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.

Seeking to be a good shepherd

Tom Oden in his book Pastoral Theology describes the vocation of a pastor this way:

to know the parish territory, its dangers, its green pastures, its steep precipices, its seasons and possibilities. The pastor leads the flock to spring water and safe vegetation.

This is not the only way he describes the pastoral vocation — and it is worth noting that I do not qualify as a pastor according to his book as I have not been ordained — but it is one that both resonates with me and highlights some of my struggles with our debates in the United Methodist Church.

I am vexed by questions over sexual behavior because I worry about my responsibility to help the people I serve remain safe and to be nourished. I worry about leading them to foul waters and feeding them poisonous herbs rather than life-giving food.

For the better part of 2,000 years, the shepherds who have gone before have pointed to certain inviting pools and warned us that they are not the waters of life, but of death. Now, we are told that the waters they avoided were safe and life-giving all along. The shepherds of the past were wrong. They misunderstood Jesus and the apostles. Drink and be filled.

My prayer is to be a good pastor one day. I seek to learn from the masters of the craft who have come before me. Mostly, I don’t want to lead the sheep to slaughter because I listened to the wrong voices. I want to serve them and help them live as Jesus would have them live.

It would be pastoral malpractice for me to tell the people something is not a sin that is, in fact, one. It would damaging as well to declare something sinful that is not. I am trying to avoid both errors.

‘Finish, then, thy new creation’

Talbot Davis asks whether conversion or childhood has more of a shaping effect of who we are as Christians.

[I]n more than a few of those “new creation” situations, I’ve watched with despair as people fall back into unhealthy patterns of ungodly living.

The same folks who emerge triumphantly from baptismal waters later descend painfully into cycles of addiction and abuse.

The same people who pray for salvation in my office end up paying a bail bondsman to free them from a DUI arrest.

And people who come forward in a rush of commitment sometimes fall away in a haze of apathy.

The thread that connects those instances I cite?  Childhood.  People develop patterns of behavior as adults that — knowingly and unknowingly — serve as coping mechanisms for traumas they endured as children.  

Davis’ post reminds me of all the ink and energy John Wesley spent getting people to watch over each other in love and to watch over themselves, being constantly aware that the sin that no longer reigns in them still remains in them.

The old Wesleyan-Methodist wisdom was that we could slide back into old patterns and ways if we did not continue going on to perfection. To read a sermon such as “On Zeal” is to see Wesley’s concern for creating new habits in us to counter the bad old ones that Davis sees.

Justification — as Davis’ experience confirms — is the start of something not the end. It is a birth — a new creation. We have much growing to do and there is much danger if we abandon the new creation to the not-so-tender mercies of the sin that is jealous for its old place in our hearts and lives.

This is why Charles Wesley wrote in the hymn the plea “finish, then, thy new creation.” Being new and being finished are not the same thing.

Binding and loosing

Jeremy Smith, an always engaging and frequently provocative United Methodist blogger, argues in this post that Matthew 16:9 and 18:18 give the church the authority to determine what is sin and what is not.

Smith bases his argument on New Testament scholar Mark Alan Powell’s assessment of the rabbinical meaning of binding and loosing and what it means in Matthew 16:9.

I would argue that Matthew 18 is the more helpful verse for interpreting this question since it is placed in a fuller context than 16:9. Using the principle that the Bible can help us interpret the Bible, I read Matthew 18 as offering little support for the notion that the language of binding and loosing is a wide grant of authority over the very definition of sin.

Here’s what I wrote on Smith’s blog:

Interesting post, Jeremy. My take, FWIW, is that you are over-reading the matter when you suggest that this is a process for defining what sin is.

The context is the parable in Matthew 18:10-14 about seeking wandering sheep, which itself is a comment on those who cause someone else to stumble (vv. 6-9).

In Matthew 18:15-20, the fact of a sin is not under negotiation. If someone sins, go point it out (like the one trying to bring back the wandering sheep.) If a person does not listen, then a process of widening attempts to bring the person back to the fold ensues, but if they will not listen, at last they are to be cut loose. Verse 18 about binding and loosing, after all, comes right after verse 17 about treating the one who will not listen like an outsider. That sounds more like saying that who the church sends away, so will God.

I think it is significant in reading these verses that the next section of the chapter is about forgiveness. When one who has caused others to stumble or wandered away is brought back, forgiveness is the order of the day. To refuse to forgive one who will not have mercy on a wandering sheep brought back to the fold [is a serious offense to God].

To my reading, at least, that language about binding and loosing needs to be set in the overall context of the chapter before we can conclude exactly what is being bound and what is being loosed. I can’t see how chapter 18 can be read as saying “the church determines what sin is.” I don’t see where the text supports that conclusion.

The duty we reject

I never heard or read of any considerable revival of religion which was not attended with a spirit of reproving. I believe it cannot be otherwise; for what is faith, unless it worketh by love? Thus it was in every part of England when the present revival of religion began about fifty years ago: All the subjects of that revival, — all the Methodists, so called, in every place, were reprovers of outward sin.

– John Wesley “The Duty of Reproving Our Neighbor

In the list of sermons of John Wesley that would not go over well today, this one has to be near the top. It is a sermon about the necessity and method of pointing out each other’s sins. Wesley takes as his text Leviticus 19:17, which if you are not aware comes right before a little verse that Jesus Christ holds up as the second great commandment.

As is typical for Wesley, this sermon displays a keen grasp of the nuances of pastoral work. Wesley is never a one-size-fits-all teacher. He is always aware that different people and different audiences require different messages. In our day, we often misinterpret Wesley because we fail to take his awareness of audience and situation into account. We treat him like a systematic theologian rather than a pastor in the trenches.

In this sermon, he starts right off with a key observation about picking our battles wisely.

But if we desire not to lose our labour, we should rarely reprove anyone for anything that is of a disputable nature, that will bear much to be said on both sides. A thing may possibly appear evil to me; therefore I scruple the doing of it; and if I were to do it while that scruple remains, I should be a sinner before God. But another is not to be judged by my conscience: To his own master he standeth or falleth. Therefore I would not reprove him, but for what is clearly and undeniably evil.

In another place, while offering similar counsel, Wesley holds up the example of going to the theater. He writes that he could not set foot in such a place, but he knows others who can without threatening their salvation.

So the question, of course, is what are those class of things that are of a disputable nature? Wesley offers some examples of things that fall into the category of undeniable evil.

Such, for instance, is profane cursing and swearing; which even those who practise it most will not often venture to defend, if one mildly expostulates with them. Such is drunkenness, which even a habitual drunkard will condemn when he is sober. And such, in the account of the generality of people, is the profaning of the Lord’s day. And if any which are guilty of these sins for a while attempt to defend them, very few will persist to do it, if you look them steadily in the face, and appeal to their own conscience in the sight of God.

The list here: profane cursing and swearing, drunkenness, and profaning the Lord’s day. I almost hesitated to produce the quotation above as examples of undeniable evil because for each one we do deny them as evil.

Although Stanley Hauerwas no longer claims to be United Methodist — I believe — he has taught many a seminary student that cursing is nothing to be ashamed of. As for drunkenness, many will call this a sickness rather than an evil act. There are even those who say it is mere frivolity and of no moral concern at all. And as for profaning the Lord’s day, to even raise it as a concern is viewed by most Christians today as a sure sign of fanatic or a hopeless fool.

Are we reproved by Rev. Wesley’s list or does it lead us to dismiss his entire sermon?

If we retain the sermon at all, we will notice that Wesley does not advise us to engage in street-corner reprovings. He is no advocate of hectoring passersby. Indeed, he directs our attention first to our close relations then in widening circles. Of special attention are those who were joined together in Methodist societies, as those groups were formed for the express purpose of watching over each other in love.

As baptized Christians we make similar promises to nurture and love each other. Is there room for more of a spirit of reproof among us?