faith

Three Monks and One Sees

Benedicta Ward’s book has this story:

There were three friends, serious men, who became monks. One of them chose to make peace between men who were at odds, as it is written, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matt. 5:9). The second chose to visit the sick. The third chose to go away to be quiet in solitude. Now the first, toiling among contentions, was not able to settle all quarrels and, overcome with weariness, he went to him who tended the sick, and found hims also failing in spirit and unable to carry out his purpose. So the two went away to see hims who had withdrawn into the desert, and they told him their troubles. They asked him to tell them how he himself had fared. He was silent for a while, and then poured water into a vessel and said, ‘Look at the water.’ and it was murky. After a little while he said again, ‘See now, how clear the water has become.’ As they looked into the water they saw their own faces, as in a mirror. They he said to them, ‘So it is with anyone who lives in a crowd; because of the turbulence, he does not see his sins: but when he has been quiet, above all in solitude, then he recognizes his own faults.’

Today there are two major camps in the UMC. One claims the importance of peacemaking (Conservatives) while others are claiming the importance of tending to the sick (Liberals). Both camps have a good and Biblical claim on their task, and both are making good on the call. However, we now find ourselves in a bind where both camps are failing in spirit and there is such a turbulence in the Church. Neither camp sees the value of being quiet and still. Both camps are righteous in their cause and pouring water out, baptizing the work they do. Neither camp can see, as they churn up water, that we are drowning.

Photo by  Haley Phelps  on  Unsplash

The flailing and hand waving and crying out all is in an effort to ensure we can all stay a float through these troubled waters. It is the wisdom of the third monk that we need. The one who elevates silence, stillness, patience. Of course we do not give any merit to such posturing as it is seen as irrelevant and useless (all the while forgetting that Nouwen cautions us to the temptation of relevancy and that prayer is being “useless”).

And so what is the local church and church leader to do? How can we harness the wisdom of the third monk? Perhaps we can at least recall Soren Kierkegaard, who said, “Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”

Church leaders, there is nothing wrong with the wisdom of the third monk. There is nothing wrong with stillness, waiting and trusting. There is nothing wrong with not doing “something”. There is nothing wrong with trusting in the buoyancy of God.

Is that not our call?

The Antifragile Body of Christ

Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile speaks of the fragile, the flexible and the antifragile. These three concepts are names used to describe how something or someone might respond to a shock.

Photo by  Vittore Buzzi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Vittore Buzzi on Unsplash

The fragile breaks with a shock.

The flexible absorbs a shock.

The antifragile requires shock to develop.

When I was younger I would say my faith was fragile. I would pray for something and if that something did not happen, then I would fall to pieces. If there were one too many “bad things” happening I would begin to abandon notions of God and love.

Of course, most of us grow up and we discover that our fragile faith or fragile selves will not make it in the world because shocks come. We discover how to be flexible. We are encouraged to roll with the punches and remain nimble in our lives. We know that shocks come and we should do what we can in order to absorb the shocks the best we can.

The fragile and the flexible still remain suspicious of different shocks in our lives and we would rather be flexible than fragile. However, even the most flexible regresses to a more fragile state. Flexible gymnasts at sixteen become fragile at ninety. Plastic containers become brittle overtime. Fragility is the endgame of the flexible.

Taleb introduced me to the idea of “antifragile.” This is the way of being in the world that does not shy away from shocks but need shocks in order to develop and mature. The classic example would be the immune system. Unless the immune system is shocked with virus and sickness the immune system does not develop. It needs the shock of being sick to become healthy.

The shocks in the UMC these past several weeks are real. Some in our churches are broken in light of these shocks. Others are trying to absorb the shock and make statements that “push back” to the decisions of a General Conference. Everyone processes and moves through these shocks differently, however the people and churches that I am drawn to are the antifragile. Those that take the posture that the shocks are needed if the Body of Christ is going to be strong and healthy.

The Body of Christ may be sick, but it is not dead.

The Faith Trip

Many metaphors make up the language of faith. Anytime someone talks of God, it is through a metaphor. Jesus uses metaphor when describing the kingdom of God. The prophets use metaphors to critique the powerful. Modern Christian teachers use metaphors to help us grasp the work of God today.

One of the metaphors we lean on to describe our growing, dying, maturing and learning is our “faith journey.” The faith journey is a rich metaphor that allows the speaker to utilize additional metaphoric language to paint a fuller picture of the journey. We can talk about a “guide” or a “map” that help us on the way. This is a helpful metaphor to be sure.

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Until it is not.

Listening to others talk about their “faith journey” I hear a conviction that the “journey” is headed somewhere specific. Often called “heaven” but sometimes called “peace” or “joy”, the faith journey metaphor builds in it a basic sense that there is a time when we will “arrive” and we have yet to get there. It is also assumed that when we arrive at this destination that all will be better or something.

The power of the metaphor of “faith journey” is neutered when we use the metaphor with a predetermined destination in mind. Having a destination in mind means that we not only are not going on a journey but that we also have little faith.

To go on a journey is to emphasis the process of traveling, not the destination. When we go somewhere, say for vacation or for work, we do not use the word journey to describe it. We say we took a trip to Florida or we have a work trip this week. I have yet to hear anyone say, “I have to journey out for work on Thursday.” Or even, “we journeyed to Disney.”

The language of trip presupposes that the point is the destination. Otherwise why would you leave home at all if not to “arrive” that the destination.

The language of journey presupposes that the point is the process of traveling. It is the process of learning and trusting the guides will take you places that you did not predetermine. It is the language of faith that there are things in the journey that are more important than the destination, if only we were not focused on the destination.

We are on a the faith journey, not the faith trip.

Uniting Methodists - Wheat and Weeds

The United Methodist Church is facing the reality of becoming a monoculture denomination. (Monoculture in the church is something that I have touched on before below are a few links to previous posts for reference).

A monoculture denomination is a denomination that is really good at making one type of thing. This efficiency means a monoculutre denomination may be able to grow in numbers, but like all other monocultures, it is very susceptible to sickness and unhealth. Nonetheless, when there is a lower "yield" than previous years and the numbers do not look good, monocultures are very attractive.

Jesus had a little parable about the kingdom of God and buried within it we can see the resistance Jesus has for the monoculture church. 

Even weeds have beauty

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ - Matt. 13: 24-30

Every side of the denomination feels like they are the wheat and others are the weeds. You know the arguments made by different field workers of today:

  • Traditionalists argue that Progressives are sowing seeds of disobedience and seek to uproot the entire orthodox tradition.
  • Progressives argue that Traditionalists are sowing seeds of contempt and seek to uproot justice for the sake of compliance.
  • Non-Compatibleists on both sides argue that those in the are sowing seeds of fear and seek to uproot the whole church for the sake of a Pollyannan idea of unity that is lukewarm at best. 
  • Compatibleists argue that the extremes are sowing seeds of anger and are determined to uproot the entire church out of their self-righteous peacocking. 

The reality is we all are convinced that we are the wheat and others are the weeds. We all are convinced that we are good enough at this thing called Christianity that we can remove the weeds without harming the wheat. 

Jesus says otherwise. 

Jesus reminds us all that we are not very good at all at discerning wheat from weeds and even if we could, we are so inept that we do much more harm than we realize.

I read this parable in part as a caution against the attraction to a monoculture denomination. In our efforts to be as faithful as possible (growing only wheat) we will always find things/people we believe are not faithful (weeds). The Uniting Methodists stand with those who heed the call of the master and, despite our frustration, let the wheat and the weeds grow together. The Uniting Methodist stand with the humble servants who were confronted with their own limitations. The Uniting Methodists stand with those who trust that the Master is okay with wheat and weeds in the field.

If we cannot live with the weeds in God's field, then perhaps our anger/frustration is less about the weeds and more about our own lack of faithful discipleship.