In the summer of 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following from his Prison Cell. (1)
"I discovered and still am discovering right up to this moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith … By [in this world] I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures … In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That I think, is faith: [that is repentance]; and that is how one becomes a human being and a Christian."
Bonhoeffer would shortly be executed for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer is the exemplar of a reading of our tradition that I have been attempting this Lent. If indeed, in Jesus Christ we are meant to see the life of God, then the Christian path is not an escape from this world to a better one among purer people; rather, to be truly alive is to follow God into the midst of the world we have.
Along with Bonhoeffer and others, I do not understand the death of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice of a perfect human to satisfy the wrath of an angry God. Rather in Christ’s suffering, I see the life of God made vulnerable to us in solidarity with the world. It is a great mystery, but if our faith is true, God has chosen to hide God’self in the midst of compassion for the world God loves. To be saved, is to follow this Lord.
(1) This quote and this reflection is inspired by Douglas John Hall, Waiting for the Gospel: An Appeal Dispirited Remnants of the Protestant ‘Establishment’
The ministry challenge of our time is not congregational decline, it is adapting to a drastically changing culture. To use a biblical metaphor, we are called to be fishers of people. At one time our catch was great, now our boats are not so full. Yet, after spending nearly a generation blaming ourselves and one another, I believe we failed to notice the primary cause: the salinity of the water changed and the fish have moved out to deeper waters.
We are living in a time of immense global change that began to fully impact North American Christianity as the post WWII baby-boomers became youth and young adults. “Paradigm shifts” in human thought forms and culture occur from time to time in human history. We have both the privilege and challenge of being in ministry together during just such a time. To use a philosopher's phrase, what has changed are the "conditions of belief."
1) The rise and end of the “Age of Reason” -- in the premodern era, before the “Age of Reason” (ca. 1650-1950), human world views made it impossible not to believe in God(s). By the conclusion of the modern era in the Western world, it was deemed foolish or irrational to have faith in something one can not see, prove, or comprehend with "scientific" certainty. The important thing to realize is that what changed is the lens through which we view the world, not the reality of the world or the God behind the lens.
2) The end of cultural/civic christianity — after ca. 315 in the Western world, one was born Christian. In the majority middle-class North American culture, before ca. 1960 one was most likely born a protestant Christian. Today, in order to be Christian in the United States one must actively choose to be within a culture that often presumes belief to be foolish and religious institutions to be corrupt and a source of harm.
3) Globalization and the Information Age — in a period of unprecedented speed brought about by new technology, the diversity of the globe has moved next door and its information is available on our cell phones. For most of human history, one’s neighbor was not too different from oneself (Sacks). Today, we are greatly challenged to honor the sacred gift of our diversity while sorting through the vast amount of information available to anyone. This, at the very time our cultural Christian identity has eroded (2) and the distinctions between truth, facts and opinion (1) are confusing for so many of us.
These three paradigm shifts have impacted the very way we think and live as human beings. Coming to terms with them is the challenge of our time. When the pace of change outpaces our ability to adapt: the result is anxiety, fear, hatred, and if not addressed, violence (Sacks). Our call to be of service to the world is urgent. As Christians we are not called to conquer the world in Jesus’ name, we are called in Christ’s image to particpate in God's work to heal it. Or, more simply, in the words of John Wesley "to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, and to walk as Jesus walked."
-- Rev. Mark Sturgess
The above reflection draws upon the work of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (The Dignity of Difference; Not in God’s Name); Dr. William Greenway (a personal mentor and author of A Reasonable Belief), and James Smith (How Not to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor).
One young adult from my congregation has continued to practice her faith by becoming involved in a bible study group at her university. She is having difficultly, but remaining in conversation with her friends. She attests to the deep truth of the opening chapters of Genesis — as do I — but not the historical fact of the narratives. Her friends are unconvinced: if Adam and Eve didn’t really exist, then the Bible can’t be true. It is my hope that their friendship will be more important to their faith than the argument. It is not a dispute easily solved.
When discussing Scripture these days, it is most often not the text which is at issue, but our underlying, unexamined assumptions about what the text is. As I suggested in my last post, this is the case with modern “conservatives” and “liberals” alike. As faithful Christians we all agree that the Bible speaks of truth, but truth in our time — in a trajectory beginning in the mid-16th century — is clearly understood to be “facts”: historical, scientific, certain knowledge.
I have been privileged to be in ministry with highly educated sophisticated readers, PhD’s of all varieties, voracious readers. Yet Bible study is often difficult, if not held in suspicion. The importance of searching the scriptures as a means of grace — of encountering the One who is truth — has been lost in our mainline churches. It was not until half-way into my twelve years of ministry, that I came to understand that the problem in reading the Bible (on the left and right) was much deeper than I realized.
In any other context, a talking snake would be a clue that we are reading some genre of literature other than history or science. We would not discredit the writer or the text. We would simply read it differently. We might even read it well, if led by a good teacher. If Genesis 3 were approached as a classic piece of literature in a book not called the “Bible,” we might easily discover that this truth telling narrative is a powerful testimony to the consequence of our lack of humility (in aspiring to God-like knowledge), and that shame emerges in the midst of alienation from God and one another. In other words, the text is not about ancient history, but about our relationship with one another and the One we gesture at with the word “God.” I have found it very difficult to move Christians to this way of reading, because when our understanding of truth and ultimate reality are at stake, as stated on edges of ancient maps, “Here be dragons.”
A retired engineer once told me of a discussion he had with his college roommate. He pointed out to his roommate that the scientific evidence seemed irrefutable that the world was not created in seven days. His roommate punched him. It was not a rational reaction: it came unthinking from a place of deep fear and anxiety. The question and the evidence struck at the core of his world view and what he believed to be true. This is exactly what is at stake in our time about homosexuality and the bible.
When our core understanding of truth and identity are at stake, a solution will not be arrived at by logical argument or parliamentary procedure. In fact, for most people I would suggest, the argument over homosexuality will be settled not in Scripture, but in coming to know and love a homosexual. The engineer I spoke of, will bring the psychological scar of his roommate's fist into every dispute over scripture. The scar was the violation of a relationship; the Bible, or a particular, brand of Christian will be blamed. Just as is the case for every man or woman who has been labeled a Sodomite, or told that God hates their very being. Not only do we approach Scripture with unexamined assumptions about truth, we also come to the text, with deep hurts, fears, and personal stories that will shape our conclusions, long before we pick up the text.
In “Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection,” the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, makes a remarkable confession: “I have come belatedly to see, in my own case, that my [interpretive] passion is largely propelled by the fact that my father was a pastor economically abused by the church he served, economically abused as a means of control. I cannot measure the ways in which this felt awareness determines how I work, how I interpret, whom I read, whom I trust as a reliable voice.” (1)
This leads Brueggemann to one of the most important observations about Biblical interpretation I have ever read:
The real issues of biblical authority and interpretation are not likely to be settled by erudite cognitive formulation or by appeal to classic settlements, but live beneath such contention in often unrecognized and uncriticized ways that are deeply powerful … And if that is so, then the disputes require not frontal arguments … but long-term pastoral attentiveness to each other in good faith. (2)
When our unexamined assumptions, and personal stories of hurt and hope are acknowledged and allowed to speak, our Christian conversation may truly become a source of healing. As Wesley contended, Searching the Scriptures and Christian Conferencing are means of the saving grace of God. But when we fight our battles by majority vote, I fear, little is accomplished beyond deepening our hurt. At General Conference there is much at stake, even in the debate on how we are going to debate.
-- Rev. Mark F. Sturgess
(1) Brueggemann, Placher & Blount, Struggling with Scripture, “Biblical Authority: A Personal Reflection” (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 23.
(2) Brueggemann, Placher & Blount, 10.
As one of the 111 signatures on the "coming out" letter presented to the denomination this week, I once again am standing on the shoulders of others leading and advocating on my behalf. I have been given the gift of being a pastor who just happens to be gay. The least I can do this week is to tell my story. This text was made public in the fall of 2012.
In gratitude for my friends, family and colleagues who supported me, for the LA LGBT center's "coming out group" who helped me find my way, and for all those brave men and women who speak for the outcast while people of faith remain silent ...
A Coming Out Letter
Life is a gift and far too short not to claim the life you have been given.
When we lost our marriage, my wife and I were devastated. The apostle Paul, in one of his letters, says that human beings are like clay jars. The only benefit that I can find to being fragile pottery is the chance to have a long, good look at the pieces when we are broken. As I labored to put myself back together, I realized that there was a more obvious form to the pieces than I had been living. I am writing to tell you that I am gay.
Since I was a child, I suppressed my primary attraction in life. There was no room in our culture for my homosexuality to be acknowledged, so I safely packed it away at the edge of my awareness. I lived my life well and as fully as I could. For that I am deeply grateful, but three years ago it fell apart. It is time now to fully claim the life God has given me.
This is not a choice. I had been suffering, suffering for a long time: chronic anxiety, acute panic attacks, painful physical tension, self-loathing, toxic perfectionism. Many suffer these symptoms for different reasons; however, it wasn’t until I let the unacknowledged part of myself be my self, that I realized the burden I had been carrying.
As early as kindergarten, I knew I was different. I blamed myself, made up for it by being the best little boy I could. As an adolescent, I was desperately lonely and didn’t understand why. I never doubted, for a moment, your love for me. I had just never loved myself. Among the LGBT community, I am finally among people who are like me. They are extraordinary people. Being gay is a remarkable gift.
Human beings, in all their complexity, imperfection and beauty are simply a miracle. Each of us is created in the image of God who is Holy, wholly Other. I now understand that difference itself is sacred, a sacrament of that divine otherness. For the first time in my life I am beginning to see that my value lies not in my ability to be the person others would like me to be, but rather in the unique beauty and complexity of my own heart, soul, mind and body.
To use an Old Testament metaphor, the last three years have been all wilderness, but now, at least, I am standing on the shore of the Jordan. I can see my way across. On warm summer nights I swim in its waters. The water is good. I know that I am a child of God.
Ancient Israel met God in the wilderness. As I have drawn closer to myself, I too have drawn closer to whatever it is that we gesture at with the word God. I am a better pastor, a better interpreter of the Bible. The New Testament, after all, is written by folks challenged to live their faith openly in a hostile world. I am Nicodemus, standing in the shadows, afraid to step into the light of day. I am the woman at the well, drawing water alone to avoid the judgement of her peers. I am the blind beggar, healed without asking for the gift or for its consequences. I am Lazarus. Once, dead. Now, called out to new life.
Know that I am well and happy. Celebrate this with me. If you don't know what to say, begin there.
- Rev. Mark Sturgess, Holy Week 2012
John 18:37 Pilate asked [Jesus], “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
“What is Truth?” Pilate’s question. Our’s today. The question, in the text, is rhetorical. Pilate is either being evasive or dismissive. It is the end of the conversation for Pilate. The reader and the church know otherwise, or at least we should. The truth is standing right in front of him. In the 4th Gospel — as the church has held ever since — truth is a person, the Word made flesh. In fact, Jesus does not claim here to be truth itself, but rather, Jesus is the one who makes God known. The words of the gospel point to the Word, the Word makes God known in order that we may “belong to the truth.”
Using a bit of modern Evangelical language, the goal of the biblical testimony is that we may have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Truth, then, cannot be reduced to objective “facts,” but is known and made known in our relationship with God and one another. This is an abstract idea, but attested repeatedly in Scripture. The evidence and measure of our relationship with God in Christ is how we treat one another. This is why — I suspect — in Matthew 25 for example, Jesus suggests that we meet him in the face of poor we feed, or deny him by ignoring the needs of the rejected and outcast. This is why — as I illustrated in my last post — hundreds of verses in the biblical text address how we treat one another, especially the least.
The beauty of this simple, ironic scene from John, is its unveiling of our most fundamental confusion about the Bible. Truth is not about certain knowledge; truth is the One to whom we belong. For Christians -- I would argue -- the Bible is the word of God only in a derivative sense, only in the sense that it brings us into relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Truth, then, cannot be reduced to “facts,” no more than a relationship can be reduced to sentences. In my previous post, I listed the seven passages that are argued to condemn same sex acts as antithetical to the Christian lifestyle. In these “facts” we claim to possess the truth. Friends, we do not possess the truth, we belong to it. The truth possess us.
This misunderstanding exists among modern liberals and conservatives, alike. Modern Liberals have attempted to burrow beneath the testimony and discover truth by the measure of our scientific, analytic reason. The question for liberals is “Did it happen? What did the original author really think and say?” Modern conservatives, in a parallel quest for objective certainty, freeze the text as if each verse were a “fact” given to us by God. Both ways of reading are dead ends. We do not possess the truth, we belong to God, and that belonging is evidenced in how we treat one another. Until we recognize that mistake, I fear we will never move forward as a church. I pray that as our General Conference ponders: “What is Truth?” that we observe Jesus standing before us, always standing before us, his light, his love, guiding our way.
-- Rev. Mark F. Sturgess
In my journey as a United Methodist, I have found the writings of Randy Maddox to be helpful entry points into Wesleyan Scholarship. In his essay “’John Wesley – A Man of One Book,’” Maddox identifies several of Wesley’s principles of biblical interpretation, one of which is: Read comparatively in light of God’s Central Purpose. According to Maddox, “Wesley was … concerned to read the entire canon with attention to those things that emerge repeatedly.”  As stated by Wesley himself:
Every truth which is revealed in the oracles of God is undoubtedly of great importance. Yet it may be allowed that some of those which are revealed therein are of greater importance than others as being more immediately conducive to the grand end of all, the eternal salvation of [humanity]. And we may judge of their importance even from this circumstance, that they are not mentioned only once in the sacred writings, but are repeated over and over. 
One of the most divisive issues before The United Methodist Church today is whether or not homosexuality is compatible with the Christian lifestyle. This debate evolves from the interpretation of 7 passages identified by verses on page 2 of this document. Out of curiosity and an educated hunch, I thought I’d follow Wesley’s own suggestion and look to what may be judged to be of more importance to God’s central purpose in the sacred writings by repetition: “over and over.”
John Wesley himself insisted on the use of original languages and the best study tools available. Using original language tools I have at my disposal I identified the 2 Hebrew and 3 Greek words that are typically in the NRSV translated as stranger/resident alien. The words occur in 173 verses listed beginning on page 3. I also identified the Greek and Hebrew words that translate as poor/needy/widow/orphan (8 Hebrew and 5 Greek); these occur in 310 verses listed beginning on page 21.
I fully admit that these verses have been removed from their literary context. I also am not suggesting that there are not important theological issues at stake in the 7 verses so hotly debated. At least from this study, I would suggest, however, that by Wesley’s own standard there are issues far more important to God’s central purpose: the salvation of humanity.
— Peace, Rev. Mark F. Sturgess
According to John Wesley, the goal of the Christian life is love: loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. It is important to distinguish between the kind of love the Gospel and Wesley are calling us to, and our common (preferential) — but deeply meaningful — experience of love within our family and friendships. Wesley uses three interchangeable adjectives: divine, holy, or perfect love.
Perfect love was made visible to us and accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we turn toward this love we recognize that God holds us each in an unconditional embrace: we are beloved. The experience of divine love is grace, a gift of God; and the recognition that we are beloved calls us to love what God loves, which is the world — “every soul God hath made,” in Wesley's words.
You may quickly identify the distinction between preferential love and love divine, by your reaction to the command: “love your enemies.” It is not humanly impossible; so impossible, in fact, that I might not even use the word love to describe it. Rather, by grace, we recognize that even the soul of our enemy is sacred, precious in God’s eyes. Holy love is the emotions, thoughts, words and actions that proceed from the recognition that every soul is of inestimable worth, even your own, even your enemy's.
Guided by Scripture, Wesley believed that the emotions — “tempers” — thoughts, words and actions of divine love, were readily identifiable in the life of Christ, and so should shape the life of every christian believer. The goal of the Christian life is perfect love, or holiness. “In a word, holiness is to have the mind that was in Christ’ and the ‘walking as Christ walked.” The purpose of the church, then, is to nurture God’s Holy Love in the world, by encouraging the practices where Christ walked that we might have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. In these practices — the “means of grace” — God accomplishes God’s work in us for the healing of the world. This is the “method” in methodism. In Wesley’s words:
“In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and [humanity] … In a circle near the throne are all holy tempers;—long suffering, gentleness, meekness, fidelity, temperance; and if any other were comprised in “the mind which was in Christ Jesus.” In an exterior circle are all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men. By these we exercise all holy tempers; by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace … Next to these are those that are usually termed works of piety;—reading and hearing the word, public, family, private prayer, receiving the Lord’s Supper, fasting or abstinence. Lastly, that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our blessed Lord has united them together in one body, the Church, dispersed all over the earth; a little emblem of which, of the Church universal, we have in every particular Christian congregation.” (from "On Zeal")
In a word, we the Church is to be a school of Holy Love. In all the books about Christian discipleship and mission I have read, I know no other description of the Christian life that so succinctly captures the work to which we are called.
-- Rev. Mark Sturgess (graphic by members of Riviera UMC).
"Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all." -- Isaac Watts
Maundy Thursday: March 24, 2016
With my forbears, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was fully human, just like you and me. In this moment, the moment of his death, this fact is painfully clear. His death was terrible, and in that time its manner, brutally common. Yet I also believe that Jesus lived Divine Love purely, as fully and perfectly as any human can. He did not sway from the course of his mission to make present the Love of God for the world. His death was the consequence of his unwavering devotion to every soul God has made: the powers of jealousy, hatred and evil that exist within us have always found this way of living to be an unacceptable threat.
Divine love is that love of which we are commanded, on Maundy Thursday — the Thursday of the command — You shall love. Human love is preferential: it is easy to love those like ourselves. It easy is to love those we are attracted to, those of our same opinions, skin color, sexuality, religion. Divine Love, is something different entirely: it is treating every soul as a child of God, even our enemies. Every soul God hath made, is beloved, of inestimable worth. We do not come by this loving naturally; it wells up in our souls from some mysterious source that we gesture at with the word God. Christians, speak of this astonishing gift as grace: love unmerited, love unconditional, love divine.
This is how I understand the wisdom my forbears taught me to proclaim: Jesus the Christ: fully human, fully divine. The Christ is Divine love made visible, the Word made flesh, the love that authors us. Yet tonight I must also admit that in the death of the flesh, its source, remains hidden to me.
The philosopher Søren, Kierkegaard speaks of this mystery in a passage I have returned to again and again over the years. I share it with you as our final words tonight:
Love’s hidden life is in the innermost being, unfathomable, and then in turn is in an unfathomable connectedness with all existence. Just as the quiet lake originates deep down in hidden springs no eye has seen, so also does a person’s love originate even more deeply in God’s love. If there were no gushing spring at the bottom, if God were not love, then there would be neither the little lake nor a human being’s love. ...
Just as a quiet lake invites you to contemplate it but by the reflected image of darkness prevents you from seeing through it, so also the mysterious origin of love in God’s love prevents you from seeing its ground.
… In the same way the life of love is hidden, but its hidden life is in itself in motion ... however calm its surface, is actually flowing water, since there is the gushing spring at the bottom — so also love, however quiet it is in its concealment, is flowing nevertheless. But the quiet lake can dry up if the gushing spring ever stops; the life of [Divine} love, however, has an eternal spring. This life is fresh and everlasting. No cold can freeze it.
And no darkness can over come it, not even death. Jesus made this eternal ever flowing love visible in his life with us, for us. So, on this night, we are commanded to follow and do the same.
"And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road." (Matt 2:12)
"Religion acquires influence when it relinquishes power. It is then that it takes its place, not among rulers but among the ruled, not in the palaces of power but in the real lives of ordinary men and women who become extraordinary when brushed by the wings of eternity. It becomes the voice of the voiceless, the conscience of the community, the perennial reminder that there are moral limits of power and that the task of the state is to serve the people, not the people the state ... to paraphrase Kierkegaard: 'when a king dies his power ends. When a prophet dies, his influence begins.' When religion divests itself of power, it is freed from the burden of rearranging the deckchairs on the ship of state and returns to its real task: changing lives ... When religion becomes an earthquake, a whirlwind, a fire, it can no longer hear the still, small voice of God summoning us to freedom." -- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence (236-237)
"... he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly." Luke 1:51-52
"For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, and from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger ... Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged ... Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and see the glory of God precisely in [God's] lowliness." -- D. Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger (26)