A Methodist Requiem – A Review

RequiemI set out to read this book for two main reasons. First, the author had a major influence on me during my time in seminary at Duke Divinity School. I respected what he taught me then and looked forward to learning something new from him. Second, the subject matter of the book, the future of the People Called Methodists, especially in light of their current battles over how to deal with human sexuality is a subject that is on my mind a lot these days. The subtitle of the book, “Words of Hope and Resurrection for the Church”, piqued my interest even more since I too believe that the greatest need our denomination has at this moment in time is for an infusion of Hope.

I’m a coal country guy. I have lived in several areas of the the state of West Virginia but all of them have been effected in some ways by the changing nature of the coal business. My paternal grandfather was a railroader in the Central Mountains of WV and my maternal grandfather was a low seam coal minor in Northern WV. Although the generations that followed them managed to avoid the coal/railroad business – with the exception of one uncle who worked as a railroad dispatcher – there is something about the rise and fall of this industry that speaks well to the topic Lawrence addresses in his book. Although his focus is upon the Eastern Pennsylvania coal history, I couldn’t help but think of the hollows, mountains, and now broken down tipples that dot the landscape of Southern WV where I live and minister. It is also a very helpful starting place for the topic of “uncertainty” that truly underlies the writing of A Methodist Requiem. So many towns in these coal areas are recovering from the rape and pillage of an industry that does so much good when it is around but leaves less than what they have taken. In fact, they leave a vast swath of hopelessness that is now being filled by the growing problem of addiction and depression.

I am fortunate. I live in a town that refuses to be defined by “what has been.” The people of Princeton are looking for a new day. They are not victims of some outsider stealing their natural resource nor do they wish to hang on to someone’s invented “war on coal” so that they can be a victim. They are waiting for the Pheonix to rise from the ashes and bring a new day to their home. In this way, our town, and perhaps even our little part of the Methodist connection can connect with the words of Lawrence as he describes the need for a resurgence of the rite of Requiem, where all can face death unafraid and proclaim the new hope of Resurrection. I appreciate the setting of this book in that framework.

However, the stronger parts of this book can be found in Lawrence’s description of the history and entanglement of resources that exist in a global church such as the United Methodist Church. I learned new things as I read through his sections on how different part of the connection could be effected by possible schisms. I’m almost afraid to admit that I did not know that “local church” is a rather new nomenclature for United Methodism and one that points out just how much we are willing to grab hold of cultural definitions IF those definitions fit our desired outcomes. It saddens me to know that we are looking to greatly redefine the power of connectionalism that is found in the United Methodist movement for the cultural pablum of having the freedom for local church decisions on matters. The greater freedom is probably to found in celebrating a connection that exists with so much diversity that it hurts at times to be together because then we must acknowledge the need for the Cross of Christ to bring together such diverse people. Lawrence tackles this history and entanglement much more eloquently than I can in this review.

The greatest strength of this book is the theological work that Lawrence does in the final section of the book where he ties together the story of a “wandering Aramean” and the system work of a Jewish Rabbi. I don’t want to say too much here, but I will say that I have read and studied Edwin Friedman for decades now and the treatment Dr. William Lawrence gives to the idea of self differentiation, especially within a system s connected as the United Methodist Church should be is by far the best I have read.

If you are a United Methodist preparing for the reports from the Commission on the Way Forward and our Council of Bishops…If you are a United Methodist preparing yourself for the work that will take place at the Special General Conference in 2019…If you are a United Methodist wondering why we should even be talking about issues of sexuality at all…Hell, if you are a United Methodist, READ THIS BOOK. You will not be disappointed. You will find yourself awash in hope and ready to celebrate the new day about to come to our little corner of God’s Kingdom.

Thank you again, Dr. Lawrence, for sharing your wisdom. May I say to you the very words you shared with your classes and I share with my congregation each week:

Wherever you go, may God go with you;
Whatever you need, may God provide;
Whenever you stumble, may God lift you.
And when, at the end of your days, when you lay yourself down for the last time –
May God raise you up for all time.

I expect nothing less for the people called Methodist!

Reluctant Prophet

This morning I listened to part of the story of Jonah. I know that many people are familiar with his journey away from the call God placed upon his life. That running left him on a ship ready to be ripped apart by a storm until he was thrown overboard and swallowed by a big fish.

Many people are aware that this story tells of Jonah’s journey to the place God had called him to go via the belly of the big fish. Eventually Jonah is vomited up on the shore like spoiled seafood and he begins his real journey.

The story tells us that the place Jonah was sent was so large that it would take three days to walk across it. Jonah began his journey and began truly answering his call when he took those first steps into the city. Bleached white by the acid of the stomach of some big fish, seaweed tangled in his hair, and clouded with a stench that proceeded him by the full length of Ninevah, Jonah began to proclaim the destruction of the city. He did so with much reluctance – not because he didn’t want to give bad news to the Ninevites, but because he was afraid that they might hear him, repent, and be spared by God. So, God made certain the people God wished to spare would not miss the message by sending this mess of a prophet to their city.

The reluctance of the prophet came from his experience of the mercy of God.

I get that. Sometimes it is not my fear of being heard that keeps me from speaking. It is not my fear of being misunderstood that locks my lips. It is the fear of being perfectly understood and found standing in the very mess I created by not trusting in that goodness when I began.

The best way to travel to the home I see as God’s Kingdom is as one who is clothed in the mercy and goodness of the God I proclaim. I don’t always get that but I can count on God to dress me up in it – or dress me down with it – so that the message won’t be missed.

Even as the words of Jonah spoke to me this morning, words from Mary Oliver’s “Sometimes” also tugged on my Spirit:

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Yeah. That’s a whole lot easier than being bleached, tangled in seaweed and smelling like last week’s thrown out cat food. Perhaps my reluctance can be overcome by God’s mercy.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Amen.

The Morning After Ash Wednesday 2018

Ash Wed Kids_Moment

As part of our Ash Wednesday observance last evening, I read the following passage from 2 Corinthians 6. Although I used a different version during the service, The Message  spoke to me on the morning after:

“People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly…in hard times, tough times, bad time; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.”

When I arrived to prepare for the service, I noticed that our children and youth, who usually meet on Wednesday evening for lessons in discipleship of one type or another, were gathering in the building as well. I then learned that both groups would be attending the Ash Wednesday service. I loved the thought of having their energy, their wide-eyed faith being among us as we observed this holy day. As they gathered, I heard one little girl excitedly tell her friend how “Pastor Scott was going to put a cross on our foreheads tonight.” I chuckled as I listened.

I sat on the front pew at the start of the service and little Owen sat beside me. We had words flashing on the screen to help people “set the tone” for the service. I asked him if he needed help reading any of them. He stumbled on “Scripture” and had no idea what “Fasting” meant, although he did a great job reading it. He got “Deny Yourself” and “Pray” very easily as well as “Kneel Now”. It was a good conversation when a great kid. One of a dozen or so young ones…along with the dozen or so youth.

Lord, did it hit me while I was reading that passage above.

I was so joyful just to be in worship with the younger ones that I hadn’t forgotten briefly about the big news of the day. I forgot that there were parents and children in Florida who were dead or severely traumatized by our lack of ability to balance safety and rights once again. I was struck while reading this passage that our witness in the face of such tragedy is to go on as people of hope, to keep showing the love of God even as we fight the good fight of doing what was right.

I was reading the passage and I knew that in just a few minutes, Owen and many other children and youth I have grown to love even as my own would soon join the line of people that walk up to their pastor and have me mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross as I said, “You are dust and to dust you will return.”

There are times that I wonder about Jesus’ words of taking his “easy yoke” upon ourselves. This didn’t feel easy at all. With every wide eyed child and every interested teen that came to me last night, I choked just a little more. I didn’t cry. I don’t think any tears escaped, but they wanted flow like rivers.

And then this morning, I came across this poem by Mary Oliver (from a book I’m reading for Lent) and I was struck with the enormity of the creation God has made in us:

We Shake with Joy
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

I leave with you a brief image, in video form, of what God might have seen last night…Faithful children…a pastor shaking with joy and grief…the people “immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy.”

To all God’s children in Florida struggling with the unspeakable…
my heart goes out to you in love…
my mind fills with thoughts of prayer for you…
and my spirit longs for hope for us all.

Ash Wednesday 2018

“Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion – do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers — most of which are never even seen — don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”

Matthew 6:28-34 The Message

I Worried
(by Mary Oliver)

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, with the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

from Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

 

Yep. I. Needed. That.

Scott Sears, Ash Wednesday 2018

Prepare

I sat alone in the cathedral after a long day of visiting the campus. Yeah, I know that because it is a Protestant building it is called a Chapel, but when you are in it calling it a chapel is like calling the Empire State Building a tent. It just doesn’t capture the immensity of the structure. Doesn’t come close to the holiness. Whatever it was, I sat there tired and either prayed or thought, not sure which.

Then and now, I sometimes have trouble telling the difference between praying and thinking.

Prayer for me has always had little bit to much gray matter involvement. I would love to be one of those people who always seem to be able to let the Spirit pour into them and through them as their words rise up to God’s ear. Instead, the synapses will always start firing inside my noggin and I would “think” to God. I am communicating with God so I always count it as prayer.

It’s not always that way though.

There was the time I held my youngest daughter’s head for the first time. (Yeah…just her head, but don’t worry, it will make sense in a few.) It was before she was even born. (I’m not doing very good clearing this up…) Okay, the most precise way to say this is that it was immediately before her birth. the nurses had underestimated the progress of my wife’s labor but after our first child I had picked up a couple of important clues from the woman I love. One of the most important was the moment when she went from labor to transition. On her, it was like a switch going off deep inside her and involved her whole body and face. I knew it the instant I saw it. There were labor pains (that we had been dealing with all day) and then without much warning there was this “Okay, this baby is getting out of my body right now and nothing short of God is gonna make me stop pushing and even if God does show up God had better have a Plan B that works” kind of focus on her face.

I pushed the button to call a nurse and they were quick to respond. When she came in I said, “I really believe she is in transition and needs to push.” She smiled and said, “Let me check things out but after only a quick peak she started hitting other call buttons, turning on lights and said, “I will get the doctor right now. You get her to breath instead of push.”

I would have rather tried to blow back a freight train, but I did my best.

It wasn’t long till a lot happened all at once. More lights were turned on, the room got crowded with equipment dropping out of the ceiling and being pulled from the walls, and a doctor came in and stood between my wife’s legs. It was a blur of activity. the doctor was struggling to get his gown and gloves on when I heard him say, “Dad. I need your help here. I need you to do us all a favor.”

“Ok.” was the best I could muster.

“Put your hand down here and hold your child in a moment while I get ready to catch. Can you do that?”

That was a moment the synapses didn’t fire. I just prayed. I did what I was told but when my bare fingers touched that wet mound of baby hair there was a groan rising up out of me that just was not from me. I’m sure it wasn’t audible. The room was full of medical people and I’m certain if they had heard it, I would have become “patient” instead of Dad. But my heart felt it and I knew that God heard it.

It was prayer as I’ve never prayed before.

When I said, “Thanks,” after the doctor took over for me, I was disappointed when I heard him say, “Thank-you” back to me. I honestly expected a thundering “You are welcome, my child” to fill the room. I knew to whom I spoke even if the doctor didn’t.

I also recall a time when someone very dear to me was on the verge of dying. My brain could not wrap around the concept of her leaving, especially at such a young age. My heat couldn’t contain the grief that I knew would flood over others who were even closer to her. Nothing fired between my ears but somehow or another I heard myself start to hum. It was a stupid tune given the gravity of the situation and the noise of the life sustaining equipment running in the room: “I sing the body electric. I glory in the glow of rebirth…” I knew I was just humming the tune but the words hung in the air all around me and it felt more like a prayer than anything else at the moment. Weird, out-of-place, poorly timed prayer, but prayer nonetheless. I was actually relieved when someone in the room said, “Stop that. No music. I can’t take music right now.”

They had no idea that I was praying. I barely knew that I was praying. Truth be told, in the face of this very unfair death playing out before me, I couldn’t handle even thinking about praying.

So I was relieved to be able to stop.

Prayer still is a funny thing for me. It was that day I sat in Duke Chapel years before either of these other more spiritual moments in life. My prayer that day was my normal think-through of a conversation with God.

Duke ChapelIs this the place God wanted me to go to and prepare to be a pastor? Was Duke the right fit for me to learn about sharing life and death moments with people I would meet later in churches? Would this place shape me the way I needed to be shaped and molded? And God forbid, would they really be able to teach me? Could they reach down to my level in such a way that I would actually learn here?

Somehow through all the firing of neurons in my brain a peace over me in that giant space. I was still thinking. It wasn’t a “Aha, this IS it” sort of peace but more of a “Do you really think I’m the kinda God who wouldn’t be here? I’m mean, look at this cathedral they built me, Scott!”

I laughed out loud at that thought and knew without any doubt that The Divinity School was the place for me. I figured if God didn’t know it was just a Chapel, even my “in my brain God,” I’d do just fine.

We’d do just fine.

And we did.

 

Peace!!