseen (Hebrews 11:3).

Beyond this, the love of the excarnate Christ is woven into the essence of our being because everything that is made is made by him (John 1:3).  We bear the mark of our creator. And we do so beyond any particular religious affiliation; indeed, we bear the mark of love even if we do not practice any particular religious faith.  All this is to say that love is not some kind of subsequent feature, it is an intrinsic quality.

As such, love becomes the one-word summation of our ethics—love of the kind we have pointed to in the words hesed and agapé.  But from that kind of love, we can speak and act in congruence with the nature of Reality and the flow if the universe.

And more, at the personal level, each of us has an “I-Thou”relationship as God’s beloved child.  To live consciously in what some call “the womb of love” is to be fully alive. Because of the cosmic Christ, we are never outside if or separated from that womb (e.g. Psalm 139: 7-14).  Whatever causes us to lack this awareness is not due to God’s coming-and-going, but rather our varying consciousness relative to it.  How can it be otherwise when we remember “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2).  It is Christ who makes this so.

[1] Richard Rohr’s book, ‘The Universal Christ’ (Convergent Books, 2019) is a must-read to be drawn into the magnificence of the excarnate Christ.

[2] I use the terms “excarnate Christ’ and “incarnate Christ” thanks to E. Stanley Jones.  The terms provide proper differentiantion –excarnate/ incarnate—while  preserving the essential unity—Christ Jesus. Jones’ book, ‘The Word Became Flesh’ (Abingdon Press, 1963) is one of the best books I know of to be drawn into the incarnate Christ.  It is still available.

[3] E. Stanley Jones, ‘In Christ’ (Abingdon Press, 1961), 296.

[4] Rohr, ‘The Universal Christ,’ chapter five.

Posted in Love