Theological Convictions or Relationships?

“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world.” This is the first song I remember singing as a little child. I am fortunate that I was taught the stories of Jesus and his love from the moment I was born, which means that my personal relationship with Jesus has always been more important than anything else. My life has been a continuous series of “born again” experiences in which my relationship with my Lord and Savior has deepened and stretched my capacity to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I was raised in a church that was fairly homogeneous, but I also knew that not everyone believed the same way. My mother and father did not agree on everything, but they were of one mind about this: that God’s grace empowered them to live lives that were directed outward in service to others. To my mom and dad, being in relationship with others was always more important than having the same theological convictions.

Because my own relationship with Jesus predates any knowledge of theological nuances; because my personal encounters with Jesus through others continue to enlarge my vision of what it means to follow him; and because of the biblical witness to a love that surpasses the law, I am convinced that relationships are more important than theological convictions.

I first made that statement last September when I was asked to share my vision of the church in the year 2032 at a Church of the Resurrection leadership event. These are the three key elements of the vision:

#1: Relationships will be more important than theological convictions.

#2: Innovation, creativity, and imagination will be more important than stagnation, rigidity, sacred cows, and the status quo.

#3: Our primary focus will be on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment: to go out into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ and to love God and our neighbor in all that we do.

I have received more than one response over the past six months from individuals who have questioned my first assertion that relationships trump theology. Some have said, “How can you possibly claim that what we believe doesn’t matter? The Bible says that homosexuality is a sin, period. Relationships have nothing to do with it.” Others have said, “Our theology is embodied by the teachings of Jesus to love God and neighbor. Seeing all people as having sacred worth is a deeply theological conviction and is not merely relational.”

The dialogue has been rich because the reality is that our beliefs do matter. Relationship theology lies at the core of our faith and practice and is affirmed by the many teachings of Jesus around loving our neighbor and seeing all people as children of God. Right belief is hollow if there is no love.

I’d like to share several thoughts about relationships and theological convictions. First, if I reject a brother or a sister who believes differently than me on a certain issue, then woe is me. If I refuse to be in relationship with another because their stance on a theological doctrine is not the same as mine, then woe is me. If I am not willing to believe that God loves my neighbor just as much as God loves me (because, after all, I am right and they are wrong), then woe is me. Christianity is a religion of relationships. Jesus desires nothing more than for you and me to be in relationship with him and with each other, even if you and I do not agree.

Second, love is what fulfills the law. If the law or “right doctrine” trumps love, then surely Jesus would have encouraged the crowd to stone the woman caught in adultery. After all, that was the right doctrine. If “right doctrine” is more important than love of God and neighbor, then Jesus would have kept himself “ritually clean” and most definitely wouldn’t have hung out with the prostitutes, sinners, and other lowlifes that the establishment despised. If theological convictions are the highest good, certainly Jesus wouldn’t have healed anyone on the sabbath. The people of Jesus’ day were tangled up in their law and doctrine. With divine genius, Jesus cut through it by going back to the source: the commandment to love God with everything we’ve got and, equally, our neighbor as ourselves.

Consider the apostle Paul. In Romans 13:8-14 (CEB), Paul says, “Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.”

Paul was a law-demanding crazy man, putting people to death for violating “right doctrine,” but then he was converted and wised up. Paul said that we can preach like an angel, but without love, it’s just empty words. We can have the clearest theological teaching, understanding all mysteries, and have faith to move mountains, but we are nothing without love. We can be superlatively virtuous, giving everything we possess to the poor, but without love we are the poorest of all.

Third, relationships are more important than theological convictions because of our call to be witnesses to the world, united in making a difference by bringing in God’s reign of peace, mercy, justice, and joy. The devastating tornadoes last week in the Middle Tennessee area have cut us to the core. At least 24 lives were lost in the second most deadly tornado event in Tennessee history. The city of Nashville, which houses many of our United Methodist denominational boards and agencies, experienced significant damage, including East End United Methodist Church.

What warmed my heart was the heroic way in which people selflessly helped one other when the storm hit. Have you noticed? When tornadoes rip through homes and floods or flames devastate towns, no one ever asks the person standing on the roof of their flooded house, or trying to escape a wildfire, or seeking shelter from a tornado, all desperate for help, “What’s your political party? What’s your theology of the cross? What’s your ethnic identity? Are you an illegal immigrant?” None of that matters. Why? Because we are one human family. Our neighbor is anyone in need.

John Wesley’s sermon, A Catholic Spirit, offers timely wisdom for today as we wrestle with relationships and theological convictions. For Wesley, it’s ultimately about the heart rather than opinions.

But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.” [i]

Jesus yearns for nothing more than to be in relationship with you and me and for us to embody his radical, transformative, life-giving love in all that we say and do. It’s also a love that led Jesus to the cross. Perhaps what is ultimately most important for The United Methodist Church today is not agreement on the nuances of theology and details of separation agreements but John Wesley’s simple offer to you and your neighbor, “If your heart is right as my heart, if you love God and all people, then give me your hand.”[ii]

[i] http://www.crivoice.org/cathspirit.html

[ii] Ibid.

Having Light We Pass It on To Others

The other day I received Wittenberg Magazine in the mail. Do you stay connected with the schools that you attended earlier in your life? I went to college at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Wittenberg, as you might suspect from the name, is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Having grown up as a Mennonite, my only previous contact with the Lutheran Church was through my high school organ teacher, who was the Director of Music in a large Lutheran church in a neighboring town.

I had no idea where I wanted to go to college, so my mother and I and a friend from high school went on a Midwest college road trip from eastern Pennsylvania just a few months before graduation. Applying to colleges was a bit more casual in those days. We visited Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin; Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota; Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio; and Wittenberg, which was recommended by my organ teacher because it had a School of Music and a strong organ faculty. I am sorry to admit that we did not make it as far as Iowa!

I ended up at Wittenberg because I wanted to study organ, I loved the campus, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to study church music in West Berlin during my junior year. Here’s what I saw on my first visit. At the center of the campus on the pavement was the Wittenberg “seal,” made out of bronze with these words, “Having light we pass it on to others.” Many years have passed since I graduated from Wittenberg, and I regret that I have never been back, not even once. Although I still browse through the alumni magazine and make my annual contribution, Springfield, Ohio is just not on the way to the places I normally drive.

However, every day I live with the influence of two teachers in particular who passed their light on to me. My organ teacher, Trudy Faber, who also taught piano and harpsicord, was raising a young family when I was in college, and I always admired her skill as well as her genuine interest in her students. The other person was Fred Jackisch, who was a music professor, Dean of the Music School, and university organist. One day during my senior year. Dr. Jackisch and said these words to me, “Laurie, remember that those to whom much is given is much expected. God expects much of you.”

In other words, “Having light, we pass it on to others.” I relished the first-rate education I received and the high expectations that Professor Faber and Dr. Jackisch passed on to me. Consequently, I have never forgotten my responsibility to pass the light on to others.

There is someone, isn’t there, who once talked about light – about how you and I are called to let our light shine so that all people will be inspired by the amazing things that we do to make a difference in the world? Yes, there is someone – a man named Jesus, who once said these words. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden.Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

I’m sure you’ve heard the old story about a little girl who asked her mother one day what a saint is. So, her mother took her to a great cathedral to see the gorgeous stained-glass windows with scenes from the Bible. When the little girl saw the beauty of it all, she cried out loud, “Now I know what saints are. They are people who let the light shine through!”

In the latest copy edition of Wittenberg Magazine, I read about two Wittenberg grads, Justin and Janet Henry, who decided to live in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where they helped build the Bolivian Hope Center. Children go to live in the Hope Center when their mothers go to prison. Otherwise, they would be out on the streets to fend for themselves. Justin said, “It’s been a long time since I graduated from Wittenberg, but I’ll never forget what it says on the seal, ‘Having light we pass it on to others.’ At first, I thought it was a bit arrogant; now I see it as a daily charge. Once we see something that we should act on, it is our responsibility to do so.”[i] The light shines through Justin and Janet Henry. Having light we pass it on to others.

Then there’s Melanie Barrett, who is a junior this year at Wittenberg. Melanie’s sister, Bailey, was born with a rare form of epilepsy that confined her to a wheelchair until she died in 2017. So, Melanie decided to pass her light on to her sister by creating a new company called Bailey Bug, which “develops specialized apparel and accessories for warmth, style, and safety for those who use wheelchairs.”[i] Melanie said, “Bailey means the world to me, and I will not stop until the warmth she gave me is spread… In my short-term future, I plan to help other students see that if they have a dream they can turn it into a reality.”[ii] Having light we pass it on to others.

My friends, as the saints of God, you are the people God calls to let the light shine through you. Having experienced the light and love of Jesus, how will you pass that light on to others? How is your church reaching out to your neighborhood, letting your light shine so that everyone around the church can see your good works and give glory to God? No matter what is going on around us, the light still beckons us to respond by passing it on to others.

It only takes a spark to get a fire going;
And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing;
That’s how it is with God’s love; Once you’ve experienced it;
You spread God’s love to ev’ryone; You want to pass it on.

 

 

[i] “Spread the Warmth,” Cynthia Holbrook, Wittenberg Magazine, Winter 2020, p.18.

[ii] Ibid, p. 19.

[i] “Revelation and Responsibility,” Justin and Janet Henry, Wittenberg Magazine, Winter 2020, p. 14, 17.

The Slow Work of God

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

—“The Slow Work of God”, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), excerpted from Hearts on Fire

Lent is almost upon us. In two days, we will receive ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. When I think back over my life, I wonder why it’s taken so many years to figure out that God works slowly but surely. Other days, it seems like just yesterday that I was a little kid, yearning for the next stage of my life to unfold. Impatient as I often am, I am learning to take one day at a time, relishing each moment.

“Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, ‘Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” (Matthew 17:1-4 CEB)

The three disciples are tickled pink. Here they are on top of the mountain with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. And Jesus is amazing! His face is shining so bright the disciples can’t even look directly at him. Can you think of anything more spectacular than that? “Hey, Jesus, I could get used to this. Why don’t we just stay up here forever?”

The cloud of mystery that envelops Jesus and the disciples also wraps me in wonder. Who is this Jesus, anyway, and what claim does he have on my life? How is the slow and transforming work of God growing in me?

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

“While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.” (Matthew 17:5-8)

Here’s the thing, Jesus has already told his disciples in Matthew16:21-23 that he is going to have to go to Jerusalem where he will suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and legal experts and that he has to be killed and will rise on the third day. But Peter takes hold of Jesus and says, “God forbid, Lord. This won’t happen to you.” Jesus then says to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
 

Jesus is already preparing his disciples for all that is to come. It is a slow but necessary work, and Jesus needs to gradually bring them along the journey to the cross. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Peter, James, and John to hear the voice from the cloud reassuring them that this Jesus is, indeed, God’s son and that they need to listen to him.

The liturgy of Ash Wednesday reminds us that, as Christ-followers, we are called to mark the forty days before Easter as a time of sober reflection.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent:
by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;
and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
To make a right beginning of repentance,
And as a mark of our mortal nature,
Let us now kneel before our Creator and Redeemer.

Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9) 

This mountaintop experience is not the end but the beginning of a journey, the slow work of God that will not be easy and will not be forced. Invariably, we, like Peter, James, and John will have to head back from the mountaintop down into the valley where the power of the cross is the source of our light and our salvation.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

How will we shine God’s light into our world? How do we wander right into grace and embrace it instead of fussing, fuming, and fighting? How does God want to transform us right now, here, today? And what will grace make of us tomorrow as the slow work of God unfolds?

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, so that we may remember that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life. Amen.

(All pictures are from the El Camino pilgrimage walk in Spain.)