"Only the soul that ventilates the world with tenderness has a chance of changing the world."
--Father Gregory Boyle
As we made our way through the book of Ephesians this summer in worship, I found myself preaching a common theme: as a church, the spirit in which we do something is more important than what we accomplish. I am convinced of this.
Charitable work, social justice advocacy, music education and performance, family services, can be accomplished by anyone. In fact, there are a host of organizations in our society providing these services at a higher capacity and competency than we are. This is as it should be. Our unique work, by God's grace, is the transformation of the human heart as a vessel of God's healing love. Wesley identified the presence of this spirit of gracefulness most often using Galatians 5:24: "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control." These "holy tempers" are the identifiable characteristics of Christian community. When these are replaced by perfectionist critique, complaint, and correction, a church becomes an institution like any other.
Early in my years in ministry, I was derided by a colleague as I held fast to the conviction that congregational health is more important than growth. Sadly, that person burned out of ministry quickly. In our time growth is an idol; so is fear of "decline." A joyful, compassionate, graceful body, may numerically grow or it may not. The essential thing is a spirit rooted and grounded in the love of God. Such a community has a presence of infectious joy: we are quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to take offense. I worry when the first words I encounter at the close of worship is a complaint about a hymn, a misprinted announcement, or an incorrect date. I rejoice when we share the experience of simple, quiet joy: then stale coffee, served on year old out-of-season napkins will quench thirst as if drawn from a well of the water of life. It is a people's gracefulness and tenderness that speaks the word: welcome.
I suggested Sunday, another way to approach this same point. The number of our days are short, where should our best energy be spent? Wesley gave a remarkable sermon on the subject that is nearly a compendium of his teaching about the church. He describes our work in the church in concentric circles. The center is the love of God and of every life that has breath. Shaping this love in the grace of God -- moving outward (see diagram)-- are the "holy tempers", acts of mercy, acts of piety, then our membership in the church itself (I put administration here too). We should be increasingly "zealous" for that which lies closer to the center. I leave you with Wesley's words and invite us into a conversation in the weeks ahead on how to live them in our work together.
"For instance, all that truly fear God should be zealous for the Church; both for the catholic or universal Church, and for that part of it whereof they are members . . . At the same time they should be more zealous for the ordinances of God; for public and private prayer, for hearing and reading the word of God, and for fasting, and the Lord's Supper. But they should be more zealous for works of mercy, than even for works of piety. Yet ought they to be more zealous still for all holy tempers, lowliness, meekness, resignation: But most zealous of all, for that which is the sum and the perfection of religion, the love of God and [humanity]." (From "On Zeal" by John Wesley)
-- Rev. Mark F. Sturgess, Los Altos UMC Newsletter column, August 23, 2018
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess