The UMC & The Which Way Tree

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photo by Victor Zambrano via Unsplash

Preacher Dob, the Mexican horse thief, and two young teens were at a standstill.  They had lost the trail of the panther they were hunting, the one who had killed the girl’s mother and on whom she had sworn vengeance.  Zechariah, their panther dog, had gotten the worse of an encounter with a skunk, and was unlikely to pick up the scent again, smelling like he did.  Preacher Dob and the boy were ready to head back.  Mr. Pacheco, a good man despite the horse incident, and the girl wanted to push on down the canyon.

“We are at cross purposes here,” the preacher said.  “We have consulted the wishes of all, and fallen to disagreement, and found ourselves at an impasse.  There is but one amongst us who has not yet been called on nor heard from, and that is the Lord.  We would do well to call upon him.” (180)

I’ve got a full review of Elizabeth Crook’s great new novel of 1860s Texas, The Which Way Tree, coming soon, but this passage in particular struck me as a United Methodist who often feels that our denomination is stuck in a blind canyon at an impasse uncertain about what to do next.  As we hear about competing plans for unity and corresponding plans for exit, the elusive way forward on questions of human sexuality is contested and unclear.  We, too, have stopped to pray, including a new Phase III of the Praying Our Way Forward beginning June 3 in which the bishops have asked United Methodists to do a Wesley fast from Thursday night to Friday afternoon each week.

umc_prays_logo_final-690x380In his prayer, Preacher Dob, sets the question before the Lord completely, acknowledging the reasons each party believes as they do.  He also expresses his anxieties and fears and his ultimate trust in God.  In effect, it’s the method of our Commission on a Way Forward, which has done enduring work in helping us hear one another completely.  It’s a fine prayer, but Sam, the determined girl, thinks he says too much.  “You did not say it fair,” she says.  “Fair is to say Lord, let us know if we is to go on, or turn back.  Amen.” (181)

Sam, like many of us, just wants to know the bottom line.  So Preacher Dob amends his prayer.  “Lord, do show us the way,” he says.

Something happens in the night.  The lingering prayer, the campfire burning down to embers, the cold wind blowing through—they all have their effect.  Benjamin, Sam’s half-brother, thinks about going back home to a house where he and his sister have been trying to make it without parents:

“I felt the presence of winter coming, and possibly rain on the way, and a certain dread in my bones with the thought of long nights before me stoking the fire of our broken-down house, and watching the door, and listening to every snap of a twig beyond it, and wondering if the panther might be watching and waiting from the far side….it was a place I had already been in my life, and knew well, and I was not sure it was any more safe than where the canyon might take us.” (181-2)

I feel the same about the thought of going back to a UMC in which we are still “dealing with the panther at the door,” by which I mean not only the questions of human sexuality but the concept of a church that has lost its focus and its mission.  I dream, as our District Mission Plan says, of a place “where clergy, congregations, and communities are freed for edge-walking action on behalf of the gospel of Jesus.”  

Some will say we can’t do that unless “our side” prevails on the questions before us.  But I venture the radical notion that this may be a case where the substance matters less than the act of releasing the UMC to God’s future.  A UMC that goes “where the canyon might take us” will be transformed.

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photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

This does not absolve us of the hard work we should do to prepare for next February’s called General Conference where votes will be taken and decisions made.  I have no doubt there will be losses.  But those of us who have been formed by this expression of Christ’s church will retain the sensibilities and the gifts that the UMC has given us.  And we will have companions in those who have been on the journey with us.  When we wake up the day after General Conference, there will still be a story of God’s grace ahead of us.

How does the story end?  I’ll let you read the book to find that out.  But I will tell you that when the group awoke the next morning they made a startling discovery.  Mr. Pacheco discovered, in a half-eaten porcupine and a fresh pad track, that the panther had been watching them all night from a towering tree.

“The Lord has now spoke,” Preacher Dob said.  “He has told us to complete the journey.  He has reminded me that journeys will not often be of my choosing.  We stand in a crossways place, and he gave us a Which Way tree…He has shown us the way we are to go, and it is onward.” (183)

Lord, I pray for a Which Way tree.

Praying with Fire: A Review of Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon

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photo by Aaron Thomas via Unsplash

“Dear God: Can you forgive someone for an act they cannot repent of?” (26)  So goes Maggie’s prayer journal in the aftermath of an affair in Jamie Quatro’s new novel, Fire Sermon.  Maggie has committed to move on.  Has cut off communication with the poet she spent one night with in Chicago.  In one light, she sees the ways the relationship has led her away from God, her husband, her children.  But she’s captivated by what it has meant and isn’t ready to let go of it.

That’s the interesting thing about sin: Major disrupting force in the universe.  The thing God says ‘no’ to.  The chasm that separates us from God and the wholeness God intends.  The power which estranges us from our essential self and enslaves us.  And yet what an illuminating light it shines!  “I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you,” Richard Rohr says in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

41k+KOofr-L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Of course, some will say that Maggie is luxuriating in it.  She soon leaves off talking to God and begins to write to James, the lost lover, in entries she never sends to him.  She converses with a voice that sounds like a therapist (but who actually may be God) who tries to help her put the experience in a larger frame but she resists any effort to diminish the memory of the affair.

She narrates the difficult relationship with Thomas, her husband of twenty-five years and father of her two beautiful children.  “Thomas is, in fact, a good husband,” she says. (20)  But her ambivalence shows through in describing his awkward and demanding sexual approaches to her, both before and during their marriage.  He has only a grudging interest in her faith, despite the fact that her life with God is the fire that burns through everything.  He will sit in the pew with her on occasion.  He will nurture her and the children.  But she will still long for theology and poetry and someone with whom to share it.

Whether you, dear reader, will see this longing as holy discontent or ludicrous self-justification is an open question.  I suspect readers will be divided.  My own appreciation for the yearnings of mystics and the revelatory power of misguided desires made me a fan from the first page.  Julian of Norwich is etched into Maggie’s plight (and quoted).  The English priest and poet John Donne haunts Maggie’s confessions: “Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun/A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?”

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Jamie Quatro

Maggie takes a scandalous interest in her own pleasures and pains.  She is raw and honest, naked on the page.  The book’s narration fragments in time without ever losing sight of the struggle of her soul.  We bounce between prayers and poems, memories and text messages—the scattered evidence of this signal season in Maggie’s life.

It ends with Maggie’s ultimate revelation of the affair to Thomas, something she had never hidden very well from him anyway it seems.  The narrative rattles off the possible futures for the couple, but not before Maggie rouses herself to a summation—a “fire sermon” that she calls “a litany, a confession, a proposal.” (184)

She does it on a dare from the inner therapist voice to articulate her thoughts, to preach them to herself.  “It would sound like blasphemy,” Maggie protests.

I would say possibly heretical things about the nature of erotic desire.  I might not believe the things I say.  I would say them anyhow.  To see what I say, in order to know what I think, in order to observe.  Maybe even detach.

So say them.

I’m afraid I’ll leave a giant ink stain on the history of Christendom if I do.

How do you know unless you try? (183)

So she says them.  And you might roll your eyes.  You might call her a heretic.  But you may hear a strange and wonderful affirmation of the marriage covenant and the virtue of acknowledging and renouncing the ways our hearts are “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it!” You may find “intimations of immortality…reminders of the glory whence we came.” (190-1)

If it’s the affirmation you hear, you read the book that I did—a glowing furnace of a novel.  The testimony of an ecstatic soul.  The cry of the blissful, tortured pilgrim this side of eternity.  An appeal to God to “let me burn.” (191)

Spelunking: The Journey of Prayer

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photo by Felix Russell-Saw via Unsplash

In here

is a cavern

vast and brilliant

Where old songs echo off ancient walls

and fresh water drips down to do its

long work of creation.

In here

the illusion of sterility can confound you

as if no life stirs,

no light illumines,

no generative communion draws

souls to one.

But in here

vistas open regularly

wild creatures rut and roar

the cave becomes a canvas

for a righteous riot of possibility.

‘In here’

eludes our best technology.

There is no cell reception in the depths.

And so we sit in silence

waiting for the Other’s face to compose

and hunger gloriously in the gathering glow of Her.

–Alex Joyner

Shhh!  Do You Taste This in Prayer?

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photo by Tessa Rampersand via Unsplash

I understand the desire to lift up our neighbors in their difficulties in prayer.  In fact, it’s what we’re told to do.  Paul tells the Philippian church to do just this at the close of his letter: ”Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (4:6)

Lately, though, I have come to feel that we do far too much talking in our prayers.  Our sharing of concerns in corporate worship sometimes feels like the old community news column in the paper where the comings and goings of neighbors were reported in great detail.  So much medical information is shared sometimes that the prayers of the people become one long HIPAA violation!  [The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects medical privacy, is very familiar to health care professionals.]

So much medical information is shared sometimes that the prayers of the people become one long HIPAA violation!

But it’s really not the content so much as the way we pray…the way I’ve prayed as a worship leader…that is getting my attention.

The 4th century desert mystic, Evagrios of Pontos, called prayer “the ongoing conversation of the human spirit with its God.”  No conversation worthy of its name contains so much one-sided talk as the kind of prayers we send up, both in public and private settings.  If we believe prayer is the kind of encounter that can change us, then there must be space for experiencing the silence that is God’s medium.

51m8Rds-bhL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_We’re uncomfortable with such disengagement.  How long do our silences last these days before we reach for our phones or some other form of distraction?  Evagrios, even out in the Palestinian desert, knew a similar struggle.  “The devils will surely suggest distracting matters, desiring that your mind will search them, and suspecting failure in prayer you will know chagrin, and lose confidence,” he said.

But silence is worth the risk.  Sure, I have run down my to-do list in the silence that was supposed to be prayer.  But God has also spoken powerfully through that silence.

“Practice genuine patience, and your prayer will always taste of joy,” Evagrios says (as translated by the great poet, Scott Cairns, in the book Love’s Immensity).  Unburden your busy mind to the God who listens…then…shhhh!  Can you taste it?

Can we see a little less clearly, Lord? – Prayers for a Way Forward

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unsplash, Andrew Neel

 

WITH my glasses off

the thing I think I know

becomes indistinct and fresh.

A deer’s tail becomes a great white feather.

A distant tree, a man by the roadside hailing me.

When I run without my lenses

the world slips out of bounds

and newness emerges

like angels in our midst.

Since we are surrounded, cloud-like, by such witnesses,

can we see a little less clearly, Lord?

Can we lay aside our sharpened judgments

for some new appraisal of the scene?

And could the thing we think we know and want

emerge as something unimagined

but vivid clear to fuzzy sight?

–Alex Joyner

Your Giddy Desire — Prayers for a Way Forward

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photo: Unsplash, Tiko giorgadze

HOW good and pleasant it is

for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!

So the psalmist says

and we believe it could be so,

though our glimpses of such goodness and pleasantness

are scant and near mythical.

Yet we long to live together –

to see as you see

and love as you love –

until our funhouse mirror of a creation

reflects your giddy desire

that we should all be one.

–Alex Joyner

For a Way Beyond Our Walls – Prayers for a Way Forward Continue

william-white-34988The Virginia Conference leadership in the global prayer cycle for the United Methodist Church’s Commission on a Way Forward and for unity continues…

Prayer for April 3 Conference Day of Prayer

In a season of discernment,

as your Church, in which we have met you,

meets across divides,

as a Commission confers on A Way Forward,

as we hunger for a way beyond our walls,

Pour out your Spirit, as we say,

on us gathered here.

By your Spirit, we say,

make us one with Christ,

one with each other,

and one in ministry to all the world.

Until, in your Spirit,

the blurred and blinding chaos

of this broken world and Church

resolves into a feast

and you are host and Lord.  Amen.