Mr. Wesley’s fabulous contraption

Scripture, of course, is the source as well as the paradigm of Christian speech. What we say must be said faithful to the language of Scripture. This is a complex task because it is no means clear how the many ways of expression in Scripture are to be said coherently. The investigation of that process is called theology. But theologians are often tempted to say too much because the reticence of Scripture, the refusal of Scripture to tell us what we think we need to know, drives us crazy. I sometimes think that the work of historical criticism, essential work for helping us read Scripture faithfully, is a rage against the silences of Scripture. Why do not the Gospels tell us what Jesus is “thinking?”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words

If I were to rename this blog, I would be tempted to steal a phrase from Hauerwas and call it “Rage Against the Silences.”

Rage is not really my thing, but I love that turn of phrase. It speaks to me out of the same place that “An arrow through the air” does. It also capture the desperation I often feel when confronted with silences in my life. To sit in the presence of silence — especially the kind you get when you really want speech — is a discipline I have barely begun to develop.

I don’t think John Wesley was very good at abiding the silences, either.

I was baptized in a United Methodist Church without ever being exposed to Wesley. I later went on to read and study Wesley’s theology as an amateur. As I consider what I have learned from this work, I do wonder whether Wesley fell prey to the temptation of the of the theologians that Hauerwas mentions here. Did he fill up the silence of Scripture or steamroll the conflicts in the interest of constructing a method? There is a sense in reading Wesley’s theology that it works too well. (I know Calvinists will howl about that last line. That’s okay. Let them howl.)

Wesley’s theology is brilliantly constructed to speak to the spiritual condition of people conscious of sin, mindful of wrath, and desiring to know the way of salvation. It is practical and carefully articulated. It shows all the signs of being developed by a skilled practitioner and careful observer of the human soul. It is well engineered and elegant.

But like any finely crafted machine, it does not work very well at things it was never designed to do. For instance, Wesley just waves his hand at the question of salvation outside of Christianity. He neither condemns nor saves Muslims and Hindus and Jews. He merely says that is a question for God and not for him.

I respect that answer, but I do not find it terribly helpful in multi-faith America.

Or to hit even closer to home, Wesley’s theology is so dependent on cognitive processes, that I wonder how it speaks to those who by age, injury, or disability cannot form the proper mental states to participate or cooperate with grace as laid out by Wesley.

There are ways we might answer that, but Wesley does not help us at all with those answers. His concern was with the machine he was building, and he does not speculate about other problems, or at least nothing I have seen in his works shows such concern.

I don’t mean this as an attack on Wesley. I’ve learned far too much from him for that. But I do wonder how to properly receive him. I wonder this, in particular, because I take quite seriously the vows of ordination the church may one day ask me to take.

How do I reside in the silences of Scripture while remaining an heir to the fabulous contraption Wesley constructed?

Evil and the Board of Ordained Ministry

For seminary, I’ve been starting to work on some of what will one day be a response to questions in ordination paper work. Here’s my first go at the Book of Discipline’s question “What is your understanding of evil as it exists in our world?”

Here is my answer to the question of evil in an academic mode: Evil is the contradiction of good. It exists as a negation. It is a parasite. It is the darkness that is only visible in the presence of light. In an ontological sense, as Augustine taught us, evil does not exist.

This is the beginning of my academic answer. It is my bookshelf answer. It is not one that feels in any way adequate, however. Where life is lived, evil is real. I read this week a story about a man who bludgeoned a 3-year-old girl to death because she had an accident in her pants. You cannot retreat behind the cool, dispassionate pose of the academic musing on the nature of evil when you read such a story. Augustine’s argument about the non-existence of evil shatters in the face of such stories.

Or does it?

Augustine argued that evil does not exist because he knew that God is good. This good God created everything, and all that God created is good. Evil cannot exist as a thing because God could not have created it. God only creates good. This goodness is the light by which the darkness of evil becomes visible. We are repulsed by the story of a 3-year-old girl being beaten to death because we recognize that the world is not meant to be a place where that happens. Even if we in unbelief cannot name that place as God’s will, the grace of God whispers to us of a world in which such horrors do not happen. Evil can only be known as evil because we know of that other world, the world as God intends it to be. Evil is the gap between the world as it is and the world as God created it to be.

This is a world we both long for and resist. We resist it because it is the world in which our own will matches the will of God. It is the world in which we say, as Jesus did, not my will be done, but yours. We resist this because we are very much in love with our own will.

If you have ever read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, you know the real problem of evil. The real problem of evil is not that it is repugnant, but that it is so seductive. In Milton’s poem, it is hard not to admire Satan for his driving will, his resolution, and his declaration that he would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. Here is Frank Sinatra belting out his defiant “I did it my way.” Here is Katy Perry singing “Roar.” Here is the serpent in the garden urging Eve to think for herself. Evil comes to us in the disguise of independence and self-respect. It urges us to set up a false god called “my own thing.”

Of course, the real seduction of evil is that it takes things that are good – critical thought, perseverance in times of trial, determination, personal gifts – and uses them to shake us free of the God who is the source of all good. These things in service of God’s will are blessings. It is the way of evil, though, to take what is good and detach it from God, corrupting it. The evil we experience in our lives comes when human beings reject God.

Why not to go into ministry

Talbot Davis nails it.

 

For the love of the game

I’ve often thought that our trust issues in United Methodism would be helped with more public thinking by the men and women charged with leading our denomination.

This is why I have always valued Sky McCraken’s blog.

His latest post is a spot on example: A Pastor By Any Other Name — Revisited

The question that emerges for me after reading his post goes something like this: Would I be a pastor if there was no salary, no insurance, and no retirement plan? Would I do it because I was called and for no other reason?

If the answer is yes, then what would that look like?

The answer to my first two questions is “yes.” But I’m not sure what the answer to the third question would could be.

I wonder how you would answer.

Tales from candidacy interviews

This is one of those posts that I might live to regret the next time my dCom meeting comes around.

Here is the truth, though. I’ve been preaching in a United Methodist Church since April 2007. This year, 2014, for the very first time, I had someone in supervision of my ministry ask me to articulate my understanding of Wesleyan theology.

My answer that day was a brief walk through of the four alls of Methodism:

  • All need to be saved.
  • All can be saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.
  • All can know they are saved.
  • All can be saved to the uttermost.

I made sure to work in specific reference to Jesus Christ, as I’ve heard rumors of candidates for ordination not bringing up his name during interviews. Those rumors were confirmed a few minutes later.

One of the people interviewing me told me later — in response to a question of mine about how to prepare for the Board of Ordained Ministry in coming years — that one problem the Board encounters from time to time is candidates who cannot articulate a clear sense of who Jesus is and why he matters.

This still surprises me even as I type the words. Candidates for ministry who cannot talk about Jesus?

So, as a service to both our Boards of Ordained Ministry and future candidates for ordination, I’d be interested in hearing stories like these. Where to candidates struggle? What questions did you as a candidate never get that you expected to have to answer?

Has the ‘big sort’ come to the UMC?

Rev. Jen Stuart of First UMC in Austin, Texas, explains her decision to leave Texas and seek ordination in the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church. The short version: She wants to be ordained in a conference where she does not have to conceal her opposition to the Book of Discipline.

Several years ago, a book called The Big Sort made a splash. The thesis of the book was that Americans were clustering together into like-minded enclaves, which was leading to increased division and the polarization we’ve been seeing in our political system for a number of years. (Here’s a short article that captures the idea.)

Is the United Methodist “big sort” already underway?