Ash Wednesday is here again, folks. Time for crosses on your forehead, a steep drop in chocolate sales, and reflection. Barbara Brown Taylor writes that when choosing a Lenten devotion, we ought to give up something we use as “anesthesia” against our stress, dissatisfaction, or pain. Pope Francis invited his flock into an attitude of self-denial and solidarity with the poor this year. For the next forty days (plus Sundays), I’m going to try to do both.
When I interned at Heifer International, one of the first things my supervisor taught me was to tell stories. He said that we could talk about poverty theory, infant mortality rates, and development statistics until we were blue in the face, but until we connected with a donor’s compassion, it was all useless. This wasn’t meant to be a manipulative, money-grubbing tactic; it was a truth about the heart versus the head. If we think in abstractions, our rationality can turn cold and unkind. A human being with a face and a name and a life is necessary to change the discussion. So that’s what I’m going to try to do in this post, except not about poverty or hunger. I am going to try to witness to the look in my friend’s eyes at a youth conference this weekend.
I was raised in a family of introverts. Extreme introverts. As in, I didn’t know what a dinner party was until I was 13 and saw one on the Food Network. Maybe as a result of my birth order, I grew up to be the odd duck: a hug-giving, eye-contacting, club-joining extrovert. Because of my family, I understand the plight of introverts in American churches, and I’ve written about it before. But extroverts like myself – especially female extroverts it seems – have their struggles as well. Here are a few I’ve encountered:
- You want to bear-hug strangers during Passing of the Peace, but you’re worried they might have an overdeveloped (read: any) sense of personal space.
- You’re the only one in the congregation who sings loud enough to be heard, even though you have strep throat.
- You’re the only one who speaks up during Joys & Concerns.
- The pastor asks rhetorical questions in the sermon.
- Germaphobes don’t want to hold hands during prayers.
- Everyone expects you to speak first in Bible study.
- You want to speak first in Bible study, but you’re worried about dominating the conversation.
- Working alone during the Habitat for Humanity build.
- The sermon would be so much better if the pastor was just a bit convivial.
- No one will sit with you in the front two pews.
My Methodist education began when I was seven years old through a summer camp program hosted by my church called Circuit Rider Days. The pastor and Sunday school teachers dressed in pioneer-era clothing, and led the children in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century activities from candlemaking and donkey grooming to hymn singing. We celebrated John Wesley’s birthday with a huge birthday cake; we attended lessons about the early days of Methodism in Indiana. This week in summer was the first time that I heard the story of that fateful evening at Aldersgate (the next time would be confirmation class). Of the United Methodists I knew (and know), if they could tell a Wesley story it was Aldersgate.
Since then until this semester, I held up Aldersgate as the watershed moment for John’s faith. From that night onward, I thought, Wesley’s strangely-warmed heart never wavered in pious devotion. Imagine my surprise while reading Heitzenrater for a religious studies class when I discovered that Wesley’s theology of assurance later rejected his Aldersgate epiphany in great part. According to Wesley, there could be no such thing as a watershed moment. Although a servant may point to an instant of justification, the danger of backsliding is ever-present; “once saved, always saved” did not apply. Conversion is a day to day battle for pureness of heart dependent on God’s grace, not a point of no return.
Perhaps my blabbering here shows nothing either than my theological shallowness. I do recognize the importance of Aldersgate in Wesleyan theology; it epitomizes the twinning of heart and works that Methodists pride themselves on. Aldersgate reveals the personal, intimate intervention of God in our lives, even (if not especially) in the lives of spiritual giants. However, since Wesley’s opinion concerning Aldersgate softened greatly in later years (e.g. peace, not joy), it seems odd that United Methodists name retreats, conferences, and buildings after Aldersgate rather than, say, Kingswood. If anything, Aldersgate embodies Calvinism rather than Wesleyanism/Arminianism.
A pastor friend of mine sometimes jokes that the people in his Methodist congregation are Baptists, they just don’t know it. In a time when Methodists are struggling to distinguish themselves within Protestantism (though that’s a whole other post), it is worth re-evaluating how we communicate our heritage. I do not suggest writing out Aldersgate – that would be a disservice to the story’s power. Maybe what we need is a thorough Methodist education that allows laity to appreciate Wesleyan nuances beyond a single quote from John’s diary. But lay theological education that takes more time than twenty minutes each Sunday? Now I’m talking crazy.
“In the end, though,” she added hastily. “I’m grateful it happened because it made me who I am.”
So spoke an African-American college junior at a Christian student conference I attended a few years back. We were seated around a freshly-waxed dining table in the home of a local congregant. The boys were in a separate room. Nine of us and a leader in her late 20s talked about the traumas from our pasts that kept us separated from God. As statistics would predict, three young women at the table had been victims of sexual abuse before age 14. All three believed they were molested for a reason and that was why God “let” them get hurt: to make them stronger.
I suppose they had a biblical basis for believing that way. The God we read about in the Bible killed Job’s children to test their father. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, we witness God use suffering as a tool. He is not afraid to inflict – or at least allow – pain upon His followers. And besides, since God is omnipotent if He wanted to stop sexual assault, He could. His inaction indicates, perhaps not approval, but tolerance.
Other books on the shelves don’t provide alternative theologies. Of the books I’ve read on Christianity and sexual trauma, almost all dealt with one of two issues: pastoral counseling or sexual predators in the church. Little is offered in the way of answers, or even better questions. For a religion that has an awful lot to say about sex, we are pretty mute on sex’s ultimate corruption. Continue Reading »
First a disclaimer: today’s post will not deal with a distinctly Christian issue, though the way in which I view said issue is heavily influenced by liberation and feminist theologies. It is an issue that has raged across message boards, YouTube comments, and from there into the non-cyber world. I’m talking about jokes. Specifically, rape jokes.
It’s a common joke that Methodism started out as a campus ministry. Those rascally Wesley brothers began the movement by accident when they formed a society (John refused to call it a club) as students at Oxford University. It comes as no surprise then that United Methodists would fund more colleges and higher education scholarships a few centuries later than any other denomination. Our heritage has taught us that undergrad offers a superior context for not just intellectual growth, but for spiritual exploration.
As a volunteer tour guide for my college, I often struggle to explain its United Methodist affiliation. Some prospective students see a chapel next to the auditorium and envision mandatory Communion attendance, altar call conversions, or stifling dress codes. Other students, thinking that an affiliation equates to ownership, are disappointed when they arrive for freshman year, only to discover the myriad of complex spiritualities on campus. Personally, I love this middle ground. The availability of an active religious life without its requirement has been invaluable to my faith development.
But it does make me wonder what defines a “good” campus ministry versus a weaker one. These days, we United Methodist love our measurable standards. How does a board of trustees deign a campus ministry a success or a failure? Obviously if the issue were raised at General Conference, the answers would vary widely — as they do on almost all issues. My only concern with the campus ministries I’ve seen is an emphasis on doubt. Continue Reading »