“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” This quote from T.S. Eliot has been one my personal core values for years. As a pastor and now a bishop, I have often wrestled with knowing when to play it safe or venture out on a limb, when to be quiet or speak out, and when to hold back or go for it. In order to be faithful to our call as disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world, there are risks that we must be willing to take.
Occasionally, I have conversations with both laity and clergy about the role and importance of risk pastoral ministry, specifically:
- The risk of being transparent and vulnerable
- The risk of clergy and laity sharing ministry together
- The risk of failing
- The risk of talking openly about stewardship as a spiritual discipline
- The risk of advocating for the importance of our United Methodist Connection
- The risk of valuing diversity and welcoming differences
- The risk of challenging others to a deeper walk with God
- The risk of taking time away to nurture mind, body, and spirit
- The risk of seeking out a spiritual director
- The risk of being open to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit
- The risk of engaging in dialogue around current issues from a biblical and theological perspective
- The risk of leading through adaptive change and necessary endings
- The risk of saying, “I’m sorry”
In my experience as a runner, I have discovered that when I am participating in a long-distance race, I face choices every step along the way. When my body starts screaming, “Stop!” it’s my mind that tells my body to ignore the pain and keep going. Later, when my mind is no longer functioning clearly and my body begins to shut down, it’s ultimately my heart that wills me to risk putting one step in front of another and making it to the end. Giving up is not in my DNA, but risking is.
Going too far. It’s risky business, isn’t it? Not just in athletics, but in our personal, relational, and spiritual lives as well. I was introduced to a work of art a few months ago titled Resurrection II, by American sculptor and Lutheran Paul Granlund (1925-2003). The sculpture depicts the moment of Christ’s resurrection where he breaks out of the burial place that has held him in death and rises to new life. It’s as if, on the third day, Jesus has decided to take the risk of gathering up his wings to fly from all that has held him in the tomb.
Dr. Jane Leach has been Principal of Wesley House, a Methodist theological college in Cambridge, England, since September, 2011. In a 2009 lecture to strategic leaders of the Methodist Church of Britain, Embodying Holiness and Risk [i], Dr. Leach used Paul Granlund’s sculpture as a symbol for how easily Christians become entombed in old structures and ways of doing things.
Are we in The United Methodist Church able to release ourselves from who we have been in the past and do a new thing? Can we rise from up from our decades-long insistence on drawing the battle lines around human sexuality, which keeps us mired in our tombs and alienates us from many in the world who see us as irrelevant?
Can we allow one another the freedom to celebrate the various ways in which we engage in contextual ministry to form and send disciples of Jesus Christ out into the world rather than keep one another bound in chains? Would we prefer to keep Jesus in the tomb rather that see him as a liberating, freeing, empowering God who always risks going too far out of love for you and me?
Dr. Leach challenged these Methodist leaders to sit with Granlund’s sculpture for a while and envision what it suggests about holiness and risk. Dr. Leach said that the group she was supervising asked whether she was trying to think outside the box from inside a tomb. Leach responded, “Perhaps that is just my story. But if it resonates with you – or with some of the people in your congregations or with some of those who have left or are hanging on by a thread – there is hope for the people called Methodist if we can make room to hear Christ’s voice calling to us, as he did to Lazarus, saying, ‘Come out!’ and to others of us, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”
Of course, creating the kind of space in which God’s voice may be heard in The United Methodist Church is not an easy matter. So, I invite you to ponder Resurrection 2. Jesus almost looks like a bird, doesn’t he? The screws are loosened, chains are broken, and Jesus is poised and ready to fly.
Is it possible to embrace different ideas in our local churches when we are stuck in our tombs of insularity? Could it be that we entomb ourselves by beliefs, practices, and expressions of faith that limit our witness to as many people as we can in as many places around the world as we can? Can we risk going too far by overcoming our unwillingness to reach out beyond the walls of our church and our hesitation to embrace the other as holy? Might we create beloved community by intentionally seeing all people as created in God’s image and being willing to learn from one another?
How does our Wesleyan understanding of the radical nature of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying, and liberating grace for all inform our theology, attitudes, and actions? What might happen if we loosened the screws of the tombs of our fears, doubts, and stereotypes and boldly rise to something different in The United Methodist Church, something only God alone can see right now? I can’t help but believe that another way of being Wesleyan is waiting to emerge: a way that liberates, empowers, and embodies the grace of Jesus Christ for all people.
In John Wesley’s sermon, The Character of a Methodist, he claims that a Methodist is:
- One who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart;
- One who cannot but rejoice, having peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ;
- One who has the hope of immortality;
- One who prays without ceasing;
- One who loves and does good to neighbors and friends, strangers and enemies;
- One who is pure in heart and shows mercy, kindness, humbleness of mind, long-suffering, and forgiveness;
- One who seeks to please God and keep God’s commandments
Near the end of The Character of a Methodist, Wesley writes, “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question. If it be, give me thy hand.” The risen Christ told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to let loose. As we, too, wait for Pentecost, could it be that the only risk of going too far is to take the hand of our neighbor?
[i] “Embodying Holiness and Risk,” Dr. Jane Leach, a paper given to a conference of Methodist strategic leaders on Feburary 7th, 2009 at Swanwick