As we hunkered over our computers and read our Twitter feeds tonight, what good did we do for God’s kingdom?
A long CNN profile of Ted Turner provides fodder for pastoral conversations about discipleship and salvation.
The article details Turner’s atheist to agnostic approach to religion. It places Turner’s hostility to God to the suffering of his sister from illness when Turner was a child:
When he was very young, he dreamed of being a missionary. Then his little sister, Mary Jean, got sick at age 12. He watched as she suffered terribly from a rare form of lupus and complications that left her with brain damage and screaming in pain for years until she died. It shook his faith profoundly.
He could not understand why any God would let an innocent suffer.
“She was sick for five years before she passed away. And it just seemed so unfair, because she hadn’t done anything wrong,” he said. “What had she done wrong? And I couldn’t get any answers. Christianity couldn’t give me any answers to that. So my faith got shaken somewhat.”
The article includes a few telling incidents of Turner’s hostility to Christianity and Christians.
It concludes with Jane Fonda proclaiming Turner’s fitness for heaven based on the fact that he has prayed to “whoever is listening” and has done lots of good works for the environment.
“Given his childhood,” Fonda said, “he should’ve become a dictator. He should’ve become a not nice person. The miracle is that he became what he is. A man who will go to heaven, and there’ll be a lot of animals up there welcoming him, animals that have been brought back from the edge of extinction because of Ted. He’s turned out to be a good guy. And he says he’s not religious. But he, the whole time I was with him, every speech — and he likes to give speeches — he always ends his speech with ‘God bless.’ And he’ll get into heaven. He’s a miracle.”
Turner listened intently. There was a long pause. Was he tearing up? Finally, he spoke.
“She said that?”
Another long pause.
“Well, I sure don’t want to go to hell.”
“Did she say I was gonna buy my way in?”
The old Ted Turner — the one who made billions and won the America’s Cup and the World Series and launched CNN — probably would have tried to buy his way in. But the do-gooder Ted is earning his way in by saving bison and other endangered species and fighting for the oceans and preserving 2 million acres of ranch land and standing up for women and supporting causes near and dear to the United Nations.
That Ted Turner gets into heaven, by Jane Fonda’s accounting.
So, here’s the pastoral question. Suppose Turner shows up in your congregation. Where and how to do you engage with him?
This is not a hypothetical question.
We all have people just like Ted Turner (without the millions) in our pews or hovering around the edges of our congregations. They don’t have any sense of God as a personal God, but they hope they are “earning” there way into heaven by good works and effort. And their theology is prone to being shattered when someone they loves suffer for reasons they do not understand.
So, how do we engage them?
Brian McLaren fielded a question from a writer who came from a Christian background but was uncomfortable identifying as a Christian. In response, McLaren offered his reasons for bearing the name “Christian.”
1. To distance myself from my fellow human beings in the Christian religion doesn’t seem like a Christ-like thing to do. Jesus drew near to all in solidarity, including those of his own religious heritage from whom he differed in many ways, so I should do so too.
2. I choose to identify as a Christian as a way of expressing solidarity with others, whatever their religion. In other words, I open my heart to all people as a Christian, not apart from Christianity, and not in spite of being a Christian. I would hope that my Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, and other neighbors could do the same. If one has to leave a religion to express solidarity with others, that’s sad and not good for anyone, so I hope to practice a better way.
3. Christianity is my heritage, and I don’t want to deny or cover that up. I think of what the Dalai Lama told a Muslim friend of mine who told him he wanted to become a Buddhist. “Why?” the Buddhist teacher asked. “Because Buddhism is the religion of compassion,” my friend answered. “Don’t become a Buddhist,” the Dalai Lama said. “The world needs more Muslims who practice compassion, so be what you are in a more compassionate way.”
His response got me thinking about the place of baptism in our identity. To be baptized is to be claimed by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and to be named by God. So, for me the reason you use the word “Christian” to describe yourself is because you were baptized.
Someone reading that last paragraph might wonder whether I’m arguing that there is a such thing as a non-baptized Christian. Provisionally, I would say that being a Christian does entail being baptized, but I’m not trying to pick an argument on that point. The Bible sets down no naming convention or rules of use for the name. I simply offer my answer to the question of why a person should use the name, especially if they feel some alienation from Christians and Christianity as they exist in the flesh.
“Were you baptized?’
“Well, then, whatever you call yourself, you belong to Christ.”
Here is an interesting post about the differences between government-sanctioned civil marriage and church blessed marriages.
Denying LGBTQ couples the right to a civil-contract marriage would facially violate the “due process” clause of the 5th Amendment and the “equal protection” clause of the 14th, just as much as denying LGBTQ people the right to mortgage and cellphone contracts on the basis of sexual orientation. There is no constitutional justification for either prohibition.
By the same token, religious communities have a corresponding and co-equal right to deny LGBTQ couples sacramental validation of their relationships. Such a denial by a religious community of sacramental recognition of such marriages has no effect whatsoever on the legal standing of those relationships. Furthermore, because of the “free exercise” clause, the government is constitutionally powerless to coerce any religious community into recognizing the religious validity of an LGBTQ marriage, if that community’s theological doctrine mandates otherwise. Just as “no man can put asunder what God has joined together”, so also no government can force together that which the community’s teachings dictate must be separate. Marriage-as-legal-contract is over here, marriage-as-religious-sacrament is over there, and “never the twain shall meet”.
The post highlights something that is easy to forget. Our conversations about marriage are hopelessly muddled by the fact that we use the word “marriage” to refer to the legal status recognized by the government, which bestows social and legal benefits on a couple bearing that status, and to the result of two people be made one flesh by a union ordained and blessed by God.
We often talk in the church about the need rehabilitate or refurbish old words. I wonder if we might gain some clarity by coming up with a different word to describe what we are talking about when we talk about Christian marriage. Perhaps just making sure to always use the adjective “Christian” is enough.
“For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (MT 22:14, NIV)
I find the rhetoric about all people being welcome in the kingdom confusing. I don’t find it confusing because I disagree with the essential Arminian doctrine that the atonement made by Jesus Christ is for all people everywhere. I will shout “amen” to anyone who proclaims that message.
I fully affirm what I sometimes call the Four Alls of Methodism.
All people need to be saved. All people can be saved. All people can know they are saved. All people can be saved to the uttermost.
No, what what confuses me is when Jesus Christ’s call to all people is treated as if it was the last word rather than the first word. People speak of all being welcome as if Jesus said nothing about transformation and change. For example, we get posts like the following inspired by the Council of Bishops’ meeting:
What tweets like this say, I affirm and applaud (although I spell “kingdom” with a “g”). But I don’t agree with the tweet if what it implies is that once we are invited we are no longer expected to change. I don’t see how you can read the Bible and conclude that Jesus wants to leave us as we are.
In Matthew 22, to take only one example, we read the parable of the wedding banquet, from which Jesus teaches about the expansive grace of God inviting the good and the bad to the wedding feast. But the king spies one who after being brought to the feast has refused to put on the wedding garments provided for him. This man is cast out for refusing to put on the wedding garment of the king. In other words, as Jesus preached, “The kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the gospel.”
Or in 18th century prose, John Wesley summed it up this way:
The God of love is willing to save all the souls that he has made. This he has proclaimed to them in his word, together with the terms of salvation, revealed by the Son of his love, who gave his own life that they that believe in him might have everlasting life. And for these he has prepared a kingdom, from the foundation of the world. But he will not force them to accept of it; he leaves them in the hands of their own counsel; he saith, “Behold, I set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: Choose life, that ye may live.” Choose holiness, by my grace; which is the way, the only way, to everlasting life. He cries aloud, “Be holy, and be happy; happy in this world, and happy in the world to come.” “Holiness becometh his house for ever!” This is the wedding garment of all that are called to “the marriage of the Lamb.” Clothed in this, they will not be found naked: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” But as to all those who appear in the last day without the wedding garment, the Judge will say, “Cast them into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
So, yes, yes, yes. Everyone is invited and welcomed into God’s kingdom. Everyone. No exceptions. But we are called to put on Christ. We are called to be new creatures. We are called to holiness of heart and life. We are called to put off sin and put on Christ.
What I can’t tell is whether people who shout about “all” being included think historic Methodism disagrees with them on this point. Since the slogans tend to be slung about in the midst of intra-denominational doctrinal spats, it feels as if they believe they are saying something novel. But it is not in the least original. Methodism has always taught that all are welcome and that Jesus came to save all people. As far as I can tell, we all agree on that.
What we disagree about is the meaning of sin, the power Jesus gives us to conquer sin, and the ways the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts and lives. Why don’t people’s slogans reflect what they really disagree about?
In his twelfth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, John Wesley writes about the broad vs. the narrow way:
It is scarce possible to express or conceive what multitudes of souls run on to destruction because they would not be persuaded to walk in a narrow way, even though it were the way to everlasting salvation. And the same thing we may still observe daily. Such is the folly and madness of mankind, that thousands of men still rush on the way to hell, only because it is a broad way. They walk in it themselves because others do: Because so many perish, they will add to the number. Such is the amazing influence of example over the the weak, miserable children of men! It continually peoples the regions of death, and drowns numberless souls in everlasting perdition!
To the extent we agree with John Wesley’s reading of Jesus Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount about the broad and narrow way, the question for us becomes: “What does the narrow way look like in 2013?”
Marcus Borg wants us to stop thinking about Christianity the way he did when he was 12.
At the end of childhood, I would have said that the heart of the gospel, the Christian good news, is that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven if we believe in him. That was the impression that I received growing up in a “mainline” Protestant denomination.
Right off the top I want to say that I came to Christ in a mainline Protestant denomination, and I can’t recall ever hearing anyone present the gospel this way other than in a sermon illustration of what the pastor in question was against or what — like Borg — he outgrew.
Reading Borg’s words, I thought of watching the video released last week to mark Billy Graham’s 95th birthday. And I realized what is left out of this loaded summary of the gospel. I recall hearing the excerpt of the Billy Graham sermon that speaks of sin and Jesus dying for sins, but it begins not where Borg starts but where John 3:16 starts.
God loves you.
I can hear Graham’s voice beating that sentence like a drum.
God loves you. He loves you. He loves you.
He loves you so much that he died to save you.
Now, I’m sure there are lots of rank-and-file Christians who would boil the gospel down to what Borg describes. I’m sure there are preachers who do just about the same thing. But it is doing violence to the gospel preached by evangelicals such Graham and John Stott and John Wesley to describe it without starting where they start.
God so loved the world …
That is the gospel.
The night is coming to a close. The books are tucked away and sleeping. The beagle is downstairs trying to talk her way out of a night in the box. And I have a few moments to look back over the day.
Did I walk today the Jesus walked?
Okay, did I take one or two steps the way he did?
This is a new way of putting the question as I pray my bedtime prayers. It seems much more pointed than the way I have done these reflections in the past. Oddly, it has even less wiggle room to let me off the hook for my sloppy and slothful ways.
Did you walk today as Jesus walked or did you walk the way of someone else?
A midterm exam, of all things, laid some Scripture on my heart in the last few days. The class is about renewal in the church. The question was how we might place at the center of the life of the church the “imitation of Jesus.”
At first, I wanted to quibble with the idea of imitating Jesus. It felt dangerously close to reducing Jesus to an example or engaging in some sort of outward pantomime. But when I turned to my most beloved New Testament epistle, 1 John, I discovered these words:
Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked. (1 John 2:3-6, NRSV)
So I find myself today asking what it means to say we walk as he walked. What would it mean for you and me as individuals? What would it mean for congregations and the entire church?
Thanks to Beth Ann Cook for highlighting this article on her Facebook page.
“I came in here (to live), and thought ‘What will I do here?’” Rev. Jackson said. “The aides would come in and say, ‘It’s time for bingo, Fred.’ No thanks. I’ve got to have some action. The Lord equipped me for ministry; I may have stopped parish ministry, but I have not stopped being a pastor. … having lived here a year, I know they need it.”