Saturday, April 30, 2016

Rule #1 … On the Ground

Last week, I gave a brief history of Wesley’s General Rules along with a synopsis of the first of what United Methodists now often call Three Simple Rules (after Bishop Reuben Job’s little book?)

It’s a rule that seems so simple, but in practice, isn’t. First… do no harm. Really. Before anything else, make sure you do this. Don’t even think about rule #2 or 3 until you have accepted and begun to practice this one.

Whoa, you say. Neglect doing good? Loving God? Well, no, but yes!

All our good deeds won’t add up to a person feeling loved and respected until we stop harming her. All the worship and the bible reading in the world isn’t worth anything until we put it into practice and actually work at not causing harm – to anyone or anything, at any time – this includes ourselves.

Strange words for a church leader, maybe, but if we would diligently practice Rule #1 – even to the exclusion of all else – the world (translate as God’s good creation) would be a better place than it is now. This is the way we live the greatest commandment to love the God with all our being, and our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 22:36-40).

There are so many ways we can practice Rule #1 – personally, as communities, and as nations. Still, it’s about now that questions begin to surface.

First, does one or another practice fit under Rule #1 or Rule #2? (Short answer: it’s usually both.)

Second, what if whatever you do will cause some harm – no matter how you act or how you refrain from acting? This is the big question. For much of our lives, this is unavoidable. Yet, if we’re serious about doing no harm we must consider the question. In everything we do. Because, frankly there’s harm in most of what we First World citizens do.
  • Turn on the air-conditioning – and all our other life-enhancing “necessities” – and we blow off the top of a mountain and pollute to water of the neighbors living in Appalachia. 
  • Buy a Kids’ Meal and we contribute to ozone depletion (bovine gas), more plastic junk-toys, and fill our bodies with artificially contrived corn-and-soy products (not to mention the GMO factor).
  • Shop, because, hey, that supports the economy. But what about our neighbors who work on farm or in factory to provide what we buy who don’t earn a living wage? Who can’t afford what we throw away?
So many of our choices impact people we’ll never know – their quality of life, sometimes their ability just to survive. Think about it… How many local or global conflicts would never happen if every parent went to sleep each night knowing that his children had eaten well that day? Knew that if a child got sick, she could get medical treatment? (Kay, my editor, tells me, hunger and such are seldom the causes of wars; but they often factor into it.)

First, do no harm. The more we consider this rule, the harder we find it is to practice it. Anyone who’s studied Jesus’ ministry has discovered that he was a truly radical leader, calling us to behave far better than we would on our own.

John Wesley learned this. He echoed Jesus, calling us to practice it.

You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love.  All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.  But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other! 
             Galatians 5: 13-15

Saturday, April 23, 2016

First, Do No Harm

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” ~ William Shakespeare

(Since I'm posting this on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, I begin with his words. They go with today's theme.) 

I started working on this entry last month, but it wasn’t coming together so I set it aside. But I’ve been thinking about it since then.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, is known for his methodical way of organizing what became the Methodist movement, and later “Church”. (Hence the name Methodist.) One piece of that method was to set up small groups where people would check in weekly, holding each other accountable to a faithful life.

There was some confusion though, when these groups started. What were they supposed to be doing? And, how? Part of Wesley’s response was his “General Rules.” 

Whenever I look at these Rules, I’m reminded again of the genius in the way they’re ordered:
      First, do no harm;
      Second, do good;
      Third, stay in love with God.

All my life I’ve tried to do good, to be good. But it was never enough. I’ve hurt feelings and angered people unnecessarily. When I look at the General Rules, I begin to see why. Unless we first practice doing no harm, the rest will never be enough.

I’ve done plenty of harm, mostly by saying things that could have remained unsaid, or not saying them as carefully as I might have.

I’m a strong advocate for saying hard truths when they need to be heard, regardless of the discomfort they may cause. I believe that failure to provide enough boundaries, including speaking up to adults who are acting out, is one cause of societal ills.

Yet, speaking up is unpopular. It makes everyone uncomfortable. It’s not easy. Still, none of these are good reasons to remain silent when we feel led to speak. For me, the compelling reason to remain silent would be the first of Wesley’s General Rules:
“First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced.”
Rather old-fashioned wording, but as applicable now as it was nearly 300 years ago. If the words remind you of the Hippocratic Oath, that ancient oath taken by physicians, you’re not mistaken. 
Wesley read the ancients deeply, as he tried to find the apostolic church that the contemporary church seemed to have left behind. (He also wrote Primitive Physick, one of the all-time bestselling medical texts.)

How often have any of us jumped in before we knew the whole story? Spoken when we should have first listened? Started solving problems we thought needed solving? Walked away before we realized how much someone needed our presence? How often have we just failed to put a lock on our tongue?

Speaking for myself, many, many times.

The last few years though, I’ve been practicing this Rule. And I seem to be doing better. Funny – I’m not doing more good. I don’t know if I’m even doing as much good. But by working to do no harm, I’ve noticed both that I have less conflict with other and that I feel better.

Oh, I still have plenty of room for improvement. But like I tell the 90-somethings I visit: as long as we're still breathing, God still has things for us to work on. 

Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor;
therefore, love is what fulfills the Law. 
Romans 13:10 CEB

Friday, April 15, 2016

Stuff Happens

                Before I was humbled I went astray,
                    but now I keep your word.
                It is good for me that I was humbled,
                    so that I might learn your statutes. Psalm 119:67, 71

Do you remember the movie Forrest Gump? Remember his long run? When he stepped in a pile of dung, supposedly originating the phrase, “Sh*t happens?” This fictional character takes the moment in stride, literally. But then, he’s running in response to some truly bad stuff that he can’t deal with any other way.

I’m not a sports fan, but at least some people expected that Jordan Spieth had the Masters Golf Tournament all locked up earlier this month. I don’t know about Spieth, but we all know that some sportswomen and men handle these situations with grace. And some that handle them terribly.

Next Sunday we’ll be having a study session that looks at how we respond when "stuff" happens. Part of the idea is that our response when the bottom falls out is an indicator of our character as well as of our faith.

When I was young, I wanted to be humble, but I didn’t exactly know how. I knew humility was an important attribute; you couldn’t grow up in the church and miss that. Still, most of my attempts at humility were driven by a lack of belief in myself rather than a setting aside of self in favor of God. As I look back on those years, it seems to me that we need to know ourselves, to have a good sense of who we are, before we can possibly give up that same “self”.

Jesus had a good sense of self. He knew who he was. And, throughout his life, he demonstrated profound humility, saying he came “not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). On the evening before his arrest and execution, he took a towel and basin and washed his followers’ feet, directing them (and us) to practice a similar servanthood (John 13).

Quite an example to follow, one that most of us fail at more often than we succeed. But even in this, it’s in the failure that we grow, in character as well as faith. Yes, a truth, but to paraphrase a friend’s words, “Please, no more learning opportunities, at least for a while.”

Unfortunately, we usually don’t have a say in when, what, or how much “stuff” happens to us. All we can decide is how we will weather it when it happens.


Holy One, I am afraid. I feel like I’m sinking... like a boat in a storm. The waves are overpowering. The winds will swamp me. I can’t do it on my own. For this moment at least, I will fix my eyes on you. Amen.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

It's simple...?

"Consider the birds of the air..."
Each year, I eagerly greet the first juncos of fall as they head to northern Wisconsin for winter.

“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them.” Matthew 6:19 CEB

I don’t remember what first led me to consider simplicity. I probably read an article in a magazine – back when I read paper magazines – but for over a decade I’ve been trying to practice simplicity as
  1. A lifestyle choice;
  2. A spiritual discipline; and
  3. A radical act of independence from those who would have us believe that more is better or that happiness is tied to possessions.
When Jay was little, I didn’t deprive him of his latest hoped-for superhero action figure. But we’d often have the talk that this new purchase was going to bring only short-term satisfaction, and that it would also prime him to be wanting another one in the not-too-distant future. “Yes, but I want this one now.” (Ah, well, at least we laid some groundwork…)

In the last almost hundred years, we’ve been enculturated to expect that we can go to a store and buy whatever it is we “need”. We’ve been willing subjects to this mind washing. Human beings seem to have a tendency to collect things. A long time ago, it was about keeping something that might eventually save one’s life, or at least prove useful. These days, I suspect it’s more about proving that we have value. Or, that we’re alive.

According to the Self Storage Association, there are 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space in the U.S. With more than 7 square feet for every person – adults, children, and infants – it’s now “physically possible that every American could stand – all at the same time – under the total canopy of self-storage roofing.”[i]

Many people have started to realize that what our society has been selling us on all these years doesn't satisfy. It doesn’t lead to more life; it only leads to more stuff. And how many kitchen gadgets, or lawn decorations, or Happy Meal toys does any household need? (I went on a mission trip years ago, and I remember learning as we packed suitcases with toys, that the country we were heading to would not accept fast-food chain toys. Even “those without” recognized that they didn’t want this junk and didn’t want to have to deal with getting rid of it.)

I don’t mean that I’m good at this simplicity thing (I’m not) but I work at it. I like that many of our forebears often had only two or three sets of clothes – one for everyday, one for Sunday, and one in the laundry. Nope, that’ll never happen, but I admire it. And, I try to keep the idea in front of me, especially when I’m feeling low, and more vulnerable to the whole “shopping makes one feel better” suggestion.

I’m still waiting for the seachange when people will recognize this affluenza for the dis-ease it is. Still, hopeful signs are emerging as more people choose to buy less, not because they lack the funds, but because it seems the better choice.

Where have you seen a positive difference?

[i] The New York Times Magazine, "The Self-Storage Self," Jon Mooallem, September 2, 2009.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Solitude that isn't Loneliness

I’m vacationing this week. Stay-cationing, if that’s a word. Having “cottage days” as a few people suggested when I was telling them my plan.

So I’m not really writing this week; I just popped on for a few minutes to share some thoughts from Henry Nouwen that I read this week.
“The word solitude can be suggests being along by yourself in an isolated places. When we think about solitaries, our mind easily evokes images of monks or hermits who live in remote places secluded from the noise of the busy world… But the solitude that really counts is the solitude of heart; it is an inner quality or attitude that does not depend on physical isolation… The man or woman who has developed this solitude of heart is no longer pulled apart by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but is able to perceive and understand this world from a quiet inner center…
“Without the solitude of heart, the intimacy of friendship, marriage and community life cannot be creative. Without the solitude of heart, our relationships with others easily become needy and greedy, sticky and clinging, dependent and sentimental, exploitative and parasitic, because without the solitude of heart we cannot experience the others as different from ourselves but only as people who can be used for the fulfillment of our won, often hidden, needs.
“The mystery of love is that it protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the free space where he can convert his loneliness into a solitude that can be shared. In this solitude we can strengthen each other by mutual respect, by careful consideration of each other’s individuality, by an obedient distance from each other’s privacy and by a reverent understanding of the sacredness of the human heart. In this solitude we encourage each other to enter into the silence of our innermost being and discover there the voice that calls us beyond the limits of human togetherness to a new communion. In this solitude we can slowly become aware of a presence of him who embraces friends and lovers and offers us the freedom to love each other, because he loved us first (see 1 John 4:19).”[1]

[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. 25-30.