Communion at Bethany

Yesterday, we celebrated Holy Communion at Bethany, the memory care facility. The mystery of the Sacrament is magnified when celebrated among people with dementia.

Two long-time, non-verbal residents who seldom respond when approached, eagerly received the elements for the first time during the three years I have served as chaplain. The look in their eyes communicated beyond words: “This is the bread of life!”

Being assisted by my neighbor and friend, Dale Sessions, is a special means of grace. Dale is an American Baptist clergy who is in mid-stage of his Alzheimer’s disease. He now lives totally in the present moment and his once extensive vocabulary has been reduced to very few words.

Dale and Communion

Dale’s very presence is a form of ministry; and the cup of salvation being held in his hands is a visible reminder that God’s salvation comes to and through the vulnerable and powerless among us.

Prayer for Lovingkindness

Clasping hands 2God of steadfast love and mercy, whose lovingkindness gives us life and fills the world with beauty and goodness: From the fountain of  your steadfast love flows forgiveness, patience, and forbearance toward us. We have drifted far from the boundless mercy and kindness which spring forth from the depths of your very being. Cruelty and crudeness, disrespectful and demeaning rhetoric dominate our public discourse; and we disregard the humanity of those with whom we disagree. Tame our vile tongues, soften our calloused hearts, open our closed minds, humble our arrogant spirits, and fill our whole lives with your lovingkindness. Create in us the mind and spirit that were in Christ Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen

Splitting the Church is Just “Tacky”

© Ivan Grlic, Dreamstime

 

Thoughts of splitting The United Methodist Church trouble me for a host of reasons Some theological and missional.

This polarized and violent world desperately needs the witness of a community that grapples with disputes and differences with humility, mutual respect, and compassion. While divisions have been part of our heritage since the beginning, they never bode well for our commitment to oneness in Christ Jesus.

We need one another, whatever our labels. God has already reconciled us! We have been made one, whether we like it or not. So, I don’t quite understand why we can’t live the reconciliation already accomplished in Christ. If Christ has made us one, should we not live that oneness?

But I’m also troubled for personal reasons.

I’ll always remember that fateful Sunday morning almost 65 years ago when this son of Appalachian tenant farmers and textile workers walked shyly into a Sunday school class at McKinley Methodist Church.

Mrs. Mahoney greeted me at the doorway with a warm hug. I remember the Bible story she told that day. It changed my image of God and set me on a life-long quest to love, trust, and serve God. It was the story of the Good Shepherd. I can still hear her say, “God is like that shepherd.”

That was radically different from the messages I had been hearing in the church of my early childhood. I had the notion that God was like that cruel landlord who once dangled me over a rain barrel to “teach me to respect” him. God was the strict judge who expected, above all else, our respect and obedience. Eternal damnation awaited those who lacked such deference and compliance.

Mrs. Mahoney introduced me to a God who delights in rescuing little lost lambs, a God who invites us to share in the search and saving of the least, the lost, and the wayward. She invited me into friendship with Jesus, a friendship rooted in love not fear.

McKinley Methodist Church became my spiritual home as an adolescent. There I was baptized and received into membership. It was there that I:

• Received a new identity (beloved child of God)
• Learned I didn’t have to take the Bible literally to take it seriously
• Was elected to my first church office (president of the MYF)
• First spoke publicly before a group
• Had my first for-pay job (janitor)
• Taught my first class (Vacation Bible School)
• Was called into ordained ministry
• Introduced to the church as connectional (we were on a circuit)
•Selected to attend the National Youth Conference where I heard an African    American preacher for the first time (James Thomas)
• Approved for candidacy and granted a local preacher’s license

At a conference youth assembly, I met my beloved wife, Linda. We were married in the Methodist Church. She was educated in a Methodist college. We attended a Methodist seminary and spent 42 years living in homes provided by the church. Our daughters and grandchildren have been baptized in United Methodist Churches.

I’ve been privileged to serve eight wonderful congregations and two strong episcopal areas. Additionally, I have taught in a United Methodist seminary, sat on the governing boards of numerous United Methodist related institutions and agencies, experienced the world-wide mission of the church while visiting in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

All of this is to say, it’s impossible for me to sever my life from that of the denomination in which I have been and continue to be formed.

To me the reasons being advanced for splitting the denomination seem extraneous to the core Christian gospel and the church’s mission in this polarized and violent world filling up with lost lambs.

When I entered McKinley Methodist Church as a child of poverty, I wasn’t looking for dogmatic pronouncements. I was longing for a community in which I was accepted, valued, and loved. I wanted a place to grow in my understanding of and friendship with God. And, I needed a purpose worth my life.

The church I joined gave me room to grow, and I’m still growing. It moved me beyond provincialism, challenged my racial prejudices and patriarchal practices, gave me a theological lens through which to view every aspect of life, anchored me in sound doctrine while encouraging continuing theological exploration, extended the horizons of God’s salvation to include the healing and transformation of human hearts, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos.

I’m not worried about the survival of the Church. The Body of Christ has been raised from the dead and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And, I know the institutional form which the body of Christ takes is always changing.

But dividing The United Methodist Church into “Progressives” and “Traditionalists” is just plain wrong. As the late Will Campbell said about the death penalty, “I just think it’s tacky!”

Prayer for God’s Dream

Prayer ImageRighteous and compassionate God, whose goodness and truth are unwavering and whose compassion remains steadfast: We cringe today before private and public corruption and blantant cruelty that threaten our nation and world. Dishonesty, greed, and hate are applauded while personal integrity, generosity, and compassion are viewed as weakness. Disturb our consciences, purge our greediness, and melt the hardness of our hearts. Grant us a renewed vision of your dream for the world:

• Where all people are treated with inherent worth and dignity as your beloved children
• Where all barriers among us are removed and the human family is one
• Where integrity and honesty prevail in private and public life
• Where creation is healed and enabled to flourish as you intend
• Where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a cascading stream and all are welcomed at your table of abundance
• Where your kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven!

Through your grace, O God, empower us to live now in the light of your dream brought near in Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen

The “Voices from Below”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known for his resistance to Nazism and subsequent martyrdom. Less is known about the influence on his thinking by a small community of disabled people called Bethel. Bonhoeffer spent significant time among these castaways as German society moved toward creating a “super race” by eliminating those with perceived genetic defects rending them as “life not worth living.”

The people who were considered “defective” because of their physical, psychological, and intellectual disabilities helped to shape Bonhoeffer’s basic principle for understanding reality.

In a world that worships at the altar of the hyper-cognitive and physically dominant, we would do well to hear Bonhoeffer’s call to learn “from below.”

“It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have once learned to see the great events of world history form below, form the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short for the perspective of the suffering. . . .That we come to see matters great and small, happiness and misfortune, strength and weakness with new eyes: that our sense for greatness, humanness, justice, and mercy has grown clearer, freer, more incorruptible; that we learn, indeed, that personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle than personal happiness for explaining the meaning of the world in contemplation and action.”

Until we hear the voices “from below,” from “the least of these,” we will not hear the voice of God!

After all, God’s eternal Word became flesh in a helpless baby born of an unwed peasant teenager, who became an immigrant fleeing politically motivated violence, lived in obscurity for thirty years,  and was executed as a convicted criminal.

Perhaps we would do well to turn off the television, get off Facebook, silence talk radio for a while; and visit a homeless shelter, holding center for migrant families, the local jail or prison, nursing home, Alzheimer’s facility, hospital emergency room, or attend an AA meeting.

Yes, God’s voice may come “from above” but most often it comes “from below,” from the vulnerable, the powerless, the silenced!