How We See Others Matters

Stanley Hauerwas, (here) my friend and colleague at Duke, writes this about Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, a community of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (here):

“. . . where I see an enemy to be defeated, he [Vanier] sees a wound that needs to be healed. That’s a big difference.”

Indeed, it is a big difference!

What if we were to consider ourselves and others as bearers of common wounds that need healing, rather than as adversaries to be defeated or competitors to be outdone?

What if we were to see the hurt beneath others’ anger, rather than as aggressors meriting our retaliation?

What if we were to view every person as a potential means of grace to us, rather than as an object of our correction or  charity or evangelization?

What if we were to approach those with whom we disagree as mutual explorers of the ineffable mystery we call GOD, rather than as misguided dupes in need of our superior insight?

What if we were to consider every person as a beloved child of God with infinite worth and dignity, rather than as an object of our desire or a means to our ends?

What if we were to see “the other” through the eyes of Christ, rather than through the lenses of partisan politics, racial prejudices,  and national borders?

The lens through which we view others really matters!

Splitting Asunder What God Joins Together—Truth and Love!

Aside

 

A battle rages within The United Methodist Church! It’s ostensibly between “Traditionalists” and “Progressives” over homosexuality, authority of Scripture, and adherence of doctrine. But I propose that the conflict may expose an underlying, festering heresy: the severing of truth and love.

“Traditionalists” seek to preserve the truth of the Bible and doctrine as contained in historic creeds and the Articles of Religion, and they call for enforced adherence to established norms.

“Progressives” advocate for continuing divine revelation and the prioritizing of love as the core of Christian doctrine, and they call for expanding the circle of inclusion.

The stage is set for the apocalyptic showdown at General Conference in February 2019. The weapons of inflammatory rhetoric, proof-texting, political strategizing, and either/or dichotomies have been mobilized.

It’s either truth OR love, doctrinal faithfulness OR cultural accommodation, biblical authority OR philosophical relativism, traditional marriage OR sexual sin, my way OR the highway!

Let’s be reminded that dialects are integral to the gospel as viewed through the Wesleyan tradition

  • faith AND works
  • knowledge AND piety
  • personal AND socialtruth-and-love
  • justification AND sanctification
  • doing no harm AND doing good
  • sin as person AND systemic
  • church as local AND Universal
  • doctrinal standards AND theological exploration
  • sound doctrine AND holy living
  • discipleship as belief AND practice
  • truth AND love

In the Bible and Christian tradition, truth and love are inseparable, integral to one another. They are conjoined twins, each giving life to the other. Either without the other is neither authentic truth nor Christian love. When they are severed, the gospel is truncated with calamitous consequences.

In the name of defending truth, people have been persecuted, jailed, banished, and killed; and countless people have been demonized, demeaned, marginalized, and ostracized.

In the name of love, people have engaged in all kinds of exploitative, degrading, dehumanizing behaviors and activities; and devastating personal and social evils have gone unchallenged.

Methodists have long struggled with the tension between maintaining sound doctrine and living Christlike love. John Wesley’s sermons, “On Schism” and “Catholic Spirit” document his own internal battle. He holds fast to the church’s doctrines grounded in Scripture and Tradition while giving priority to holiness as “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts.”

For Wesley, the truth of doctrine lies in the character produced in its adherents. Lives filled with the love of God and neighbor are the evidence of doctrinal truth, not biblical prooftexts or scholastic arguments. And the truthfulness of one’s love is how closely it resembles the self-emptying love (agape) of Christ.

“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” is an often-used mantra in the academic world. The statement from John’s Gospel, however, has a condition attached to knowing the truth.

Here is the statement in context: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciple; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’”(8:31-32).

The truth that sets us free is not abstract formulation about Jesus. It is relationship with Jesus. In Jesus Christ, truth and love are perfectly and inextricably joined. Truth and love flow from relationship with the One in whom the two are one.

What does this mean for United Methodists searching for a way forward as a denomination. I certainly don’t have a definitive answer as to the best institutional configuration for the future.

But I am convinced that splitting into “traditional” and “progressive”, “conservative” and “liberal” is NOT the way to bear witness to the unity of truth and love. The dichotomy implied in those labels is false, a betrayal of the One who is Truth and Love. To form denominations around those labels would be to institutionalize heresy.

Truth and love are woefully lacking in our polarized, deceitful, and violent world. Untruth and hate are being normalized in the prevailing culture. Our social fabric is being ripped asunder. The common good is being trampled underfoot.

The witness of a community that embodies truth AND love is sorely needed. The church can’t be that witness by splitting asunder what God joined together in Jesus the Christ.

We need “a come to Jesus” meeting and declare to the world that Truth and Love are inseparable in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, we can together find our way to truthfully love and love truthfully.

Early Morning Prayer

Sovereign and ever-present God, whose love is steadfast, whose truth is inexhaustible, whose beauty is boundless, and whose goodness is without blemish: You have called us into a new day filled with occasions to share love, to explore truth, to delight in beauty, and to embody goodness. Open us to your redeeming presence so that your love, truth, beauty, and goodness will flow freely and untarnished through us. May we not restrict the flow of your love with hate and malice. May our narrowness of mind not confine your infinite truth to our limited intellectual grasp. May our busyness and self-preoccupation not blind us to the inestimable beauty that surrounds us. And, may our sin and brokenness not distort the purity of your goodness. Through your grace enable us to be beacons of love, truth, beauty, and goodness in a world filled with hatred, deceitfulness, ugliness, and evil. We offer our prayer in the name of the One who is the incarnation of boundless love, infinite truth, limitless beauty, and perfect goodness–Jesus the Christ. Amen

“You’re Only as Good as Your Word”

My grandfather, Dave Walker, was one of my heroes. He died in 1961 at the age of 67. He was a simple man who could neither read nor write; yet, he was perhaps the wisest, kindest, and most honorable person I have known. Granddaddy Walker

The memory of a childhood incident resurfaced recently. I was about nine years old.

Granddaddy asked me to walk to the store with him. It was a mile walk up the country road in eastern Tennessee.

He bought me a candy bar along with his purchase of a bag of flour. We left for our trek back home. As the house came into site, Granddad reached into the pocket of his bibbed overalls to count his money.

“We have to walk back to the store,” he said. “He gave me an extra nickel and I’ve got to return it.”

“But it’s just five cents,” I protested. “He’ll never even know he gave you too much.”

“But I’ll know,” he responded in his typical gentle voice. He added, “Always be honest. You’re only as good as your word.”

Granddaddy could have used that extra nickel, probably more than the owner of the grocery store. He was “dirt poor,” working at odd jobs, plowing gardens, growing his own food on a rocky little farm.

When he died unexpectedly of a stroke, that rural community mourned his loss. People gathered in masses for his funeral at the McKinley Methodist Church. These were among the most frequently heard compliments:

  • “He was honest as the day is long!”
  • “His word was his bond!”
  • “If he promised something, you could count on it.”
  • “He never lied; he always told the truth!”
  • “You could trust him with your life.”

I’ve thought a lot about my grandfather during the current climate of runaway dishonesty: Charges of “fake news” by those swimming in untruths and distortions. Social media’s dissemination of false narratives for partisan political or selfish personal gain.

Dishonesty in high and low places has reached epidemic proportion and is increasingly accepted as the norm in political and social discourse. Lying has become a sanctioned political strategy. Character has been disjoined from policy as though winning surpasses personal and corporate integrity.

Granddaddy Walker considered honesty the core of character. Dishonesty he viewed as symptomatic of diseased character. He learned that from Jesus. “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10).

Fred Craddock shared an experience in the buffet line at an airport food outlet. He watched a man in front of him hide a pad of butter under his plate.

The butter only cost five cents!  A harmless or inconsequential dishonest act! But Dr. Craddock commented that he kept his eyes on his luggage when that man showed up at the same boarding gate. All trust was gone!

Dishonesty infects the soul and poisons every aspect of life. It destroys trust, taints kindness, fractures relationships, undermines community, and subverts the common good. Lies are like termites eating away the foundation, or malignant cancer cells destroying vital organs.

Would you trust the man who hid the butter under his plate with your children? Would you vote for him for sheriff, or city council, or president? Would you feel secure with him having access to the nuclear code? Would you trust him with your life!

Character matters mightily! Granddaddy Walker was right, “Always be honest! You’re only as good as your word!”

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”

To Whom Shall We Listen

“I don’t know who to believe anymore,” remarked an exasperated friend. “You can’t believe the media! Certainly politicians can’t be trusted with the truth. The president says the media is “fake news” and yet he regularly lies. So, who should I listen to?”

It is a vital question confronting us in this age of media overload, “alternative facts,” “fake news,” partisan political propaganda, flashy advertising, and competing religious voices.

We are shaped by the voices we listen to. Words matter! They shape how we feel and act.

For followers of Jesus, the Transfiguration Story provides the answer to the question, “To whom shall we listen?”

Jesus and his disciples were at a crossroads. They had left the serene Galilean seaside and were on their way to Jerusalem, the center of religious, political, and economic power.

Ahead loomed confrontation and conflict as the values of the reign of God as proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount clashed with the values and policies  of established religion and the prevailing government.

The disciples were in for a test of their loyalty and the source of their authority. To whom will they listen to form their loyalties and actions. Their lives and destiny depended on their choice. Will they listen to the one who had called them to “come, follow me;” or will their actions be governed by the voices of expediency, safety, hatred, bigotry, and violence?

Mysteriously Jesus was transfigured before eyes of Peter, James, and John as one with ultimate authority.  The transcendent voice from the heavens declared, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him” (Mark 9:7)!

It’s time for us to decide to whom we will listen in these uncertain, polarizing, hate-filled, violent times. What voices are shaping our actions and relationships? FOX News? MSNBC? Talk radio? Politicians and their spokespersons? Religious celebrities and power seekers?

Widespread hostile attitudes and behavior directed toward the poor, immigrants, homeless, refugees, those of other races or political persuasions or sexual orientations indicate that professed followers of Jesus have been listening to other voices.

What does it mean to really listen to the One who is the Word made flesh?

It certainly means that we become familiar with what Jesus said and take it seriously. A good place to begin is the Sermon on the Mount.

I wonder what difference it would make if we were to begin every day of Lent by prayerfully reading Matthew 5-7. That is going to be my Lenten discipline this year. And, I’m going to evaluate all other voices by how they resonate with the voice of the One who spoke on the Galilean hillside.

What if all who claim the name “Christian” spend at least as much time listening to Jesus in the Gospels as to Fox News or MSNBC? Or, if we pay more attention to the voice of the Christ than to the voice of Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow?

We’ve listened to the voices of insult, hate, division, demonizing, exclusion,  prejudice, deceptive partisan political rhetoric too long!

Let’s really listen to Jesus when he says

Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn….the meek, those who hunger for righteousness…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…the persecuted…

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

Turn the other cheek, go the second mile

Judge not that you be not judged

You cannot serve God and wealth

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness

Whoever would be great among you must be the servant of all

The first shall be last and the last shall be first

You shall love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself

Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me

“I will be with you to the close of the age.”

To whom shall we listen? That may be the most important question of our time!