I see a broken world

This week, I listened to a presentation that included as one of its main points the argument that the Western tradition has gone terribly wrong because it is too focused on fixing problems. The concern is that this puts an emphasis on seeing people as broken or fallen in need of saving rather than as whole and healthy in need of — well, not much really except encouragement.

As  I listened, I recalled the opening pages of GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

In my presentation and in much of contemporary theology — so far as I can tell — the fact that human beings are radically out of alignment with God simply does not register. Awareness of this fact — which Chesterton memorably calls the only part of Christian theology that can be empirically proven — is described as a kind of morbid negativity about humanity.

I have a hard time reflecting over the arc of Scripture — Torah, the prophets, the writings, the gospels, the epistles, and revelation — and finding much foothold for the notion that we — when left to ourselves — are well-grounded and responsive to God’s will for our lives.

I have a hard time looking at the world — especially beyond the little bubble of security that we all try to hard to wrap around ourselves — and seeing that people are generally happy, joyful, peaceful, just, merciful, and righteous.

I have a hard time looking in my own heart and seeing the image of Christ stamped there without any blemish or blot.

I’ve been accused of being a gloomy Gus many times in my life, so I’m aware that there may be people with a much more positive theology running around. But I don’t see the world looking much like the Garden of Eden or the New Jerusalem.

The world looks like a place that needs God to me, not just for some encouragement on the way but for rescue, healing, and salvation. God, of course, is at work already. All good comes from God. But the work is not done. The world is broken in need of healing. It is fallen in need of lifting up. It is captive in need of liberation.

This is how it looks to me. If I am wrong, God help me to see rightly.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks

I wanted to reply to something written by Bertrand Russell’s daughter.

Russell was a philosopher and outspoken atheist in the 20th century. His daughter, apparently, was not.

What she says has a lot of truth in it. No one can deny that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to Christianity is Christians. It is not that we are sinners. That is not the problem. The problem is that too many of us think we are righteous. We are not humble. We are not meek. We are not gracious or loving. We show forth all the works of flesh and dare to slander Jesus by naming ourselves after him.

But – for all that – I think we do God a great disservice if we imagine that shoddy Christianity is more powerful than the Holy Spirit.

I met a woman recently who could name everything that turned Bertrand Russell’s stomach. She had seen church people who could barely get the “Amen” through their lips before they started lashing each other with their tongues. She’d known the man who stood up and shouted “Praise Jesus” on Sunday morning and came home to beat his wife on Sunday afternoon. She’d been hurt by Christianity. She’d seen enough pain and suffering in the world to question the idea that God is good and loving.

But still see searched, still she was convinced that God is and that God is seeking her.

If we want to find reasons not to believe in God, the world and worldly Christians will give us plenty of them. The larder is never empty. But the Holy Spirit still works anyway. And where ears and hearts are ready to receive, the truth is still heard.

Love through faith by grace

In his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley began with a definition of the “better religion” that he sought to introduce to the men and women of England. He summed it up as nothing more or less than love, love of God and love of all humanity.

This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men.

Here is a statement that I imagine most United Methodists would embrace. Whatever the forces are that pull and tug at us, we would all give a good “Amen” to the conference speaker that said these words.

The great challenge, Wesley discovered after many years of seeking this religion for himself, was that we cannot will ourselves to love in this way. No amount of effort on our part can sustain us for more than the briefest moments of true and pure love. We cannot grind our teeth hard enough to find our hearts filled with love, peace, and joy in God.

This was the lesson that Wesley learned after so much agony and frustration. The only way to the religion of love is faith.

But here again, we must be careful. Faith is not a decision to believe in spite of the evidence. It is not a leap in the dark, not for Wesley. For Wesley, faith has two essential attributes. First, it is a kind of spiritual perception — the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Faith is the perception of God and the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. It is the opening of the eyes of heart to a truth we had not seen before (Eph. 1:18). Second, it is a gift of God, not something we do by our own power. We receive faith; we do not decide to have it. It is grace.

This notion of faith differs quite a bit from the idea of faith as trust. Or at least so it seems to me. I’m not sure how well we receive Wesley’s notion of faith, and therefore his description of the means to attaining the religion of love. I suspect many would argue with him on this definition of the word “faith.”

Does Wesley’s chain of thinking here — love, faith, grace — still ring true as an encapsulation of the heart of Christianity? Is he still relevant or an 18th century museum piece?

Growth in a barren land

Hoosier pastor Scott Pattison recently shared this reflection on his Facebook page. I repost it here with his permission.

I have been reflecting upon my various experiences spending 10 days in a highly secular culture that is about 20-25 years ahead of the US in secularization – where there is less than 1%-4% church attendance (0% in some areas of the UK and Europe), and most churches on a Sunday (as they say) have “20 or so old people attending Sunday worship in large empty church buildings.”

I had the chance to meet, observe, experience, and interact with church leaders and their people, along with other para-church ministries (The Message Trust, the St. Thomas Churches {Crookes, Philadelphia, Kings Centre, and City Base Church}) that are effectively reaching those under 40 years of age (particularly teens, college students in secular universities, and young families) who are genuinely transforming lives and being and making disciples – and they have been doing so for decades.

I heard from watchers of worldwide Church trends (Kent Hunter, Peter Brierly) and modern day movement leaders (Andy Hawthorne, Mick Woodhead, Mike Breen, and Paul Maconochie), talked and interacted with various church planters and pastors (from the UK, Ireland, Australia, The Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Germany), and other movement leaders, pastors, and staff.

I found that these churches and ministries that have seen a consistent pattern of growth (St. Thomas Crookes alone grew from 150 to over 2000 on the original site since the 1970’s, and a growing network of churches around Sheffield since the early 2000’s with around half under 40 years of age), with various vicars or pastors (not personality driven as we often see in the states), with the same guiding doctrine, spirit, discipline, and principles of renewal and revitalization of the early Methodist that I discovered and identified in my doctoral research.

Upon returning and reflecting upon my experiences, I find that at a time that we are battling growing decline of the church in North America, when a portion of the UMC is wanting to loosen its hold on the “doctrine, spirit, and discipline of which we first set out,” the churches ministering in the secular irreligious setting of Europe that are growing and transforming their communities (and the people in them) are tightening their grip on the historical faith delivered through the fullness Scripture, salvation through the Justifying Grace of Jesus Christ, and the sanctifying transformative power of the Holy Spirit as still real and necessary today.

These churches and ministries in England and Europe, hold the same foundation of our Articles of Religion and principles of early Methodist revival, and they are applying them in the UK and other places in Europe. They embrace the arts and the “priesthood of all believers,” with a strong witness to the salvific faith in Jesus the Christ and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit actively working – and they are growing in numbers and community impact, by doing more than social action and good works, but by offering faith in Jesus as seen in the early church, and a community of faith empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit that reaches and is transforming all stratas of society – with a particular focus on the least and lost.

My fear is that we in the US church are standing at the tree of what we believe to be new knowledge listening and believing the whisper of the garden – “Did God really say ….?” “Did God really mean …?” – then we will have as John Wesley feared, a church “having the form of religion without the power.”

What is your Egypt?

“What is Egypt to you?”

I heard this question today. The immediate context was one man asking another what he meant when he said he had to walk all the way to Egypt to get to the meeting both men were at.

The question got me thinking about the Bible.

What is Egypt for you?

Yahweh heard the cries of his people Israel in their suffering and bondage in Egypt and came to set them free. It was not a painless liberation. It was terrifying, but it was liberation just the same.

So, what is your Egypt?

John Wesley’s Egypt was the striving for holiness by the exertion of his own will. Or, at least, I think that is a defensible claim. Aldersgate was his Exodus, when he came to know that Jesus Christ loved him and died for him that he might be free of guilt and power of sin. “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” is the Wesleyan version of the Song of Moses on the far banks of the Red Sea.

The promise of Scripture is that God liberates us from Egypt. So I am invited tonight to contemplate my Egypt and the savior who stands ready to lead me to a land of milk and honey far across the sea.