Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why I Include Anyone and Everyone in Spiritual Life Activities

In this blog post, I want to address the reasoning behind why I include people of all faiths or even no faith at all in every Spiritual Life activity we have at Union College.  The main reason is that The United Methodist Church values both Christian spiritual formation and interfaith engagement.  In every report I send to the college trustees or to the denomination about our campus ministries, I report on both of these areas.  When Union is evaluated by The United Methodist Church, to determine whether we are working according to the standards of the denomination, I am asked by a denominational representative, “What are you doing to make sure the spiritual needs of people of other religions are being met.”

Some religious groups might separate the two, Christian spiritual formation and interfaith engagement, but, because of the teachings of The United Methodist Church, I don’t make much of a distinction.  The United Methodist Church does not teach the binary opposition of saved/unsaved that some other churches make.  Certainly some individual persons and some individual churches within The United Methodist Church do so, but our common theology does not.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught that the “scripture way of salvation” is a process, and, while there are landmarks to be observed along that process, there is no point before which one can definitively say that one is “unsaved” and after which one is “saved.”  For the Methodist all three statements are equally true: I have been saved.  I am being saved.  I will be saved.  A Methodist understanding of salvation, in the words of Wesley, has as its goal that we would be “saved to the uttermost” (and I’ll explain what that means).

This process of salvation is a journey along a path and not simply a destination.  The landmarks along this path are:

+ prevenient grace—God prepares us to say “yes” to God.
+ justifying grace—God declares us to be just or right with God.
+ sanctifying grace—God makes us holy, actually just and righteous people.
+ glorifying grace—at death, God removes all aspects of our lives that were not wholly just and righteous.

In this view, salvation is not simply a ticket into heaven or an escape from hell, but it is a process by which we are perfected in love.  That is what being saved to the uttermost means.  Wesley goes so far as to say that we can become as holy, just, righteous, and loving as Jesus was.  This is the goal.  When I was ordained, I was asked, “Are you going on to perfection?  Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?”  These are questions Wesley asked all his preachers.

The word “perfection” meant something a bit different in those days than it does now.  Now we think of something perfect and we picture something as if there is nothing in it that could be made better.  In Wesley’s day it meant something more like “fully mature” or “complete.”  So when I say that I expect to be made perfect in love or that you can expect to be made perfect in love in this life, I do not mean that we won’t make mistakes or won’t do the wrong thing on occasion.  I mean that our lives will become completely oriented around love.  I certainly don’t claim to be there yet, but that is the goal.

Wesley sometimes used a house as an analogy for this “order of salvation.”  Imagine the porch of prevenient grace, where anyone can sit around in rocking chairs getting to know each other.  There are no requirements of any kind to sit at this porch.  We can’t reject prevenient grace, and we can’t accept it.  It’s just given to us freely.  Everyone receives this kind of grace from God.  This porch is the place where we meet to decide whether to walk through the door into the house.  The porch is where we learn what walking through the door would mean.  On the other side of the door is a life of becoming perfected in love.  That is God’s desire for everyone, that we would actualize the potential for love that God has breathed into our soul.   What do you have to do in order to enter this kind of life, one in which we are being perfected in love?  Bishop Reuben Job updates the language of Wesley’s rules for the first Methodists:

+ Do no harm.
+ Do good.
+ Stay in love with God.

This is the “scripture way of salvation.”

The door is Jesus’ teachings about love, Jesus’ practices of love, and Jesus’ life of love.  Walking through the door would be my way of saying “yes” to God’s desire that I become perfected in love and would be my way of making a commitment to do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.  This is justifying grace.  There is a condition to this grace.  I can reject or accept it.  It is my choice whether I walk through the door, but I can’t exercise that choice without God having given it to me in the first place.

Being saved to the uttermost means cooperating with God’s sanctifying grace, whereby we are made holy, just, and righteous.  And this happens by becoming more and more loving.

This is the question I pose to any and all who would walk this path with me.  Do you want at the center of your life the way of love that Jesus taught, practiced, and lived?  Imagine me sitting on the porch, asking a student or a faculty member that very question.  Imagine them saying “yes.”  Imagine us opening the door only to find a wall with a sign that says:

+ Progressives only
+Mainliners only
+Traditional Christians only
+Evangelicals only
+Orthodox only
+Straights only
+Creationists only
+Christians only

The Book of Ephesians has a name for that wall—“the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14).  This passage uses temple language, and the interpretation of the passage that makes the most sense to me is that the dividing wall of hostility is the wall that kept Gentiles out of the temple proper.  They could come in so far, into the Court of Gentiles, but no further.  Some of the Christians at Ephesus were trying to make everyone who came to Jesus first convert to Judaism.  The author of Ephesians says there is no place for such a division, for such a dividing wall of hostility.  There is no difference between Jews and Gentiles.  Christ has torn down the dividing wall of hostility, allowing any and all to enter into the presence of God.

If, as The United Methodist Church teaches, the goal of salvation is to save us to the uttermost, to perfect us in love, anything that gets in the way of that is a dividing wall of hostility.  So I say, “Down with the walls.”

Imagine me sitting on the porch of prevenient grace with a Buddhist student.  (This is entirely hypothetical.  I have had no such conversation with a Buddhist student.  But imagine it.)  I describe the life that is centered on the way of love that Jesus taught, practiced, and lived.  This person says, “This reminds me a lot of what is said in the Urdana-Varga: ‘Do not treat others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.’  I might be interested in walking with you along the path you describe.”  Should this person reject their Buddhism and become a Christian?  Maybe.  That’s certainly a possibility, if that’s what the person, after much discernment, decided to do.  But that’s certainly not why I’m on the porch talking about Jesus’ way of love.

There are Christians who are as far away from being saved to the uttermost as it is possible to be.  Wesley said that a Christian who started along the path but who was not nurtured toward love often became more “a child of the devil” than when they’d begun.  On the other hand, there are others, who may not identify themselves as “Christians” for one reason or another, whose lives are filled with justice, righteousness, and, most importantly, love.  It seems to me that those persons, regardless of whether they are Christians or not, are being saved to the uttermost.  I would be honored to walk the way of love with a Buddhist or any other human being on the planet, without regard to their culturally identified religion.  Any dividing wall of hostility that would keep these people out?  I’m going to do everything I can to tear down that wall!

Does that mean I think all religions are the same?  No, some expressions of religion are driven by purity, which in their most radical forms, turn into hate. Other expressions are centered on love. Which religion(s) does God prefer, I wonder? I think God prefers those expressions of religion that convert people to love.

God doesn't care whether you're Methodist or Muslim, Adventist or Atheist, Jehovah's Witness or Jewish, Baptist or Buddhist, Holiness or Hindu, Presbyterian or Pagan. If your religion turns you into a hateful person, it's the wrong religion for you. On the other hand, if your religion turns you into a loving person, you are born of God (1 John 4:7), regardless of what your religion might be or might not be.

So here we are, you and I, sitting metaphorically on that porch of prevenient grace.  Wesley once said, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.”  My heart is set on walking the way of love that Jesus taught, practiced, and lived.  My heart is to be made perfect in love and to shepherd others along this path.  Is your heart as my heart?  If it is, I invite you to walk through the door with me, to help me become perfected in love as I help you to do the same, to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God.  I invite you to share your spiritual treasures with me, as I share my spiritual treasures with you.  No matter who you are, I invite you to walk with the Union community as we move closer to love.


Thomas Bolton said...

Tear down the walls! Thanks for this thoughtful blog. I really appreciate your thoughts here.

David Miller said...

Thanks for the encouragement!

D Napier said...

Encouraging words, Rev. Thank you.

David Miller said...

Thanks, Deborah. I appreciate that.

Chris Whitehead said...

Well done David.

QMommaD said...

THANK YOU, purposely in caps!