Believe in Christmas

Someone can always come up with a reason not to believe. We can always cook up a story that does not need God in it. We’ve been doing that from the start, but one of my favorite illustrations of this is in Matthew 28:

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Indeed, the story is still circulated today. Some of our best-selling Christian authors even peddle the myth concocted to debunk Easter.

It happens because we want an explanation that does not depend on God. We like to run the world as if none of its truths depend on God being God. And so we set our sharp little minds to crafting godless stories and our greedy little hearts to believing them.

The lies about Easter get some traction in the church.

The lies about Christmas are in some quarters almost dogma.

They are taught to the wise ones in the pews as secret knowledge. The truth is dismissed as fairy tale and Sunday School pabulum. It is okay for the children’s pageant but not for adults. All this stuff about the virgin birth and going to Bethlehem and angels and shepherds and wise men catches in the throat of too many of our pastors who tell these stories with their fingers crossed behind their backs.

I don’t understand that.

If we believe Jesus died and rose on the third day, why is it so hard to believe he was born of a virgin?

Sure, people can dream up stories that explain the orthodox teaching away. There are lots of garden guardians eager to take the gold coins from the elders. But we have the testimony of the Spirit and the cloud of witness.

They say, “Believe.”

We say, “Amen.”

Let no one separate

God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital and postmarital counseling in order to create and preserve strong marriages. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved and are concerned about high divorce rates.

– UMC Social Principles

I never noticed how sterile the language in this paragraph sounded until I was in the midst of this kind of crisis.

My marriage has been struggling for some time. Earlier this week, my wife gave me copies of the papers her lawyer has filed with the court. Today, the summons to the first court hearing arrived. By this time next week, I may be legally separated, although it is not my choice or wish to be in such a circumstance.

I’ve talked with family. I’ve talked with my boss. I’ve talked to my DS and the leadership of the local congregations I serve. I’ve talked quite a bit with God. In the days ahead, I’m sure I’ll talk with lawyers and therapists.

As I have shared my story, one of the weirdest parts of this is the way people suddenly find themselves being careful in your presence. They watch what they say and apologize for saying things that require no apology. “I’m sorry I talked about how great it is to have a wife to go home to, John. I hope that did not upset you.” No. But thank you for caring.

At least right now, the hardest part is looking back over 26 years at all the decisions you made because this was a union meant to last for a lifetime.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that we only discover we have faith when we are obedient to the point that all we have to rely upon is faith. In the last few weeks, I’ve discovered that trusting in God can feel like falling into a dark tunnel that does not appear to end. You trust because the only other choice is to fall.

I don’t know what shape my blogging will take in the days and weeks ahead. This has never been a blog about my personal life. I don’t want it to become a self-indulgent cry for digital pity. Perhaps I am entering a season of less public writing. Perhaps the writing will be a calm in the midst of a storm. Perhaps I will write about what it is like to go through this process.

I’m not sure. For the moment, I simply trust that God is working in the midst of my mess. In the belly of the fish, trust is all you have.

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?

Do you love God?

Do you love God?

That is the first great commandment, yes?

Love God.

Do you love God?

Please note, this question is not “Do you think highly of God?” or “Do you admire God?” or “Do you like it when God does good stuff for you?” or even “Do you sing a good praise song and lift your hands in worship?”

Do you love God?

Of course, if you do not know God, the answer must be “no.” We cannot love the idea of God or the rumor of God. We must know God to love him.

Too many Christians spend their spiritual might trying love a God they neither know nor experience. They try. They say all the right words. They do all the right things. But they, as John Wesley put it once, have no more love of God than a stone.

And as a stone our hearts will remain until our eyes of faith are opened to the great truth that we tell during Holy Week. Jesus Christ loved you, loved me, so much that he died to free us from sin and death. He knelt in the garden that night — when he could have run — because he loved us. He bore the lash because he loves us. He took the nails because he loves us. He died humiliated, tortured, and mocked because he loves us.

Do you know how much God loves you?

Do you know?

Do you know?

Faith is a miracle

If you were to ask John Wesley the meaning of the word “faith,” he would quote Hebrews 11:1.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV)

Only he would most often quote the original Greek and then explain that the word “evidence” means “conviction” as well.

For Wesley, faith was a supernatural gift of spiritual insight. It is a gift of God that allows us to see things that are hidden from our natural senses. More specifically, the faith that saves is the conviction not only that God exists but also that Jesus Christ loved me and gave himself for me.

This is not something we can decide to believe. We can only be convinced of it by the work of the Holy Spirit. In this way, Wesleyan theology is always suspicious of “decisions for Christ.” Such decisions are not bad, but they are not faith and certainly not saving faith. That only comes as a gift from God.

The good news, according to Wesley, is that anyone who seeks such faith will be granted it. Ask, and it shall be given, but not necessarily on our timeline.

I return again and again to Wesley’s definition of faith — he would undoubtedly say the biblical definition — because the word is defined differently by so many people inside and outside the church. Behind so many exhortations to “have faith” or to “believe the good news” is the unstated assumption that we could generate that faith ourselves. If we just tried harder to believe, we could believe.

It is often described as a willful clinging on to something for which we cannot have any rational grounds to trust. It is described as a willful ignoring of the brute facts of the world. Even though I have no reason to trust God’s promises, I will.

That could not be farther from a Wesleyan understanding of faith. Faith is trust based on conviction born of the Holy Spirit. It is an opening of spiritual awareness that allows us to see, hear, and know God. It has no more to do with effort than seeing a sunrise.

We can repent. We can ask God to give us faith. But we can only receive faith. We cannot produce it.

This is how I understand Wesley’s doctrine regarding faith.

Does that ring true to you?

Are there problems with this teaching?

The faith of a jackass

Is being a jackass inconsistent with being a Christian?

I’ve heard people who were convinced they were Christians defend their obnoxious or infantile behavior toward others by saying that is who they were and they weren’t going to change. It is not really a defense. But there it is. I am who I am. God will just have to take me as I am.

John Wesley would have had none of this. His sermon “On Charity” has line in it that I love. It is not great poetry, but it gets right to the heart of the matter.

[L]et us have ever so much faith, and be our faith ever so strong, it will never save us from hell, unless it now save us from all unholy tempers, from pride, passion, impatience; from all arrogance of spirit, all haughtiness and overbearing; from wrath, anger, bitterness; from discontent, murmuring, fretfulness, peevishness.

How can you expect your faith to save you from hell, when it isn’t even strong enough to stop you from being a jerk to people in your life right now?

What a great question. It is one that I think would cause some ruckus among many upstanding Methodists.