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United Methodists don’t often gather midweek to observe the festival days of the church year. Christmas Eve and Holy Week are just about the only exceptions. All Saints Day was Wednesday, November 1. We observed it last Sunday, November 5, remembering the saints of our lives in prayer and song, thanking God for the communion in which we “join our friends above” in heavenly joy, united by love even while we are separated by the “narrow stream of death.”

One of our hymns was Charles Wesley’s 1759 lyric, Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above.” (#709 in the UM Hymnal) The tune is cheerful, and so are most of the lyrics, though I debated leaving out verse 3:

Ten thousand to their endless homeCharles Wesley
this solemn moment fly,
and we are to the margin come,
and we expect to die.
E’en now by faith we join our hands
with those that went before,
and greet the blood-besprinkled bands
on the eternal shore.

I almost omitted this verse because it was going to be a downer. Singing about our unity in love, even spanning the “narrow stream of death,” that’s one thing.  But singing in the same cheery voice, that “we expect to die,” that’s another.

If that’s not enough, those “blood-besprinkled bands” remind us of Jesus’ slow and bloody death on the Roman cross that both repels us, and – because it’s part of his saving story and ours – has that “wondrous attraction” we sing in a better-known song. Whether we lean heavily into the language of bloody sacrifice as God’s way of atoning (at-one-ing) us with God, or whether we don’t, we’re gonna come away from the cross with some blood spatter.

Anyway, we sang the hymn – all four verses. We sang that jarring truth that “we expect to die,” and we greeted, in our faithful imaginations, the “blood-besprinkled bands” of those who have died into the fullness of the presence of God.

And then.

And then, as Steve and I visited in the fellowship hall, as Steve’s grandkids and my wife Kathy were downstairs with the Sunday School, the news came through our social media feeds. Sutherland Springs.

In that solemn moment, all those ancient lyrics words were transformed. Go back now, and read verse 3 again (or read the whole thing) in light of the  shootings in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

First-Sutherland-Springs

Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, echoes Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, when he asserts that “it is not love, but ‘the denial of death’ that makes the world go round” (Rohr, Kindle edition, location 356).

Denial of death surely makes the healthcare industry go round: we all have our stories of heroic, macabre and unimaginably expensive measures to preserve bodily persistence long after bodily and mental joy or competence have departed.

Denial of death makes the security industry go round: one guy tries to wear explosive shoes on a plane, and millions of travelers now remove our shoes. A couple people tamper with pills, and all sorts of tamper-resistant packages are now mandatory. There are armed guards and metal detectors in the entrances of schools and hospitals … and churches?

Denial of death makes popular religion go round: we treat dying as a spiritual or moral failure. With all good will, we say of those who recover from illness, that they’re blessed (implying without meaning to, that those who don’t recover are not). We say that healing comes through faith (implying that illness comes from a failure of faith). Even at funerals, even in the presence of the body, denial of death is epitomized in that final line of Mary Frye’s poem: “Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there. I did not die.”

Dietrich BonhoefferWe Christians slip into this denial of our own death all too often. It’s easy, especially in a culture that denies it all the time. But we do die. And Christianity doesn’t even try to deny death. In the Gospels, the only times Jesus talked of the cross, it wasn’t about the cross he would carry, but about the one that we would carry:
All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24 CEB)

And the cross isn’t just about inconveniences and irritations. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in The Cost of Discipleship (1937), “Jeder Ruf Christi fährt in den Tod.”  — “Every call of Christ leads to death.”

There are several different directions we can go from here. This blog’s already way into TLDR territory, so I’m only going to touch on one:

The killings in Sutherland Springs prompt me to dive deeply into what it is to “take up my cross.” Taking up my cross might involve undergoing oppression unto death by state violence, or the violence of a culture that reinforces toxic masculinity and violence against women, or the crazy correlation of firearms and mass shootings in this country, or some other systemic evil. It might. But it will not involve surrendering my truth and my trust in God to these possibilities.

I can’t speak for the dead and wounded in Texas. Their blood cries out from the ground. It would be wrong of me to co-opt their story.

But I testify: when I have focused on my own safety, or on suspecting or blaming or demonizing others, I have been farther from following Christ.

And I testify: when I have been intent on living his life, and on discerning and naming the Spirit and image of God, the imago Dei, in others, I’ve been nearer to his way.

And yes, crosses are involved.

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Note: The United Methodist press & web are going to town about a book of inspirational writings that the United Methodist Publishing House published, then recalled after it was revealed that the author (or, “author”) had plagiarized at least some of the work in the book, presenting it as if it was his own.

The author is a United Methodist pastor that most of us wouldn’t have heard of. But the book would have been a best-seller, at least in church circles, because the contents were daily reflections that he had sent to a parishioner whose name we know: Hillary Clinton.

From all accounts, it would have been a really good book, if permissions had been received where permissions were required, and if credit had been given where credit was due. But instead, it’s just a mess.

Here’s what that gets me thinking about. 


Faith Callahan with her walker, Mount Rainier in background

The week after Annual Conference one year, I visited my Grandma Callahan at Wesley Terrace, her retirement home. She was unhappy, and perplexed.

Sunday morning, she’d attended worship in her nearby church, where her pastor had preached a really inspiring sermon, a sermon that hinged on a story of something that had actually happened to him that very morning. Grandma Callahan was really moved.

That evening, she went to vespers at her retirement home.  This guest preacher was another United Methodist; he had a pretty good sermon, but it hinged on something — the same thing — that had actually happened to him that morning on the way to church.

I could help her with her perplexity. At Conference our bishop had opened his sermon with “When I was walking this morning, … .” It was a really good story, and it gathered energy because it had actually happened to him just that morning, and it was a perfect illustration for his point!

(My text-criticism sensors were going off during the bishop’s sermon. I get suspicious about preachers’ stories that are just too neat or clever. It might be my Saturday Night Live hermeneutic, with Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” character announcing, “How conveeeenient!” The bishop could have gotten that story from a book of sermon illustrations for all occasions.)

Both of Grandma’s preachers had heard the Bishop’s sermon the previous week. And, perhaps weary from a week at Conference, both had used it. And both had passed it off as their own experience.

I could help her with the perplexity: how the two preachers happened to use the same story on the same day. But I couldn’t help her with the unhappiness: how two [or, counting the bishop, three!] preachers could have such lack of integrity as to tell a story that obviously wasn’t their own, as though it was their own? If my own pastor tells one experience that’s patently not their own, how can I trust them in any other thing they say? And if two out of two (or three out of three) pastors have that lack of integrity, what is to be inferred about all the others?

I still can’t help her with that.

The very idea that preachers can get “sermon illustrations” from books of sermon illustrations has always baffled me. But at the very least, the VERY least, the preachers — including the bishop — could use the line I heard Fred Craddock use (giving him credit, of course): “I don’t know if this ever happened, but it’s True.”* Where quotations are used in print or online, the citation should be complete, like a proper footnote. Where a person’s words or ideas are used in preaching or speaking, credit should be given orally, and (wherever possible) in text as well.

It’s about showing ourselves trustworthy in a few things, at least in one thing. It’s about not losing people’s trust, not only in ourselves, but in others. And it should be so easy!

I think our bishops can help with this. Let them decide to model ethical preaching & writing , and to state that it’s one of their expectations of the pastors they appoint. Let the preachers they invite to address the Conferences also model these standards.

I think the United Methodist Publishing House can help with that. Let it decide to do due diligence in considering manuscripts and screening for plagiarism before agreeing to publish, and make its policies & procedures public. When it fails, let it show how it failed, and how it is revising its policies & procedures, to minimize the chance of a repeat.

I hear the seminaries are already doing a decent job of encouraging ethical preaching & writing, and the ethical environment is far more diverse, with social media, electronic communications, and more awareness of power & privilege differentials, but ethics around use of other people’s material in preaching & writing wasn’t really emphasized in my day (except of course for academic writing).

I think my Grandma Callahan can help as well (along with the many Grandma Callahans of the church who are still in this life). Let them go to the preacher whose story they suspect, and ask pointed questions: “Did you write that, or did it come from someone else?” And give them pointed feedback: “When I notice you doing that, I lose trust in you.” But don’t just  be negative. Be just as engaged when they DO cite their sources: “I really appreciate that you shared that story from ______. Could I borrow the book? I want to know more.”

It might make the after-service handshake line a scarier place for preachers, but that’s not a bad thing.


* Substandard footnote: I remember Fred Craddock say this at Kilworth Chapel, the University of Puget Sound, many years ago. It stays with me, and I probably have the words right.

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As I write this on June 8, I’m witnessing the Senate Intelligence Committee questioning James Comey, and thinking about the importance of leadership without intimidation or coercion, with mutual trust and respect for differences. Presidents can abuse their authority, and so can pastors. We can abuse our position: rank or title, our resumé, our uniquely defined roles. We can abuse our personal characteristics: size, gender and personality traits. We can use these positional or personal realities to get our way even when it’s wrong, illegal, evil. And we can do damage.

Even in the United States, with its government of the people, by the people, and for the people, presidents can seek to become autocrats. Even in the Church, which exists for God’s glory and the development of disciples of Jesus Christ, pastors and laity can abuse the authority God and church give them.

Jesus said to them, “The rulers of the nations lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. … I am among you as one who serves.”   — (Luke 22:25-27 NRSV, alt.)

I, and most pastors and laity I know, desire to lead like Jesus, without domination or manipulation. But now and then, in our denomination and in our congregations, we “throw our weight around.” (Isn’t it interesting that this common saying portrays aggressive use of physical size as a metaphor for inappropriate coercion using positional authority!) Now and then we seek to get our own way using force or emotional manipulation: we threaten; we use anger, we take offense, we withdraw, we use financial pressure, and more. Instead, we should work together as partners who seek to understand and collaborate, appreciate, and come to a shared way that’s better than our own.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with this prayer:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

Grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
           — source: Book of Common Prayer

May this be our prayer as we work with each other, especially if we are called to lead, in church and in nation.

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Incredible find!

Rare Wesley Hymn Fragment
Found in Farmhouse

Charles WesleyA manuscript fragment found in a Cotswold farmhouse under restoration appears to be the first draft of an unpublished hymn by Charles Wesley (1707-1788).

The draft, in Wesley’s own hand, includes several edits, with whole lines crossed out and re-written. Only the first verse is relatively intact. The refrain, however, is un-altered. Cambridge hymnologist Edmund Wren, who authenticated the manuscript, writes, “It’s quite clear that the refrain is the inspiration for the hymn. The verses are only an afterthought.”

Wesley was a prolific hymnodist, with over 6,000 hymns published in his lifetime. With his brother John (1703-1791) he is considered a co-founder of the Methodist movement. Charles Wesley is known to have visited the Methodist Societies of the Cotswolds several times in the mid-1700s, spending several weeks there with his wife Sally in the summer of 1754 after her devastating battle with smallpox. “The refrain’s profession of steadfast faithfulness to God mirrors Wesley’s steadfast devotion to Sally,” Wren notes.


Lord, Thy Prevenient Grace we Know

        88 88 88   (refrain 77 74 77 74)
Lord, Thy prevenient grace we know,
Both love and law within our heart.
A full commitment we would show;
Our sole Redeemer Friend Thou art!
Thy faithfulness to us we feel,
And ours to Thee, O such a deal!
refrain
Never shall we give you up,
Never shall we let you down,
Never shall we run around and desert you.
Never shall we make you cry,
Never shall we say goodbye,
Never shall we tell a lie and hurt you
CW
First day of April, A.D. 1754
Down Astley, Glouc.

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For me, the past weekend was a time of family celebrations and road-tripping across Washington. Thus, I was only briefly aware of the murders in Orlando, and haven’t had time to sit with the reality of it until today.

Because I was away, I was didn’t have the responsibility in worship yesterday morning to put it all together, do instant theology, make quick sense. I didn’t have opportunity to write post a statement on Facebook, or to read more than a very few. I watched very little news. I’m blessed to have been prevented from rushing to righteous anger and self-righteous posturing. (My anger and posturing are mellowed 36 hours to perfection?)

But more than ever, I am feeling the emptiness of those pat statements we make, things like “Our thoughts and prayers are with … .” Especially the statements by politicians, but also by preachers, and other partners in faith communities. (more…)

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