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.
Henry H. Knight III’s John Wesley: Optimist of Grace is a book I would like to get into the hands of as many Wesleyan Methodist pastors and lay leaders as possible. Knight has written a remarkably accessible and concise introduction to John Wesley’s life and theology without sacrificing precision and nuance.
John Wesley: Optimist of Grace
As the subtitle suggests, the core theme of this book is John Wesley’s optimism of grace. For Knight, “It is this ‘optimism of grace,’ in connection with the goal of perfection in love, that gives Wesley’s theology its inner dynamic.” Wesley’s theology is “not only a theology of love and grace, but also at its heart a theology of hope, a promise of new creation in the midst of this present age” (xv).
Knight summarizes Wesley’s time in Georgia and his infamous relationship with Sophia Hopkey with particular nuance. Whereas Wesley’s time in Georgia has often been too neatly described as a failure, Knight points to things that Wesley learned:
His belief in the importance of societies for Christian growth was reinforced and deepened. He also became aware of the power of hymnody as critical to Christian formation and worship. And as he began to recognize that there was no single model of liturgy and discipline in primitive Christianity, his devotion to the early church could move from a legalistic precisionism to a more fruitful focus on apostolic faith, life and mission (14).
Knight also notes that Wesley returned from Georgia aware of continued need for growth in his own faith. “Wesley had not found the assurance he was seeking, nor had he attained the holiness he desired. His announced goal of going to Georgia, to save his own soul, was unmet” (15).
Similar nuance is also found in Knight’s summary of Wesley’s relationship to the Moravians, his famous experience at Aldersgate Street, and subsequent conflict with the Moravians. Knight’s summary of Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection, controversy related to the teaching in the 1760s, and disagreement with his brother Charles over the doctrine is also a highlight of the book.
Knight also dedicates chapters to Wesley’s understanding of the means of grace and another to “relieving the distress of the neighbor.” His summary of the controversies in the last third of Wesley’s life is another place where Knight’s ability to concisely summarize complicated events stands out.
Several one-liners in the book highlight core concerns of Wesley’s. Here are three examples:
“The renewal of the Church occurs not through condemnation of others but through one’s own repentance” (124).
“For Wesley, it was the lack of holiness in the church that was the chief impediment to the reception of the gospel by non-Christians” (131).
“Grace at its heart is the power of the Holy Spirit; thus, we can approach God with an expectant, although not a presumptive, faith” (143).
John Wesley: Optimist of Grace is a part of the Cascade Companions Series, which is an imprint of Wipf and Stock. This series publishes “books that combine academic rigor with broad appeal and readability. They aim to introduce nonspecialist readers to that vital storehouse of authors, documents, themes, histories, arguments, and movements that compromise this heritage with brief yet compelling volumes.”
This book exceeds in accomplishing the goals of this series. And at a time when the quality of the book itself is increasingly suspect in parts of Christian publishing, this book is a welcomed exception. The design of the cover, the layout of the text, and the quality of the paper all contribute to the quality of the content itself, rather detracting from it.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in John Wesley and the theological foundations of the Wesleyan tradition. You can pick up a copy of the book here.
Honor comes to us in all sorts of ways. When we think of personal honors, we usually think of the ways we have been recognized and affirmed in a formal way. But some honors, just as or more meaningful, are not formally bestowed. To be among the 2,300 people invited to witness the private funeral of Billy Graham was a surprising non-formal honor which moved me deeply. Though I did not have a personal relationship with Billy (I refer to him that way, because that’s the way he would have it), I met him on a couple of occasions.
Because of his biblical and theological perspective, people often fail to reflect on how creative and innovative he was: the way he pioneered the use of radio and television; the way he harnessed print media; the role he played in launching a world-class magazine; and his influence in higher education, particularly theological education.
His funeral, for which he was the primary architect, was in keeping with that ongoing stream of creativity. He was certainly one of the two or three most outstanding Christian leaders of the 20th century if not the most and would certainly have massive attention in death. I can imagine him thinking, “why not use the funeral to make a witness for Christ through the tv coverage?” And that’s a big part of what happened.
The core of the service was the witness of his children, all of them simple and clear, doing what I’m sure pleased him: not praising their father, but emphasizing his message. The most meaningful for me was the sharing of one daughter who had a painful marriage that ended in divorce, talking about her shame and how dreadful it was to think of how this was affecting her Mom and Dad, but how redemptive it was when she was welcomed home by Billy with open arms. It was a powerful story. There was no pretension of perfection. The feeling was that we were at a large family funeral, friends gathered to remember, to share their grief and celebrate the life of a loved one.
Presidents had visited the family in the days before the funeral, and both the President and Vice President were in attendance at the funeral. Nothing was made of their presence. Most of us in attendance would not have even known they were there, but for a simple naming of them when a few other distinguished “visitors” were welcomed.
The entire service was full of worshipful and grateful joy. My emotions were stirred in a surprising way. For a time in the service I was overcome as my own conversion and Christian experience began to pervade my thoughts. Two men were dominant in that vivid reliving: Wiley Grisson, a fifth grade-educated Baptist preacher under whose powerful preaching I was converted, and my baptism by him, along with my father, in a cold creek, and David McKeithen, a seminary-educated Methodist preacher who paid attention to a poor country boy in the youth group, taking me under his wing and nurturing me in the faith, becoming my father in ministry.
Both of those men belong in the company of Billy Graham. Tears of joy flowed for my being blessed by those two men, and for Billy blessing millions.
Tears of repentance and sadness came when I reflected on the state of our nation today. During the service, we were remembering and celebrating the passionate ministry of this man who was relentlessly driven in sharing the Gospel and calling people to saving faith in Jesus Christ. I couldn’t help but think of Francis Asbury, the powerful evangelist that led so much of the planting of the Gospel and the Methodist movement in America. Billy Graham lay in state in our Capitol building in Washington; some folks were critical of that. I wondered if folks were critical when public monies paid for a statue of Francis Asbury on horseback, still present in our capital city.
I was sad and tearful because the signs are far from clear that we are still in the spirit of Francis Asbury, or were ever very much in the spirit of Billy Graham. So, our Methodist movement, once the most obvious presence of the Christian faith and way in this country, is diminishing in number and influence.
There are those who still insist that Billy was never as prophetic as he should have been. Some of that, though in my mind not much, may be so. As I shared in the funeral experience, my mind went back to the mid-sixties in Mississippi. I was not as prophetic, bold and courageous as I should have been, but I did take a stand for the Gospel.
Mississippi was a “closed society” as related to civil rights. Black students couldn’t get into the University of Mississippi, public schools were being integrated and private schools for whites only were rising everywhere; and not only restrooms and lunch counters but white church doors were closed to Black citizens. Along with a few other young Methodist ministers, we took a stand for justice and reconciliation. Billy Graham refused to have a crusade in Mississippi that was not open to all races.
Though not an honor formally bestowed, the invitation to Billy’s private funeral was a signal honor for which I am deeply grateful. I have long believed that my evangelical faith calls me to be passionate in sharing the Gospel, which means calling people to salvation: personal faith in Jesus Christ which means reconciliation with God and neighbor, and personal and social holiness. Billy’s funeral intensified that belief and commitment.
I’m going to confess something. Sometimes I don’t know what to pray. Sometimes it’s because I am facing a new, difficult situation, sometimes I’m looking in the face of someone hurting so deeply that my words don’t seem big enough, and sometimes I’m just distracted.
This isn’t a new thing for me. I’ve always had this problem. I remember being in a prayer meeting as a teenager at youth camp sitting on a screened in porch in a metal folding chair. I was in awe of everyone else in the group. Without any time to think of what they wanted to say, they would go on and on pouring their hearts out to God. It was beautiful, but when it came my turn to say something, I stumbled over a couple sentences that sounded as confused as I felt.
It was the same when I was by myself. Often I would feel a deep hunger to pray, but when I tried, the words came out all wrong. So, I asked a couple different mentors in my life what I should do. The first told me I should keep a list of prayer requests. My list quickly grew to a couple pages in my notebook, but I always felt weird just rattling off requests like God was some genie in a bottle.
The other mentor said I should begin by naming things I liked about God, then thanking God for what God did in my life. After that they said I should ask God anything I needed help with or wanted done, and then I could close the prayer by sitting in silence. Though I got better the more I tried, I never felt fulfilled in that area of my spiritual life.
It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I discovered that all of this was really one type of prayer: spontaneous prayer. And for many people, spontaneous prayer is not the best option in every (or even most) situations.
That’s why for millennia, people have been writing prayers and compiling those prayers into prayer books. They offered those works as tools so that people who wanted to spend time communing and conversing with God had a sort of scaffolding on which to stand as they built their house of prayer.
Beyond that there were many spiritual leaders who pioneered more contemplative approaches to prayer that helped people clear the clogged stream of their mind and rest in the presence of God.
As soon as I discovered these beautiful prayer books and ancient, mystical prayer practices I couldn’t get enough. I kept digging and reading and learning until what once was the most difficult aspect of my spiritual life was the most rewarding.
Several months ago I began working on my own version of that scaffolding in the form of a new prayer book. I began gathering old Christian Poetry, powerful Bible verses, and ancient prayer methods and putting them together into something new. I created several prayer services for each day of the week that were written with a different time of day in mind (dawn, morning, afternoon, end of day and midnight). I wanted people to be able to pick up the book at any moment of the week and have words to express their hearts to God.
Then I sat down with a group of young adults and asked them to help me come up with a list of of the moments in life where they came up empty when trying to express their hearts to God. Over many late nights I crafted words to do just that.
After thousands of words, it became clear that there was one thing missing. Sometimes we need less words. Sometimes less words=more prayer. The final movement of the book is a brief introduction to the mystical prayer practices that have lasted for many centuries and helped many spiritual pilgrims connect with their creator.
The book is called The Book of Everyday Prayer, and it’s for everyone who, like me, needs more than what comes off the top of their head. It’s for the teen, young adult and adult who are ready to claim old hymns, beautiful Bible verses and a new word or two as their own prayers. It’s for all of us who need something to help us focus on God in those stolen moments in the parking lot or when we wake up earlier than we planned.
Thirty years ago, I drove 500 miles with college buddies to see U2’s “Joshua Tree” tour stop in Houston. “I can’t change the world / But I can change the world in me,” Bono had sung on a previous album. Young and idealistic, I believed it then. Strangely, I still believe it today. I’ve never forgotten that night – nor the long drive back to get to class the next day. U2 was recently back in Houston to mark the anniversary of the album that arguably handed them the keys to the kingdom of global rock stardom – #1 album in 23 countries. I’ve written extensively about these Irishmen over the last 20 years, but this full-circle “Joshua Tree” tour still triggered moments of emotional daggers-through-the-heart, tribal fist pumps, and Pentecostal hanky waving – transcendence.
The album concept was titled after a prickly and ungainly desert tree named Joshua by settlers because it resembled the Old Testament prophet’s out-stretched arms toward the heavens and deep roots – strangely symbolic for an Irish band from a country divided with sectarian barbwire and religio-political quagmires. Raised by a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, Bono lived the brutal divide. With the loss of his mother at age 14, he grew up under the weight and anguish of tragedy. Then there was the whirlwind of a charismatic revival among some of the bandmates and the stirring of a struggle between rock ‘n’ roll’s narcissism and an unseen kingdom where the first shall be last and the backstage passes are given to those who honor humility as a prime virtue.
Through all this, Bono remains rock ‘n’ roll’s most effective spiritual provocateur. He sees every stage as a pulpit and every coliseum as a cathedral. He talks breezily about the theological superiority of grace over karma to jaundiced rock journalists, launched the humanitarian One Campaign (one.org), and recently wrote the foreword to the Bible paraphrase The Message. “My religion could not be fiction but it had to transcend facts,” Bono wrote in a foreword to the Psalms in 1999. “It could be mystical, but not mythical and definitely not ritual.”
U2 has sold more than 170 million albums, collecting 22 Grammys along the way. This world tour features a stunning visual spectacle with a 200 x 45 foot high-def LED screen choreographing imagery with the music. For me, three vitally essential images stood out.
First, a Salvation Army brass band accompanied U2 during the haunting “Red Hill Mining Town.” Never before played live, the song is about the devastation and helplessness of an unemployed miner. “Love, slowly stripped away/ Love, has seen its better day.” The Salvation Army is the most reliable global Christian symbol for faith in action – soup, soap, salvation, and loud music. Under the 150 year old banner of “Blood and Fire,” this ministry – operating in nearly 130 countries – has extended the hand of grace to the down and outers, prostitutes, alcoholics, morphine addicts, unwed mothers, and victims of human trafficking. The original plan was for a brass band to play at every stop on the tour, but the film of them playing in the Santa Clarita Valley of California provides a keen juxtaposition about U2 identifying with the historic message of Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth that help is only a drumbeat away (salvationarmyusa.org).
“This was a privilege to be a part of and so much fun to film,” Jacqui Larsson, a member of the ethnically diverse Salvation Army band from Southern California, told me. “It was great to represent The Salvation Army to such a wide audience. We have already heard a few stories of how this video has had a huge impact on people’s lives in a way we had never expected.”
In a long list of poignant moments, the second occurred when we were introduced to Omaima Thaer Hoshan, a 15-year-old Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan. In the midst of the chaos of her circumstances, she voiced her aspirations and hopes for a better tomorrow. A gargantuan banner with her face is passed hand-to-hand throughout the stadium. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that there is a hellhole on the other side of the globe. At bare minimum, pray for her safety and be grateful you are not where she is.
Lastly, during a visual montage of notable female politicians and musicians (Sojourner Truth, Patti Smith, Angela Merkel, etc.), one stood out as a sister-in-arms with U2’s sonic art. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), a personal heroine, was the undisputed queen of rock and gospel music, shredding an electric guitar and boldly taking her sanctified skills and songs outside the four walls of the church – taking church to the people. Keep the faith, she would say to U2, and rock on. Bono has called “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” an anthem of both doubt and faith. Whichever side of the coin you’re on, it continues to reverberate in the souls of saints and sinners alike. In the midst of uncertainty, it is anchored in redemption: “You broke the bonds / You loosed the chains / You carried the cross / And my shame / And my shame / You know I believe it.”
Bono sometimes mentions music producer Quincy Jones’ observation about waiting for God to walk in the room while making music, letting him fill in the blanks. It’s true. Sometimes. On occasion, divine intervention occurs with albums and concerts. Thirty years ago, I sensed the raucous epiphany during “Joshua Tree.” It was sweet relief, most recently, to experience it all over again.
Reprinted from Good News Magazine with permission.
Note from the Editor: Over the years Wesleyan Accent has featured many voices from across the Wesleyan Methodist family of Christian faith. This includes contributors from The Wesleyan Church, The United Methodist Church, The A.M.E. Zion Church, The Church of the Nazarene, and more.
We’re pleased that among the pastors and professors who write for us, we regularly feature strong voices of women in ministry who preach and proclaim the Christian faith. John and Charles Wesley watched their mother Susanna teach Bible studies to villagers gathered at the parsonage door. Her letters to John when he was grown to adulthood show a woman of profound spiritual wisdom.
Today, enjoy this selection of just a few of our posts written by women in ministry. Remember, if you type an author’s name into our search bar, other posts written by her will show in the search results.
Thank you for traveling with us in the company of the Wesleys.
American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was renowned for his ability to compare ostensibly opposing worldviews, philosophies, and religions through the lens of mythology. What Campbell discovered was that the human experience could be reduced down to a single concept: the “monomyth.” In other words, all human traditions have an archetypal pattern with thousands of variations, which basically tell the same story: the hero’s journey.1
The hero’s journey involves as many as 17 stages and centers on a man or woman who goes on an adventure, is confronted with a crisis or resistance inevitably resulting in a decisive battle, and ensuing victory, which forever changes the hero(ine). At the conclusion of the hero’s journey, the audience is charged—through the power of the tale’s rhetoric—and implicitly beckoned to pursue their own personal quest. Once applying his method to various stories, movies, and books, one sees the merit of Campbell’s work and how the monomyth accurately portrays much of the common human experience.
And we Americans? We love the hero’s journey. We starve for it. It’s all around us. It’s part of the very fabric of our society. We are drawn to it, sing, it, celebrate it, and deep down in the inner recesses of our hearts, we ultimately want to be a hero.
Journey and Resistance
In Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo, Father Rodrigues learns that his mentor, Father Ferreira, has allegedly committed the egregious sin of apostasy. Though Christian persecution was pervasive in 17th century Japan in which the novel is set, Rodrigues and Garupe, Ferreira’s other mentee, could not possibly conceive of any scenario where their mentor could commit such an act of infidelity. Hence, they must depart immediately on their quest to investigate and (dis)prove any legitimacy of these claims.
Upon arriving in Japan, Father Rodrigues and Garupe realize that the persecution against Christians is much more severe than they had ever imagined. Yet, this will not stop our hero(es). The tandem duo is surreptitiously brought into a village full of Christians to whom they immediately minister in secret. At this point, we begin to notice that their mission—to recover or disprove the alleged news regarding Ferreira—is slightly modified and expanded: to tend to a desperate flock. To be sure, much is to be commended for their care amongst the despairing congregation; however, once the heat turns up, and the antagonist, The Inquisitor, discovers subversive Christian life in this village, a realization begins to surface: our hero’s quest has become extremely complicated and convoluted, and he has some cracks in his armor.
Without spoiling too much, I contend that characters in the biblical text begin to emerge in Rodrigues’ imagination: Pilate (the Inquisitor), Judas (Kichijiro), and Jesus (Rodrigues). Our hero develops a complex and compares his struggles and hardships with those of Christ. Without a doubt, trying to be like Jesus isn’t a bad thing. Imitatio Christi is good – yet we have limitation in our imitation. There are some things that were only intended for Jesus to undertake (e.g., die for the sins of the world). As Silence unfolds, Rodrigues’ romanticized illusion of martyrdom intensifies. Is he really the savior of this flock? Is he on a mission or a conquest?2
Legend has it that an aspiring disciple of the Way of the Tea, Sen no Rikyu, sought the tutelage of a tea-master, Takeeno Joo. First lesson? Tend the garden. Rikyu, with delicate precision, presented an immaculate garden before the tea master, but not before shaking a cherry tree, resulting in the perfect garden being scattered with a few random leaves.
In the 15th century an aesthetic and worldview in Japan began to manifest. Rikyu was revered as one who embodied its very essence. Wabi-sabi originated as a reaction against the popular lavish depictions of beauty in art at that time. In contrast to predominant forms of the day, wabi-sabi emphasized imperfection, impermanence, finitude, and authenticity.
A contemporary example might help us to understand. In the recent TV show The Man in the High Castle, there is an entire episode in which Nobusuke Tagomi (Trade Minister of the Pacific States) repairs a broken white coffee mug. We’d probably expect him to use some sort of white lacquer to distract any attention from previous cracks; however, he doesn’t do that. Instead, Tagomi uses what looks like a gold lacquer to highlight the imperfections (which is very wabi-sabi of Tagomi).
In Silence Rodrigues’ romantic vision of Christianity is one that exists as if there are no cracks. Filled by lofty propositional truths, and a God on a high and mighty throne, Rodrigues does his best to muster up strength to remain faultless. Continuing up the path of the hero, he repeatedly fails to recognize the cracks in his armor.
The Way of the Saint4
Not all literary gurus agree that Campbell’s analysis of the monomyth—an all-encompassing existential metanarrative with variegated threads—is entirely accurate. In lieu of the monomyth, Frank J. Ambrosio has argued there are actually two paradigms: the way of the hero and the way of the saint. Whereas the hero is on the path towards the goal of achieving self-fulfillment and glorious honor, the saint is guided by love and a responsibility towards the other and one’s community. Both the hero and the saint are on the same quest—the meaning of life—but arrive at two different conclusions.
From Hero to Saint? (SPOILER)
At the dénouement of Silence, Rodrigues is brought face to face with his mentor, the alleged apostate Ferreira. Up to this point, Rodrigues had witnessed multiple Japanese Christians suffer torturous conditions and death. Doubt is at a fever pitch. Rodrigues even tells some of his flock to step on the fumi-e (image of Jesus) to escape this unbearable situation; our hero, however, would not concede.
Reminiscent of a stubborn athlete, our hero will not budge. And just like a coach (or person in charge) disciplining the stubborn player, by making the whole team suffer for the one who thinks they are in the right – paining the player to no end – likewise, the Inquisitor causes the village to suffer because of Rodrigues’ refusal to recant.
But the confrontation with Ferreira proves a formidable challenge. Despite Rodrigues’ stalwart attempts, Ferreira appears to be a goner.
Or is he? The once-priest tells him Japan is a swamp. The gospel will not take root in this land. The “Christians” there aren’t really Christians but syncretists (an aside which raises a host of questions regarding contextualization).
Later that night, our hero is presented with the greatest challenge. After complaining about the loud snoring, Rodrigues is informed that the sound is actually coming from the suffering of other Japanese Christians. This is the breaking point, and the most controversial scene in the movie. Ferreira invites Rodrigues to engage in the hardest act of love he will ever face—to trample the fumi-e—and thus end the torture. As declared by his opponents throughout, he is assured it will only be a “formality.”
As Rodrigues gazes upon the fumi-e, the silence is unbroken. The voice of Jesus whispers, “Go ahead now. It’s all right. Step on me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Your life is with me now. Step.”
And so in deep despair, Rodrigues relinquishes the pursuit of victory – the hero’s journey— and accepts defeat for the sake of love. He steps on the fumi-e. Rodrigues undergoes a Christian version of wabi-sabi; through weakness, his armor is cracked and filled by the power of Christ. Effectually, he participates in the death of Christ, and begins his journey anew toward the way of the saint.
Or maybe that is my hope? I desire that in the end Rodrigues was faithful despite what appears to be apostasy. Could it have been just a matter of formality? What even is apostasy? Is it just a declaration, an assent? What about being a functional apostate in the day-to-day without publicizing it? Could it be just an example of “alternative facts”?
There are so many questions raised by this film, and ultimately I think what we desire is resolution and certitude. But only one thing is certain to me in this film (as I suspect in the book): it’s a shroud of mystery. The world of Silence isn’t clear-cut black and white, but full of grey and confusion. Maybe Rodrigues was a hero, a saint, or both?
The conclusion of the movie remains murky. One of the more heartbreaking consequences is that our (ex)hero-saint must spend the rest of his life exiled in Japan without the fellowship of other believers (even this statement can be scrutinized, for I suspect that a touching reunion and reconciliation with Kichijiro (“Judas”) in the final scene may suggest otherwise). With few exceptions, God ultimately calls, gathers, and sends Christians out together as the communion of the saints, not in isolation.
My one-year-old daughter and I try to walk to the park whenever it’s warm enough to go see the ducks at the pond. Yesterday we saw an aberration. After visiting the pond almost daily for the past three weeks, we saw a stranger to these parts: the heron. Sticking out like a sore thumb, this majestic bird immediately grabbed the attention of my daughter, but this time she didn’t say, “duck.” She knew it was different and mysterious. As we observed for a few minutes, we noticed that although the ducks, geese, and heron inhabited the same pond, it was clear that the heron wasn’t welcomed. A few geese even hissed at it. Staring quietly as mere bystanders, we watched the heron remain by itself, all alone, in the marshy-like terrain, and in that moment I was reminded of Rodrigues.
Viewer discretion advised. This film is rated R for violent content.
Click here to watch a conversation with Martin Scorsese on faith and film recently hosted by Fuller Theological Seminary.
Note from the Editor: About ten years ago I was struck by the force of this painting. Its impact felt like a body blow. Recently, as I followed the news coming from Syria, often accompanied by heartbreaking photos, the painting came back to mind. I contacted the artist to ask permission for use.
There is a robust history of artistic license when it comes to portrayals of Christ. On the one hand, Jesus Christ was a Middle Eastern man whose existence is verified by historians. On the other hand, Christians affirm that Jesus was also fully divine, the Son of God. Because of the truth that God took on human flesh to enter into our existence, sometimes artists dwell in that larger thought, portraying Jesus as an African man, or a Japanese fisherman, or as a blond-haired, blue-eyed European. Other times, artists have attempted to portray the physical specificity of the Christ child who was born in Bethlehem to poor Jewish parents 2,000 years ago.
This work marries the visual structure of classic nativity paintings with heartbreaking detail derived from current events. It shows us Middle Eastern faces – but in mourning, ravaged by violence, not lit with a celestial bliss. And after all, when it comes to nativity art, who dwells on the part of the Christmas story where Herod has infants and toddlers killed in his pursuit of his pint-sized rival? Even the Christmas story – especially the Christmas story – can’t escape the fallen world in which it takes place, the very reason it takes place. Jesus was born, and women wept for their young sons killed by Herod’s soldiers.
Meditate, then, on this work by Sandy Blass: “Why Deny the Obvious Child?” See more of her work at www.blassart.com.
For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.
Hebrews 13:8, The Message
For as long as I can remember I have loved words. I read short novels at a young age and have always been comfortable expressing myself in front of people. I am an odd combination of bookish yet outgoing. It is the power of words that fascinates me. This combination of symbols on a page, or a screen in this case, can move you to feel any number of emotions, take you to any place in the past, or to worlds that have yet to exist. Words are lightning in a bottle.
This fascination may be why I was drawn to the pastoral vocation. Whether in a sermon, blog post or conversation, as a pastor I am required to use my words to create new worlds for people to walk into. It is an art and a delight when it works well.
Lately my interest has turned to reading poetry. I think I am drawn so much to poetry these days because over and above anything else poets are themselves. They speak from a raw, sometimes scandalous place that many of us don’t have access to. As a pastor it can be very hard to be yourself, yet it is essential if you want to have anything of value to communicate.
Over the years there are dozens of poems that have shaped my inner life, but today I want to share two from self-titled “praise poet” Mary Oliver. I love that it feels like she has lived what she has written about. When she writes about forgiveness or venturing out into the unknown, you get the sense that she writes from experience. As I use my words to bring more of Jesus’ Kingdom into the world I don’t want it to seem like I am faking it for effect. I want to have lived to tell the tale I am telling you too.
I invite you to read both poems and sit with them for a bit before moving to my commentary. Maybe they have something to teach you that I have not yet thought of.
“The Uses of Sorrow”
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
This very short poem, almost a quote really, sums up my work as a pastor. I am tasked with peering into the darkness in myself and somehow by the grace of God finding a redemptive perspective to it. For years I thought of my work as helping others do this, but I have learned that I must be the one to go first. If I cannot do this with my greatest tragedies, how can I lead others to do the same?
I love that Mary Oliver doesn’t minimize the darkness or throw up her hands and say it is God’s plan too early. People who haven’t dealt with their pain tend to do this. She lets it stay darkness but transforms her relationship to it from victim to victor. It is in this act that we become more than conquerors.
If someone has given you a “box full of darkness” I am truly sorry. It is a painful, terrible thing to deal with. I cannot offer a quick fix, but if you sit with it and learn what it has to teach you, things will get better in time. This process often comes at night when we aren’t looking for it; when we have stopped hoping for it. You realize that the thing you thought would destroy you forever has made you into a better person. That is good news indeed.
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
I read this poem about once a week. Over the last year it has spoken to me in a way the Scriptures haven’t, which can happen when your business is the Bible. The dry, professional nature the Scriptures can take on when you have studied them for years used to bother me. I would wonder what was wrong with me. I realize now that sometimes God delights in speaking through poets and prophets.
Back to the poem, I find that as a pastor it is easy to get caught up in someone else’s drama. Each person’s need is so great that I forget God has a unique part for me to play too. Mary Oliver reminds me that the voice I am called to listen to isn’t speaking to someone else. It is speaking to me and me alone. It is for me and me alone.
That could sound incredibly selfish, but most good advice does. Yes, I am called to save many lives, but at the end of the day I can really only know if one is actually saved. I am responsible for shepherding and cultivating this one wild life that I have been given.
In Christian circles we talk a lot about selling our souls. We can sell them to success, money, or even the devil. We rarely talk about selling our souls to people. When those voices cry out to you, “mend my life!” what deeper voices are they drowning out?
This poem builds on a theme in Mary Oliver’s poetry that I have seen in my life – that of sudden revelation. One day you just know what you have to do. It is never the right time. It always feels too late. There are always other obligations to tie up or make right. Yet there is still this thing you know you have to do. Maybe it is a relationship that needs mended or broken off, a new career path that is unknown or uncertain, a new vision that you know will meet resistance. All you know is that there is something you must do.
All I can say is begin. Start. Go. That deep down voice is there for a reason. It is the place where we meet God. Don’t be afraid of it.
This is what I love about Mary Oliver’s poetry. It encourages me to follow my inner voice. This has always been the Jesus tradition. Where does God speak to Elijah? A still small voice. Where does the Spirit of God reside? In the hearts of people. Where does Jesus encourage us to pray? Not in front of others but in a lonely, quiet closet. In the quiet moments God speaks suddenly and inconveniently, telling us exactly where we need to go.
There is a line in Hebrews that Eugene Peterson translates so well. It says this about Jesus, “For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.” That is a kind of confidence that I only have when I am in touch with my deepest self, the one hidden in God. When I can operate from that space I am dynamite, on fire, full of grace and truth. My words change lives. I lose it when I put on the mask, when I hide from that voice, and mend everyone else’s pain but my own. I become just another codependent minister, of some use but ultimately forgettable.
So where are you? Have you lost your inner voice? Have you managed others’ pain at the expense of your own healing? How can poetry, art, or quiet get you back to the place where you can always be totally yourself?