What a semester. I'd laugh even if only to keep from crying for a group of people that I love dearly, even as much as family--my people the Nazarenes. So what has happened during the previous three months?
A university chaplain at MidAmerica Nazarene University was demoted after a sermon citing mostly words of Jesus from Gospels dared to question the American tendency to lift up war heroes rather than non-violent social change agents. A controversial but well-loved theology professor at Northwest Nazarene University has been put on notice about a possible lay-off. The president at Olivet Nazarene University through the means of a spouse's inheritance purchased a $1,700,000 investment property in Trump Towers-Chicago at a time when national student loan indebtedness surpassed $1.1 trillion dollars. What of this news is good? How do these actions convey the gospel message for the marginalized, downtrodden, and forgotten?
Social media went bonkers including two Facebook groups to which I contribute (Nazarenes for Intergrity, Transparency, and Academic Freedom & Sacramental Nazarenes), a listserve that has been a dialogue partner with me for many years, and contentious interactions with concerned and confused people. On this side of the decisions and ensuing debates, "I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene," in the words of the old gospel song, and somewhat ashamed in the presence of fellow Nazarenes. I can't help but ask myself, who are we? How can God love people like us? How can we begin to love others with a deep and abiding love when I can barely stand to be associated with people I barely recognize as my own? And, I'm sure they might be able to say the same thing regarding me.
All of these episodes have reminded me of the sacramental importance of "Christian conference," as John Wesley coined it. Several writers of late have also delved into this subject, including the Vital Piety blog with Kevin Watson with posts on Holy Conferencing, Parts 1 and Part 2, alongside another perspective on the same topic from the blog of Andrew C. Thompson.
Wesley seemed to be most concerned about the gracefulness of Christian dialogue. The assumption is that where two or more are gathered there will be the possibility of conflict as well as the promise of Christ's presence. "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20 NRSV), even then things could get ugly.
In chapter 18 of the Gospel of Matthew on dealing with conflict in the Kingdom, Jesus does not promise peace or love or understanding. Elvis Costello might feel like it is just these kinds of attitudes that are "slipping away" in contemporary society, and just the kinds of things Jesus needs to offer up. Frankly, the kind of harmony being sought might not even be possible in the world in which we live, but not so for the kingdom to which Christ's followers belong. The real promise, and the only thing that can help us "walk through troubled times," is simply being in Christ's presence. We cannot piece together a makeshift love or a cobbled understanding all by ourselves. Two or three or a million of us are useless in creating a circle of togetherness that honors Christ without Christ among us.
Maybe we need to receive Christ as more of a mediator than an interloper. Christ is more than someone there shushing the frustrated, calming down the angry, or wiping away tears of the saddened. Christ simply is. Right there. In the middle of it all. Maybe Christ just wants to make it right. What can this say not only in the midst of family squabbles among Nazarenes but also to a broader world crashing down in the aftershocks of Nepal, teeming with hatred between neighbors in the Middle East, or along the burning streets of Baltimore? Christ is a reminder of what Christians can be when they confer with one another about difficult and important things, and what we need to be in a world gone mad. Christ is the pontifex--the bridge builder between diametrically opposed points of view.
The very people that call Him by name are the ones who need Him the most right now. There's nothing funny about that.