Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Zeal and Patience, Part IV

Originally published on Covenant, 19 July, 2017
A similar uncertainty surrounds the affirmations about our essential unity of belief regarding the Holy Eucharist. It is true that This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist Understanding of Holy Communion affirms “the real, personal, and living presence of Jesus” in the sacramental elements (though “in temporal and relational terms”). However, assorted practices surrounding the celebration and administration of Holy Communion in United Methodist Churches stand at some tension with this claim, as they deviate so seriously from historical norms.
Much of the online discussion has centered on whether the Methodist requirement that Holy Communion be celebrated with “the pure, unfermented juice of the grape” can be squared with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral’s that the Holy Communion be “ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.” More serious is the nearly universal United Methodist practice of admitting the unbaptized to Communion and the widespread authorization for celebrating Holy Communion by licensed local (unordained) pastors.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Eighth Day of their Lives

“And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  St. Luke 9:30-31

Over the last few months, I’ve had several conversations with people who are staring down retirement.  Some friends are leaving their work with a deep sense of satisfaction, ready to take on some long-postponed projects.  Others are worried about how they will fill the time and are looking for a way to hang in for a few more years.  One friend was doing the most fruitful and fulfilling work of his career, but the funding ran out, and he’s facing part-time work, something quite different.  It might be marvelous, but I don’t think he’s completely sold on it yet. 

In the back of most of those conversations lay a series of questions I suspect we’ve all asked ourselves, even if retirement lies half a lifetime away: “Does my life add up? Does it have meaning, this work into which I have poured so much of my time and energy?  Do I have a legacy?”  It’s worth reminding ourselves that our privilege allows us to ask these questions of our work.  Most people in history and most people in the world today simply must toil on until their bodies give way.  But for all people, life is unpredictable, full of unexpected shifts, confusing blessings and overwhelming sorrows.  We long to understand where our lives are headed, how their true meaning will be revealed.  But so often, in the end, there is only confusion.  We see ourselves only through clouds of smoke, beset by doubt and fear. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Zeal and Patience, Part II

As the Episcopal and United Methodist churches consider a full-communion agreement, this article continues the story of the zealous John Wesley and  the patient Samuel Seabury, the founders of the two churches.  It outlines a missed opportunity for a united church in 1784, and what the failure then may still be able to teach us today.  The article was first published on The Living Church's Covenant blog on 12 July
As Wesley sent off his letter, and Thomas Coke with it to come to America with the purpose of ordaining his preachers, another Anglican priest was also travelling about Britain. Samuel Seabury, bishop-elect of Connecticut, was pursuing a different potential solution to American Anglicanism’s pastoral crisis, one he believed to be essential to “follow[ing] the Scriptures and the Primitive Church.” Seabury was in search of three bishops who would consecrate him, so that episcopacy might be carried back to his native land.
Seabury’s zeal in pursuit of his cause cannot be doubted, but he was above all a patientman. For nearly a year and a half, he met with a number of English bishops to plead his case, some of them multiple times. Like Wesley, he was rather woodenly rebuffed by Robert Lowth, the Bishop of London, who could not imagine the prospect of consecrating a bishop who lacked a warrant from the Connecticut state legislature. Some of Seabury’s countrymen were using their personal contacts to work against his case, including the bishop-elect of Maryland, William Smith, who distrusted Seabury because he had been a loyalist. Deeply frustrated by delays and inconclusive answers, Seabury wrote to a fellow Connecticut clergyman, “I shall be at my wits’ end. … This is certainly the worst country in the world to do business in” (Letter to Abraham Jarvis).

Monday, July 17, 2017

Love and Reason

“And the LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
Genesis 25:23

What does she see in him?  Surely, like me, you’ve sat in the congregation at a wedding more than once, staring the couple before you.  It couldn’t be the looks or the brain power, to be sure.  Wouldn’t be the prospect for success or the pleasant disposition.  Surely, she could do better for herself. 

And yet those promises are made.  Such bold things they are to say to another person, who is surely to change, and not always for the better.  “Will you have this man, this woman?” Love which must choose, if it is to be love.  What does she see in him?  Isn’t it merely that she sees him, and that is enough. 

The blindness of love: it must be about the oldest of all jokes.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Titania awakens to fall in love with Bottom, recently turned into a donkey, he gets the best line: "And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays.[1]”  Pascal may have been mulling over higher things, but he was making the same general point when he wrote: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.[2]

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Wretched man that I am

“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Romans 7:24-25

The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories are favorites on our boys’ bookshelves.  They are set in a pleasant suburb in the mid-fifties, the sort of place where mothers have always just taken sugar cookies out of the oven and daddies are headed out after work to finish the new treehouse ladder.  The stories are populated with children—accomplished, good natured, obedient children—who just happen to be passing through unfortunate phases.

Take Nicholas Semicolon, subject of the story Philip read to all of us as we made our way across Maine last week.  Nicholas is ten, large and strong for his age, the apple of his mother’s eye.  But he also happens to have become a thoroughly rotten bully.  He hits girls and pulls dog’s tails, upsets baby carriages and speaks rudely to everyone he meets.  His parents have been blissfully ignorant about all of this until they receive a call from Mrs. Eager, whose son’s legs are covered in bandages after little Nicky’s latest attack.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

God visits His people in strangers

My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant… since you have come to your servant.”  Genesis 18:3,5

I picked up Sarge just outside of Oneonta, and told him I was only going as far as Cooperstown, but he was welcome to the ride.  He was familiar to me, a fixture of the Otsego County landscape, but we’d never spoken before.  Sarge was maybe 75, a thin man with leathery skin and squinty eyes.  He always wore a garrison cap and an olive-green army uniform, with a few medals sprinkled across the chest.   No one was quite sure if he had actually earned them or if they were just window dressing.  But in patriotic upstate New York, Sarge could hitch his way from one end of the county to another by just putting on a good show. 

He began talking the moment he sat down and kept it up for a solid half hour, a rambling discourse mostly about old cars, and the evils of politicians.  Looking over after about twenty minutes, he noticed I was a clergyman and launched into a discussion of true Christians and hypocrites.  Sarge had been to most of the churches in these parts, he assured me, and he could certainly tell the difference between them.  Catholics wouldn’t give a man like him the time of day, and would you believe that they once ran him out of a Pentecostal church because he stood up to speak his mind during the service.  But Methodists—they laid on the best spread for coffee hours, and sometimes the fellas would even slip him a few cigarettes. 

It did cross my mind as he opened the door to go his way that Sarge could well have been a kind of messenger.  I was a little relieved that he didn’t seem to know anything about Episcopalians, so he hadn’t turned up in my congregation and discovered that we came up short.  Wouldn’t it be just like God to separate the true believers from the false ones by the way they responded to a mysterious stranger?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

A Little Bird Told Me

“We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God."  Acts 2:11

“A little bird told me”—that was one of my grandmother’s favorite phrases.  My grandparents lived a mile down the road from us, and many an evening she and Pap would come over after supper.  She usually brought “guess packages”—paper bags with some crackers or cookies, maybe even a bottle of pop—things my mother rarely bought.  Before we could put in our guesses and win the prize, she wanted a little chat.  Small boys, especially when distracted by the prospect of a cookie, are not very conversational, and she would prompt us a bit: “a little bird told me that someone had two base hits last night.” “A little bird told me that someone threw a fit about taking out the garbage.”

Of course, we all knew well that my mother was the “little bird,” and I probably thought that “little bird” was a special nickname for my mother at first.  But it’s an old saying, though I don’t hear it much anymore.  I have a source of secret knowledge, it means.  You don’t need to know how I learned it, but I know something important about you. 

It’s quite a strange phrase, really—talking birds revealing hidden messages.   Some folklorists attribute it to an ancient tale about King Solomon, and there’s also an obscure Norse legend about a hero who tastes dragon’s blood and can immediately comprehend the speech of the birds—it turns up in the second act of one of Wagner’s operas.  The phrase definitely predates Twitter, though.  Most scholars attribute it to an offhand remark in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which warns against cursing the king in your bedchamber, lest “a bird on the wing report what you say.[1]”