Easy or Hard?

given on Sunday, June 2, 2013–based on preparing for Annual Conference where the theme will be “Praying Hands and Dirty Fingernails

Praying Hands & Dirty Fingernails:  Easy or Hard?

 

Five days from now Annual Conference convenes.  I recognize that the value of this meeting seems distant, unimportant, or maybe even detrimental in some ways.  Yet, as United Methodists, the Annual Conference is a time to review, to be accountable, to renew each church’s commitment to the Greatest Commandment and the Great Commission.  The theme this year is “Praying Hands & Dirty Fingernails.”

Stop and think about that combination of images for just a moment . . .(pause) . . .and now put yourself into the picture.  Do you have praying hands?  Do you have dirty fingernails?  Do you have both praying hands and dirty fingernails?  Or, sadly, do you have neither?

John Wesley did not separate these two images; he felt it was one in the same.  He also developed the structure to keep members accountable to their Christian responsibilities.

Annual Conference is all about God’s greatest commandment and his commission.  Annual conference is Wesley’s method of accountability to God.  Bishop Schnase’s leadership keeps our Missouri churches on task, and this year an added element of preparation appeared in our inboxes—“21 Days of Prayer.”

This three-week study came to my attention a little later than it should have because I was closing out the school year.  My focus was simply to make sure the students graduated and then to look forward.  My secular world collided with my spiritual world, even though I believe they work together to fulfill my Wesleyan purpose.

As school wound down and I cleaned up a room and moved into a new position, I began to let go of the school year and look ahead to the new church year—at least the conference’s church year.  I began reading the materials that are sent out and signing up for the various workshops and projects so I could be prepared.  And, I stopped to read the “21 Days of Prayer.”

First, I must apologize for my lack of pastoral responsibility.  The past two weeks, I should have shared this study with you and ready to introduce the final week of the study today.  But, with that aside, let me share some of the phenomenal words that are in this study.  Rev. Jenn Klein, from the Country Club United Methodist Church in Kansas City, wrote the study based on the Bishop’s book, Remember the Future:  Praying for the Church and Change.

All Christians are to follow one simple commandment that I have repeated over the last five years:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’  –Matthew 22:37-39, the Message

Following this commandment should make life so simple, but in our world, it seems nothing can be simple.  And Rev. Klein wrote it in just a slightly more expansive manner for the study:

“The Great Commandment tells us to love the Lord our God with our full selves; with our mind (intellect), heart (emotions), soul (intuition and divine instinct) and body (physical).  We are also to love others as ourselves.”

Her expanded explanation for each element–mind, heart, soul, and body—makes the commandment more than a statement; it makes it an internalized, comprehensive action—a lifestyle.

Over the past several years, I have tried to describe how being a Christian is a lifestyle.  I know you recognize that idea, but I simply must state it again.  A lifestyle is a way of living that comes automatically; there is no need to write out a specific plan of action or to prepare for the day’s event consciously to live as a Christian.  A lifestyle reflects who you are down to your innermost living cell.

Of course, a Christian lifestyle appears out of sync in today’s society, at least on the surface.  We are living side by side with a secular world that demands more and more un-Christian like behaviors.  The demands from our work world push our ethical standards to a point we become bitter, angry, and stressed not only mentally but physically.  We reach a point that we want to just quit everything because it seems we are demanded to live in a manner that does not match our beliefs.

The Bishop’s book acknowledges this, and then provides a Wesleyan viewpoint to help us continue maintaining a Christian lifestyle:

John Wesley modeled acts of piety and acts of mercy and taught that both are essential to our life in Christ.  The words piety and mercy sound curiously quaint today, perhaps even stirring negative responses.  Piety brings to mind self righteous, sanctimonious arrogance.  And no one wants to be at the mercy of anyone else.  Mercy connotes weakness, dependence, surrender.

Personally, I agree with the Bishop.  Today’s world has twisted the concepts we were taught in the 20th century, even clear back to the 18th century when Wesley began his ministry.

Yet we are living in the 21st century.  We cannot change that fact and we seem to have made many adjustments to the secular lifestyle that suits us.  The problem is that we are not making the adjustments in our Christian world to maintain the Wesleyan standards for the disciples of Jesus Christ that we profess we are.

Quoting again from the Bishop’s book:

Sometimes we act as if our living in Christ and leading the church require us to emphasize piety to the exclusion of mercy or to choose ministries of mercy at the expense of congregational vitality.  This presents an unhealthy and dangerous dichotomy.  It forces us to ask ourselves.  “Which kind of Christians are we?”  Are we those who seek a deeper spirituality in the changed heart that comes through worship, sacraments, prayer, the Scriptures and fellowship?  Or those who pour ourselves out through ministries of service and justice, helping people to rebuild their lives, and offering hope to a hurting world?

Is not that true?  His words sting; and I want to feel better.  Unfortunately no one can force anyone else to do something they are unwilling to do.  It takes modeling.  It takes valuing.  It takes understanding.  It takes God to open our hearts, our minds, and our hands to maintain a Christian lifestyle.  It takes God to do the same in non-Christians, too.

Here again comes a quandary:  How can our dwindling, aging populations continue to develop vital congregations?  Acts of piety and acts of mercy may be the actions Wesley demanded, and those same two types of acts are still needed today.  The Bishop quotes Martyn Atkins, the general secretary of the British Methodist church who says,

“Acts of piety and acts of mercy are like two wings of a bird; without either one, we cannot fly.  . . .  Following Christ involves praying hands and dirty fingernails.”

Yes, there is the theme of annual conference.  The Bishop connects Wesley’s images of a Christian lifestyle with this explanation:

We can’t evangelize hungry people without giving them food, and offering food alone never completes the task God gives us.  . . . vital congregations include not only a focus on the means by which people grow in Christ together but also an emphasis on ministries that reach into the community and world to serve in Christ’s name.  We cannot separate the two.  These feed each other.  Every faithful and fruitful congregation practices both acts of piety and acts of mercy.

That last line sets up the accountability tools.  To remain a vital congregation, an honest evaluation needs to be completed.  The checklist is simply the acts of piety and the acts of mercy written down and then logged by the congregation.  What proof does the church right here, right now have to show God that his Commandment is being fulfilled and his Commission is the congregation’s driving force.

Over the next two weeks, I challenge each one of you to create such a document.  List the acts of piety and write down what you do regularly that Wesley would approve.  Follow that with the list of acts of mercy you support or do personally.  Be honest.  I know the economy is often a limiting force, or maybe it is physical health that creates some limit.  But unless we can demonstrate our Christian standards, we must admit we are not a vital congregation and we have work to do.

Here is the first step during the conference week:  Prayer.  Make a conscious decision to pray for the church.  One of the different types of prayers available to us is the Prayer Knots.  Most of us would equate this with the Catholics’ use of a rosary, but there are some differences.  With your bulletin, you have a set of 8 knots on a cord.  Each knot is for a specific question as listed in the bulletin.  Add this prayer format to what you typically do in order to be more focused in your talks with God.

  • Knot One:           The first is this,
  • Knot Two:           You shall love the Lord your God
  • Knot Three:         with all your heart,
  • Knot Four:                  and with all your soul,
  • Knot Five:                  and with all your mind,
  • Knit Six:                  and with all your strength,
  • Knot Seven:         The second is this,
  • Knot Eight:         you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Rev. Klein offers a few other questions to consider after repeating this prayer twice:

  1. What word or image grasps your attention?  This is God’s word for you this week.
  2. What response, thoughts, insights were stirred within?
  3. How have you experienced the love of God?
  4. How might you be able to help another experience God’s love?

For five years, the one concern voiced over and over is how can we do that when we are so tired and so few.  Over these five years, I have seen the congregation’s attendance go up and down.  I know some swells are seasonal, as are some drops.  Some are temporary; some are not.

Over these five years, the acts of piety are maintained during worship, but seldom outside of that one hour.  The acts of mercy follow traditions primarily, but the traditions change.  New acts tried may fail first, but tried again may thrive.  The old acts continue, but do they grow?

During the next two weeks, use the prayer knots or cord and evaluate the vitality of your own faith, but also the vitality of our congregation.  It is not easy, but it is necessary.  In two weeks, let’s have an honest conversation that identifies a purpose and a goal for keeping the healthy balance of the past with the present.  A purpose and a goal that create a vital congregation.

Dear God,

Thank you for providing our congregation

the strength of history and the durability of now.

Guide us as we pray for our congregation,

our community, and our members.

Help us to be honest with our evaluations.

Help us to reflect upon the words

from the Bishop, Rev. Klein, Wesley,

and so many of your other disciples.

Use our time apart to build us up

so we can continue to keep your commandment

and to carry out your commission.  –Amen

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