Fasting for United Methodists

UMC.org has a short article on what the UMC says about fasting. I’m not sure that fasting for spiritual reasons is practiced much among United Methodist laity. I’m not sure it is practiced much among the clergy either. Here is a section from UMC.org:

Fasting has been a part of Methodism from it’s early beginnings. John Wesley considered fasting an important part of a Christian’s life and he personally fasted weekly. To Wesley, fasting was an important way to express sorrow for sin and penitence for overindulgence in eating and drinking. He believed it allowed more time for prayer and was more meaningful if combined with giving to the poor. Wesley did advise caution against extreme fasting and against fasting for those in fragile health.

via What does The United Methodist Church say about fasting? – UMC.org.

If your health permits I do recommend fasting for a few reasons: 1) It is biblical, 2) it is part of a Wesleyan tradition, 3) it is part of our Christian tradition, and 4) it teaches us to say no to our desires. I’m sure I could come up with a few more reasons.

Wesley practiced fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. Later in life he just fasted on Fridays. Whatever day you choose, make sure to keep in mind that the fast is “unto the Lord.” Fasting is not some merit badge. If we fast for any other reason than to seek God then our fast is misguided.

For most of us, food is readily available. Fasting can be a powerful practice within a culture that focuses on the fulfillment (even immediate fulfillment) of desires, nutritional or otherwise. 

On Pastoral Work

Okay. I’ll admit it. I’m a pastor. It is what I do. It is who I am. I can’t get away from it. Every Monday morning I get up and I start the week doing the work of a pastor. I know I’m not alone. There are a lot of pastors out there. Perhaps you are one…or know one. But what does it mean to be a pastor? What is our work really about? How do we know when we are doing the work of a pastor? How do we know if we are doing the work of the pastor?

The Book of Discipline has some things to say about pastoral work. Even though pastors are ordained to Word, Sacrament, Order and Service there are many things that potentially includes. Here is what 2004 Book of Discipline says (I’ve condensed some of this so it isn’t ‘word for word’ but it does include all of the responsibilities listed in paragraph 340):

  • Word
    • Preach, lead in worship, read and teach the scripture and engage the people in study and witness
      • Ensure faithful transmission of the Christian faith
      • Lead people in discipleship and evangelistic outreach
    • Counsel persons with personal, ethical, or spiritual struggles
    • Perform the ecclesial acts of marriage and burial
      • perform marriages after due counsel in accordance with state laws and rules of the UMC.
      • With funerals/memorials provide care and grief counseling
    • Visit in the homes of the church and community, especially the sick, aged, imprisoned, and others in need
    • Maintain all confidences inviolate except in the cases of suspected child abuse or neglect, or in cases where mandatory reporting is required by civil law.
  • Sacrament
    • Administer the sacraments of baptism and the Supper of the Lord according to Christ’s ordinance
      • Prepare the parents and sponsors before baptizing infants or children, and instruct them concerning the sacrament’s significance and their responsibilities.
      • Encourage reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant and renewal of baptismal vows at different stages of life
      • Encourage people baptized in infancy or early childhood to make their profession of faith, after instruction, so that they might become professing members of the church
      • Explain the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and to encourage regular participation as a means of grace to grow in faith and holiness
      • To select and train others to serve the consecrated communion elements
    • Encourage the private and congregational use of the other means of grace
  • Order
    • To be the administrative officer of the local church and to assure that the organizational concerns of the congregation are adequately provided for
      • To give pastoral support, guidance, and training to the lay leadership, equipping them to fulfill the ministry to which they are called
      • To give oversight to the educational program of the church and encourage the use of United Methodist literature and media
      • To be responsible for organizational faithfulness, goal setting, planning and evaluation.
      • To search out and counsel men and women fo rthe ministry of deacons, elders, local pastors and other church related ministries.
    • To administer the temporal affairs of the church in their appointment, to the annual conference, and the general church
      • To administer the provisions of the Discipline
      • To give an account of their pastoral ministries to the charge and annual conference according to the prescribed forms
      • To provide leadership for the funding ministry of the congregation
      • To promote faithful, financial stewardship and to encourage giving as a spiritual discipline
      • To lead the congregation in the fulfillment of its mission through full and faithful payment of all apportioned ministerial support, administrative, and benevolent funds
      • To care for all church records and local church financial obligations, and certify the accuracy of all financial, membership, and any other reports submitted by the local church to the annual conference for use in apportioning costs back to the church
    • To participate in denominational and conference programs and training opportunities
      • To seek out opportunities for cooperative ministries with other United Methodist pastors and churches
      • To be willing to assume supervisory responsibilities within the connection
    • To lead the congregation in racial and ethnic inclusiveness
  • Service
    • To embody the teachings of Jesus in servant ministries and servant leadership
    • To give diligent pastoral leadership in ordering the life of the congregation for discipleship in the world
    • To build the body of Christ as a caring and giving community, extending the ministry of Christ to the world
    • To participate in community, ecumenical and inter-religious concerns and to encourage the people to become so involved and to pray and labor for the unity of the Christian community.

That is quite a list. It is important to notice that while there are many responsibilities, they also vary greatly. For example: Pastors are supposed to be counselors and administrators along with teachers and in some respect scholars. Added to those four roles, pastors are also to be able to communicate, that is preach, effectively. Is it any wonder why pastors can find their task challenging and at times frustrating. I also wonder if there is any one person who can adequately, let a lone successfully, fulfill all of the varied roles.

Yet, there is another aspect to pastoral work. The Discipline can say all it wants about pastoral roles, but most pastors believe they also have a calling from God. One of my wonders is whether it is possible for one person to be all the Discipline calls him or her to be and all God calls that person to be. Is it possible that if a person fulfills the calling of the Discipline they may fail their calling of God? How can one know? How can a pastor know he or she is being faithful rather than shirking his or her responsibilities?

It would be easy for a pastor to get by with doing little or not much at all. Most pastors don’t have anyone holding them accountable for how they spend their time. While some pastors spend as much as twenty hours on sermon preparation, others could just ‘wing’ it. There may be a segment of pastors who know that and exploit it for their benefit. That being said, I find the vast majority of pastors have a strong work ethic and probably do more than their congregation ever knows about. They are diligent workers because they are trying to please their Lord.

I’m planning on posting several articles exploring what it means to be a pastor. I want to explore the ambiguity, difficulties, loneliness, joy, struggle, emotions that are connected with being a 21st century pastor. These articles will be my perspective and opinions. You can feel free to disagree and you probably will. I am also interested in your experiences, thoughts, opinion and stories. How are you doing in ministry? Is it a joy or burden? Are you doing well, or are you struggling? I don’t plan on posting anything you send to me unless you give me specific permission to do so.

If you comment on this article it could begin a conversations.

The next article in this series will be Pastors and Expectations.

Getting More Done by Doing Less

This is a Google Tech Talk by Marc Lesser. Even though he comes from a Zen background, there are still some excellent points, especially for those of us called to lead churches in this culture. One of the things he talks about (especially at the end of this) is about chaos/innovation. It makes sense but I had never put those two things together before.

He says something as simple as wearing your watch on the other wrist puts you into ‘chaos.’ It shakes things up. From this unfamiliarity innovation can be birth. I see how this is possible. Of course we have all heard the quip “if you keep doing what you always have done you will keep getting what you have always had…” or something like that. If we continue to do things the same way, there really isn’t much chance for innovation.

Chaos forces us to look at things differently. It forces us to access what is important and what is not. If we are thrown into chaos by some type of catastrophe, we find ourselves doing things differently. This also means that we will look at things differently too.

One of the things I’m taking away from this is to not fear the chaos. Also it might be good to create my own chaos from time to time. Perhaps something as simple as changing the time of a meeting, or the order of service might help us to find ways to innovate. This is not change for change’s sake, but rather using change (or chaos) as a tool toward innovation.

In the UMC we are in a type of chaos with the decline in membership/worship/etc. Yet, this has been such a slow decline that we have been able to adapt rather than being thrown into complete chaos. We still believe we can ‘fix’ the things that are wrong. Perhaps it is time to make drastic changes to throw us into complete chaos. For example…how much chaos would we be in if we stopped statistical measurements? What if we canceled worship services? What if we stopped having our administrative meetings in the church building? You get the idea. We would be forced to think differently. That could be a very good thing.

Perfect Desire

Christian Perfection was one of the defining elements of John Wesley’s theology and also one of the most controversial. Beginning a sermon entitled Christian Perfection Wesley acknowledges how people respond to the idea of being perfected in this life.

There is scarce any expression in Holy Writ which has given more offence than this. The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them. And whosoever preaches perfection (as the phrase is,) that is, asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican.

I also have  sense of hesitation or resistance when I hear Wesley saying that I can be made perfect in this life. I can understand why those listening to Wesley might have had an adverse reaction to this part of his theology.

Yet, as I read through the various writings on Christian Perfection, I discover that what I have in mind may not be what Wesley had in mind. Wesley says that Christian perfection is not an absolute perfection. It doesn’t mean that someone has ‘arrived’ and is at a place where they will not grow, or are not in the need of God’s grace. In fact, Wesley says that even though one is cleansed from all inner and outer sin, there is the possibility for someone in the state of Christian Perfection to sin.

That seems contradictory until you read the following:

Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus every one that is perfect is holy, and every one that is holy is, in the Scripture sense, perfect. Yet we may, lastly, observe, that neither in this respect is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, as it is termed; none which does not admit of a continual increase. So that how much soever any man hath attained, or in how high a degree soever he is perfect, he hath still need to “grow in grace,” [2 Pet. 3:18] and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his Saviour. [see Phil. 1:9] (From Christian Perfection)

“But we may carry this thought farther yet. A mistake in judgment may possibly occasion a mistake in practice. For instance: Mr. De Renty’s mistake touching the nature of mortification, arising from prejudice of education, occasioned that practical mistake, his wearing an iron girdle. And a thousand such instances there may be, even in those who are in the highest state of grace. Yet, Where every word and action springs from love, such a mistake is not properly a sin. However, it cannot bear the rigour of God’s justice, but needs the atoning blood. (From Questions and Answers on Christian Perfection)

Even though one is in a state of Christian Perfection, that does not mean that they have absolute perfect understandings, judgment, etc. Even in this state there will be mistakes in judgment and understanding which can lead to a mistake (or sin) in practice. Wesley says that these mistakes, however, all flow from a pure love.

If Christian Perfection is not some type of absolute perfect existence then what is it? Wesley says it is holiness. He says that those who are holy are perfect and those who are perfect are holy. In his Qs and As on Christian Perfection he says that it is “The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love.”

Pure love is how Wesley describes Christian Perfect and holiness. A love that isn’t marred by sinful intentions, thoughts, motivations, etc. It is a love whose focus is on God and God’s will. A love that is given as a gift by Grace. It isn’t something that we can manufacture or earn. It results when God cleanses us from all inward and outer sin and puts in its place holy tempers and dispositions. In On the Discoveries of Faith Wesley address this:

It is not only a deliverance from doubts and fears, but from sin; from all inward as well as outward sin; from evil desires and evil tempers, as well as from evil words and works. Yea, and it is not only a negative blessing, a deliverance from all evil dispositions implied in that expression, “I will circumcise thy heart;” but a positive one likewise; even the planting all good dispositions in their place; clearly implied in that other expression, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul.”

I, for one, find this idea of a pure love desirable. After all, Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God with your whole being and the second (which flows from the first) was to love your neighbor as yourself. I believe this is to be the goal of the Christian life. I think that is what Wesley was saying to.

My concern is not only the fear that Christian Perfection is no longer taught or addressed (I for one have not done it and I have not heard others preach or teach it either!), but that we no longer even desire this gift of grace. We are too busy with other things, or, we are happy with our Christian experience just the way it is. We don’t have a desire for pure love. We preach God’s grace, but then we limit it and, at times, make it a license for sinful living and lack of love. Yet, God waits patiently yearning to give this gift of perfect love to all who desire it.

While we can’t earn this gift, Wesley said there are some things we can practice as we wait for it. Again, from Questions and Answers he writes this:

“Q. How are we to wait for this change?

“A. Not in careless indifference, or indolent inactivity; but in vigorous, universal obedience, in a zealous keeping of all the commandments, in watchfulness and painfulness, in denying ourselves, and taking up our cross daily; as well as in earnest prayer and fasting and a close attendance on all the ordinances of God. And if any man dream of attaining it any other way, (yea, or of keeping it when it is attained, when he has received it even in the largest measure,) he deceive his own soul. It is true, we receive it by simple faith: But God does not, will not, give that faith, unless we seek it with all diligence, in the way which he hath ordained.

He goes on to say the reason why so few have received this gift is because of a lack of prayer:

“This consideration may satisfy those who inquire, why so few have received the blessing. Inquire, how many are seeking it in this way; and you have a sufficient answer.

“Prayer especially is wanting. Who continues instant therein? Who wrestles with God for this very thing? So,’ye have not, because ye ask not; or because ye ask amiss,’ namely, that you may be renewed before you die. Before you die! Will that content you? Nay, but ask that it may be done now; to-day, while it is called to-day. Do not call this ‘setting God a time.’ Certainly, to-day is his time as well as to- morrow. Make haste, man, make haste!

Not only is prayer missing, but so is our desire. Wesley seems to be saying that without desire, the gift will not come. After all, why would God give something we don’t even want? Is this pure love something we long for? Is it something we constantly ask God for? Is it something we wrestle with God about? Or are we content…perhaps too content? What has happened to our perfect desire?

Newer Mind

One of Wesley’s later sermons was “On God’s Vineyard” which was written in 1779. This sermon reads like a reflection of how God has worked through Wesley’s life and some observations Wesley made. One such observation was about the new birth.

Wesley was a man who wasn’t satisfied with ‘outward’ religion. Wesley believed that in order to be a “real” Christian, one needed to be changed inwardly. He writes:

“They know, the new birth implies as great a change in the soul, in him that is “born of the Spirit,” as was wrought in his body when he was born of a woman: Not an outward change only, as from drunkenness to sobriety, from robbery or theft to honesty; (this is the poor, dry, miserable conceit of those that know nothing of real religion;) but an inward change from all unholy, to all holy tempers, — from pride to humility, from passionateness to meekness, from peevishness and discontent to patience and resignation; in a word, from an earthly, sensual, devilish mind, to the mind that was in Christ Jesus.”

Wesley compares the new birth to spiritual birth and at the same time contrasts it with merely an outward change (i.e. drunkenness to sobriety). Wesley’s point is that the “great change” is also a real change, not content with outward behavior only but a real transformation of one’s inner life (or world). Going from “pride to humility,” “passionateness to meekness” and “from peevishness and discontent to patience and resignation” is no small feat. It is such a great change that Wesley describes it as being changed from a “devilish mind” to the “mind that was in Christ.”

I find this a point to stop and reflect. In the UMC are we still preaching and teaching about this ‘inner’ change and this “mind of Christ” that the new birth bring? Do we really understand what Wesley is talking about here. He is not using figurative language it seems. In Wesley’s mind there is a real, complete, and substantial change in the individual. So substantial that he compares it to physical birth. This change is so real that it’s outflow is a life that is changed, not manufactured change, but real change; from pride to humility, etc.

I wonder if I am too content with manufactured changes; changes that look wonderful on the outside, but leave the inside unaffected. Wesley wasn’t satisfied with outward changes only. He was preaching for an inner transformational change. Should we be satisfied with less?