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)
"Behold I tell you a mystery ... we shall all be changed." 1 Cor 15:51
"The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty ... We retain the child in us to the extent that we honor the mystery. Children have open, wide awake eyes, because they know that they are surrounded by mystery. They are not yet finished with this world; they still don't know how to struggle along and avoid the mystery, as we do. We destroy the mystery because ... we want to be Lord over everything and have it at out disposal. Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world. It means taking the world [and other persons] seriously only to the extent that [they] can be calculated and exploited. Living without mystery means not seeing and even denying the crucial processes of life."
-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger (18), edited, Italics mine
"A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and branch shall grow out of his roots." Isaiah 11:1
"Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting -- that is, of hopefully doing without -- will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment. Those who do know how it feels to struggle anxiously with the deepest questions of life, of their life, and to patiently look forward with anticipation until the truth is revealed, cannot even dream of the splendor of the moment in which clarity is illuminated for them. And for those who do not want to win the friendship and love of another person -- who do not expectantly open up their soul to the soul of the other person, until friendship and love come, until they make the entrance -- for such people the deepest blessing of the one life of two intertwined souls will remain forever hidden. For the greatest most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from God is in the Manger (4)
This last week I enjoyed leading conversations with a number of church leaders on the subject of our calling as Christians. In Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Eugene Peterson – author of the Scripture paraphrase The Message – describes the spiritual goal at the heart of Christian community.
The image is a triangle. In geometry, there are important relationships between the angles and lines of a triangle. For example, Peterson suggests that preaching, teaching and administration are the visible lines of my own work. However, without the angles – the spiritual foundation of our work together – the lines are disconnected from their reason for being. Peterson applies this image to the role of being the pastor of a congregation. I believe the lesson applies to all of us.
The angles of our Christian vocation, according to Peterson, are prayer – bringing ourselves to attention before God; Scripture – attending to God in the texts of Israel and the church; and spiritual direction – giving attention to what God is doing in the person before us at any given moment.
As Christians in community we balance many tasks that help a church function as a volunteer organization and a non-profit corporation in our day-to-day world. But the church at heart is neither a volunteer organization nor a corporation; the church is a spiritual entity: the Body of Christ, called together by God to be the sacrament of Christ’s healing grace for a hurting world. If we are not paying attention to God in the midst of our work, we are not being church, no matter how successful we may appear to be.
Pursued with intentionality, how might this image change our way of being church? Take for example our gathering on Sunday morning. Who among us has not come to church with a lingering problem or loose end from a project to discuss with someone? What if we set this ‘work’ aside for the work of Sabbath: paying attention to God. The coffee time following church, becomes more than snacks, it is time for relationship. A new person is no longer a ‘visitor’ church shopping, but someone God has brought to this place on this Sunday for a reason. With practice, we might even be able to take this spiritual soul of faith into every day. As we look forward to the excitement of being together this fall, may we pay attention to God: in prayer, in Scripture and in one another.
-- Grace and Peace, Pastor Mark
In 1958, John Steinbeck – Nobel Laureate and author – wrote a letter to his teenage son, Thom. Thom had recently confessed to falling in love with a girl at boarding school. His father’s letter in response, published recently in The Atlantic, is both charming and wise. As I read it this Christmas season, one paragraph caught my attention:
"There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social aspect of manners, but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak, but the second can release in you strength and courage and goodness, and even wisdom, you didn't know you had."
In that paragraph is a lifetime, even an eternity, of wisdom. Twenty centuries earlier, another wise teacher named John wrote a letter to his church. John said, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God … God is love.” I may be naive, but my faith is simple. I believe that the universe, and whatever it is beyond it we call God, exists for the sake of the kind of love that Steinbeck and the New Testament speak.
When I gaze into the manger in Bethlehem I see an outpouring of love, the source of everything good. It is a love that recognizes each of us as unique and valuable, love that has the power to release you in strength and courage and goodness. This is the love the Christ child will live and die to be. Let his life and each of our lives through his, count for the good. Let this Holy Night be a sign of God's infinite love for you: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, 'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
Merry Christmas, - Pastor Mark
Henri Nouwen has written that ministry is receiving God’s blessing from those to whom we minister; in the midst of serving we are blessed with passing glimpses of the face of God. The most humbling gift I have experienced in the practice of ministry is being called into moments in people’s lives that can only be described as holy. These experiences have affirmed my faith in the fundamental witness of Scripture that God is Holy and God is With Us.
Early on a Saturday evening, two days after we celebrated his fiftieth birthday, I received a call that John had died. He was a free-spirited Texan, a grade-school teacher, with a devoted wife and three middle-school aged children. Throughout the four years I knew John, he was in and out of chemotherapy for cancer that had metastasized into his lungs. I heard a pastor once say that the mystery of life includes our death. Ministry at the time of death is one of those mysteries into which I am invited, undeserved, that is as sacred as it is difficult.
When I received the call that night, I drove to his home immediately. The cries of John's grieving children echoed throughout the house and are seared into my memory. When the time seemed appropriate, I gathered his children, wife, and immediate family; we held hands in prayer and surrendered his spirit to God. I waited with them for the morticians to arrive, escorted the body to the van, and said good night.
For me, the word “holy” means that God is utterly unique, set apart from the world of our common sense. God is beyond our imagining and beyond our words. Yet Scripture teaches that our Holy God is also with us. If God is with us, sacred moments in our lives should be plentiful. They are, extravagantly so: an astonishing live performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony at Disney Hall; dolphins dancing in the surf on Easter morning; a choir member offering a heroic solo the Sunday after she had been diagnosed with cancer. With Anne Lamott, I believe that we can look for encounters with the holy by searching our lives for moments of wonderment, when the only possible response is silence or a breathless “wow.” These moments are the fingerprints of God upon our lives. That is not so difficult to grasp; but sitting alongside a father's lifeless body with his grieving children … where is God here?
The insight has not come easily. Only now after 11 years in the practice of ministry am I coming to trust in it, and then only after spending year after year bearing witness to the passion of the One we call divine. John's was a fractured life in ways dIfferent from mine. Yet in the days ahead, as I spoke to the family and presided over the largest memorial service I had ever seen, I recognized that he was dearly loved. His life, my life, your life, each and every life is a gift of God. Beloved.
Human beings in all their complexity, imperfection, and beauty are simply a miracle. The breath of our Holy God graces each one of us with infinite value; but more than this, I believe that if we listen closely, we can hear in the moans of the sick, in the lament of the outcast, and even in the cries of a grieving child, the very voice of God who chooses not to be a distant other, but chooses to save us by suffering with us even unto death.
Seared into my memory are the cries of John's children that night, but in them I hear the voice of God: I hear Jesus weeping with Mary and Martha over Lazarus; I hear Christ’s dereliction in Gethsemane and his excruciating suffering on a cross; I hear God’s joy at our birth and God’s grief in the midst of our loss. Holy & with, almighty & vulnerable: I don’t understand it, but I know it to be true. In the end the only help we can offer one another is our solidarity, our vulnerability, our presence. Some call it love. This is what God offers us; and if we have the courage to turn toward the awe-inspiring love through whom we were created, the suffering love through whom we are made innocent again, we might just be able to accept the gift, know that we are beloved, and call it grace.
When Christians speak of God, we often do so with far too much confidence in ourselves and far too little reverence for whatever it is we gesture at with the word God. This brief quote by Karl Barth is an important reminder for us all.
"As [servants of God] we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so we cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory."
Karl Barth, "The Word of God and the Word of Man," 186.