{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

Lessons on Faith from Oprah

As you may know by now, Oprah ended her run of daytime programming last week after 25 years on the air. But Oprah was (and is) so much bigger than merely an afternoon TV show. She’s become her own brand—a force of nature, if you will. Her endorsement can make or break the career of potential entrepreneurs.

The city of Macon has a special love for Oprah and she came here a few years back to film on of her “Favorite Things” episode. As a newer resident of Macon, it took about two weeks before someone shared the “Oprah in Macon” story with me.

After all of the build up from weeks of celebration, Oprah’s final episode was a simple and unique hodge-podge of thoughts similar to what those in academic communities know as “Last Words”—where a retiring professor will share what they’ve learned during their career.

As she shared some of the wisdom learned throughout the years, Oprah confessed that she could not have accomplished anything over the last 25 years without God. She gave credit to God in saying, “because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me.” She would go on to share more of her faith woven within a beautifully honest and human backdrop of love rooted in the human experience. When it came time, she ended her show, she earnestly proclaimed, “To God be the glory.”

And yet you don’t have to go far to hear from those of us who would be skeptical of the validity of Oprah’s faith. Why is that?

There have been certain authors and religious personalities who have made a good living selling books and sharing thoughts using Oprah as the embodiment of the so-called “secular spirituality” that seems to pervade the American religious experience. Many of these use Oprah as the counter to what a good, solid “Christian America” looks like. And that’s very sad.

But please hear me, I don’t think Oprah is a saint by any stretch of the imagination. She would be the first to admit that. However she has helped us see for the last 25 years that one can be both a follower of Jesus and a lover of all things beautifully human. In her final episode she demonstrated that the Christian faith doesn’t have to begin by opposing those outside of the faith, but rather it begins by including all of God’s people in love and acceptance as the very expression of our faith.

I have lots of admiration for Oprah. She’s a smart businesswoman who knew she couldn’t preach day in and day out if she wanted to be as big of a success as she is. But I think she also knows deep down that God loves all people no matter what. And she showed us that God’s grace is demonstrated best when we resist beating people over the heads with narrow expressions of faith. It’s something all Christians should try from time to time.

Oprah reminds us that we can “love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength” but we also have to “love our neighbor as ourselves” even when that neighbor is not Christian or not even like us at all. God’s love is very real tangible. It’s a message all people probably need to hear that now more than ever.

“In Good Company” A Guest Post from Rev. Kerry Greenhill (aka revpeacegirl)

In Good Company
by Kerry Greenhill
A sermon preached at Highlands UMC, Denver, April 11, 2010.
Luke 24:13-35

Easter’s over.

The lilies have been taken out of the sanctuary, the chocolate eggs have all been eaten (more or less), we are moving on to our next spring projects, whether that is spring cleaning or planting a garden or planning a summer vacation.

Maybe Easter was everything you hoped it would be; maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you were disappointed somehow with Easter—with the service, with the meal you prepared or ate, with the company you shared—or maybe it was Monday morning that was the letdown.

Maybe Easter’s not a big deal for you, but the Monday after Christmas, or Halloween, or 4th of July is your saddest day of the year.

Here is a story for you.

Two of the followers of Jesus were heading home from the big Passover celebration in Jerusalem. These weren’t members of the 12 closest disciples,
and we don’t know much about them: Cleopas’ unnamed companion may well have been his wife.

Talk about a letdown, a complete reversal of expectations.

Not because it was an anticlimax, but because this movement they’d been part of, promoting the kingdom of God as something radically different from the kingdom of Caesar, had culminated in what could only be described as a tragedy. Their big holiday had gone horribly, horribly wrong.

And so they were talking together as they walked the seven miles home. Discussing the events, processing what it might all mean. Puzzling it over, trying to make the pieces fit together in some way that made sense to them. A stranger comes near them on the road and walks with them.

This is a classic example of dramatic irony, when the reader or audience knows something that the characters in the story don’t know yet. So we know it’s Jesus,
but the poor, depressed, unsuspecting travelers are oblivious.

So when he asks them what they’re discussing, and Cleopas replies, “You must be the only stranger in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what went down this week!” we all have a good chuckle at Cleopas’ expense.

But sometimes a question isn’t so much a request for information as an opportunity to tell a story. Like a therapist or a 3-year-old, Jesus keeps asking until they overcome the inertia of their grief enough to tell him what they think they know.

They have been witnesses to some of the events, probably to the crowd’s rejection of Jesus and his crucifixion; and heard about others second- or third-hand. But the story they know ends in a strange and unresolved way. None of it makes sense to them.

They still don’t recognize Jesus, even when he switches from therapist mode (can’t you just imagine him saying, “tell me more about that?”?) to a more familiar form of expression: “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe!” This chiding seems almost a term of endearment with Jesus; at least, it was how he frequently spoke with his friends and followers!

But no, still “their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” even as he puts their partial story in the context of a greater story, a familiar story of God’s saving work in the world as understood and told by the prophets of Israel.

They reach their destination, and Jesus walks ahead as if he’s going on. (We might well ask, “Where would he go if the two didn’t invite him in?” but that’s a sermon for another day!) And as is the custom of their culture, the two travelers must urge him strongly, not just invite him once halfheartedly, but really insist that he come in and stay with them since he won’t get much farther before nightfall.

And then.

In the midst of their meal, likely in the travelers’ own home, Jesus as guest becomes the host: he takes the bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to them.

Something he had previously done a time or two with those who followed him, not only at that final Passover meal, but in feeding the 5,000 as well.

And they recognize him, at last.

Not in the appearance of his face or body. Not in his greater understanding of the scriptures or his ability to teach and explain to them the meaning of all that has been troubling them. Not because of any sense of glory or the miraculous.

But in the familiar actions, the holy mundane of mealtime ritual, their eyes are opened and they know their friend and leader.

Jesus has been their companion on the journey and they didn’t even realize it.

Do you know the origin of the word companion, the same roots as the word company? From the Latin, com- means with, and panis means bread, or food. Our companions are literally the ones who break bread with us.

During the year I spent in Venezuela after college, I learned that the Spanish word, “acompañar” (to accompany), is more than just going somewhere with someone. It is an important part of the work for peace and justice and human rights; it means to walk alongside those of different backgrounds, those who have been marginalized or victimized, those who need to know they are not alone. It means to stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, to be present for them, to witness their lives and to hear and tell their stories to those in power.

To walk alongside, to break bread together, to share in telling the stories of our lives: these are powerful things.

The two disciples experience Jesus in their midst, and they are compelled to jump up and walk the seven miles back to Jerusalem that same night to share their story with those gathered there.

It is not enough to meet the risen Christ; we experience resurrection when we bear witness, share testimony, tell the story of what has happened in our lives so that we can try to better understand it together.

And in the telling, we may experience Jesus anew. The very next line is, “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them,
‘Peace be with you’”!

Humans are social animals. We crave connection, belonging, community, in whatever form it is available.

Consider Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, LinkedIn, Second Life, and dozens of other sites that promote virtual connections with people of similar interests, backgrounds, fantasies, or actual knowledge of each other! Social networking is the definition of Web 2.0, and frankly, I don’t think anyone should be surprised that we are using every technology available to us to connect with others and to tell our stories in both new and familiar ways.

Contrast the behavior of these two followers of Jesus, or that of the 11 gathered in Jerusalem, with the solitariness of Judas in his decision to betray Jesus. Now, I’m not trying to knock solitude – I’m an introvert, I can’t live without it – but I don’t think it’s sufficient for the life of faith.

When John Wesley, founder of Methodism, said, “There is no holiness but social holiness,” he wasn’t mainly talking about the work that we do to improve society
so much as he was saying that we can’t be faithful followers of Christ on our own.
Growth in faith requires companionship: the encouragement, challenge, accountability, and love that can be found only by being in relationship with others seeking to live out this mystery of faith.

There is a beautiful hymn called “The Servant Song” in The Faith We Sing that describes what it means to be Christian community together. I first learned the hymn as a child when I lived with my family in Australia. In the hymnal there, verse 2 is just slightly different. It reads: “We are pilgrims on a journey, and companions on the road.”

For me, that is the heart of the Church, this crazy, beautiful, flawed, inspiring
community of sinners and saints. We need companions—bread-fellows—to walk with us on the journey and to share in our stories and our storytelling.

Community is the circle of those who bear witness to our lives and to God’s life and story lived out among us.

In telling our stories, sometimes over and over, we figure out or remember who we are, whose we are, and what part we play in the greater story of God’s creative, redemptive, and transformative work in the world.

We come together as the Church because this is how we meet Jesus:
in the company of friends and strangers,
in opening the scriptures to find new meanings,
in offering and receiving hospitality,
in breaking bread together,
in telling our stories,
and hearing the stories of others.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen.

Rev. Kerry Greenhill is an ordained Deacon serving as Associate Pastor at Highlands United Methodist Church in Denver, and as Project Coordinator for Family Voices Colorado, a health care advocacy organization. She lives with her husband and two cats, and when she is not actively pursuing her passion for God’s kin’dom of love, justice, compassion, and peace, she makes time for reading, crafts, and gardening. She can be found on Twitter at twitter.com/revpeacegirl, and blogs sporadically at liberalchurchnerd.blogspot.com.

“Bishop Who?” -A Guest Post from Josh Hale (aka Expatminister, himself)

The story goes like this: in the middle of a supercharged political-theological atmosphere, a bishop dies. The entire city, divided right down the middle, goes to the cathedral to elect a new one. The local governor was a Christian, but he went to the site more concerned to prevent rioting than to vote. Known for his fair-mindedness, he appealed to both sides for peace and order. But in the middle of his speech, he was interrupted by cries of “Ambrose, bishop! Ambrose for bishop!” And he was elected by the entire assembly to the episcopacy.

Though it might sound as if this could happen in Europe or Latin America today, the city was actually Milan in 374 AD.

Ambrose went on to be one of the most renowned bishops of antiquity, renowned for his intellectual tenacity. By virtue of his own personal character as well as relationships forged during his secular political career, he refused to admit Emperor Theodosius to a Eucharist after a massacre of 7000 soldiers. He personally lived a life of abundant generosity, and – oh, by the way – mentored a young, wayward scholar to return to faith named Augustine. Yes, that Augustine.

Unfortunately, as Fred Schmidt has astutely observed, it’s unlikely that such a figure would be elected as a bishop today, in The United Methodist Church or many others. Why? Schmidt hits us between the eyes: “we have created an ecclesial climate in which it is hard to elect bishops who have the gifts of an Augustine and nearly impossible for them to live like Augustine—even if they do possess those gifts and get elected.” I would add Ambrose, Hugh of Lincoln, and many more to a list of courageous and formidable ecclesiastical leaders that need emulation today.

I say this without ever having been to a UMC Jurisdictional Conference where bishops are elected; but from what I have heard there isn’t anything that marks them as particularly theological or spiritual processes. There may be individual issues that are addressed from a uniquely ecclesiastical point of view, or individual candidates or delegates may harbor those points of view, but I don’t see what makes this a process enacted by either an institution or a movement in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Process and structural concerns matter, especially in a denomination with the size and reach of ours.

If we aren’t going to embrace a process that is marked by faith concerns, then why don’t we get a headhunting firm to track down leadership from across the connection and present us with a candidate (or shortlist)? It might even save us money, plus these companies have experience and track records which we cannot possess. In fact, that sort of consulting & outsourcing is what brought us the Call to Action. (Or maybe that’s a cautionary tale?)

I don’t have any easy answers. But with General & Jurisdiction delegate elections beginning this month, and Episcopal elections happening in about a year, I would like to open the conversation (since I’m on Ben’s dime, here, ha!): what would a faithful process for electing bishops in the United Methodist Church look like? What would we spend less time on? What doesn’t yet exist that needs to? I look forward to reading your comments below!

Josh Hale is a United Methodist elder in the Texas Annual Conference; after serving 5 years in campus ministry, he’s changing mission fields this summer to pastor Perritte Memorial United Methodist Church in Nacogdoches, TX. Josh tweets @expatminister, writes somewhat longer at The Expatriate Minister , blogs semi-regularly for HoustonBelief, and keeps a great deal of thoughts to himself!

Our Theological Task as United Methodists in the 21st Century

Last Fall, I found I would be 1 hour short of finishing when I registered for the Spring semester. So I registered for a 1-hour Directed Study with Dr. Rex Matthews in Methodist Studies. After a little conversation, we decided it would be fun to attempt to rewrite a section of the United Methodist Book of Discipline known as Our Theological Task, and specifically the section known as Theological Guidelines: Sources and Criteria.

The object of the project was to design this section around a post-modern understanding of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral. And by the way, after a semester of work on the topic I now realize that the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral was for Methodists both our most unique contribution to the theological world, as well as one of our greatest hinderances in understanding our own theological identity. Below is my futile attempt of a rewrite of a section of our Discipline. I welcome all critiques and comments. Enjoy!!!

¶ 104. SECTION 4–Theological Guidelines: Our Sources for Doing Theology
As United Methodist Christians, we have an obligation to bear a faithful witness to Jesus Christ, the living reality at the center of the Church’s life, witness, and activity in the world. To fulfill this obligation, we are called to reflect critically on our biblical and theological inheritance, striving faithfully to express the witness we make in our own time.
It is essential to consider the sources we employ to derive our theological affirmations. Such theological claims are made through careful consideration of truth as it is found and weighed within the active and ongoing conversation between Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Therefore, theological claims must be grounded on Scripture, informed by Christian tradition, enlivened in personal experience. and tested by reason.

Scripture reveals the Word of God: in union with God the Father and the Holy Spirit; present with the Father in the creation of the world; incarnate among humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; present with us in the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit. It is through active and ongoing study of the Bible that one can encounter the story of God testified to by the prophets, revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and continued through the work of the Church empowered by the Holy Spirit. Scripture serves as the multi-faceted and enormously complex lens whereby we encounter the truth of the Triune God — Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. While Scripture is the primary testimony to God’s story of redemption, it is not the only testimony. 

To aid his study of the Bible and deepen his understanding of faith, Wesley drew on Christian tradition, in particular the Patristic writings, the ecumenical creeds, the teachings of the Reformers, and the spiritual literature of his era. Such a tradition continues beyond the life of Wesley and is available to Christians today. Tradition provides a substantial Christian witness through its testimony to faith and the continuance of the story found in the biblical testimony. Christian tradition recounts the ongoing work of God through the Church in the world. This continual act of remembrance empowers the community of faith in this day. It is through Christian tradition that one encounters the historical testimony of faith on the part of the Church. Therefore, tradition speaks to both an historical account of faith as well as a heritage that is continued to be lived out in the present day.

The Christian witness, even when grounded in the overall narrative of Scripture and mediated by tradition, is ineffectual unless understood and embodied by both the individual and the community. To become our witness, faith must manifest itself through our personal and corporate reason and experience. It is invaluable to have a cogent account of the Christian faith understood through experience and reason, both to understand Scripture and to relate the biblical message to the world of knowledge around us. Wesley looked for confirmations of the biblical witness in human experience, especially in the experiences of regeneration and sanctification, but also in the “common sense” knowledge of everyday experience. One must employ reason to fully experience the living vitality of the biblical narrative. It is essential that reason aid us in relating the knowledge of faith to the experience of everyday life. Therefore, reason and experience work together to confirm that which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived.”

As United Methodists, we are steeped in the Wesleyan tradition of employing these sources of Christian witness just as Wesley did in his own theology. The nature of the ongoing conversation of these sources furnishes a guide for our continuing theological task as United Methodists. In that task, each of these sources informs the other and all act together to form the complete Christian witness of the Church.

In practice, theological reflection may be brought to its full and faithful state as each of these sources are employed to inform the other(s). Insights arising from serious study of the Scriptures and tradition enrich contemporary experience. Imaginative and critical thought enables us to understand better the Bible and our common Christian history. When human experience penetrates the mundane and becomes an encounter with the divine, the biblical narrative is made to come alive and ignite within us a fire fueled by the living Spirit of God.

It is also essential that active conversation between these source be the driving force of how theology is translated into faithful witness. It is in the process of actively testing and retesting one’s faith that a truly faithful witness is constructed. Such a witness is continually enhanced by both spiritual disciplines and study. When these sources are actively in conversation with one another, the life of the individual and community is fertile for experience informed and carried out by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, the active and ongoing conversation between these sources serves as the means by which regeneration and sanctification are carried out in the lives of both the individual and community of faith.

Final Thoughts on My Seminary Experience

[This post will run on Candler’s blog soon. I wanted to give a “first-run” on here. Enjoy!

They say all jokes have a hint of truth in them. That’s what makes them funny. There was a joke I heard when I started seminary three years ago that goes something like this:

Seminary is much like the Easter Story. The first year they’ll crucify you and things you believe in. The second year they’ll bury you in the tomb of major classes, lots of reading and papers. And the third year you’ll finally be resurrected.

It seems like yesterday I was in my first semester of classes at Candler. I can remember the conversations about classes, professors, and all of the work required to pass. If I think about it really hard, I can remember the feeling that three years would be an eternity. Graduation wasn’t even on the horizon—it was nowhere close to conceptualization.

Over that year, I can remember seemingly endless hours of reading and writing. I can remember assignments that made no sense at all and being asked to write papers on matters I could hardly spell, much less articulate with any sort of coherent or precise thought. All the while I was asked to sit through some of the most uncomfortable, and seemingly unending, sessions with people I did not know from Adam’s house cat (I’m from South Georgia so you’ll have to forgive the colloquialism) as we reflected on things we were experiencing at our Contextual Education sites or in the classroom.

I can remember the first time I was asked to critically consider some of the quant Sunday School lessons of my childhood in a classroom setting. It was as though someone had the audacity to walk right up to me and ask for the cloak off my back. How dare they ask me critically examine the stories of my childhood! But engaging in such critical thinking caused me to have a wonderfully scary encounter with foundational beliefs beginning to crack. I intentionally mean that it was both wonderful and scary all at once. It became clear early on that who I was when I came to seminary was not going to identical to who I would be after the rigors of the program. And that was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

By my second year I began to experiment with trying on various voices. Amid the burying underneath mounds of materials and thinkers, one begins to find that some of the thinkers resonate with them. Some have special qualities that tickle the fancy of budding theologians in such a way that often, you try their voice on for size. It’s okay to do that. Some voices fit better than others. Some you will quickly outgrow like a child can outgrow clothes in a single season. Others stay with you, like old friends. Either way, the array of voices has the ability to cause mass confusion in the life of the “in-process” seminarian. But you continue to listen for in the middle of the confusion are sometimes subtle, yet profound moments when they surprise you and sing in a melodious chorus together.

And then comes the glorious possibilities of being in your final year. By this time you have successfully questioned and re-questioned much of what you came to seminary believing and thinking. Some you have kept because, after all, Candler will never take the easy road of simply telling you what to believe. You will form relationships with professors and peers and, dare I say it, you will enjoy classes. As the end of seminary comes closer and closer you will even have days where you’re sad that what seemed like such a distant possibility is slowly, but surely becoming an all-too-close reality. You are, all at once, a bumbling mess of mixed emotions. Job possibilities hang in the balance. Ordination pressures arrive. The end of school means the exciting end to deadlines and never-ending papers. And then it hits you—you will soon no longer be able to hide under a guise of safety at Candler. You will learn that you will soon have to enter the world and do this ministry thing on your own.

You realize a couple of important things after your time at Candler is finished. First, after I realized how scary it will be to finish and “do this ministry thing on my own,” I remembered, “I’m not on my own at all.” God is with us no matter where we go. And we have the opportunity to be a valued member of a division of the “communion of saints” at Candler. And so you are never, ever alone in the world. Secondly, there will come a day that you will speak and it will not be the voice of Barth, Luther, Luke Timothy Johnson, Tom Long, Carol Newsome, Athanasius, James Cone or Howard Thurman. It will be you. And it might scare you the first time you hear it. It will sound like you, but not the you that you once knew. And it will also sound like those wonderful conversation partners you developed in your studies, but not exactly because none of them will ever be a perfect fit. It will be a you that is not finished developing yet. In fact, you’ll realize that seminary is only the beginning this new you.

But don’t let me spoil the ending too much. Enjoy your ride and know that you have a community of saints, both past and present, lifting you up in prayer through the deadlines, pressures, all-night study sessions, and exams that will ultimately lead toward a transformation that you never thought possible.

Maybe folks are right in that all jokes have a hint of truth in them. Maybe seminary can and will reflect a smaller version of the grand and glorious story of redemption in the lives of each and every student ready to embark on the journey.

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