These are the marks of the Blessed Community, modeled on the Beatitudes. In essence, this is a kind of values statement for which I hold myself accountable, as well as my local church, my Annual Conference, and indeed, the entire United Methodist Church:
1) To be poor in spirit, meaning that we never presume that we know more than we know, love more than we love, or hope more than we hope (Matthew 5:3). Paul said, “Don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought.” Humility in heart and mind is the central characteristic of the believer.
I will help the United Methodist Church become more humble. We are not the only true church; we don’t hold the one, true, orthodox doctrine. We are not the only followers of Christ who do good works. We have a role to play in the global body of Christ, but we are merely one part. We need the contributions of other faith communities to become fully the church we need to become, just as much as they need our own contribution.
2) To know how to mourn (Matthew 5:4). Only the disciple of Jesus knows how to truly grieve. For one, our master was torn from us prematurely and tragically. The life of discipleship begins in grief – the grief of crucifixion, self-denial, and self-emptying. As we discover the presence of Christ in the midst of this trauma, we become “wounded healers” for others who grieve and mourn.
I will ask the United Methodist Church to mourn. We have particular things to mourn for – and I’m not referring to our membership loss. We have more repentance and grief work to do in the area of racial reconciliation, for example. We have not yet done adequate grief work regarding African-Americans, Hispanics, or Native Americans. We need to mourn our treatment of gays and lesbians. The entire church could stand to set aside a period of time to cry over the injustice and brokenness of the institution. The tears by themselves would be healing.
3) To be (Matthew 5:5). Meekness is humility learning to keep its mouth shut. Meekness is deliberately choosing to sit in the back of the class, or at the worst place at the dinner table, or in the balcony at the big show. Meekness is refusing to be called “Rabbi,” “Master,” “Doctor,” “Reverend,” or “Reverend Doctor.” Can you imagine what the reaction would be if the prestigious titles came off the doors of our offices? Could we handle it?
I will ask the United Methodist Church to learn meekness with me. One way in which we could immediately learn this virtue is to cut off our advertising and marketing campaign. Oh, it’s not that I didn’t like it. It looked rather good on TV and sounded great on radio. But every time I saw and heard it, it made me swell with pride. And that’s the sign that meekness has left the building.
Sound impossible? It might be. We’re just not oriented that way anymore. We actually believe that there is a positive value to “advertising.” We have become persuaded that we have to compete in the marketplace of ideas, that we must package and propagandize and wrap up our product, that we must play the game along with everyone else. But what if the game itself is corrupt?
4) To hunger and thirst for righteousness, and nothing else (Matthew 5:6). I realize that I have an appetite for mostly other things. Things like status, promotions, success in the pulpit, accolades, recognition, salary increases, honors, and shout-outs from the bishop. Even when I think I am at my holiest, I can sense a tiny flutter of longing to “get what I deserve.” I can’t help myself – I feel an eensy-teensy bit proud of myself when I am able to report an increased number on a year-end form. I get excited about a rise in attendance. And when the giving goes up, yowza, baby!
I’m starting to rely on the practice of fasting to put me in place. I have recently started the practice of fasting from Thursday evening until Friday afternoon. It’s taught me to evaluate my appetite, and to consider closely my priorities. When I deprive myself of food, I find myself asking, “What do I really crave? What are my deepest desires, and are they in alignment with God’s desires?”
But it’s not really about food. I’m learning that I really need to fast from the things that get in the way of a clear focus on righteousness, which I understand as another word for “justice” or “holiness.”
I will help the United Methodist Church learn how to fast. I will teach and preach about the practice, and ask the leaders of the UMC to do the same. I will encourage people to learn how to fast, not only from food, but from the things that lead us away from justice and holiness, down the road of complacency and prosperity.
5) To choose mercy over judgment (Matthew 5:7). As a child, I learned that the fierce judgment and wrath of God trumped everything else. John Wesley was one of those who taught me a different understanding of God – God as a merciful, loving Parent who constantly pursues us with the purpose of letting us know the true value of life and love.
I get it now, but I have learned that I have internalized some of those childhood feelings about God and am quick to turn judgmental on others, when I see them acting in ways I don’t believe are right. I have become judgmental myself. And I need to stop.
I choose to follow the example of Jesus, who time and time again, decides to show mercy to people rather than a word of judgment, like that adulterous woman who is thrown at his feet, or the tax agent who is sitting in a tree, or the dimwitted disciples.
I will ask the United Methodist Church to favor mercy over judgment in every aspect of its ecclesiology. I don’t know too many United Methodists who would admit to being theologically or doctrinally judgmental, but our practice is another story. Just to cite a single example, our Book of Discipline judges gays and lesbians as persons who are fundamentally and essentially “incompatible” with the gospel.
6) To be pure in heart (Matthew 5:8). As Soren Kirkegaard famously put it, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Times like ours demand dark, pessimistic, but profoundly Christian, philosophers like Kirkegaard. He saw through the dense, pompous and hypocritical religion of his day, and chose to be pure of heart. By that, he meant to clear one’s will of competing interests, and to choose only the will of God. When we become pure of heart, we will also favor only God’s will, which is nothing but the coming of God’s kingdom upon the earth.
I will demand the United Methodist Church to become pure in heart. In the Call to Action report, the Steering Team decided that it had discerned our biggest problem as a “creeping crisis of relevance.” They bemoaned the fact that our church was no longer relevant to the society at large. This is not true, of course – the church of Jesus Christ can never be irrelevant to the world. By virtue of its existence, the church is relevant.
What the Steering Team meant is that our church no longer commands the respect, the honor, the authority that it once did. All of the answers in the report deal with recovering these things.
This misses the point, of course. The real problem with that we have a crisis of purity. We do not really want the will of God to be done on earth. We do not will God’s will. We allow multiple interests – all of them good in their own way – to compete for primacy in our work. We will many things, not one.
7) To make peace (Matthew 5:9). I have long believed that I must speak out against every military engagement that my country chooses to undertake; twice, I have walked in marches and rallies to protest impending American military invasions of Iraq. But the work of peacemaking is not only a “protest work.”
I recognize that my lifestyle, in the sense that it resembles the lifestyle of most other Americans, contributes to the conflict that engulfs our world. I consume too much, contribute to global warming and the destruction of the environment, and participate in a system of injustice that perpetuates permanent war.
I am going to have to change my way of life in order to be the kind of peacemaker that Jesus wants me to be.
I will work to make the United Methodist Church a true peace church. Our Book of Discipline is seriously conflicted about war – we say that war is “incompatible” with Christian discipleship, but we firmly support those young people who choose to join the military. John Wesley was no pacifist himself, but if we take his idea of “going on to perfection,” seriously, then going to war cannot be an option for the sanctified disciple.
There is no reason why our church shouldn’t stand with the Quakers, Mennonites, and other Anabaptist churches in making a firm commitment against war and for peace for the sake of Christian discipleship.
8 ) To be persecuted (Matthew 5:10-11). No, I don’t want to be persecuted. But I am willing to be persecuted, if that is the result of acting like the true church of Jesus Christ. Christians throughout the centuries have been persecuted, mostly because they have decided to do the right thing, rather than the wrong thing. They have stood for justice and truth, for love and honesty. Those kinds of virtues will get you stoned, beaten, spat upon, lied against, humiliated, and crucified.
I will invite the United Methodist Church to be persecuted with me. The truth is that there are plenty of UM’s who have been persecuted, but they mostly live in other countries – Vietnam and Russia, just to name two. Perhaps we should learn from them what it means to be persecuted, and why it is a virtue worth living out.
The problem is that a document like the Call to Action report assumes that persecution is not an option. Rather, we are told that we must become lovable, popular, and “vital,” which apparently means “crucial to the interests of the Powers That Be.”
I don’t know about becoming lovable – I think the church should love. And I don’t think the church will always be popular, though when we stand on behalf of the world’s oppressed we might find some backing! Least of all will we find ourselves being “vital” – rather, we ought to find ourselves constantly running afoul of the Powers That Be