Light in our darkness

The local paper printed a commentary about the Hoosier native who was beheaded in Syria last week. It was a tribute to the man and his family. It ended with this thought:

But Abdul-Rahmin Peter Kassig and his parents, in a time of tragedy, reminded us of the only forces that can warm and light the bleakest of days – the humanity that links us all and the love that can sustain us in our darkest moments.

Reading that left me struggling for the proper response.

I got taken to task a bit on Twitter not long ago for getting into quibbles over words. The Rethink Church Twitter account had published a quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I asked a genuine question: Was Mead a Christian? (She was.) My question was born of concern that her quote is singularly mistaken about “the only thing” that has ever changed the world. Jesus Christ changed the world. God changed the world. The Holy Spirit changes the world. That word “only” struck me as theologically myopic.

The Rethink Church Twitter account suggested I was making too much out of one word.

So, here I am again. I read this nice tribute to a man who was butchered, and I can’t get past that word “only.” The story says, “the only forces that can warm and light the bleakest of days” are our common humanity and the love that sustains us.

Maybe the author of these lines would permit me to read “love” theologically. That would take some of the edge off my unease.

But I am not sure he means the word to refer to God.

And so I’m stuck wanting to argue with this pronouncement in a way that will come across as church-y and all the other things we are supposed to avoid in this post-modern moment. That the young man in question converted to Islam, rejecting the Christianity nurtured by his family in a United Methodist Church, makes what I want to say even less palatable in this day and age.

I want to say to the author of that piece that there is a source of light much brighter than the feeble glow of our shared humanity. We are not condemned to huddle around our TV screens baffled by the barbarism and darkness of the world. There is a light that is brighter than death. In the approaching season of Advent, we celebrate that light as the world engages in an orgy of man-made commercialism and excess.

But I don’t know how to say those words in a way that will be heard in a world that imagines we have nothing more than our humanity to warm the cold winter night.

A house upon the sand?

In the course of his sermons expounding on the Sermon on the Mount, John Wesley comes to consider the significance of Matthew 7:21-27. In that discourse, he begins by sketching out what it means to build our house upon the sand.

Near the beginning of the sermon, he singles out the preacher as one at risk.

After I have thus successfully preached to others, still I myself may be a castaway. I may, in the hand of God, snatch many souls from hell, and yet drop into it when I have done. I may bring many others to the kingdom of heaven, and yet myself never enter there. Reader, if God hath ever blessed my word to thy soul, pray that he may be merciful to me a sinner!

This is a warning that cuts to the heart and highlights the temptations preachers face. To so many people, we are the face of piety and faith. This is often not deserved and certainly not sought, but it remains. Wesley here shakes us from such delusions.

Wesley goes on — in his typical fashion — to warn against relying on good works or being innocent of any outward harm. These are also sand if relied upon to take the place of real Christianity. To those who can preach and teach all orthodoxy, who do no harm, and how a diligent in doing good, Wesley warns we may hear a harsh word from Christ in the last day.

Even then I did not know you as my own; for your heart was not right toward God. Ye were not yourselves meek and lowly; ye were not lovers of God, and of all mankind; ye were not renewed in the image of God; ye were not holy as I am holy.

Once again, we come face-to-face with the essential element of Christianity as understood from a Wesleyan perspective: holiness of heart and life.

I am reminded when reading Wesley how he distinguishes between things that I often hear others conflate. The goal of Christianity is new creation, holiness of heart and life, to be remade in the likeness of Christ. The means to this goal are conviction, justification, assurance, good works, piety, and so on.

I am often tempted to confuse the means with the end. I confuse the outward and inward activity for the actual change and transformation that these things are meant to foster. And I confuse myself about the basis on which Jesus will judge all humanity at the end of the age. He will not judge whether we practiced the means. He will judge whether we achieved the end.

Wesley closes the sermon — and therefore his series of 13 sermons on the Sermon on the Mount — with an exhortation to the practice of a religion of the heart.

Let thy religion be the religion of the heart. Let it lie deep in thy inmost soul. Be thou little, and base, and mean, and vile (beyond what words can express) in thy own eyes; amazed and humbled to the dust by the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Be serious. Let the whole stream of thy thoughts, words, and actions flow from the deepest conviction that thou standest on the edge of the great gulf, thou and all the children of men, just ready to drop in, either into everlasting glory or everlasting burnings! Let thy soul be filled with mildness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering towards all men; — at the same time that all which is in thee is athirst for God, the living God; longing to awake up after his likeness, and to be satisfied with it! Be thou a lover of God and of all mankind! In this spirit do and suffer all things! Thus show thy faith by thy works; thus “do the will of thy Father which is in heaven!” And, as sure as thou now walkest with God on earth, thou shalt also reign with him in glory!

In his day, such an exhortation drew thousands to Methodism and repelled thousands more. It was met with the charge that Methodists held out too high a standard for Christianity. People could not attain this and remain in the world. It would cause men and women to despair of salvation. It was fanaticism not fit for a reasonable religion.

We have — more or less — sided with Wesley’s critics. Few of us could read the paragraph quoted above and relish it as a portrait of the faith to which we aspire and to which we call our brothers and sisters.

I am left, though, with the question suggested by Jesus’ warning. In ignoring Wesley’s teaching here are we building our house upon the sand? Is that why we are so badly buffeted by the floods and storms of our age?

Of the church

 

In a post on First Things, Stephen Webb writes about the nature of theologizing today. He asks where we locate authority in an age in which belief in the self-interpretation of Scripture and the brilliance of bishops no longer holds. He asks what are “the necessary conditions for the Church’s ability to embody Christianity in the midst of the erosions of a spiritual marketplace”?

In his post, Webb nods toward Rome but also holds out hope for a diffuse church with many points of authority.

In our current United Methodist debates, we are dealing with some of the same questions.

  • What is the church?
  • What is the basis of its authority?
  • What is necessary for it to “embody Christianity” in today’s world?
  • How can it maintain its integrity or defend its boundaries?
  • How can it also creatively engage changing conditions in the world?

Our conversations and announcements do not usually explicitly engage these questions, of course. What we often talk about instead are the rules in our Book of Discipline, the dysfunction of various bodies, the bad faith of rival groups, and the lines our own consciences will not allow us to cross.

I’ve read before that part of our mushy ecclesiology in United Methodism comes from a combination of John Wesley’s desire never to see his movement exist as an independent church and our own aping of the institutions and values of the new American republic when we put together our own constitution.

That may all be so. Nonetheless, I wanted to see what John Wesley’s sermon “Of the Church” might tell me about our own answers to some of these questions.

Wesley starts by distinguishing between the building and the people.

How much do we almost continually hear about the Church! With many it is matter of daily conversation. And yet how few understand what they talk of! How few know what the term means! A more ambiguous word than this, the Church, is scarce to be found in the English language. It is sometimes taken for a building, set apart for public worship: sometimes for a congregation, or body of people, united together in the service of God. It is only in the latter sense that it is taken in the ensuing discourse.

Wesley works through his understanding of the church from the top down. Leaning on Ephesians, he first defines the church universal by the marks laid out by Paul.

The catholic or universal Church is, all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called out of the world … as to be “one body,” united by “one spirit;” having “one faith, one hope, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in them all.”

Those members of that universal church gathered in a single country, form a national church. Those in a single city the church of that city. In addition, following Scripture, Wesley writes that we may think of a church within a single household or even as a church constituted by the gathering of two or three in the name of our Lord.

In other words, Wesley’s conception of “the church” does not fit very well into our denominational boxes.

Wesley goes on to consider the definition of the church laid out in the Articles of Religion of the Church of England. He expresses disagreement with the Article’s requirement — that I believe derives from Reformed theology — that the “pure word of God” be preached and the sacraments be “duly administered.” In his text, Wesley displays both his anti-Roman Catholic sentiments and his catholic spirit.

I will not undertake to defend the accuracy of this definition. I dare not exclude from the Church catholic all those congregations in which any unscriptural doctrines, which cannot be affirmed to be “the pure word of God,” are sometimes, yea, frequently preached; neither all those congregations, in which the sacraments are not “duly administered.” Certainly if these things are so, the Church of Rome is not so much as a part of the catholic Church; seeing therein neither is “the pure word of God” preached, nor the sacraments “duly administered.” Whoever they are that have “one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of all,” I can easily bear with their holding wrong opinions, yea, and superstitious modes of worship: Nor would I, on these accounts, scruple still to include them within the pale of the catholic Church; neither would I have any objection to receive them, if they desired it, as members of the Church of England.

And so, to see what the church truly is — according to Wesley — we must look to a closer definition of those marks, which he lays out for us.

The church catholic are those who have

One spiritSome understand hereby the Holy Spirit himself, the Fountain of all spiritual life; and it is certain, “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Others understand it of those spiritual gifts and holy dispositions which are afterwards mentioned.

One hope a hope full of immortality. They know, to die is not to be lost: Their prospect extends beyond the grave.

One Lordwho has now dominion over them, who has set up his kingdom in their hearts, and reigns over all those that are partakers of this hope. To obey him, to run the way of his commandments, is their glory and joy. And while they are doing this with a willing mind they, as it were, “sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.”

One faithThis is not barely the faith of a Heathen; Namely, a belief that “there is a God,” and that he is gracious and just, and, consequently, “a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Neither is it barely the faith of a devil; though this goes much farther than the former. For the devil believes, and cannot but believe, all that is written both in the Old and New Testament to be true. But it is the faith of St. Thomas, teaching him to say with holy boldness, “My Lord, and my God!” It is the faith which enables every true Christian believer to testify with St. Paul, “The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

One baptismwhich is the outward sign our one Lord has been pleased to appoint, of all that inward and spiritual grace which he is continually bestowing upon his Church. It is likewise a precious means, whereby this faith and hope are given to those that diligently seek him.

One God and Father of allthat have the Spirit of adoption, which “crieth in their hearts, Abba, Father;” which “witnesseth” continually “with their spirits,” that they are the children of God: “Who is above all,” — the Most High, the Creator, the Sustainer, the Governor of the whole universe: “And through all,” — pervading all space; filling heaven and earth

Here Wesley offers not only a definition of the church that breaks the boundaries of denominational lines — giving preference to geographical ones — but also evicts from the church catholic huge numbers of people now at worship in most congregations. This point he brings home with particular force near the end of the sermon.

The Church is called holy, because it is holy, because every member thereof is holy, though in different degrees, as He that called them is holy. How clear is this! If the Church, as to the very essence of it, is a body of believers, no man that is not a Christian believer can be a member of it. If this whole body be animated by one spirit, and endued with one faith, and one hope of their calling; then he who has not that spirit, and faith, and hope, is no member of this body. It follows, that not only no common swearer, no Sabbath-breaker, no drunkard, no whoremonger, no thief, no liar, none that lives in any outward sin, but none that is under the power of anger or pride, no lover of the world, in a word, none that is dead to God, can be a member of his Church.

Wesley’s purpose in this sermon was not merely to offer a definition of the church, of course. It was a polemical sermon aimed at critics of his movement who objected to him harming the Church of England. And yet, his definition does give us the opportunity and the responsibility to reflect as United Methodists on the nature of the church.

I have a few thoughts. I am not sure I can or would defend these are final thoughts, but they are provisional ones suggested to me by reading Wesley’s sermon, and that alone.

First, the church is both universal and local, but it is not denominational. Denominations exist — to repurpose language from our Book of Discipline — for the maintenance of worship and edification of believers. Denominations are human superstructures that support the universal church gathered in particular places. Our devotion and zeal, however, is owed more to the church universal in our city or neighborhood — whatever denominations might provide its material support — rather than merely to those who depend upon the same superstructure.

Second, we have a lot of people who claim to be part of the church but simply are not. They have their name on the books at the denomination, but not in the book kept by our Lord. I cannot tell you that I know who is who. Wesley believed that was fairly simple to work out with simple questions, ones we do not ask very much these days. What standing such people should have in the denomination is difficult to discern.

Third, I find in Wesley’s formulations a challenge to the via media proposals and the recent statement of our Council of Bishops that want to ground “the church” in merely the sharing of creedal orthodoxy (the devil believes as much and is a devil still) or a unity based on a denominational mission statement. These may be strategies for holding together a denominational superstructure, but they do not strike me as representing a robust view of the identity of the church catholic.

I don’t imagine these thoughts of mine will solve any of the problems facing the United Methodist Church today. I do find them stimulating me to think in some different ways about the UMC and my local congregations, though.

Bishops: ‘Not of one mind’

My bishop e-mailed our conference this statement coming out of the Council of Bishop’s meeting.

As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.  We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people.  We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.

A place for the center to stand?

One of my problems with the centrist and via media proposals in the United Methodist Church is that they often don’t appear to have an actual positive statement to make about the very issues that are tearing the church apart. They tend to come down on some version of agree-to-disagree about the underlying doctrinal and theological differences.

I suppose this is a positive statement in a sense. It is saying that all this talk about sex and marriage and ordination is of minor importance to the true work of the church. It is all secondary or tertiary, perhaps even a matter of indifference.

I don’t remember reading it being put quite that directly, but it appears to me to be the attitude behind much of the agree-to-disagree talk.

I, personally, don’t find that a sustainable argument. You can’t do much pastoral work with people in America today without questions about sex and marriage boiling up to the surface. You can’t do the work of the church and be mute on these matters. At least, that has been my experience.

So what would a centrist or via media positive statement on homosexual sex and relationships look like?

Allow me to answer that by writing about a book I read recently.

(Disclaimer: I’m not persuaded by the argument I am about to sketch, but I am thankful for it.)

Someone suggested to me, not long ago, that James V. Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships was a must read. Being blessed to work right across the street from one of the best university libraries in the world, I ran over and picked up a copy.

Brownson’s argument, in a nutshell, goes something like this.

  1. We cannot understand biblical morality if we don’t understand the reasons behind the commands of God.
  2. Traditionalists (Brownson’s term) believe the reason for prohibitions against homosexual sex has to do with gender complementarity. Male and female sex organs are made to go together and therefore that is natural and God-designed. When traditionalists talk about “one flesh,” they are thinking of how body parts fit together and how men and women complement each other in other ways.
  3. Brownson argues that the Bible does not support the “look at the plumbing” argument, but instead bases the notion of two becoming “one flesh” on ideas around kinship and intimacy. He argues that becoming one flesh is about a spiritual and emotional bond between individuals that is a kind of kinship.
  4. Therefore, he writes that biblical prohibitions are not against physical acts in all circumstances. Brownson argues that the biblical vision for sex is the transformation of the desire for self-gratification into a self-giving love. He calls this moving from longing into loving. Brownson argues that the Bible is against promiscuity rather than a certain combination of body parts.

I’m sure I have not done full justice to Brownson’s argument. His book is nearly 300 pages long. But I think this is a fair outline of some of his major points. His book is worth a closer read than I have given it. It is certainly worth your time if you care about these matters.

The biggest value I see in this book for our denominational debates is that it lays out a position that might be adopted by centrists. Here is that position stated positively: God’s intention for sex is that it occur within and foster between two people a loving, long-term, and intimate union of lives. Sex that occurs outside of such a relationship is against God’s will, sinful, and contrary to salvation.

I am not persuaded that this is this is correct doctrine. That is, I don’t think it says enough. I agree with what it says. I just don’t think it says everything God does. Nonetheless, I think it would be a good doctrine for someone in our denominational debates to take up and champion with energy. And by energy, I am thinking at a minimum of writing up a revision to the language in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline.

I think it would be useful for that to happen because it would focus our debates. It would also force everyone to acknowledge that there are many practices that, in fact, are contrary to God’s will, even when they happen between two consenting adults.

I suspect taking up such a position would get push back from some in the LGBT community who are already distressed by the efforts by the community to win acceptance in the culture by becoming more like straight people. And that push back would be helpful to us as a church because it would force us to clarify what we believe and why we teach it.

Such a position would also get push back from those who argue that the Bible is a musty, old book that does not have anything meaningful to say to 21st century people. One of Brownson’s primary concerns is to provide an argument that does not dissolve into that.

Such a position would also be criticized by evangelicals on exegetical and interpretive grounds.

In short, adopting this position would be a positive contribution to an ongoing debate. It would not settle anything, but it would help clarify some things. It would help us see where common ground might exist. And it would force those who reject Brownson to state clearly their full understanding of God’s will in these matters. For the most part, evangelicals have done so. I don’t have a very strong sense of the response to Brownson’s full argument from other groups, though.

Evil and the Board of Ordained Ministry

For seminary, I’ve been starting to work on some of what will one day be a response to questions in ordination paper work. Here’s my first go at the Book of Discipline’s question “What is your understanding of evil as it exists in our world?”

Here is my answer to the question of evil in an academic mode: Evil is the contradiction of good. It exists as a negation. It is a parasite. It is the darkness that is only visible in the presence of light. In an ontological sense, as Augustine taught us, evil does not exist.

This is the beginning of my academic answer. It is my bookshelf answer. It is not one that feels in any way adequate, however. Where life is lived, evil is real. I read this week a story about a man who bludgeoned a 3-year-old girl to death because she had an accident in her pants. You cannot retreat behind the cool, dispassionate pose of the academic musing on the nature of evil when you read such a story. Augustine’s argument about the non-existence of evil shatters in the face of such stories.

Or does it?

Augustine argued that evil does not exist because he knew that God is good. This good God created everything, and all that God created is good. Evil cannot exist as a thing because God could not have created it. God only creates good. This goodness is the light by which the darkness of evil becomes visible. We are repulsed by the story of a 3-year-old girl being beaten to death because we recognize that the world is not meant to be a place where that happens. Even if we in unbelief cannot name that place as God’s will, the grace of God whispers to us of a world in which such horrors do not happen. Evil can only be known as evil because we know of that other world, the world as God intends it to be. Evil is the gap between the world as it is and the world as God created it to be.

This is a world we both long for and resist. We resist it because it is the world in which our own will matches the will of God. It is the world in which we say, as Jesus did, not my will be done, but yours. We resist this because we are very much in love with our own will.

If you have ever read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, you know the real problem of evil. The real problem of evil is not that it is repugnant, but that it is so seductive. In Milton’s poem, it is hard not to admire Satan for his driving will, his resolution, and his declaration that he would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. Here is Frank Sinatra belting out his defiant “I did it my way.” Here is Katy Perry singing “Roar.” Here is the serpent in the garden urging Eve to think for herself. Evil comes to us in the disguise of independence and self-respect. It urges us to set up a false god called “my own thing.”

Of course, the real seduction of evil is that it takes things that are good – critical thought, perseverance in times of trial, determination, personal gifts – and uses them to shake us free of the God who is the source of all good. These things in service of God’s will are blessings. It is the way of evil, though, to take what is good and detach it from God, corrupting it. The evil we experience in our lives comes when human beings reject God.