God is not cuddly

Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? (Job 40:8)

There seems to be a thing these days in condemning the Book of Joshua as sub-biblical. The violence of the book repels many people. It strikes them as out of character with the portrait of Jesus they carry around in their heads. The idea that God would sanction and command the slaughter of an entire people horrifies people.

I share the horror.

But I don’t understand why we are so quick to clear the name of God by explaining away the Book of Joshua. I don’t understand it because it is not like Joshua is the only book in the Bible that is violent.

Take Exodus, for example. Consider for just a moment what happened at Passover.

So Moses said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt — worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.'” (Exodus 11:4-6)

How cuddly is this God?

Why is it that we cannot tolerate an image of God that terrifies us? Why do we try to shove him into a Care Bear’s costume when the Bible clearly does not. You can rip out Joshua, but you can’t escape the revelation of God as a “consuming fire.”

Why is this so hard for us?

A guaranteed way to fail your theology final

I’ve been rereading Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. It was an important book in the formation of John Wesley’s faith, and therefore important to the development of our Methodist way.

This goes out to all my friends in seminary writing doctrine and theology finals.

What avail is it to man to reason about the high, secret mysteries of the Trinity if he lack humility and so displeases the Trinity? Truly, it avails nothing. Deeply inquisitive reasoning does not make a man holy or righteous, but a good life makes him beloved by God. I would rather feel compunction in my heart for my sins than merely know the definition of compunction. If you know all the books of the Bible merely by rote and all the sayings of the philosophers by heart, what will it profit you without grace and charity? All that is in the world is vanity except to love God and to serve Him only. This is the most noble and the most excellent wisdom that can be in any creature: by despising the world to draw daily nearer and nearer to the kingdom of heaven.

To which heart should we be relevant?

I was at the movie theater when a preview for a Hillsong movie played. One of the only two other people in the theater said to the man sitting next to her, “Why do they think we’d want to watch that?”

Her words reflect the culture in which the church find itself. The crisis of relevance has been with us for a long time. The idea that Christianity is not only unwelcome but also dismissed as ridiculous is gaining wider currency. And, of course, we in the church find ourselves wondering how to respond.

A good question for us is this: What is the cause of people’s negative reactions?

Many people will point to the church itself as a cause. They have no end of advice about ways we can make ourselves more attractive to those who disdain us. But allow me to propose a different interpretive approach.

Is it possible that people disdain Jesus and the church because they are unconverted sinners?

I don’t want to ignore failings of the church. We have many for which we need to repent. We are always in need of reform.

But let’s not forget our theology.

Wesleyan theology, to the extent it still takes Wesley as a guide, suggests three different states for the human heart.

The natural heart neither knows nor desires the things of God. It conceives of itself as happy and self-sufficient. God — if he exists — exists to service the needs of the person or the society. In any event, he should not go around interrupting movies or other activities. My companions in the movie theater had such natural hearts, perhaps.

The convicted heart — one under what Wesley called the spirit of bondage — is aware of God, but its dominant awareness is of God’s great goodness and the heart’s great unworthiness. It is the heart of one deeply conscious of his or her own failings and dirt. It often is the heart of one who feels shame or guilt. I like the old word “wretch” here because it describes one wandering far from God.

The converted heart knows the forgiveness and awesome love of Jesus Christ, and can say in the spirit of adoption Abba, Father, in communion with the holy God of the universe. The converted heart rejoices in God, rejoices in forgiveness, and counts all things in the world as nothing compared to knowing God.

The problem in Wesley’s view is not that we are out of step with the times, but that the fallen world is out of step with God.

Wesley would not be at all surprised to hear what my fellow movie-goer said. For him, though, it would be diagnostic. It would help him to understand the state of her heart, and perhaps form his own ideas about how he might speak to her if given the opportunity.

In writing this, I’m aware of a few things.

First, Wesley’s categories are derived from but not explicitly outlined this way in scripture. You can read Romans in a way to support this, but it is not the only way to read it. Second, I am aware that many of our contemporary theologians view Wesley as a historical curiosity rather than as a vital thinker for today. And these are theologians in our own tribe. Finally, these thoughts don’t touch on the relevance issues raised when we talk about worship styles or cultural forms that welcome or engage different groups. We need to distinguish between relevant styles of worship and relevant doctrine. We need the first. We need to be wary of the second if it means abandoning the gospel. Wesley went where the people were to bring them the gospel.

With all this acknowledged, I do think Wesley helps us think through the crisis in relevance in some ways.

He challenges the easy conclusion that if people don’t want to hear about Jesus we must not be packaging him well. Those with natural hearts should be expected to resist any talk of God and holiness.

He also causes me to reflect on the state of my own heart and those in the congregations I serve. Are we displaying the converted hearts of those who have received the spirit of adoption? Do we desire it? Or do we want the church to bless our natural hearts and soothe away any conviction we might feel?

These are the kinds of questions that arise when you spend time with John and Charles Wesley and then go out into the world.

It is why I keep reading and singing with them.

Boundaries are good

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:3-4, NIV)

In August, I wrote a post that came out of a seminary experience that had been leaning hard on inculcating a love of pluralism. The post was a piece I read to the class. It was called “Edges are good.”

It was a bit of a cry of desperation. It was also an attempt to articulate something that I have been struggling to grab hold of for the last few years.

The Bible speaks a great deal about edges and boundaries and separation. The act of creation itself is described in Genesis 1 less as creation ex nihilo than as the kind of thing a fan of the Container Store would do. It is separating light from dark and dry from wet. It is bring form out of formlessness. Creation is the establishment of boundaries.

In many other places in the Bible, the importance of boundaries is stressed. The importance of property lines come up throughout the Old Testament. The need for demarcation of sacred space is a constant theme. The concern over insider and outsider is rehearsed over and over.

Of course, this is not the only theme. The talk of boundaries is counter-balanced by talk of hospitality. Outsiders can become insiders. Every city wall has a gate. The sheep pen does as well.

But the boundaries — while permeable — remain. If not, chaos ensues. The walls come down. Wolves run off with the sheep. Things fall apart.

This is not a hard concept to acknowledge intellectually, but I think we as United Methodists often struggle with it in practice. We are a denomination that is uncomfortable with boundaries, and so we attract people who struggle with establishing and maintaining boundaries. And our congregations and denomination suffer for it.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this on Facebook. Fences may not make good neighbors, but they do keep the next guy’s pigs out of your tomato garden.

By all means, we need gates. But here is the truth I’m trying to make a part of my heart and not just my head: Edges are good. Boundaries are good. Fences are good.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.

Schenck: Marks of an evangelical?

Ken Schenck has some interesting thoughts on the origin of evangelicalism and how the concept has changed over time.

The origins of American evangelicalism are in these preachers of assurance, these preachers that you can be justified by faith now and you can know it. In short, the original evangelicals in America were revivalists. George Whitfield and the First Great Awakening are the starting point for American evangelicalism and, yes, Jonathan Edwards was a part of that.

John Wesley and his followers are a key part of that, the early American Methodists like Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, Then the Cane revivals in the early 1800s, the Second Great Awakening, are part of that. Think of the Baptists who preached assurance and a moment of conversion.

How do we tolerate Marley’s ghost?

This is the season in which millions of people will watch with joy some version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

It is interesting to me that we can watch this story and approve of its viewing in a world in which any talk of judgment is labeled as destructive to the mission of the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The central arc of this story is a redemption story driven home by the horrible fate awaiting Ebeneezer Scrooge if he does not repent. Granted, an eternity walking the Earth as a ghost burdened by heavy chain is not hell fire, but can there be any doubt that Scrooge’s reform is set in motion by the prospect of the wrath to come?

It strikes me as a deeply Christian parable. But make no mistake, it is a story that stands in deep judgment of Ebeneezer Scrooge and flinches not an inch at the punishment his heart’s unholiness deserves.

How can we reckon this with the popular response to judgment?

In our creed we say Jesus will judge the living and the dead. The Bible certainly says the same thing.

Although some people have popularized the idea that their is no judgment, I cannot agree with such ideas, no matter how appealing. I can’t agree because such a sentiment makes void so much of scripture and church teaching. It also seriously undermines the claim that God is just and faithful, a keeper of promises. The notion that there is no punishment for the wicked strikes me as a hope that only the comfortable hold dear.

The oppressed pray for justice. The oppressors and their anesthetized allies plead for a “reasonable” god, who does not hear the cries arising from Egypt and Babylon.

Isn’t Marley’s ghost nothing more than the convicting spirit of the Holy Ghost? Why do we reject conviction in the church but enjoy it on our television and computer screens?