On January 6 I thought it might be helpful to offer a small commentary through social media on the great divide between us. I was wrong. I deactivated my Twitter account and removed its share button from this site. I went silent on Facebook. From January 7 to this day I have not read or watched one news story. That is the privilege of a hermit preacher.
Last night, I began reading the email backlog of comments from UM bishops and other denominational leaders. I have never felt such hurt and grief for the loss of the Church in North America that occurred over these last months. From the Spring pandemic, through the Summer violence, to this Winter insanity: We have needed a word from God, and the North American church doesn’t seem to have it. We desperately need Church. She is absent.
Those who spent years inventing clever schemes to convince their parishioners that Scripture does not mean what it clearly says now seek to tell people that the Bible clearly tells us to join their side of a battle in American politics. Those who have refused any correction by the church now climb into pulpits to tell us what we must do because the church says so.
We are overwhelmed by a flood of words from bishops and preachers which are nothing more than subjective opinions expressing private passions for personal agenda. Their epistles range from bitter invectives to undisguised passive-aggressive hostility to useless banalities. Our discourse has been poisoned and they offer us strychnine as an antidote for arsenic. We need Church.
“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the LORD, and shall not find it.” Amos 8:11-22.
Among those who have a public presence in United Methodism there are likely fewer than ten that I would listen to for moral guidance through this melee. Not one is a bishop. Some of them suggest different solutions for our current dilemma than what I would propose. We look at the same evidence, but, for now, we come to different conclusions. I value their words. They lead me to pause for needed introspection. Perhaps I will alter course. However, we may well end up supporting different political personalities and processes. That does not mean that they are any less a child of God, nor that I have become a disciple of Satan. It could mean that one of us, or perhaps both of us, are in error. I understand this. They understand this. I am grateful for their insights. But such voices are rare in the UMC and they are daily growing fewer.
I turn to the words of a nearly forgotten Methodist preacher who being dead yet he speaks. When John Wesley urged us to go on toward Christian Perfection he also warned us that there are some ways in which we are incapable of perfection. We should make allowances for each other in those matters.
No one, then, is so perfect in this life, as to be free from ignorance. Nor, Secondly, from mistake; which indeed is almost an unavoidable consequence of it; seeing those who “know but in part” [1 Cor. 13:12] are ever liable to err touching the things which they know not.
It is true, the children of God do not mistake as to the things essential to salvation: They do not “put darkness for light, or light for darkness;” [Isa. 5:20] neither “seek death in the error of their life.” [Wisdom 1:12] For they are “taught of God,” and the way which he teaches them, the way of holiness, is so plain, that “the wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein.” [Isa. 35:8]
But in things unessential to salvation they do err, and that frequently. The best and wisest of men are frequently mistaken even with regard to facts; believing those things not to have been which really were, or those to have been done which were not. Or, suppose they are not mistaken as to the fact itself, they may be with regard to its circumstances; believing them, or many of them, to have been quite different from what in truth, they were. And hence cannot but arise many farther mistakes. Hence they may believe either past or present actions which were or are evil, to be good; and such as were or are good, to be evil.
Hence also they may judge not according to truth with regard to the characters of men; and that, not only by supposing good men to be better, or wicked men to be worse, than they are, but by believing them to have been or to be good men who were or are very wicked; or perhaps those to have been or to be wicked men, who were or are holy and unreprovable.
Nay, with regard to the Holy Scriptures themselves, as careful as they are to avoid it, the best of men are liable to mistake, and do mistake day by day; especially with respect to those parts thereof which less immediately relate to practice. Hence even the children of God are not agreed as to the interpretation of many places in holy writ: Nor is their difference of opinion any proof that they are not the children of God on either side; but it is a proof that we are no more to expect any living man to be infallible than to be omniscient.
From the Preface to the first edition of Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions:
Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof of Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace: I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then, I should not be able to go at all. May I not request of you, further, not to give me hard names in order to bring me into the right way. Suppose I were ever so much in the wrong, I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you, and so get more and more out of the way.
Nay, perhaps, if you are angry, so shall I be too; and then there will be small hopes of finding the truth. If once anger arise, Eute kapnos, (as Homer somewhere expresses it,) this smoke will so dim the eyes of my soul, that I shall be able to see nothing clearly. For God’s sake, if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke one another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell; much less blow it up into a flame. If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be loss, rather than gain? For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love! We may die without the knowledge of many truths, and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But, if we die without love, what will knowledge avail? Just as much as it avails the devil and his angels!
The God of love forbid we should ever make the trial! May he prepare us for the knowledge of all truth, by filling our hearts with his love, and with all joy and peace in believing!
In my email backlog have received several requests for suggestions for Ash Wednesday. For the last many years I always offered the imposition of ashes at an early morning service. The exact time would vary by community to give parents time to get their children to school after the service but usually 7:00 or 7:30 A.M.. The evening service would conclude with an Order for Healing and Wholeness with the imposition of oil. In this way we are reminded that repentance leads to wholeness. We also seek the offer of new life at the of beginning a new day. We are reminded that we are different from the world that we are walking into. Who else would gather at sunrise to hear someone read from a book that is thousands of years old. Furthermore, if we are to mark ourselves with sign of mortality and repentance isn’t it better at the beginning of the day than in the dark of night when we rush home to wash them off before going to bed.
Don’t expect a large turnout. That is not the point. I have had as few as my immediate family and two or three others. On a couple of rare occasions we filled half the church.
If you are searching for an opening to this year’s Ash Wednesday service then consider the ancient truth of St Chrysostom.
….the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it.
Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works! Is it said by what kind of works?
If thou seest a poor man, take pity on him!
If thou seest an enemy, be reconciled to him!
If thou seest a friend gaining honor, envy him not!
If thou seest a handsome woman, pass her by!
For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies….
Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. “Thou shalt not receive a false report,” it says.
Let the mouth too fast from disgraceful speeches and railing. For what doth it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes; and yet bite and devour our brethren? The evil speaker eateth the flesh of his brother, and biteth the body of his neighbor.
Because of this Paul utters the fearful saying, “If ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” Gal. v. 15. Thou hast not fixed thy teeth in the flesh, but thou hast fixed the slander in the soul, and inflicted the wound of evil suspicion; thou hast harmed, in a thousand ways, thyself and him, and many others, for in slandering a neighbor thou hast made him who listens to the slander worse…