Category: Grace

“Let ’em go”

Years ago, an automobile dealership’s advertising punch line was, “The boss said, ‘Let ’em go.'” As in, “Should we give a big discount on these vehicles? The boss said, ‘Let ’em go.'”

I’ve thought about that line as United Methodists move deeper into the “disaffiliation” process. It has been personally painful to watch it unfold, but Phyllis Tickle’s wise observation has been helpful. She said this era of deep change in our culture and all religions will be like the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s–the faith and the planet will emerge stronger as various groups go their separate ways.

The Lester Memorial UMC in Oneonta has worked out a relatively amicable divorce, where a sizable contingent of those not desiring to disaffiliate are forming a new congregation. In a large city, those wishing to stay with the denomination, but find themselves in a group where the majority want to leave, can easily join another UMC that intends to remain. In a small community like Oneonta, it takes more creativity.

From “Oneonta United Methodist Community,” by Rachel Simmons, The Blount Countian, January 11, 2023 (via StayUMC Facebook page)

ноги глины

I try to give people of faith the benefit of the doubt, as I try to give people of doubt the benefit of faith. I don’t speak Russian. Context and nuance do not always translate, so I try to be doubly slow to criticize other-tongued faith leaders. Patience is warranted since we all have “feet of clay” (ноги глины in Russian). However …

Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyaev, aka Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is widely known as a supporter of Vladimir Putin. This allegiance itself puts the Patriarch’s judgment in a bad light and (in my opinion) degrades the witness of his office. I, and all “people of the cloth” have erred in our allegiances. We all live in glass houses. Still …

The herder Amos reminds all who speak of, or for, faith not to profane what we seek to proclaim. I fear Kirill has moved from profanity (meaningless talk about God) to prostitution, equating participation in Russian military aggression with grace, the central theme of Christianity. He’s charging a high price for a free gift.

See Russian soldiers who die in battle will be absolved of their sins, Patriarch says and Dying for your country brings you to heaven, says Russian Patriarch. Sometimes the best response to bad theology is good humor and an honest look at one’s feet:

The greater good

I love my grandmother. I love ice cream. I love America. I love you. “She loves me, she loves me not.” In my AA meetings, I experience tough love. My first experience of unconditional love was at a Kairos prison meeting. I love my dog. “I need somebody to love.” “What’s love got to do with it?‘ “Love me tender.”

In 2022, what does it mean to love my neighbor? In what practical way can I love planet earth? Is justice (as in “liberty and justice for all”) society’s way of expressing love, of living out a love ethic? How do I live into the fullness of loving relationships through my faith, through my citizenship?

Love is a well-worn word, with multiple meanings in many different contexts. What is the greatest expression of love that I can imagine or muster? I’m moving toward an understanding of love as embracing the greater good. Love is working toward the greater good. It’s a first cousin of the old word commonwealth.

From “Working for the Greater Good,” a blog post by Charlie Efford

No greater love

A few days ago, maybe on Pearl Harbor Day, a recurring thought began to appear in my consciousness: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The key words, “no greater love” have lingered with me. It comes from a quote attributed to Jesus.

The words of Jesus in the Gospel of John are strikingly different from the words attributed to him in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those three synoptic writings “look alike.” I think of three tightly designed Norman Rockwell paintings, standing alongside a free-flowing Picasso.

The last few years have been difficult. In the midst of COVID-19, Donald Trump, a wave of secessions in my faith tribe, and the personal losses that accompany longevity, I was invited by my friend Joe Elmore to double down on love, as expressed through grace, or unmerited favor.

The task, for me, during this season of life, is to love. At times it means saying “no,” so that I can say a greater “yes.” It means, I believe, living with a greater love for the planet, for humanity, for all of life. I can be, humans can be, incredibly self-centered and short-sighted. That’s what I’m working on today.

From “No Greater Love,” by Rudy Currence and Chrisette Michele, via YouTube

A humble clarity

My response to the recent disaffiliation of a former congregation from my tribe has been gratitude for clarity–theirs and mine. My clarity is this: For the rest of my days on earth I will seek to err on the side of inclusiveness. Thus, I’m drawn to a community of faith whose mission is to be An Open Place for All.

It’s a humble clarity. My transformation is far from complete. I’m a work in progress. My constant challenge is to be open, to be inclusive. God’s not through with me yet.

Richard Rohr’s May 16, 2022 Daily Meditation referred to Jesus’ risky path, which has allowed him to be interpreted in so many different ways. … Why do we think we have a right to certainty or complete clarity? This is the necessary and good poverty of all spiritual language. … Jesus never said, “You must be right!” or even that it was important to be right. … Jesus offers himself instead as “way, truth, and life” (John 14:6), and … it all becomes about the sharing of our person instead of any fighting over ideas. Some people will meet that statement with resistance and criticism because we feel so much more in control when we are right than when we are in right relationship.

Such admitted poverty in words should keep us humble, curious, and searching for God, although the history of religion has been quite the contrary. In fact, what we have largely done … is talk about …things like finances, clothing, edifices, roles, offices, and … a sense of certitude, order, and control. In my experience, the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers.

From “Two Kinds of Confidence,” by Michael Gillis, Ancient Faith Ministries, March 26, 2015

Negotiating Authority

A section of Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence deals with an issue of the Protestant Reformation that is freshly alive during this season of “disaffiliation” by various congregations seceding from the United Methodist Church. It’s the issue of authority:

Always without fail, the thing that gets lost early in the process of a reconfiguration is any clear and general understanding of who or what is to be used as the arbitrator of correct belief, action, and control. The Reformation … (answered) the question almost immediately, Sola scriptura, scriptura sola. Only the Scripture and the Scriptures only. ... No more Pope … only the Good Book.

The obvious … benefit … was that once a new source of unimpeachable authority has been duly constituted and established, things always begin to wind back down from chaos to relative stability again. … Sola scriptura required absolute and universal literacy if it were going to work.

The most obvious problem of universal literacy is … different interpretations …. We may laugh and say that divisiveness was Protestantism’s greatest gift to Christianity, ours is a somber joke. Denominationalism is a disunity in the body of Christ….

Denominations have problems. Congregations have problems. Negotiating authority and accountability can be as difficult within an independent congregation’s four walls as in a culturally diverse denomination.

From a review of Cathleen Falsani’s Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Practice.

For the Win

A USA Today feature is For the Win.” After Thursday’s January 6 hearing and prior to Saturday’s Alabama-Tennessee game, I pondered the mystery of winning and losing. This year, UT has a great opportunity to record a long-awaited win in a great rivalry.

I had a Tennessee grandfather and a Kentucky grandfather. In 1935, my Tennessee grandfather took my dad’s two older brothers to the UT-Alabama game in Knoxville. My uncle described the pre-game hype about an injured Alabama end named Paul Bryant who was not expected to play. He did. Bama won.

That was one of the “ten most memorable” games in the rivalry. The one I remember best was Bama’s 11-10 come-from-behind win in Knoxville in 1966. Cathey’s ring-tone for our son Cully is “Rocky Top.” He’s a big UT fan. For me, Saturday’s game is a win-win situation. We need more of those.

Thursday’s January 6 hearing included a White House staffer’s report that Donald Trump told Mark Meadows, “I don’t want people to know that we lost, Mark….” One who admits defeat and congratulates the victor creates a win-win situation. The only real loser is one who cannot admit defeat.

Roll, Tide! Go, Vols!

From “Remembering When Bear Bryant Came to Tennessee–As a Player,” by John Shearer, The Chattanoogan, September 15, 2013

A sign of hope

A recent trip through southern Pennsylvania on the Lincoln Highway to Gettysburg was followed by some miles in Virginia on the Lee Highway to Appomattox. It was a peaceful, direct, one-day journey that took the survivors of Lee’s retreating army 20 months of more bloody battles. About 75 yards from Appomattox Court House, a modest room in a family’s residence was the site where Grant and Lee, each seated behind separate small tables, signed papers acknowledging the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The restored little village is part of a National Historic Park. A lone American flag is prominent on a pole at the entrance to the village. It’s a quiet, appropriate reminder that we are—at least officially–one nation. The little village reminds us that it was, and is, a costly oneness. Each day news events remind us that our oneness is still a work in progress, a unity yet to be fully realized 157 years after the surrender documents were inked. The park at Appomattox is a simple, somber witness to hope rising from the ashes of war.

A sign greets travelers that Appomattox County is “where our nation was reunited.” A more accurate statement would be, “Where our nation’s reunification began.” Big ideals, by their nature, are always works in progress, as in “liberty and justice for all.” But I wouldn’t change the sign that welcomes travelers. Leave it as it is, a reminder that though we’re an incomplete, unfinished project, something really important happened there. Our nation was reunited, even as we continue to discover the potential of a truly united nation.

From National Park Service

Eternal life

My early life was influenced by what Marcus Borg called an “earlier paradigm” of Christianity. I was not as focused on life after death as some folks, but Billy Graham (in the 1950s) and the dominant Protestant culture of my youth gave me a consciousness that included afterlife.

In my mid-20s, coincident with my time in seminary, I began to view life after death as “sheer bonus” (a Theodore Runyon phrase). I saw it not as an extension of earth-ways, but a cosmic, universal reality that is without beginning and without end. Eternity is now, and always.

A dear friend, shortly before his death at a relatively young age, told me that he had heard a definite though not audible Voice say, “You take care of things on your side of the river and I’ll take care of things on this side of the river.” The “river” became a comforting metaphor.

About a decade ago I studied with Richard Rohr for three days in Albuquerque with a peer group. I was helped by Rohr’s focus on a non-dual, unitive view of the Universe and on the generosity of a radical, grace-based, inclusive hospitality.

Add some Borg, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and others I’ve mentioned, and you get a Jesus-flavored universality that includes all creation, rests entirely on unmerited favor, or grace, and sees reconciliation, relational justice and healing as inherent to cosmic union and eternal life–a great celebration.

From Manna and Mercy: A Brief History of God’s Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe, by Daniel Erlander

An emerging paradigm

In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg describes “an earlier paradigm” of Christianity that typically viewed Christianity as the only true religion, which saw the Bible as a divine product to be interpreted literally, and which focused on believing, the afterlife and a life focused on requirements and rewards. From his mid-teens to his mid-thirties, “Christianity didn’t make much sense intellectually” and the faith he learned in childhood “ceased to be persuasive.”

However, Borg became convinced that “there are no serious intellectual threats to being Christian, and he rediscovered a life of faith “that makes persuasive and compelling sense of life in the broadest sense—a way of seeing reality and our lives in relationship to what is real; a way of seeing God, our relationship to God, and the path of transformation. The sacrifice that Christianity asks of us is not ultimately a sacrifice of the intellect.”

He wrote the book to share his personal attraction to an “emerging paradigm” of faith that has been developing for over 100 years, “to communicate this way of seeing to those for whom an earlier understanding of Christianity makes little or no sense. They number is in the millions.”

In these two sentences, Borg describes the importance of this emerging paradigm: …the earlier paradigm uses the language of God’s grace and compassion and love, but its own internal logic turns being Christian into a life of requirements and rewards, thereby compromising the notion of grace. Indeed, it nullifies grace, for grace that has conditions attached is no longer grace.

From “Remembering Marcus Borg,” by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Practice