How I learned to talk about goats

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

For many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14)

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

I found myself using a line in my sermon last Sunday that has been lingering with me. In the midst of my sermon, I said to my two congregations that I did not want them to end up as goats, and from there I reminded them of the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 25:31-46.

I have to confess this: Ten years ago, I would never have taken that kind of sermonic detour. Indeed, had I been in a pew hearing that, I might have bristled at it.

You see, I came to Christ from secular America and through theological liberalism. Talk of the supernatural and eternal judgment of humanity was alien to me — even a bit laughable, perhaps even contemptible.

There is a line in the TV show House that comes to mind. The atheistic Dr. Greg House is talking with another doctor about what happens after death or does not happen. House’s counterpart asks incredulously whether he believes this is all there is, to which House replies: “I find it more comforting to believe that all *this* isn’t simply a test.”

This is the way we often react to talk of the judgment of God, the coming wrath, eternal reward and eternal punishment. We act indignant that God would cheapen the meaning of life by reducing it to a never-ending test to judge our fitness for heaven and hell.

I get all that.

So why the warning to my congregations about sheep and goats?

The short answer to this is that I’ve spent the last 8 years reading John Wesley and the Bible. I’d read none of Wesley and scarcely any of the Bible before I was baptized in 2001. It was nearly pure experience that got me to the baptismal font and very little in the way of Scripture or Tradition. And it was gentle but powerful experiences of the grace of Jesus Christ that deepened my faith before I got my call to ministry several years after my baptism.

Once I sensed that call, I decided I had better start learning about Methodism and the Bible. And it was this study that helped me name my experiences of grace. Before this, I had only some spiritual experiences that, without the language of Christianity, were nearly impossible to articulate. The Bible and Wesley helped me to understand what had happened to me and what was happening in me. And they gave me the framework of belief that helped me see that this day-to-day life is much more than just a weary grind for a few decades before our bones dry out and we pass into forgotten memory. We are called to be children of God. We are called to that now. We are called to it forever.

Is life more than a test? Yes. Of course. But there is a test. And, as a pastor, I grow more convinced that I do the people in my congregations real harm if I shade that reality or hide it from them. The truth is this. We will stand before God. There will be a final exam. The good news is this. Jesus has already shown us the test. We know the questions and the answers. No one has to fail, but many will.

All this talk is crazy to atheists and those who have grown so wise that they find Jesus’ words in need of updating. It used to be crazy talk to me. As a pastor, though, I dare not treat it that way when given the awesome responsibility of teaching and preaching the Word of God to the people who come to hear it. How can I claim to love them if I act as if our purpose in life is to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?

The divorced pastor

I’m a pastor, and I’m divorced.

As I’ve learned in the last year of separation and finally divorce, there are a lot of pastors who know what this feels like or are struggling to avoid joining the ranks of the divorced clergy. What there is not as much of is open talk about it. No one likes to talk about their marriage and family falling apart. Pastors, I’ve been learning, have to deal not only with the shame and pain that are common to everyone in such situations, but also a special kind of fear — fear that they will lose their vocation, fear that they will be seen as frauds, fear that they will lose the ability to preach or teach without being accused of hypocrisy. And so there is silence.

I’ve not learned all there is to learn about these things, and I’m not anywhere near perfect, but I wanted to share some of my perspective on this and perhaps a few words for my brothers and sisters in the clergy who have walked or are walking this road.

First, I want to say that I believe that God’s intention for marriage is that it last until death. In other words, I don’t think God intends us to divorce or desires that we divorce. This is the point of those words in Genesis 2 that are part of most Christian wedding services: the two become one flesh. But Genesis 3 happened and happens. We are fallen, sinful, and damaged creatures. When we get married, we do not plan on divorcing. God does wish for marriages to end in divorce. But we hurt and betray each other. Marriages fail, bonds break, and people divorce. We separate what God has brought together. Sometimes for the safety and health of one or both of the people in the marriage, divorce is necessary, but it is never a cause for celebration. It is a failure.

With that in mind, here are a few words for my brothers and sisters.

Jesus still loves you. I find as a pastor that I am no less prone to bad thinking than others. I fall easily into thinking that Jesus only loves me when I am living up to the right standard and carrying out my vocation with excellence. I confuse praise from people with the approval of God. And so, in the midst of a public and personal failure, it is easy to feel like we are beyond the pale. Jesus Christ came for the sick not the healthy. He loves you even when it your feel like you’ve betrayed him and failed. He loves you especially at those times.

It is okay to struggle to hold on. You made a vow to remain married until parted by death. You did not know when you made that vow what it would require. None of us do. It is okay that you want to hang on and hope for a way forward. You may have people around you encouraging you give up and get out. It is okay to look for those who help you and challenge you to hope and struggle for reconciliation.

It is sometimes necessary to let go. There may come a moment when you have to come face-to-face with a hard truth. Your marriage has failed beyond repair. It is dead. Legal fiction makes it appear to still live, the same way machines can keep a dead body alive in a hospital. The only thing keeping it breathing is the plug that no one has the courage to pull. Yes, with God all things are possible, but sometimes resurrection only comes after death. We want to hold on so hard to hope — and fear so much what will happen if we let go — that we become trapped in a never-ending limbo or deepening cycle of destruction. Unless a thing dies, new life cannot come. Grieve it. Mourn it. Let go what you cannot save.

Fear is normal. Divorce shatters us. It breaks apart our families. It makes us question our own judgment and choices. It strips away a central part of our very identity. It exposes our flaws and sins. And if we are clergy, it raises the possibility that we might lose our calling. When the pain and dysfunction and sin that has remained hidden in our family and in ourselves becomes known by others, there is always the chance someone will look at us and decide we do not meet the standards for pastoral ministry. The prospect that might end up with no spouse, no family, no calling, no job, and no place to live scares us. What you are feeling is normal.

You need someone to talk to. Find a therapist. Go. Keep going.

You need God. Spend time in prayer, with Scripture, and alone with God. There may be some yelling involved. There will be some crying. You’ll have to confess some things. You will discover how much you are willing to trust God’s promises.

This should change you. If you repair your marriage, it will be because you both have changed. If you divorce, you will be different. In either case, don’t go through this without learning and growing. God can use all things to bring about good. The good for you may be discovering some hard truths about yourself and growing from that knowledge.

There is grace even here. The most curious thing about my last year has been the number of people who have shared with me their stories of divorce. These are people who never would have talked to me about this topic before I was one going through this. I won’t lie. Those moments do not help much in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep and your heart feels like it has fed through a trash compactor. But God is with you, working to bring healing and life out of our sin and death. Be open and on the watch for signs of God’s grace.

I don’t pretend this is everything there is to say about divorce. I have much more to learn, and I pray God will give me the time I need to learn it all. But I hope some of these words are helpful to some. We have become travelling companions on a road none of us originally intended to walk. Perhaps we can help each along the way.

Encouraging cross bearing

I’ve been thinking about the necessity of cross bearing the last few days.

As I often do when pondering such things, I’ve been reading John Wesley. Here is his word on the topic from his sermon “Self-Denial.”

The denying ourselves and the taking up our cross, in the full extent of the expression, is not a thing of small concern: It is not expedient only, as are some of the circumstantials of religion; but it is absolutely, indispensably necessary, either to our becoming or continuing his disciples. It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him; we are not treading in his steps; but going back from, or at least wide of, Him.

I’ve been thinking about these words and thinking about being a pastor.

When someone comes to me as a pastor and shares a word about how hard it is to follow Jesus, to really follow, do I lose faith in the virtues of cross bearing? Often, I fear, I do. I am good at extending a word of consolation and solidarity. Yes, yes, that is difficult. I struggle with that, too.

But what I fail to say is that, yes, God is calling you and me to do this very thing we find so hard. It is in taking those steps that we discover that we have faith. God will give you grace to bear this burden. Trust him.

I fear my failure in this area is a sign of my own need for spiritual growth. I cannot encourage a practice that I avoid.

Will Willimon still causing me trouble

As I enter into the struggles of my people, I have considerably more to offer than myself. I have the witness of the saints, the faith of the church, the wisdom of the ages. A pastor must therefore be prejudiced toward the faith of the church.

— Will Willimon, Pastor

Will Willimon has caused me no end of problems as a United Methodist pastor. His writings were among the first I read when entering into the ministry, and statements like the one above have dug down deep like chiggers.

The problem created by statements like the one above lies hidden in that whole “faith of the church” bit at the end.

You see, when I was in the process of becoming a local pastor, I set out on a search for the faith of the United Methodist Church. I read my Book of Discipline. I read a whole bunch of John Wesley. I started writing on this blog and asking questions about what we as a church believe and teach.

And this is where I started running into trouble.

It turns out that the faith of the United Methodist Church is hard to nail down. In the early days of my blogging, when my readership was more diverse than it is now, I would post a quote from John Wesley and ask why we don’t seem to teach or preach this any more. I’d often get answers about how Wesley is not our Pope or how we can’t be tied down to his 18th century theology. This happened enough to make me realize that at least a portion of our clergy don’t view Wesley as particularly central to the faith of our church. This was disorienting for someone who took Willimon’s counsel to heart and believed that their must be thing called “the faith of the church.” After all, he was telling me to be prejudiced in favor of it. How could I be prejudiced toward something that does not exist?

I can point to our official documents, of course. But when asked what makes Methodism unique, I would have a hard time formulating a doctrinal answer that would reliably mark out the faith as actually preached across the connection. Even if we think in terms of centered sets rather than bounded sets, it is hard to define a center when looking at actual practice.

For many United Methodists this not a bug but a feature. It is not a problem, but one of the things that makes us great. For me and my desire to be, in Willimon’s words, a bearer of the church’s faith and not merely my own, it is a problem. How can you bear what you cannot identify?

What I have done is attempt to teach, preach, and bear a faith under the influence of our Articles and Confession with a heavy dose of Wesleyan free grace Arminianism. I hope this is faithful to my call and certification as a minister in the UMC. I hope that is faithful to my call and certification in the UMC.

Tools of the trade

Francis Asbury’s views on the material needs of itinerant clergy, quoted in John Wigger’s biography.

[T]he equipment of a Methodist minister consisted of a horse, saddle and bridle, one suit of clothes, a watch, a pocket Bible, and a hymn book. Anything else would be an encumbrance.

Is that job already taken?

What is the better metaphor for the role of elders in the United Methodist Church: Watchman/woman or Shepherd?

John Wesley most often made reference to the way Ezekiel speaks about watchmen. He spoke often of being clear of the blood of those who did not listen to his preaching. He had Ezekiel 3 and/or Ezekiel 33 in mind.

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezekiel 3:17-19, NIV)

But Ezekiel also speaks of shepherds.

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.” (Ezekiel 34:2-6, NIV)

Yes, I know these are not the only two metaphors for the work of an elder, but today this is where I am looking.

On the one hand, I am drawn toward the metaphor of the shepherd because it plays toward my gentle and nurturing side. But, of course, in Ezekiel 34, God seems pretty set on assuming the title and role of shepherd for himself.

Could it be that it is God’s task to gather up the lost, bind up their wounds, and provide them with food?

Could it be that the task of the elder is more to be a watcher on the wall than to be a shepherd in the field, to study and speak the word of the Lord? Is that perhaps what Paul is saying to Timothy?

These are honest questions. And I know the answer is probably more both/and than either/or, but I do wonder if we run the risk of usurping the role of Jesus when we see ourselves primarily as shepherds.