Light in our darkness

The local paper printed a commentary about the Hoosier native who was beheaded in Syria last week. It was a tribute to the man and his family. It ended with this thought:

But Abdul-Rahmin Peter Kassig and his parents, in a time of tragedy, reminded us of the only forces that can warm and light the bleakest of days – the humanity that links us all and the love that can sustain us in our darkest moments.

Reading that left me struggling for the proper response.

I got taken to task a bit on Twitter not long ago for getting into quibbles over words. The Rethink Church Twitter account had published a quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I asked a genuine question: Was Mead a Christian? (She was.) My question was born of concern that her quote is singularly mistaken about “the only thing” that has ever changed the world. Jesus Christ changed the world. God changed the world. The Holy Spirit changes the world. That word “only” struck me as theologically myopic.

The Rethink Church Twitter account suggested I was making too much out of one word.

So, here I am again. I read this nice tribute to a man who was butchered, and I can’t get past that word “only.” The story says, “the only forces that can warm and light the bleakest of days” are our common humanity and the love that sustains us.

Maybe the author of these lines would permit me to read “love” theologically. That would take some of the edge off my unease.

But I am not sure he means the word to refer to God.

And so I’m stuck wanting to argue with this pronouncement in a way that will come across as church-y and all the other things we are supposed to avoid in this post-modern moment. That the young man in question converted to Islam, rejecting the Christianity nurtured by his family in a United Methodist Church, makes what I want to say even less palatable in this day and age.

I want to say to the author of that piece that there is a source of light much brighter than the feeble glow of our shared humanity. We are not condemned to huddle around our TV screens baffled by the barbarism and darkness of the world. There is a light that is brighter than death. In the approaching season of Advent, we celebrate that light as the world engages in an orgy of man-made commercialism and excess.

But I don’t know how to say those words in a way that will be heard in a world that imagines we have nothing more than our humanity to warm the cold winter night.

A house upon the sand?

In the course of his sermons expounding on the Sermon on the Mount, John Wesley comes to consider the significance of Matthew 7:21-27. In that discourse, he begins by sketching out what it means to build our house upon the sand.

Near the beginning of the sermon, he singles out the preacher as one at risk.

After I have thus successfully preached to others, still I myself may be a castaway. I may, in the hand of God, snatch many souls from hell, and yet drop into it when I have done. I may bring many others to the kingdom of heaven, and yet myself never enter there. Reader, if God hath ever blessed my word to thy soul, pray that he may be merciful to me a sinner!

This is a warning that cuts to the heart and highlights the temptations preachers face. To so many people, we are the face of piety and faith. This is often not deserved and certainly not sought, but it remains. Wesley here shakes us from such delusions.

Wesley goes on — in his typical fashion — to warn against relying on good works or being innocent of any outward harm. These are also sand if relied upon to take the place of real Christianity. To those who can preach and teach all orthodoxy, who do no harm, and how a diligent in doing good, Wesley warns we may hear a harsh word from Christ in the last day.

Even then I did not know you as my own; for your heart was not right toward God. Ye were not yourselves meek and lowly; ye were not lovers of God, and of all mankind; ye were not renewed in the image of God; ye were not holy as I am holy.

Once again, we come face-to-face with the essential element of Christianity as understood from a Wesleyan perspective: holiness of heart and life.

I am reminded when reading Wesley how he distinguishes between things that I often hear others conflate. The goal of Christianity is new creation, holiness of heart and life, to be remade in the likeness of Christ. The means to this goal are conviction, justification, assurance, good works, piety, and so on.

I am often tempted to confuse the means with the end. I confuse the outward and inward activity for the actual change and transformation that these things are meant to foster. And I confuse myself about the basis on which Jesus will judge all humanity at the end of the age. He will not judge whether we practiced the means. He will judge whether we achieved the end.

Wesley closes the sermon — and therefore his series of 13 sermons on the Sermon on the Mount — with an exhortation to the practice of a religion of the heart.

Let thy religion be the religion of the heart. Let it lie deep in thy inmost soul. Be thou little, and base, and mean, and vile (beyond what words can express) in thy own eyes; amazed and humbled to the dust by the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Be serious. Let the whole stream of thy thoughts, words, and actions flow from the deepest conviction that thou standest on the edge of the great gulf, thou and all the children of men, just ready to drop in, either into everlasting glory or everlasting burnings! Let thy soul be filled with mildness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering towards all men; — at the same time that all which is in thee is athirst for God, the living God; longing to awake up after his likeness, and to be satisfied with it! Be thou a lover of God and of all mankind! In this spirit do and suffer all things! Thus show thy faith by thy works; thus “do the will of thy Father which is in heaven!” And, as sure as thou now walkest with God on earth, thou shalt also reign with him in glory!

In his day, such an exhortation drew thousands to Methodism and repelled thousands more. It was met with the charge that Methodists held out too high a standard for Christianity. People could not attain this and remain in the world. It would cause men and women to despair of salvation. It was fanaticism not fit for a reasonable religion.

We have — more or less — sided with Wesley’s critics. Few of us could read the paragraph quoted above and relish it as a portrait of the faith to which we aspire and to which we call our brothers and sisters.

I am left, though, with the question suggested by Jesus’ warning. In ignoring Wesley’s teaching here are we building our house upon the sand? Is that why we are so badly buffeted by the floods and storms of our age?

We don’t need no thought control?

This Facebook post by Rachel Held Evans has a lot of likes from a lot of people I know.

Reading her post. I find myself having a reaction I have frequently to spiritual and theological commentary. I usually find myself agreeing with a lot.

Yes, good news must be good news to the poor or it is not good news.

Yes, theological reflection is not the private reserve of white guys with PhDs.

Yes, everyone is qualified to talk about faith.

But in these agreements, I know that Evans is not really agreeing with me. Her point is not these simple truths, but a polemical one. What she is arguing is that these young white theologians she has in mind “seem” to think certain things and those things are bad. She is painting with a pretty broad brush here and speaking in generalities, so it is not exactly clear how she knows what these people think. It would be helpful if she’d quote or even name her targets. It is hard to know if her adversary in this argument is a straw man, a phantom, or a actual person expressing the actual arguments she is putting in their mouths.

But putting this aside, I do have a deeper question about this argument.

What I’d like to know from Evans — and I guess the question I have for my United Methodist friends who liked the post — is how do we hold her statements here up against a fairly broad based conversation in the church that we have done a bad job of catechesis for the last 100 years and that our people are largely biblically illiterate.

I recall the words of that straight, white — but old so perhaps not unclean in Evans’ eyes — theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who said that his students come to his classes without minds formed well enough to have anything interesting to say. And yet, Hauerwas would argue strongly that the most interesting thing the church does theologically is be the church in the midst of the world in all its diversity.

There is a movement in the church — not by any means a universal one — to raise standards and requirements for membership. A lot has been said about the need to teach our people the doctrinal foundations of our faith.

Doesn’t the very notion that people need education and training in order to be well-grounded Christians run counter to the sentiment of Evans’ post?

Or is there a way to hold the two together that I am not seeing?

Eventually

God’s message to us in the book of Revelation is that in the present we are not always going to win; our lives will not always be characterized by triumph. That is a lesson hard to accept — in fact, impossible — except that it is balanced on the opposite side with this hope: eventually we will win because Christ reigns. These poles …. cannot be brought together because of the intervening reality of opposition from the powers of evil. …

 

Many twenty-first century Christians find these convictions almost impossible to accept. Instead they have espouse a theology of “victory, healing, luxury, and blessedness” that The Revelation does not teach. God does not promise us a rose garden — at least not one without legions of thorns. And there are many roses in life, they fade, too — with the promise that they will come again next season. …

 

The Revelation teaches that God always gives victory eventually, but that the meanwhile entails suffering.

– Marva Dawn, Joy in Our Weakness

Billy Abraham on doctrine

Google and the problem of evil

I was reading this story about Google — and how it is the most important company in the world — when I came across this little discussion about the problem of identifying evil:

[W]e don’t have a book that defines evil in terms of how we should specifically behave. I think we understand as a culture what is good and what is evil. You need some mechanism to judge that. So I welcome the criticism that “this is evil” but it’s also possible that the critic is wrong, right? In other words, the critic doesn’t understand the trade off, doesn’t understand the consequence. I spend lots of time with people criticizing Google on this or that and I sit there and I think, “I just don’t agree.”

Of course, as a Christian, the “we don’t have a book” bit made me smile. He is correct, though, that there are times when even our book does not tell us specifically how to behave in every moment. It does give us some pretty good landmarks, though. Many of them are problematic for a global corporation bent on making profits as its reason to exist, but that is an issue for another day. What struck me more about the quote is how it captures wonderfully the contemporary mind.

Part of the truth about the culture we live in is that everything is contested. Everything is justified based on competing human perceptions. It can’t be evil, the Google executive says to himself, because I’ve looked at the data and I don’t agree. It is all he said, she said.

This is one way that Christianity simply does not fit the world in which we live. It is something else entirely, a kingdom breaking in and hidden in the shadows of this world, a place where evil has a name.