Open our ears

When you go through seminary, you are taught how to listen to other people. In formation classes and in pastoral counseling classes, we are taught how to listen. If you take a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education — as all United Methodist clergy candidates in Indiana are required to do — you get both classroom and practical training in how to listen.

We need all this because it turns out that listening to other people is incredibly difficult to do.

We usually don’t listen to people. What we do is sift through things other people say in search of bits and pieces we can react to. Or we react involuntarily out of our own emotions, wounds, biases, and convictions. We don’t listen, and we don’t hear. We use the other person’s statements as fodder for our own.

I’m am reminded of this frequently. I’m reminded of it in my own life because I do it all the time and need to be reminded to listen rather than react and respond. I am reminded as well because the members of the United Methodist Church have been actively engaged in not listening to each other for many years.

I see it all over our church conversations and politicking about sexuality.

Time and again, I read and hear the words of clergy who claim to be representing the views of others, but they say things that the other person would never claim as their own. We attribute to others motives they do not hold and evil intentions that they would disavow, and yet we continue to attribute those words and motives to them.

More often than not, people defend such statements by saying they are only reporting what they hear coming from the other person. But they are not really listening. They are reacting. If they were sitting in a session with their CPE instructor, they would rightly be invited to take a closer look at their descriptions of the other person.

Here is the simple process I have been taught, and I try to hold on to.

After another person speaks, report back what you heard them say. Then ask if what you said is what they said. If they say it was not, then you try again, until the person who spoke agrees that what you said is what they said.

Of course, in dialogue across the denomination, such an exchange is rarely possible, but the spirit of that exercise can and should inform how we talk to each other and about each other because we cannot love each other in disagreement if we are not willing to listen to each other.

And let me be clear, being willing to listen does not require us to agree. I can listen to your position so well that I am able to state it back to you in words that you would claim as your own and still say I do not agree. We can listen to a person and still conclude that they are wrong or in error, and we need to permit them to do the same regarding our positions.

In the end, every one of us is going to meet Jesus and discover that we are wrong about some of the things we believe. Only God knows everything. It is a sign of humility to listen to someone who does not share our opinions. When we listen, we acknowledge that only God has nothing to learn about the world.

To listen is not to agree.

To listen is not to endorse.

To listen is simply to treat the other person as you would like to be treated.

The Bible calls that love, and calls us all to do it.

In the coming months, the United Methodist Church will come to some decisions that will change the very nature of our church. It is unavoidable work. It is work that we should carry on as Christians.

I pray God will convict me when I fall short in this area, make me ready to repent, and help me to better love my brothers and sisters even in the midst of disagreement.

Advertisements

The questions I get asked the most

In my work as a pastor, I’ve come across a curious gap. It looks like this. In my work with regular Christians and non-Christians, the questions I get most often are some version of the following.

Who is going to heaven?

Is ____________ in heaven?

How do I get to heaven?

The word “heaven” is not always used, but that is the meaning of what people ask and what they want to know about. Even when people ask less heavenly questions, the concern about heaven is in the background. If someone asks me about their divorce or the pet vice that they can’t give up and want me to help them justify, the unspoken question behind the conversation is often something like “can I still get into heaven, despite the thing I’m asking you about?”

A lot of people think a lot about heaven, and a lot of them think I am a person who should be able to help them find answers those questions.

Despite these facts, I don’t hear pastors and contemporary theologians talk much about heaven. Or rather, what I hear and read most is caution about putting too much emphasis on heaven. We are advised not to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good and taught the ways that popular notions about heaven are not biblical. I have many teachers who can help me redirect and divert attention from these questions to “more practical” concerns.

More and more, this all strikes me as strange.

Here we have lots of evidence before us of a gnawing hunger for teaching and instruction, and often what we offer in response is self-help, politics, and pop philosophy. It would be like going to a dentist for help with a tooth ache and being told to sign up for a plan to put fluoride in the city’s water or being given advice on how to live with the pain.

Perhaps there is in this observation some explanation for the great gap in vitality between the early Methodist movement and the United Methodist Church today. The Holy Spirit stirs up these questions. He causes the ache, but too often we send people away with academic arguments and political slogans when what they need is some spiritual root canal.

Contrary to our practice, John Wesley did not shy away from the topic of heaven. Indeed, the question “what must I do to get to heaven” was the animating force of his own spiritual journey and his ministry. In the preface to his standard sermons he described the sermons themselves as the result of his labors to discover in the Bible the way to heaven. As he wrote: “I want to know one thing — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore.”

And so I wonder what would happen if that became our question as well. What if the central question of our ministry was “How can I show people the way to heaven?” Would it change what we do? Would it change what we teach?

I hope to explore these questions further in the coming the weeks.

Thoughts on preaching Christ

John Wesley held that a preacher needed to offer people both law and gospel.

In a 1751 “Letter on Preaching Christ” he wrote that preaching gospel means “preaching the love of God to sinners, preaching the life, death, resurrection, and intercession of Christ, with all the blessings which, in consequence thereof, are freely given to true believers.”

Preaching law means “explaining and enforcing the commands of Christ, briefly comprised in the Sermon on the Mount. I took note when I read this that he said to preach the commands of Christ. He did not instruct us to call people sinners or get them to focus on wrath, but to recount the commands in the Sermon on the Mount. That alone, he seems to argue, will convict where conviction is necessary.

Wesley wrote that he believed the best method of aiding and nurturing belief was to preach a mix of law and gospel “in every place, if not in every sermon.”

I think, the right method of preaching is this: At our first beginning to preach at any place, after a general declaration of the love of God to sinners, and his willingness that they should be saved, to preach the law, in the strongest, the closest, the most searching manner possible; only intermixing the gospel here and there, and showing it, as it were, afar off.

After more and more persons are convinced of sin, we may mix more and more of the gospel in order to ‘beget faith,’ to raise into spiritual life those whom the law hath slain; but this is not to be done too hastily neither. Therefore, it is not expedient wholly to omit the law; not only because we may well suppose that many of our hearers are still unconviced; but becasue otherwise there is danger, that many who are convinced will heal their own wounds slightly; therefore, it is only in private converse with a thoroughly convinced sinner, that we should preach nothing but the gospel.

Wesley wrote that the commands of Christ (the law) are food for the soul just as much as the gospel and should not be omitted. But he lamented that many preachers had turned to gospel preaching – leaving out the law entirely – which caused havoc in the Methodist societies. (Note: A cordial is a strong, usually alcoholic, drink with sweet or spicy flavors.)

Why this is the very thing I assert: That the gospel Preachers, so called, corrupt their hearers; they vitiate their taste, so that they cannot relish sound doctrine; and spoil their appetite, so they cannot turn it to nourishment; they, as it were, feed them with sweetmeats, till the genuine wine of the kingdom seems quite insipid to them. They give them cordial upon cordial, which make them all life and spirit of the present …. As soon as that flow of spirits goes off, they are without life, without power, without any strength or vigour of soul; and it is extremely difficult to recover them, because they still cry out, ‘Cordials! Cordials!” of which they have had too much already, and have no taste for food which is convenient for them.

Wesley closes the letter with a recounting of a congregation destroyed by gospel preaching contrasted with societies invorgated by law and gospel preaching.

From the beginning they had been taught both the law and the gospel. ‘God loves you; therefore love and obey him. Christ died for you; therefore, die to sin. Christ is risen; therefore, rise in the image of God. Christ liveth evermore; therefore live to God, till you live with him in glory.’

So we preached; and so you believed. This is the scriptural way, the Methodist way, the true way.

As often happens when I read Wesley, I find him speaking to our current problems and conditions.

NOTE: This is a republication of a blog post I wrote in 2009. I was re-reading this letter this morning and thought I might write about it, but when I discovered I had written about it before, I thought my previous post summed up what I wanted to share quite well.