Generosity begets generosity. – Luke 6:38 The Message
Graceful Controversy – Generous Orthodoxy
AJ Jacobs decided to take the Bible literally for a year – seriously, literally. It was a project for a book he was writing. He dressed and wore the type of clothing the Bible specifies, white and non-mixed fibers (Deuteronomy 22:11 and Leviticus 19:19). He only ate foods allowed by the scriptures. No pork, no lobster, no shrimp and no fried fish (Leviticus 11). He even carried small pebbles in his biblical clothing. Think of pictures of Jesus when I say biblical clothing. Why stones in his pocket? Because the Bible says to stone adulterers (Exodus 21:28 and Deuteronomy 22:24). When he did find a person who admitted that he was an adulterer, Jacobs took a couple of pebbles and threw them at him.
A “crackpot” you might think, but actually he was very serious. He wanted to experience what it would mean to apply the Bible literally. He lived an orthodox life for a year.
Today is part 3 in my series on Graceful Controversy. How can we have controversies that are acts of grace, particularly in light of our significant controversy about biblical understanding and homosexuality? What does it mean and look like to be generous and orthodox in our controversies?
Generous means to be liberal with your possessions and your life. Orthodox means to be conservative in holding to strict standards of tradition. Liberal conservatism or conservative liberalism are two words that just don’t seem to go with each other.
In local church, conference and denominational controversies, generosity and orthodoxy seem to be at the heart of the conversation. One group of people takes a more liberal approach and the other a more orthodox. But can someone be both liberal and orthodox, generous and conservative?
Jacobs was not a religious person or believer but a self-described agnostic before he started living the Bible literally. After the year-long experiment, he didn’t change his beliefs although he said he was now a reverent agnostic. He confessed that the experience was particularly challenging. His wife was not happy with the project. He took Sabbath literally which meant there were many things he did not do on Saturdays like drive a car or do housework, or any other activity considered by the Bible to be work. Keeping kosher was no picnic for the family either.
He had an interesting revelation after his year of living the Bible literally. He said it literally gave him a new appreciation for ritual and that we shouldn’t disregard the irrational. He better understood sacredness and how keeping Sabbath provided greater balance to his life.
Ultimately it is experience that changes us, Jacob’s explains. We do not think our way into change, but we act our way into change. We don’t become more generous or orthodox by thinking about it or reading about it. We change through our experiences.
I know two brothers who grew up together separated by a couple of years in age. They had the same parents, went to the same elementary and high schools, had the same teachers, and went to the same church. One chose to work right after high school, and the other went to college. He would be the first to graduate from college in his family. The one brother worked in restaurants and construction while the other got a management position shortly after college. The one brother was deeply affected by the economy and was unemployed several times, and the other made steady progress in his career. The one brother stayed close to home, and the other lived in five different states and traveled the world for his company. This brother mostly traveled to developing countries where he encountered cultures very different from his own. The other brother felt his unemployment was a direct result of politicians and that society favored some cultures over others. The one brother drinks beer, not craft beer but beer right off the shelf and the other drinks cabernet wine. These two brothers have different views about religion, politics, race, the economy, and social issues.
By now you may have formed an opinion about these brothers. Maybe you have identified with one or the other. If you have made a judgment, it most likely is based on your own experience.
The one brother holds a literal view of the Bible and the other does not hold a literal view of the Bible. Their experiences shape their views and understandings of faith and the world.
This was also true in Jesus’ day. Some disciple of John the Baptist were sent to Jesus by John to find out if he was the Messiah they were looking for. Jesus said, the blind see, the lame walk, and those with leprosy are healed (Luke 7:22). In other words, what you and others experienced verifies I am the Messiah. Experience was a valuable teacher for Jesus. His parables were all experiential. Things people could relate to because they too had a similar experience.
While very different, the two brothers mentioned earlier don’t just love each other, but they respect each other. They have generous spirits rooted in their faith as different as their faiths are. The one does not believe in gay marriage and yet treats gays and lesbians like family members. He has generous orthodoxy. The other brother admires his brother’s rootedness in the values of work, generosity, and faith. He has orthodox generosity.
Generous orthodoxy invites us to lean into the side of us that is not our dominate experience. For liberals, not to be dismissive but to experience and learn from more orthodox practices. For orthodox believers: to have a more generous spirit and openness to develop relationships with people and ideas that are different.
Jesus had a particular gift for navigating conflict. He did not avoid it nor did he reject the views and experiences of others. He even changed his orthodox view of Canaanite women. He reversed his view from seeing them as unworthy of the scraps from under a table to a generous heart that offered a Canaanite woman and her family healing and redemption (Matthew 15:21-28). A very generous spirit. And Jesus created controversy. Jesus publicly invited himself to the home of Zacchaeus and offended religious people because Zacchaeus was a sinner (Luke 19: 1-10). As a result, Zacchaeus, a tax collector, offered half of what he owned to the poor.
Jesus did all of this with a generous spirit and his generosity produced generosity. Jesus had a liberal orthodoxy approach to controversy. He demonstrated generosity in his orthodoxy and orthodoxy in his generosity. This is gracious controversy.
As Jesus demonstrated and Jacobs shared, by experiencing and living into another side of ourselves or the world, we develop more fully and understand one another, just as the two brothers understand and deeply love one another.
Our denomination has formed a commission to look at how we will navigate our current impasse concerning homosexuality and identify recommendations to send to General Conference. Thirty-two people were selected to serve, and not all conferences have representation on the commission.
I want to invite laity and clergy from GNJ into a deeper conversation that models generous orthodoxy. I invite us to develop our hopes and aspirations for the future of The United Methodist Church and send them to the commission. More importantly, we have the opportunity to model graceful controversy. We will hold a gathering for GNJ members to identify how best we would like to see the church move forward and all church members and clergy are welcome to participate. Go to www.gnjumc.org/gracefulcontroversies to learn more and to sign up.
I am blessed to lead GNJ, a theologically diverse conference that is passionate about its beliefs and commitment to Jesus Christ and the church. As I travel throughout GNJ, I find people who are deeply orthodox and generous and liberals whose living is shaped by orthodoxy. In your congregation and the world, in general, I invite you to broaden your experiences, to practice generous orthodoxy and to be graceful in your controversies. Generosity begets generosity. I look forward to our continued ministry together and to our graceful controversies.
Keep the faith!
The United Methodist Church
Greater New Jersey