Putting That Horse BEFORE the Cart . . .

When I began to seriously explore the internet in the months leading up to and following my retirement from parish ministry at the end of 2010, I was stunned to discover an enormous array of opinions, viewpoints, personalities, and stories — oh, my, the stories! They ran the gamut from ultra-conservative to out-there-liberal (to use outdated terminology . . . maybe fundamentalist to progressive is more current?).

One of the voices that most intrigued me was that of a young, Methodist pastor in the south named Morgan Guyton. Morgan addressed ‘big’ issues, wondering aloud about theological positions that have been espoused by wide swaths of the Christian community for the last few hundred years. He engaged serious conversations about atonement theory, environmental and justice issues, always asking insightful questions and encouraging honest feedback.

Now, he has a book! I am working my way through this little gem, one chapter at a time, digesting, noting questions in the margins, nodding my head, or scratching it, ALL of which I love when I do serious reading and thinking.

Today, I am joining a blog tour for this book, looking especially at chapter four — “Empty, Not Clean: How We Gain Pure Hearts.” This is the fourth of 12 provocative contrasts that form the spine of this volume, which is called: How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. I highly recommend  this book to you and encourage you to engage with it and see where you land on each issue in turn. It’s a very good thing for the church to re-examine what we say we believe and why. Morgan Guyton invites us to do exactly that.

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“The problem is that the modern American church often makes Christianity into a completely rational, purposeful, experience instead of a spiritual, intuitive encounter. We seek to know about God rather than to know God, and we worship our knowledge of God instead of God himself.”

Can I get a LOUD amen? I cannot even begin to verbalize how exhausted I feel by argument, by theological nitpicking, by endless and circular conversations about fine points of dogma. Even Jesus himself told us that words are far less important than deeds (see John 10:25), that ‘right belief’ is revealed only in right relationship, that abiding is what is needed. Being with, listening, stilling the noise, living in love . . . these are the things that make for pure hearts, that help us become who we were meant to be.

The line of distinction that Morgan draws in this chapter is the one between trying to stay clean and trying to get empty. That last phrase is one that would have made me more than a little bit nervous about a dozen years ago. Empty? Whaddya mean, empty? Sounds new-agey to me. 

I have since come to appreciate the fine difference between empty and open . . . so I might have chosen the latter word here. But what he means by ’empty’ is pretty much what I mean by ‘open,’ so I’m pretty sure we’re on the same page!

For far too long, religious folk (I’m talking almost all religions here, not just the Christian one) have chosen a bifurcated view of the world, making it (and the flesh, which Morgan discusses in a later chapter) the enemy of our souls. The result is too often a growing list of do’s and don’t’s and a shrinking view of all that is good and beautiful in what God has designed and given. Others of Morgan’s generation have written moving memoirs noting this phenomenon – Addie Zierman, Rachel Held Evans, among many others – sometimes describing the debilitating after-effects of a steady diet of fear-based restrictiveness. The entire purity sub-culture is an extreme example of this ill-fated attempt to ‘keep our young people pure.’

It does not work. Anything based on fear is doomed to failure. Anything. And fear is what lies behind so much of the ‘staying clean’ mentality. What is desperately needed is an invitational mentality — we need to invite our children (and ourselves) into the wideness of God’s mercy, the enormity of God’s creative genius, and the beauty of unending, unquenchable, ever-widening Love. 

There is a gem of a paragraph on page 39 that I am finding to be deeply true in my own spiritual journey just now:

“Before the rational modern era in which we live, Christian prayer looked very different. In the rational, modern approach to life, which tends to be all mind and no heart, the purpose of prayer is simply to make requests of God, and say appropriate things about God. But for most of Christian history, prayer has involved repeating the same words over and over again every day, according to a fixed schedule in a sacred language that isn’t your mother tongue, not in order to tell God what he already knows or ask him for what he already knows you need, but to “order {your} steps in {his} word.” (Ps. 119:133)

Courtesy of a blogpost by Sarah Bessey early in Lent this year, I have been using some lovely prayer beads, assembled and sent to me by Episcopalian nuns in the midwest somewhere. With the beads, came four different suggested prayer rotations to use while fingering them. I chose the Celtic version and have been using both beads and words every day since. Now this language is English, but the vocabulary is definitely not my own and I am hear to tell you that using these aids has changed my prayer experience in ways that are only positive. There is a movement from the left side of my brain to the right as I softly whisper the words that are now my own, cemented in my memory by frequency, something which a dear spiritual director earnestly desired for me to experience several years ago! (He sent me to the ocean for long episodes of staring and waiting, which is also a wonderful aid to this process.)

As the beads slip past my fingers, and the words enter the atmosphere around me (through sighs and yawns!), I find the presence of a Loving God to be real and near in ways that using my own chosen words too often do not. Yes, I still offer names and faces to the Throne, I still say thank you with almost every  breath of my day, I still offer, “Help,” and “Glory!” regularly. But the openness that comes with ritual has stunned and moved me.

Mike McHargue (“The Science Guy” for those who listen to The Liturgists podcasts) reminded us recently that we are creatures who possess a human brain that is wrapped around a simian brain that is wrapped around a lizard brain, etc. And it is the noise from those parts of ourselves that we so often need to silence. And what is the single most helpful aid for silencing them? Repetition, liturgy, learned prayer. YES! For Morgan, this is a critical step on the road to ’empty.’ For me, it’s part of becoming increasingly more ‘open’ to the presence of God.

He finishes this chapter with some reflection on a topic I have addressed, both here on the blog and in the ebook that is available to my newsletter subscribers. And we come to different conclusions, he and I. I take issue with the “more of Jesus, less of me” mentality, preferring instead to say, “more of Jesus, MORE of me.” I say this because I deeply believe that God does not desire us to so much become Jesus but to resemble him, in our own unique and irreplaceable selfhood. We are, after all, invited into a partnership with God in the building of the Kingdom in this place. God chooses to use very frail human vessels to do God’s work in the world. Jesus is our guide, our template, our savior and our friend. And we are invited into relationship with the Triune God through the selfless giving of this dear Incarnate Friend.

Hopefully, as we release the lists, as we say good-bye to the do’s and don’ts and the ‘stay clean’ entanglements, we will, indeed, ever more closely resemble our crucified, risen Lord. But . . . we will still be ourselves. Because WE are the reason Jesus came, we are the reason he lived and walked among us, telling those stories, teaching those lessons, dying on that cross and rising from that tomb. God loved who we are enough to join us, to celebrate us, to welcome us, to change us.

And that is the wonder of it all, is it not?

I’ll keep working through this book and hopefully, engage other chapters here on the blog in coming weeks. In the meantime, why don’t you get yourself a copy and let’s dialog about it, okay??