This post is a contribution to the Patheos Book Club on God Unbound: Wisdom from Galatians for the Anxious Church.
Perhaps one of the signs of middle age is that your friends suddenly start writing books. I first met Elaine Heath in the early 2000’s when she and I were both receiving fellowships from an organization interested in giving creedally orthodox United Methodists funding for doctorates so that we could change the United Methodist Church. Fifteen years later, she is the new dean of Duke Divinity School, one of the world’s experts on new monasticism and missional communities, and the author of seven books. Me: I have a blog. (Well, OK: a blog and a magazine and a website.) The jury is still very much out on the United Methodist Church.
And it is, in part, because the jury seems out on not only the UMC but church in general and, dare I say after these past months, society in general. Wisdom for the anxious church? Bring it on. We are very anxious people right now.
So, Elaine reminds us, were the Galatians.
The book is short: nine small chapters (counting the introduction and epilogue) and study-ready, with probing questions after each chapter. It arose out of an experience Elaine had while reading Galatians in her devotions where she suddenly found herself on the side of the traditionalists Paul critiques, those annoyed at hearing “that thousands of years of sacred history recalled through precise liturgical practice were unnecessary” (12). I hear her (and the Galatians’) pain: I left United Methodism in part because it kept moving the liturgical goalposts on me.
To me and the church, Elaine says:
- love the tradition behind the tradition (and don’t be quick to dictate what that has to be, outside of the creeds); open yourself vulnerably to God (including the possibility that he may speak in mystical and supernatural ways)
- seek out “wise and mature saints” to help in discernment
- understand the systemic change that is breaking down consumeristic and imperialistic models of church (here she has a nice shout-out to Patheos blogger Nadia Bolz-Weber)
- sit and reflect mindfully as a response to your anxiety rather than freaking out ( a “contemplative stance”, she calls it)
- try to discern the movement of the Spirit from that place
- and remember that “the strongest quality a congregation can exhibit in its community is to love well–within and beyond the walls of the church. Our neighbors do not need more preaching, more warnings about hell, or more gimmicks to get them to church on Sunday morning. They need our presence and our love. They need our humility.”
I am naturally a pessimist (I mean, really a pessimist. Like, not just glass-half-empty, but glass?-what-glass?) But a long time ago I saw on a yoga-themed T-shirt the phrase “When all else fails, sit quietly and breathe consciously.” (Because this is the Internet, I just found it again on a card when I Googled it.) We could do worse than to start there, listen to God, and see what happens. Take Elaine’s book along when you do.