Sunday, February 28, 2010

the yearning of a crazy heart

I knew I would want to see Crazy Heart when I learned of T-Bone Burnett's association with the music. The idea of a country musician as the main character was also intriguing, and the presence of Robert Duvall in the film took me back to the classic Tender Mercies. I watched Jeff Bridges receive the best actor award from the Screen Actor's Guild, and I had a growing sense that this would be a special movie.

It is.

One does not have to appreciate roots music to enjoy Crazy Heart, but it helps. Bad Blake has hit bottom, personally and professionally, but the music is a constant, and in T-Bone Burnett's hands the sound is pitch perfect. Performing in a bowling alley to a gathering of fans who know the words to every lyric, Bad (Bridges) makes it through the set, but one has the sense that life cannot continue in this way. It gets better--he reconnects with a performer, now a star, whom he had earlier mentored---their relationship personifies the gulf between commercially viable and artistically credible country music, and both sides understand the unfairness of it all. This critique is reinforced by the inclusion on the soundtrack of Waylon Jennings’ classic Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” This answer is an obvious “no”.

Bad's relationship with a younger woman, a journalist at work on a story about him, is the subtext for his mostly successful attempt at rehabilitation. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is strong and complex; without giving away too much of the plot, I loved the ambiguity of their friendship/romance. In this respect Crazy Heart is both like and unlike Tender Mercies. The latter was also about a musician who is an alcoholic, who hits bottom and meets a woman whose influence is redemptive. The outcome in this movie, however, is slightly different, and I will allow you to watch the film and reflect on that for yourself. In each film, the ending was appropriate, holding in tension the realities of wounding and healing, loss and love, falling and flying.

It is also true that in each film the music not only serves as background music, but carries the narrative thread of the movie. In Crazy Heart, "Hold On You" conveys Bad's inability to grasp what he is most in need of; "Falling and Flying" reflects on our temptation toward self-destruction; and the theme expresses the world weariness of Bad's pilgrimage through the desert. I was not familiar with Ryan Bingham, who contributed this latter piece (and who has a cameo appearance in the film), but his presence strengthens the music; his voice does resemble Tom Waits, as more than one critic has noted. And yet the emotional core of the film’s music belongs to Bridges, whose performance is nothing short of remarkable. If there is any justice in the world, he will win the Academy Award for best actor next Sunday evening. And the preacher in me must also note the timing of the film's appearance in the popular culture during the season of Lent; Bad Blake's journey is literally one that takes him through the desert in search of a greater meaning.

It It is a hard life, from beginning to end, and what helps us through to the other side is the music, which voices the longings of a crazy heart. For this reason and many others, I love this movie.

Monday, February 22, 2010

temptations wherever we are

The Exodus is the journey from slavery to freedom. On the way Israel’s passes through the sea (for us an image of baptism) and enters into the wilderness, where they are sustained with daily manna (an image of communion).It is a powerful narrative and has captured the human imagination across cultures and over the centuries, from the ancient middle east to the underground railroads of the United States of America.

This narrative shaped Jesus, who was Jewish, who understood Exodus to be the story of the salvation of his people. The temptations of Jesus are the traditional gospel readings for the first Sunday in Lent--- we find them in Matthew 4, Luke 4 and Mark 1. We reflect on his forty days in the wilderness, which corresponded to forty years for Israel, and it is appropriate that we connect his temptations and testings with ours.

What are the temptations of Jesus? To live by bread alone---the temptation of materialism. To worship more than one god—the temptation of idolatry. To throw himself from the temple---the temptation of testing God. Henri Nouwen describes these as the temptations to be relevant (stones into bread), to be powerful (all these kingdoms can be yours), to be spectacular (throw yourself down and allow the angels to catch you).

This week temptation became a buzz word in the vocabulary of our popular culture, all of a sudden, in anticipation of a statement that Tiger Woods would make on Friday. What would he say and how would he say it? Having had his personal affairs dragged across television, sports talk radio and the internet for months, having gone into exile, he would now emerge on the stage to apologize, to ask forgiveness. How did he do? Well it is of course up to the beholder to mark the scorecard. He talked about temptation, which caught my ear, he talked about his failures but also about his virtues and his religion, and he broached the subject of when he would return to golf. It was partly for his family, partly for the media, partly for his fans, partly for his corporate sponsors.

And after the fifteen minutes, there was plenty of time for everyone to comment. Some guy said it on sports talk radio: if Tiger is a role model, “don’t be so quick to judge…what would you do in the same situation?” Writing in the New York Times, Doug Glanville, former professional baseball player, makes the point:

Tiger Woods has been transformational for the game of golf in so many ways. That is indisputable. But he has proven to be just like every other figure who fell for the little guy with the pitchfork on his shoulder telling him, “It’s all good, no one will know, you can get away with it.” But that little guy on his shoulder didn’t tell him that in the real world, you don’t get away with it because even when you are the only one who knows, that is enough to destroy you. It just will happen from the inside out.” (February 22, 2010)

We know the temptations of Jesus and the temptations of Tiger Woods. What are our temptations? We miss the meaning of the temptations if we dismiss them as being unlike our own experiences, for most temptations come to us in subtle forms. Most of us are tempted by materialism in one way or another—we want to have what our neighbor has, or we work too much to purchase things that we convince ourselves that we need. And so work can crowd out time for God, family, friendships, or self-reflection. We do live by bread, but not by bread alone. In Matthew’s gospel there is the inclusion of the full verse that Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8. 3: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Make no mistake: Jesus fed the hungry, and the followers of Jesus feed the hungry until this day---but he feeds us as well with the word of God.

How are you tempted to live by bread alone? To live by bread alone is to focus on style and not substance, on the surface and not depth, on what is seen rather than what is unseen. At one of the Ash Wednesday services I listened to the words of the Apostle Paul from II Corinthians 5, also a traditional reading for that day:

We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; As unknown, and yet are well known; As dying, and see, we are alive; As punished, and yet not killed; As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; As poor, yet making many rich As having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

The temptation of the church in a postmodern world is to live by bread alone--- it is the temptation to be relevant, comparing ourselves to other churches, wondering what the media is saying about us, to focus on what can be seen, and yes, to focus even on what can be measured. But the deeper meaning of church is what cannot be seen—the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love, the everlasting arms upon which we lean, the peace that surpasses human understanding, what we have done unto the least of these.

At its best, the church resists the temptations of the world, to be relevant, and listens for the word that comes from the mouth of God. It is going more deeply into the life, death and resurrection with Jesus and there is no better place to begin that journey than today. Along the way we discover that Jesus himself was tested, and, at the conclusion of today’s gospel, there is a phrase that occurs only in Luke:

When the devil had finished every test, he departed until an opportune time.

If you read later in Luke’s gospel, in chapter 22, Satan enters into the heart of Judas, who betrays Jesus, and Peter, who denies him. Here we connect the first Sunday in Lent with the readings of the Good Friday Tenebrae service, but we also relate to this on a more human level---we are never beyond temptation, we never permanently overcome the testings that came to Jesus throughout his life and will come to us as well.

The wilderness is not something we pass through, in a linear path toward progress and enlightenment. It is a place of testing and struggle, and we return to it again and again. Our reading from Deuteronomy 26 is a stewardship sermon for Israel, (don’t tune me out here), advice for them about what it will be like to live in the promised land. Once they settle into a new place, they need to remember all that Moses is teaching them. It is both simple and challenging.

Moses says, in essence: God gives us the land, it is our inheritance, it was promised to us and God has kept his word. Now, once you have taken possession of it, you shall (remember, this is the law, note those words---you shall) take some of the first fruit of the ground that you harvest, put it into a basket and go to the house of the Lord. Take it to the priest and set it before the Altar of the Lord. Why? Here there is, in the midst of the passage, a creed, is a remembrance of all that God has done:

When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us by imposing hard labor on us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; The Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. With a terrifying display of power and with signs and wonders and he brought us into this place and gave us this land a land flowing with milk and honey.

That is the confession of faith. And then the offering: So now I bring the first fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given to me. It is the culmination of a long journey: from slavery, to the decision to cross the sea with all of its risk and danger to the time of wandering in the wilderness and finally they have made it. This is the core of the faith for our Jewish friends. But where are we in all of this? It helps to remember that we are one people with Israel, even if we have ignored the salvation history of Israel, which is not in our creeds, nor is it in most of our hymns. And so it is good to know this story, because it is our family story, we have been grafted into this tree of life.

But at another level, it is true that we don’t read scripture simply for the history, but also for application in our present circumstances. What does it mean to live in the promised land? For those who would look in upon us, it would appear that most of us dwell in a land flowing with milk and honey—the stereotype would be that we have it made! We want something, we go buy it, or at least we borrow the money. There are few closed doors to most anything that we want to experience---we are included, and not marginalized, most of the time. Now this is a generalization, I know, but it is more true than most of us would like to admit.

So what does it mean to live in the promised land? It turns out that there are temptations in the promised land, just as there were in the wilderness, only they are different temptations. The first temptation is to forget the source of the power and blessing that got you to the place where you are. Tiger Woods talked about feeling “entitled”. We could also use the word privilege. It is easy to come into the promised land and think, it was my power, it was my goodness, it was my talent that got me to this place.

That is why the ritual of the first fruits is so crucial. Give the first fruits to God, not what is left over, not a prudent determination of what you think others are giving. Give the first fruits. Is God more important than sports? Is God more important than leisure? Is God more important than education? Is God more important than appearances? So what do I give up for Lent? If it is something that is important to me, something of first importance, I am in touch with a practice that is three thousand years old and has the power to transform me spiritually. It is easy to let go of the outstretched arm of the One who saves us.

There is another temptation in the promised land . Once you’ve made it, to compromise. This is the struggle of the Methodist minister in Blood Done Sign My Name, to speak the truth. The prophets have always drawn their strength from the story of the Exodus, the journey from slavery to freedom, knowing that the God of the Bible is always on the side of freedom. The story of Israel, and it is the story of Jesus and it is our story, is that we never get beyond temptation and testing. How do we survive, or better yet, how do we flourish? We watch for the subtle signs of temptation---we also call them rationalizations. We listen for the word of God---Lent is a great season to read scripture, you could start with Luke 4 today and read through the end of Luke’s gospel by Easter. We connect with each other---in the body of Christ, at its best, we find community, support and also the accountability that we need; isolated from it, we are on our own, and the voice of the tempter seems to make more sense, even if it leads to our destruction. We give our first fruits, ---not what is recycled after the world has consumed it, or us, we give our best to God

There are temptations in the wilderness, where things are really a mess, and in the promised land, where it is going relatively smoothly. Most of us are somewhere on a continuum between these two places. Where we are is no so important. There is a constant. God is in the wilderness, to sustain us, and God is in the promised land, a reminder of who and whose we are.

Sources: Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus. Robert Jenson, The Lectionary Commentary (Deuteronomy). Timothy Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"fargo" and the winter olympics

So I was sitting down to watch a little television and became aware, on a Thursday evening that my usual NBC fare (including my continuing education in multiple staff supervison, "The Office"), would be pre-empted. I confess that I have only a mild interest in the Winter Olympics, which must be the result of my geographically impaired childhood; I saw snow for the first time as a teenager in south Georgia. I did not grow up snow skiing, to say nothing of curling, so it is all a bit foreign to me. I confess my regional limitations. At the same time, I am surrounded at work by people who are actually staying up late each night to watch as much of the action as possible. I don't get it.

In clicking through the TV Guide I noticed that "Fargo" was about to begin. If you have never seen the movie "Fargo", turn off your laptop, close it, go to your nearest movie rental source and get a copy.

Now that you have viewed "Fargo", we can proceed. It is, in my estimation, a masterpiece of Americana, comparable to the novels of William Faulkner, the Godfather films of Francis Ford Coppola, or the music of Bob Dylan. The Coen brothers have an eye and ear for the richness of regional diversity in our land: note O Brother Where Art Thou or No Country For Old Men. And here they capture the ethos of the Dakotas and Minnesota in a way that is quite stunning, especially to the outsider.

How is this so? As a film, "Fargo" succeeds on a number of levels. It is a succession of one remarkable scene after another: an unlikely meal with a troubled former acquaintance, who is clueless enough to make a romantic advance with a very pregnant police officer; an awkward conversation (actually all of William Macy's conversations are awkward) between a man and his father-in-law over money; a serious conversation between a couple, she in the search for a dangerous sociopath, he agonizing over a stamp competition. I could go on. The most memorable scene, for me (apart from the woodchipper) is the conclusion, when Marge Gunderson gives a moral lecture to the killer she has just captured. He is oblivious, of course, but in reality she is speaking to herself. The characters are compelling: the cowardly and inept car dealer and his greedy father-in-law; the equally incompetent criminal and his uncommunicative partner in crime; the courageous police detective, vulnerable in her pregnancy and yet fearless and even single-minded in her pursuit of justice, and, yes, her brooding and somewhat unconcerned artistic husband.

So, I was able to watch "Fargo" again, and in the context of the Winter Olympics there are obvious parallels: the aesthetic experience of watching snow and ice (a problem for this year's games in Vancouver, but apparently also an issue for the filming of "Fargo" in 1995, during an unseasonably mild winter in Minnesota); the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat; and viewing events that are just plain odd (like curling, or a Jose Feliciano concert). In the end, Marge Gunderson surely gets the gold (and she received a richly deserved oscar for best leading actress in this role); Norm gets only a bronze for his three cent stamp, even as she reassures her that it is quite the achievement.

What really appeals to me about "Fargo"? There is the sense that the universal is in the particular. I grew up imagining that human depravity was an exclusively southern reality, and, God knows, there is warrant for such a perception. To see human depravity and evil in a very different regional idiom is to have one's world expanded, not unlike playing baseball as a kid, and growing up to watch curling.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

a very simple lenten practice

1. Spend ten minutes in the evening clarifying the three most important things you need to do the next day. These might be difficult activities, or they might simply be of greatest significance. This step is crucial, and you will need silence to choose the three activities.

2. Write these on an index card.
3. The next day, accomplish these three things before noon.
4. In the afternoon and evening, you may find yourself doing a variety of things. But the most important work is done.
5. That evening, repeat step # 1.

Monday, February 15, 2010

standing in the light

A couple of years ago I was sitting in a worship service in Haiti. It was a two hour service (!). I thought about our more traditional service back home and imagined it being two hours. Then I came back to reality!

I looked around at the people near me. It was crowded. I reflected on the difficulties of their lives. Yes, the service was long, but maybe, like the disciples on the mountain of transfiguration, they may have wanted to stay here, maybe this was the mountaintop in the midst of a week that was mostly lived in the valley of suffering. The next day, in the medical clinic, there was the suffering: a grandfather, with a very young granddaughter, the exhaustion and yet the love present in his face, and the family history, both parents having died of HIV/Aids.

And I thought, this is why we hike down from the mountain. To say it plainly, Jesus is God with us, not a God of conventional beauty or royalty, but a God who stoops to our weakness. Jesus is present not only as he is transfigured but as he suffers, not only in his glory but also in his humility and in his humanity; this is my body, broken for you, he says, this is my blood, poured out for you. And then, mysteriously, miraculously, he says something more. You are my very body, he says to us, your life is to be sacrificed for others. He dwells not in permanent structures high upon mountain peaks. He lives wherever love and grace are given and received.

This is the gospel, our gift, our burden, but also our joy. To know that we are filled with light; to know that the light is there, in every person, waiting to be released.

One of my spiritual heroes was Thomas Merton, a monk and writer who lived in the 20th century, whose vow of stability led him to a life in rural Kentucky. As a young adult he had a deep pessimism about human nature, a profound criticism of other people. For this reason he had separated himself from the world by entering a monastery. But over time that began to change. Later in his life he traveled to the downtown area of Louisville, Kentucky. He sat down to observe the comings and goings of people, and later he wrote in his journal:

“At the corner of fourth and Walnut…I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, [to have] the immense joy of being a person, a member of the human race in which God himself became incarnate. And if only everyone could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

When we have stood in the light, we have a deep desire to see the light in other people.

And so, a few simple instructions: turn aside, slow down, venture off the beaten path, and pay attention to the light---it is there. And then, in some way that is possible for you, live in the light, shed some light on someone else’s path, punctuate the darkness with some gesture of love or grace.

The Jesus who was transfigured wants to transfigure us, the one who said I am the light of the world says, to each of us, you are the light of the world.

Friday, February 12, 2010

bread in the wilderness

For years I have led a retreat (required) for clergy in their first year of full-time ministry in our annual conference. Some time back I came across a wonderful resource by John and Adrienne Carr entitled The Pilgrimage Project, which focused on the Old Testament narrative of the journey from slavery to freedom. This prompted me toward a deeper reading of Exodus 16 and Jesus' midrash on this text, Matthew 6. I have also shared this material with a number of adult groups: essentially, the experience many of us have of being in a difficult and chaotic place, void of support systems, and uncertain about the promised future. When Abingdon asked me to write a Lenten study, I began to work with these resources again. This is my seventh book, it is the briefest and, I believe, also the most helpful. A number of congregations are using it as a Lenten Study, and I am grateful to them. You can find it at Cokesbury or Amazon.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

the unexpected

I anticipated that January would be an extraordinary month around our church: the Clef Hangers (a capella ensemble) of UNC-Chapel Hill would be singing one Sunday morning; Dave Sanderson, a close friend and PUMC member would be reflecting on the experience of the "Miracle on the Hudson" one year later; and two good friends, Ashley Crowder Stanley of Wesley Memorial UMC in High Point and Jim Salley of Africa University would be sharing with our congregation. If all went well, we would adopt a budget that would allow us to continue the momentum of our mission. We had made our plans and it looked to be an extraordinary month.

In that mix was also a trip that my wife would take to Haiti, first to participate in a meeting of United Methodist leaders with deep involvements in that country, in Port au Prince, and then to travel within the country to Cap Haitien, where she would join a group of "Women on a Mission" for ongoing work at the School of Mercy. She found herself in Port au Prince on the day of the earthquake. She did survive the earthquake, and was able to leave the country several days later. If you google "Pam Carter Haiti" you can see and her some of her story, and she has spoken to a number of groups since her return. She and I will return to Cap Haitien next weekend, with a small group, to assess the needs of our work in healthcare, microcredit and education, and to worship with our friends in Cap Haitien.

What else has been happening? I traveled with a group of pastors to Florida to learn about evangelism and leadership---it is a remarkable collection of men and women; my newest book, Bread in the Wilderness, has just been published by Abingdon, just in time for Lent; I spoke to a wonderful gathering of United Methodists in Cleveland, on the topics of "Re-Think Church" and "Spiritual Practices"; and I have been working on the sermons and worship services that occur during Lent, Holy Week and Easter. The winter has been intense, packed with meaning and blessing; already, I eagerly await spring, the longer days and the rest that comes in the summer.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

one, holy, catholic and apostolic

Christians in the early centuries had experienced the presence of the resurrected and living Jesus, they had collected his teachings, they gathered, as he commanded them to, to remember him in the meal, and they were challenged and convicted, as he had also reminded them, to love one another. They came together not on the basis of their race or ethnicity, not on the basis of their social or economic class, not on the basis of their political preferences or recreational inclinations, but for a very different reason: they had made a profession of faith in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and they had become a part of his body, which came to be called, over time, the church, which literally means, “the gathering”.

In these early centuries what came to be called the New Testament, the gospels and the letters, were passed around in these communities, they were read aloud and copied and transmitted from generation to generation. The letters to the church in Corinth, located in Greece, were an example of this. There were conflicts in these communities, disagreements about ideas and morality, struggles for power and control, and so there was a need to define who the people were and what their coming together meant. In the fourth century, in 325, the earliest of our common creeds, the Nicene Creed, was formulated. It did not take the place of scripture, but gathered up some of the important convictions in scripture into a summary that could be memorized and explained.

I love the Nicene Creed, what it says about a God who creates all that exists, seen and unseen, what it says about Jesus, who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven….and became truly human….what is says about the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. And I love what the Nicene Creed says about the church: one, holy, catholic, apostolic, and that is what I want to focus on for a few minutes. What is the church, and why does it matter?

First, the church is one. The unity of the church is grounded in the One God (Deuteronomy 6), affirmed by Jesus (Mark 12), and in the teachings of the apostles in Ephesians 4 (there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism). This unity is a gift of God (I Corinthians 12), and is never a human achievement, right or claim. The practical expression of unity is the love of God and neighbor. Our complacency with division indicates a lack of love, and is finally a barrier to the mission of the gospel in the midst of unbelief; I pray, we hear Jesus saying in John 17, that they may be one, so that the world will believe that you have sent me.

It is true that we are connected with each other in the one body. When one suffers, all suffer. When one rejoices, all rejoice. I watched the memorial service for Sam Dixon a week ago Friday, the director of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Sam died in the earthquake in Haiti, attending the same meeting at which Pam was present. They had talked that day. I had been in a meeting with Sam earlier in January. I had asked him, given the demanding work that you do, “how do you find renewal?” He talked about being in churches and the energy he drew from people. We were not close friends, but we knew each other, and we had very close mutual friends, and a few of those are members of Providence.

I watched his memorial service streamed on the internet, it was held at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh. Pam and I have very close friends in that church, we have had members to move to Raleigh and join Edenton Street, and we have also had wonderful folks move from there to Charlotte and join Providence. It was a very moving service to watch, even from a distance, and as I was listening the words and the music, I thought of Paul’s affirmation: in the body, when one suffers, all suffer, when one rejoices, all rejoice. I certainly felt the second part of that scripture when Pam returned and was greeted on that first Sunday morning following the earthquake.

In the United Methodist Church we have a term for this: the connection. It expresses our unity, our oneness. The Methodist Church is Providence, but it is also the Charlotte District and the Western North Carolina Conference and then it ripples out to the ends of the earth: it is Africa University and the Cap Haitien Methodist Church; it is Duke Divinity School and Aldersgate Retirement Community; it is every church I have served, from a rural gathering of the saints who actually used the Broadman Hymnal to the majesty of “Holy Holy Holy” in this place.

We are one. But it goes far beyond being a Methodist. The One body of Christ includes all who profess the name of Jesus: Catholic to Pentecostal, house church to cathedral, urban to rural, conservative and liberal, if we must use those words! There are not many churches; there is one church, because there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Second, the church is holy. We could ask a question at this point. Is the church holy? I remember early in our ministry an evening in which Pam and I had dinner with two women, sisters, who were the daughters of a minister and had grown up in a parsonage. It was an evening I will never forget----they rehearsed, through our four hour conversation, one negative experience after another across a number of churches---judgmentalism, mistreatment, inhumanity.

I left wondering---what am I getting myself into? Of course, the church is a human institution, and most of us are some combination of saint and sinner. The church’s sins are often spread out before the public: clergy misconduct, financial scandal, racism, exclusion of certain people, unbelief. Some of our sins are more hidden---competition with other churches, or

So what does it mean to say that the church is holy? The church as an ideal is holy, and yet even scripture confesses that “we have the treasure [of the gospel] in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4). One dimension of this holiness is that the church is set apart for a particular purpose; this is variously defined as word and sacrament, the body of Christ, and as a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God. This holiness is both personal and social, evidenced by prayer and service, action and contemplation.

The church is set apart to do what only it can do: to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ, through words and through actions. For this reason the church is not a business, and the church is not exactly a non-profit agency either. It has a different bottom line, and that is how we will stand before the great judgment of Matthew 25. At times we will join hands with others of good will to ease suffering or to be a voice for those who have no voice. At times we stand against the culture, against what is popular, because we are “set apart”. This requires an inner strength, a discipline. But this is a mark of the authentic church; Paul came back to this, over and over again, in I Corinthians. In an immoral culture, he called the followers of Jesus to holiness; in a deeply divided society he reminded those who had been baptized that they were one.

Third, the church is catholic. I remember attending church as a teenager, and we would come to the place in the Apostles’ Creed where we would say “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church”, and there was always a slight hesitancy in that deep south congregation. In our hymnal there is an asterisk, beside the word catholic, with the explanation at the bottom of the page, “universal”. And while we may not understand, when we say those words, what we mean by catholic church, they are deeply embedded in our tradition as Methodists.

One of John Wesley’s most famous sermons was entitled “The Catholic Spirit”. He said, in that sermon,

“if your heart is as my heart, and you love God and all humanity, I ask no more: give me your hand”..this love, implied for Wesley, the following---treating each other as a brother or sister in Christ, praying for each other, provoking one another to love and good works, loving not only in words but in actions and in truth. And he said, in a very revealing and profound sentence: “So far as in conscience you can (retaining still your own opinions and your own manner of worshipping God), join with me in the work of God, and let us go on hand in hand.”

The church is catholic, or universal, in that its core identity is found in the whole and not merely in the fragments of its local expression. This resonates with Paul’s image of the body in I Corinthians 12 and his meditation on love in I Corinthians 13. Yes, we are one in the Lord Jesus; but we express that faith in a variety of ways, and it is a beautiful thing when we can join hands with Christians across all kinds of lines and do the work of God. Indeed, I am convinced that this is what pleases God the most. Only then are we truly the one body.

Fourth, and finally, the church is apostolic. The church is apostolic as its life is traced to the teachings of the apostles. Now I am not talking about a literal apostolic succession, with the Pope being the historical successor to Peter of the New Testament, although this would be the conviction of Catholics, and I can appreciate their tradition. The church is a family tree whose roots go down deeply into the apostles teaching about the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus, and how this event has already changed the world. I think of words at the end of the second chapter of Acts: they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

What was the apostles' teaching? Well, they did have a need to answer that question, and so these short summaries circulated, first the Nicene Creed and then the Apostles Creed. The tradition of the apostles certainly has, as its core, the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican expressions, and each stream has shaped the Wesleyan movement. This living tradition contains many of the resources that sustain our faith; at the same time, there is always a need for reformation, for prophetic witness, for what my friend Greg Jones calls “traditioned innovation”.

The church is apostolic as it carries on the teaching of the apostles; but it has another meaning. To be an apostle is literally to be “sent” into the world. “As the Father has sent me”, Jesus says in John 20, “so I send you”. The mission of the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transmission of the world”. In November Providence changed, by church council action, its vision statement, from “To be the body of Christ, glorifying God and serving others” to “A growing body of Christ, glorifying God and serving others”.

To grow as at the body of Christ is to be a force for unity in the world, and not division; it is to be a sign of God’s holiness and light and not darkness; it is to know that the church is universal, more than our own local church, it finds expression in many languages, cultures and forms; and it is to draw life from the core teachings about who Jesus is. And as we come to know these teachings, we realize that the treasure of the gospel, contained in our earthen vessels, is not only for us; we are sent into this world to offer the greatest gift, which is love.

When the church is authentically the church Jesus calls it to be, we are one, holy, catholic and apostolic.