A church of unity and contradictions

April 23rd, 2018

One morning in Portland, after yet another day at General Conference had begun with God-focused, holy, jubilant worship in which we had once again lied, singing that we were one in Christ and so very full of faith, I typed up a blog I titled “The Noise of Worship,” explaining why I wish we just wouldn’t do morning worship. The service ends, and the bickering commences. I cited Amos 5:21 (“I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs”) and Isaiah 29:13 (“These people draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me”).

I also wish we would forgo the prayers. At the called General Conference next year, inevitably, right before the big vote, the presiding bishop will ask us to bow our heads. Divided as we may be, in this moment the vast majority will pray the very same prayer: “Lord, please let our side win!” or “Move, Holy Spirit, on those guys.” So much noise in God’s ears, especially if anyone adds “in Jesus’ name,” since when Jesus prayed he did not ask for victory but courageously embraced utter and catastrophic defeat. Stop the prayers. God wishes we’d lift our chins, open our eyes and be a very different church.

Jesus prayed for our unity, and now his intercession for us is that we would learn to pray very differently — not for other people to lose, and certainly not that others realize the grotesque sinfulness of their ways. We United Methodists suffer from an embarrassing lack of humility, so cocksure are we that we are right and they are wrong. We forget how prayer isn’t “marching as to war,” but a plea for mercy and the humble realization of what we don’t yet grasp.

A woman in my congregation battles intense depression. She reports to me she just can’t say the sunny affirmations we make in worship. A man in my congregation grilled me pretty hard when I preached a series on the Creed, informing me of what he didn’t believe or get and why. Worship is always like that, even for the most spiritual, for the best schooled in theology. Worship is aspirational. We are growing into belief; we reach toward a God and holy realities we’ve not yet grasped. Churchgoers ask, “I’m not sure I believe; is there room here for me?” The holiest and wisest among us think and live in ways that contradict the Gospel. We say amen to much that we barely comprehend “through a glass darkly,” and to even more that we have not lived into fully and never will.

Amen. That’s a word I wish we wouldn’t use. Wouldn’t God prefer au revoir, see you later, or Shalom? We have perverted Amen into something triumphalist. As a boy I admired my grandfather for chiming in with an Amen during the preacher’s sermon. But then a few years ago I had a guy in my generally non-Amen-ing church family who would holler one out now and then. His tone and timing were intriguing. If I adamantly declared Jesus is risen! or Our media culture is obsessed with the tawdry! he would insert Amen! with stirring conviction. But if I spoke of the ways we have failed to care for the poor, or the way our piety can be a charade, or why our country maybe shouldn’t be at war so much, he was silent. I longed for the day I might hear a sorrowful, repentant, sighing Amen from him.

Don’t we use amen in a triumphalist, even gnostic way? It seems to mean “I agree with you! Isn’t it fun to be right! — and all together!” That’s the big sea change in worship in my lifetime: when I was young, if someone wanted to pay me the highest possible compliment, she would say You stepped on my toes. Nowadays, if someone wants to laud my preaching, he’ll say I agree with you. But we aren’t Gnostics — or we aren’t supposed to be. Didn’t we figure that out in the second century — that Christians aren’t the know-it-alls, that we aren’t a club of insiders who fully apprehend all truth?

I tell newcomers to our church that it isn’t in the DNA of United Methodists to get up in the morning and think We’re right and the others are wrong. We are a messy, broken people. We aren’t dogmatic by nature. Passionate yes, methodical indeed. But absolutely right? I’m not, and you aren’t either. I love Doug Marlette’s old cartoon lampooning the denomination then in the news arguing over who was right: the snake holds out the apple, but Adam and Eve primly reply “No thanks, we’re Presbyterians.”

We’re United Methodists. We are one with Adam and Eve; we’re apple-eaters. We are those who confess, not primarily our theological brilliance, but our sinfulness. Ours. We are lamenters. Walter Brueggemann pondered “the costly loss of lament” in the churches, reminding us that the Psalms show us a God who welcomes hard questions and even harsh criticism, simultaneously inviting us to question ourselves, and to give voice to sorrow. Brueggemann suggests that if we only praise, if we only shout our amens, we silence the ache in the world, in our churches and in ourselves.

We’re united, even if we grieve God’s heart and split one day. What unites us is not that we’ve got it all figured out and can raise a tumultuous amen with a single voice. Rather, with a sorrowful, humble whisper we sigh our amen, our “so be it,” which is aspirational and humble.

You might detect here what I believe: that if we are humble lamenters, then we will wind up with a church with differences, even contradictions. That’s correct. It’s always been this way, and always will be. Unity isn’t the progressive’s unity or the conservative’s unity. It’s God’s, and our sharing in that unity is the confession that we are indeed flawed, broken people, riddled with contradictions and unholiness. We’re grace people. We should not merely tolerate but actually expect and embrace those times we see others in the Body lunging toward God in ways that puzzle us. God’s more puzzled than we are. And God is more merciful than we are.

Our worship, after all, isn’t about us and what we do or don’t do. Worship is about God. We have to get the essentials fleshed out as best we are able. God is. Jesus was and is God with us. The Spirit moves. We are the needy beggars literally pummeled with the grace, not despite our stupidity and vapidity and messiness, but precisely because of it all. 

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