Several years ago, a retired United Methodist pastor named Paul Brown (now deceased) sent me a letter. Paul sent me numerous letters over a ten-year period. I never met Paul but in my mind he was sort of a Simeon in the temple waiting to see the birth of a deeply sacramental sense of baptism in the church and to hold it in his arms! Every few months he would send me something he’d been reading or remembering that might be of encouragement to me or that would keep him in the active loop of theological reflection. As I say, he was like Simeon waiting to see something he had longed for all of his life. In his letter he wrote:
Twenty-five years ago, I attended the United Methodist Congress on Evangelism in Philadelphia, PA. The lecturer was Bishop Wayne Clymer. His topic was ‘Membership Means Discipleship’. The lectures were [b]iblically oriented, theologically sound and ethically founded.
He [Bishop Clymer] said, “Several decades ago Archbishop William Temple was asked what was the task of the church. He was well known for his commitment to social justice and had involved himself in movements working to effect social change. His answer was not entirely expected:
‘What is the task of the Church? To be itself and not do anything at all. All that it does is secondary and expressive of what it is. And, first of all, it’s duty is to be in living actuality . . . the fellowship of those who have received the power of the Holy Spirit through the revelation of the love of God in Christ. It exists to be the redeemed community which worships as redeemed.’” [my emphasis]
The thought of Archbishop Temple was inspiring then and now,” Paul concluded.
I don’t know why Paul sent that remembrance and quote to me, except that it somehow rang true amidst so many cheap and idolatrous programs for church growth and social activism. I think Paul saw in that word of William Temple a kind of courage he wished he had had more of in his pastoral leadership. I share the quote with you, because it expresses a kind of trust and courage that all of us wish we had more of, particularly as we pursue implementing a recovery of the sacramental character and life of the church in our own settings. There is in us and among us a longing “to be the church in actuality as the fellowship of those who have received the power of the Holy Spirit through the revelation of the love of God in Christ.”
But here is the thing. May I tell you what perhaps you already know. The recovery of the catechumenate as part of the sacramental core of the church is not something that is a nice little add-on to church life and witness. It is not some pet project you can take out and look at once in a while and go to a Theology and Doctrine meeting to coo over as if it is a cute little baby. I tell you this thing will grow up and transform the church—not because it has the power to do that by itself, but because it has the genetic code of the Holy Spirit written all over it! Churches that take this on find that it takes them on the most demanding adventure they can imagine precisely because it takes them into the heart, mind and work of God! I think of Jesus talking to us like he talked to Peter by Galilee after breakfast so long ago:
“…truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
We are growing older, friends. God is fastening this belt around us and it will take us along with it—maybe even to places we don’t want to go, if we knew now where God is taking us. The vision of baptismal living and the catechumenate has been for me—and it may become so for you—this belt—this cross—this sword that pierces our souls with hope and a lot more investing of ourselves than we had imagined.
What I am saying and sensing here is that we always underestimate what God gives us and we think that we can settle down with it. But we can’t. The Holy Spirit is blowing over the deep and continues to bring new order out of what we have settled for. Our common prayer always anchors us in the future-“Your kingdom come, your will be done…” You understand what I am saying, don’t you? Whether it is our spouse or a child or a doctrinal, political or philosophical position dearly held, we think it’s all settled and, whoosh, something unexpected blows in and we have to pick ourselves up off the floor and say, "Whew! What was that?”
Truth be told, why would you have come to this gathering if you didn’t secretly know that the Spirit is not ready to let you settle for the way you and your church are now forming disciples. The Wisdom and Wind of God has radical designs on you and your church. You may one day look back at the journey you are now on and laugh at how elementary and programmatic you had been with this process that is about conversion of lives and churches for a transformed world. We mouth the words that the “becoming disciples” is about entrance into the reign of God, but it is so easy to let it shrivel to be a wading pool for entrance into the church as it is more than the church as it could be.
The emergence of the Holy Spirit in the 3rd millennium
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life” as we say in the Nicene Creed. This Spirit is the continuing breath of the world. D. Lyle Dabney in an article on returning to the Spirit in a post-Christendom world has this encouraging word and faithful reminder for all of us who wonder where we are as the church culture we have known passes away:
The end of Christendom means neither the end of Christianity nor the end of Christian theology. There was a Christianity before, during, and outside Christendom; and now there is a Christianity after that social synthesis as well. …to speak of Christendom and its passing is…to take the first step toward properly identifying the context in which we must now live and witness as Christians. The turn to the Spirit is a turn to the question that now confronts us: What does it mean to be Christian in a world post-Christendom? [my emphasis]
I propose that the Holy Spirit is pointing to the catechumenate (“Becoming Disciples”) and saying to the church, “Come, walk this pathway. In struggling with what I am doing you will find this is something that is like a huge rock. You can’t put it in your pocket. You can’t haul it away. It is there and you will have to come to grips with it.” I sense that what we have seen in this ancient-future process is a particular response to that question “What does it mean to be Christian in a post-Christian world?” And what we are discovering is that to be Christian in our time is to be disciples of Jesus living with no privilege save that of living under the guidance of the Spirit and of graciously learning to be disciples besides those who don’t have as much to unlearn as we do! And that is the beauty and blessing that is ours: to learn with others who are strangers to what it means to be disciples and missionaries in and through their eyes. Seeing Christ, the Scriptures, and the world through the naivete and freshness of emerging pilgrims works humility in us as gift and vocation.
The domain of the Spirit
And what are we seeing? We are beginning to see that being Christian is not about escaping from the world or holding a privileged place in the world. We are seeing that the world is God’s world and that the Spirit is out there ahead of us loving people toward God and toward life and light. We are seeing that we don’t have to bring light and life as if we have it. We are seeing that life and light are already there; mercy is already there; the hunger for honesty and truth is refreshingly there by the action of the Spirit. We are seeing that being Christian is living in a community that serves God in the world for the life and redemption of God’s whole creation.
I don’t mean to say that we are forgetting the great words and doctrines like justification by faith or sanctification, but we are learning to see those doctrines in fresh, more dynamic and communal ways—ways that are gritty, engaged with what the Spirit is doing in the world around us. It does something radical to us when we begin to see with the eyes of the Spirit and realize that the “Breath-Wind” is committed to all that the “ruach” (Hebrew word for “breath, spirit, wind”) brooded over at creation (Genesis 1:2) and not just the church whooshed over at Pentecost. Pentecost was not a mistake, nor is it the whole enchilada. Indeed, it was a moment that eventually got turned in on itself as church and state got too chummy in the West. Scholars, church officials and government started fighting over who was in and who was out and how we get saved instead of living by the power and compassion of the Spirit. As Bryan Stone puts it, “The net result was that holiness is construed in terms that are excessively private, individualistic, and inward-focused.” What if the church were to be itself in ways that are public, communal and world-embracing.
So we are not meeting here this week to chart a course of smooth sailing! Or how to rock comfortably on the veranda managing the incoming of new members. Rather, we meet to recognize together that we don’t know how to create a veranda that engages with searching people. There are some very big obstacles that stand in the way of being baptized and baptizing churches. Bryan Stone lists four marks of our culture that deeply influence the church’s identity and practice:
a pervasive individualism and drive for self fulfillment
a push for cultural conformity
a distinct preference for the quick and painless with rejection of discipline and the cultivation of character and life habit’s with the long, broad view in mind
a general pessimism about the possibility of human transformation. (Stone, QR 157)
Stone in another place alludes to the once popular bumper sticker that reads: “Christians are not better. They are just forgiven.” The translation of that piece of haughty pop theology is this: “Christians are no different than the general population. We too have made our peace with sin.”
If you think this meeting is prelude to the Uniting Church implementing “Becoming Disciples” on a grand scale and create genuine “veranda” hospitality you have not reckoned with how culturally accommodated your churches may be. You have not reckoned with the resistance that is built into your local church and the status quo of the UCA. However, the Spirit is not the least bit put off by these cultural phenomena and the demons that hover round them.
Surmising the Spirit’s action
So, what is the Spirit doing? Well, I may be on thin ice here, but may I try to point to what I see the Spirit conniving as we speak.
First, the Spirit is pulling up the weeds of an ecclesiology gone to vanity and ego-stroking [focused on hierarchy and institutional self preservation] and is planting in their place a weed resistant missiology here and there around the world. Put simply, ecclesiology (Greek: ecclesia=people of God + logy=logic/study) is reasoning in light of the church—church logic. Missiology (Greek: missio=mission + logy=logic/study) is the reasoning in light of mission. There are sounds of change that are robust and hopeful. Many are rejecting the inward focus of the churches with a mission statement (a passing fad in North America) and launching out to be missional churches. Craig Van Gelder writes of our North American context, “The church confronts the challenge of disengaging itself from the privileges of a previous church culture …or semi-establishment…, while rediscovering its own identity as a social community in the midst of a broader …community of communities.” In short, we are discovering that we are no longer privileged in the culture or identified with it; the Spirit is revealing to us that we are “resident aliens,” to use the Willimon and Hauerwas phrase.
Second, the Spirit is creating models of discipleship that are counter-cultural and deviant. This goes with the first point. Don’t tell your presbytery that the catechumenate or “Becoming Disciples” and living focused on the baptismal covenant fosters deviant behavior! But it will. The Spirit calls disciples to social deviance and to a Christianity that mirrors the Holy Spirit renewing the face of the earth. Recall our look yesterday at Rodney Stark’s portrayal of the early Christian community in its pagan context. Models of church growth still have bishops and church leaders salivating at the prospects of easy, rapid growth and local church self-fulfillment, but “the size of the congregation is no indication whatsoever of its capacity both for engendering and for embodying authentic Christian community and holiness.”
If we are really going to rock on the veranda with our faces to the world we will have to embrace the eccentric people of the world—the people who live at the margins, those who are poor and disinherited, on the one hand, and those who are well off and have tried everything but are disillusioned and searching, on the other. And as the Holy Spirit evangelizes them and us we too will become eccentric people—for those marginalized ones will witness to us of our own calling! Being missional church and eccentricity go hand in hand. Witness the gospel stories of Jesus and the continuous criticism he endured for eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors. As we take seriously what Wayne Schwab and others are calling for, all of the members will be the missionaries and we will be out there—on the veranda. It will be a larger and more inclusive veranda as our living embodies God’s hospitality to all people. It will extend far beyond what we call center or home base --the lectern, font and table. Or, would it be better to say that it will extend the life around lectern, font and table to all of the places we go in the power of the Spirit? Again for those who are concerned that the emphasis on the strong liturgical center is off balance, see Jane Rogers Vann’s Gathered Before God (Westminster/John Knox, 2004.
Furthermore, as the Spirit makes us eccentric we will give up the quest for regaining the cultural center. It appears to me that church growth strategies haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that there is no center to recover and that we now live in global context where there are a host of swirling and competing clusters of vision and value among which Christianity is one. Post-modernity means living in a world that no longer has a center!
The veranda that the Spirit likes best is festooned with flowers and baskets and furnishings that say, “ We are a communal project of deviancy for the sake of the world and we consistently embody an invitation to join this way of living.” Churches that have come out of hiding to live on the veranda are determined to no longer live by the world’s rules. As Bryan Stone says, “It is precisely in no longer playing by the world’s rules that we discover a new openness to the world.” That is why we need the stranger, the outsider, the poor and marginalized as much or more than they need us. They can teach what it means to live on the outside where the Spirit’s future for the church is!
The most radical thing the church can do is to be the church in living actuality. As Karen Ward reminds us in Welcome to Christ:
The foundational and primary resource needed to bring people to the church is the church: the church doing what it does, being what it is, and becoming what it is to be. Thus the primary resources for the catechumenal process are fourfold: scripture, corporate worship, prayer, and ministry in daily life.
As she goes on to note, when present day congregations devote themselves to the apostolic teaching, breaking the bread and the prayers, God will, as in acts, “day by day…add to [our] number those who [are] being saved.” (Acts 2:47) This is trusting the Spirit, being ourselves “and not do anything at all”. (See the William Temple quote at the beginning of this address.)
Such practices are holy eccentricities and social deviance in terms of the larger cultural landscape. It comes with living amphibiously, to use a nice image from Evelyn Underhill. When we gather around Christ at the font, lectern and table and “get lost” among the poor and outcast and the disillusioned and searching, we live at two levels like frogs floating in a pond. When the church embodies holy eccentricity, it does not need evangelistic strategies and programs. Such churches are the evangelistic strategy! John Howard Yoder says that the church’s current challenge is not to water down or tidy up its witness in ways that make it palatable and attractive to the world without having to believe. Rather our vocation is to embody the good news so clearly that the world can see it as good news. The Holy Spirit is brooding in and over us to unleash us to be the gospel on the veranda.
It is not a virtue to make “Becoming Disciples” (the catechumenate) a rigorous and demanding process. On the other hand, it is betrayal to compromise what it means to the live under the reign of God. What does a veranda inviting people to the good news look like? That is what the Spirit is empowering us to recognize and live into. It will be characterized, I am convinced, by a kind of faithful deviancy as far as the dominant culture is concerned. What I am trying to say here is this: we will increasingly live and invite others to conform to a gospel that is not conformed to the shape and values of the cultures around us.
Third, the Spirit is calling the church to a disciplined use of the means of grace. Our various traditions have nuances for what is meant by the means of grace. I suggest here that we take the expression to include the widest use of the term: instituted means of grace—the sacraments, preaching & searching the scriptures, Christian fellowship and mutual oversight, liturgy, prayer—private and public; and the general means of grace—self-denial, extemporaneous prayer, written prayers, works of mercy, hymns and songs, Christian conference, use of icons, et cetera. In the consistent practice of these there is no accruing of merit, but by them –remembering, listening, receiving, resisting, supporting, washing, celebrating, confessing, singing, serving, giving, laughing, dancing, eating together, even dying—we develop muscle for baptismal living that is a growing capacity to listen and respond to the Spirit. In use of the means of grace we communally avail ourselves of sanctifying grace and we take on the mind of Christ in habits that mirror him in all of life.
John Wesley, Anglican priest and sometime radical misfit within his 18th century church because of his advocacy of “methodical” practice, decried the lack of fellowship—what he described as “watching over each other in love”—as a “rope of sand.” It might be assumed to be there—even look like it is there—but it has no tensile strength. The communal use of the means of grace is something that our life on the veranda must embody and church leaders must encourage and support such embodied use from baptism onward. So that I am not overly oblique let me say it bluntly. If we offer richly the means of grace during the stages and rites, or movements and moments as Clement Mehlman calls them, of the catechumenate, we must also offer the means of graced richly and consistently for all, once they are on this side of the bath.
Fourth, the Spirit is transforming the world by love. Isolated, trapped in conformity to the dominant culture, addicted to the easy and painless, many post-moderns see little hope of change. Remember the young people we listened to yesterday? (See www.gbod.org/congregational/articles.asp?act=reader&item_id=2914 )
Why were their comments and questions to my colleague so strongly expressed unless they felt both trapped and hopeful? Unfortunately, they are less than impressed by what they see in the churches since most congregations are still captive to the culture. Robert Webber says that many Post-Modern converts don’t even bother with existing churches—they just go off and start their own communities in order to avoid the obstacles they see, namely insiders who aren’t willing to really make room for them, rough edges and all. If you want to explore this phenomenon, you might search the web for “emergent churches” or “house churches."
Churches that begin to bear the good news from the veranda are opening to the Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. Using the means of grace communally, confident of the grace of God at work among us, believing that we are called to embody hope and to continuously welcome power from beyond ourselves, we see with new eyes and live with a new power. “He breaks the power of cancelled sin” is not bad theology! Could it be true? Could catechumens and companions discover such power in weekly meetings where they tell it like it is and in rites of exorcism where we pray for deliverance from the catechumen’s addictions, lusts, death, blindness and thirsts? We must be careful that we hold a theology and practice of symbols deeply lived. Sometimes this will happen as serendipity. At the Easter Vigil at First United Methodist Church in Evanston (Illinois) they anointed with oil those baptized or affirming their baptism. In preparation for the service, one of the pastors sent a member to get some oil “with fragrance.” The newly baptized and affirmers following the vigil noted what a warn feeling they had after the anointing. It turned out the oil was balsam oil and it left slightly irritated skin under its shiny path!
Trusting the work of the Spirit through doing the basics
So, in a nutshell, turning to the Spirit and trusting the Spirit is about being missional church and using the means of grace. It is so simple it is mind boggling to us. Availing ourselves of the means of grace faithfully, consistently, without apology releases us to the Spirit. The means of grace are essential because they are the ways we keep our appointments with God, and so, of being who we are in the triune God. In keeping our appointments with God, we become available and those who join us become available with us. What is the catechumenate but doing the basics and welcoming others to come along with us as far and as deep as the Spirit leads them? Conversion is not our work. It is ours to pray for and ours to long for as we use the means of grace and do nothing but be the church inside out.
Indulge me in one moment of musing: I think the veranda we call the catechumenate is what evangelists, liturgists, and Christian educators are looking for but it is just too strange for them to see it. It doesn’t smell like the stunted, culturally compromised evangelism we now know. It doesn’t look like the self-referential worship we know. It doesn’t sound like the classroom educational programming we are used to. So far only a few get it. But thanks be to God. That is a beginning and this assembly in Adelaide is a benchmark of hope—people from across the Uniting Church listening, learning and praying to open you to the Spirit’s purpose!
In closing I will hint at some ways we collaborate with the Spirit as we give ourselves to baptismal living on the veranda. I am grateful for a breakfast conversation with Stan Hall on Thursday for stirring these ideas.
First, we trust the Spirit by non-anxious engagement with others. So much that is called evangelism today is anxious. We want people to decide and decide now. By being anxious we foreclose on what the Spirit is doing in the lives of people with whom we are in relationship. If God’s word goes forth like the rain that brings forth seed for the sower and bread for the eater, it will accomplish what God wants it to accomplish (Isaiah 55). Of that we can be confident.
Living on the veranda is non-anxious; it does not need to coerce, manipulate, mutilate or spindle people. Rather such life steeped in the sacramental encounter with the splendor of God trusts the Spirit to transform those who behold the glory of God with us. The transformative power that frees us from anxiety is this: What has our attention has us. Charles Wesley’s hymn describes it as “lost in wonder, love and praise.” Paul conceived of it as the ordering of our affections by a steady gaze upon the glory of the Lord:
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)
What would happen if our worship, prayer, reflection on Scripture and daily life became less self-referential and increasingly attentive to the presence and purpose of God and the delivering power of Jesus Christ?
Second, we trust the Spirit by engaging in mutual discernment with others. Becoming disciples on the veranda is not so much about controlling and managing the outcome as it is engaging in an extended period of mutually discerning the work of God. Discernment grows out of non-anxious attentiveness to the signs and signals of what is happening in us and in others. It is a kind of loving distance that avoids pressing for responses we need or expect.
Here is where knowledge of the movements and moments of the phases of “becoming disciples” process serve as a compass for knowing what the questions are around which discernment best takes place. For example:
1. During the period of inquiry, beginning with the earliest time of the relationship:
“What are you seeking?” “What is happening in your life that prompts your search?” “What place does faith have in your life?” “Are you ready to reorder your life in order to hear and follow Jesus?” “Are you willing to do this by making a disciplined exploration of the Christian way?”
We do not necessarily ask these questions of inquirers so much as we listen to them and the Spirit with these questions in mind.
2. During the period of formation or the catechumenate:
“What is the Spirit saying to you in worship, in this reading, in the struggles and tensions of your daily life?”
We discern together the experience and reliability of God speaking. “What is changing in your life as a result of sharing in the life of the church?” “Do you desire life with the church and to be baptized?”
3. During preparation for baptism:
“What must change or die in you in order that Christ’s reign of love and justice may flourish in your life?”
“What desires and affections need realignment for you to follow Christ with your whole heart?”
“How do you sense you will live for Jesus Christ in your daily life?”
Discernment around the baptismal issues of renunciation and profession are appropriate and necessary.
4. During the time of post-baptismal living/mystagogy:
“As a baptized, table-sharing Christian, how will you endeavor to follow Jesus Christ under the guidance of the Spirit?”
“What is your sense of vocation?”
“Who or what needs your active attention?”
“How has being in the group these past months shaped your life?” “What support will you need from other Christians in order to continue in baptismal living?”
“How is Christ calling you to participate in mutual support for faithful discipleship?”
“What does the experience of sharing the fullness of Word and table require of you?”
Third, we trust the Spirit by practicing a rich sacramentality—a bold confidence that the work of God takes place in the realm of things, occurrences, and unfoldings. This rich sacramentality is earthy. God does stuff in ordinary bodies, yearnings, urges, promptings and hunches in the same way that God does stuff with water, light, bread, wine, oil, stories, and embracing. If that is so, then God does stuff around café tables, in bathing of babies, in the telling of good stories that cause laughter or seeing ourselves in the mirror, in passionate love, and so much more.
I know all of this may sound like some romantic version of 1970’s humanism. And that is a danger. But let’s admit that it is also dangerous to do theology in abstraction or as world denying scholasticism or as justification for continued institutionalization of our anxiety about the church. Maybe we can no longer champion the capital T truth from pulpits ten feet above contradiction! Maybe the truth has to come out in simple gracious acts of listening, hunches followed, and gifts conveyed with eyes, hands and whispers. In the Spirit’s wisdom these little episodes will meld into the meta-narrative gospel of cross, resurrection, and final victory of God’s love and purpose that are woven into the fabric of life. Karen Ward reminded us that commitment in the Post-Modern context comes by a series of junctions and forks in the road. That is sacramentality. It allows for God’s gracious initiative to come out in and through change and choices seen in the light of font, Word and table.
In closing, I cite a little piece by Tom Bodett entitled “The Group That Notices Things.” Consider it a parable of baptismal living in the power of the Spirit. Bodett tells of a distinctive group of people who notice things and who distinguish themselves by a special kind of attentiveness to others around them. He tells of woman who shows kindness on the highway by pulling over when he evidences a manic and frenzied need to pass. In another example, a lady at the store with a cart full of groceries and kids appears to be in a bad mood, but when they meet at the checkout counter and Bodett has only a pack of gum, she invites him to go first. She shows she is a card-carrying member of the GNT’s—“the group that notices things.” He notes that it is as easy to be part of the group as using your turn signal in traffic—doing simple little things to make it a little easier for others. Very few are not admitted to the GNTs—the roster is open! Bodett urges his readers to look around and give it a try and notes that you shouldn’t worry about making a spectacle of yourself in such kindness because no one outside the groups will notice!
In this hurting, confused, searching world may we be “The Group That Notices Things” by the power and grace of the Spirit. May we be Simeon and Anna in the temple who notice a young peasant couple and their little Jewish baby and see him for what he is worth! May we be God’s people doing nothing but living on the veranda, being attentive to those whom God is drawing into the divine life, and listening and loving them to share with us in “becoming disciples.”
“Living on the Porch and Trusting the Holy Spirit” copyright 2001, 2004 The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church. Posted with permission. It has been abbreviated and edited for readers. The address was given earlier in another form at the North American Association for the Catechumenate (NAAC) in Santa Fe, New Mexico at its annual convocation in July 2001. Material by the author of this address may be quoted for non-commercial, one-time educational use so long as the copyright notice and the General Board of Discipleship Worship Webpage URL (www.umcworship.org) appears with the quoted material.