Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Divine Reconciliation of what is Humanly Irreconcilable

Reading the latest tract from The Confessing Movement (of the United Methodist Church), I was struck with a thought I suppose has been in the back of my mind (and heart) for a very long time. 

I am in agreement with the Confessing Movement which upholds orthodox, traditional Christianity in the Wesleyan tradition and defends the Covenant of the United Methodist Church, that Covenant defined in our Book of Discipline.  I am a traditionalist at heart because there is “root” in tradition – certainly root in the “Vine from which the branches grow” (John 15:1-8) and mutual accountability.    

Yet there is a component of the Reconciling Ministries (of the United Methodist Church) which also speaks a fundamental truth.  Our Story is entirely about reconciliation.  In fact, our Catholic brethren have modified the name (and the spirit!) of the Holy Sacrament of what was once called the Sacrament of Penance but is now more appropriately referred to as the Sacrament of Reconciliation

In this sacred moment of honest introspection of our lives measured against Divine Law and our plea for mercy, the confessing soul is fully reconciled to The Lord in His mercy because The Lord assures forgiveness of the truly – and fully - penitent heart.  The Sacrament is not about taking our licks, although that comes with our complete honesty, for “If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged” (1 Corinthians 11:31).  Rather, the Sacrament is entirely about our having been reconciled to The Lord by our prayers, our earnest confession, and our resolve to repent completely from our old life and choose instead His Path and the Life we are called into.

This is entirely the business, ministry, and vocation of the Holy Church; not only making disciples of Christ (Matthew 28:19) but reaching out to those who have fallen away from the Church and restoring them to full relationship with Christ.  We are – or should be – a people of reconciliation, having once been reconciled to Him ourselves.

Something got missed over time.  We seem to have become more concerned with reconciling (or resigning) ourselves to a New Age god or gods molded entirely in our own image or in the image of our most base desires.  We have stopped talking about and calling others to the hard work of discipleship which involves self-sacrifice, choosing instead the much easier path to “personal salvation” that gives much but asks little.  Discipleship, on the other hand, is purpose-filled, deliberate, and not without personal effort, community support, and accountability, all with the desire and intention of becoming more and more like Christ Himself.  Discipline is that order through the means of grace (Bible study, prayer, fasting, worship, accountability in fellowship, etc.) in “going on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1-3).

It is unfortunate that there seem to be only two real issues that divide the Confessing Movement and the Reconciling Ministries (and, ultimately, the whole Church): abortion and human sexuality.  Ultimately these two issues are inextricably linked, but the Protestant Church (in the most general sense) has, over time, created a very fragmented and confusing narrative.  It is little wonder many feel the Church has nothing of substance to offer.

On a fundamental level, one cannot advocate for artificial birth control as a social responsibility and condemn abortion or even inappropriate human sexual expression - be it fornication, adultery, or homosexuality – and for this reason: birth control, especially when advocated by the Church, gives the false impression that sex is only for its own sake and for the pleasure of its participants.  Pope Paul VI, in his 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae”, which addressed artificial birth control, prophesied that such would be the fate of our society if we were to lose reverent respect for the very act which is capable of and designed for regenerating life – that is, procreation rather than recreation.  If we lose respect for the act, the Pope said, we will ultimately lose respect for the actors.  It would seem we are there.

We cannot deny the objectification and exploitation of the human body.  In this age of open sexuality, the objectification seems even more pronounced.  Young girls have been given over to the notion of “sex appeal” (think “Toddlers and Tiaras”) with not only their parents’ permission but often with our culture’s blessing.  When it comes to pass that a “right” to sexual expression which demands personal pleasure but rejects personal responsibility, we are forced to deal with serious emotional issues young people are not equipped to deal with, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies, and sex for the sheer lust of it – all at great and immeasurable personal, social, and spiritual cost. 

That is our mindset as a people, as a nation, even as a Church.  What else is there?  There is no real sense of community, no concept that we as a whole can be no higher than the lowest and no stronger than the most vulnerable among us.  We demand individual rights, but we deny (or decline) personal or communal responsibility.  And because sex only for its own sake seems to have become our focal point, sex as dating, sex as strictly fun and only for pleasure, sex as the very measure of the value of human relationships, sex as “making love”, what barriers are even possible?  Do we not know it is possible to “make love” fully clothed?

The reconciliation component of the Christian message is that our lives must not be defined by our “reed blowing in the wind” culture which shifts with each passing fad, yet we must also not water down or eliminate altogether the reality of our need to guard ourselves from “casting our pearls before swine” in thinking we are doing good when in reality we are advocating a very slow and painful death.  As it is written, “Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right, but in the end it is the way of death” (Proverbs 16:25).  Our God actually insists His people not be like everyone else – not so we can boast of our awesomeness or decide for ourselves who is in or out, but so we may serve as living witnesses to something better.

The confessing component of the Christian message is that of first proclaiming The Lord as Head of the Church, the Only One who has made the Rules and “does not change” (Malachi 3:6); this same God and Lord who “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).  It is this confession by which we give ourselves over entirely to The Lord and His Church for the purpose of building up the faith community.  It begins with that earnest confession lifted up by Moses and affirmed by Jesus: “You shall love The Lord your God with all you have and with all you are”.  It is that confession by which we are reconciled to our God and to His Covenant of Life through the Church.

The Church, by its very nature, simply cannot be relevant to the dominant human culture - at least, not on the culture’s terms – for “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4).  The Church must first find its way back to faithfulness to The Lord.  Then the Church must learn – or relearn – what “love” really means.  We share the quips and quotes (but seem to lack the resolve) that love has nothing to do with how we subjectively feel in any given moment but is more appropriately and adequately expressed in what we are willing to do for others or refrain from doing to others for a much higher goal to attain apart from temporal, personal satisfaction. 

I sincerely hope the United Methodist Church and the Church universal can find a way forward; but if we compromise the essential elements of faithfulness and subjectively redefine sin and community life to accommodate the modern culture and its fickle, ever-shifting demands and passing fads, our way forward may be “the way that leads to death”.  There are no “good ol’ days” in the glory of the Church’s past, for I believe the carelessness of our feeble and incremental cultural accommodations have led us to this crossroads.  From here, we have a choice to make.  I pray we are granted the wisdom to choose well and faithfully – as confessors and as reconcilers to the Word of The Lord.  It is there where we will find the mercy we all seek.

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