From March 10-12 in Grapevine, Texas, Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy hosted [Her] Story, an online and in-person gathering for women in ministry. The organization described the event as “a conference for women exploring and living out their call to ministry and the ministry leaders who support them. E2022: [Her] Story is a unique opportunity to connect with like-minded women clergy spanning many denominations.”
Over 600 women clergy participated over livestream and in person, representing denominations like the Free Methodist Church, the Church of God (Anderson IN), The Wesleyan Church, the Church of the Nazarene, and others. Speakers included Rev. Dr. Carron Odokara, Rev. Jo Saxton, Rev. Dr. Carolyn Moore, Rev. Dr. Colleen Derr, Rev. Dr. Dee Stokes, Rev. Christine Youn Hung, and many more. Ms. Almarie Rodriguez was the conference Spanish translator.
Wesleyan Accent Managing Editor Elizabeth Glass Turner spoke with contributor and WHWC board member Rev. Dr. Priscilla Hammond about Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy and the array of resources it provides.
Plenary sessions and select workshop sessions are available to watch free of charge on YouTube; visit the [Her] Story conference playlist here.
Wesleyan Accent:When was Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy established?
Dr. Priscilla Hammond: The first conference was held in 1994, but Dr. Susie Stanley had been coordinating resources through denominations beginning in 1989. WHWC was first incorporated as a 501c3 in 1997.
WA:What are the main activities and goals of Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy?
PH: We envision God’s Kingdom reality where the biblical foundations of gender equality are fully lived out across the Church as women and men lead together, following their holy calling. We produce a biennial conference for women clergy, ministerial students, and Wesleyan holiness women serving as chaplains or ministers in the marketplace, and we provide resources and encouragement to those women year-round.
WA:What denominations are represented in Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy?
PH: There are four sponsoring denominations: Church of the Nazarene, Church of God (Anderson, IN), the Free Methodist Church, and The Wesleyan Church. These denominations contribute annually to the operation of the organization and each appoints a representative to the WHWC Board for a four-year term.
Women from other egalitarian denominations or who are not affiliated with a denomination are welcome at our events and invited to explore our resources. We want to equip all called women for ministry!
WA:Has Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy morphed or focused direction over the years?
PH: The vision has not changed significantly in the eighteen years since the first conference. We endeavor to engage, empower, and equip women to lead in the Church. We do that through annual conferences, and have done it through newsletters, booklets, blogs, a book (Faith and Gender Equity: Lesson Plans Across the College Curriculum, 2007), a devotional book, and social media.
However, we are energized in these days to connect women even more, across more denominations and platforms. We don’t want to just host a “reunion” every two years. We are always seeking ways to promote better pathways for the development and advocacy of women clergy.
WA:Over the years has awareness grown of some of the rich historical heritage of women in ministry in these denominations?
PH: Reviewing our archived articles, we have found many articles written about women in ministry in the past and have posted some of them at this link. We publish a blog that digs into history as well.
We want the Church, women and men, to be aware of the ongoing presence of women in ministry throughout the history of the Church (not just in our own denominations). At our [Her] Story conference, we shared four monologues that highlighted the history of women in ministry (Laura Smith Haviland, Rachel Bradley, Rosa Lee, and our WHWC founder, Susie Stanley).
We created an interactive timeline with these four women on it and asked the ladies at the conference to post themselves on the timeline. At conferences and through resources, we emphasize that we are part of a long line of leaders. It is wonderful to see college students contemplating their place on the timeline.
WA:Are there resources WHWC produces or shares?
PH: In 2021, the Wesleyan Publishing House asked if we could develop a devotional book. Each WHWC denominational representative nominated a list of potential authors. I contacted them and cast the vision for the project. In the end, 25 weeks of devotional entries were created and contributed, and This Holy Calling was the result. The final page of This Holy Calling is entitled “Your Called Voice” to let readers know they have something to add to this ongoing story of women in ministry leadership. (We invite women clergy who would like to submit proposed contributions to future volumes to contact phammond (at) swu (dot) edu.)
WHWC also hosts a blog and shares content through our Facebook and Instagram pages and shares videos from our conferences on YouTube. We encourage researchers who are writing on women in ministry to let us know so we can build a list of current, available titles.
We are a board of volunteers who make up our conference planning committee and communications team, so we depend on our sponsoring denominations and people who believe in our work to contribute to our work. This includes the contribution of intellectual resources. We are committed to providing the full story of women in ministry and can do that when others contribute and share resources with us.
Note from the Editor: The sudden news of Dr. William Abraham’s death sent Methodists around the globe reeling. Immediately, a flood a tributes began to pour forth in a kind of spontaneous online wake. Before Covid, wakes were still common in Ireland and also in Northern Ireland, Billy Abraham’s childhood home. In the remembrances that follow, four unique voices give tribute to the well-known scholar, preacher, and writer, joining the friends and colleagues gathering digitally who have instinctively touched on the loudest parts of traditional wakes – raucous laughter, robbed lament.
That is one theme that threads through stories, memories, hilarity, and loss – the sense of being robbed. Robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye; robbed of the opportunity to clear the air; robbed of the opportunity to say thank you. Robust affirmation of the resurrection of the dead does not lessen the shock of sudden loss, does not blunt that very human sense that something dear was stolen.
Like C.S. Lewis, Billy Abraham was a son of Northern Ireland who went on to study at Oxford. The same year that Billy “was selected to matriculate into Portora Royal School in his hometown,” 1955, Basil Mitchell succeeded C.S. Lewis as President of the Oxford Socratic Club. Around twenty years later, Billy began his doctoral work on philosophical theology at Oxford under the direction of Basil Mitchell. And if anything characterized the primary currents in which Abraham’s thinking sailed, it was the imperative that drove that famously lively club – to “follow the argument wherever it leads.” This intellectual habit requires confidence in truth and reason, yet it also requires discipline to pursue unflinchingly. If anything else characterized the strongest currents of Abraham’s intellectual navigation, it was the ability to engage in – and enjoy – rowdy debate with collegiality.
Lewis knew the importance of these disciplines in general and for people of faith in particular, famously commenting, “In any fairly large and talkative community such as a university there is always the danger that those who think alike should gravitate together into coteries where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated form rumour that the outsiders say thus and thus. The absent are easily refuted, complacent dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are embittered by group hostility. Each group hears not the best, but the worst, that the other groups can say. In the Socratic all this was changed. Here a man could get the case for Christianity without all the paraphernalia of pietism and the case against it without the irrelevant sansculottisme of our common anti-God weeklies. At the very least we helped to civilize one another.”
It is difficult to conceive of a more timely commentary for those who live in the United States, and it is worth noting that Lewis made this observation on the nature of community and coterie long before social media or the internet could easily be blamed. The Christian who argues with civility should not be an endangered species. And disagreement isn’t inherently uncivil.
Where Americans sometimes found themselves surprised by Abraham was often in this very sphere. Those who knew him to be orthodox were sometimes surprised by his intellectual freedom – caught off-guard when his quickly lilting accent slipped in a reference to the Holy Spirit as “she,” and perhaps unaware of the ancient tradition he was following. Those who knew him to prize the message of holiness were sometimes surprised when they expected a teetotaler and found a bottle of red wine. Those who knew of his theology – not only anthropology but also epistemology – were surprised when they expected hostility and were met with a friendly offer to get dinner.
There is rich freedom in intellectual honesty – in following the argument wherever it leads; and there is rewarding freedom in the ability to engage in rowdy debate with good-natured collegiality that isn’t precious with its participation. Any who are tempted to mine Abraham for the convenience or prestige of his doctrinal alignment without subjecting themselves to those same rigorous intellectual habits will find it puzzling as to why the relative scope of influence varies considerably. He did not require the soothing, damning chorus of an echo chamber, nor did he buckle to the fear that practicing common decency would be perceived as liberal drift.
If the Church in North America needs the movement of the Holy Spirit, it also needs the fruits of the Spirit as they are lived out in the intellectual life: love of the truth, joy in studying it and in the existence of friends and opponents alike, peace that reason well-employed is a gift from God, patience in crafting thoughts carefully and in giving others space to change their minds, kindness toward those who don’t fight fair or who have been mocked by your side, goodness in loving the ethical working out of belief, faithfulness to Christ over base red meat or crowd, gentleness with whomever has less advantage than you do, and self-control in speech, in loves, in choices, and in action.
When those grieving his loss feel robbed, it is in part because he influenced so many scholars, members of the clergy, and laity (he was a steadfast Sunday school teacher, not the least of his contributions to the Church) on a very personal level at vulnerable points in their professional or spiritual lives. But those grieving his loss feel robbed in part because in some way, from some angle, he showed us how to be better. Better thinkers, better colleagues, better friends, better opponents, better Christians.
As I told a friend, “he made me want to be better without ever making me feel small.”
My friend Maxie Dunnam, Founding Editor of Wesleyan Accent, is mourning the loss of his close friend. In the following, we share reflections on the contributions and character of Billy Abraham from a member of the clergy and from academics; from those who generally shared his perspectives, and importantly from one mourning his loss who sometimes disagreed with him profoundly. It would be a disservice to the scope of his influence to overlook those friendships characterized by mutual respect and genuine affection that also stood in the difficult tension of that old phrase, “the loyal opposition.”
In raucous laughter and robbed lament, we honor our feisty departed friend.
Elizabeth Glass Turner, Managing Editor
Dr. Abraham’s funeral is scheduled for October 30, 2021, in Dallas. It will be livestreamed; find more information here.
Dr. Joy Moore, VP for Academic Affairs & Academic Dean; Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary
I am grateful to join the chorus of witnesses sharing individual expressions of how our lives were among the many influenced by one. I am embarrassed to say my first recognition of “exactly” who William Abraham was came years after I had publicly stolen a story from him. (No, this is not a preacher’s prerogative; and in all honesty, I had no idea the source of the illustration was sitting in the audience as I used his metaphor to underscore my point!)
When I finally did connect the dots, it provided an underscore to the kind of person Billy was: he never mentioned my faux pas. Instead, Billy shared his wisdom and perspective, providing me guidance as I made personal and professional decisions that would shape how I served the church and the academy. I will forever be grateful this author became a real person and friend in my life! Billy once introduced me before I spoke at a gathering with an honest evaluation of my style and substance that conveyed his knowledge of me was more than a superficial greeting at conferences or reading of my resume (yes, I shamelessly acknowledge that, because who wouldn’t want to say Billy Abraham introduced them publicly?).
I met Billy shortly after I began my doctoral work. His engagement with my then-incipient ideas provided soil that nurtured those seedling thoughts. Over the years of many stimulating conversations, Billy’s challenge, conviction, confession, and collegiality bore witness to truth-telling, tenacity, testimony, and tenderness that, for me, embodied a Wesleyan witness. As enchanting it was to hear theology expressed with an Irish twang (he did land in Texas), Billy captivated our imaginations with a confessional-critical interrogation of institutional and individual claims to a Wesleyan Christian practice that calls for a biblical imagination, theological integrity, and personal piety that boldly proclaims the faith in the Triune God.
As we pause together to grieve our loss and celebrate the gift of Billy’s presence in our lives, may each of us be challenged to live our lives with the integrity we experienced with Billy: lifting others to find their place at the table; examining, interrogating, and calling out claims of what is truth; and pointing always and only to Jesus.
Dr. Jerry Walls, Professor of Philosophy; Scholar-in-Residence, Houston Baptist University
Billy Abraham was trained in analytic philosophy at Oxford. More recently, he was recognized as one of the senior spokesmen for “analytic theology,” a movement that applies the techniques of analytic philosophy to the discipline of theology. The aim of analytic theology is to promote rigor and clarity of argument in the discipline. This emphasis is apparent in a number of Billy’s books, but I will highlight two examples.
First is his volume from several years ago entitled Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). The very title of this hefty volume signals the important distinction that Billy wanted to clarify and defend, namely, a distinction between recognized canonical lists and epistemic criteria. A clear sense of this distinction is crucial to the argument, and Abraham lays it out for us at the very outset and reiterates it throughout his work. An ecclesial canon is essentially a means of grace, whereas an epistemic norm is essentially a criterion of rationality, justification, and knowledge.
To accent this distinction, Billy takes pains to remind us of the complex canonical heritage of the Church. For Protestants, the notion is associated almost exclusively with the canon of Scripture, but as Billy points out, there are several other kinds of canonical tradition deserving of recognition. These include baptismal and Eucharistic rites, liturgical traditions, iconographic traditions, lists of saints and teachers designated as fathers and mothers of the Church, and finally, the episcopacy as a means of supervision.
As Billy notes, however, there is considerable ambiguity surrounding the very meaning of canon. At one level, the word simply designates a list of books or other material. However, it can also signify some sort of standard which is used to measure and judge various doctrines, practices, and the like. This latter understanding of canon obviously has epistemic connotations and significance absent from the more modest notion of a list. Not surprisingly, Billy prefers the more modest notion and believes it better preserves the intended function of canonical material as means of grace which initiate us into the life of God and transform us morally and spiritually.
It is worth noting that the “Wesleyan quadrilateral” is an interesting instance of this very confusion between canonical lists and epistemic criteria. Whereas Scripture and tradition represent canonical lists, reason and experience are classic instances of epistemic norms.
The second example I will cite is his recently published four volume work entitled Divine Agency and Divine Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017-2021). Billy began working on this project over ten years ago, when he and I were both fellows in the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. Billy and I shared an apartment that year, which was a delight in itself. Billy came to Notre Dame with a more modest plan, as he notes in the acknowledgments of the recently published fourth volume: “I had originally planned to write but one volume; within a month of my arrival at the university of Notre Dame it had sprouted into four.” Billy never hesitated to explore any relevant issues that arose in the course of his research, and it was a delight to watch him as he realized he had to put aside his original plan to write one volume and instead to produce four!
While philosophical issues frame the entire four-volume set, they are particularly emphasized in the first volume entitled “Exploring and Evaluating the Debate.” Billy notes there that much of the talk about divine action in contemporary theology is vague and elusive, hardly suited to do justice to the extraordinary claims of traditional Christianity. In contrast to all of this, he forthrightly defends a robust account of divine action that allows us to affirm unequivocally that Christ was born of a virgin, was raised from the dead, and will come again.
It is worth emphasizing that Billy wrote with grace, elegance, and winsome humor. Many of his books are accessible to thoughtful lay readers who could read them with great profit.
Rev. Dana Coker, Senior Pastor, First UMC Bonham, Bonham Texas
Billy Abraham is often misunderstood by people that don’t know him well. I also think he contributes to this misunderstanding. Part of the way he captured and kept our attention was by saying things in a creatively dramatic fashion. It was often hilarious if you happened to agree with him and anger inciting if you didn’t. I think, for Billy, it was worth it to make people mad because it frequently led to great debate and teaching opportunities. However, if this is the only side of Billy Abraham you knew (especially if you had lots of disagreements with him), well then, you just didn’t know Billy.
He was kind and attentive. Billy always looked me in the eye and was not only preceptive enough to notice if I seemed off, he would take the time to inquire and pray for me.
He was patient and generous. Many of the conversations that literally helped shape who I am, only happened because he was generous with his time. He made me feel welcome to come talk about whatever was on my mind in his office…or at his second office, La Madeleine.
He was a master at seeing potential and drawing it out. He believed in me before I did, and he seemed so happy to watch me find my theological footing.
His curiosity created an openness in him, but I only perceived his openness when he felt he was only among friends. After class one day, I told him he was wrong about something he said in class about a group of people, and miraculously I was briefly able to out debate the great debater. In amused frustration at his now grinning friend, he threw an eraser at me as I was walking out the door triumphantly. I few hours later, he poked his head into the room where I always studied and said, “You were right. I repent.”
In recent years, many things that he wrote and said publicly have been hurtful to me. Though Billy has said otherwise, there are people on both sides of the Methodist divide for whom scripture and the creeds are the backbone of their faith. He has too frequently compared the very best version of his side of the divide with the very worst version of the other side. Honesty escapes you, if you don’t see both misbehavior and great integrity and faithfulness on both sides.
I was upset with him. I was mulling over how I would start the conversation with him. I’m sure it would have been an extra lively debate. In fact, there might have been some tears, at least on my part, but I have no doubt it would have been a loving exchange.
Rest in peace, my friend! You have blessed my life and ministry, and I will forever be grateful!
Dr. Jackson Lashier, Associate Professor of Religion; Chair, Social Science Division, Southwestern College
The news of the recent death of William J. (Billy) Abraham affected me deeply. I have so appreciated reading many of the tributes to his life written by his former students and colleagues; he was certainly an extraordinary man. Unlike many of my friends in the Methodist world, I did not know Dr. Abraham personally, so my sense of loss is less personal though still profound. His impact on my life, as for numerous other professors, theologians, and pastors, came through his theological work.
I read Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology, his most well-known book, in a systematic theology class in my first year at seminary. At the time, I was a sola scriptura Protestant Christian who thought that church history skipped from the Apostle Paul to Martin Luther and that “canon” was a weapon used in early American wars. I used scripture as little more than a justification for my particular beliefs and figured the purpose of this theology class was simply to strengthen those justifications. I was, therefore, a little skeptical when first engaging this work, not least of all for its comprehensive argument and sheer length.
But Dr. Abraham’s winsome way, no less present in his writing than in his speech, gradually won a hearing and, perhaps providentially, Canon and Criterion toppled all of my assumptions coming into that class and more generally seminary. Through reading this book—under the skillful and patient guidance of my professor, Dr. Chuck Gutenson, himself a student of Dr. Abraham’s—I came to see how impoverished my understanding of scripture and the theological disciplines were. Scripture was not simply a justification of a set of beliefs, Dr. Abraham argues, but a “means of grace” given to us by God “to initiate us into the divine life” (53). What an infinitely more beautiful and compelling image of the Holy Scriptures!
Moreover, Dr. Abraham showed me that scripture was not the only means of grace so given by God, but rather, the canonical tradition of the Church included a whole host of means, including the sacraments, creeds, iconography, saints and church fathers and mothers, and the like. Not only is it appropriate to utilize these means as Protestants, it is necessary if we are to become the disciples God calls us to be. After I finished reading the book, I wanted to know what these other means of grace were and I wanted to read scripture like Billy Abraham did.
I’ve come to realize that Canon and Criterion shifted my whole perspective not just on the purpose of scripture and the other canonical materials but also on theological education. It opened me up to the formative practices of heart and mind on offer at seminary. It helped me to realize that I wasn’t in seminary simply to gain some more good arguments for my particular brand of Christianity or even to gain a better understanding of the scriptural foundations of my beliefs and practices. Rather, I was in seminary to be formed as a disciple of Christ, to be further initiated into the life of God. So too did my understanding of the role of a pastor change, from a person who makes arguments and reflections on scripture to a person who, using the canonical materials, helps initiate others into the life of God.
Finally, Dr. Abraham’s tantalizing introduction to these canonical materials, what he calls a “grand symphony…which leads ineluctably into the unfathomable, unspeakable mystery of the living God” (55), set me on a course of study that changed my vocation. It took me into a study of early Church history, the formation of the creeds, and the lives of the saints, a course of study I am pursuing to this day as a professor and writer. Now I want to teach and write like Billy Abraham, though I harbor few allusions that this is the case. From what I have read and continue to read of his, and from what I know from friends who took his classes, Dr. Abraham stood alone.
Precisely because the Church’s canonical tradition is a grand symphony of harmonious parts, Dr. Abraham suggests that it is never fully closed. Rather, he writes, “new canonical materials and practices can be developed to enrich the life of faith so long as they fit naturally and appropriately with the canonical tradition already in place” (55). If this is true, certainly Dr. Abraham’s person and work now passes into the grand symphony; his work has so clearly served as a means of grace in my own life and in the lives of countless others. Well done, good and faithful servant.
Featured image of Queen’s University, Belfast, courtesy K. Mitch Hodge via Unsplash.
Knock knock. If it’s a joke, you know what to say: “Who’s there?”
But knock knock means something different to different people. Throughout my childhood, when I heard a knock knock on the back door, I could guess the knocker within three guesses. If the knock knock was rapped on the front door, all bets were off. I had no idea who it was, so before rushing to the door, I’d peek through the blinds to see who might be knocking, to find out the answer to the question: “Who’s there?”
While there’s only one response to the knock knock of a joke, people react in different ways to a knock at the actual door. If the resident is able to peek between the blinds or through the peep hole, they might not answer the door. Or if nosy passersby see the knocker and know the resident, they might start speculating, “Now, now. Why are they knocking on that door?” What’s true about welcome, hesitation, or speculation when there’s a knockknock on literal doors is also true when there’s a knock on the door of someone’s spiritual home. Some might peek at who is knocking and never open the door; curious onlookers might see who’s knocking and wonder, “What are they doing knocking on that door?”
The second question has been passed on for centuries. People divvy up others according to group: who is in or out, the “haves” and “have nots,” those who are reputable or bring disrepute, us vs. them. When a crowd saw Jesus going to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), they voiced surprise in reaction to thismoment of knocking. “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (Luke 19:7)
But it is not a holy moment of wondering; it is a hateful moment of muttering. It was the same kind of reaction recorded earlier in Luke’s Gospel when the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered their displeasure at Jesus going to eat with sinners and tax collectors. (Luke 15:2) But while familiar Bible readers might expect the Pharisees and teachers of the law to grumble their disapproval, it might be surprising to notice that this time, it’s the crowd grumbling. In Luke 19, Jesus is entering Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, on his way to set his mother’s song to reality: to bring down rulers, to fill the hungry, to send the rich away empty. So why are the crowds muttering their own disapproving reaction? Because the sinner who Jesus has gone to visit this time is Zacchaeus—a tax collector who is wealthy.
It’s dangerous to be wealthy in Luke’s Gospel. Beyond Mary’s song, Jesus has blessed the poor but warned of woe for the rich (6:24); Jesus has told a parable about one who intended to build bigger barns but instead lost his life as a rich fool (12:13-21); Jesus has described justice in the afterlife as the rich man in torment being separated from Lazarus by an uncrossable chasm (16:19-31); and describing Jesus’ encounter with a wealthy young man, Luke tells us the man rejected Jesus’ invitation because he had great wealth, prompting Jesus’ lament, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (18:23-25)
So then, when we encounter this tax collector who is wealthy, no wonder the people are muttering. There must have been some expectation of Jericho justice: Zacchaeus has been squeezing life from them, fraudulently making their poverty that much worse. Why is Jesus going to be with him? He’s one Jesus is supposed to be busy bringing down!
Which, beautifully, is exactly what Jesus does.
Zacchaeus had gone looking for Jesus but has been crowded out by the cheated and, as a result, climbed this tree for a view. Here Luke’s brilliant story-telling brings together Zacchaeus’ resourcefulness in business and resourcefulness in the moment. Zacchaeus is a chief tax-collector, one who is collecting the tolls, the cost of doing business, through a profitable and effective enterprise of subordinate toll collectors. The tree he has climbed, a sycamore-fig tree, recalls the tree from which the fruit was eaten, of the leaves that were sewn, and among which the first Man and Woman hid. Just as they had eaten fruit in an effort to make themselves greater, so has Zacchaeus been climbing the tree throughout his life. By climbing the literal tree, he is showing what he’s been doing all along: climbing over others for his own sake.
And now, notice the switch! Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus, but it is Jesus who looks up and calls him down. While Zacchaeus thought he was seeking Jesus, it was Jesus seeking Zacchaeus. As St. Augustine would comment, “The Lord, who had already welcomed Zacchaeus in his heart, was now ready to be welcomed by him in his house.”
The muttering of the crowd, directed against Jesus, shows that Jesus takes Zacchaeus’ shame when he gives Zacchaeus public honor: Zacchaeus responds to the crowd’s muttering with a promise to restore judiciously, taking the same penalty and way of restitution for stealing another’s sheep (Ex. 22:1), vowing to give generously. (Luke 19:8) What a switch! As my friend Dr. Dan Freemyer has commented, “The tax collector has become the gift distributor!” (Dan claims to have read this in a commentary, but we can’t find the original author.) Mary’s song praised God for calling down the rulers, filling up the poor, and sending away the rich. And indeed that’s what Jesus has done: he has called Zacchaeus down from his tree, he has filled the poor through Zacchaeus’ remorseful generosity, and he has sent Zacchaeus away, emptied of his guilt and stigma, and restored to his name, which means innocent. The early Desert Father Ephraim the Syrian captured the full exchange like this: “The first fig tree of Adam will be forgotten, because of the last fig tree of the chief tax collector, and the name of the guilty Adam will be forgotten because of the innocent Zacchaeus.” Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the tree on his journey to carrying his cross.
There are different responses are possible to the knock knock sounding on our doors and in our hearts. Just like a knock might prompt an effort to see—to pull back the curtain, to peer through the peep hole, or to crane your neck to ask why they were knocking at that door – this is a story about seeing, as well.
Zacchaeus had wanted to see Jesus, but he could not see over the crowd. The crowd muttered when they saw Jesus going to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus implored the Lord’s attention as he responded to Jesus’ grace with gratitude and justice. Jesus affirmed his mission to seek for the lost. But the whole passage started with an urge for the reader to see, as well. Luke introduces us to Zacchaeus by telling us to “Behold!” (See Luke 19:2; although not always translated, it is found in the King James and New King James Version and noted in other versions, as well).
Just as we are urged to behold Zacchaeus, so we stand ready to behold the activity of God when he brings us in contact with others. Certainly, when God directs us to stop and look up, to knock on the lives of others, some of them will peer through the blinds, look through the peep holes, and quietly slip away. But others will look, open the door, and respond with gratitude that God has entered their lives. “You were exactly who I hoped would come!” And certainly, when God guides us to step into the lives of those who willingly open the door, there will be nosy grumblers who mutter and question our actions; but others will stop and behold, recognizing that God is about to do something amazing in this house because God has already welcomed its inhabitant into his heart.
Can you imagine the responses that Zacchaeus and his troupe experienced when they went collecting, knocking on the doors of Jericho’s inhabitants? But how different would it have been after his transformation!
May it be so for you and me, too. May we choose a response of gratitude and generosity because Jesus endured scandal to come into our homes, too. And may gratitude, justice, and generosity make it so that when we knock on the lives of the tree climbers in our own lives, they too gladly choose to come down, opening their lives not only to us but to Jesus.
Featured image courtesy Conscious Design via Unsplash.
Back when it was “a different time” – in this case, just 1992 – the pastor warmed up our mens’ Bible study with, “Why did the woman cross the road…What’s she doing out of the kitchen in the first place?” Before the chuckling died down, he continued his opening act: “How do you fix a broken dishwasher…Kick her in the butt.”
Twenty-five years later, my oldest of three daughters says, “Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be a boy.” She’s helping me set up the Communion table for worship in an hour, because the advantage of being a pastor with three daughters is every Sunday is “take your daughter to work day.”
“Why?” I ask, unprepared for this conversation when my brain is tangled with mic cables and my upcoming sermon.
“So I can be a pastor like you,” she says, pouring Welch’s grape juice into a chalice.
I wince. “Who says you can’t be a pastor when you grow up?” Answer her question with a question. Make her think about it, I tell myself.
“Because aren’t all the preachers in the Bible men?” she says.
It’s the season of Advent, so we talk about Mary, the mother of Jesus. About how she’s the first disciple, because she was the first to lay down her life for Jesus. And how before she delivered the baby, she delivered the first sermon in the New Testament:
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.” (Luke 1:46-49)
We don’t often look to Mary as disciple or preacher. We take our cues from Moses, David, Peter, Paul; we only look at Mary once a year at Christmas, and even then to reduce her and her womb to a utilitarian role.
Opening Scripture, my daughters find a world where prophets and leaders from the home to the throne were determined by bloodline, gender, and birth-order (a.k.a. the firstborn male of the right tribe). All because of the dreaded word, patriarchy: when women were property of their fathers and dowry-ed off to be the property of their husbands, their children and legal rights belonged to him. He could divorce her with a word, so she kept her head covered and mouth shut.
But – in those same Scriptures, my daughters read stories of women encountering God and leading God’s people. Like Hagar, the slave woman whose womb was also reduced to a utilitarian role. She is the only person in the Old Testament to directly give God a name, and she names him, “The God Who Sees Me.”
Or Deborah. When Israel was under oppression because of their corruption and dysfunction, they cried out to God for help. God gave them a woman. Before they had kings, Israel was led by judges known for either their legal or military leadership. Deborah was a prophet who happened to be a judge, and she had both – so much so that when Barak, the leader of the Israelite militia, was sent into battle, he said, “I will go, but only if you go with me.”
And Ruth, who is described by the Hebrew word meaning “warrior.” Oh, and she was an illegal immigrant who saved Bethlehem with integrity and courage. Or Esther, who did the unthinkable and went public before the king, saving her people not with looks, but devotion to God.
How about Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin and the first human to prophecy the coming of Jesus while her husband doubted, and so an angel shut him up. Or the five-time divorced Samaritan Woman, who encountered Jesus at the well. She went back to testify and lead others to him, and a lot of folks in her village were saved.
And my favorite, Mary and the other Mary. Just as two women were the first to preach about Jesus’ birth, these two women were the first to preach about his resurrection. They went to the tomb while the men were scattered.
Daughter, look at these women who, like Moses, David, Peter, and Paul, are used by God to preach the good news and disciple your dad. And not just in the Bible.
My grandmother, who when I asked why some of the words in the Bible were in red, took that Bible and told me who Jesus was; Cindy, the pastor who led my confirmation class; Jeanine, a mother who called me out on some sin my freshman year of college and set some boundaries; Peg, who led me through inner healing and warned me numerous times of hang-ups in my life; Jo Anne, who’s preaching challenged me to not compromise the call on my life; Miriam, who’s preaching taught me what holiness really is and how to pursue it; Amanda, my co-pastor in college ministry who called out my weak points in ministry and stood up to fraternity boys dehumanizing women.
Most importantly, there’s Jennifer, my wife and our kids’ mother. She’s in the garage using her tools and air compressor to repair a car engine or refinish furniture while I’m cooking dinner or cleaning the toilet. But she also leads our house, makes the rules, and assigns the tasks. We both do, and so in our mutuality I can be led and submit to her because we submit to each other.
Daughter, someday you can preach and disciple me too.. You already are.
So I stand my daughter in the pulpit, where she is pretending to preach like her dad, and tell her about Peter’s sermon on Pentecost when he drops the words of the prophet Joel: “‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…’” (Acts 2:17)
Did you catch that, daughter?
Prophets are the preachers who declare, “This is what the Lord says.” And now the prophets are your sons and daughters, no longer determined by bloodline, gender, and birth-order. There is only one manner of leadership in the church, and it isn’t gender or even credentials. The qualifications are to be called by God, anointed by Jesus, and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit
This is no joke, but the story of good news for women. And as Dr. Sandy Richter, the woman pastor-professor who taught me reminds us: we need to tell that story, and tell it well.
Featured image courtesy Joshua Hanson via Unsplash.
What do you know of Zanesville, Ohio? History buffs might enjoy its distinct Y-shaped bridge or explore its history as part of the Underground Railroad or recall it for its well-known river and locks. If a spiritual pilgrimage were traced across the tilts and rolls of Ohio’s farms, rivers, and valleys, Methodists might mark a gentle circle around Zanesville. It’s not unique for towns that sprang up across the Midwest to have Methodist fellowships woven through their roots; but those Methodist fellowships in the mid-1800s were not without profound flaws. In the autobiography of Julia Foote – happily available for download through First Fruits Press – readers are confronted with this reality. On joining the local Methodist Episcopal church (in the state of New York), her parents, both former slaves, were relegated to seating in one part of the balcony of the local church and could not partake of Holy Communion until the white church members, including the lower class ones, had gone first.
Eventually, Julia Foote would become the first woman ordained a deacon in the AME Zion church, the second woman ordained an elder. Before that, she was an evangelist, traveling and preaching in a number of places, starting before the Civil War. At times, congregational conflict emerged when she visited a town, sometimes because Foote was Black, sometimes because she was a woman. But the testimony of her visit to Zanesville is different.
Before arriving in Zanesville in the early 1850’s, Foote had been in Cincinnati and Columbus, then visited a town called Chillicothe. Her time in Chillicothe was fruitful but not without controversy. (The following excerpts retain Foote’s own original language, a reflection of the time in which she lived.) She wrote,
In April, 1851, we visited Chillicothe, and had some glorious meetings there. Great crowds attended every night, and the altar was crowded with anxious inquirers. Some of the deacons of the white people’s Baptist church invited me to preach in their church, but I declined to do so, on account of the opposition of the pastor, who was very much set against women’s preaching. He said so much against it, and against the members who wished me to preach, that they called a church meeting, and I heard that they finally dismissed him. The white Methodists invited me to speak for them, but did not want the colored people to attend the meeting. I would not agree to any such arrangement, and, therefore, I did not speak for them. Prejudice had closed the door of their sanctuary against the colored people of the place, virtually saying: “The Gospel shall not be free to all.” Our benign Master and Saviour said: “Go, preach my Gospel to all.” (Julia A. J. Foote, A Brand Plucked from the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch, First Fruits Press: 102-103)
Whether or not the good Baptists of Chillicothe today know that their forebears ousted a pastor who objected to a woman evangelist, the Methodists may be unaware that their forebears invited a Black woman to preach – but only if people of color were excluded from the meeting. And yet, in spite of these local controversies, Julia Foote wrote that in that town, “we had some glorious meetings,” and “the altar was crowded.” Like John Wesley, Foote sowed grace outside church buildings, even if she could not sow grace inside church buildings. Like the Apostle Paul, she proclaimed the Gospel to those who would welcome her.
But then, she went to Zanesville. And here, readers see a different move of the Holy Spirit. What was the difference? Foote wrote,
We visited Zanesville, Ohio, laboring for white and colored people. The white Methodists opened their house for the admission of colored people for the first time. Hundreds were turned away at each meeting, unable to get in; and, although the house was so crowded, perfect order prevailed. We also held meetings on the other side of the river. God the Holy Ghost was powerfully manifest in all these meetings. I was the recipient of many mercies, and passed through various exercises. In all of them I could trace the hand of God and claim divine assistance whenever I most needed it. Whatever I needed, by faith I had. Glory! glory!! While God lives, and Jesus sits on his right hand, nothing shall be impossible unto me, if I hold fast faith with a pure conscience. (A Brand Plucked, 103)
Foote labored for any and all for the sake of the Kingdom when she arrived in Zanesville. While there, for the first time, Methodist worship was integrated. So many people came, hundreds had to be turned away. Despite the crowds, there was no controversy or dispute. And – “God the Holy Ghost was powerfully manifest in all these meetings.” There was no segregated worship; the Holy Ghost was powerfully manifest.
This is powerful testimony reverberating down through the soil, through the generations, through the Kingdom. Sitting today in a different part of the state over 150 years later, I read the words of Julia Foote and see the rolling hills of Ohio differently. I’ve been in Cincinnati, and Columbus, and Chillicothe. I’ve read those names on road signs. I’ve seen church buildings in those places. Through her words, I hear the voice of a mother of American Methodism, particularly the holiness movement, calling across the rivers, the years. She was pressed, but not crushed; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. Her eyes too saw this rural landscape in the springtime; heading from Zanesville on to Detroit, she also likely saw Mennonite and Amish farmers along the road. She sowed grace into this landscape before my great-grandmother was born. Before the Wright brothers followed the birds skimming along air currents, Julia Foote learned how to glide on the wind of the Spirit: “whatever I needed, by faith I had.”
Today, in the yard outside my window, irises are blooming that I did not plant; someone else planted, another watered, and I enjoy the deep purple unfurling from the bud. Reading of Foote’s ministry, I am given a window onto the grace planted by faith, the results of which would have shaped the spiritual life of a community for decades. But it does not let me rest on what came before; her labor calls out across the rivers, the years, questioning: how are you tending to what others planted through the Spirit? She endured great hardship to proclaim the Word of God in this landscape. I would not rip out or mow over the irises carefully planted by another; how might I help to care for what she was bold enough to sow? Decades later – and yet not so very long at all – where is the Spirit brooding, full, like a thundercloud full with rain, ready to burst?
Sister Julia issued this challenge: Sisters, shall not you and I unite with the heavenly host in the grand chorus? If so, you will not let what man may say or do, keep you from doing the will of the Lord or using the gifts you have for the good of others. How much easier to bear the reproach of men than to live at a distance from God. Be not kept in bondage by those who say, “We suffer not a woman to teach,” thus quoting Paul’s words, but not rightly applying them. What though we are called to pass through deep waters, so our anchor is cast within the veil, both sure and steadfast? (A Brand Plucked, 112)
The gifts you have, for the good of others.
It is the Holy Spirit who transforms history into testimony, the same Spirit who was “powerfully manifest” now bearing down, laboring again. In the original introduction to her work, Thomas K. Doty wrote, “Those of us who heard her preach, last year, at Lodi, where she held the almost breathless attention of five thousand people, by the eloquence of the Holy Ghost, know well where is the hiding of her power.” (A Brand Plucked, 7)
What do you know of Zanesville, Ohio? That Julia Foote preached there in the 1850s, sowing grace? That Methodists there rejected segregated worship, joining together, and the Holy Spirit was “powerfully manifest”?
What do you know of the Holy Spirit, today? What do you know of those who planted and watered while God gave the increase, long before you saw the buds?
Sisters and brothers, we do not walk into ministry alone today. Wherever you are, someone has gone ahead, sowing grace ahead of you. If the rivers could speak, they might gossip to you about the ones who went before; who crossed rivers when no plane had yet crossed the sky.
What do you know of Zanesville, Holy Spirit? Hearts there once were soft.
What do you know of the Holy Spirit, Zanesville? Once, the Spirit was powerfully manifest in your midst.
Holy Spirit, where are you brooding now? Give us the grace of readiness.
A while back, a well-known pastor made remarks about a female pastor that were distasteful and offensive. While respecting the pastor’s different viewpoint knowing full well that not all followers of Jesus agree in all areas of doctrine, I was disappointed with how the view was expressed regarding women as pastors. I have three daughters and I want them to know that God loves them, wants a relationship with them, and will empower them to do amazing things when they fully surrender their lives to God, just as God will use men when they do the same. For me, this includes the belief that God calls women to be fully ordained pastors. (This reflection is not meant to give a verse-by-verse biblical defense of women in ministry. If you would like more information on that, I encourage you to click HERE.)
Instead, I’m highlighting a female historical figure, one I have discussed with my oldest daughter: a woman named Phoebe Palmer, who was a prominent female pastor at a time when women were not allowed to vote. We discussed Mrs. Palmer after my daughter showed a desire to experience mission work and went on her first international mission trip. She just so happened to go with a group from a denomination that does not support female ministers. I was troubled when she messaged me and said, “I have already been told several times that God would never call me to be a pastor. How could I be a missionary if God doesn’t let me preach?” Then, after she heard the comments by the pastor I mentioned above, she asked me again about being a woman and what freedom she will have to preach and teach.
If you do not know anything about Phoebe Palmer, I encourage you to discover more on your own. She was born into a strict New York Methodist home in 1807. She eventually married a respected physician named Walter Palmer. During the first ten years of their marriage, they experienced the devastating loss of three young children, the third of whom died tragically when gauze curtains near the cradle accidentally caught fire. (1)
Rather than this experience causing her to turn away from God, eventually, she came to completely entrust her life to God. Palmer spent many years as a private Bible teacher, but she began to feel a longing for a deeper experience of faith. On July 26, 1837, God filled her with a special sense of the Holy Spirit that she would call “the day of days” for the rest of her life. (2)
Because Palmer lived in a time when it was not common for women to preach, she was hesitant at first to share her experience with men until a Congregational minister named Thomas Upham received the fullness of the Holy Spirit under her guidance. After that, she chose to set aside the social convention of the day and spoke to anyone who would listen. (3) Palmer spent the rest of her life as a writer, preacher, teacher of holiness, and social justice warrior. It is estimated that her influence led to the salvation of at least 25,000 people and helped thousands more learn how to live out sanctified lives. In A Global History of Christians, Paul Spickard and Kevin Cragg say of Palmer, “She was more than a preacher. She exemplified the nineteenth-century Protestant synthesis of evangelism and good works. She was the moving force behind innumerable urban social service projects. The most widely known was the Five Points Mission in New York City, which provided housing, education, and religious instruction for poor families.” (4)
Her ministry influenced the perception of women in ministry. “By the end of the 1850’s, Palmer had reached the high point of her preaching career, as both men and women viewed her as a leader. She not only brought the sexes together in worship, she also advanced the role of female preachers. She had become a prominent religious figure at a time when very few women rose to positions of power in America. Other women involved in leadership roles performed their services in their homes. Palmer was one of the few who took her message on the road and in the process, became the recognized spokesperson for the Holiness movement.” (5)
The story of Phoebe Palmer has given my daughter faith and boldness to believe that if God could empower Mrs. Palmer in such a powerful way, God can empower her as well. Additionally, Mrs. Palmer’s story shows men and women alike that whatever God calls us to do, we are to humbly but boldly obey, regardless of the social conventions of the day. I told my daughter, “How sad it would have been if Mrs. Palmer chose to stay quiet in fear of the men who would speak against her. Her ministry would not have eternally influenced thousands of people. How sad it will be if God calls you to preach, and you stay quiet. If God calls you to speak, then speak, and trust God to give you the courage to stand firm no matter what.”
I know a man who works at a large, warehouse-style home-improvement store. One day he shared a story about how to help people find what they are looking for. There is a sign in the employee break room that says: “No Pointing.” The message to store employees is that when customers ask the location of an item, one should not merely point and say, “over there.” Nor is it sufficient to give an aisle number and description of the location on that aisle. Rather, the employee should walk with the customers and make sure that they are able together to locate what the customers are seeking. Along the way, the employee might learn more than just what one item the customer is looking for. Even at some small level, relationship and goodwill are built. The customers realize they are not alone and lost in their search; someone with expertise and experience is traveling with them. We are in a time when people need to know that the church is not merely pointing at some far-off place telling them that they must go on the journey alone. Rather, we go on the journey together.
No matter how we are called to serve in ministry – as a lay person or pastor – it is important to remember that we do not go alone. We join with one another in our mutual work for the sake of the Gospel. Examples of this are frequently found in the Scriptures. In Genesis 12, when God calls Abram to the land he would see later, he did not go alone. In Luke 10, Jesus sent the witnesses out in pairs to proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near.” After the Resurrection, Jesus walked along the road to Emmaus with Cleopas and his companion (Luke 24). Paul and Barnabas are sent together in Acts 13. If you are a leader in ministry, are you merely pointing, or are you joining others on the journey?
The same holds true for those who are trying to find their way in the Christian faith. The last few months have turned many of us upside-down. People are looking for someone to show them the way in a dark time. Many people are afraid of what the future will hold, as evidenced by panic buying and the hoarding of basic necessities. They want direction on how to navigate uncertain times. Social distancing does not necessarily mean going it alone. Rather, at this important time, people around us need to be reminded that they do not need to go on this journey by themselves.
In times of difficulty, many people of faith have turned to Psalm 23 for comfort. Frequently, Bible study teachers and pastors point to the fact that the psalmist walks through the darkest valley rather than remain in that dark valley. That is an important point. However, notice that the comfort also comes from the fact that the Lord walks with us in those dark valleys. The Lord does not simply point but rather accompanies us. We take solace because we are not alone.
Though the problems facing the world today are significant, perhaps even unprecedented, this is not the first time that the church has faced ministry to those impacted by a widespread illness. In the second, third, and sixteenth centuries, the church was able to minister to people in times of plague and disease. Without minimizing the human toll, it is important to remember that the church served as a faithful witness in those times. The church has the opportunity to be a faithful witness again in a difficult time for many around the world. It is demonstrated in showing the mercy given to us by Christ and coming alongside others as we walk through these dark times.
As a response to social distancing, many churches have generated a great deal of online content in the form of services, devotionals, and Bible studies. I am grateful there has been a proliferation of these types of resources. The internet certainly needs it. All the while, church leaders can ensure that these are not just inwardly focused—aimed at people who are already connected with a church.
Many of our neighbors are asking some really big and really important questions about life, death, and the nature of the world in which we live. The gospel is the answer to these questions. This is an opportunity for us to journey with a world that is asking. We need to do this in a way that is not merely pointing and saying, “over there.” This is the moment to show the world the One who walks through our valleys with us.
What makes a Methodist a “Methodist”? This is an increasingly important question in the age of the rise of secularism, the decline of churches in the West, and other significant challenges in the Wesleyan/Methodist movement. As younger generations decreasingly emphasize the role of denominations, many people are no longer aware of the rich history and theology of the Wesleyan/Methodist churches they call home. In some parts of the world, leaders need fresh encouragement for mission and ministry. All the while, the global Wesleyan movement remains strong, and God continues to use it to share and show the love of Jesus Christ.
The book is divided into eight chapters around three themes: Wesleyan Identity, Wesleyan DNA, and 21st-Century Ministry. Independently and cohesively, these provide a helpful view of the rich history of the Wesleyan movement, its ability to hold a variety of theological positions in a healthy tension, and a call to action for the contemporary church. Waugh identifies five strands of Wesleyan DNA: Creator’s Mission, Salvation, Transformation, Means of Grace, and Ministry with the Poor. These, he says, “encapsulate the essence…of Wesleyan emphases.” He uses them to illustrate the unique way in which John Wesley balanced biblical and theological principles. Waugh demonstrates their application for modern Christian discipleship. The book’s usability is further expanded through the author’s inclusion of historical and theological profiles that show evidence of Wesleyan DNA through various expressions of the global church. While these profiles include a brief historical account, the highlighting of the contemporary gospel witness in each context is enriching.
The global Wesleyan movement has a varied and complex history. Waugh successfully navigates this complexity by providing two separate narratives to illustrate one grand story: the first primarily concentrates on geographic particularities (see chapter two). The second recounts the ways in which Methodism has influenced various theological streams, ecumenism, missional witness, education, healthcare, and other important areas (see chapter eight). He handles these complexities in a way that remains appropriately thorough yet approachable for a general international audience. After all, according to Waugh, over 100 million people from more than 160 countries follow Jesus in the company of the Wesleys. Appropriately, he does not attempt to recap them all. Rather, he gives proper appreciation of various iterations to encourage the reader to apply the Wesleyan DNA into each local ministry. Throughout the work, Waugh’s unique voice as a Wesleyan Methodist leader from the South Pacific gives an important timbre to the conversation.
In some corners of Methodism, leaders have failed to attend to the doctrine that Mr. Wesley sought to preserve. Publications such as this, grounded in modern biblical and theological scholarship while accessible to a broad audience, are important for a deeper sense of belonging in the way God continues to use the global Wesleyan movement.
With thoughtfulness for local church application, small group discussion questions are included. Other helpful resources include a church audit guide, celebration service, and worship guides for Watchnight, Covenant Renewal, and Aldersgate services.
Renew Your Wesleyan DNA is a helpful addition to the libraries of Wesleyan/Methodist laity and pastors alike. It provides a fresh, global perspective on the vibrancy of the People Called Methodist. The work offers tools for individuals, small groups, and congregations to go deeper in their own faith development alongside their Wesleyan/Methodist kindred in the worldwide movement.
“Let’s put him on blast!” I hadn’t heard the phrase before, but I instantly knew what it meant: whatever the business’s misstep had been, the call was sent out to grab it by its social media handles and tear it down. A bit of photographic evidence, a globally-audible, locally-tangible siren, and the business was tagged: the company was now “it”—a toxic bit of business that infected whatever and whoever it touched. So, tear it down and stay away. This doesn’t just happen with businesses. People get blasted, too. People scrub their Instagram and Twitter pasts to wipe away any bit of (perceived) filth before their Facebook posts are pressure washed with the words of others.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas noted the power and danger of dirt. We fear the filthy; dirt threatens disintegration. The best way to handle such dirty danger, whether located in the business misstep or social media slip up or political pariah, is to “blast” it: to use words to show the other’s filth, to distance oneself from the defiled, and to wash up the mess—all with one sweet Tweet.
But public humiliation is not new. In the fifth century, Augustine warned of the risks of wicked words (Confessions I:29):
Watch out for hatred! We do more harm to ourselves by hating another than the other can do to us.
Watch out for hostility! Harbored hostility toward another harms the self, even if it isn’t acted upon.
Watch out for hubris! To pursue fame is to place oneself under a human judge and to perceive others as competitors.
Hatred, hostility, hubris: A deadly combination in a fifth century social spat where one was careful to pronounce every word correctly without care for the actual human being who happened to be the victim of their verbal evisceration. Canceling another with words isn’t just a 21st century phenomenon: the form of the public put-down has changed, but the feat remains en vogue. Neither have the effects changed. Words aimed to take down a livelihood or life do not simply impact their target. They also impact the speaker-typer-texter-poster. Like shrapnel flung back upon the grenade lobber, words of hostility, hatred, and hubris score the soul who would blast another from the silent side of a screen.
C.S. Lewis also warned of the effect of destructive words, the most powerful of which in his series The Chronicles of Narnia was called “the Deplorable Word.” The Word, uttered by the Empress Jadis to arrest the forces and very face of her sister as Jadis’ defeat loomed large, stopped all living things, including her own forces and subjects. Jadis had spoken the deplorable word to destroy everything but herself, preserving her own life until the time was right and she could be awakened. And while Jadis, the White Witch, isn’t quite human, her verbal blast poses a warning for every Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve. Jadis’ own world (and its flagship city of Charn) is over, but she has been let loose in the new world of Narnia, and Polly and Digory’s own world is not immune to the temptation that took her down:
“When you were last here,” said Aslan, “that hollow was a pool, and when you jumped into it you came to the world where a dying sun shone over the ruins of Charn. There is no pool now. That world is ended, as if it had never been. Let the race of Adam and Eve take warning.”
“Yes, Aslan,” said both the children. But Polly added, “But we’re not quite as bad as that world, are we, Aslan?”
“Not yet, Daughter of Eve,” he said. “Not yet. But you are growing more like it. It is not certain that some wicked one of your race will not find out a secret as evil as the Deplorable Word and use it to destroy all living things. And soon, very soon, before you are an old man and an old woman, great nations in your world will be ruled by tyrants who care no more for joy and justice and mercy than the Empress Jadis. Let your world beware. That is the warning.” (Lewis, 1955/1980c, p. 164)
The Queen presents a warning for using our own deplorable words. Contrasted with the singing of Aslan that brings Narnia into being, Jadis’ deplorable word only arrests death; it does not bring new life. This is not a passing theme. Jadis’ words reduce things to dust. In Charn, Jadis reduces “high and heavy doors” to “a heap of dust” (p. 57). In London, she attempts to turn Digory’s Aunt Letty to “dust” just as she had the gates in Charn (p. 76), but when she realizes this power of “turning people into dust” has left her (p. 77), she settles for hurling Letty across the room. Finally, in London, Digory believes that Jadis has reduced several policemen to “little heaps of dust” (p. 79). Her words and actions are powerful, no doubt, but they are not creative. Her words result in death and destruction. Her words, at best, only arrest her own death.
Likewise, the White Witch’s leadership in Narnia was only possible to arrest spring. She does not bring joviality; she can only keep it out. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Father Christmas says, “She has kept me out for a long time, but I’ve got in at last” (Lewis, 1950/1980a, p. 99). The Witch’s leadership is not fruitful because nothing grows in winter. While Charn had grown to become a great city under her ancestors, one assumes that the Witch’s leadership in Charn was likely similar to Narnia: it stunted growth and stifled life. In The Silver Chair, the owls say she “bound our land” (Lewis, 1953/1970, p. 52). In word and deed, the Witch cannot lead to anything of life; she cannot bring newness or construction. She can only preserve from death or bring to dust. Such is the life and soul of the one who would wield the deplorable word.
What might we glean from Augustine in the fifth century and from Lewis’ fiction? The justice-by-Tweet temptation is real, but yielding to that temptation is not for the one who would follow the Word made Flesh. For in the world of this Word – the only true world – we must foster, not hatred, hostility, and hubris, but instead, holiness. Within a sacramental worldview, every word is a kind of prayer. There is no word that is not overheard. God, the giver of words and the Word, is present. But the Word who allowed himself to be blasted, to be torn open as he was raised up, was deplored so that deplorable word users could become his preachers and prophets; so that words could be bound up in lives that do not simply arrest death in futility and bring pseudo-justice through rhetorical rage, but lead and love not with words of hubris, hostility, hatred, but of humility, peace, and mercy.
Augustine (1997). The Confessions (The Works of Saint Augustine I/1). Trans. Maria Boulding. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press.
Lewis, C. S. (1970). The Silver Chair. New York: Macmillan. (Original work published 1953).
Lewis, C. S. (1980a). The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. London: Lions. (Original work published 1950).
Lewis, C. S. (1980b). The Horse and his Boy. London: Lions. (Original work published 1954).
Lewis, C. S. (1980c). The Magician’s Nephew. London: Lions. (Original work published 1955).
Lewis, C. S. (1980d). The Last Battle. London: Lions. (Original work published 1956).
In 2,000 years of church history, you will find an ebb and flow of opportunities seized and opportunities lost. While church history is often a study in fracture – who split from whom, when, and why – nevertheless, it remains remarkable that community is found even today among drastically different people. An illustrative moment comes to mind: a few years ago, a friend – a Methodist leader – found herself meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican. How much may change over 500 years.
If those of us in the United States can allow ourselves to be invited to take off our America-centric lenses for a moment, we have an opportunity to receive awe. Christians are worshiping together in Japan; Nigeria (where some recently have died due to their faith); Brazil; Nepal; Russia; Egypt; Switzerland; India; China; and a host of other countries. Just from this handful of examples, we know that China and Japan have a quite painful recent history with each other; but there are followers of Jesus in China, and followers of Jesus in Japan. Week after week, genuine believers gather in community in person (or virtually) to worship, hear Scripture, pray.
We believe in the holy catholic (universal) church, and the communion of saints. The global church is astounding in its breadth, diversity, and liveliness. Within the global church, the Wesleyan Methodist branch of the family tree is also astounding in its breadth, diversity, and liveliness – 80 Wesleyan Methodist denominations with over 80 million members in over 130 countries. Differences may remain, and yet community is also celebrated every five years at the World Methodist Conference, embodied in a procession of flags as representatives enter beaming.
How is community possible? Is it, perhaps, easier to interact with Christians from other nations who are a bit removed from more local controversy? Not always; iron sharpens iron, and sometimes believers outside of our own culture see clearly through our blind spots.
The truth is that the Christian faith has never approached community as possible solely in the confines of an echo chamber. The Holy Spirit destroys feedback loops; if we quench the Spirit, we lose our saltiness. Scripture burns; affirming the Creed tugs us into alignment; the Eucharist keeps us all beggars in a bread line; works of mercy force us to learn names, not just repeat talking points. If you approach community as a customer or a food critic, you will be hard-pressed to find it.
Like a virus, loneliness has grown to epidemic proportions. When an actual virus hit, the two collided. What does community look like when tent-pole communal rituals have to be put on pause? (What does community look like when there is significant difference in risk assessment among believers who have life insurance and health insurance, and those who don’t?) Rituals imbue time and gathering with layered symbols and actions that carry meaning far beyond the immediate and literal. When you and I lose rituals – from physically attending funerals to casually lingering in a store aisle, slowly browsing and picking up greeting cards – these actions, big and small, that mark our days and moor our identity are lost.
Who are we?
We are servants; we are the younger siblings of our sisters and brothers in Christ, who are leading believers through time zones and hemispheres and governments and languages and cultures. We are people of the Way, which means we do not belong to ourselves.
The late Henri Nouwen, a Catholic brother in the faith, lent his contemplative insight on community and solitude with these words:
“Community, like solitude, is primarily a quality of the heart. While it remains true that we will never know what community is if we never come together in one place, community does not necessarily mean being physically together. We can well live in community while being physically alone. In such a situation, we can act freely, speak honestly, and suffer patiently, because of the intimate bond of love that unites us with others even when time and place separate us from them. The community of love stretches out not only beyond the boundaries of countries and continents but also beyond the boundaries of decades and centuries. Not only the awareness of those who are far away but also the memory of those who lived long ago can lead us into a healing, sustaining, and guiding community. The space for God in community transcends all limits of time and place.
Thus the discipline of community frees us to go wherever the Spirit guides us, even to places we would rather not go. This is the real Pentecost experience. When the Spirit descended on the disciples huddled together in fear, they were set free to move out of their closed room into the world. As long as they were assembled in fear they did not yet form community. But when they had received the Spirit, they became a body of free people who could stay in communion with each other even when they were as far from each other as Rome is from Jerusalem. Thus, when it is the Spirit of God and not fear that unites us in community, no distance of time or place can separate us.”
Who are we? You and I are called to be Pentecost people, shaped not by national affiliation but by the holy catholic church, and the communion of saints. You and I are called to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us individually and in us as a community, whether gathered or scattered makes no difference. You and I are called to train our eyes and our hearts and minds to see that, “the community of love stretches out not only beyond the boundaries of countries and continents but also beyond the boundaries of decades and centuries.” This is no Sophomore crush love; it is the self-giving, pelican love of the Trinity that makes all things new, thunders and whispers, and loves us too much to let us stay small in our hearts, small in our holy imagination, small in our words, loves, and actions.
Featured image courtesy Simone Busatto on Unsplash.