Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Some Thoughts on Marriage

Last weekend, I had the privilege of officiating at the wedding of two of my former students, Zach Heyveld and Lindsey Row, in Iowa City. Below are a few of the thoughts I shared with them and the congregation in a portion of the wedding homily:

You will both have your lives apart, as well as your lives together, and you will each have your separate ways to find along the pathway of life. But, as Frederick Buechner reminds us, “a marriage made in Heaven is one where a man and a woman become more richly themselves together than the chances are either of them could ever have managed to become alone.” How that all happens, we can’t really explain. But I would venture to guess that if you asked a few of the gray hairs here this afternoon to tell you the story of their marriage, you would discover a common thread: marriage teaches us to become more fully alive to one another and to the world. And for many of us, marriage saves us from ourselves.

How did we get here? The very same way you will today—by saying words so improbable that the angels are probably laughing and by taking vows that your parents took and their parents before them. These are time-honored words; not words thrown together overnight for some fly-by-night ritual. No, these words have weathered the test of time and though they may sound archaic they are like the rings you will share with one another, hard and beautiful and able to weather all kinds of change. So, when you say these words today, though they may sound old and antique, learn to trust them because they have carried many of us through the seas of marital difficulty and provided safe harbor. And what these simple words reveal stands in stark contrast to what the culture suggests about the nature of love. For, today, you promise to love, honor, and cherish, not just when you feel like it, not just when the emotional intensity burns hot, but till death finally separates you. Today you have the audacity to claim love, not as some fleeting emotion, but as an act of the will, something which you choose to do—come what may. And, like Ruth in the biblical story, it is that very abandon to another and to the God who stands waiting in the wings that will sustain you in the days that lie ahead.

In fact, I would like to suggest to you that if you will hang on to these words and hang on to one another, that your marriage holds the possibility of being salvific—that it can and will save you from your very self. For, in the days to come, you will have numerous choices to make about how to respond to one another as you learn to negotiate this new and rather awkward relationship. You will be tempted, at times, to draw back and to draw in upon yourself in selfish and egocentric ways. Do not, I repeat, do not, yield to that siren song. Remember the words that you speak here today and give in to the challenge to rise above yourself. Remember the God who had the audacity to not remain in the wings forever but who, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness,” who, “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross,” (Philippians 2:7-8). It is to that downward way that I invite you this afternoon as it is portrayed in an essay by the surgeon, Richard Selzer, as he walked late one night into the hospital room of a patient who was in his surgery just hours before:

“I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut the little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry-mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, so greedily? The young woman speaks. ‘Will my mouth always be like this?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it will. It is because the nerve was cut.’ She nods, and is silent. But the young man smiles. ‘I like it,’ he says. ‘It is kind of cute.’ All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works,” (Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, 45-46).

Now, I doubt, this afternoon, that you will have much trouble kissing one another. You are still young and passionate and the day is fair. But in the days and weeks and months to come, you will need to learn to accommodate yourself to one another. And, that may take more than a little effort. In those rather difficult times, may the vows that you make here today and the memory of all of us who surround you, sustain you. But most of all, may the God who waits in the wings, who gives you the strength to undertake these most improbable vows, and who promises to bear you safely together to the other side, go with you both. And may his faithfulness towards us and his ultimate act of accommodation in Christ Jesus bear fruit in your common life together and to any children who may grace your home. For it is in his name we pray it. Amen.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Baptismal Community

On Sunday, we baptized young Caden, the baby boy of Ben and Michelle Wayman who are joining us in ministry at St. Paul's. Using the lectionary texts for last Sunday, I tried to weave a narrative regarding the nature of a baptismal community. Below are a couple of paragraphs from the sermon:

The Free Methodist Church in our day and, in fact, much of American Christianity is faced with a severe crisis of identity. We no longer know who and whose we are. The temptations of our culture and sub-culture threaten to overwhelm us and perhaps render us impotent or irrelevant. And so we grab for all the outward appearances of success at hand and reward any one and any place that shows a jump in statistics, a showy worship program, and beautiful and wealthy people. But today, my friends, we engage in reaffirming whose and who we are through the simple act of splashing a bit of water on the forehead of a child. Believe it or not, this is one of the most counter-cultural acts in which we might engage. As Gordon Lathrop says in his book, Holy Things, “If bread and wine are at the center of the assembly, water is at its edge, marking its boundary, slaking its thirst, holding its life and its death.” And this water refuses, like the Good Samaritan in today’s gospel lesson, to know boundaries. It embraces the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the powerful and the disenfranchised. And just as that parable was meant to shake up the Jews who overheard it, shattering their misconceptions and stereotypes about what it meant to be one of God’s people, so, too, do these few drops of water challenge us to rethink our own identity as children of God.
Through the gift of baptism, we are offered an opportunity to be converted yet again. As Will Willimon claims in his little book, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, “Infant baptism can be a reminder that conversion, and the repentance it entails, is not usually (contra much of American evangelicalism) a momentary, instantaneous phenomenon. Baptism, whenever it occurs, sets in motion a lifetime of turning and detoxification. As Luther said, every day of our lives we must wake up and volunteer for death, praying to God to finish in us that which was begun in our baptism,” (63). Baptism reminds us that our citizenship is not something stamped in a passport but one discovered in a community. Our home is not a place, I tell you, but one found among a people. And we are called to live out that charge this day as God’s holy people.

Monday, July 16, 2007

My Old Kentucky Home

I spent part of last week taking my wife, father, and mother to eastern Kentucky to visit the Hartley family cemetery which I discovered several years ago. "Bert" Hartley (who introduced me to the final resting place of my 19th century ancestors) died last year after a long bout with prostate cancer. The terrain in this part of the country is mountainous and somewhat isolated--good country for making moonshine and hiding from the rest of the world. One has to want to get to Oldtown--a community about 15 miles south of Greenup. There are the remains of a general store and a few remnants of old tobacco barns but, otherwise, it is stony backwoods farmland.

It was a special joy to help my father put these pieces of the family puzzle together. The key was an entry in the 1880 census I found which listed my great-grandfather (Clyde Centennial Hartley) as a four-year-old boy. When he ran away from home at about age 16, he left that part of his life behind so it took some sleuthing through old records to discover his mother (America Wheeler) and father (Abraham Goble Hartley). His dad had remarried after the death of his first wife and was 59 when his son was born. When his mother remarried a few years later after his father's death, young Clyde reported that his step-father beat him unmercifully. Hightailing it to Oklahoma to drive a mule train probably appealed to his zest for adventure.

So it was that he lit out for the west in 1892, the same year that the trustees bought Almira College and renamed it "Greenville College." Meanwhile, over in the Ozark hills of Arkansas, my maternal great-great grandfather was riding a circuit as a Free Methodist pastor, leaving his wife and children behind for long periods of time. Putting these pieces of the family tree have helped me to gain a perspective on the humble roots from whence I come. There are no college graduates whatsoever until my father labored for ten years at a degree as a non-traditional student--finally finishing during my years as an undergrad at Greenville. So, for both my wife and I, we are, literally, the first in our families to go off to college.

This makes me appreciate the struggles for those who come into my classroom without a history of family success in college. Earning a degree was the first step for me on a wonderful journey of discovery that led to Princeton, Oklahoma State, Toronto and London. I hope I can share something of that joy with the new freshmen who will arrive in a few short weeks.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Challenge of Discipleship

Here's a portion of Sunday's sermon which addressed the challenge of discipleship:

The challenge of discipleship is not about adopting a new ideology, but about being grasped by a new way of living. Following Christ submerses us in the waters of baptism and transfers our citizenship from one dominion to another.

No one understood this better than did John Wesley who, in his classic essay, “The Character of a Methodist,” laid out an order of salvation that was committed to a lifetime of growth. The Methodist class meetings met weekly and provided a place for mutual study, correction, forgiveness, and prayer. Wesleyans, Will Willimon maintains, experienced the gospel call, not merely as the intellectual question, “Do you agree?” or its emotional opposite, “Do you feel?” but as the more politically-loaded question, “Will you join?” The danger in our culture is that the Christian faith may simply get reduced to a merely private or individualistic matter. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, facing the power of the Nazi state, knew that this kind of withdrawal from the culture would never empower Christians to resist. The only hope for Christians in an alien world, he suggested, was membership in a community that would enable them to stand up to the forces of Nazism. In his, Cost of Discipleship, he says: “There is a certain ‘political’ character involved in the idea of sanctification and it is this character which provides the only basis for the Church’s political ethic. The world is the world and the Church the Church, and yet the Word of God must go forth from the Church into all the world, proclaiming that the earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is. Herein is the ‘political’ character of the Church,” (314).

Perhaps living in a country such as ours, it is easy to mistake the veneer of religiosity for the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his most recent book, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Way that Jesus is the Way, Eugene Peterson shows us just how counter-cultural this call to discipleship really is. He says, “I cannot follow Jesus any way which I like. My following must be consonant with his leading. . . More often than not I find my Christian brothers and sisters uncritically embracing the ways and means practiced by the high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, congregations, nations, and causes, people who show us how to make money, win wars, manage people, sell products, manipulate emotions, and who then write books or give lectures telling us how we can do what they are doing. But these ways and means more often than not violate the ways of Jesus. North American Christians are conspicuous for going along with whatever the culture decides is charismatic, successful, influential—whatever gets things done, whatever can gather a crowd of followers—hardly noticing that these ways and means are at odds with the clearly marked way that Jesus walked and called us to follow,” (8).