Ready or Not

All through my first year in seminary, as we studied our way through the Bible, sussing out the meaning of events and the people who lived them, one of my profs would invariably say, “see, again, God calls people who aren’t ready.”  Moses was a young man with a stutter; God said, “Go speak to Pharaoh and liberate my people from slavery.”  David was the youngest son, a kid really; God sent him out to fight the giant.  Paul was on the wrong side of the aisle; God called him to preach Christ.  Abraham.  Hannah.  The Disciples of Jesus.  The list is long and amazing.

For 400 years the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt.  Their lives were awful.  When Moses led them into freedom, I doubt they felt ready; I can just imagine the grumbling that went on under thousands of breathes.  Once in the wilderness the grumbling grew into complaining: we don’t like it out here; we want to go back.  It took them 40 years of wandering in the wild before they were ready to enter the Promised Land.

People in churches all across America today are caught up in the same kind of wandering and confusion.  Ready or not, we’re in the wilderness.  Our faith, our ways of being with God and with each other, these don’t make sense today the way they used to.  A few churches may still practice magical thinking—we’re doing just fine the way we are.  But for them the real challenge is: deep change or slow death.  In most churches the challenge is: rapid deep change or rapid death.

The good news is—the Christian faith is all about catalyzing change.  Check out these words from His All Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian World:

Even though our faith may be 2000 years old, our thinking is not.  True progress is a balance between preserving the essence of a certain way of life and changing things that are not essential.  Christianity was born a revolutionary faith, and we have preserved that…Paradoxically, we have succeeded in not changing the faith that is itself dedicated to change.

In my church we’re having grown-up conversations about that.  How do we preserve the essence of the Christian life: loving God, loving neighbor, seeking justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God?  How do we keep the faith while having the courage to let go of non-essentials?  Is this particular building essential?  This logo?  This hymnbook?  This administrative structure?  In my faith tradition founder John Wesley never set out to create the Methodist Church; his objective was to live a Christian life.  The church establishment called him a dangerous revolutionary.

I’m praying for the revolutionaries to join forces with us as we dream new dreams and realize new possibilities.  That not only sounds essential and true to the faith, it also sounds like fun.

david gilliam, faith united methodist church, austin.  for more about faith church, click here.


methodist catholic spirit

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, was an amazing preacher.  Whenever I’ve made the effort to plow through his sermons, I always come away thinking, “That was profound.”  I want to share one with you, especially in light of the recent General Conference and the upcoming Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences.  I’ve taken one of Wesley’s most famous sermons, abridged it, and translated it into 21st century English.  Do read the original yourself and let me know if I got close.  Here is Wesley’s sermon “Catholic Spirit” Newcastle, England, 1749.

And when Jehu departed from there, he met Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him; and he greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart right with my heart as mine is with yours?”  And Jehonadab answered, “It is.”  So Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.”  So he gave him his hand.  And Jehu took him up with him into the chariot.  And he said, “Come with me and see my zeal for the Lord.”    ( 2 Kings 10.15-16a)

The Bible says, in Leviticus 19, “Love your neighbor.”  For a long time I thought that meant love your family and love your friends.  But that’s not exactly what Jesus said.  Jesus said, love everybody, even your enemies.  That’s a strange kind of love don’t you think?  In John 13, Jesus said: “love one another, as I have loved you.”  Love, as Jesus loved, that is the proof that you are Christian.

Does everyone agree with that?  It seems to me that most people agree with that.  But do most people practice that?  In my experience the answer is “no.”  Where are the Christians of today?  Where are the true disciples, people who really do love like Jesus loved?

I believe there are two reasons why most Christians today do not love as Jesus loved.

  1. We don’t all think the same; we disagree on a lot of issues.
  2. Because we don’t think the same, we don’t love the same either.

There are all kinds of people in the church with all kinds of opinions; but we don’t celebrate that diversity.  Instead, we let our opinions divide us.  We become enemies, even in the church.  What happened to the Word of God? Jesus commanded us to love one another, even our enemies.  So I ask you: can we not have one heart, even if we are not of one mind?  Can’t we love each other, even if we have different opinions?

This man Jehu in 2 Kings; I think he’s on the right track.  Jehu met Jehonadab and said to him: “is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?  If it is, give me your hand.”  Did you notice?  Jehu didn’t ask about the other man’s ideas; and I bet he had some ideas, even strange ideas, even wrong ideas.  And isn’t that true for us.  Look around you.  Don’t you think at least some of these people here today have a few peculiar ideas?  You probably think that person in the next pew is wrong about most everything; and it may be true.  This is only natural.  We’re human beings, with limited minds.  No one has perfect knowledge.  It’s natural that we don’t all agree. This has been true since Adam and Eve.  It’s quite natural for you to believe that your opinion is the correct one.  You wouldn’t hold tight to your opinion if you didn’t think it true.

But listen: how can you or anyone ever be certain that an opinion is correct?  We can’t; because there is so much that we don’t know, so many things we don’t understand, and maybe never will.  So, part of being human is being wrong, at least sometime.  I know this is true for me.  I don’t know everything; therefore, I must be wrong, at least sometime.  So I need to ask myself: how deep is my ignorance?  How many prejudices have taken root in my mind?  How often do my prejudices shape my opinions?  Surely I am guilty of many wrongheaded ideas.  So I beg you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, please, be compassionate.  Cut me some slack.  Give me the same freedom of thinking that you want for yourself.  The catholic spirit only asks us to do one thing: to unite our hearts in Christian love.  Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?

And another thing: in the catholic spirit we are not indifferent to other people’s opinions.  Indifference is a child of hell; indifference to others is a curse.  Be open to other people’s ideas and consider their opinions with the same respect you’d like to receive.  At the same time, be clear about what you believe.  Be fully convinced in your own mind.  A foggy mind with no consistent principles will always miss the mark.  No, in my own mind I’m fully convinced of my beliefs.  But, in the catholic spirit, I do not expect my opinions to be the rule for you or for others.  All I ask is this: Can we love one another as Christ loved us?  Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?  If it is, give me your hand.

Now, you may ask, what does it mean to have a “right” heart?  Simply this.  Do you try to love others with a Christian love, even loving your enemies; and do you show this love, not only in what you say, but also in the way you live?  Let all the controversial issues stand aside.  If you strive to love God and all God’s children, then give me your hand.  This is catholic love; this is the true catholic spirit.

So, where do we go from here?

I ask you to love me, love me with a tender affection, as a brother in Christ.

I ask you to be patient with me and love me in spite of my wrong ideas.

I beg you to pray for me, pray that God will set me straight and give me wisdom and fill my heart with love for all humankind, even love for people who are wrong sometimes.

And be very sure, my friends; these things I ask of you, I am ready and eager to do the same for you: to love you, to be patient with you, in spite of your wrongheaded ideas, to pray for you, that God will give you wisdom and a love that knows no prejudices and a love that has no limits.  A true catholic spirit, a true Christian, loves all people with an unspeakable tenderness and a longing for their welfare, just as Jesus loved us.  Hear me, O child of God, and think on these things.  Let us have our own opinions and respect one another.  And let us be united in the catholic spirit of Christian love.  Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?  If it is, then give me your hand.