Monday, January 21, 2013

The Middle Way

I first met Adam Hamilton when I was a student at Duke Divinity School. For whatever reason, I was given the opportunity to host him during a visit to the school in the late 90's. This privilege of providing hospitality afforded an opportunity to share a meal of North Carolina's finest food at Durham's Bullock's Bar-B-Que while also hearing stories of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection when it was in its first decade of life. Adam taught me much that day as he shared the story of the church's founding and his leadership principles. And he's continued to offer countless lessons in the years since.

The best continuing education event I have ever attended is the Leadership Institute at the Church of the Resurrection. The most helpful course I took as part of my Doctor of Ministry studies was a class with Adam on "Sermon Series that Engage the Mind and Heart." I've used his stewardship curriculum and borrowed parts of his teaching on spiritual gifts.

Adam Hamilton represents the best of the United Methodist Church. And it's not just Adam as a person or as a leader. It's the ways in which Adam so artfully articulates and teaches the best of our Wesleyan theology. Tomorrow, Adam gets to offer our nation the best of the United Methodist Church as the preacher at the Inaugural Prayer Service.

When I shared my excitement about Adam's selection as tomorrow's preacher on Facebook, someone immediately commented, "Is it true that they are removing the BIBLE from this inauguration?"

We have a tendency to become easily upset by small pieces of fiction, don't we?

But we are also regularly tempted to believe that the presence of a Bible makes a difference.

But a symbolic Bible does nothing. What makes a difference is the way in which we interpret and embody what's inside the Bible. And the best thing about the United Methodist Church - one of the things that makes me most grateful for our church - is the way we seek to interpret and then faithfully live what we read on the pages of scripture.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, learned much from the religious and political leaders who ruled before he was born. When Henry VIII was replaced by Edward VI in 1549, the Church of England gravitated towards the Reformed tradition, allowing the influences of the reformers to be felt in tangible ways. But when Edward died, Mary Tudor became queen, and England was restored to a place that took its cues from Rome. The Roman Catholic Church then lost its grip on the nation's church when Elizabeth I came on the throne in 1558. With Elizabeth, a new way emerged, the via media, the middle way. The middle way straddled the best of both Rome (Catholicism) and Geneva (Reformed). The middle way was paved well and provided the foundation on which John and Charles Wesley continued to journey and eventually birth Methodism.

John and Charles discovered that one did not need to limit their understanding of theology to what was taught in the high Anglican church. Rather, they could also begin to embrace lessons learned from the Moravians, particularly their emphasis on personal holiness and awareness of God's love in one's life. Right teachings were not accepted as the most important thing. Rather, the Christian life - the experience of God combined with the tradition of the church - proved more instructive and important than a rigid orthodoxy. While core doctrines were non-negotiable, John Wesley articulated a need to allow a variety of opinions on how best to articulate, explain or teach these doctrines. Furthermore, there are countless things about God that just cannot be understood or explained if using only scripture or narrow doctrines. God is bigger!

Today, Methodists describe our way of doing theology through the lens of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. We hold that our faith was revealed in scripture, illumined by tradition, confirmed by reason and vivified through personal experience. There is not just one way to read a Bible. In fact, there are countless ways of interpreting scripture. Furthermore, scripture must always be held in tension with the traditions of the church. And, our experiences of God throughout life are to be inserted into this mix with our reason being the fourth block of getting to the place of understanding.

The middle way has provided the foundation for a church that is large enough for all kinds of people. Rather than say, "The Bible says it so I accept it, believe it or teach it," we are able to carefully study what the Bible says and then even more carefully hold what is written in scripture with what has happened in the last 2000 years and what has happened in our lives. Scripture. Tradition. Reason. Experience. All play a role. Each one is essential to our faith.

Too often the church is quickly labeled too conservative or too liberal. Preachers are judged even quicker as they are invited and then dis-invited to play a public role because of something they have said or written - even more than a decade ago.

I wonder how many of Adam's sermons were listened to by someone at the White House before an invitation was extended. I would be curious to know how many people went through his preaching and teaching with a fine tooth comb. And still, he was invited. He was proven to have the capacity to walk the middle way.

While people watching my Facebook feed today may conclude that I lean a little to the left or am rather excited about what our President "preached" earlier today, I can think of nothing more miserable than having a church filled with people of the same mind and same opinion. I regularly describe Mount Vernon Place as being liberal and conservative...along with gay and straight, Democrat and Republican, lifelong church goers and people new to the church, Catholics and Methodists, young and old, Washingtonians and Suburbanites and countless other things.

I would not have it any other way. It would be miserable to just have one way, one belief, one doctrine, one understanding represented in the life of our faith community.

We grow when we learn from each other's differences. We are strengthened by opinions that are different from our own.

God comes to us in so many ways. Diversity should always be one of the most recognizable traits in the body of Christ.

I'm so grateful that Adam gets to share our middle way with our nation tomorrow. It's the best part of being a Methodist. This is the best of the United Methodist Church!

What would happen if all of us were willing to walk in the middle - opening ourselves to receive the best from all sides around us?

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Sound of Silence

I saw the movie Lincoln last week. Like countless critics and lovers of film, I highly recommend this particular picture to anyone who wants to be reminded where we were and how far we have come. Lincoln is nothing short of spectacular.

But there is a part in the film that is still haunting me. There is one scene that will not leave my mind....or my heart.

The proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution has finally reached the floor of the House. A diverse crowd is shepherded into the visitor's gallery above passionate and angry Members of Congress below. A heated debate starts to take place and then votes are cast one by one. There is some cheering and some groaning as individual members vote "aye" or "nay." As the voting is close to being finished, cameras take us back to the White House, zooming in on the President.

President Lincoln is 1.6 miles from where votes are being cast. There were no Blackberries or CSPAN or Facebook to inform him immediately of the vote. Rather, Lincoln receives the news through a different sound. He knows that the 13th Amendment has passed because church bells start to ring. Houses of worship, churches centered on the good news of one who came to proclaim release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed, ring in joyous celebration. The windows of the White House are flung open as the bells continue to ring. The sound is sweet and familiar. But not all bells would have been ringing.

In fact, the bells at my church would have been silent.

There would have been no celebration coming from the church I serve. We would not have been celebrating this momentous passage of a bill that finally offered full freedom to oppressed people because of the color of their skin. Rather, our church was built as a monument to the opposite.

Mount Vernon Place was founded in 1850 by 50 people who believed that the Methodist Episcopal Church South needed a representative church in the nation's capital. The 50 people had nearly quadrupled in size at the start of the Civil War, growing to nearly 200 members. When the war waged on, people moved on and the nearly 200 people were reduced to their original 50. There were 50 folks who believed in the institution of slavery, standing behind the new denomination that came to be when Bishop Andrews acquired slaves in 1844, causing the denomination to split.

When the building was built in 1917, no expense was spared. The structure cost $280,000 to complete with $220,000 of this amount coming from people around the country who joined in support of slavery. The monumental church is hard to miss - though most people mistake it for a museum. It's quite a building, and I wish regularly that the walls could talk.

Thankfully, those inside did start to talk. One of my favorite stories to tell is about Rev. Dr. John Rustin who served as our pastor from 1935 to 1950. I've heard enough stories about him to know he was quite a leader. Some of our longtime members are convinced, I am certain, that Dr. Rustin is sitting next to God in heaven. When Dr. Rustin left, the Washington Post wrote an article about him following his last Sunday. These words were printed in that article:

"Doctor Rustin told the congregation, 'the trouble with the church is that it is not liberal enough,' and then spelled out what he thought the church of the future should be like. 'When the church becomes a real factor in the life of the people,' he said, 'first of all, it has vision and is not expending all its energy in defending creeds or standing on ancient dogmas. 'It should challenge the people to move beyond its warped emotions and deep-seated prejudices,' he continued, 'and it should always move into action."

Amazing, isn't it? Dr. Rustin worked hard to make sure that the bells of our church would never be silent again. It was almost a century after the passage of the 13th Amendment when he preached these words but more than a decade before Dr. King started to march in Washington.

I regularly wrestle with his words.

Where do we need to stop standing on ancient dogmas? Where do we need to move people beyond our warped emotions and deep-seated prejudices? How do we do everything within our power to make sure our bells are never again kept silent?

Each time I walk past our church I see words etched in the stone that continue to be my call to action. When I read "Mount Vernon Place Methodist Episcopal Church South," I am reminded of how we have spent our early years opposing the good news of Jesus Christ instead of being his hands and feet tirelessly working for equality. Our original stance has changed, and it must continue to change.

While we have traveled long roads towards diversity, building a congregation that is considered "multi-ethnic" in the eyes of the denomination, we have a long way to go. Our denomination is still oppressing people. We are still causing harm to others, elevating heterosexual people above homosexual people, telling some of the best Christians I know that their lives are incompatible with Christian teaching. We are standing on the wrong side of another civil right when it comes to who can be married by our pastors and our churches. Our bells are not ringing on the side of equality. We are voting "nay" instead of "aye" when it comes to treating all people equally.

When I heard the bells ringing in a movie theatre last Friday afternoon, I heard them as a call from God, a reminder that God still needs people who will work tirelessly until the oppressed are set free once more.

The sound of silence is deafening.

May our bells never again remain silent.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A Clean Slate - A Fresh Start - A New Beginning

New Year's Day may be one of my favorite days of the entire year. There is something wonderful about knowing that a whole new year has dawned. I love fresh starts and new beginnings. Each new year begins with my making a mental list of things I want to change in my life:

1) I want to commit to going to the gym 4 times a week.

2) I want to commit to a year of counting points on Weight Watchers.

3) I want to start each day with Bible study and prayer, making more room for God.

4) I want to finally find "my place" in downtown Washington - that place where I regularly linger, study, write, and meet people instead of being in my office so much.

5) I want to write more - perhaps even commit to blogging 3 times a week and really take advantage of other opportunities to be published.

6) I want to say "no" to things that take life from me in order to make space for that which makes more of me.

The list could go on and on.

Every gym manager will tell you that today is the best day to have your sales team fully staffed. January will be crowded with people who have promised themselves that this year will be different while March will present many days without a single new member joining.

We are good at making promises to ourselves to live differently. We want to change.

There's a strong chance that I'll accomplish some of the things on my list this year. There's an even greater chance that I won't. But still, I get a clean slate. And so do you.

But this promise of a clean slate is one of the reasons I need God - not just on New Year's Day but on every day. The promises of scripture remind me time and again that I don't have to wait for a fresh start or a clean slate to come just once a year. A new beginning can be offered to me every single day and sometimes several times during the day. A fresh start is mine for the asking. My slate is wiped clean each time I return to God.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" We can all be made new.

1 John 1:9 reads, "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." Sounds like a clean slate to me.

In Acts 3:19 it is written, "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord." Yes, I'll take a fresh start.

Thank you, God, for the gift of a new year. Thank you for fresh starts, clean slates, new beginnings. May we stay close to you throughout this year. Help us to make wise decisions and give us strength to be faithful stewards of our bodies, our minds, our time, our talent and our resources. And when we fall short, remind us that every day is a new beginning. You are a God who is constantly making all things new. Thank you, God! Amen.

Happy New Year!