Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What Would Mary Do?

Most of you have probably seen the clever wrist band made famous by innumerable youth groups that has WWJD on them. This stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” The point, as used by youth leaders all over the country, is to get teenagers to think what Jesus would do if faced with their circumstances and situations.

While I think this is clever, I have never really warmed to the slogan. It is not that I cannot think of what Jesus would do in many situations. My problem is that I can. For example, I attend a funeral, WWJD? He would raise the dead. Or, I visit a sick person, WWJD? He would heal them. Or, I am faced with evil, WWJD? He would drive it out. Nor is my problem that I do not believe that some Christians are called upon to do such things. I do. I just do not think his behavior is normative for us as believers. (My wife does tell me that I often confuse my job description with that of the Messiah, but that is a dysfunctional issue, not one of faith.) No, my issue is that Jesus did many things that I cannot do. I think the better wrist band would be WWMD, What Would Mary Do? On this eve of the Annunciation, let me say why.

Mary is the prime example in scripture of God’s faithful servant. When the Angel announced to her that she would be in instrument of God’s grace, overwhelming as it might have been, her faithful response was, “be it to me the servant of the Lord” or as the Beatles would translate it, “let it be.” Sure, the message to Mary was startling. It may have been hard for her to fully comprehend. Yes, and maybe she was a young girl, but she was also smart enough and realistic enough to immediately understand the difficult of the call. “How can this be,” she asked because, “I am still a virgin.” She knew her circumstances. She clearly understood her situation that she was to be a pregnant, unmarried woman in a small village where everyone could talk and certainly everyone could count. She understood this would be humiliating.

And what was she to say to Joseph? “Joseph, it is ok, an angel told me in a dream that I would get pregnant by the Holy Spirit before we were married?” In the scriptural account, all that she could do was leave this up to God.

Devotional writers have often portrayed Mary as the idealized image of passive femininity who acted out perfect submission, but this is not the Mary of the biblical narrative. She was human. She was not perfect, and as the Magnificat reveals, she was not passive. But mostly, she was faithful. Mary believed what the Angel told her and she trusted by faith that God would work out all the details. We could very aptly paraphrase Paul’s words about Abraham applied to Mary, “She believed God and God reckoned it to her as righteousness.“

What then would WWMD mean to us? It would mean that faced with difficult decisions or moral choices, we need only ask what would Mary, who believed God and trusted God, do in this situation. This is something that I can imagine in all sorts of situations. It seems to me that the whole life of a disciple essentially is to believe God’s promises by faith and live as though God will work out all the details.

This might not be as catchy or as clever, but it does make a lot more sense to me as I struggle as a believer and disciple in the many circumstances and situations that I must face in this world. As we remember the feast day of the Annunciation, we could do a lot worse than remember to ask ourselves WWMD?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Learning from Wesley

On a cold January evening in 1975, I knelt in the darkened living room of the Rectory of Emmanuel Church in Stamford, Connecticut and made a total surrender of my life to Jesus Christ. This surrender came in response to an overwhelming sense of God’s presence as I spoke out the desperation and despair that I felt. The details of what happened are not important here because I am writing on the feast day of John and Charles Wesley to share what I learned from John Wesley after my conversion.

The problem was that I was already an ordained priest. It was some time later that I would learn that I shared with Wesley a post theological education conversion to Christ. I say “conversion to Christ” because that is what it was for me. I had felt called to the ministry, and, before seminary at least, I had believed in the Trinity and the creeds of the Church. What happened to me that night was that I experienced a personal sense of forgiveness and total acceptance by a living and real Christ. Jesus Christ became alive for me in a new way.

The most immediate result of this was expressed by what I did that night. I took the sermon that I had written that week and burned it in the fire place. I was determined to speak now of the love of Christ I knew personally, and not the ideas about God that I had learned in seminary. Let me be clear on this. I am not proud of the fact that I am a post theological education Christian. For example, people are surprised to know that one of my faculty advisors was Henry Nouwen. Yes, I was blessed by a number of outstanding teachers, not the least of which was Jaraslov Pelikan while at Yale. I do believe that some of them had a deep relationship with Christ. But none of these teachers ever spoke of a personal relationship with Christ as something to be desired, and most down played any sense of conversion. Conversion, if it existed at all, was a gradual process of growth. Consequently, I look back a bit jaded at my seminary experience.

For several years, I struggled to integrate my experience with both my theological education and my experience with Episcopal Church practices. Then on my tenth anniversary of ordination, I took a month’s sabbatical. I spent the month at a seminary following guidance from the Dean. What the Dean asked me in our first session changed my theological identity. As I shared trying to put these pieces together, he asked me, “While you were in seminary, did you read the source material of Anglicanism?” What he meant was whether I had actually read Cranmer and the other English Bishops of the reformation. Of course, I hadn’t. I had read commentaries and histories about them, but not the actual works. For the next month, I felt that I had found my roots. I discovered my evangelical and conversionist legacy which is thoroughly Anglican. Then he introduced me to the “Three Ws of Anglicanism; Wesley, Whitfield and Wilberforce. Wesley spoke to me.

Wesley was a high church Anglican who’s “heart was strangely warmed” in the Aldersgate experience, and who had deep commitments to the marginalized and poor of his world. In reading Wesley, I found an Anglican who expressed both what I believed and what I had experienced. I am not a Wesleyan if you mean by this a Methodist. I consider most Methodists that I have known to be very nice and well-intentioned people none of whom have either the conviction or passion of Wesley. I remain a person who believes in both conversion and sanctification. Here are some of the other things that I learned from Wesley:

All the head knowledge in the world cannot substitute for “knowing Christ Jesus in the power of his resurrection.”

Religious experience apart from creedal belief usually ends in shipwreck somewhere.

True conversion leads to passionate love for the poor and to concrete steps to alleviate their poverty.

Social justice and evangelism are both mandates of scripture, to hold one without the other is to diminish Christ’s work.

Holiness of life is the goal of all disciples – we don’t want to be people who do good things - we want to become people who are Christ-like.

Simplicity of life is a Christian virtue.

Christian leaders who hold power often work to suppress Christian experience even those who once claimed a conversion experience.

Being called a fanatic is often a compliment.

Nominal Christian life is the greatest enemy to true discipleship.

Innovation for the sake of mission and evangelism is Apostolic and needed in every age.

Extreme Calvinism quenches human freedom and is joyless.

People have free will and it is obvious that we have to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in ministry and growth.

In Christ, women are equal to men and can be effective agents of ministry.

Bishops are important, but prelacy is a sin against Christ and his Church.

And when it comes to preaching, “set yourself on fire in the pulpit and the whole world will come to see you burn.”