An Open Letter to My Non-Church Going Neighbors

Dear Neighbors,

I am that Christian guy living next door.

You might have heard I’m a preacher, a pastor, or something of the sort.

It’s true.  I believe in what Alcoholics Anonymous call a “Higher Power”.  We United Methodists call this power “God”.

I’m the guy who stands up front on Sunday mornings in the church down the street.  When people die, I cry with them.  When people get married, I laugh with them.  When children are born, I sprinkle water on their tiny heads.  I think rituals matter to the life of a community.  Rituals provide sanity when the world feels out of control.  Church gives our little corner of the world a place of peace when the chaos won’t let go.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the any of your other neighbors who hang out here.

Despite what you see on the news or read on the internet, all Christians don’t believe the same way.  We get painted with a broad brush.  In case you are confused, I thought I would take the opportunity to clear up the record.

I think you should know some important facts:

I’ll never say you’re going to Hell.

I will tell you that God is proud of you and loves you unconditionally. 

No matter who you love, I’ll welcome you to church.  I don’t believe God cares who you love or who you marry.

I believe science and religion have more in common than Bill Nye will ever admit.

Jesus is not an American.  He doesn’t speak English.

I don’t qualify my Christianity with adjectives.  I’m simply a Christian.  

Professional atheists are as annoying as professional Christians. 

If I believed in the God you believed in, I probably wouldn’t go to church either.

The Bible is full of inconsistencies and violence.  It’s also full of amazing tales of love and redemption.  It’s not a perfect Book but it’s the defining story of western civilization.  Let’s read it together.    

Your neighbor,

Richard (the preacher next door)

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A Letter to John, Chiefly Concerning Things Wesley

My dearest John:

For some time now, I have believed the time has come for us to renew our correspondence.  As we both prepare for a momentous season of Christian conferencing and gathering, perhaps this is the moment to put word to paper.

Fugit inreparabile tempus,”* writes Virgil.  With such haste in mind, what will our agendum be?  In days gone by we spoke at length on preaching, Plato, Milton, and salvation; all in a single sentence.  It is my suggestion to speak of covenants.  This quasi-legal and ancient term is now bound, like many words, to your name.  Did anyone covenant with you, personally, before creating the Wesleyan Covenant Association?  I am forever frustrated when my name, ideas, and legacy are used to advance agendas I may or may not agree with.

John, what say you, of Wesleyan Covenants?  Is such a thing possible or is it a semantic novelty?  I realize God made a covenant with the Israelite people.  I had hoped God transitioned from covenant making to relationship building.  Covenants have done a wonderful job up to this point, wouldn’t you say?

Are United Methodists what you envisioned?  Please excuse my presumption, I know this a broad question.  It’s my fear that something isn’t right, regardless of how one defines oneself theologically or politically.  Over the years, we’ve made being wrong into performance art.  Were we to preach in tents, as some of your 19th century American followers did, our tents would be many and small.  Our gatherings would resemble a circus instead of a revival.  I am reasonably well-informed “there is no big tent”.  Perhaps, we are a group of competing circuses (circuses use many tents).  Fitting, now that the Barnum and Bailey Circus has closed.  Children like circuses and they are entertaining.  This is something I would hope Methodists could hold on to.

We both share a fondness for Marcus Aurelius.  Do you remember the passage in his Meditations, Book VI, “What then is to prized?  The clapping of hands? No.  Then not the clapping of tongues either.  For the acclamation of the multitude are but a clapping of tongues.  So overboard goes that poor thing Fame also.”  Aurelius, in true Stoic form, cautioned against taking a popular position for the sake of fame itself.  In a divided nation and a polarized church; where do we find the least acclamation and the most despised place to stand?  Does the pagan prince not make a particularly Christian point?  Yes.  But who listens to dead Romans.  We do.  No one else does.   Everyone wants to famous.  I ‘m all for more emotive Twitter and Facebook outbursts among people of faith.  So called free speech will kill organized religion, one way or another.

When has being liked (or as Marcus Aurelius would put it, “seeking your own gain) mattered to Methodist Christians? I remind you so you may tell others:  when apportionments are due and in appointment making season.

I note with muted resentment you’re still praying for the opportunity to avoid schism and disunity.  Dear boy, remember your Dante!  All hope is lost!  Despair is our friend, anger our ally, and indignation the fuel of half-baked plans to tie up debate at conferences across the fruited plain.  Be of good cheer.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

*Fugit inreparabile tempus-It escapes, irretrievable time (Virgil, Georgics, Book III, Line 284)

Food for Thought-Lingonberries from Ljubljana (The Fourteenth Letter)

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10 May 1957
Belgrade, The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
After the time the rain began, ceased, and began again

Dear Friend and Esteemed Finder of Lost Things,

As I read my calendar, the week has ended. Accordingly a new week will soon begin. The impending one hundred sixty eight hours offer the chance to listen to innumerable records, eat fourteen breakfasts*, and pursue the most elusive avian between Ljubljana* and Skopje*.

In silence, the sounds of the Picus Viridius* mean nothing. Silence must give birth to sound for us to see the art we cannot hear. The partial experience of beauty so embodied by the dull undertones of a low pecking Viridius are like the seeds from which the total experience of beauty is grown. While we may be prisoners to the calendars of linear time, the Picus offers us a shelter from the gods of chronos* and kairos*; a place to step back from the present without remembering the future. If we are not present to hear and appreciate its song and gentle tapping, are we not like patrons, wandering the museum in pitch darkness? I would argue yes.

I thank you for the lingonberry jam. As you know, I have made many attempts to plant vaccinium vitis-idaea*. Due to my inability to find enough dirt, I’ve been reduced to purchasing lingonberry jam in exclusive Bulgarian markets or in ordinary restaurants selling toast. To know that I may simply walk into my kitchen, remove a knife and spread this elixir upon a piece of bread is almost too much to contemplate.

Yours friend,

M

*fourteen breakfasts some persons ate two breakfasts per day, one early, one late
*Ljubljana the capital of Slovenia
* Skopje the capital of Macedonia
* Picus Viridius the common European Woodpecker
* Chronos and Kairos the ancient Greek concepts of chronological/linear and circular time
* Vaccinium vitis-idaea the Ligonberry

Food for Thought-The Diary of a Macedonian Olive (The First Letter)

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25 April 1957

Belgrade, Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Dearest Friend,

The leaves on my morning walk by the Kalemegdan* are that glorious shade of green; a green known only among the olives of southwest Macedonia* and in the jealousy of Bulgarian women*. Needless to say, springtime has descended upon the capital with the radiant splendor of a conquering meteorological army.

I write to you today with a question. Actually several questions. One has led to another and other. I’m quite hoping you might bring my queries to a swift conclusion.

Now, let me ask: do you remember the time, when we were in the place, in the village where there were buildings made of stone? I believe the sun was shining and clouds were far above our heads. As the wind blew, the people of this village walked by and greeted us. If memory serves, rocks were on the road and strewn about the “sidewalk” where we journeyed. Upon this road, we saw a brown horse. I believe the horse was going left.

When mid-day approached, you mentioned going to a place, in a building, where people served food in exchange for money. Do you know the place, the one with the tables, chairs, and cutlery? Adjacent to our window, where plates were brought containing food, we heard the singing of a bird. It is this bird which sings through the clear corners of this remarkable day. Was the bird a Picus Viridis*?

I humbly await your reply.

Yours truly,

V

*the Kalemegdan is an ancient military fortress (now park) where the Sava River joins the Danube
*Macedonian olives are known to be particularly green
*Bulgarian women are known to be jealous, at times
*Picus Viridis is the common European Woodpecker