Faith Justice Reconciliation


On Saturday, February 3, 2018, over 200 people, clergy and lay both, from a variety of denominations, gathered at Portland First United Methodist Church for a one-day interactive event organized by the Columbia District Lay Development team. Dr. Christena Cleveland, social psychologist, minister, and author of the perspective-changing book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, centered the day through talks, a Q&A session, and facilitated conversations.


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Disunity in Christ - 2018 Lenten Study Series

Welcome to this series of Lenten reflections, offered as follow-up to the "Faith, Justice, Reconciliation” event featuring Dr. Christena Cleveland. We hope these brief reflections will prove beneficial to anyone seeking to explore Dr. Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart during this season of Lent. Our hope is that this resource might be of particular usefulness to church groups seeking to go deeper together in response you heard and experienced at the event. 

Schedule

February 14th, Ash Wednesday

February 18, First Sunday in Lent

February 25, Second Sunday in Lent

March 4, Third Sunday in Lent

March 11, Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 18, Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 25, Palm Sunday

April 1, Easter Sunday

 

Lent is an important if oft neglected season of the Christian year—a period of 40 days set aside for repentance and self-denial as a way of preparing for the great Easter celebration. The Church has long recognized that its annual cycle of observances must take seriously Jesus’s demand that his followers “consider the costs” of discipleship (Luke 14:25–35)—the consequences of following Jesus that are not canceled out or bypassed by the resurrection, not in Jesus’s own life and not in our own. The Apostle Paul makes plain this connection when he suggests that the way to a resurrection like Jesus’s is in and through a death like Jesus’s (Romans 6:5).

 

As we enter this Lenten journey, let us recall that Jesus’s first words in the gospel of Mark are as simple as they are demanding: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). As we walk together from Ash Wednesday to Easter, we will ponder just what it might mean to “repent and believe the good news” in light of the profound and arduous way of self-emptying that Dr. Cleveland invited us into last Saturday. We will seek to hold together the theme and challenge of Lent—to lay ourselves bare before God—with the theme and challenge of Dr. Cleveland—to empty ourselves of our privilege in order to seek the interest of others above our own. We will dream a little together about the day when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and about what changes might be necessary in us if we are to join that beautiful and miraculous fellowship.

 

We hope you will join us!

 

Study Series Reading Guide

 

February 14th, Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51:1–17; Disunity in Christ, chapters 1 and 2

Reflection:

 In Psalm 51, David—cunning, warrior, king David—lays himself bare before God. “I know my transgressions, / and my sin is ever before me.” He pleads with God not to be excluded forever. “Do not cast me away from your presence, / and do not take your holy spirit from me.” David is broken and in need of being put back together, and he knows that God alone has the power to make things right. “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, / and sustain in me a willing spirit.” “O Lord, open my lips, / and my mouth will declare your praise.”

The backstory (2 Samuel 11:1–27) to this famous psalm of repentance is not pretty: filled with lust for Bathsheba, another man’s wife, David commits adultery with her. Today we would say David raped Bathsheba, as he commands her to be brought to him and then lays with her. David then schemes to cover up the resulting pregnancy by having her husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle. David does all of this because he can; such is the prerogative of kingship. Yet God is David’s witness, and God is anything but pleased with his abuse of power, his flagrant misuse of his position and authority. God speaks through the prophet Nathan to jar David’s conscience and make plain to him what he has done.

On October 27, 2017, Christians around the world observed the 500th anniversary of the event that launched the Protestant Reformation: the posting of ninety-five theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, by a then unknown Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. The first thesis reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” I was reminded of Luther’s famous first thesis at our gathering last Saturday, when Dr. Cleveland remarked that she sometimes needs to remind her privileged brothers and sisters of the holiness of perpetual repentance.

For Luther, at the time, the summons to an entire life of repentance was made in the context of what he saw as a church corrupted from within—ailing from a number of things, but particularly from the selling of indulgences for sin. The context might seem alien to us now, but perhaps “indulgences for sin” is not that far from Dr. Cleveland’s own concern—the ways in which a certain obliviousness about privilege and power wounds and fractures the Body of Christ. For do not the privileged indulge themselves—I should say indulge ourselves—with delusions that our privilege is harmless or even beneficial, or with fantasies about cheap solutions (indulgences!) to the problems our privilege creates? Dr. Cleveland, like Martin Luther before her, and perhaps like Nathan before him, insisted that there be no evasion of the stark sinful reality of our own making.

In chapter 1 of Disunity in Christ, Dr. Cleveland seeks to reframe the challenge of Christian disunity by inviting all of us to look, not at the Wrong Christian we are quite sure seldom gets it right, but at ourselves—that is, the Right Christian we assume rarely gets it wrong. She asks us to see in our very act of constructing the categories of Right Christian and Wrong Christian, and in the act of using them to sort the believers around us, an instance of the deeper cause of our disunity.

Cleveland observes that our tendency to divide Wrong from Right Christians compares poorly with how Jesus went about his business: “Jesus pursues us in spite of the fact that we are all judgmental, ignorant, dogmatic and anti-intellectual at times” (17). Jesus’s selfless pursuit cannot help but cast unflattering light on our own self-righteous quests, and Dr. Cleveland does not hesitate to bring this critique home: she recalls how her friend Ben, once deemed by her Wrong Christian, actually exemplified Christian love when the chips were down in a natural disaster: “Ben showed me what it looks like to relativize differences in order to love each other in sacrificial ways. As a member of the family of God, Ben uniquely demonstrates the character of Jesus. Ben is essential to me, and I would never have recognized this if I had forever cast him as Wrong Christian” (20).

I believe Dr. Cleveland’s recognition of the steep cost of failing to love across difference, like Ben did, is crucial for a proper appreciation of the good news of Lent. Yes, you read that correctly, I wrote the good news of Lent. Too often, we think of Lent as a total downer, a time when, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, we take some sort of perverse pleasure in focusing on how bad we are. It’s like another 40-day flood, only this time the waters of judgment are in the boat with us, and we struggle to hold our breath under water until the Easter drain is opened and the waters subside enough for us to breathe again. So construed, Lent can only be bad news.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Lent is not about lament and confession and repentance for their own sake, but rather for the sake of renewed fellowship with God and neighbor. The miracle of Psalm 51 is that a broken and contrite heart actually is acceptable to God. We can name the problems we are a part of, and even the horrible things we have done, because God actually loves sinners.

As we receive the ashes on our foreheads this Ash Wednesday, and as we hear the words said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” let us recall and bring before God not simply our mortality—that we, like Adam, are dust-lings, here today and gone tomorrow—but also our sinfulness, our complicity with evil, our privilege. For in so remembering, we also anticipate, like David before us, the day when the God of our salvation will purge, cleanse, and restore us. We look forward to the day when God will open our lips, and our mouths will declare God’s praise.

 

Questions for consideration:

1. Who are the Right Christians and Wrong Christians in your congregation?

2. Do you feel like Christianity is dying in the Pacific Northwest? If so, what do you believe is killing it?

3. Should the church’s racial disunity be understood as a transgression against God?

4. If the answer to question number 3 is “yes,” what might it mean for God to have mercy on the church for the transgression of racial disunity?

5. Has the Christian doctrine of God—that God is Trinity, one God in three divine persons—ever been helpful to you in thinking about the church’s unity or disunity?

 

The February 14th reflection and questions for consideration were written by Charlie Collier, PhD.

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February 18, First Sunday in Lent

Mark 1:9–15; Disunity in Christ, chapter 3

Reflection

The season of Lent always begins with Jesus in the wilderness. Still wet from the waters of baptism, the “beloved” Jesus is sent by the Spirit for 40 days into the wilderness where Satan will tempt him. The prolonged time is a season of preparation that launches Jesus’s public ministry, and for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, the invitation of Lent is to go with him, to clear the chaos and the clutter, to find “the quiet center”* of our lives where we too might discover what is waiting for us there.

Only this year, the account of Jesus in the wilderness is sparse. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark gives us almost no detail. Missing is the elaborate dialogue between Jesus and Satan, absent is the account of the various ways that Jesus is tempted. Gone is all the drama of the power struggle, and Jesus’s great triumph over Satan. All we have is a single verse, “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” That’s it?

Yet, according to Dr. Cleveland, that is the only detail we may need. In her time with us at Portland First, she gave us a new hermeneutic—that is, a new lens for interpreting Jesus’s entire ministry—based on Philippians 2. In story after story in the gospels, Jesus continually “empties himself,” becomes “least and last” making room for marginalized persons to move to the center, and we are to follow his example. The wilderness is where Jesus’s self-emptying begins.

In chapter 3 of Disunity in Christ, Dr. Cleveland leads us through an understanding of how the human tendency toward categorizing distorts how we see each other. She teaches us that in order to preserve mental energy we become “cognitive misers” (44) by selectively choosing what we’ll pay attention to and using mental shortcuts like categorizing. While categorizing can help us to process information in an energy-efficient way, it can also lead us to the outgroup homogeneity effect (51), the assumption that they (those not like us) are all the same. In our day together at Portland First, Dr. Cleveland began with an embarrassing example of the outgroup homogeneity effect by showing us a video of a white entertainment reporter lumping Samuel L. Jackson into the category of “black commercial stars” and confusing Samuel L. Jackson with Laurence Fishburne. Jackson brilliantly plays with the entertainment reporter, unmasking many of the shortcuts white people make in order to categorize black actors. A less playful example, however, was the research Dr. Cleveland shared with us regarding “the implicit attitude test” (61) where participants of varied races were shown images of black and white faces alongside images of tools and guns, and in the end, the assumption was always that the black men were violent, but the white men were not.

Dr. Cleveland writes, “we must relentlessly attack inaccurate perceptions in our everyday interactions, weekly sermons, denominational meetings, and dinner table conversations. Now that we are aware that categorizing is polluting our perceptions of other groups in the body of Christ, we must do the work of purifying our perceptions” (61). Is that what Jesus was doing in the wilderness? Was he purifying his perceptions? As one named and claimed as God’s beloved son at his baptism, Jesus could have easily moved out of that place of privilege into his ministry. He could have made the quick assumption that only those like him would be welcome in his “beloved” community, but Jesus is with the wild beast of “us/them” distinctions in the wilderness, and he rids himself of cognitive miserliness and moves into cognitive generosity. Jesus emerges from the time of testing to proclaim the good news, “the time is fulfilled, change your heart, your mind, your ways, and believe God’s way, the Kin-dom of God is for everyone.” May this season of Lent lead us into the wilderness. May we, like Jesus, empty ourselves with prayer and fasting, and may we repent and believe the good news.

* "Come and Find the Quiet Center" is a hymn written by Shirley Erena Murray. It is # 2128 in "The Faith We Sing" supplement to "The United Methodist Hymnal.”


Questions for consideration:

1.  Where are you being invited to go with Jesus this Lenten season? Did you hear Jesus calling you in any particular direction in and through Dr. Cleveland’s presentations?

2. Did you find Dr. Cleveland’s “new hermeneutic,” or way of reading the life of Jesus in and through the language of self-emptying, helpful? What difference does it make to understand Jesus as one who goes before us emptying himself of privilege and power so that those on the margins might have room at the center?

3. Can you identify ways in which you might have become a “cognitive miser”?

4. How are you planning to observe a holy Lent? Are you considering new ways of preparing for the resurrection of Jesus during this season in light of the event with Dr. Cleveland?

 

The February 18th reflection and questions for consideration were written by Rev. Erin Martin.

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February 25, Second Sunday in Lent

Romans 4:13–25; Disunity in Christ, chapter 4

Reflection

At Fremont United Methodist Church in NE Portland, a group of people is participating in an ancient Christian practice known as the catechumenate. It’s an in-depth process for preparing people for baptism (or the reaffirmation of baptism), which will culminate in the holy observance of the Easter Vigil, when the darkness of Holy Saturday evening turns towards the bright light of Easter Morning.

The season of Lent is known as the “Intense Preparation” phase of the journey of the catechumenate (which began in the fall), because it’s the time when candidates, together with their sponsors, begin to get serious about—to approach with some intensity—the profound questions that are put to Christians in the baptismal liturgy:

  • Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
  • Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
  • Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

I’ve been thinking more about the language of rejection, resistance, and evil in the baptismal covenant. The liturgy makes the most profound claims and demands on participants: those who have been plunged into the waters of God’s redeeming grace pledge to identify and oppose those forces of darkness that seek to oppress and inflict harm upon God’s creatures. The grace that is received by the baptized is construed as both blessing and summons, gift and challenge.

Dr. Cleveland’s presentation on race and privilege reminded me of how, last August when white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to proclaim a message of resurgent white supremacy, a diverse coalition of activists and people of faith, including many Christian leaders, showed up to oppose and speak out against them. In support of their witness, numerous Christian friends and colleagues took to social media to remind their brothers and sisters of the baptismal vows Christians make and reaffirm at every journey to the font: namely, that as called, claimed, and beloved children of God we have been given the freedom and power to stand against whatever opposes the beloved community that is open to people of all ages, nations, and races.

Sounds quite lovely in theory. In practice, such stances can be costly. Opposing white supremacy in Charlottesville cost Heather Heyer her life. As Dr. Cleveland makes clear in chapter 4, “Beyond Perceptions,” courage and fortitude are required of those who seek to defeat disunity by leaving behind the comfortable “gold standard” of their own group, their own clan, their own political tribe, their own race, in order to move into uncomfortable zones of otherness where the true unity of beloved community might be found, or enacted.

Surely such movement will require something like the faith of Abraham that Paul talks about in Romans 4: “[Abraham] did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (vv. 19–21). Abram and Sarai left everything behind—even their names—to follow God’s summons into an unknown land, and an unknown future.

As Christians, we live on the other side of that fulfillment of divine promise known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. We remember that Jesus, like Abraham before him, did not allow the limitations of his own body—weak not from age or the ravages of time, but from the hatred and violence of the world— to prevent him from walking faithfully in response to God’s claim on his life. Jesus took up the cause of resistance to evil and darkness in the world, at the cost of his own life. To confess Jesus as Lord and Savior is to put our faith in a God who is no stranger to the brutality meted out to Heather Heyer on a street in Charlottesville, or to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a prison in Berlin, or to Christian de Chergé in a village in Algeria.

As we continue our Lenten journey of preparation, let us remember the blessings and gifts of our baptisms; but let us also remember the summons and the challenge of our vows, that we might not shy away from the hard work of resistance to the spiritual forces of wickedness and the evil powers of this world—especially when those powers are at work within our very selves. Let us observe a holy Lent, turn away from the darkness and toward the light, and pray that God might continue to empower us to resist every power that would put asunder what God joins together—that beloved new humanity of grace and fellowship made up of people of all ages, nations, and races.

 

Questions for consideration:

1. How are you being summoned to resist evil and oppression in this world?

2. Have you ever shied away from taking a public stance against darkness, even when your conscience was urging you to do otherwise?

3. Can you identify with what Dr. Cleveland refers to as “the gold standard effect” in chapter 4?

4. Have you considered asking your faith community to release for a time a group of members to participate in a different faith community, one characterized by significant racial or economic difference from your own community? Would you be willing to make such a leap of faith for the sake of walking in the shoes of “outgroup members,” to use an expression of Dr. Cleveland?

 

The February 25th reflection and questions for consideration were written by Charlie Collier, PhD.

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March 4, Third Sunday in Lent

John 2:13–22; Disunity in Christ, chapter 5

Reflection

In chapter 5 of Disunity in Christ, Dr. Cleveland speaks to the importance of identity and self-esteem in all of our lives, and how the groups we form serve to protect our identity and our self-esteem. With this in mind, a central group to which many of us belong (the church) aims to form us as much as, if not more than, we form it.

This is a good thing—that the church aims to form us more than we form it—because we who form the group called church don’t seem to be doing a particularly good job of it, thanks to the identity-hijacking megaphone of the religious far-right, and the armchairs-on-the-sidelines tendencies of the religious middle and left. Far from being identified mostly as morally compassionate communities, churches of all types are being out-shouted by the capitalist gospel of American “churchianity.”

American churchianity preaches the gospel of Jesus inverted. Instead of the “mighty being cast down from their thrones” (Luke 1:52), the gospel of white, evangelical American churchianity elevated a misogynist, racist, and corrupt businessman to the highest seat of modern power. What is taking place is literally a financial fleecing of every group of people in the nation, except the uber-wealthy “1%.”

The appointed gospel text for this Sunday, John 2:13-22, includes the story of Jesus cleansing the temple of money changers:

                   The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple
                   he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at
                   their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the
                   sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and over-
                   turned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out
                   of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

                   His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
                   The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answer-
                   ed them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said,
                   “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in
                   three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from
                   the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scrip-
                   ture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Reading this text and setting it next to Dr. Cleveland’s theme in Disunity in Christ, we are compelled to notice how a perverse Christian identity is protected, and a distorted sense of self-esteem cultivated when the “group” of the church is associated with the bestowal of  God’s blessing on a “money changing” leader. We in the group of the church are failing to reflect our true identity and foundational self-esteem as the body of Jesus Christ, the same Jesus (the Christ) who cast out money changers from his temple and body.

In defense of the money changers then, some amongst the Judeans asked Jesus, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” In other words, prove to us you can raise this temple in three days, when it took forty-six years to build it. But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body. It is the body of the church, the “group” of disciples formed by the calling of the Spirit of Jesus, that is the temple. This body—our body, Jesus’s body, the church—is not to be confused with, or seen to be allied with, money changers. For Jesus cast out money changers and chasers as those who corrupt his body by wheeling and dealing in mammon (money/wealth).

In Matthew 6:24, we are told that we “cannot serve God and money/wealth.” Money/wealth is the root of all evil when the love given to money/wealth trumps the love we have for God and for our fellow human beings. When we hold onto an identity driven by seeking power and money, we don’t function as the body of Christ; we function more like a body double that is identified and perceived as living opposite to the actual teachings of Jesus, the Christ.

Jesus taught that we are not to pledge our allegiance to those who have and pursue money, wealth, and worldly power. Rather, we are to pledge our allegiance to, and be formed in our identity by, the God who identifies with the poor and preaches good news to them. In our nation, the most economically oppressed and disadvantaged among us include people of color, especially women and children of color, many younger adults (millennials) and many senior citizens.

 

Questions for consideration:

1. Think about what it means to be part of the “group” of disciples of Jesus, also known as “the church.” Does that membership in the church stand in tension with other markers of identity, or other sources of self-esteem in your life?

2. What about “changing money” in the temple—God’s house, and Jesus’ body? Do you see that practice as contrary to the teachings of Jesus?

3. Do you see any association of “the church” with money changing in today’s culture? What do you hear society saying about the church today on TV and in other media?

4. What do you believe Jesus means when he says that to be his disciples or to be identified as his group/his body, that you can’t “serve both God and wealth/money”?

5. How do you, in your own following of Jesus, seek to bring good news to the poor and oppressed people in your context, in your neighborhood, city, town?

6. As Jesus identified with the poor and other oppressed people, and preached good news to them, how could your church community join, in new and creative ways, Jesus’s mission to bring and embody good news to the poor and oppressed? Give examples and ideas.

 

The March 4th reflection and questions for consideration were written by Karen Ward, a church planter and innovator who has served neighborhoods and parishes in Seattle and Portland for the last fifteen years.

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March 11, Fourth Sunday in Lent

Ephesians 2:1–10; Disunity in Christ, chapter 6

Reflection

I grew up in a critical home. My mother, often feeling overwhelmed by raising six children on the limited income of my father’s pastor’s salary, would allow her exhaustion and her scarce resources to shape her view of lack. She would constantly focus on what wasn’t right or good or enough. She was critical of us, critical of others, but she saved her harshest criticism for herself. It took me a long time to realize that as an adult I had internalized my mother’s scarcity mentality and allowed it to also shape my self-esteem. I learned that I had developed my own keen ability to quickly evaluate people, discover their weaknesses and exploit those weaknesses so that I could feel better about myself. Imagine how devastated I was to learn that I had become my mother!

In chapter 6 of Disunity in Christ, Dr. Cleveland explores the effectiveness of boosting our own self-image by lowering someone else’s (105). She writes, “prejudice and negative evaluations often come from our need to maintain high feelings of self-worth. The more we feel that our self-image is threatened, the more likely we will put others down in order to regain a positive self-image.” Yes, that definitely hits close to home.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he calls this human reality “that old stagnant life of sin.” In one of my favorite translations of the Pauline epistles, The Message, Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s words in Ephesians 2 this way, “You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it . . . all of us in the same boat.” It is important to me to understand that prejudice and negative evaluations are polluted unbelief that the world teaches us to inhale and call “life” when really those things are nothing more than exhaled disobedience. In my own personal journey, it has taken me a long time, with the help of therapy and later spiritual direction, to reframe my scarcity mentality and turn instead toward living out of the abundance of God’s grace for myself and for others.

The gift of the season of Lent is the time we receive to self-examine and reflect. We get to take stock, to look around, to see the ways in which we are still mired in old thought patterns, old ways of death and destruction. The season of Lent invites us, through confession and the assurance of forgiveness, to move with Jesus from death to life and most importantly, to recognize that this transformation from old to new is not our doing. It is an act of God’s mercy and grace. Paul continues in Ephesians, “Now God has us where God wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all God’s idea and all God’s work. All we do is trust God enough to let God do it. It’s gift from start to finish. We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing!” There it is again, the temptation to boast rather than rest in God’s grace.

Dr. Cleveland calls resting in God’s grace self-affirmation theory (112). Not boasting about how great we are and especially about how awful “they” are to buoy up our weak self-esteems, but rather, finding our true identity in being beloved children of God and members of God’s one family across nation and race. What a remarkable thing! A God who showers all humankind with grace and kindness so that humankind might shower each other with grace and kindness as well.  May this be our Lenten self-discovery again and again and again.

 

Questions for consideration:

1. Are there times when you live from a mentality of scarcity—when your keen sense of what’s lacking tempts you to project fear and anxiety onto those around you?

2. What are some negative ways that you’ve sought to maintain your self-esteem?

3. Are there people who make you feel better about yourself because “at least you’re not like them”? Does some of your sense of self worth come from not being like those with whom you sharply disagree?

4. Would it be liberating to discover your self-worth entirely in terms of God’s claim on your life? What difficult or even harmful forms of self-affirmation would you have to give up to trust that God’s claim on your life is enough?

5. Who might you be freed up to shower with grace and kindness if you would but let go of securing your self-worth by not being like “those” people?

 

The March 11th reflection and questions for consideration were written by Rev. Erin Martin, Columbia District Superintendent.

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March 18, Fifth Sunday in Lent

Jeremiah 31:31–34; Disunity in Christ, chapters 7 and 8

Reflection

There was a painful piece of reporting in The New York Times this week for those of us continuing to ponder the beautiful and challenging message of Christena Cleveland in Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. In “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshippers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches,” reporter Campbell Robertson documented how a growing number of black Christians have decided, in light of the embrace of Donald Trump by a large majority of white evangelicals, to give up on their dream of racially integrated, beloved evangelical community. Robertson quotes scholar and expert on evangelical race relations Michael Emerson: “Everything we tried is not working . . . The election itself was the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation in at least the past 30 years. . . . It’s about to completely break apart.” This is a devastating conclusion for those of us longing for racial reconciliation among Christians. We seek unity, not disunity, and to watch people who have taken risks for the sake of that unity pay a heavy price is disheartening, to say the least. It’s actually a shock and a scandal; it’s an affront to the gospel.

At first glance, this “quiet exodus” looks to be a classic example of the kind of cognitive closure that Cleveland discusses in chapter 7 of Disunity in Christ: black worshippers are departing white evangelical churches out of a need for cognitive closure; they’re not willing to remain “open-minded” for the sake of ecclesial unity in the midst of white evangelical churches’ “otherness”, which has made them feel increasingly isolated, misunderstood, and even harmed. Their leaders’ and their fellow congregants’ open embrace of the alt-right presidency of Donald Trump has pushed them to a breaking point. They refuse to be the “black sheep” minority who resist Trump among a “white flock" majority overwhelmingly supportive of him.

Who could blame them? I can’t and won’t. According to Robertson’s reporting, black Christians often sought unity among white-dominant evangelical churches for gospel reasons—that is, for the sake of reconciliation, as Emerson is quoted saying. I remain utterly un-persuaded that the embrace of Donald Trump by white evangelicals has had anything to do with gospel work of reconciliation.

But don’t take my word for it. Clear-eyed evangelicals have often said it best. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, for example, has been admirably immune to evangelical support for Trump, and he concludes that a significant portion of the appeal of Trump is simply anti-gospel because retributive: “Trump’s approach to public discourse is actually the main selling point. His bullying — his cruelty, crudity and personal insults — is admired because it is directed at other bullies. This is, perhaps, politically and psychologically understandable. But it has absolutely nothing to do with the Sermon on the Mount. Nothing to do with any recognizable version of Christian ethics. The very thing that should repel evangelicals — Trump’s dehumanization of others — is what seems to fascinate and attract some conservative Christians.”

As Cleveland made wonderfully clear in her presentation at First Portland UMC, the very basis for the beloved unity we seek is Jesus Christ, who emptied himself for others, transgressing boundaries both ethnic and metaphysical that we might be included in the beloved community of the Kingdom of God. In Donald Trump, some Christians have embraced an example diametrically opposed to this kind of suffering servanthood, this kind of self-lowering for the sake of others. While Christ surely calls us to remain open-minded (and open-hearted) to the salvation of all of God’s beloved creatures (including but not limited to Trump-loving white evangelicals), he does not call us to reject the path of reconciliation; God in Christ does not call us to the way of xenophobic scapegoating and racist dog-whistling. In short, if we as followers of Jesus are called to be mind-ed like Christ, there must be a time and a place for “cognitive closure” in the church—it’s whenever we’re being asked to replace the mind of the self-giving and peaceable Christ with the mind of a self-exalting and violent tyrant, bully, or oligarch.

For how else can we, as Christians, live into the new covenant community foretold by Jeremiah (31:31–34)? As Christians, we believe that the law of the new covenant has indeed been written on our hearts (v. 33) in and through our incorporation into the body of God’s beloved Son. This law of the new covenant is nothing less than the law of kenosis, the law of self-emptying that, as Dr. Cleveland so powerfully suggested at our retreat, is the only pathway to genuinely beloved community. As we continue to walk together during this season of Lent, pondering and lamenting our painful racial disunity in Christ, let us take seriously Cleveland’s invitation to open-mindedness. But let us also recognize the fundamental importance of “like-mindedness”—not cultural like-mindedness of the kind that divides what should be joined together (this, I fear, is the essence of Trumpism), but Christ-like-mindedness that is made possible only by God’s forgiveness of our iniquity and by God’s promise to remember our sin no more.

 

Questions for consideration:

1. How are you handling the reality of our ecclesial disunity in light of the controversial support for Donald Trump among large swaths of white Christianity?

2. Are these reflections an example of the cognitive closure that divides, or are they a helpful exploration of the basis of true Christian unity?

3. How do we as Christians discern between faithful cognitive closure and unfaithful cognitive closure?

 

The March 18th reflection and questions for consideration were written by Charlie Collier, PhD.

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March 25, Palm Sunday

Philippians 2:5–11; Disunity in Christ, chapter 9

Reflection

The United Methodist Church has been embroiled in a fight over human sexuality for over forty years. At General Conference in 2016, when the conflict reached a new divisive and paralyzing point, many participants in the Conference were on the verge of despondency. From the floor of General Conference, an urgent appeal to the episcopal leadership of our church (the Council of Bishops) arose to help the church find a “way forward.” Could the Bishops bring together members from the opposing sides of the LGBTQ+ inclusion debate in order to discover a path toward reconciliation and unity on behalf of the larger church? Thus, the Commission on the Way Forward was born. Now, the Commission has nearly completed its work. For months, members of the Commission have met as strangers and perceived enemies to each other to engage in extended conversation. They are close to proposing two models for the church, one that will make room for difference, and another that will separate us according to our difference.

In preparation for the recommendations from the Commission, the Council of Bishops have asked local areas to host opportunities for conversation. Can churches in proximity to each other model the same commitment to conversation as the Commission? Can we meet as strangers and maybe even perceived enemies to each other and stay at the table long enough to discover a unity as yet unrealized in the United Methodist Church? We will try. The Columbia District is hosting two conversations in April, one on April 15, at First UMC Portland, and the second on April 22, at First UMC Gresham. As we prepare for Table Talks, I take heart in Dr. Cleveland’s assertion in Ch. 9 of Disunity in Christ that while contact between two disparate groups can go a long way toward developing more trust, more positive attitudes, and more empathy toward the other, “the glorious work of reconciliation is equal parts exhilarating and excruciating” (156).

Dr. Cleveland goes on to say, “The work of reconciliation is often excruciating because it is the work of the cross. If reconciliation work isn’t painful, I’d venture to say that it isn’t really reconciliation work. Reconciliation requires that we partner with equally imperfect individuals who are also clumsily scaling the crosscultural learning curve, forgive those who carelessly wrong us, repeatedly ask for forgiveness, engage in awkward and unpredictable situations and, like gluttons for punishment, keep coming back for more.” (156). Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

And yet, as Dr. Cleveland described to us at the gathering at Portland First, the work of reconciliation is patterned for us in the kenosis (self-emptying) example of Jesus in Philippians 2. On our own, the work of crossing personal and cultural divides is too difficult, and we will fail. We must be sustained in the work by a strong biblical and theological foundation. Dr. Cleveland writes, “If our work is not rooted in the power of the cross, we will inevitably quit” (157). Philippians 2:5–11 most clearly enunciates that power of the cross exhibited in Jesus. Paul writes, “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. Jesus had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all.  When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of the slave, became human! Having become human, Jesus stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process” (The Message). What about us? Will we stay obedient to the incredibly humbling process of reconciliation? Will we pattern ourselves after Jesus, and discover what setting aside our privilege looks like in the LGBTQ+ inclusion debate?  And when it gets difficult, will we remain obedient? Will we stay in the conversation for the sake of unity no matter what?

This week, as we stand at the gateway to Holy Week, I am reminded that we are always given the choice not to go with Jesus. We can even begin with him along the way, wave our palm branches and sing our loud “Hosannas,” but as soon as the going gets tough, as soon as the crowds turn against Jesus, human temptation will always be to bolt. In the mystery of Good Friday, Jesus reveals to us that there is, in fact, only one way forward, and that is through suffering and death. Dr. Cleveland writes, “Only then can the church be one” (175). May it be so.

 

Questions for consideration:

1. What about us? Do we hear God calling us to obedience to Jesus’s humiliation at the cross? If so, how
    and why?

2. Does the intractable topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion strike you as a suitable site for your self-emptying? Why
    or why not?

3. What would it look like to empty yourself for the sake of reconciliation in some particular area of your life?

4. Are you afraid of the way of the cross? Does knowing that Jesus went before you, and on your behalf,  
    remind you of the love that casts out fear?

 

The March 25th reflection and questions for consideration were written by Rev. Erin Martin, Columbia District Superintendent.

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April 1, Easter Sunday

Mark 16:1–8; Disunity in Christ, chapter 10

Reflection

We’ve come to the last of our Lenten reflections on Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. I continue to think back on February 3rd, when Dr. Cleveland delivered such a moving set of remarks on both the powers of race and privilege that divide us, and the alternative of Jesus’s self-emptying love that just might break the hold of those powers on our lives and lead to a different and beloved unity in the Body of Christ.

The event with Dr. Cleveland was intended to launch a district-wide effort to grapple with the troubling effects of race in the church; the event was timed to coincide with the beginning of the season of Lent, when the church summons Christians to a period of fasting and lament over our sin and vulnerability to the powers of death and destruction that continue to bind us. While sin, evil, and temptation can be deeply personal — at some level we must all, like Jesus, “walk this lonesome valley”— the event with Dr. Cleveland reminded us of the public, systemic, and structural nature of human sinfulness.

Less than two weeks after our event, on February 14th, Nichoals Cruz entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, and murdered 17 people and wounded seventeen more, mostly students. Even the National Rifle Association, well practiced at dismissing gun violence as the lamentably unavoidable work of evil individuals, has conceded that there were systemic problems at play — breakdowns in our monitoring and regulatory systems that allowed such a troubled young man to possess and then use firearms for mass murder. Cruz had a long history of mental illness and anti-social behavior; he also is alleged to have made racist and xenophobic social-media posts leading up to the shooting. Just this morning I read a disturbing report about large quantities of “fan mail” being sent to Cruz — a mentally ill young man now in solitary confinement, accused of murdering 17 people — from flirtatious young women and even from some older men, from all over the country.

A little over a month after the Parkland school shooting, on March 18th, police in Sacramento, California, out looking for a suspect known to be breaking windows, shot and killed Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed African American man, as he stood in the backyard of his grandmother’s house where he was staying. He had run from the front yard to the back yard, and the police fired 20 rounds shortly after yelling, “Show me your hands! Gun!” Only a cell phone was found near Clark’s body, and footage from one of the officers’ body cameras showed only a few seconds elapsing between the officers’ first encounter with Clark and their fatal decision to fire their weapons.

In the midst of Parkland and Sacramento were the Austin Serial Bombings, wherein homeschooled, conservative Christian Mark Conditt of Pflugerville, Texas, terrorized the citizens of Austin with a series of bombings, killing two people and wounding five more before blowing himself up as police closed in on him. The two men murdered by Conditt were African Americans, raising the obvious possibility of racially motivated violence, but subsequent bombings seemed less racially targeted and no clear motive has been established by investigating authorities.

With so much death and destruction in the news — and so much of it repetitive, systemic, and racially charged — it’s hard to be hopeful. “Will things ever change? Will this ever stop?” are surely questions that have crossed many of our minds. We seem to be trapped in a world of fear and violence, doomed to repeat the same mistakes, fated to some evil, real-world version of the movie Groundhog Day, in which we wake up and discover that we’re facing the same catastrophic event that we faced yesterday, only to wake up tomorrow and face it again.

There are glimmers of hope here and there—the Black Lives Matter movement has mobilized tens of thousands and raised the consciousness of millions on the topic of race and police violence; the students from Parkland, Florida, have inspired the nation with their courage and determination, even winning modest political successes on gun control in the state of Florida and in Washington D.C. Yet one need not be overly cynical to wonder, “Will this be enough? How long before the next police shooting of an unarmed black man? How long before the next school massacre?”

I have similarly depressing questions about overcoming the racial disunity in our churches. I see and experience so many expressions of goodwill, so many great intentions to make things right — in myself and in others. And yet our churches remain overwhelmingly segregated, our liturgies and congregations overwhelmingly monocultural. We might not be directly perpetuating cycles of horrific violence in our divided churches (although, indirectly . . . ?), but we have our own Groundhog Day-like experiences of waking up to the same depressing reality that we faced yesterday and will likely face tomorrow.

 

* * *

 

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” This is the question Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome had been raising to one another as they walked to the tomb of Jesus early on the Sunday following his crucifixion (Mark 16:3b). Perhaps a similar question is on our own lips this Holy Week, as we ponder the racial violence of the world and the church’s racial disunity. For it’s almost as if the ecclesial Body of Christ — or at least our dream of it as the Beloved Community of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Ark of the Nations — is also dead, buried, and locked away. Perhaps we’re more like these two Marys and Salome than we realize — glumly on our way to attend a lifeless Body, more in the mode of anointing the dead than of inhabiting and celebrating the glorious City of God.

And yet as Dr. Cleveland reminds us in her final chapter, “The Preeminence of (Identity in) Christ,” the relentless bad news is not the only news: “there’s hope! Things don’t have to stay the same.” Dr. Cleveland points to the powerful shift that can occur when we move from smaller, insular identities to the wider, common identity of the Body of Christ: “a common identity is invaluable in breaking down barriers in crosscultural situations.” She writes about the transformation in our affection, in our openness to criticism, in our willingness to forgive, and in how lovingly we treat one another when we grow to understand ourselves and those from significantly different racial/cultural groupings as part of a larger common identity.

Perhaps you’re like me and can see that such a shift could make all the difference, even as you wonder how such a shift can or will ever take place. How do we break free from the cycles of entrapment within our smaller identities, the Groundhog Day loops of segregation and monocultural complacency? Who will roll away the stone for us? Who will raise the dead body of the disunited church from the grave?

In the Gospel of Mark, we never really get a clear answer to the women’s question. They certainly do not roll away the stone, nor do they see someone (or some god) do it. Yet their extraordinary, loving devotion to Jesus, even (perhaps especially) to the rotting corpse of the crucified Christ, is enough to transform them: from grieving followers of the Crucified Jesus into the first witnesses of the fact that the stone had already been rolled back, and the tomb was empty. These women did not go to Jesus’s tomb hoping for a breakthrough miracle beyond all expectation; they went seeking to care for a dead body. They went to attend lovingly to the one from whom they had first heard the words of life.

As we conclude these reflections on Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart, my prayer is that we, like Mary of Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Solome, might continue to attend lovingly to the Body of Christ, even in its racial disunity, even in what appears to be a state of inescapable decay and death. And that in so doing, we too might discover, to our shock and amazement, that the stone is already rolled back. That the Resurrected One is going ahead of us to break the power of disunity and death. That the nauseatingly repetitive hidden forces that keep us apart are in truth no match for the wild and unexpected power of God that raised Jesus from the dead. And that this matchless power is none other than the power of kenosis—the power of the self-emptying servant Lord, who laid aside every privilege for the sake of others; including you, including me. “He has shown us how to do it.” We need only follow.

 

Questions for consideration:

1. Is your identity too small? How might following Jesus’s example of self-emptying actually expand your identity?

2. Is trusting in the power of resurrection a helpful way to think about the intractable problem of our racial disunity? Or is it a cop-out — a use of archaic theological language to avoid the serious anti-racism work that lies before us?

3. Have you ever noticed the gendered nature of the response to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection? It was the women who stayed behind at the cross (see Matthew 27:55, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25b). It was women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection (see Matthew 28:1–8, Mark 16:1–8, Luke 23:55—24:24:12, and John 20:1). Does this say anything important to the church today?


The April 1st reflection and questions for consideration were written by Charlie Collier, PhD.

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