Failing To Be In The Service Of God

There is a little book by Thomas Merton called The Wisdom of the Desert. It contains not only some wonderful reflections by Merton but also a short primer on the desert mothers and fathers of the Christian tradition. Additionally, this book contains some of the “sayings” of the desert saints. These sayings can be easy fairly straight forward but rarely are they easy to understand much less live out. For instance:

They said of Abbot Pambo that in the very hour when he departed this life he said to the holy men who stood by him: From the time I came to this place in the desert, and built me a cell, and dwelt here, I do not remember eating bread that was not earned by the work of my own hands, nor do I remember saying anything for which I was sorry even until this hour.

Here is a desert father who on his death bed and he is recalling how he worked hard and spoke well. This is the sort of thing that we all might strive for in our lives. To be able to not be a burden, drain or freeloader but to be one who worked hard for their bread and earned it all. Additionally, to be someone who spoke their mind with clarity and such wisdom they had no regrets.

However, I cheated. This is not the whole saying. This is the last line of the saying:

And thus I do to the Lord as one who has not even made a beginning in the service of God.

Pambo understands, but apparently only on his deathbed, that being in service to God requires receiving the service of others and reconciling with neighbor. If we live the life we think we are supposed to live (i.e. self sufficient and without need to apologize) then we have failed to be in the service of God. We have failed to be agents of giving the gift of receiving another’s hospitality as well as failing to speak in any way that might upset someone so that we don’t say anything meaningful at all.

The western value of self-sufficiency and the Southern USA’s value on being “nice” are not Christian values. Beware of the false teachers in the world who say the things that look like they are of the way, but in fact lead to destruction. Self-sufficiency and “niceness” sound like they are good, but ultimately they get in the way of the values that lead to salvation - humility and repentance.

The #1 Obstacle To Discipleship Making

One of the underlying conditions of the UMC is that there are fewer and fewer people in the USA who attend a Christian worshiping community. It may even be said that if the UMC were not in decline then the current conversations about ministry with LGBTQIA persons would be much less hostile. Like in sports, if we felt like we were “winning” or being “successful” then we would not be too worried about many things we are worried about now (rightly or wrongly).

There are many reasons why we no longer attend worship in the numbers we once did and I do not have to belabor those points we hear all “know.” However, of all the reasons I have heard there is one that is perhaps the most subtle and perhaps the most nefarious: People are already disciples.

Word of Life Church founder and lead pastor Brian Zahnd recently said the number one obstacle to making disciples of Jesus Christ in America is people are already discipled as Americans.

Many of us as pastors are more willing to talk about the evils within racism than we are to talk about the evils within patriotism. Many preachers would rather preach on peace and the end of war-making than how it is our churches (and salaries) are wrapped up in the military complex machine that is the USA.

I can honestly say the number one reason that I fail at being a disciple of Jesus is because I have been and continue to be discipled by the American myths. The Church is the last best place that I know that can help provide a space for me to unlearn from my teacher in order to become like the Master.

Being Led by An "Earless" Would-Be Bishop

Within the opening pages of Andrea Sterk's book Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church: The Monk-Bishop of Late Antiquity, lies a short story of a monk named Ammonius. Ammonius was well revered and beloved even as a monk living by himself. He was so appreciated that they wanted to make him bishop. Moving from the harsh desert to the accommodations of a bishop must have been a nice upgrade.

A group of men go to Ammonius to tell him the great news of his promotion. 

Photo by  David Rangel  on  Unsplash

Photo by David Rangel on Unsplash

Ammonius hears the news and polity rejects the invitation to the office of bishop. The group is a bit flummoxed, I mean who would not want to be bishop? They press upon him and it becomes clear that they are going to take him by force to the consecration services. With a quick thought, Ammonius grabs pruning shears and cuts off his left ear.

The men stood in shock looking at a severed ear on the ground and their would be bishop bleeding from his head. Ammonius reminds them that dismemberment disqualifies one to the office of bishop. Ammonius closes the door to his hut and the men leave. 

It is not necessary to point out, but can we just pause to admire how much of a boss Ammonius is? There is a deep beauty in clarity of call and purpose, in divesting of power, to sacrifice for a greater Truth. Lord may we all have such courage, imagination and wisdom.

The church has a deep theology of sacrifice, but contemporary practice is to expect sacrifice from others. Ammonius, like Jesus, remind us that the call is not to sacrifice others but to self-sacrifice. 

I want to be a part of a church that would cut off her own ear for the sake of refusing the temptations of power and prestige. 

Come & See, Sit & Stay, Go & Share

The United Methodist Church, in some areas of the denomination, are freaking out over the decline of membership and participation. I get it. It is concerning to those of us who have our have become dependent on a paycheck from worshiping communities.

There are many who have suggestions on what is needed for a church to "turn around" participation and engagement. Of those suggestions, the idea of having a "discipleship path" has gained a lot of traction. A discipleship path is just a technical name of describing how a local church helps guide people into deeper relationship with Christ. There is much to be desired when talking about a discipleship path. Making a disciple is not like making a car on an assembly line, but there are many who are doing good work on this effort. 

After looking over several different discipleship paths, it seems that they are built on a common pattern - 1) Come and See, 2) Sit and Stay, 3) Go and Share.

The point in sharing this is that if you find yourself looking for a way to grow deeper in relationship with Christ, I submit this pattern:

  1. Come and See - Jesus is calling you to see things that require you to leave your comfort zone (examples: worship, service with others, study, etc.)  
  2. Sit and Stay - Once we arrive, it is important to sit and stay. As Abba Moses said, "Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you all that you need to know." (examples: meditation, prayer, discernment, etc.)
  3. Go and Share - If we do not share with others then our spiritual formation is nothing but self-help (examples: teaching, evangelism, service with others, etc.)