Three posts on biblical marriage

Martha Myre, a UMC elder in North Texas, has written three posts with her interpretation of that oft-discussed creature: biblical marriage.

I respect the carefulness and humility with which she engages in this task. The end of the third post strikes me as the spirit in which all these conversations should take place:

This is a very brief overview of how I understand marriage on the basis of the Bible. I know this will not “convince” many people to change their stance.  But I deeply dislike simplistic views of scripture from both camps and I am trying to be faithful to a reasoned and faithful view of scripture.

 

In all honesty, I would rather hold a different view of gay and lesbian relationships.  It would be simpler and people would not hate and ridicule me.  I could go along and get along. I could affirm the love that I know is very real in GL relationships without having a problem with certain aspects of those relationships, and therefore would not be in conflict with some wonderful people. I could present myself as modern and relevant and it would be a lot easier to reach out to the “nones.”  However, because I read the Bible as I do, and because I understand it to be authoritative for my life (see Excursus in Part1), it would be hypocritical of me to present myself as totally accepting of open marriage (and ordination) and I don’t think that would appeal to the “nones” either.   I maintain that I can love people with whom I disagree and I will keep trying to do that.  I hope that those who know me will try to love me back.

What it means to be a disciple

I stumbled on this post by Gary Thompson via something else he wrote and the magic of Facebook.

This post deals with that central question that is so oddly hard for us to all agree about: What is a disciple? (I wonder if Nike ever has a problem figuring out what shoes are.)

Thompson offers several commonplace ideas about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, then gives us his definition.

I’m sure you can add to the list and I encourage you to do so in the comments section of this blog. But let me suggest a simple way to express what makes a Christian disciple. At the core, a disciple is one who does what Jesus repeatedly asked people do. “Take up your cross and follow me.” Do what Jesus did; be like Him. Love and serve others in His name.  Of course, church and scripture reading and prayer will be a part of one’s life. We won’t know how to be like Jesus if we are ignorant of  the Bible.

So, here it is. If you want to BE a disciple of Jesus–if you want to BE happy and successful in life–discover what God wants you to DO and DO it.

 

 

Putting death to good use

The text of a letter John Wesley wrote to Jasper Winscom in 1786:

I am glad to hear so good an account of the work of God in Witney. If the Lord will work, who shall hinder? This should encourage you to still greater zeal and activity. The death of that miserable backslider was a signal instance of divine Providence, and very probably might excite some others to flee from the wrath to come.

Lest we suffer any illusions that Wesley thought the work he was doing was a light thing, let us consider these words of his. A person died, I’ll presume a man to ease my pronoun choices. He had been a Christian, possibly a Methodist, but had fallen into a life at odds with faith in Jesus Christ. And he had died. In response to the news of his demise, Wesley did not mouth pious sentiments about death. No, he sensed and opportunity. Perhaps the man’s death would shake up some others. Maybe they would begin to worry about eternity and God’s wrath.

You see, Wesley believed the Methodists were locked in a struggle of ultimate importance. If that meant angling to exploit the death of a backslider, then so be it.

However we might fault or dismiss Wesley in out day, we cannot deny he went about his ministry with the conviction that the stakes were high and what he did impacted the lives and eternal happiness of people touched by his ministry.

Seven kinds of sin

Do Christians sin?

It is a commonplace for even we Wesleyans to say our congregations are full of sinners and to comfort ourselves with the reassurance that “nobody is perfect” when dealing with sins that we cannot seem to overcome. But are such ideas in keeping with our Methodist roots?

John Wesley’s sermon “The First Fruits of the Spirit” has a fairly detailed discussion about the relationship between being a Christian and sin. It reveals the careful distinctions that mark his diagnosis of the soul.

To trace every distinction here would require a post nearly as long as his sermon, so I will offer an outline and leave it to you to read the sermon in full.

When it comes to sin he writes of:

  • Past sin, both its power and guilt
  • Present sin (willful violation of the laws of God)
  • Inward sin
  • Sin clinging to all we do because of a corrupt nature
  • Sins of infirmity, which he does not call sin
  • Lack of ability to do our duty or avoid harm
  • Sins of surprise

Scholars and critics point out problems in Wesley’s theology of sin, but no one can accuse him of not thinking carefully about it.

As I read his sermons, the metaphor that constantly comes to mind is that of a doctor of the soul. Wesley is a careful observer of the diseases of the soul who offers treatments that are fitted to the ailment.

To answer my own initial question, John Wesley would argue that a Christian does not commit any willful, knowing violation of the commands of God. If a person were to do so he or she would cease to be a Christian. But living as we do in corrupted and finite flesh, Christians are never fully free from sin. It is ever present and we are prone to commit all manner of wrongs or harms arising from our limited understanding and weaknesses. Even our most noble acts are stained by pride. Even our prayers are plagued by dull spirits and wandering thoughts.

A Christian does not sin, Wesley would say, but in this life we are never totally free of the effects and the threat of sin. This is why we need Jesus Christ at every point in our Christian journey. We need him to strengthen us and protect us from the ongoing presence of sin, and we need him to forgive us if we fall away from faith and back into the sin would pull us from the light and into the darkness again.

 

Nouwen and Wesley: Incompatible?

Ministry is entering with our human brokenness into communion with others and speaking a word of hope. This hope is not based on any power to solve the problems of those with whom we live, but on the love of God, which becomes visible when we let go of our fears of being out of control and enter into his presence in a shared confession of weakness.

— Henri Nouwen, ¡Gracias!

Henri Nouwen keeps talking to me.

His gentleness and his earnest and lovely writing always charm me. I cannot help but like him when I read his books. I cannot help but find myself underlining sentences and marking paragraphs for later reference. He writes words that cause my soul to take notice.

His writing, I suspect, is not that valuable to non-Christians or even, perhaps, Christians who do not share his educated and Western affluence. He never quite escapes his own paternalistic attitude toward the poor and the disabled. They are always in some ways “others” that he must cross gulfs to understand. They are often — even when he tries to avoid it — objects of his affection or compassion. Their existence often appears to be most cherished by Nouwen when they help him understand himself better.

To his credit, Nouwen knows this about himself. He sees his own need to control and his own reliance on his education and social position. He understands his own consuming desire for praise and admiration. He feels them as burdens in some ways, but burdens he never completely lays down. His participation with the poor or disabled always has the quality of a voluntary act, one he could walk away from. His choice to be among them always has a whiff of noblesse oblige about it, even as he writes of the gifts they give him.

I find Nouwen so constantly intriguing, though, because I believe he knew this about himself. I don’t think he was falsely humble or hypocritical. He knew his soul was divided against itself in many ways. He did not pretend to has escaped the fallen nature — what he called brokenness — of humanity, even as he sought healing.

He remains for me a testimony about how hard we recoil against true Christ-like humility and how powerful are the temptations that lure us to pride and self-justification.

As a United Methodist who values John Wesley’s teachings, I am troubled by some aspects of his testimony, though. Nouwen often seems to me to embrace his brokenness to such a degree that he cannot imagine being truly healthy. He hopes to become slowly more mature in his thinking and spirituality. With the help of good therapy, he learns to put away childish things, but he does not appear to expect to be renewed.

Perhaps this is a sign that I read Wesley too strongly or Nouwen too weakly, but I do hear something incompatible in their voices. Even though both would affirm that life in the body will always be a life of temptation and a life subject to frailty and error, Wesley sounds more optimistic about the power of grace to heal brokenness (break the power of sin) than Nouwen does. Nouwen feels resolved to a life without the possibility of victory over sin. Wesley is not.

I am not certain what to make of this incompatibility. But I take note of its presence. It calls me to further reflection and prayer.