Thanks, Chad, for a good idea

Chad Holtz reports on how his ministry has been impacted by not blogging or reading about the controversies in the UMC.

And praise be to God we have seen the fruit of such labor!   In the past 12 weeks we have baptized 13, brought in 29 new members (with more coming this Sunday), reshaped the vision and focus of our Sunday worship from a traditional, gospel feel to a more modern/contemporary feel, and increased community awareness about the recovery ministry we are gearing up to launch in November which promises to transform hundreds if not thousands of lives in our county starving for such a holistic, Christ-centered ministry.   I don’t share any of this to boast but to simply yet loudly announce this to my colleagues living in cyber space on both sides of this issue:   Get off the computer and get to work!   

Community without Christ

Ed Stetzer’s reflections after discovering that the son of progressive evangelical Tony Campolo has become an atheist chaplain contain several good points that are worth your time to read.

One of the one’s that caught my eye goes like this:

In this extremely informative and compelling talk Bart gave earlier this year to the SSA Annual Conference, he is quite clear that he embraced a Christian community, but not the Christian faith.

As parents, we need to work to ensure our children have a relationship with Jesus, not just a desire to be part of a loving community doing good. In other words, we need to ask, are we discipling or merely socializing our children in church?

One thing that has struck me about some the church talk I’ve been around since I started attending church on a regular basis is how much church is sold as a community. In some settings, this is so strongly emphasized that it can feel as if the community is more important that Jesus Christ himself.

John Wesley wrote that church is a body of believers who gather first to save their own souls, second to help each other in working out their own salvation, and third to roll back the kingdom of Satan and set up the kingdom of Christ. Community serves these ends and it may be the final result of these efforts, but community itself is not the point of it all.

It may just be the introvert in me speaking, but I do think we get that out of whack at times.

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?

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.

Learning to talk about God

One of the things I have noticed while taking Clinical Pastoral Education is how difficult it is for so many people talk about their faith and about God.

I’m not sure if people lack the vocabulary, the experience, or the comfort needed to converse about matters of the spirit, but for so many people the awkwardness of it all is profound.

Ask them about family and the words come easily. As them about work, and no problem. Ask them about their illness and they can give you details about their symptoms, their diagnosis, their treatment, and their hopes.

Ask about God, and most people are reduced to babbling cliches or sitting in silence.

It makes me see the value of those class meetings where people not only were invited each week to talk about their spiritual life but were able to hear others do the same. It must have built up a vocabulary. It meant that people could answer the question, “Do you know Jesus?” without stammering.

Recovering this ability to talk about the life of the spirit without empty cliches or stammering silence would help bring life to the church.

What are some ways we can do that?

Doing what God wills

Here is a question: If you could know for certain the will of God, would you do it?

There is a famous scenario sketched by Anselm of Canterbury. He asks the reader to imagine standing in the presence of God. Someone tells you to look at something off to your left or right. God tells you in that moment not to look. Would you obey God, even if obedience meant the death of someone you loved? (Anselm ups the stakes to the destruction of all creation.)

This seems to me to be a fundamental question. If we knew what God’s will was, if we had certainty about it, would we obey it?

Traditional Protestant theology says we would not, at least not until we have had a new birth. It says our will is corrupted and incapable of obeying God. A sign of that corruption is that we do not even desire to obey God.

It seems to me at times as if contemporary theology takes as a given that we should not obey God if God does not meet our standards of righteousness and love and justice.

Of course, this whole conversation is skewed by the fact that we have revelation, but not often consistent interpretation of that revelation. So, we live in a situation in which knowing for certain that we understand God’s will is rare. Or, at least, it is rare not to encounter plausible or at least rational alternative interpretations.

But the practical difficulties do not eliminate the question. Indeed, they may make it more urgent, since only a sincere desire to know and do the will of God properly motivates our encounter with revelation.

If we knew the will of God, would we do it? No matter the cost?