Sunday, March 19, 2006

On the Horns of a Dilemma

Many of you have been watching the episcopal election in the Diocese of Tennessee, noting that we recessed for a week at around 6.00 p.m. on Saturday evening without having elected a bishop, and will gather again to continue the process next Saturday.

It needs to be pointed out for starters that elections in this quirky diocese are always extended affairs, with 2/3 required in each order for an election to take place. Elections have been known to go to 40, 50, or even 60 ballots in Tennessee in the past, although the present polarized state of the Episcopal Church adds intensity to our immediate set of circumstances.

Having said this, I have a sense that we have become the latest small cockpit in which something much bigger is playing itself out in both church and the culture. I find no enjoyment in such things, but it seems that if we are to be faithful to Christ then we have to graciously and lovingly work our way through what might be a stalemate -- and at the heart of faithfulness is the vital business of theological and doctrinal obedience, which has profound implications in the way we live our lives.

I don't want to go into the pros and cons of our election or the electoral process, but to focus attention on what should be the faithful believer's mindset in the midst of such circumstances. Yes, I wake up in the night worrying about what is happening. Yes, I pray prayers that perhaps are sometimes selfish and self-serving. Yes, I am anxious that we will do the wrong thing or elect the wrong person.

But underneath this very human set of concerns has to be a strong affirmation that we serve the living, sovereign God, and that his ways are not always our ways. Didn't Isaiah write, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8).

This is a lesson that each follower of Christ nees to be reminded of again and again, especially when we sense that our backs are up against the wall, our heart is in our throat, and there is that horrible sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. I confess that I woke up this morning feeling nauseous and was weak and tense for most of today. But while I have always lived very close to my feelings, they should not be allowed to take control and rule my existence.

Last summer Rosemary and I spend a delightful day on the outskirts of Manchester in England with Alec and Beryl Motyer. Alec has been a dear friend and mentor for just about forty years, and is one of the finest expository preachers and teachers that I have ever encountered. Alec taught me so much not only about using Scripture to edify others, but also how I can feed myself from God's Holy Word.

Alec is an Old Testament scholar who is spending his retirement getting onto paper the treasures of a lifetime of parish ministry and seminary teaching. As we were parting in July he gave me a copy of his most recent book on Exodus (The Message of Exodus - J. A. Motyer. IVP, 2005) which about a month ago I began using to aid me with my daily bible reading. I could not have picked up anything more appropriate to help me negotiate through a difficult situation like the one we find ourselves in in Tennessee, or the difficulties that confront us in the wider Episcopal Church.

These recent years of ministry have been among the hardest, and there is many a time when I have wondered if somehow I have misread God's guidance. So it came as a needed reminder in those early pages of Alec's book, as he orients us to God's working among his people during the Exodus, that there is mystery in the divine government of history, "whether on a national, domestic or individual level: the great and loving God is in control, and because he is truly sovereign he works out his purposes in his way, not ours... He offers no explanations, but grants his people a sufficient insight into his ways, his character, his intentions and his changeless faithfulness so that, however dark the day, they can live by faith and be sustained by hope" (page 19).

Not only was this classic Motyer, but it is rock-sold biblical theology, neither weak nor sentimental, telling me that I am where I am because the sovereign Lord has put he there, much as he put the children of Israel in Egypt initially for protection but after 400 years in such agony that they were crying out for release. These have been dark days of ministry, but even in the gloom there has been evidence of his hand and the hope of his grace -- and I saw it again in church this morning.

The story of the Exodus is a story of seemingly endless delay, muddle and confusion, then the quick and decisive hand of the Lord, before again wilderness wanderings require much patience. The experience of these Old Testament People of God was akin to those things that we today find ourselves wrestling with. God may be sovereign, and he may be protecting his people, imparting promises to them, and giving them hope, but we need to remember the words of Paul to the Christians in Asia Minor that it is through many hardships that we enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).

This seems to be a message for our time, especially to those of us who are North American Anglicans. "It is not God's way to explain himself... so the biblical account provides us with no pat answers to our questions, but it does provide us with a framework and context within which we can begin to make sense of the days of darkness which have ever been the lot of God's people throughout history... We see him working out his own schemes in his own way, on his own scale, to his own time plan and according to his own wisdom, and we find the assurance that, although the days were dark, it was all right, it was all planned and it will all be well" (page 31).

So during these weeks I am soaking myself in the way the Lord provided for his people in Egypt, and gently but lovingly my dear old friend has been telling me afresh that "there is a contemporary reality about the word of God, so that when we read Exodus we are not just learning of the past, we are learning for the present" (page 33). I want answers to huge questions as I agonize over the horns of dilemmas of which our episcopal election is only the latest, but instead I am reminded that God is God and that even in the darkest days his loving reassurance is that all is OK, and it will ultimately be well.

Meanwhile, I am where God desires me to be, and while it might sometimes appear to be a wilderness journey into nowhere, God understands precisely where he is taking us and how long it will take. Our responsibility in these circumstances is not to waver, but to be faithful, especially when there is a high price to pay for that faithfulness. We think of the Exodus as a wonderful release from slavery, but often forget that when Israel left, many of them left homes, neighborhoods, gardens, and even Egyptian friends that they loved and cherished. Obedience always involves discomfort and letting go.

All this puts our Tennessee travails into perspective and reminds me a cold, damp London night in early 1967 when the rubber of Motyer's teaching hit the road of my life. I was Alec's field education student at his then parish of St. Luke's Church in West Hampstead. It was late by the time my responsibilities were finished and he drove me to the Underground station. Sensing that I was in agony about something he lovingly coaxed my problems from me.

"Alec," I remember telling him, "I'm just not happy, I'm not happy."

There was loving sternness in his lilting Irish voice as he responded with words that have, perhaps, been an ever-returning watchword in all the years since then, "Richard, you were not called to be happy, you were called to be faithful."

My record of faithfulness has been patchy, but God's record of faithfulness has outshone my wildest dreams. Alec Motyer is now an old man, and I am getting there, too, but this lesson taught when I was a seminarian I have passed on to others over the years.

I share it now with my brothers and sisters in Tennessee as we live with on the horns of our immediate dilemma. I share it too with those faithful men and women who sense that they are embattled by the storms that have swept over the Episcopal Church, and for whom misery in some form or another is an almost constant companion. I share them not knowing where God is leading or what God has in mind. As the author to the Hebrews puts it,"You have need of endurance, so that when yhou have done the will of God you may receive what is promised" (Hebrews 10:36).


Karen B. said...

Richard, a wonderful meditation. I expect I'll post a long excerpt from this and a link on Lent & Beyond in the morning.

I was very struck by what you wrote of God's sovereignty and faithfulness.

Yesterday while praying for you all in TN while watching the ballot results live, I was struck by Ps. 93 and keep coming back to it today.


May our faithful Father grant grace, encouragement and strength to persevere to all who are seeking to be faithful to Him in TN.

David D Wilson said...


Thanks for your steely words and your reflection about Alec Motyer. He is truly a giant in evangelical Anglicanism. My colleague in Pittsburgh, Brad Wilson, often waxes eloquent about Alec too.

I have thought of you often these past few days and what the future holds not only for you in Tennessee but for ECUSA.

I am the fourth clergy deputy from Pittsburgh to GenCon06 this June having unseated George Werner! I can find little enthusiasm to meet the task of serving. It seems all we have been doing these past years to build a vibrant North American Anglicanism is for naught. I wish I could be more positive and I wish you and Alec were sitting here in my study encouraging me as I type this. Maybe it's just the Monday morning blues! ugh!


Richard Kew said...

David, it is very easy to get downhearted, just look at Moses for someone we admire in Scripture, but who lived very close to his feelings. I have a feeling that we need to think more in terms of being servants of the Kingdom of God more than of the Anglican cause, that is very much a footnote in the bigger task that we are called to execute. The point is that we serve a sovereign God, we do not see the whole panorama of what he is up to, just our own corner of the Lord's vineyard, so we do not really have a full idea of what he is up to. Go back to Exodus. If you had been an Israelite would you have thought that the mighty hand of God could or would do what he did?