November 19, 2013

The Desire of God

"For God so loved the world" may be the most well-known and oft memorized verse of scripture ever. And rightly so. It summarizes the heart of the Christian gospel, the good news that God's passionate love is revealed in the presence of Christ. I came across an article last week, of which the title alone caused me to think afresh about the nature of God's love for us. The article was called, "God Desires You far More than You Desire Him," and it got me to thinking: We know God loves us, but how often do we remember that he also desires us?

God's Desire for Us
The word "love" has come to mean different things to different people. From sports to books and food to friends, we "love" all sorts of things. People fall in "love" and out of "love". I remember once hearing a comedian point out that you have to love your family, but you don't have to like them. Everyone knows that we don't mean the same thing in each instance. We also know that none of these examples really get at what scripture means when it speaks of God's "love" for us. This whirlwind of contemporary meanings and uses makes it difficult sometimes to reflect on the profound reality of God's love for us, which means we sometimes need fresh language to energize our understanding of God's self-revelation. 

That's why I like the word "desire". It's a word that gets at a person's deepest motivations and longings. We do what we desire most to do, for good or ill. The language of desire communicates something about our affections and our passions. I find it a helpful term when I reflect on John 3:16 and the surrounding verses. You don't give your only son for people that you love in the same way you love a slice of pizza. You don't descend from heaven for people that you might fall out of love with. You do those things because they are motivated by desires that are at the heart of your identity. 

Desire and Descent
In John's gospel, this self-giving desire of God for us is understood in terms of incarnation and crucifixion. If we read John 3:16 closely, we will find that the love of God is the cause that results in the incarnation and the crucifixion. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has descended from heaven and that he will be lifted up (on the cross) for the purpose of granting eternal life to those who believe. John wants his readers to know that these two events (and everything in between) are the demonstration of God's desire to rescue the world from perishing. The birth of Christ and the death of Christ are the revelation and demonstration of the desire of the triune God for us, a desire that is infinite in intensity and stronger than we can possible conceive or imagine. 

Desire and Disbelief
That God so desires us is striking. What is even more striking is that he desires us despite our disbelief. Whether they are the words of Jesus or the narrator's commentary, the following verses make this point: Jesus comes not to condemn the world, but to a world that is condemned already (3:18). He came to a world lost in the darkness of unbelief, "He came to his own, but his own did not receive him" (John 1:11). Remarkably, Jesus doesn't look at the unbelieving world and say with arms crossed and face scowled, "You'll get what's coming to you." To the contrary, he descends to us in order to take up our humanity, redeem it, and provide a way to escape the condemnation under which we naturally stand. He desires us despite our disbelief. 

Desire and Darkness
Most of us don't think of ourselves as those who desire darkness, but John likes to paint things in stark contrast to make a strong point. So, for John, there is light and there is dark. Jesus is light. Everything else is dark. We do well to indulge the gospel writer and do a little diagnostic self-analysis. Are there times when we choose to walk away from the light of Christ and toward darkness. What about when we go all day (or multiple days) without taking time to engage in private worship? Are we desiring light or darkness? What about intentionally harmful words to a spouse or unnecessarily harsh attitudes towards our children? Are we choosing light or darkness? A little white lie? Light or darkness? Derogatory comments about our boss behind his or her back? You get the picture. Sometimes diagnostics can be a little depressing. Thanks be to God that at the heart of the good news is the truth that God's desire for us does not depend on how much we desire him. To borrow the language of the creed, Christ came down from heaven for us and for our salvation, and he did it not because we desired him but because we didn't. 

Desire and Worship
One of the most common questions I've received since the start of my pastoral ministry is this: If God knew that human beings would sin and bring all this hurt and pain and brokenness and damage into the world, why did he still choose to create the world with us in it? It's a hard question, but I think we can get toward an answer by reflecting on the depth of God's desire for us. To do so we need to remember that the cross is not Plan B. Our sin did not take God by surprise; he was not wringing his hands in desperation wondering what to do next. No, when God chose to bring the world into existence, he did so with the full knowledge that he would take on human flesh and die a gruesome death to atone for our sin and reconcile us to himself. And he still chose to to make the world. And he still chose to make us. 

We always do what we most desire. Apparently, God desires us more than he desires avoiding the exceeding pain of a whip on his back, thorns in his brow, nails in his wrists, and the weight of the world's sin on his shoulders. A friend and colleague recently observed that when we begin to realize that, the only thing to do is to worship him and give ourselves to him for whatever he wants. God's desire for us gives birth to our desire for him. 

November 14, 2013

Is #UMC Conversation Still Possible?

Prominent United Methodist polity expert Dr. Thomas E. Frank has called upon the Council of Bishops to put a stop to church trials for clergy who disobey The Book of Discipline by blessing same-sex unions. Frank would prefer to see the Bishops lead the Church in "open conversation" with the aim of preserving the unity of the Church, which he believes is in peril if the trials continue to be prosecuted. I offered a response to Dr. Frank yesterday, and since then I've been thinking more about the call for conversation and the deep divide over human sexuality in the UMC. Here are a couple of reasons for why I wonder whether further fruitful conversation is a real possibility. 

We've already done it
The call for open conversation about human sexuality seems to imply that this is a new route aimed at solving our problem. However, we've been having this conversation for over forty years. The conversation has taken place in our local churches, on the floors of our Annual Conferences, in our seminaries, in social media, blogs, and denominational publications. At the last General Conference, Adam Hamilton, Maxie Dunnam, Mike Slaughter, and others stood and engaged in open conversation. Like previous General Conferences, the variety of perspectives were put on the table. Suggestions for compromise were made. And, in the end, the authoritative body made a decision. The decision is not satisfying to all, but it is, nevertheless, a decision. And it is a decision not made without conversation. Frankly, it's been a very, very long conversation. Given our history, do we really think that further "open conversation" is going to produce something that four decades of dialogue has not already produced? 

Conversation is for non-essentials
One of the things we've learned in our extended dialogue over human sexuality is that both sides take their own view to be essential to their identity as followers of Christ. Advocates of changing the UMC incompatibility language are convinced their view is the faithful view; proponents of keeping the language think their view is the faithful view. Regardless of where we stand on the issue of human sexuality, surely we can agree that the both sides think their conviction is not only right but essential. In light of that we need to understand and agree that conversation is for secondary and peripheral matters, not essentials. If both sides think their view is essential to faithful ministry, further attempts to engage in dialogue are likely to lead only to more frustration, hurt, and damage to the people and the mission of the United Methodist Church. We need to be discerning and mature enough to recognize and admit when we come to an impasse. 

Not an end in itself
Finally, we need to recognize that conversation serves the purpose of finding direction and making decisions. Once we have listened to the other side and articulated our own view, it's time to decide how to move forward. Conversation is not an end in itself. It is a tool, an instrument, a means to the end of discerning what to do next. We've had the conversation. Our authoritative body has made decision after decision. Some are persuaded that those decisions are wrong and unjust. So, what do we do next? Do we expect further conversation to bring real results that will satisfy all the concerned parties? Or will further conversation be the equivalent of putting a band-aid on the deep, deep wound of division in the UMC?

Let me conclude by saying that I'm all for fruitful conversation. If we can find a way to engage one another and authentically preserve the unity of the United Methodist Church, then, by all means, let's do that. The problem is that I find it difficult to imagine both sides coming to the table and working out a mutually satisfying arrangement, because preserving authentic unity means that one side will have to yield what they take to be essential. 

What do you think? Is there a way for forward for the United Methodist Church? Can we have a fruitful dialogue at this point? 


November 13, 2013

If Trials Stop, Likelihood of Schism Grows (#UMC, @UMReporter)

The United Methodist Reporter has published an open letter from United Methodist polity expert Thomas E. Frank asking the Council of Bishops to halt further church trials for clergy who officiate same-sex unions. Several such trials are pending, and Frank believes the the Bishops have the authority to put a stop to these trials by opting not to refer complaints to the counsel for the Church. Frank's appeal rests on his conviction that the trials put the unity of the UMC in peril. The Bishops, he argues, have the pastoral responsibility and authority to preserve the unity of the Church, even if it means acting in opposition to the will of the General Conference. As an alternative to church trials, Frank calls for open conversation and serious engagement with each other's views. The letter comes at a crucial time as the Council of Bishops are meeting at Lake Junaluska this week. 

I appreciate Dr. Frank's concern for the unity of the Church. It is a concern that I share, which is why I find his argument somewhat shortsighted. Two observations are in order that will hopefully shed light on why his proposal will neither solve our problem nor preserve our unity.

First, if the Bishops heed Frank's call to halt the trials going forward, it is likely to lead to schism, which is what Frank wants to avoid. Those who hold a traditional view of human sexuality are likely to perceive such a move as the Council's intentional leading of our Church down the path taken by other mainline denominations who have adopted attitudes toward human sexuality contrary to that of historic Christian orthodoxy. Such a move could be perceived as a functional, if not an official, change in our denominational stance that would easily result in increased calls for schism. Ironically, following Frank's advice is likely to lead to the very thing he is desperately trying to avoid.  

Second, Frank calls for open conversation as an alternative to church trials, but it is difficult to imagine how this is possible. Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert recently refused to abide by the requests of Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett and entered her episcopal area to conduct a ceremony of blessing for a same-sex union. Bishop Wallace-Padgett insisted that such action would not only be an act of disobedience to The Book of Discipline but would also undermine the ministry that she superintends in the North Alabama Annual Conference. It seems unlikely that the Council of Bishops will be able to model and oversee the sort of conversation that Frank would like to see when one Bishop forego conversation and undermine the ministry of another Bishop. It's hard to see how Frank's suggested alternative would result in healthy resolution of our rather critical situation. 

In the end, the Council of Bishops is in an exceedingly difficult place as our pastors and as the leaders of our Church. Let's not underestimate the weight of the burden of their responsibility, and let's cover them with much prayer. Frank is probably right. Continuing to bring clergy up on charges is likely to dissolve any semblance of unity we may still have. But the alternative of stopping the trials makes schism seem almost inevitable. It is sobering to consider that we may have come to the place in which we discover just how deeply divided the United Methodist Church really is.

UPDATE: Since the publication of this post Good News has published a response to Dr. Frank that substantiates the first observation above by saying, "Dr. Frank’s letter is essentially a call to change the de facto position of The United Methodist Church on the issue of homosexuality and marriage." Read the rest of their statement here.

Why Pray?

From the Forward to Winfield Bevins' Our Common Prayer (paper, Kindle), this is Ashley Null:
Constant prayer, then, is the key to the Christian life. Of course, that is the whole point of the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8). We do not pray to God day and night because he is an unjust judge that needs to be prompted. We pray to him day and night because we need to be prompted. We struggle so much with injustice - the wrongs that others do to us, and the wrongs that we do to others. We pray to God day and night so that his love might renew a right spirit in us. We pray to God day and night for him to work in us so that we can forgive others their wrongs and give ourselves away in godly service. In short, we pray day and night, not to move the heart of God to want to do our will, but for God to continually move our hearts to want to do his will (16).
That about sums it up.  

November 7, 2013

Alister McGrath Returning to Oxford

That's the big news in academia this week. Here's the announcement from Oxford's Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion:
The Faculty of Theology and Religion has announced with great pleasure that Professor Alister McGrath, currently Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London, and head of its Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture has accepted the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion at Oxford and will take up his new post on 1 April 2014.
McGrath is a distinguished scholar with expertise in a variety of fields whose works have been influential at both scholarly and popular levels. Having spent a significant portion of his academic life in Oxford, this move may not come as a big surprise. McGrath was Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Oxford until 2008 when he took a professorship at King's College London. Their loss is certainly Oxford's gain. 

November 5, 2013

Eucharist and Presence: Embracing Mystery, Finding Joy

I used to spend time wrestling with the different formulations proposed through Church history for how we should understand the nature of Christ's Presence in Holy Communion. There was a time when I found it helpful to compare and contrast the competing concepts of Thomistic Transubstantiation, Lutheran Consubstantiation, and Calvinism's Spiritual Presence. To some extent, I still think those sorts of formulations have their place, though I put less stock in them now. Instead, I've come to embrace the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This attitude is captured well by Charles Wesley in his hymn, "O the Depth of Love Divine". He writes:
O the depth of love divine,
Th'unfathomable grace!
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys!
How the bread his flesh imparts,
How the wine transmits his blood,
Fills his faithful people's hearts
With all the life of God!
How is Christ present in bread and wine? I don't know. And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that Christ is present, really present. He said that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood. That's all. He didn't explain it. He didn't fill in the details. And now, finally, that's enough for me. If we are going to say something about Christ's Eucharistic Presence, we should learn from Wesley that sometimes it's better to sing a hymn than write a treatise.

There has been one particularly pleasant surprise on this journey of embracing in faith the Real Presence of Christ. I have found that I am more free to simply worship and adore him, and to receive that which he offers, namely himself, his own physical presence. This freedom to worship has resulted in the discovery that Christ's gift of himself at the Table is not a matter of magic, not about saying the right words as if we could manipulate Christ to manifest his Presence. To the contrary, the gift of himself is an expression of Christ's sovereign pleasure to minister to us physical creatures in just the way we need, with his own tangible, touchable, taste-able presence. And it is his joy to offer himself in this way - O the depth of love divine! And because it is his joy to make me the object of his self-giving love by filling my belly and quenching my thirst with his very life, I have found increasing joy when I go to the Lord's table. Indeed, in embracing the mystery I have found joy like never before. Thanks be to God.