I’ve been a serving as a pastor for almost 38 years. During that time, I have rarely reflected critically on my values. I could list several values, among them unity, peace, faith, hope, love, and justice. It isn’t that my values have been wrong, by any stretch of the imagination, but I have come to realize that the stratification of those values is critical to who I am, not just as a pastor or church member, but as a person who believes that Jesus calls us to radical discipleship.
Throughout ministry, I have believed that the number of people who gather in church each Sunday is critically important. I felt the demand to increase attendance in each church I have ever pastored, and that was created by focusing on two key values: unity and peace. Unity itself was my highest value.
My job as the pastor was to straddle a large middle between people who often voted in different primaries and who thought very differently about scripture and what it said about people. My job was to nudge the people to a deeper love, but if I upset the peace in a church, it could go badly very quickly.
Methodism has always claimed to have a “free pulpit,” meaning that the clergy could not be fired on the spot for speaking out on key social issues, but I grew to understand during my years of ministry that there were more limits than I originally thought. If I caused too much of a rift and caused people to write angry letters to the superintendent or the bishop, I might find myself moving more frequently than I would like.
It really wasn’t that much of a concern to me because I was always a centrist. I was the person who fought valiently for the middle ground, and even, at some level, believed that every person retained the right to have their own version of the truth. I rarely stopped to critically evaluate the way I prioritzed my values …
Until last February.
It was after the called General Conference of the United Methodist Church that I awoke to the reality that the middle had dried up. Being a true centrist was no longer possible for me when I began to count the number of people who had been harmed … and literally died … on my “middle ground.” I knew, in that moment, that unity was no longer my highest value, but I was still trying to figure out how to talk about it.
Then two Sundays ago in worship, we read this hard teaching of Jesus found in the Gospel of Luke:
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three! (Luke 12:49-52, NRSV)
As I prepared for that sermon, it occurred to me that I had to press the pause button to clarify my own values. What I realized, as I journaled and collected my previous thoughts on values, was that I have four primary values, and if I hoped to keep my integrity intact, they must appear for me in this order: love, justice, peace, and unity.
Leading with Love
This really is not that hard for me. I’m not really sure why I didn’t put this first all along. When Jesus is confronted by us good religious people wanting to justify our ways of thinking and being, he asks us to think about the two greatest commandments. They are love of God and love of neighbor (see Mark 12:28-31, Deuteronomy 6:4, and Leviticus 19:18).
What I have discovered is that, if we fail to make love foundational, any justice quickly becomes retributive, peace is nothing more than an uneasy calmness, and unity is incomplete and comes at the expense of people without power or privilege.
Love (the Greek αγαπη – agape) is the ultimate act of letting go. It is giving ourselves in complete trust and vulnerability to God and neighbor. It is the love of the Christ, and it is how we see Christ in one another.
With the foundation of love, we can then work for justice. This justice is not retributive … it is non-violent, and it seeks to fulfill the calling of Jesus as found in Matthew 25:31-46 … to create community for “the least of these” with the knowledge that we encounter Christ in the face of those who are marginalized.
We often get Matthew 25 wrong by thinking that, when we reach out to the poor and the marginalized, we are being Christ. That’s not what Jesus says. He says that, when we look into the face of those who are poor and marginalized, we will see Christ.
Ours is a calling to create community, and we can only do so when we live into the paradoxical claim that “the last shall be first” and “the least shall be the greatest.” This is the work of justice, and it is only possible when we build on love.
The Radical Way of Shalom
When we think of “shalom,” we often think of peace. The problem for me is that, in our culture … most especially in our denomination … we have sought a certain level of calmness. Justice is a good thing … but more than that, we want peace.
I remember first reading the Alabama Clergymen’s Letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was an open letter written on April 12, 1963, trying to persuade Dr. King to desist from direct actions that resulted in conflicts and crises in the Deep South. It led to the foundational writing of Dr. King known as the Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
As I read it, I was astounded that it contained the names of two Methodist bishops: Paul Hardin and Nolan Harmon. The letter itself was calling on Dr. King to let calm conversations happen locally without interference from someone outside the state (not that Alabama and Georgia are separated by that much distance).
Speaking as a person who understands privilege and power from the inside out, there is a real temptation and desire for that kind of peace. A calm serenity that, if we are honest, lets privilege and power remain unchallenged.
But I have known for most of my ministry that shalom means way more than a calm peace. I stumbled upon this definition with the help of Wikipedia. In an entry on shalom, I came upon a great quote by Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga, Jr., from his book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. The quote reads:
The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom [God] delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.
The thought that this “universal flourishing” is the “way things ought to be” inspires me. It is the natural outward expression of love and justice.
The Unity We Seek
As I have restructured my values, I now find my way back to unity. Unity has always been a positive value … but it has to come after we have laid the foundation and framework of love, justice, and shalom. This unity, however, is not one that comes at the expense of any person or group of persons. It is the “universal flourishing” key to the understanding of shalom.
The unity we seek in our country must be one that places a high value on the most vulnerable people among us. This would include anyone without easy access to privilege and power. People of color, immigrants, people struggling with poverty, and people who identify as LGBTQIA+ would generally qualify here. If there is no place for any one of these siblings of ours, then we do not have an authentic unity.
The same applies for the United Methodist Church. If we let unity be our highest value, there is a strong likelihood that love, justice and shalom are tied up in the trunk.
But when we subjugate our unity to these higher values, then we have a unity that glorifies God and the Christ that is found in each of us.
Where we go from here …
As I consider the future hope of the people called Methodist, I am confident that there is a way forward. From my balcony seat, I think we may be looking at a post-modern expression of our Wesleyan heritage, and we may or may not make this journey as one, big, happy family.
This, however, does not mean that I will not look for Christ in each person … even the people who think very differently from me. It is just that the teaching of Jesus has profoundly influenced my thinking. If I am to take Jesus seriously, especially as it pertains to the care of those who have been marginalized, then it might separate me from those who insist on keeping others in the margins.
Last I checked, though, the universe was a pretty big place. The kingdom of God is even bigger and more expansive.
So there might be a place for us all to live with love, justice, and shalom together … in unity. That, for me, is the way of this radical discipleship.