"So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering." (Romans 12:1, MSG)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Scandal of Disunity

The place I was most anxious to visit on my recent trip to the Holy Land was the Garden of Gethsemane, because it is there Jesus prayed these words on our behalf:
“I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one." (John 17:9-11)
Imagine that. Jesus was about to be betrayed by one of his closest friends, and later sentenced to die on a cross by those he came to save, and he was praying for our unity. I'll come back to this in a minute, but first let me tell you a little more about my experience at Gethsemane.

To begin with, we had just spent three days at the Sea of Galilee and surrounding areas before heading to Jerusalem. Did you know that Jesus spent more than eighty percent of his time in ministry in and around Galilee? It's easy to see why, too, because it is stunningly beautiful...and serene.

On the contrary, when we got off the bus in Jerusalem the word that came screaming to mind was "chaos." The guide had used words like "bustling" and "congested." In my mind, these words are wholly inadequate to describe what it is like, especially when you compare Jerusalem with Galilee. To me, it was more like a full-on assault on the senses.

And so, we arrived at the Church of All Nations, a Roman Catholic church next to the Garden of Gethsemane that enshrines a section of bedrock where it is believed that Jesus prayed before his arrest. Hence, the reason the church is also known as the Basilica of the Agony. Anyway, I am sitting on a stone bench outside the front of the church, near the street, trying to concentrate on what Hana (our guide) was saying. I couldn't. The cacophony of horns blaring in the street and the passersby on the sidewalk was just too much. Thankfully, our group eventually took its place in the queue and we made our way inside the church.

It was obviously much quieter inside the church than it was outside by the street but still there were people everywhere. At first, I was just trying to look over their heads toward the front of the church. Then, I looked up.

The cathedral ceiling overhead, painted like a night sky, is magnificent. As is the painting which stands over the altar, an artist's depiction of Jesus at prayer on the bedrock beneath the night sky.

  Finally, as the crowd in front of me began to slowly dissipate, this came into view.

I knelt... 

I placed my hands on the rock...

and I wept.

From that moment forward, I felt peace. The crowd of people around me no longer bothered me. 

When I stepped through the exit into the garden outside, I no longer heard the din coming from the street.

Before we entered the church, I had felt upset and disappointed that my visit to the Garden of Gethsemane was likely not going to be the experience I had imagined. As it turned out, the palpable presence of God's Spirit in that place elevated my visit there to a level far beyond my hopes and imagination.

Later, in the day I was reflecting on my experience and trying to make sense of it all. It occurred to me that Jesus was likely to have experienced a similar assault on his senses when he arrived in Jerusalem from Galilee. Remember how Jesus wept for Jerusalem when he arrived?
"As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it." (Luke 19:41, CEB)
And that Jesus then cleared the temple?
"When Jesus entered the temple, he threw out those who were selling things there. He said to them, 'It’s written, My house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a hideout for crooks.'" (Luke 19:45-46, CEB)
I think when Jesus was in prayer at Gethsemane and expressing his concern about our being "in the world" he might, in some ways, have been referring to what he witnessed in Jerusalem. It is obvious from what these passages tell us that what Jesus saw in Jerusalem reflected neither God's will nor his intentions for our life together. So, Jesus prayed...pleaded with God for the unity of all believers, that in spite of the worldly corruptions they were sure to encounter they would learn how to be in the world without being of the world. As one commentator wrote, "John's Gospel views 'the world' so poorly that nothing less than the marvel of the unanimity of Jesus' followers could achieve its conversion." (Interpretation, p. 196) 

Such unanimity has long eluded the church. It still does. I believe that the disunity of the church, along with the palpability of God's presence, is why I wept at the bedrock of Gethsemane. The world is watching the church and if its conversion is in fact reliant upon the "marvel of our unanimity," then I am afraid that such conversion is going to have to wait. And wait some more.

When it comes to the global church, much has been said about Pope Francis and the impact he has already had in his young papacy. Francis, who named himself after St. Francis of Assisi, also recently returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While there, Pope Francis prayed at the Western Wall with two of his Argentinian friends who were traveling with him as part of his official delegation...Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheikh Omar Abboud.

This image, a potent symbol of interfaith friendship, should be the one to define Francis' trip. These three men represent the faith traditions that inhabit the Holy Land and their embrace portrays hope to a tension-filled land that is desperate for peace. Of this embrace, a Vatican spokesman said, "What can we do? We can pray. We can ask God to help us. We can love mutually and then embrace." Amen. We must all pray for peace over Jerusalem.

Of course, all this reminded me of Jesus' prayer at Gethsemane for our unity. It also reminded me of John Wesley's sermon Catholic Spirit.
"But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may." (The Essential Works of John Wesley, Russie, p. 706)
Sadly, there are some around the world who do not view the Pope's visit in the spirit of unity. Rather, some are actually being critical of his failure to choose one side over the other. I believe Pope Francis chose instead to live up to his namesake as a channel of peace. Personally, I do not understand how anyone can disagree with the faithful, peaceful approach that Francis has modeled for us. Is this not an example that a watching world would be more willing to follow? I think so.

I also think it behooves us to pay attention to Pope Francis' example because, closer to home, there has been a growing tension within our own "United" Methodist Church. In fact, when I checked Facebook for the first time after landing stateside, the post at the top of my news feed was from a friend linking an article on umc.org bearing the title "Amicable breakup of UMC needed, pastor group says."  The leading sentence of the article reads:
"A group of United Methodist pastors and theologians is calling for an amicable split of the denomination, saying differences over homosexuality and other issues are irreconcilable."
To begin with, I take issue with the word irreconcilable, which means "incapable of being brought into harmony or adjustment." Really? Does this group really believe that we are incapable of resolving differences? That we are incapable of living in harmony? I, for one, refuse to accept that. I mean, would Jesus have prayed for our unity if it were an impossibility? After all, aren't all things possible with God?

One reason the group cites for splitting the denomination is that we are in a "crisis of covenant." To a certain extent, I agree that is true. However, I find this group's urging for "an amicable split of the denomination" to be an even greater crisis of covenant than the Discipline violations they point toward. Phrases like "amicable split" and "irreconcilable differences" are almost always associated with divorce and, in effect, divorce is what the group is calling for. I would argue that the issues of infidelity in traditional marriages and a rising divorce rate in our country are greater threats to the church than homosexuality and gay marriage. Yet, these issues rarely seem to be discussed with the same fervor, if they are discussed at all.

Even so, I have no desire to side with either the traditionalists or the progressives on this issue. For now, I am refusing to step into the argument of homosexuality and the church. I am, however, vehemently opposed to talk of schism. In my mind, in a world where so much around us is disposable, where something breaks and you buy a new one instead of fixing the old, covenants are not meant to be broken and thrown away. If schism ends up being the result of all this, then I will view it as an abysmal failure on our part to honor our covenant.

So, what can we do? "We can pray. We can ask God to help us. We can love mutually and then embrace." And, in the words of John Wesley, "we think and let think." Despite what this group believes, the issues they claim to be irreconcilable do not strike at the root of Christianity. If they did, I imagine Jesus would have had more to say about them than he did. Jesus did, however, give us a clear mandate...to love one another as he loved us so the world would know we are his disciples. They (the world that is watching) will know we are Christians by our love!

My friends, this is not Pollyanna-ish thinking. The Holy Trinity is one and we are created in their image. So, it stands to reason that we are not incapable of oneness. And, therein lies the scandal of our disunity.

I believe with all my heart that there is a way that transcends schism and choosing sides. The group of pastors calling for a split would have us believe that while it sounds "comforting and Christ-like," a middle-way is simply not possible. It is their belief that neither "side" would find such a way acceptable. I think they are wrong. I also think that they fail to realize that the group of Methodists that are currently standing in-between the two sides is larger than the two sides combined. Whether they care to admit or not, whether or not they are willing to put in the hard work it will require, there is a third way.

My dear friend and mentor, Dr. Steve Harper, has written a beautiful book, For the Sake of the Bride: Restoring the Church to Her Intended Beauty, that is a must-read for anyone who loves the church and is concerned about the dilemma we are facing. In the book, Steve is akin to Pope Francis as a channel of peace, pleading for us to abandon the takes-sides approach and find another way forward using a "round-table process." He writes:
"The process begins by recognizing the place of the round-table. Theologically, it is the place where faith, hope, and love come together. We come with faith, believing that we honor God by gathering in the name of Jesus. We come with hope, believing that if we stay together the Spirit will break through in some way to enable us to move to a place that is better than the current reality. And we come with love, the kind of love we have been describing in the previous chapters of this book. The round-table process is a concrete expression of the ancient Christian trilogy of cardinal virtues." (For the Sake of the Bride, p. 83)
The way forward is the way of unity and love. Jesus prayed these things for us at Gethsemane and is praying these things for us still today. Jesus is also calling us to the round-table and to stay there until we honor our covenant and make things right. The scandal of our disunity must end.

And so we pray and we ask God to help us by praying together these words from the Book of Common Prayer that the Holy Spirit used to transform my friend, Steve, and compel him to write his book.
 O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 818)

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