In the shadow of the cross

How early did Jesus know?

One conventional answer is that he was born to die, and as God incarnate he knew this all along. Even if we wait for explicit biblical references, though, it is clear that Jesus saw the cross looming up a long time before he got there.

And yet he kept walking forward. He kept teaching. He kept healing. He kept praying. He kept on doing what he was here to do.

This is the way life responds to death and fear.

A word to myself today.

Living up to the General Rules

At the end of his explanation of the General Rules of the United Societies — rules which we still hold as binding on ourselves — John Wesley wrote this:

These are the General Rules of our societies; all which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written word, the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these, we know, his Spirit writes on every truly awakened heart. If there be any among us who habitually break any of them, let it be made known unto them who watch over that soul as they that must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways; we will bear with him for a season: But then if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.

I notice several things here.

First, Wesley takes very seriously the notion that pastors and lay leaders are on the hook if they do not actively look to the salvation and preservation of souls. I was in a class once in which another pastor told me that his job was not to be anyone’s sin police. That got a lot of nods of agreement, and I was right there with the others. But Wesley would not have agreed. He would not have used the phrase “sin police,” not least of which because it is cute rather than instructive, but he would have reminded us that those who watch over the souls of others will be held to account by Jesus for what we do and what we fail to do.

Second, I notice again the rock solid commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture to guide our faith and practice. Such an idea would not get even a moment of indulgence from many pastors and most seminary professors today.

Finally, just imagine that last portion being read at Annual Conference. Indeed, I wonder what would happen at General Conference if the text of the General Rules were up for a vote. Perhaps that is why it wise that the General Rules are protected by our Constitution.

As a church that protects and preserves these rules, though, I wonder how we live them. How do we — within local congregational settings — get to the point where such a text could be read and embraced? How do we be the church in light of what we hold as our general rules?

It made me say ‘whoa’

From John Wesley’s journal August 10, 1788:

I was engaged in a very unpleasing work, the discharge of an old servant. She had been my housekeeper at West-Street for many years, and was one of the best housekeepers I had had there; but her husband was so notorious a drunkard, that I could not keep them in the house any longer. She received her dismission in an excellent spirit, praying God to bless us all.

Of all the things I’ve read in Wesley’s journals and other works, this is one of the hardest ones for me to swallow. To put this woman and her husband out of his house must surely have meant she would soon be near starvation. Her notorious drunkard husband surely would not be caring for her or earning money to buy them food. I infer from the wording that Wesley had tried to avoid taking this step for a time.

This summer, I’ve seen up close in CPE the carnage inflicted on families by drug and alcohol addiction. I’ve seen families forced to say to their sons and daughters that they cannot come home if they can’t get clean. So, I understand this aspect of it.

The short entry in Wesley’s journal reminds me that discipleship in the flesh is often not nearly so sanitary as the intellectual exercises in which bloggers, authors, and scholars so often engage.

There are two Ways

There are two Ways: a Way of Life and a Way of Death, and the difference between these two Ways is great.

The Didache

I read the words in this ancient Christian text — one that some scholars say is older than some of the books in the New Testament — and I am struck by the lack of gray in this black and white statement. These words remind me of many words printed in our Bible — Old and New Testament — that speak of this kind of radical choice.

I find no indication — perhaps my memory needs jarring — of a middle road between these two. There are two ways. One is narrow and leads to life. The other is broad and leads to death.

And yet, I know not all Christianity and all human life can be easily summed up in a choice of A or B. Even among those who appear to be walking in the Way of Life, I can think of those who appear to be walking an even more demanding and narrow road than the generality of Christians. It is as if some Christian walk on the road and others, finding this too simple, jump up on the guardrail and walk it like a balance beam.

I want to introduce degrees and levels and comparisons to the choice laid out for us by the Didache and Jesus. Even John Wesley did this. But the words of Scripture and the experience of the early church don’t give me much room for that. They hold up a simple choice. Here is life. Here is death. Choose life.

O Captain! My Wesley!

On the list of movies guaranteed to make me cry, Dead Poets Society is firmly entrenched. It is right up there with the “Wanna have a catch” scene in Field of Dreams.

The scene below is not the one that makes me cry, but it is one that makes the creative writing oriented English major in me leap for joy.*

As a result of my love of DPS, it caught my attention when Stanley Hauerwas attacked the film in his book After Christendom. Indeed, he attacks one of the lines in the scene above: You must learn to think for yourselves.

I cannot think of a more conformist and suicidal message in modernity than that we should encourage student to make up their own minds. That is simply to ensure that they will be conformist consumers in a capitalist economy by assuming now that ideas are but another product that you get to choose on the basis of your arbitrary likes and dislikes. To encourage students to think for themselves is therefore a sure way to avoid any meaningful disagreement.

Hauerwas argues — or is it asserts? — that Christianity is not something you choose to be a part of, but a set of practices and skills you acquire in apprenticeship to existing masters of the art and craft of Christianity. In doing so, we develop the virtues that make it possible to have an intelligible conversation about morality as defined by the practice of Christianity. But you do not become a master at any craft by starting out thinking for yourself. You start out learning how to think — and act — as the master teachers do.

For my part, I know that I have been on a journey for several years now to understand Christianity as practiced by John Wesley. It would probably be better and easier to learn the craft from someone living today. For the time being, though, Wesley has been one of my primary teachers.

As I write this, I am reminded of an essay or talk William J. Abraham gave in which he argued that Wesley should not be viewed as a theologian but as a saint of the church — a man who shows us what it means to be a master Christian.

In the end, I’m not sure what to make of Hauerwas’ attack on a beloved movie, but I find and have long found the argument persuasive that being a Christian is less about beliefs than it is about a form of life.


*Although I loved the film when it came out, an English professor earlier this year attacked it strongly — echoing some of Hauerwas’ complaints — as a distorted view of the humanities.

My problem with pluralism

On Friday, I attended afternoon prayers at the local Islamic Center with my colleagues from CPE. After the prayers were over, one of the Muslim gentlemen came over to our group and started to evangelize us with stories about how the Quran explains that Jesus did not die on the cross.

I appreciated his efforts, even if they were a bit of an embarrassment to our host. Our host tried to get us away from our evangelizer and apologized for his brother in the faith’s tactics. As it turns out, many advocates of interfaith pluralism find evangelism awkward and uncouth.

This is a big part of why I find pluralism so difficult to embrace.

I find it difficult because I live in a culture that wants to put claims on people that are inconsistent with the gospel. And here, when I speak of the culture contrary to the gospel, I do not mean people like my Muslim evangelizer. I mean majority American culture.

Pluralism is the watchword of that culture. It says what we believe about God does not really matter, so long as we keep it to ourselves. As long as what we believe stays locked up inside our own heads and behind our church doors, everything is fine. The culture wants us buying Big Macs and paying our taxes on time. Religion gets in the way of that, and so our culture tries to keep religion a private matter, something best not shared or discussed in mixed company. Our culture uses the word “preach” as a pejorative term. “Don’t preach at me.”

Preaching itself is a struggle against the notion that every American has a God-given right to decide for himself or herself what the truth is and to live the life that they think best suits them. Opening up a Bible and saying the God revealed in its pages is the one who should determine who we are and how we live crashes head long into much of the value system promoted in American culture.

This message goes under the cover of saying Christians should not try to convert Jews or Muslims, but there is no reason at all why the logic of the message is limited to fellow monotheists. Americans have a lot of beliefs and practices that run counter to the gospel.

If we think it is wrong to try to evangelize Jews or Muslims or Hindus, then why should we consider it okay to evangelize pagans or materialists or those who are vaguely spiritual but not religious?

In other words, I have a hard time with pluralism precisely because I believe the people in the churches I serve need Jesus Christ. If I thought they could be just as well off with any set of beliefs that they happened to find suitable for themselves, then I would not bother to preach. But if I am convinced that preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel is good for the people who show up in the pews where I serve, then I should think it is good for people who worship other gods as well.

Or that is how it seems to me.